In what appears to be a fading, sleepy industrial building in the back of the Russell Industrial Center, a group of artists are raising a dragon. The beast is 22-1/2 feet tall and a little more than 69 feet long, weighing in at 8 tons. It's an "art car," built onto the frame of an old Dodge W-300 Power Wagon with a 318 engine. There's a 1,500-pound second-story DJ booth encased in steel wicker, mounted on a Marine Zodiac attack boat under the monster's spine. The whole contraption can carry more than a dozen riders, with seats in the mouth and in a party couch on the back, where riders can make the tail sway back and forth. Hydraulic systems bring the front of it to life, and the driver can use a fire system to shoot flames from the fearsome creature's mouth.
Later this week, the fantastic creation will star in an art show and studio-warming party celebrating the beginning of the end of the world as predicted by Christian broadcaster Harold Camping.
In addition to the dragon, which will serve as a DJ booth and art project — sans flames — there will be an art machine called "The Regurgitator," a pulse jet-powered g-force generator that can give a forward-seated passenger as much as 5 g's. Another team of artists from New York will bring their "Fuck Bike," a foot-powered dildo-pumping sex machine. There'll be videos, installations, performances — including an end-of-the-world confession booth — as well as sets from DJs from Detroit and as far as Brooklyn. And artists are coming from across the country to join a crew of newly minted Detroiters in a show that will challenge doomsday itself.
The creator of the dragon, as well as the head of the crew that has come to Detroit to build it, is 31-year-old artist Ryan C. Doyle. As artists go, he looks like one tough customer: He's 6-foot-6, broad as a biker, wears a beard and a shaven head, dresses in black, and has a nose that's clearly been broken a few times.
He may seem intimidating, but when he starts talking, it's with the easy and friendly manner of a Midwesterner — gentle speech, modest smiles and an intelligent glimmer in the eyes.
Doyle first came to Detroit last year to help 27-year-old Bay Area artist Monica Canilao transform an abandoned house — along with such other internationally recognized artists as Callie Swoon, Ben Wolf and Richard Colman — into a piece of art as part of Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert's Powerhouse program. The husband-and-wife team had been turning abandoned houses into art projects, but a sponsorship from Juxtapoz Magazine kicked things into high gear and drew the talented crew. After arriving to help Canilao, Doyle said he "fell in love" with Detroit.
"I'm from Minneapolis, and Detroit reminded me of that kind of small city where people still hold the door open for you," he says.
Meeting with local artists, such as local artist-fabricator Chip Flynn, Doyle was able to secure this industrial space where Clay Street meets the railroad, where he could work cheaply compared to the rents in the Bay Area and Brooklyn.
And Doyle is a guy who needs a lot of space for his outsized projects. In addition to "The Regurgitator," which he made for the Device Art festival in Zagreb, Croatia, he created a motorized art barge he piloted — and crashed — at the Venice Biennial. And, as part of a group called Plan C, he assisted in creating a radioactive carnival ride made from metal he and others scavenged from Chernobyl. His work is very high-concept, and always with an element of danger.
As he gives a tour of his work space — dubbed "Detroitus," a play on the city's urban detritus, but also sounding like a beast itself — he explains that the dragon is an art project called "Gon-KiRin," which means "Light Dragon" in Mandarin, or, with a slight rearrangement of the Chinese characters, "East Rising." He says it's a pun or a double entendre of sorts, thought up by his partner and funder on the project, Hong Kong-based LED artist Teddy Lo.
After the nickel tour of the dragon, Doyle takes a seat out back on the acres of blacktop behind Russell's main buildings to tell his story. A gifted student, he was impatient to get done with school. He skipped the third grade, he humbly jokes, "probably just because I was bigger than everybody else." He attended Minneapolis' Perpich Center for Arts Education, then won a merit award to attend the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, on an academic track many would envy. But he says he was frustrated by having to take courses he felt he'd already mastered at Perpich, and he hungered to go on the road.
So he ran away and joined the circus.
If that sounds overcooked, bear in mind that Doyle had met the circus in 1999 at the Burning Man Festival, a weeklong bash where artists, ravers, DJs, fabricators and freaks meet to create a temporary city in the middle of northern Nevada's Black Rock Desert. And this was no ordinary circus: This was the End of the World Circus and Know-Nothing Family Sideshow. (There's that doomsday theme cropping up again.) The show was out-there stuff, featuring a guy who could lie on a bed of nails and suck his own dick, a woman who could hang a six-pack from her pierced labia, and Jessica Juggz, who could stick a miniature butane canister in her vagina to become a human flamethrower. Doyle's part in the circus was tall-bike jousting, and he traveled with them from 2000 to 2002, undergoing a journeyman apprenticeship of sorts. He spent off-seasons in New Orleans, where the circus wintered, building parade floats and working in a bike shop, and also jousting as a member of the Black Label Bike Club.
Impatient to learn more, he traveled to apprentice with such pioneering industrial performing groups as Kal Spelletich's Seemen and Christian Ristow's Robochrist Industries. Doyle says he found some veterans to help him figure out how to build stuff on his own "while I was helping build their stuff." He also bounced to Brooklyn, where he worked at the Madagascar Institute, helping mount shows every few months. At New York's hard-decor.com, he helped their talented architecture fabricators create custom metal work for architects and artists.
He'd also spend two months a year working for Burning Man's Department of Public Works.
"It was a staff of 120 people then, and it's probably about 300 now," Doyle says. "They need everything for a week that a city needs, including a metal shop, generators, golf carts, fencing, shade structures." The DPW job also got him gigs building art cars for Burning Man for private individuals.
"It seems mixed-up," Doyle says, "but that's how my life was: traveling, trying to learn as much as I could, and to build as much as I could before I was 30."
By 2004, when he was 25, his work had already been featured on TLC's Junkyard Wars, and he started doing more stuff on his own for Burning Man and Coachella.
But after 10 years of fabricating and globetrotting, dividing his time between the Bay Area and New York, Doyle has decided to put down roots in Detroit. It helps that his wife, Canadian performance artist Zarah Ackerman, has a home base just across the border. The cheap rent and property don't hurt either. And, as Doyle points out, "It made sense to build a really big art car in the Motor City."
'A good crew'
It's a bright, sunny spring day on Moran Street in Detroit, just north of Hamtramck. And 13169 Moran St., the art house Doyle had helped with last October, is a neighborhood oddity, a house artfully plastered with castoffs scavenged from torched houses. The front porch is brightly painted, adorned with, among other things, a bicycle seat, a plastic pony, a whirligig, old boxes, table legs, a drawer or two, antlers, an upside-down nightstand and much, much more. It's the kind of abandoned house that neighborhood people slow down to look at when they drive by. It's mostly quiet at 1 p.m. A cracked water main gurgles a river of city water into puddles under the curb. Starlings alight for a quick bath.
Suddenly, though, the house is the center of ferocious activity. The artists who gave it its makeover are back to turn it into a home for Doyle, his wife and their infant daughter, Dynamite. The upper floor will be a rotating hostel for artists who work at Detroitus. In fact, three entire art houses are to be fenced off in an artists' complex.
There's much to do. Shortly after pulling up in a fully loaded 1-ton Chevy van, a platoon of tattooed, bearded art dudes and resale-chic ladies start trooping into the house with supplies. Doyle roars into the alley with his 1967 International Travelall. A mammoth fallen tree and heaping piles of brush lie behind the building, and Ryan Carmichael, Ryan Oliver and Sarah Sue Simeon quickly build a fire pit of bricks to burn as much as possible. Ackerman is raking up years' worth of dead leaves along a house set near the back.
Canilao and Harrison Bartlett, two of the artists who'd originally decorated the house, have just come in from Canilao's recent art show in Milwaukee. A wiry, agile blond with a breezy, humorous manner, Bartlett is suddenly hopping all over the place, rushing upstairs to pop the plywood out of the windows, downstairs in a flash to cut a gate apart to join the two backyards, or standing on a rickety chair to move a plywood barrier. Soon the fire pit is blazing, and Carmichael is using a chainsaw to prune back an overgrown apple tree. The neighborhood residents are taking notice, aloof for the most part, except for the occasional curious child who strolls down the alley to get a good look. Some friends of the group drop by to donate windows, or to help out with the work, including Miles Michael and Sean Digger.
These folks aren't exactly risk-averse. At one point, a 100-pound branch comes loose from a tree, grazing Carmichael's head as he holds a running chainsaw, and sending Oliver skidding just out of its way. A half-hour later, Carmichael is seen standing atop a rickety-ass fence, chainsawing a mulberry tree bit by bit while trying to free it from the wires streaming down from a utility pole. Doyle walks by, genially muttering something about "not telling them to do that, but not telling them not to." At moments like this, it's clear the crew lives a charmed life and knows it.
Carmichael wants to know if they're going to the weekly barbecue and fire party at Flynn's space north of Detroit's Woodbridge neighborhood. That's the plan. The bearded twentysomething, a native of Kodiak, Alaska, laughs as he heaps more wood on the fire. "That's how we live. We make one fire, then go on to the next."
Carmichael, who'd make a bundle on Alaskan fishing boats some years, had met Doyle after subletting from him in Oakland when he was in Europe. "He moved back and, after a day, he was like, 'Want to work on a dragon with me?' And it's turned into this."
Canilao realized after the fact that there were no real plans for the art house they'd created. "The house was bought originally for $900, and it was in OK condition, as it has been abandoned for two years. And Harrison and I came first and left last, and thought, 'What if we bought it from Powerhouse?' It cost us $2,000, but we also have to pay $6,000 in back taxes."
She says she and Bartlett intend to visit the complex as often as possible and to try to get to know the neighbors. "It's funny — coming here and starting a project and having it stay in your life ... forever," she says, with a laugh.
She and the others meet to discuss plans for the mini-community. They're often fanciful, always interesting. In addition to the garden on the southernmost lot, there's discussion of a greenhouse or solarium, a chicken coop, and even talk of raising perch in the basement. The group's nothing-is-impossible spirit is infectious and fun, enough to make you root for them, if not to want to join their circus.
After a hard day of work, it's off to Flynn's space for grilling, burning wood and celebrating. Last week, Carmichael and Oliver kicked apart palettes of wood with their sneakers, hurling timber toward the fire with a crash in a sheer portrait of exuberance.
Doyle watched for a moment, remarking, "They're a good crew."
But on this day, after dangerous stunts without any injuries, and after burning whole half palettes all night without harm, Doyle becomes a casualty. Bitten by a spooked dog, he breaks two fingers and picks up nine stitches, as well as a few hours at Detroit Receiving Hospital. For a while, it seems Doyle won't be able to go pick up "The Regurgitator" from Newark, N.J., and the irony is literally painful.
Waiting for the end of the world
Doyle's hand has healed up, and the trip to pick up the pulse jet is back on track. But things get more complicated on Sunday, when Canilao and Bartlett spend a night in jail after participating in a community revitalization project. Despite their energetic efforts to clean up the city — with a view toward providing children's art programs similar to those they were already doing in the Bay Area — the two take a break after 16 hours of neighborhood cleanup and visit an abandoned school building — considering perhaps buying it for future projects — when they're arrested by DPS security. They are released Monday morning after a local attorney intercedes on their behalf. Unfortunately, charges of entering without owners' permission may be pending, and it's ironic, given the twosome's sincere attitude and dedication to improving the city. For the moment, though, it seems it was just a minor roadblock on the way to Saturday's party.
Because, despite their urban spelunking, the goal for this confederation of artists is to create a serious art space, where Doyle and crew can make work for international shows while taking a few apprentices under their wing. He says he's open to other volunteers to come in and work on art projects, so he can tour with the dragon and show it while having a crew run shop as an art studio and workshop. Much like the way he learned laboring for other artists, he's trying to pass on knowledge about welding, forming, cutting and shaping metal safely. At the new artist hostelry, he hopes artists can come, stay a month, and do a show. He's following in the footsteps of others, such as Flynn, who left San Francisco eight years ago to came back to Detroit, buy a building, and work as a machinist-fabricator-artist.
Doyle just says he's been lucky. Coming up as unconventional, anti-capitalist, anti-sellout type of artist, he never had a business plan, especially in art school, feeling the pressure to keep his art pure. He's never applied for grants, and instead would just send a proposal to someone he met at a party. Through it all, his setup was grassroots via his travels.
It just evolved, leaving him free from day jobs, able to work part time and focus on his fantastic whims. Of the DIY ethic, Doyle says, "I don't want to say, 'Fake it till you make it,' but you can try it and fail and keep it up until you succeed. Don't say you can't do it. It's easy to learn from other people."
Rapture, Detroitus' studio-warming party and art show will feature "Gon-KiRin," "The Regurgitator," Andrew H. Shirley and William Thomas Porter's "Fuck Bike," videos of the radioactive carnival ride and installations and performances from Monica Canilao, Wolfgang Paperchase, Franco and Eva Mattes, as well as performances from bands Apetechnology, Tornado and Smoke Signal, as well as local DJs Jerry P., Black Lid and DJ Dirty Finger from Brooklyn. In the back of the Russell Industrial Center, on Clay Street at the railroad tracks, exhibition and barbecue at 7 p.m., bands and DJs at 9 p.m.; $5 admission.