The art of motion 

Little-known Detroit fact No. 1: Henry Ford built the first automotive assembly line right here in Detroit, thus ushering in the age of the automobile and the age of automation.

Little-known Detroit fact No. 2: The North American International Auto Show is in town. The back-slapping navel-gazing garish glitz and hype terminus of the world Mr. Ford set in motion that century-plus ago.

In years past, Auto Show week was marked by more obvious (self-congratulatory?) fare such as the Anti-Auto Show. Now, there’s nothing wrong with tilting at windmills. In fact, the sort of sentiments bandied about during Anti-Auto Shows past — rapid transit boosterism, bicycle culture awareness and acceptance and green living — have made some swell headway in town recently.

But this year, the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (CAID) is hosting an updated model of the "auto" related exhibit. "Automation," curated by CAID board member Sambuddha Saha, cuts through most of the automotive dross and straight through to the elemental, inventive and rhythmic nature of the process and implications of automation. The effect is less programmatic than meditative.

Naturally, there are auto-related pieces such as Oak Park’s Mike Richardson’s "Hump" — a marker study and found plastic sculpture expression of a traffic jam colliding with a commercial truck design studio. And fellow O.P. resident Andrew Thompson has knitted a car cozy out of plastic grocery bags for his beloved Ford Taurus that’s quaint (if a little snow-covered at the moment).

But most of the heavy hitters here are only tangentially related to the Motor City’s obsession with four-wheeled chariots.

That’s where Ontario artist Brandon Vickerd’s "Champions of Entropy" comes in. Skeletal and visceral, it consists of two sets of deer antlers (10-point bucks or so; really nice trophies, eh?) attached to motorized robotic "bodies" and facing off against each other. Situated in the middle of the gallery’s performance space, drilled into the hardwood floors, they certainly demand attention and carry a sense of gravity that their skeletal structure belies. The buckhorns engage in a hypnotic dance that changes over the course of a few minutes from combative to balletic. The clatter of the horns are like a click track for a particularly twisted Tom Waits reel.

If "Champions of Entropy" are the Waits click-track, then area renaissance man Frank Pahl’s "Untitled?" — a Byzantine homemade wheezing, humming, flickering, bleating automaton in the upstairs gallery corner — is the orchestra perpetually warming up. Found parts of air organs and player pianos, light bulbs and tangles of wires and motors get the Rube Goldberg-meets-Heinrich Muller treatment with the energy for the perpetual motion supplied by plugs leading into a beat-up suitcase.

"The More I Sit the Less Inclined I Am to Stand Up," a video installation by St. Paul, Minnesota based collective Tectonic Industries features four women doing their absolute damndest to keep up — in real-time — with Rachael Ray’s 30-minute meals. The four young ladies are filmed in similarly small (i.e. realistic) kitchens, dressed in black shirt and blue jeans. It’s roughly a video rondolet — letting the viewer’s eye follow the bemused, frazzled, stoic, and frantic action as it builds to a pan-banging, finger burning, produce-chopping and sizzling crescendo.

If all the noise has you thinking that automation means cacophony, Ryan Buyssens "Contrivance 2.1" provides an almost Zen-like antidote. It is, simply, a 5-foot diameter zoetrope wheel that exposes the mechanism’s inner workings — motors, gears, lights and tensile structure — all set to spinning. The "filmic" element is an animation of a bird, traveling across the "screen." It is so minimal as to seem gossamer, but so large and obviously metallic as to have its own gravitational pull and standing and watching the image is like some pastoral, breezy interpretation of the big wheel on The Price is Right.

And if you just don’t feel like getting off your butt to get down to see the art, you can at least rely on literal automation in one of the show’s pieces to save your lazy hide from an artless existence. The Threatline is up and running at 1-888-EZ-THRET (1-888-398-4738) "Hello, this is a threatening phone call. Please do not hang up."

Select from personal threats, threats against home & property or threats against society and you’re off and running. Would have been more satisfying to have the payoff occur right there on the line, but who wouldn’t like to receive a threat from a ghost in the mail?

There’s a lot to admire and a leisurely viewing is recommended. But do hurry as the exhibit is live for only 3 more days. As the other auto show winds down, don’t miss this gorgeous antidote to the Vegas Strip hustle belching out of Cobo Hall. Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to

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