Dlectricity illuminates the streets of Detroit

Detroit Institute of Arts illuminated as part of Dlectricity. Photo by Jon Deboer via Flickr.

The epiphany came when Jonathan Lewald was enjoying a projected light installation at the nighttime arts festival Dlectricity.

“Detroit’s coming back, baby,” he turned and yelled to no one in particular, his face flecked with dancing reflections. “This is what we do!”

As Detroit seeks to regain its financial footing, its long-rich arts and cultural scene is emerging as a principal propeller of the city’s rejuvenation.

“Nobody does this stuff like Detroit,” said Lewald, 32, a Detroit artist and musician. “We’re starting to capitalize on it.”

Dlectricity’s in the thick of it. Sponsored in part by Knight Foundation, the two-night festival of art, technology and light this year featured more than 35 globally acclaimed, emerging and local artists, and nearly 40 projects chosen from entries worldwide.

A winner of last year’s Knight Arts Challenge Detroit, Dlectricity illuminated Woodward Avenue in Midtown – from the Detroit Institute of Arts to Orchestra Hall – with edgy installations of light, video, performance and other works of art.

The Sept. 26-27 nuit blanche – nighttime festival – also featured visiting and local lecturers at various locations, including the College for Creative Studies. There were singers and DJs, plus participatory choreographed dance and other movement exercises.

As musicians played live in Orchestra Hall, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra projected the Pops performance “Let’s Dance” on a nearby building facade. At the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, another winner of the Knight Arts Challenge, the Hyper Interactive Hip-Hop Mardi Gras Parade featured participatory Caribbean costume design and performance. The Detroit Institute of Arts, its facade awash in colored light, offered electronic music indoors set to animation. Knight committed $7.5 million to the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Wright Museum as part of a larger investment in the arts in Detroit in 2012, which included the Arts Challenge.

The explosion of sight and sound also included a film honoring a Goth club in Detroit’s Leland Hotel, which was projected onto the front of the Detroit Historical Museum. Projects ran the gamut. In one, set on a lawn, scores of small windmills converted wind into light. Other projects used techniques such as holographic imaging and fluorescent tube lighting.

Dlectricity was organized this year in collaboration with the Knight-sponsored Detroit Design Festival, North America’s preeminent festival of independent design. In the last four years alone, more than 40 creative design firms have settled in downtown Detroit.

A Dlectricity highlight is the Saturday night Light Bike Parade, in which thousands make a four-mile trek through Midtown. The event adds to Detroit’s budding reputation as a bike city, largely owing to Slow Roll, an ever-growing weekly group ride through Detroit’s streets.

At the parade, most cyclists came with bikes already illuminated. Others picked up light kits that day from organizers. Prizes were awarded for the brightest bike and best helmet decoration.

Like multicolored fireflies, the bikes lit streets with waves of fleeting streaks. Afterward, most bikers parked their rides and strolled along with the throngs.

“This is incredibly awesome,” said Lydia Dawson, 26, of suburban Farmington, whose lime green bike was outfitted with red lighting. She said the parade had exceeded her expectations.

“There was just so much energy out there, and I don’t think it’s going to go away,” she said. “I feel like it’s going to build and build.”

Mary M. Chapman is a freelance writer based in Detroit.

The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra are finalists for Knight Arts Challenge Detroit 2014. Winners will be announced Oct. 6.