Detroit has always been a refuge to makers, hackers, tinkerers, and industrious do-ers. In many ways, the socio-cultural life of the city thrives on grassroots production, and increasingly, these micro-enterprises are beginning to enter into the economic conversation as well. Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to tour three Detroit makerspaces: OmniCorpDetroit; Ponyride; and Tech Shop. All three are fairly recent additions to the cityâ€™s culturescape, and although they diverge in organizational structure and affiliation, each was created to cultivate making through access to space, tools, and a network of expertise.
My first visit was to OmniCorpDetroit, a member-driven organization of hackers and makers who have recently added Moped Mondays to their list of recurrent antics. Housed in a former spice factory in Detroit’s Eastern Market, OmniCorp is festooned with a chaotic array of materials and tools that have been finagled, bartered, and salvaged for all manners of mayhem and mischief. Next, I was on to Ponyride, a residency and shared studio space whose mission emphasizes social entrepreneurship, community development, and cultivating creative networks. Currently, the facility is occupied by videographers, choreographers, fencers, a letterpress shop, textile fabricators, and many other producers who manage to operate from a workspace that bridges private and communal to mine the productivity that exists in between. Lastly, I was able to have look inside the first Tech Shop established outside of California, built in Allen Park in partnership with Ford Motor Company. This workshop is able to offer hands-on teaching and access to an impressive and well-maintained suite of tools including wood and metal shops, laser cutters, 3D printers, a vinyl cutter, plastic and textile labs, and a mammoth water jet cutter.
This post includes excerpts from each tour along with photographs courtesy of John Lui and Achille Bianchi. Thanks to Aaron Blendowski for hacking B@S.
OmniCorpDetroit: Hack â€˜nâ€™ Cheese
Aaron Blendowski, (founding member): We donâ€™t have a mission statement, and weâ€™re going to keep it that way. Weâ€™ve all agreed that if we develop a mission statement then weâ€™re done. Itâ€™s allowed us to work entirely free-form, and thatâ€™s why we have people who build mopeds, sell custom saddle bags, make gelato, bikes, air cannons, robots, and sound stuff. Thereâ€™s really not a project thatâ€™s gone unconsidered. People often ask what happens when someone proposes a project that OmniCorp isnâ€™t about, and I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s possible. We havenâ€™t had that happen yet. Weâ€™re kind of a group of yes people.
AB: OmniCorp is member-driven and without sponsorship. Itâ€™s been interesting to see a number of maker spaces popping-up in this areaâ€”Red Bull just invested in a bunch of property to convert into artist studiosâ€”and know that many of these well-funded projects tied to corporate sponsorship may fizzle out whereas we can guarantee that weâ€™re going to be here because the organization is member driven. I was just looking in Frame Magazine the other day, and it seems like everywhere you look, thereâ€™s some sort of reference to Detroit and how the city is growing: whatâ€™s happening here, what isnâ€™t happening here, what people think is happening here. The only way to really know is to come down, take a look, and contribute, and there are more and more people doing that.
AB: Weâ€™re doing Open Hack Nights every first and third Thursdays, 8pm-11pm. Most nights we have a DJ here during the event so that people feel more welcome to come in, just hang out, and learn about what weâ€™re doing. They might get a project started or meet someone who has nothing to do with OmniCorp, but thatâ€™s the idea: itâ€™s more a group-stop where people can go and be like minded without a bar setting. Open Hack makes it easy for someone to come in and say: hey, can you help me do this? Our members include hard and software engineers, programmers, graphic designers, sculptors, architects, community planners, who are interested and willing to invest their time and expertise in different creative projects.
AB: Jeff Sturges, “Uncle Jeff,” was affiliated with a similar space in New York called NYC Resistor. In cities like New York, people escape into the space in the evening after working full-time all day. In this region, people donâ€™t just have one job and then come here to mess around. People are hustling constantly. Itâ€™s not a joke that Detroit hustles harder; I have two-and-a-half jobs, and then Iâ€™m here when Iâ€™m not working. OmniCorp members donâ€™t just have their one job and come here to tinker during off-hours, theyâ€™re involved in community projects, teaching, working as active professionals and then coming here to work on a hobby, do a project, or just unwind. This space runs on individual or small group initiative. Whether you want to screen print or work on the loom thatâ€™s currently being set up, we have the space and often the resources, but itâ€™s up to you to get it done.
OmniCorpDetroit is located at 1501 Division Street, Detroit.
Ponyride: Elbow Grease Economics
Peter Beaugard, (board member): One third of the building is traditional tenant spaceâ€”apartments at market rate, and then we work with a leasing company to rent studio and work space at a very, heavily subsidized rate, essentially 10-cents per square foot. So space here is less expensive than other studio buildings, and along with that, we offer a community for makers to be a part ofâ€¦ As a board, weâ€™ve been discussing strategic planning to turn Ponyride into a model that could be brought to other Rust Belt cities. They call it â€œelbow grease economicsâ€. Essentially, we want to create a toolkitâ€”not necessarily a distinct planâ€”but an outline of what went into the space and how someone could develop a Ponyride… Some of the questions that weâ€™ve been asking are: is it a creative incubator, creative accelerator, or just a collection of studio spaces? I think itâ€™s just fine to be considering these questions as you goâ€”you donâ€™t necessarily have to plan in Detroit. The good thing is thereâ€™s clear leadership: board members who are helping to frame these issues. Phil [Cooley] was smart in the way he set this upâ€”it’s a low-risk proposition. He bought the building for $100k and retained one-third as housing for tenants in order to pay the mortgage. He knew if he rented studio spaces out at 10-cents a square foot, he wouldnâ€™t be paying money at the end of the month.
Steve Coy, (board member, shared studio tenant, Swagon founder): The process has been really organic. Weâ€™ve been trying to define who we are based on who approaches us and how they want to use the space. Right now, weâ€™re housing three Artists in Residence and a handful of Studio Tenants… Personally, I just knew I had to have my program with Lawrence Tech run out of this space because of all the unique resources available here. The project was to engage my students with youth from Detroit and identify unique, community needs. Based on their research, the students created a business related to art and design, and what emerged was an idea to purchase an old ice cream truck and use it to sell design objects out of the back. We bought the truckâ€”itâ€™s out backâ€”and now, weâ€™re prototyping design objects using the resources here at Ponyride.
Zak Meers, (artist in residence): I wouldnâ€™t even call most of the residents here â€œartists.â€ For example, Veronika [Scott of the Empowerment Plan] is a business woman for the most part, Bryan [Baker of Stukenborg Studio] has his letterpress operation, and there are carpenters, craftsmen, videographers, and others who really expand the idea of the artist studio/residency. Iâ€™ve been here working on this project since August, but Ponyride has been in the works for about a year. The first step was tearing it apart. This used to be a letter-graphics facility and it was filled with obsolete machines and other crap, and there were drop ceilings and raised floors, so weâ€™ve spent the last 8-9 months creating what you see hereâ€”restoring the material of the building itself.
PB: There arenâ€™t really any models for Ponyride, and the project is not specific to Detroitâ€”itâ€™s specific to any post-industrial Rust Belt city, but with a different energy than other shared studio spaces. Many spaces are only focused on fine arts, and I think thereâ€™s something about this space being about creative and social entrepreneurship; SC: and community engagement;Â PB: yeah, it sets this project apart.
Ponyride is located at 1401 Vermont Street, Detroit.
Tech Shop: Dream Consultants
Jason Burton (lab tech): This is a space that is geared towards making in a very fundamental way. Weâ€™re interested in hobbyists, dreamers, tinkerers, designers, engineers, product developers, entrepreneurs. The idea here is that you use your membership to access what I like to think of as a co-op of tools in order to make whatever you want. We have an education system here to help you use the facility regardless of your experienceâ€”we offer classes and constant support. My position here is the Education Events Coordinator, and my job is to work with the community to make our presence knownâ€”work with area organizations to incorporate our activities here into what they doâ€”and to cultivate an environment where we can start getting things done and work out the details later.
JB: Thereâ€™s a monthly membership ($100) that give access to the space and one-times class that gives you access to individual tools. Once you have access to the tools you can use them however you want. The techs in the shop are called â€œDCs,â€ which is short for â€œDream Consultant.â€ Theyâ€™re around all the time to help with the tools and serve as a project manager, so thereâ€™s constant assistance. Everyone who works here is a maker.
Tech Shop is located at 800 Republic Drive, Allen Park.
In preparation for my interview with Steve and Dorota Coy, creators of hygienic dress league, I attempted to re-watch the 2003 documentary, The Corporation. And I say attempt because I have tried no fewer than four times to view that film in its entirety, but I can never manage to get past those unhappy, Monsanto cows, swollen and sick on rGBH. Itâ€™s not that my liberal heart bleeds for the livestock, (Iâ€™d have no problem chasing a burger with a milkshake while watching said segment for the fifth time); rather, itâ€™s always at that moment that I realize the film has made its pointâ€”the corporation is a soulless abuser of the 14th amendment that will deceive, manipulate, and blatantly abuse anyone posing an impediment to profit.
The message that Noam Chomsky has so clearly presented for us in this film is one that a myriad of culture jammers have reinforced through the public, critical action of groups such as The Yes Men, Adbusters, and the Billboard Liberation Front. Indeed, since the publication of Society of the Spectacle, many artists have found the realm of global-corporate-media-enterprise ripe for parody and critique. Rarely do you find artists operating within the corporate frame to the extent of the Coyâ€™s, who have legally registered hygienic dress league as a legitimate corporation within the state of Michigan. The husband-wife team has gone beyond mere parody in their intervention into non-artistic systems to fully appropriate the identifying codes of the business world. Currently, Steve and Dorota operate as founders, CEOs and CFOs of their company, and their corporate agenda is thus: to subvert the identity of the corporation from exploitive commercial empire to cultivate a practice that brands to examine the process of branding, produces for the sake of the ephemeral, and profits to yield a net of $0.
My initial introduction to the work of the Coyâ€™s and hygienic dress league was last fall, when they unveiled a neon billboard reading, â€œNo Vacancy,â€ in Detroitâ€™s Corktown neighborhood. The billboard sat adjacent to Roosevelt
Park and Michigan Central Train Station, a once glorious example of early-twentieth century Beaux-Arts Classical architecture that is now a monument to post-industrial abandonment and blight. The billboardâ€™s message was explicit, and moreover, mundaneâ€”the bright pink â€œNo Vacancyâ€ could have been seen in any city or vacation town across the country. What makes the work profound is the blatant falsityâ€”one thing Detroit certainly has to offer is vacancy. In claiming the contrary, the hygienic dress league incarnated an age-old marketing technique: create exclusivity, and interest will follow. Itâ€™s only when the action is examined more thoroughly that it is revealed that the corporation behind the gesture is interested in unpacking the processes of branding and its affect on social life, rather than building buzz around a new product.
Evidence of the hygienic dress league can be seen throughout Detroit on brightly colored billboards that present the companyâ€™s figureheadsâ€”two characters dressed in business attire who carry briefcases and wear gold gas masks. Their work is also marked by a Louis Vuitton-esque corporate icon that features the pigeon, which is a symbol of urban scrappiness, as well as a nod to the popularity of the bird among the street art set. The work exists in the space between street art and commercial marketing that is home to the Shepard Faireys as well as the Sonys, and as a result, hygienic dress leagueâ€™s billboards integrate seamlessly into the urban media landscape. In the tradition of corporate unveilings, the Coyâ€™s rely on clandestine strategies until each action is launched. I did manage to get a bit of intel on hygienic dress leagueâ€™s next project, which is scheduled to be unveiled some point this weekend, at an undisclosed location, somewhere in Detroit.
I recently spoke to Steve Coy in hygienic dress league HQ in Detroitâ€™s Eastern Market.
Discussed: Absurd Dadaist text, cupcakes, urban wildlife, the commercialization of street art, Detroit Revolution! coming this summer, covert ops.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: So what is the origin of hygienic dress league, both as a collective art practice and corporate entity?
Steve Coy: Basically, hygienic dress league started off as a group of graduate students from the University of Hawaii. We were drinking at a bar, discussing a possible collaborative show. We knew that we wanted to do a possible critique on fashion, addressing value and why people wear what they doâ€”how people go to extremes to portray themselves in a certain way. So we had this Dada text about dress reform, and we came across a mention of this group, Hygienic Dress League. There was no explanation as to what it wasâ€”we just loved those three words together, so we used it for the title of the show. Later on, after we had moved to Detroit, Dorota and I had an idea for a different project, and we adopted the name hygienic dress league. We wanted to keep it alive.
SMP: How did the project evolve in Detroit?
SC: We had this idea to form a corporation and use that as the platform to create our artâ€”the corporation as a new, original art form. We thought it would be hilarious to create this identity, or brand that had no manufacturable product or sellable good behind it. We became, in a way, a self-promoting machine. We like to say: â€˜Our Mission is to Promote our Mission: hygienic dress league.â€™ So, simultaneously while all this was going on, Dorota and I were doing a series of photographs that dealt with gender, identity, and male-female relationships. We did this one featuring a housewife with a huge diamond carrying a tray of cupcakes, and this is where our businessman first appeared holding a trident and wearing a golden gasmask. Once we had the corporation and this character, it was easy to merge the two ideas into one project, and use the businessman/executive figure as the corporate icon.
I think it adapted well to Detroit because as we lived here and started getting a feel for the city, it felt more and more like a post-apocalyptic world. We are surrounded by all these abandoned factories and buildings falling down. Of course, itâ€™s a great venue for making all kinds of artwork, but it also really fed the narrative that we were trying to create behind hygienic dress league. We started using the images of these businessmen with gasmasks on as inhabitants of this futuristic, alter-reality. Thereâ€™s symbolism in the masks and safety gogglesâ€”itâ€™s like these characters breathe different airâ€”a social separation.
SMP: So it is you and Dorota who perform these rolesâ€”enacting and embodying the corporate icons that youâ€™ve createdâ€¦
SC: Dorota and I have always been these charactersâ€”theyâ€™re like extensions of our personalities. As an artist, you have to be that executive, you have to be that mid-level employee, and you have to be that low-level extractor doing the actual physical labor. Itâ€™s actually a great metaphor for the practice of art making.
SMP: Where does the pigeon come in?
SC: The pigeon is hygienic dress leagueâ€™s logo. We knew when creating a corporation that we would need a logo. The pigeon is kind of a funny creatureâ€”like urban wildlife, so I think it pertains to the type of places that hygienic dress league operates inâ€”there are always pigeons around. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the birdâ€¦ Theyâ€™re smart, and in their own way, very hygienic.
SMP: One logistical question: was it difficult registering hygienic dress league as corporation?
SMP: So, Iâ€™m curiousâ€¦ How does your work differ from that of the culture jammersâ€”Adbusters, Billboard Liberation Front, and the like, whose work is also critical of commercial media and other socio-cultural infrastructure?
SC: In a way we are critiquing corporate structures, and in a way weâ€™re creating space to do that, but itâ€™s not necessarily our number-one goal. We want to make people aware of the over-saturation of advertising, and the idea that we are constantly being sold something. I guess in a way weâ€™re trying to sell culture, but thereâ€™s nothing really behind itâ€”weâ€™re really a faÃ§adeâ€”we pose as one thing disguised as another.
SMP: So, in a sense you are critiquing similar issues, but your work goes beyond mere response to create an entirely unique discourse.
SC: Exactly. Basically, we want to level the playing field and have access to people that corporations do. If you were to ask anyone about Nike or Louis Vuitton, Samsung, TVs, whatever, they would probably know all these different products. But ask that same person about contemporary art? Itâ€™s about accessibility, and itâ€™s about diversifying the types of public art that happens here. We want to reach new audiences.
And that even plays into some of the locations weâ€™re selecting. Weâ€™re always looking for high-profile locationsâ€”somewhere between abandoned and renovated, and weâ€™re always trying to bring attention to these spaces and the unique architecture. I especially look for boarded up sections of buildingâ€”we prefer to work on wood, so we donâ€™t damage the building and the brickwork. We have a term for these spaces, we call it â€œreal estate,â€ this is when we find a building with a lot of plywood on it. A lot of street art can be formulaicâ€”people just plug it in. We look into these locations and the histories of the buildings and try to play into that in the work. One of the more recent pieces that we did was â€œNo Vacancy,â€ and it was a large neon sign on the side of an abandoned hotel. So again, itâ€™s a play on words, and thereâ€™s meaning there in the history of the building itself.
SMP: How do you relate to more traditional street art, and how do you feel about the gallerization of the aesthetic?
SC: Weâ€™re definitely commenting on the over-commercialization of street art. Some artists have used their work to create a real brand to market and sell things, and thereâ€™s nothing wrong with thatâ€”itâ€™s a pretty brilliant thing in a way. But weâ€™re not interested in that. Weâ€™re interested in creating a dialog about that. I mean, weâ€™re being really transparentâ€”our work is an advertisement. And on the other side, you have all the companies who use viral marketing and all kinds of tactics to disguise themselves as artâ€¦ In a way weâ€™re kind of reversing those roles. I think people become immune to it [advertising]; they just accept it, and we want them to question it.
SMP: Do you feel like the inherent corporate-ness of your workâ€”the very well thought out commercial quality, causes it to be misinterpreted or overlooked?
SC: Yeah, I do think that people who encounter our work might not understand what it is, and thatâ€™s an intentional reaction we want to solicit. Weâ€™re trying to get people to be curious and maybe think that itâ€™s a new store or something, and then we kind of leave a trail of breadcrumbs using the internet. People might take a photo on a smartphone, or google one of our slogans later. We use all these different platforms and unveil a bit at a time, and fill in another piece of the puzzle.
I saw this great photo [by Brian Day] on flickr of our Transporters mural that reads â€œDetroit Revolution! coming this summer.â€ And, basically, this guy had written this description where he had driven into this parking lot and saw or mural, and he actually had a case like our transporters carry, so he posed in front of the piece like a character. There were so many great comments about the photo, and it had, like 400 views, which is pretty good for that type of thing. Pretty amazing I think.
SMP: So no gallery shows?
Thatâ€™s right, weâ€™re less interested in traditional modes of showing art. But we really go beyond what typical street artists work withâ€”beyond paint rollers and stencils to work with other media like interactive video, performance, neonâ€¦ Our work is all about random encountersâ€”seeing it unexpectedly and in an unexpected wayâ€”itâ€™s just out there in the public, which is what I like about public work outside the gallery. We want to get into augmented reality. Weâ€™re operating in this space that is real and fictional simultaneouslyâ€¦
SMP: Can you divulge a bit of what is in the works for hygienic dress league?
There was really a set plan in place from the beginning to do all the things that a corporation would do. We eventually want to take the company publicâ€”itâ€™s going to be really funny. Then, literally, the public can assess the value of the company by how many shares are bought. Which is kind of where the art world is anywayâ€”what makes something valuable?! Itâ€™s what the gallerists and dealers decide. We definitely want to comment on that. Also, we want to expand to other rust belt citiesâ€”places that get skipped over by street artists. Weâ€™re exploring new markets so to speakâ€”billboards in other areas. And again, these are places that have less in the way of public art, because weâ€™re still trying to reach that non-art-going audience that we really want.
SMP: All awesome… But I was sort of talking upcoming this weekend…
SC: The piece that weâ€™re going to do this weekend is also on an old hotel, Hotel [censored!]. I donâ€™t think I should give the name of the hotel, because in this case we donâ€™t have permission. I usually try to get permission to do the work, just because I want to build a really good relationship, and I want to breakdown those stereotypes that street art is vandalism, which is also why we stick to the boarded-up sections of buildings, and try to maintain a good relationship with the city. I want Detroit to be an advocate and really embrace this type of artâ€”it can help rebuild the community and change the way it looks.
A lot of our work is highly polished, very graphic, and slightly corporate looking. With this piece weâ€™re heading in a slightly different direction. Weâ€™re going to introduce all our characters and itâ€™s going to be in this pseudo-Sistine Chapel, Renaissance mural with a blue background and an archway with clouds, with our characters just sort of floating in there. Also, the hotel has all these really interesting archways. Over each archway will have a male and a female character of each rank of employeeâ€”the lower-level Extractors, (who wear white hazmat suits and golden gloves), the mid-level Transporters, (these characters wear all black and have a briefcase handcuffed to their arms), and of course, the Executives are the highest-level employees who wear suits and a dollar-sign pendant. Itâ€™s exciting: weâ€™ve never really introduced all of our characters before.
Iâ€™m also working on a video at the moment. Itâ€™s the second of two videosâ€”the first was called â€œCreation of a Brand,â€ and it shows the executives physically creating this logoâ€”you can see this abstract concept physically translated into a thing. The second video, (“Creation of a Brand II“), is going to put the first in contextâ€”itâ€™s going to be the prequel and the sequel.
SMP: Any idea what the Reception will be?
I think our work is generally received positivelyâ€”I think people really like seeing it. I think at first itâ€™s something that might be confusing, but I think itâ€™s the type of thing that people can engage with at any level that they want. They may look at it and not think about it again, or they might follow that trail of breadcrumbs and investigate the narrative, learn about the characters. Generally, I think people follow our work. Iâ€™ve noticed that different blogs definitely pick up what weâ€™re doing as soon as it hits the street. We donâ€™t really announce when weâ€™re doing something, or where the location isâ€”we try to operate on that surprise. hygienic dress league is very secretive in its operations.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo is a curator and writer. She is currently the Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow at Cranbrook Art Museum.