Detroit and Hamtramck's Porous Borders Festival breaks through barriers 

Walk the line

A parade, art installations, theatrical performances, sports, manicures, and an oil-change competition are some of things bound to make Hamtramck and Detroit's upcoming Porous Borders Festival different than your typical art festival.

Then again, the act of breaking through borders is one of the festival's main motives. The two-day festival is the brainchild of the Hinterlands, a Detroit performance company founded in 2009 by co-directors Liza Bielby and Richard Newman.

Bielby explains by phone that the festival is meant in part to function as an extension of the Hinterlands' work, which often involves collaborating with others for events. The festival uses the Hamtramck-Detroit border as a starting point for the community to engage in the overall concept of borders, which loosely unites the festival's various happenings.

"The pieces respond to the entire border," Bielby says, noting that there will be events along every segment of Hamtramck and Detroit's city limits. "Some respond to stories or experience of the people who live around the border. Some take this as a metaphor for other borders that have been crossed — or even larger borders, like the border between life and death."

Case in point, the Public Pool gallery will host Our Ephemeral Life, an installation by artist Eleni Zaharopoulos that features an assemblage of personal objects the artist shared with her late fiancé Adrian C. Mejia — a meditation on the way that life lives on in memories after death.

But not all of the festival's events aim for such deep subject matter. "There's a couple projects that are interesting ways of getting people talking," Bielby says, noting a lack of public places that facilitate people to have deep conversations.

At the Porous Borders Festival, you'll find the "Neighborhood Nailz" salon, which Bielby describes as a "100 percent nonprofessional nail salon using the intimate act of manicures to spur conversation between neighbors." There's also "Get to Know Me Please," a sort of "speed dating" event in which old Detroiters and new Detroiters get to know each other by having 30-second conversations, as well as "Porous Karaoke," which incorporates participants from all over the world using Skype.

"Something for everyone" is a phrase that's overused and always hyperbolic, but it's hard not to evoke it in this instance. Other events include pick-up cricket and soccer games, 15-minute puppet shows performed on a tandem bicycle, and a drive-in theater featuring Western movies projected on a billboard.

And we'd bet money that the Porous Borders Festival is almost certainly the only neighborhood arts festival to stage an oil-change contest between two mechanics. In fact, the fest will pit A2Z Auto Center (representing Hamtramck) and the Mechanic Shop (representing Detroit), located across the Carpenter border to see who can change oil the fastest. "We're going to do best two out of three," Bielby says. "The fastest team oil change wins the honor of 'fastest oil changer on the border.'"

Was it hard getting local businesses and groups to get on board with such an offbeat festival? Bielby says some people needed convincing, though the Hinterlands actually being members of the community certainly helped. "The benefit is that we live in the neighborhood, and we're always out and around," she says. (Plus, it's advertising: As Bielby says, "It's good to know who does the better oil change!")

Bielby says the festival is really a natural extension of the interesting things happening in the neighborhood. "There's all this stuff, really interesting stuff, that happens on Carpenter and Conant in our neighborhood on a daily basis," she says. "People making tropical plants grow in a Michigan climate, or people struggling to keep their businesses going on a street that has a bad reputation — it works out for us, because it's a really interesting and special place. We just want to highlight all of the things that we see that happen throughout the year."

Projects were selected through an open call for artists, and commissioned by local businesses and community groups. The festival received funding in part from a Knight Arts Challenge grant.

Bielby sees the festival as having more to do with the community as a whole than just the Hinterlands. "Since we've been living in this neighborhood, we've been interested in exploring what the culture of the neighborhood is, not tied to any particular ethnic group, but what the culture of all of us together is, or what it could be," she says. "It's been a really interesting way to look at the different kinds of cultural output in our neighborhood."

The Porous Borders Festival is from 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, May 16 and Sunday, May 17; events along Carpenter Avenue and Conant Street, Hamtramck and Detroit; 313-454-1756;; free and open to the public.

Staff writer Lee DeVito opines weekly on arts and culture for the Detroit Metro Times.

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