Participants during Kate Daughdrill’s “Value-Making Ceremony” at Art X Detroit (photo by Ali Lapetina)

DETROIT — Trying to notice the impact of the Kresge Foundation on the arts in Detroit is like a fish trying to notice water. Since 2007, Kresge Arts in Detroit (KAID) has provided $15 million in operating support to 80 small, mid-size, and large organizations in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties. In 2012, the foundation awarded $4.3 million over two years to more than 60 organizations. But the really hot-ticket item for ambitious and talented players in the Detroit art scene is the $25,000 Kresge Fellowship, administered by the Detroit-based College for Creative Studies — 18 are awarded each year in alternating disciplines, to visual, performing, and literary artists living and working in metropolitan Detroit.

The competition for these fellowships is fierce, prone to much buzz and speculation — this is the water that surrounds the Detroit art community during the annual Kresge application window. But with the revelation of the awardees comes the occasion to notice and celebrate the biennial blowout of Art X Detroit. On a two-year cycle, Art X is a three-week extravaganza and a chance to see free installations, performances, panels, movies, and happenings by the most recent set of Kresge Fellows.

Some of the names at the biennial might be familiar, but the work often comes as a surprise. Mallika Roy, of Midtown Detroit, Inc., a key partner in the planning and execution of Art X, explains,

Artists are encouraged to experiment with new mediums, to present work at venues they’ve always dreamed of working within, to collaborate with artists they’ve always been inspired by. Carl Wilson, for example, is traditionally a print artist and works in the realm of linoleum cuts. With the support of the Art X Detroit producers and partners, he decided to delve into the realm of 2D animation, which is a medium he’s always respected and admired. He set up a green screen in his living room and made an amazing short film in the nature of the Clutch Cargo cartoons he used to watch when he was a kid …. he is now planning on submitting his work to film festivals across the nation and is already developing his vision for his second animation video.


Ben Hall in mid-performance of “Windbag for Thirty-Six Sets of Lungs” (2013) at Art X Detroit (all photos courtesy of the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Art X 2015 kicked off April 9th, with a reading and lecture by visiting guest Lynne Tillman on the state of arts and cultural criticism, and is entering its closing weekend, with events wrapping up on the 26th. The intervening weeks have been an all-you-can eat buffet, with the locus centered at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), playing host to Art X installations, as well as a range of activities and performances.

One of these performances, orchestrated by 2014 Music Fellow Ben Hall is “Windbag for Thirty-Six Sets of Lungs,” a multi-media performance piece that will reprise for a second performance on April 25th. The composition channels the natural breathing of 35 random participants (constraints of the space forced a layout change that eliminated one set of lungs) through individual pitch pipes, culminating in a symphony of breathing. With performers lying prone on mats of beige felt, the museum space was transformed into the active calm of a yoga studio — albeit one with an aerial display of alternating disco balls and large potted ferns hanging above the participants. The 20-minute performance was full of peaceful anticipation, with the phonic quality of an orchestra tuning up. Participants came to their mats fully qualified, with willingness and basic life force being the only necessities.

How do you compose without knowing what’s going to happen? Do you draw inspiration from particular composers, genres, or performers? Says Hall,

Well, Cage is a sort of patina over everything, he’s one of those folks you can fall in love with early and still get swoony over as an adult. But it’s not so much chance — you can assume a certain amount of things are going to go in some direction you don’t account for, but over time you become pretty precise about the level or nature of that variation. But with any relational thing it’s more about getting people in the room together and fucking with the performer/audience hierarchy.


Installation view of Jon Brumit’s “Escape from Weed Mountain” (2013) at Art X Detroit (foreground)

Sound was a key player in a number of Art X installations, including 2013 Visual Art Fellow Jon Brumit’s piece, “Escape from Weed Mountain,” a dystopian campsite with discordant melodies, odd sound samples, and other audial ephemera emitting from each tent. So, too, for 2013 Literary Arts Fellow Chace “Mic Write” Morris — his performance piece “You’re Coming With Me” of his powerful spoken word poetry is as important as the writing itself. The performance, which included projections and musical backing, brought the crowd through quiet contemplation and soaring crescendos, and eventually to its feet at the Garden Theater. The performance followed a series of readings coordinated by 2013 Literary Fellow Adrienne Maree Brown, “Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Movements,” with a nod to seminal science fiction writer Octavia Butler.

Installations and performances mixed genres across the board, with 2013 Visual Arts Kate Daughdrill’s piece, “From Here to There seeking to create a unique energy between the objects, values, people, and plants that make up the piece. Though technically a Visual Arts Fellow, Daughdrill’s project involves an installation, a series of intimate activities, a publication, and a value-making ceremony, which took place around a bonfire in the MOCAD parking lot one evening. Daughdrill, reflecting upon the ceremony, said,

Over beet broth, kale salad, and medicinal tea, 100 Detroiters came together to talk about what we fear and what core values are at the root of those fears. A room of about half black Detroiters and half white Detroiters talked about race and how to learn to live well together …. We talked about what it would look like to live in a city that valued people and the earth over material wealth.

Inside, the installation lines the walls with jars of food grown and preserved by Daughdrill and her collaborator Patrick Costello at Burnside Farm on the east side of Detroit, where she lives and works. The amount of human labor involved in the production of this work is instantly obvious to those who grow or can their own food, but even for the uninitiated, the sheer aesthetics of the installation are captivating. She says, “The color spectrum of canned food and the ceremonial objects in the installation are about being near what brings life and what brings health. They are about cultivating a space that attunes us to the energy of connection.”


Installation view of Kate Daughdrill’s “Frome Here to There” (2013) at Art X Detroit

Writer Phreddy Wischusen, who partnered with Daughdrill, reflected on the ceremony,

All my life I wanted to be an artist of some sort. But the more I tried to become an artist, the more elusive that seemed. The more I looked at life as art, the more pointless the whole endeavor felt. During Art X, I was lucky enough to work with Kate Daughdrill on some projects that were not artistic. They were not representations or signifiers of what I see, but rather independent incarnations of the life I am living.

Put in that light, one realizes, it isn’t just the generous funding from Kresge that makes up the water all around us; it is the collective spirit of creation, hope, and renewal, which flourishes in a place like Detroit, mistakenly considered a foregone wasteland or a blank slate by those who haven’t taken the time to see it for themselves. Here in Detroit, we’re getting in all we can this weekend — it’s going to be another two long years before Art X returns.

Art X Detroit continues at multiple venues throughout Midtown Detroit’s Cultural Center through April 26. 

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....