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Looking up at the Ford bar (all photos by the author)

DETROIT — I am not a car guy. There I said it. I live in Michigan, work in Detroit and I am not a car guy. I cannot tell a catalytic converter from a hemi — I am not even sure if those are real words. Nevertheless, I went to the North American International Auto Show (“NAIAS”) to view the spectacle. I had a strange fear that at any moment someone would grab me and give me a pop quiz about cars. That fear quickly subsided when I was swept up in this showcase of tremendous artistic talent. The artistic directors that create the various exhibition spaces create thrilling light and video installations.

Before I get to the installations, I have a couple thoughts about car design. I believe in the last few years there has been a tremendous amount of progress in car design — especially by the Big Three. There is a renewed focus on car design: A car has to look good. In fact, every detail of a car has to look aesthetically pleasing. So now we have a wider variety of shapes and colors, from the outside to the leather interiors. Car designers are experimenting with texture, and there is a focus on dynamic lines throughout the exterior that often flows into the interior. You get the sense that some of the vehicles were just carved out of clay — you can see the artist’s hand scraping away to create sharp angles that establish a feeling that the car could take off at any moment.

A view of the BMW display (click to enlarge)

But the cars were almost secondary to me when I finished my walk through. I was initially drawn to BMW’s light display. The backdrop for their vehicles was a large video screen wall that displayed a collage of individual athletes in singular moments of exertion. Yet what initially appeared to be merely a light tunnel roof that leads to the screen was actually a continuation of the screen. One example of when this environment was particularly successful was when a fencer lunged forward with his sword. The fencer’s arm and the sword stretched across the ceiling for a stunning affect. This was a great introduction to the NAIAS.

I then walked by various other displays that were typical of auto show booths: there were straightforward videos of cars racing and a model on a podium described why this particular car is the greatest and most advanced.

There were also other displays that tried too hard to be hip and most ended up creating an unusual atmosphere that I can only describe as seeing flashy cars in a Japanese restaurant.

A view of Ford’s ecoboost experience.

But then I walked into the world of Ford, which provided by far the best visual displays. Ford’s exhibition space transported viewers to a unique environment where they easily wowed more than the other car companies. You initially come across two large green circles on the ground in front of a wall that displays a video. The video at first gives boilerplate information about the various cars around you. When you step on the center of the circle you broadcast on the big screen nearby. Then the screen shows a race car spinning circles around you — a fun video game-like experience and a nice introduction to Ford’s space.

A view of Ford’s video installation. (click to enlarge)

You then walk under a futuristic bar where people are peering down blue and white ovals to the showroom floor. As of a sudden, you realize that you are in the center of an elaborate video and light display that frames the main area of Ford’s exhibition space. The imagery is mostly filmed from a vehicle looking out, so the experience of driving rather than the actual car is the focus. NAIAS is a busy and crowded event, yet Ford was able to create a peaceful environment in the midst of the convention.

This larger-than-life display of simple narratives shows the weaknesses of the other car company displays. Ford used its deep resources and provided a complicated environment, yet they also did a masterful job of editing so that viewers were not overwhelmed.

Ford framed the environment and gave simple imagery. There was also an interactive display where you were strapped into a seat on a circle platform that was launched to the ceiling, where it appeared to be a virtual reality screen. It looked like fun and I may have to return to experience that. Come to think of it, maybe I am a car guy.

The North American International Auto Show is taking place at Cobo Center (One Washington Blvd., Detroit, Michigan) until January 22.

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Colin Darke

Colin Darke is an artist and a writer based in Detroit. In describing his art, The Detroit News said Colin employs “a bold, colorful style reminiscent of the German...