Detroit has seen plenty of projects that attempt to revitalize its streets. But a temporary art installation might have left one of the city's most lasting impressions. Memory Cloud Detroit, by UK-based architecture and design studio Minimaforms, collected hundreds of visions for Detroit's future from its residents, and projected them through fields of swirling smoke before the dramatic backdrop of the Detroit Institute of Arts for three nights in 2011. The resulting spectacle became a place for the city to come together and begin conversations about how to make their visions a reality.
Now Minimaforms has launched an online archive that offers access to the stories and statements communicated through Memory Cloud. It also provides a place for those who were not part of the process to contribute their thoughts as well.
"Detroit like many cities is in a process of reinventing itself," says Stephen Spyropoulos, who runs Minimaforms with his brother Theodore. "We felt that we could offer a framework or platform through Memory Cloud to construct a voice of the people and allow a new form of conversation to be enabled with the city itself."
The project employed the 5,000-year-old technology of smoke signals paired with state-of-the-art projectors to create an ephemeral environment. Adding to the play between the ancient and the contemporary were projected messages, which the audience submitted anonymously via text message. These SMS-enabled sentences beamed invisibly through the air to create the ongoing conversation—almost like a modern-day smoke signal.
Many of the messages conveyed a genuine sense of pride for the city and its people. But the Spyropoulos brothers also noticed very honest expressions of the tough challenges that the city is facing. "It was clear that the people have tired and moved on from its mediated historic past and are focused on the possibilities to reinvent 'their' city," Stephen says. "There was a clear sense of community and ownership of the city which for us was very powerful."
"Detroit is challenged but resilient," one resident said. "I see the Depot being revived to a hub of activity that will benefit the entire city. It will be worth the wait!"
"Ironically, Detroit is becoming a place free from the traditional constraints of capitalism," another resident said. "Anything is possible when communities work together."
Some residents were more pessimistic, warning against the darker forces of urban renewal: "Eventually, Detroit will realize that a faux culture created by gentrification and corporate interests has destroyed what soul was left here."
The Twitter-like format inspired more than a few haikus: "Tired of thinking when/Arches crumbled columns dripped/Welcome to Detroit." The museum even hosted a haiku workshop taught by local poet Terry Blackhawk to get the crowd thinking in this format.
One of the most powerful aspects of the project was the fact that the installation brought the audience into the performance. "One of the important things for us is to find ways to enable people to participate," Stephen says. "One of key features of this work is that people who are participating see their contribution to the project. The project takes on the identity of the viewer; it becomes an extension and instrument. Participants become performers."
Documenting the installation was a critical part of Minimaforms' process. Multiple videos were produced to capture the interaction that occurred throughout the city, and a documentary tells the story of the entire project.
The Spyropoulos brothers hope that the installation allows people from different walks of life to meet and begin working together on solving the city's challenges.
"We see our work as an attempt to challenge the inert built environment by enabling new relationships that give over the city to the people through communication," Stephen says. "It is important for us to find means in which we can explore space as public and shared."
Read more about Detroit's Memory Cloud here.