09/19/2011 06:28 pm ET | Updated Nov 19, 2011

A Light in the Dark: The Innovative Kunsthalle Detroit Museum

The road to the Kunsthalle Detroit Museum is not an easy one, either literally or metaphorically. The eerily quiet area is blighted by signs of decay: crumbling buildings line the pockmarked roads, while blank traffic lights covered in black tarp hang like dead totems.The road is long and desolate, reinforcing the stigma that the once glorious motor city is now nothing more than an empty shell, abandoned even by the vehicles it was famous for producing. The devastation is hard to look at, even for a former metro-Detroiter. So it’s even more surprising (and more admirable) that a stranger would come here, find inspiration amongst the rubble, and spontaneously decide to open up a museum in one of the worst parts of the city.

But that’s exactly what former art consultant-turned-curator Tate Osten did last year when she founded Detroit’s Kunsthalle Museum of Multimedia and Light-based art - the only museum of its kind in the country. Osten had an ambitious vision to create “an institution that belongs entirely to the 21st century,” which would introduce culture - and potential investors - in the hopes of reviving the the poverty-stricken metropolis. “A cultural and social intervention through an influx of art into the city could, I feel, draw international attention to Detroit, triggering economic advancement and beginning a new era for the former glorious capital of the automobile industry,” she explained.

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Kunsthalle Detroit Museum

Osten says she chose multimedia and light-based art for these reasons, because it’s a cutting-edge form of media that reflects the progress of the 21st century. “Technology and the visual arts have been inadvertently merging for the past one hundred years and now the virtual visual arts are taking a defining position in worldwide cultural development. Light-based works (specifically, art projects involving light emitting technologies and ‘green’ sources of energy) are a perfect example of the future symbiosis of art, economic progress and environmental architecture.” And as she later reflected, “A museum of light is very symbolic as a ray of light, illuminating the path to culture and knowledge.” It’s also the easiest way to reach viewers she says, as it serves as a kind of “shortcut to the audience”, since an extensive background in art history or education isn’t required in order to appreciate video and film. Perhaps most important is the potential that this form of media has with regards to creating viable solutions to the many problems afflicting the city. “Art and design also merge in light-based works, which is extremely important for urban planning, reconstruction and revitalization of cities like Detroit.”

The story behind this one-of-a-kind museum is as unique as the works exhibiting at the venue, which used to be a bank, long since abandoned and left to rot. Osten and her team of tireless volunteers (including area residents) transformed the two-story structure into a museum in a matter of months, doing most of the repairs themselves. There are still bullet holes visible in the walls, “but at least they’ve held off on shooting up the place, for now,” Osten says, with a wry smile. The newly installed institution is funded entirely by donations and the help of volunteers and interns. We got to see this remarkable museum firsthand when MutualArt staff members traveled to Detroit for a special viewing of the current exhibit, which closes on September 10th. (*Due to local and international media attention, however, the exhibit has now been extended for another two weeks).

The theme for Kunsthalle’s inaugural show is the aptly titled “Time and Place” and features the video, photography, and light-based works of 12 artists, spanning a twenty-year time period. “The time is now and Detroit is the place,” Osten states matter-of-factly when asked about the meaning behind it all. “As a curator it was absolutely necessary to indicate a point in time when community and mass media would stop talking about change, stop depicting ruins of Detroit and start acting.” And while the artists who created the works never specifically considered the Michigan city as a factor in their works, the relation to Detroit can be extracted from the images they project.

The imagery that greeted us as we entered the darkened showroom is astounding: as the soundtrack to one of the video installations plays steadily in the background (for our visit, it was Tim White-Sobieski’s “The Sound and the Fury”), images from the various “light-based” works flash across a multitude of projector screens. The 11 different videos featured on the first floor almost completely obscure the surrounding walls, and according to the curator, this serves to “construct an infinite moving field with multi-layered cross-references to Detroit’s reality.”

All the featured works - while individually unique - are linked by shared themes and symbols revolving around change, struggle, and dichotomous relationships. “All the works here were very carefully chosen and are interconnected both visually and thematically,” Osten explained as she guided us through the showroom. “Desert and the water are two central and juxtaposing themes, and in terms of a relationship, they can also relay a thirst for culture. You will see a person in the desert or in the rain, or a boxer in the middle of the ring, which can be interpreted also as a person who is alone and struggling, surrounded by a crowd that could be either supportive or hating (such as the boxer in Diaz Morales’ Ring). This [interaction] can be transposed onto Detroit as a city that is struggling.” Indeed, struggle is a term frequently associated with the city, as it boasts one of the highest crime rates in the United States and approximately one third of Detroit’s citizens live below the poverty line.

This struggle between two opposing yet interrelated forces is one of the main threads connecting the works - and highlights the importance of learning from the past in order to move forward and make progress. “All together, the works in this exhibition reveal grand narratives of life and death and time and place, suggesting that art is essential for keeping memories alive and for encouraging the future,” Osten says.
One of the most striking works is the oldest piece in the exhibition, Bill Viola’s hour-long 1991 film The Passing, which is featured on the second story of the venue. The film is shown in its original black and white VHS format, and it is a culmination of the curatorial statement, which explores the passing of generations - past, present and future.The piece centers on the death of the artist’s mother and juxtaposes footage of the artist’s children, who were both babies at the time. The imagery is very powerful, depicting scenes where the artist is asleep, apparently tormented by a nightmare from which he cannot awaken. Scenes of rain, of showers, of stars and of the desert all figure prominently in the film. “The subject of water connects the subject of this film with the other works - where we all come from and where ultimately, life came from. In the scenes where the artist sleeps and can’t wake up, he wanted to emphasize that this sleep is parallel to life but also death, which corresponds back to the interwoven themes of ‘Time and Place’ - the city itself is asleep, and is going through some sort of nightmare. It is up to us to wake up, shake it all off, and start anew.”

And Osten wants to emphasize the importance of moving forward - a message that can be relayed through the works displayed here. “I am hoping to deliver the message that Detroit has gained the momentum for wide and open communication with the world, and not only in the field of automobile industry, but also on cultural, political and technological levels. The significance of the time and place theme is from the beginning of the 20th century, when Detroit was "the capital of the capitalism" due to its booming car industry and all related fields of production. This city is the accumulation of the image of the capitalist city that came to self-destruction, and that's why it’s the place to move from here onward. Today, in the 21st century, Detroit transcends into a different, not less significant role, becoming a cultural center based on the abundance of cutting edge technology centers and industrial facilities.” Osten spent time talking to young entrepreneurs in the city who are “totally prepared to move on” and establish their businesses in the surrounding area. “We are also looking at the development of computer-based arts which all belong to the 21st century, and trying to separate ourselves from the past. Like [Cristina Lucas’s 2010 piece] Touch and Go, we would like to touch on the past but really let it go.”

With that in mind, Osten has plans for a sculpture park and hopes to initiate a light-sculpture project, “which are not just art but practical installations that make the city comfortable and safe.” She hopes to preserve some of the beautiful architectural spaces in Detroit - abandoned churches, schools, and hotels - and transform them into exhibition spaces full of light. “Everyone needs that,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons it’s so exciting to deal with light-based art, because this type of media goes outside as well, giving us an opportunity to work with the city itself.” She is currently in talks with the State to set up light sculptures on the riverfront, and plans are already underway to make this happen. “The possibilities are endless in terms of light!” she adds, with a laugh.

And that’s just the beginning. This ambitious director has a wide variety of plans for the Kunsthalle, and is excited to talk about what lies ahead. Future projects for the museum include the first-ever TransLUMINALE Biennale, which will be a 2-3 month biannual event dedicated exclusively to light-based art and design. “This type of event would become an experimental platform for light architects, designers, artists, as well as an opportunity for many light and solar companies to demonstrate the latest achievements in light technology,” she says. The event will take place in a different state every two years, starting in Michigan; Osten hopes to launch the Biennale next year, in November or December 2012. Also, there are a number of international projects in the works, as well as exhibitions in transit and collaborations with other kunsthalles and museums in Europe and the United States. Eventually, she hopes to host workshops in the venue’s second story, and perhaps initiate an artist-exchange program with other galleries and museums throughout the world. “We will have filmmaking workshops and maintain film production studios, but also we plan on educational courses in the latest light technology; we would like to invite leading light installation artists to talk about their light projects and share their magic-making secrets with aspiring young talents in Detroit.”

All of Osten’s hopes for the museum extend outward to the city itself; if the museum flourishes, she believes it will give way to a new, stronger Detroit.

This is the reason this director-dynamo says much help is needed from the international community, in terms of both publicity and funding. The 12 artists whose works are featured in “Time and Place” agreed to show their works here for three months free of charge. It was tough work, she admits, getting the museum running and the exhibition together in such a short amount of time, especially considering the amount of labor involved and the dangers of opening a venue in such an area (there is no public sign on display for the venue; advertisements come by word of mouth). Yet all of this is a small price to pay for what Osten hopes will be a stepping stone in reviving the city she now calls home. “I would like to see this cultural institution affect economic life here in Detroit, and really cause some interest amongst investors and spark economic development - which is already happening. But ultimately I would like to see changes in the economic and cultural life here in Detroit,” she says. “I’m trying to build my vision and I’m taking a chance, but I believe that everybody who understands how greatly this affects Detroit in the present and the future will combine their efforts to make it a reality.”

Her dreams for the museum itself are as big as her hopes for the impact it will have. She knows that the road ahead will be difficult but “doable,” and in the long run, infinitely rewarding for everyone involved. “I think arts, empowered by communication with the world, will create a whole new contemporary culture scene in Detroit. This scene will attract investors and young talent to the city; small businesses will start growing and fill in the economic gaps. Detroit will regain its old glory, and host a vibrant international art community, becoming one of the desirable destinations of cultural tourism...essentially, it will be reborn.”

Written by writer Lauren Meir