Last Saturday, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (a Knight Arts Grantee) hosted “Initiate,” a workshop and discussion around the ways that open-source technology and collaboration can bring about change on local and international levels. The freewheeling event was emceed by Detroit rap sensation and community activist Alana “Invincible” Weaver, and featured panel discussions and presentations by artists, community organizers and makers of all sorts. The night centered on New York-based openFrameworks, which was hosting its annual worldwide developers conference in Detroit, but there were many local groups and activists participating as well, including Emergence Media, rootoftwo, Artserve Michigan, Allied Media Projects, Work Department and the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition.
There were many incredible ideas discussed, with the over-arching objective of getting people to think of themselves not as consumers, but as producers. The ideas presented ranged across the creative spectrum, from practical to artistic, though each idea was useful in its own way. Nina Bianchi of OmniCorpDetroit discussed ways that communities could operate and control wireless Internet networks that were entirely free from corporate influence, and Windsor-based Broken City Lab presented its work of projecting user-generated messages onto the sides of buildings. Matthew Kenyon of SWAMP (Studies of Work Atmospheres and Mass Production) explained his work on the “Improvised Empathetic Device (i.e.d.),” a terrifying device, which resembles a blood pressure cuff, but is programmed to jam a needle into the wearer’s arm every time the government announces a casualty in the Iraq war.
One of the goals of “Initiate” was to broaden the definition of “artist,” which is too often associated with the lone genius, misunderstood and mercurial, working silently on abstract projects in their attics. For the presenters at “Initiate,” being an artist means being a creative thinker and, specifically, a creative thinker with an interest in developing new ideas with the potential for real and immediate impact on communities. Zachary Lieberman of openFrameworks referred to artists as the R&D department for humanity, working to come up with new ways to live and organize ourselves in a changing world. It’s an encouraging and radical way of thinking — and necessary, as we face daunting challenges as human beings, now and in the future. We certainly need all the encouraging and radical thoughts we can get.