British artist finds inspiration in Detroit

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

While chronicling post-industrial woes in her own country, an intriguing link to Detroit ended up inspiring British artist Chloë Brown to create two Motor City companion pieces.

Brown’s art show, “Dancing in the Boardroom,” running through April 24 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, consists of several works drawing parallels between Detroit and the British town of Stoke-on-Trent. The earliest of the pieces is Brown’s 2013 short film “Dancing in the Boardroom (Turnin’ My Heartbeat Up),” which depicts a man and a woman dancing to soul music in the boardroom of the deserted Spode ceramics factory in Stoke-on-Trent.

“I wanted to articulate something around this sense of loss, this kind of melancholy, in that space,” Brown says.

But she also wanted to express a sense of positivity and hope through the work, and she found locally relevant symbolism in the British subculture of Northern soul. Originating in the late ’60s, Northern soul culture combines athletic dance movements with throwback clothing and extremely obscure ’60s-era American soul music.

Brown was fascinated by the way Northern soul records “are always about heartbreak and loss, but there’s this kind of lift in them.” Stoke-on-Trent was a major center for the subculture in its heyday, so it made sense to Brown to put Northern soul dancers in Spode’s crumbling boardroom.

“It’s almost like they’re dancing on the grave of the industry,” she says. “But … it wasn’t as negative as that. There was a positive influence in this space.”

In the process of making the film, Brown developed a fascination with the city that produced so many of the forgotten singles prized by the Northern soul scene: Detroit. In 2014, she began “wandering around” Detroit using Google Maps, which inspired her to create another work that appears in her MOCAD show: a 30-foot-long ink drawing entitled “From Alfred Street to Temple Street, Detroit.”

The scroll depicts a walk through Brush Park ending at the Masonic Temple, which fascinated Brown for its parallels to the Spode boardroom as a former center of power.

“It’s really interesting that this really iconic building, a really huge, powerful-looking structure, is probably the place where an awful lot of the industrial patriarchy used to meet and their deals would happen,” Brown says. “How does that relate to what’s going on now around it? That was the reason why that route was chosen, sort of questioning that.”

Driven by a growing fascination with Detroit and help from Sheffield Hallam University, where she lectures, Brown finally visited Detroit in August to create the third major piece in her show. “Dancing in the Street” is a short film depicting six dancers — some professional, some not — dancing to Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” along the same route depicted in Brown’s drawing. The film’s final shot lingers on an image of Brown’s daughter dancing up the steps of the Masonic Temple.

Brown is back in Detroit for a month. She’ll give an artist talk at MOCAD on Saturday and she’s preparing to do another work at the Masonic Temple before she leaves. She says online images of ruin and negative stories from some of her American friends gave her a “paranoid” image of Detroit as “a kind of war zone,” but her actual experiences here have been “nothing but positive.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

‘Dancing in the Boardroom’

Through April 24

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed., Sat. and Sun.; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Thurs. and Fri.

Free (suggested donation $5)

Chloë Brown artist talk

1 p.m. Sat.

Free (suggested donation $5)

Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit

4454 Woodward, Detroit

(313) 832-6622