When Paxahau's team took control of Detroit's annual electronic music festival in 2006, they didn't have time to think about enhancing the weekend's artistic elements. They had just two months to produce a global techno event. Music was the only priority.
"We really only had a few weeks to execute," says Sam Fotias, Paxahau's operations manager. He's standing outside a capacious workspace at the Russell Industrial Center in Detroit, talking with Melinda Anderson and Vanessa Miller, with whom he runs Community Arts Moving People or CAMP, Movement's exhibition of installation art featuring artists from the city.
"It started in '05," Fotias says, plotting the first dot of a timeline.
"We'd produced the underground stage at Fuse-In in 2005, so when Kevin Saunderson stepped down from producing the festival, we figured we could produce the whole event. That was crazy. But once we started talking to agents, we got things lined up and locked down."
But the city had assumed control over the festival and it was up to then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's camp as to who'd produce it. There was drama, extended waiting periods.
In late March, Paxahau got eight weeks to make it happen.
After one year of Saunderson's Fuse-In festival rebranding, Paxahau resurrected the Movement title. This weekend they're celebrating five years under that name, which, for this festival, says a lot.
"By 2007, we had room to breathe. We started thinking about ways to augment the experience," Fotias says. "We looked at other festivals, like Coachella, and saw how they had built-in interactive experiences."
Fotias is talking about artful things.
Photographer, visual artist and arts organizer Vanessa Miller is serious about art. Detroit art, in particular. And she's no stranger to Detroit's electronic scene.
In 2008, Miller approached Paxahau, looking to expand the festival's visual arts exhibition, and Paxahau was all ears.
"You had this pretty prolific volume of photos from your adventures in urban spelunking," Fotias says to Miller. Paxahau didn't program music for the underground stage — that's underground as in literally subterranean, not featuring unknown acts — in 2008. "Instead, Fotias continues, "the space became a gallery space featuring the photos you and your friends were taking at the time. It had an impact on the festival. ... It showcased the city."
Miller had gained Paxahau's confidence. In 2009, she upped her game and pitched Paxahau an idea for an analog social media installation. Fotias gave her the go-ahead. Miller tied a giant sheet in a tree covered area of the fest. On it, she had written down questions and left markers for people to leave answers.
She was nervous no one would interact with it.
"I got down to Hart Plaza early on Saturday," she says. "I'd been up all night. But by the time I got there, I think two or three people had already left answers. It was like, 'OK, this'll actually work.'"
"The analog sheet was tied up in a high-traffic area and people interacted with it," Fotias says. "The vibe it created was perfect."
And last year, with a team of artist friends and Paxahau liaison Melinda Anderson, Vanessa Miller oversaw the Beehive Project, Movement's largest arts exhibition yet.
The honey-combed dome was another completely interactive work. In line with Paxahau's recycling effort last year, the Beehive was created from found and repurposed material, which was, Miller explains, familiar territory for Detroit artists.
"It's kind of the nature of living where we live, where there are so many available reusable materials around," she continues. "Creating the hive wasn't just about using these sorts of materials, though; it was about representing the city of Detroit, the work going on here."
It's also a reaction to colony collapse disorder phenomenon:
"All the bees are leaving and nobody knows where they're going or why or anything about what's happening" Miller says. "Bees play a really significant role in growing things. It's messed up."
The structure, maybe 7 feet tall and 6 feet across, was set in a central location. It succeeded: Miller says that "People talked, danced, chanted and read books" inside of what became an unofficial meeting spot for festivalgoers.
"But the Beehive itself was only one of seven installation projects," Anderson notes. "Scott Berels, Lindsay Jewell and Sean Hages and a few other artists all created pieces too."
"Yeah, last year was great," Fotias blurts, "but when you guys came to us this year with the proposal for CAMP, we were completely blown away. You showed us how we could utilize this and potentially other events to expose and support several of our city's artists to an international audience. It's an amazing opportunity. And, for the cost, it's a no-brainer."
So it looks like from here on out, CAMP is the official arts arm of Movement. With funds pooled from the creative community, its purpose is to organize art teams and fund new installation projects each year.
It's not just about good business, Anderson says. "I want the CAMP artists to be treated in a special way. We respect their work, they're bringing a huge value to the festival and to their community. It's more than just a commission."
And on behalf of artists, Miller adds, "We wanted to create a real opportunity for these artists, right? There's this model out there that artists have to pay to show their work. That has to change."
The College for Creative Studies, Detroit Creative Corridor Center, and Detroit Techno Foundation put up $2,500 apiece to fund CAMP art projects. But, as is the case with any size art grant, a grueling curatorial process ensued.
"That's the most difficult part," Miller says. "That's what made me stay awake at night. You want to inspire people and motivate them to express themselves but you also need a sense of cohesion."
This year, CAMP considered installation proposals from 15 teams and accepted six.
One such team, the Intelligent Node Park, is at work inside the Russell studio the day Miller, Anderson and Fotias meet to talk. The team is Jake Chidester, Richard Chase and Alisyn Malek, an architect, an electrical engineer and a mechanical engineer respectively.
Fotias, Miller and Anderson move into the studio while the artists toil with live wires, promising a light show any minute.
Chase works on installing a set of blue LEDs into a 7-foot-tall wooden box. "It's like techno Stonehenge," he says. "
Fotias scratches his chin. "You know, the guys that I work with, we all came up in a subculture in a city that was a lot more blue-collar and conservative than it is now," he says. "But because of the situation we're in as a state and as a region, we're looking within our own community for cultural enlightenment and the work flips us out. Look at this; it'd be totally irresponsible to not help show what's going on in Detroit."
Christian Jay Sienkiewicz, who records and remixes under the name Coyote Clean Up, will offer an organic lounge called Camp Chillout. Connecting monolithic LED boxes to a heap of strobing headlights, the Intelligent Node Park is the brainchild of an architect, a guy who’s wrapping up his doctorate in electrical engineering and a girl who works on electric battery technology. The Janus Tunnel will be constructed by Dan Roberts and Erin Sweeny. Riffing on the "I Lift Detroit in Prayer" bumper-stickers you see around town, Erin Ellis and Jessica Decker have built a We Lift Detroit in Dance structure or sculpture or sign or something. Sean Hages will introduce attendees to his Wild Aesthetic, which will involve parachute balloons and mist. And A.J. Manoulian has constructed a Rube Goldberg Machine that feeds official festival programs near the entrance.