Streetlights serve a vital role in any city, keeping property value afloat and deterring crime. But the Detroit Free Press acknowledged in an article that, until recently, Detroit’s street-lighting system was “an international embarrassment and the worst in the nation,” with around only half of its streetlights operational due to copper scrapping and neglect. In places, the resultant dark, moody cityscape seemed eerily at odds with Detroit’s high population. Since 2013, the city has been installing tens of thousands of new light emitting diode (LED) streetlights. As this massive undertaking progressed, Catie Newell, Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Michigan, began to find surprising beauty within Detroit’s gritty, nocturnal urban chiaroscuro.
Newell, a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome and American representative at the 2012 Architecture Venice Biennale, now fills the Stenn Gallery (the contemporary art gallery at the University of Michigan Museum of Art) with her multimedia exhibition Overnight. This ground-level corner gallery space boasts of two perpendicular glass walls which allow inquisitive passers-by to peer inside.
Her photography of Detroit’s nightscapes lines the other two walls. They’re part of an ongoing series (Nightly), for which Newell intrepidly traverses Detroit’s streets in the pre-dawn hours, capturing images of mostly dark spaces yet to receive the new LED lights. These images are mostly black at first, but closer viewing reveals silhouetted homes and buildings, or small idiosyncratic patches of backlit foliage.
These photographs frame and contextualize a suspended installation of two cascading veils of wire so thin that, when backlit by the gallery’s street-facing windows, they’re nearly indiscernible. But at night the entangled wire is gently illuminated against the otherwise dark gallery, in close mimicry of Newell’s surrounding photography.
It’s visually striking (particularly at night), but the installation also tactfully sheds light on some ironies embedded within the initiative to restore Detroit’s street lights. Because the old streetlights had copper at their base, they were frequently salvaged and stolen. Redressing this problem, Detroit installed copper-free LED lights. They’re much less prone to theft, but the 150 watt lights diffuse much less light than the prior 75 watt copper lights. Consequently, some places, though previously illuminated, are now ironically in the dark. Referencing these issues, Newell’s installation is comprised of copper wire, aluminum wire, and faintly lit LED lights. Entangling the wires makes the system electronically inefficient, and serves as a visual metaphor for what’s happening in Detroit.
To the city’s credit (and much is due), the task of illuminating Detroit with over 60,000 street lights is nearly complete, and under budget at that. In terms of streetlights per mile, the city is now on par with Dallas and Seattle. Nevertheless, Overnight subtlety and gently illuminates the bureaucratic weirdness that inevitably accompanies such a Herculean undertaking.
Overnight runs through November 6.
More information on Overnight (and other recent projects) can be found on the website of Alibi Studio, of which Newell is the founding principal.