Radio Free Detroit 

On the I-75 service drive at Casmere, it's a pulsing, multilayered FM soundscape that throbs from your car radio speakers, momentarily displacing the cheap pitchmen hawking their goods at 107.9. Be warned: If you're moving too fast, you'll barely notice it, even if you're looking. Near Tillman Street and Michigan Avenue, the static is broken by a soft-spoken man talking about making music and art that's off the Starbucks nation radar while he's, apparently, making tea.

These are just two of the meditative, quietly startling moments offered in the audio piece "Pioneers" by multimedia artist, Oakland, Calif., resident (and Cranbrook MFA grad) Jon Brumit. The piece is part of the Shrinking Cities exhibit at MOCAD, but "Pioneers" earns its artistic keep beyond the museum's walls.

The idea is strikingly simple, yet its execution delivers a complex, interactive experience with the city.

Here're the mechanics: Twelve people and businesses are outfitted with low-power radio transmitters that can only be heard about 400 feet from their location. Brumit creates a custom four-minute long (ish) radio piece about the people and their place. A map is distributed showing where the "talking houses" are located, and many are spread far and wide. But the devil's in the details and the beauty of Brumit's piece is in whom he has picked to express Detroit's DIY spirit.

For the past two years, Brumit has been interviewing, recording, editing and otherwise preparing the 12 locations in "Pioneers." The resulting pieces feature a diverse crew of Detroiters who've staked their claim to their own estate — both real and creative, from Ashley Atkinson of the Greening of Detroit to percussionist and Detroit jazz scene mainstay Gayelynn McKinney, from the Bohemian National Home's Joel Peterson to Jack Pine's community-buoyed figure-eight racing circuit in Royal Oak. And many stops in between.

Brumit, who's plugged into Detroit's art community by virtue of his frequent visits, as well as his relationship to his alma mater, consciously selected a list of diverse pioneers that express Detroit's true DIY cross section. Because he worried about being perceived as an artful tourist, he pursued his research even harder. "Being an outsider you never know," Brumit says. "I was really afraid I'd present a tour and it'd be like, 'Whatever dude, we already know this.'"

But each transmission in the final piece manages to express the essence of these pioneers' locations. Because you can only hear the transmission from close range, you're forced to examine the context of these neighborhood and location choices. It's about the combination of soundscape and interviews mixed with the very Detroit experience of driving around the block while having an intimate experience with these people and their place. "I tried to include as many moments as I could in the programs ... that you hear the person moving through space and you hear the room get larger or smaller," he says. "And that's kind of a small-scale version of my perception of the city." Everything's far apart, but then you take people out of it and it feels even farther apart."

Of the people he chose to have on the tour, he says there was a larger picture in mind. Detroit's openness and flexibility played a big role.

"It's all really noncorporate and it's also very community-activated," he says. "It's all people talking on small scales about starting things in their garage. Each of them represents a very specific personal proposal — in a very nondogmatic way. I think that's who we look to in terms of leadership. This is a sustainable course of action."

Brumit has been involved with neighborhood radio for years. That is, low-power radio that focuses on local expressions of technology's potential for community.

But the theme is pure Detroit. Of his inspiration for the piece, Brumit cites two key moments:

"One of the things I witnessed firsthand was Jeff Karolski and a tour of his house — an incredibly meticulous renovation of his house. A mix of old, new and innovative technology. He lives in a neighborhood in this city where if you do a Google Earth map and zoom in and you say, 'Wow, there's a lot of green space,'" marvels Brumit. "He's really going for it. He's truly committed."

Another story was one told by "Pioneers" participants and Detroit artists Matt and Hazel Blake about some southwest Detroit neighbors they once had.

"They apparently were really creative engineering types who were trying to create a submarine out of a cardboard tube," Brumit says. "They were trying to build a submersible, but another aspect was that they built a koi pond because they had to test the thing underwater. And they said they ended up having to shave the cat ... staying up all night and their house burns down," Brumit says. "They just never rebuilt, they started working on a children's book for three years! So I asked, 'What other kind of stories are out there? How can I meet these people?'"

Now, so long as you have an FM receiver and transportation, Detroiters and visitors — the hard-bitten, the curious, those looking for inspiration and anyone else who wonders what the future might hold for the city's wide open spaces — have a chance to get in their motorized stagecoaches and meet some, um, real pioneers.


Jon Brumit's tour is a project of Shrinking Cities, running through April 1 at MOCAD, 4454 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-6622 and Cranbrook Art Museum, Cranbrook grounds, 39221 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills; 877-462-7262.

Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to

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