DETROIT — For much of its recent history, Detroit has been shrouded in darkness, both metaphorically and literally: in December 2012, 40% of the 88,000 lighting fixtures in the city were broken or in need of repair. In response to these conditions, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History proposed a project called “Shine a Light,” which aimed to illuminate some of Detroit’s darkest neighborhoods with projections of the city’s elders on the sides of buildings.
The museum first received funding for the project in 2012 through a grant it received as a winner of Detroit’s Knight Arts Challenge. They’d initially planned for the projections to move from place to place throughout the city, but it proved difficult to create the infrastructure required quickly enough to get the project off the ground.
In 2018, the project was rapidly approaching the end of its use-it-or-lose-it grant funding window. That’s when the museum invited artist and curator Ash Arder to step in and reimagine what “Shine a Light” could be.
In her role as Artist-Fellow at the Wright, Arder had the freedom to reshape the project in a way that hit the marks of the proposal. She worked with filmmaker Julie Dash on filmed content for an outdoor, large-scale projection-mapping experience.
“I reshaped it to take place in one location, rather than to travel — that’s just too much liability, too many logistics,” said Arder. She was inspired to do some hard thinking about what it means to create work with lasting impact: “If it’s going to happen in just one place, can it be more permanent, so the community can have ownership over it as well?”
Arder collaborated with grassroots community developer Tammy Black, who is in the process of creating a solar-powered “community treehouse” in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood where she lives, and where Arder has a studio. She also leveraged her connections with many Detroit industrial-creatives, including solar lighting pioneer Brandon Knight and architect Aaron Jones, who is internationally known for his experimental theaters and community outreach pop-up projects.
“Ash connected with me, and was like, ‘maybe we can envision something a little cooler than projecting things on buildings,’” Jones told Hyperallergic.
The result of their efforts is the recently opened “Shine a Light” facility, an “off-grid people and plant conservatory” that now lives permanently on Manistique Street, in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood. This highly-designed modular lean-to structure is made of cedar support beams, with sloping roof-wall panels lined in back projection film that allows it to display projections on two sides. The structure is intentionally multi-purpose: its interior chamber, which houses two projectors, also serves as a small greenhouse space during months when outdoor film festivals are less frequent. The entire pod runs off the adjacent solar array.
The structure is a dramatic departure from what the original Shine a Light project proposal outlined, but it serves the same community-building purpose. “The original proposal [aimed] to leverage the art project-community-building nature of funding in the city, but then have it become something that’s handed over and transformed, and just let it go and turn into things which are more interesting and useful,” Jones said during a recent walk through the Shine a Light conservatory.
The importance of grant funding in projects like this can’t be overstated. “Shine a Light” required an estimated $10,000 in materials for the structure alone, with much of the labor, design, and solar equipping done below cost. It’s unlikely that such a project will ever generate enough monetary profit for it to break even cost-wise. It therefore stands out as a canny example of how grant funding — especially through programs like the Knight Arts Challenge, which aims to invest in Detroit’s art ecosystem — can enable artists to serve real community needs. These days, as many institutions strive to connect to wider audiences, the smartest tactics are those being fostered by the likes of Arder, Jones, Black, and the Charles H. Wright Museum: instead of making your audience come to you, set up a beacon right where they can find it, in their own backyard.
The “Shine a Light Off-the-Grid People + Plant Conservatory” can be visited on Manistique Street in Detroit, MI. For upcoming public events, Tammy Black can be contacted through the Manistique Community Treehouse Center. More information about the “Shine a Light” documentary, contact the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.