At the VIP preview for the 10th Saint-Etienne International Design Biennale in France, more than 100 international journalists and dignitaries came out to meet the dozens of visiting Detroit artists. The mood was so upbeat the Detroit Afrikan Funkestra decided to play not just for one hour, but two.
Since Thursday when the design festival opened to the public, thousands have seen some slice of the major Detroit representation on display in the central French city — items such as the rebuilt stage of a defunct west side jazz club, the Blue Bird Inn, to furniture made out of car seat foam.
“The response has been so amazing, so inspiring,” said Olga Stella, director of the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, DC3, from Saint-Etienne. “All of it has reinforced the idea that Detroit has something to teach the rest of the world.”
Stella is among the many officials representing the Motor City, which has been the featured highlight of two European biennales — the one in Saint-Etienne and one that began last year in Venice. More than half a million people could potentially see some part of the Detroit exhibits and programming at the two biennales, which are unaffiliated events.
Biennales, the Italian word for bi-annual, are like high-brow theme parks. They are large-scale art events that take place for a limited time and focus on a certain discipline, such as design, film, and architecture. Biennales attract international talent and audiences. It’s usually highly competitive or participants to have their work represented at the events.
The Saint-Etienne biennale, featuring designers from more than 30 countries, is expected to draw more than 200,000 during its month-long run. Detroit is the “guest city” of the event and more than 50 local artists and two city officials are expected to attend.
One artist in Saint-Etienne right now is performer and record producer Bryce Detroit, who describes his work as “entertainment justice.” He exemplifies the collaborative tone of the Motor City representation. The performer is part of the 10-piece Detroit African Funkestra ensemble that has performed twice this week in Saint-Etienne.
“The reception has been amazing, overwhelming,” the artist said Friday in a telephone interview.
In an earlier interview, the artist, who is a major organizer of O.N.E. Mile, an experimental performance space in Detoit’s North End, described the biennale as a great platform to show how many Detroiters survive economically and creatively.
“It’s a way to go beyond the depressed economic scenario and show we still have community and family,” he said. “When the manufacturing environment becomes toxic, we rely on legacy ancestral ways, to sustain our needs and sustain our economies.”
DC3’s Stella said a big reason Detroit was invited to the French festival was the city’s status as a UNESCO City of Design. The United Nations made the designation in December 2015. It’s a honorary title but one that DC3 and others in the city hope to translate into more exposure for Detroit designers — from auto firms to grass root organizers. “More exposure hopefully leads to more work in Detroit,” she added.
The Saint-Etienne biennale essentially kicks off the “economic development phase” of DC3’s efforts, Stella said. The group played a key role in organizing the Detroit exhibits along with nonprofit Creative Many Michigan and the local architect and design group Akoaki.
There’s a vast array of collaborations going on among the Detroit participants, ranging from the auto supplier Lear Corp. and Henry Ford Health Systems to small design firms to independent artists.
The French festival comes on the heels of last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. That six-month Italian exhibition, considered the Oscars for contemporary architects, included displays from 64 countries. The Detroit exhibit, called the Architectural Imagination, represented the United States. It consisted of 12 visions of the city created by a architecture/design groups from across the nation. Some 250 firms vied to be part of that exhibition.
The 12 models in that exhibit are now on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. After its one-month run at the Midtown museum, the exhibit is headed to the Architectural and Design Museum in Los Angeles.
The models are fantastical visions, resembling modern art or miniature sets for a science fiction movie. None of the models will become reality, yet many expect them to shape the way the Motor City looks in the near future.
One beneficiary of the Venice show was urban designer and Detroit resident Mitch McEwen , who has been commissioned to work on a structure in southwest Detroit.
Maurice Cox, Detroit’s planning and development director with an influential role in determining what kind of buildings and spaces get built and preserved in Detroit, said the Venice biennale “will be a defining moment for the city.”
“It can help shape the conversation of what is possible in Detroit. It can influence the dialogue of urban planning,” said Cox, who was a panelist Friday and strongly supports the Saint-Etienne event. His trip was paid for by DC3 and no taxpayer money was used, Stella said.