In February of 2014 I spent five days in Detroit with DesignInquiry, a nonprofit educational organization that investigates design issues through team-based gatherings that bring together practitioners from different fields to generate new work and ideas around a single topic. The focuses of the Detroit venture were to frame questions and to initiate projects that might be carried out in the future.
The city got under my skin in ways I didn't anticipate. It is a city that in many ways made possible the America of which we dreamt in the last century. Sounds without bounds, flesh and metal and gasoline — Detroit was “Pax Americana,” as Charlie LeDuff describes it. “The birthplace of mass production, the automobile, the cement road, the refrigerator, frozen peas, high-paid blue collar jobs, home ownership and credit on a mass scale. America’s way of life was built here.” There’s a nostalgia-resonance in Detroit that me hit hard and deep.
Things are different now and there’s no going back. The slow-motion fall that few bothered to watch is laid bare in the cataclysmic blight that abounds today. A million people are gone. Eighty-five thousand vacants. Scant work and a mire of debt. Yet a perennial hope rises in the city. Dedicated residents and new transplants pioneer and remake spaces and neighborhoods, kindling new possibilities for entrepreneurship and creating new ways to work and live together. In a bleak post-industrial landscape, gardens of aspiration yield belief that a better future is possible. Detroit, in spite of it all, is a beacon of a re-imagined dream for humanity in the 21st century.
I returned to Detroit in December to commence work on a new project designed to capture something essential about the city and provide a means of conveyance for a distinctly valuable array of truths. The Detroit Gold Record project uses tools and methods of music, art, and design to provide a means for communicating Detroit's re-imagined dream to those of us floating on our own planets, living day-to-day in our own remote galaxies, perhaps yet to reckon with the full impact of profound and monumental change. The work began as part of an open-format, team-based residency with DesignInquiry at MOCAD's DEPE Space late last year. I constructed a recruiting office in the museum and registered Detroiters and friends of the city for the Detroit Voyager Program, an effort to crowdsource and document audiovisual messages from the city. The Detroit Voyager Program is kind of a a web-enabled culture probe that will guide a research and exploration process intended to reveal poetic insights about Detroit through the lens of the people who live there. Detroit Voyagers document their responses to "assignments" issued by the program through photographing, recording sound and video; writing, drawing, making; and uploading these responses to Instagram. By using Program-designated tags in Instagram, the reports of Detroit Voyagers are transmitted and archived by the Detroit Gold Record project. The project is an organically-growing digital fabric; a revelatory message from planet Detroit.