DETROIT — When the streets are your gallery, your artistic process — successful and otherwise — becomes a public affair. This potentially high-pressure learning curve is a comfortable state of being for husband-and-wife public art duo, Hygienic Dress League, who invited me along for a behind-the-scenes peek at their latest excursion, part of the People First Project, which seeks, according to its website: “A merry band of makers, a cohort of creatives, an assembly of architects and activists to transform Michigan Avenue in Corktown from a state highway to a complete street, to reconfigure the city to meet new needs, to PUT THE PEOPLE FIRST.”
It was a merry band, indeed — a caravan, really — that set out after sunset on a recent frigid polar vortex Monday to stage some happenings with a set of aluminum-molded animal forms, powder-coated with a paint that was supposed to make them glow a radioactive green in the dark. This motif is fitting with many of HDL’s notions of human society’s toxic interventions in nature — recent variations on their paste-up human avatars, who typically wear feature-obscuring gas masks, have morphed into animal-headed figures.
Now these animals have come off the wall and into three dimensions. The entourage accompanying HDL on the night I tracked their movements included local documentarian Stephen McGee and his assistant, and photographer Jon DeBoer, no doubt tapped for his penchant and acuity with Detroit-by-night photography (and responsible for some of the images herein).
We first bailed out of our borrowed van, which, with hazard lights on in the turning lane, provided cover to assemble a buck-and-doe crossing the interstate highway of Michigan Avenue in the midst of the stretch that traverses the busy Detroit neighborhood of Corktown. Undeterred by car-carriers and holiday traffic buzzing on all sides, HDL and company arranged the preternaturally white deer forms, and commenced the photo shoot, backlit by the downtown skyline and oncoming headlights. Other locations included a gathering of sheep beneath an LED missionary cross further up Michigan Avenue, a goose-crossing along a deserted Eastside street, a couple of deer malingering outside a Woodbridge liquor store, and a deer family inside a cored-out former garage outside the Eastern Market district, where slightly warmer conditions and strategic lighting gave the beasts a hint of a glow.
It must be noted, though the hijinks were live and spirits bright, the animals’ paint jobs received less-than-glowing reviews — whether their general lack of radioactivity is total paint failure, or reflective of temperature sensitivity, remains to be seen. Even freezing conditions could not dampen the collective fervor for hauling powder-coated fauna into formation, though the next (and perhaps more permanent) wave of installations is slated for after the thaw.
As Mr. HDL says: “Let’s do this in the spring when it’s warmer. We can continue the series. Maybe get a few different animals. We could do elk or moose.”
Count me in!