Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Mothership: the Making of an Urban Maker

July 22, 2015 Think THF

The Mothership at its home base in the North End of Detroit. Image courtesy of ONE Mile/akoaki.

At Maker Faire Detroit 2015, the “Mothership” will descend into The Henry Ford Museum. Created by the Detroit collaborative group, ONE Mile, the Mothership looks like a lunar lander, acts as a mobile DJ booth—but is also so much more. Kristen Gallerneaux, our Curator of Communications and Information Technology, caught up with the group to ask them a few questions about their project.

Can you explain what the Mothership is?

The Mothership is a Parliament-Funkadelic inspired mobile DJ booth, broadcast module, and urban marker designed to transmit cultural activity from Detroit’s epic North End. Channeling Ancient African material culture and Afrofuturist aesthetics, the deployable pod energizes underused sites, creates a sense of place, and helps signal that Detroit’s creative prowess is powerful and uninterrupted. But most simply it’s an object, one that people can identify with. Stationed without programming, it’s a mini-monument. Ajar and pulsating with music, it reveals a DJ and accompanies a broad spectrum of public events, performances, and community gatherings. Add smoke machines and colored lighting, and the Mothership creates the impression of having “just landed”.

The Mothership being built in the fabrication lab at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture & Urban Planning. Image courtesy of ONE Mile/akoaki.

Where was it built, and how long did it take to build?

The Mothership was designed for the ONE Mile project by the studio of Anya Sirota + Akoaki in consultation with Bryce Detroit, who invited a broad network of Parliamanent-Funkadelic musicians to offer feedback on the design. This particular creative alliance between design and music is really unusual, and proved to be an amazing experience for everyone involved.

It was modeled virtually and physically – again and again. The components were refined, and the process repeated – until we all said, “Wow, this is it.” Once the massing model got the thumbs up from the extended P-Funk family, the components were fabricated at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning fabrication lab. The production and assembly took one very intense month.

The Mothership being assembled in the North End, 2014. Image courtesy of ONE Mile/akoaki.

What is it made of?

Supported by a base and frame of steel tubing, the module encases a metal mesh platform four feet above ground level and houses DJ equipment. It’s made from sixteen water-jet-cut aluminium panels, bolted together using simple hand tools to create a polygonal, asymmetrically pouncy shape. Disassembled, the Mothership travels flat in the back of a truck.

What kinds of technical processes and special tools were used?

We’re using contemporary digital modeling techniques, a water jet cutter, a router, welding tools, standard hardware for assembly. Nothing revolutionary. Combined, however, it creates power visual effects.

Are there style cues taken from anything that you think of as specifically “of Detroit”?

The Mothership's cosmetic finish makes a clear reference to Afrofuturist aesthetics and sensibilities. To achieve the effect, we’re borrowing techniques from car customization: blinging the surface with polished gold vinyl and dichroic film. The result is a glistening exterior that purposefully couples popular embellishment with psychedelic interior effects. The graphic sensibility comes from a close study of P-Funk’s cover art and the incredible work of the graphic artist Pedro Bell, and the gold is an ode to the inimitable cosmic philosopher Sun Ra.

The Mothership being assembled in the North End of Detroit, 2014. Image courtesy of ONE Mile/akoaki.

What kinds of collaborative processes did you use? How many people to build it?

The designers worked closely with the ONE Mile music curator and a group of present and former Parliament-Funkadelic musicians in order to get the aesthetic sensibility of a contemporary Afrofuturist Mothership right.  This was no easy task considering the original stage prop is pretty amazing and still fresh in people’s memory. Now to make the module a material reality also took a lot of effort. There were a number of specialized teams: design, technical drawing, panel fabrication, vinyl and dichroic film adhesion, and finally assembly.  About ten people worked directly on the fabrication of the components, dozens of North End residents helped assemble the structure on the day of the launch, and many more provided inspiration and feedback.

Why is it important to collaborate with people on large projects like this?

It’s key to understand that this is a self-initiated design project. There is no client or program to answer to. Instead, thanks to the support of a number of grants, we’re exploring how art and design can produce positive impact, defined by community leadership, in challenging urban scenarios, and how well-conceived objects can galvanize collective identity and experience in surprising and inspired ways. We acknowledge that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to create a calibrated object through even the most exuberant series of collective workshops. So the Mothership is in many ways is a prompt for designers and community advocates to work with multiple disciplines and pay attention to the cultural values of a place in order to create things and experiences that are contextual and sustainable in the true sense of the word.

The Mothership launch event with local artists and storytellers Marsha Music and David Philpot. Image courtesy of ONE Mile/Kirk Donaldson.

What impacts has the Mothership had on the North End? Where else has it traveled?

Since the Mothership's first outing last October at the launch of the O.N.E. Mile project, when 12 past and present members of Parliament-Funkadelic staged a live concert in a garage on Oakland Avenue, the module has accompanied a number of performances and events in the North End: a Free Market Swap Shop, the Afrotopia film festival after party, spiritual healing and meditation groups, a long board skate show, to name a few. The programming, fueled by local interest and community collaboration, has brought together over 1500 residents and visitors, creating a sense of place in a historic neighborhood long overlooked by the city’s ascendant Renaissance story. What’s important about these locally-evolving programs supplemented by the Mothership’s iconographic presence, is that they have brought together a broad range of people dedicated to the cultural legacy and collective vibrancy of the neighborhood. In December it did make an exceptional landing at the Cass Commons for Noel Night.

Can you explain why the North End is important not only to Detroit’s history, but to the history of music? What is Funk?

Funk! Funk moves the world. Funk is a soul-bearing, energizing response to the stark realities of an uneven world. Funk is also a style and an aesthetic. It’s an African-inspired music genre built on a foundation of strong rhythmic grooves made for movement, danceability and liberation. Many music historians explain that Funk originated in the mid-60’s, most attributed to James Brown and his deliriously infectious grooves starting on “the 1”. Decades since, musicians continue to be hugely influenced by funk’s heavy bass lines, guitar riffs and drum patterns, inspiring derivatives like hip hop, house music, and drum and bass.

In Detroit, funk music could be found on Oakland Avenue in the North End, where a number of small, incredible venues featured the world’s top funk musicians. George Clinton started his funk career at the Phelp’s Lounge on Oakland. John Lee Hooker innovated his signature funky-blues at the historic Apex Bar on the legendary avenue. So for all intents and purposes, the North End is Detroit’s unofficial “cradle of funk” and the Mothership is its urban marker.

The Mothership in use as a DJ booth. Image courtesy of ONE Mile/akoaki.

How is the Mothership relevant to Detroit? Why now?

There is a lot of change happening in Detroit, quite a bit of strategic investment and “blight remediation”. The ONE Mile project started with the community concern that if unchecked, the city’s broad renewal plan threatened to erase important historical vestiges that connect Detroit’s North End and its cultural innovations to a greater national legacy. So in a sense, the Mothership is a physical reminder. It's an icon that says important things happened in Detroit, the North End, and its outlying neighbourhoods. Rather than plaques, the module serves as a living reminder that cultural innovation has and is happening, here.

On your website, there’s an incredible quote: “Design is a tool for broadcast.” Can you talk about how the Mothership “broadcasts”—and why design is important to you?

Design, like art and architecture, is always the product of a particular political, economic, and social context. Complacent or resistant, techno-utopian or nostalgic, design is never neutral. It invariably tells a story about the world we inhabit. We wanted to take full advantage of design’s narrative possibilities, its communicable image, by literally broadcasting a story of historic and projective resilience. To that end, we created a very idiosyncratic object, but one that’s deeply rooted in the aesthetic and symbolic realities of the North End and the funk music genre. This has allowed us to demonstrate, without plaques or lament, the important cultural activities have happened and continue to happen in the neighborhood.

The Mothership will be at The Henry Ford during Maker Faire Detroit, July 25-26, 2015. There will be live DJ sets and music programming throughout the weekend. ONE Mile members will also give a presentation in the Drive-In Theater on Sunday, July 26 from 1:00-1:15pm.

Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communication & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.

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