The Medium and The Message: New Media and the Democratization of Fine Art in Detroit

by K.A. Letts


Visual artists have historically been enthusiastic experimenters and explorers of new ways to see and make, but now things have gotten crazy. Technologies like video, 3D printing, digital printing and live-streaming are speeding ahead of our ability to digest their significance and formal possibilities. Cultural institutions are likewise disoriented by the speed at which new media must be adapted and adopted within the walls of institutions conceived in the 19th century to house static objects.

Marshall McLuhan’s still-valuable insights on media can be productively applied to our current state of confusion. In his view, our cultural environment is a product of its historical context. That environment allows or requires the development of new technologies. These new technologies, in turn, change the cultural environment… and so on. It’s a dialog—or, perhaps, dialectic.

Which brings me to the humble spray paint can as an example of a simple invention that has spawned an entirely new—and still evolving—art form. A technological advance as rudimentary as a new way of applying paint enabled the birth of graffiti art in the 1970s and ’80s, which in turn changed our perception of who is entitled to personal expression in the public space and what that might look like.


Spray Paint and Street Art

Though mass-produced spray paint was invented in 1949 (by Bonnie and Edward Seymour in Sycamore, IL, in case you’re interested), things didn’t really get going until the early 1970s, when it occurred to creative young kids in the Bronx that they could take advantage of New York’s economic disarray and a lack of adult supervision to create a new kind of ethnically inclusive expressionism. The speed with which they could illegally tag subways and blank walls—thanks to those spray cans!—allowed them to develop a visual language that privileged the expressive potential of previously marginalized artists. Predictably, howls of outrage from authorities ensued, but all the while, the idea that personal expression could belong in a public space took root.

It was interesting to watch the evolution of unauthorized painting on public walls from my vantage point in Detroit as artists here began to create street art on the many empty and derelict buildings of the troubled (but not yet bankrupt) city. This was a kind of “second-wave” street art, often sanctioned by building owners and ignored by the city authorities who had much, much bigger problems.

Given the relatively high level of public acceptance for street art in Detroit, more and different individuals and groups have produced murals and 3-dimensional artworks throughout the sprawling city over time. Large-scale urban art installations like Heidelberg Project, Dabls Mbad Bead Museum, Hamtramck Disneyland and the Lincoln Street Art Park all developed organically from grassroots beginnings.

Murals in the Market, one of the best known of a new global genre of street art festivals, has also contributed to the inclusiveness of street art. Women artists like Ouizi (Louise Chen Jones), Shaina Kasztelan and Ellen Rutt, to name a few, have produced murals for the festival, and artists of color like Tiff Massey, Olayami Dabls and Ivan Montoya are well-represented as well. Dan and Jennifer Gilbert’s financial support for The Z, the Belt and Library Street Collective has also contributed to the legitimization and democratization of street art, now Detroit’s “official” art form.

Art on the street has slowly lost its outlaw image. Even an established arts institution such as the Detroit Institute of Arts, sensing the public’s growing appetite for visual art in public spaces—and an opportunity to reach a new audience—has gone outside the walls of the museum with its program “Inside|Out,” which brings high-quality reproductions of masterpieces from the museum’s collections to outdoor venues throughout metro Detroit. There could hardly be a better illustration of street art’s official acceptance than the recently announced Detroit Blight Abatement Artist Residency Program (BAARP), which commissions murals by formerly unsanctioned artists.

Not a bad legacy for a can of spray paint.

That’s not to say that street art has reached its endpoint as an art movement. Street art’s provisional, often temporary existence and competition for space with commercial advertisers inspired artists Travis Rix and Justin Aversano to take the next step in 2015. They founded, a non-profit online organization that juries work by emerging artists from a wide range of backgrounds, ethnicities, ages and conditions for on-street exhibits of art on billboards.

SaveArtSpace got started as a counter-measure when the two noticed that commercial advertisers in their Brooklyn neighborhood were papering over artists’ murals with ads. Neither had a background in advertising, but they decided to buy ad space on billboards and put up reproductions of work by artists from all walks of life. Their first project, in Bushwick, Brooklyn, included 11 billboards and 12 artists. It showcased work from a 12-year old-autistic boy and a 94-year-old woman and pretty much everything in between.

Since then, Rix (who has now moved to Detroit) and Aversano have organized over a dozen (and counting) exhibits centered on a variety of themes in locations nationwide. When I spoke to Rix, he was especially proud of their recent and largest event, “The Future is Female,” which featured the work of 10 female artists and 20 spaces, juried by 5 female-identifying curators.

In addition to being thoughtfully inclusive of artists from marginalized groups, Rix and Aversano are sensitive to issues specific to the areas where they install work. The effect of public art in accelerating gentrification is of particular concern to the pair, and they often get community input on artworks by enlisting the help of on-site jurors.

“We try to [find a partner] in each town,” Rix says. “Over time we’ve found it’s better to have a local person’s vision.”

SaveArtSpace plans to expand from billboards into video in 2020 with an innovative exhibit on cable television of 30-second videos by artists.


"9 Hours: a live stream from Detroit"

In contrast to SaveArtSpace, which represents a late-state locus in the dialectic between technological invention and societal response to street art, the Detroit-based art event “9 hours: a live stream from Detroit” was a 2-day new media happening. This self-described “experimental platform” was intended to enable artists as they explored emerging online technologies. Featuring a range of artists working across mediums and disciplines with varied content and intent, “9 hours” was live-streamed from Detroit to Bert Green Fine Art in Chicago during this year’s EXPO Chicago.

This was new technology in search of an art form, and clearly in its infancy. The performances toggled between the unhinged and the desultory and seemed to be an exercise in range-finding, with emphasis on proof-of-concept and brainstorming. Works were provisional and experimental. While the actual performances were somewhat underwhelming, I had a number of conversations with participants that point toward more fruitful future projects that make use of this very new technology. Leslie Rogers, one of the participating artists, told me she was thinking hard about the implications of police body cams, facial recognition technology and the surveillance state, with the future shape of her art practice to be determined. Video artist and printmaker Ryan Standfest explored the live-TV aspect of live streaming by presenting an Ernie Kovacs-style spiel from a slimy traveling salesman who peddles real estate scams to the unwary (I should say this is a very topical subject in Detroit right now.)


Detroit Institute of Art, Inside|Out program, Detroit Metro Airport. Noah’s Ark: Genesis by Charles McGee.


Overall, I was impressed the artists’ serious intent, even though some of the proceedings were manifestly silly. Standfest, a keen observer and archivist of vintage media, put 9Hours into a historic context for me:

“What interested me about this [live-streaming event] was that there was a fixed camera, a set I had no control over, a finite amount of time and the camera doesn’t turn off, so there are boundaries that translate into rules. Whenever I’ve had to deal with any kind of new media, it’s about trying to find out the rules inherent in that medium.”

Standfest pointed out that some of the issues impacting new media are familiar: “The pitfalls of social media are the same as when radio was introduced… But it’s so highly accelerated [now] that it’s creating its own problems. We need to find a rigor. Like in early television, we find out what we’re getting into when we get into it. I think it’s good to be pushed out of that comfort zone. When I teach, I’m learning that the shelf life of themes in popular culture is so short (that’s what we’re experiencing on Twitter right now) and that scares the hell out of me. But what do you do? Do you bury your head in the sand?”

Ending on a hopeful note, Standfest pointed out that, technology aside, humans experience the world as they always have, their concerns remain the same and their perceptions are not so different from what they’ve always been: “I think a good way of thinking of new media is as a refinement of all these other places we’ve already been, the speeding up of it, the refinement of it. Delivery [becomes] more precise. But a lot of the issues we grapple with [now], we grappled with then too.”

It’s unlikely that technological advances will slow down in the future; if anything, they may speed up. As cyborgs and artificial intelligence appear on the horizon, it’s up to artists to respond thoughtfully and humanely to new challenges in human perception and art production.

That should be quite a challenge.


K.A. Letts is a working artist ( and art blogger ( She has shown her paintings and drawings in galleries and museums in Toledo, Detroit, Chicago and New York. She writes frequently about art in the Detroit area.

Murals in the Market, Eastern Market Detroit. Mural by Brandan Odums and Rick Williams. Photo by K.A. Letts.

Murals in the Market, Eastern Market Detroit. Mural by Oizi (Louise Chen Jones) and Michelle Tanguay. Photo by K.A. Letts.

SaveArtSpace billboard from their show, "The Future is Female." Art by Elise Peterson. Photo by K.A. Letts.



SUBSCRIBE to the print version of the New Art Examiner via PayPal