Cedric Tai doesn't think Detroit is a blank canvas. (That controversial metaphor gets tossed around quite a bit these days by people who champion the city’s remarkable creative potential at the expense of its complex present and recent past.) The Detroit-born artist and Kresge fellow does think the city is filled with bad graffiti. To draw attention to the existing beauty of Detroit’s historic brick facades, and to prevent yet more graffiti from marring them, he facilitates the creation of stunning, colorful outdoor murals composed of what he calls “brixels.” (That’s “bricks” plus “pixels,” in reference to the blocky shapes they make, as well as the fact that they're originally generated online.) The community-created murals do more than that, though, as I learned when I pitched in to help create one in Woodbridge last weekend: They also bring people together, and let those of us who aren’t visual artists feel like we are, even for just a little while.
On Saturday, Tai gave paper "keys" to the 20 or so people who showed up to the alley behind the gas station at Warren and Trumbull (the "keys" let us know which bricks to paint which colors). He also gave us a whole lot of spray paint and some very basic instructions. (There was good food and drinks, too, which made the unseasonable heat a little more bearable.) The next few hours’ collaborative work was fun and focusing, and, by the end, we'd created a beautiful piece of public art that gleamed in the afternoon sun.
This was the fifth and final brixel piece that Tai himself will be organizing, as he hands over control to interested community members. I talked with him over e-mail about his work, street art and the future of brixels in Detroit.
Matthew Piper: I'm interested to know more about what you think of street art in general and how the brixel murals fit in that world.
Cedric Tai: I think street art is an odd genre since, really, it's just installation art/environmental art/public art. What I want to say about street art is that it acts tougher than it really is. There seems to be more “cred” if the piece is either in the most dilapidated or “urban” area or involved taking the most risks while doing something illegal. Now, compare this to, say, community-based art, where the “cred” comes from how it engages the right group of people, or the widest group of people in the deepest way, in the most representative way, giving a particular community the most social, economic or political power.
CT: Brixels and other street art co-exist, but I'm hesitant to just plop the “street art” label onto it as I think it better fits the term “generative artwork.” Brixels are the culmination of wanting to figure out what the “public art” version of my art practice would look like, and my desire to make generative artwork and combine chance and order, which is what my painting practice is currently about. I like to think that my best work facilitates many ways to get involved and opportunities to go deeper.
MP: What’s next for brixels?CT: Next for the Brixels is “Phase 2,” where I am giving people who want to do their own Brixels: paint, connections to people who want Brixels on their walls, understanding of how the Brixel website works for making designs or downloading them and letting go of authorship/control so people can do it themselves. There may be spray paint sponsorships in the future, but for sure there are always more venues. I've been asked by quite a few people if I could Brixelize their walls, and I'm more than happy to connect them to people who want to get painting. Anyone can get involved at any stage of the process; one of the easiest ways is to make a design on MakeBrixels.com.
If you'd like the see the five currently existing Brixel murals, you'll find two in Midtown on Hendrie east of Woodward, one in Eastern Market at Gratiot and Riopelle, one in Woodbridge at Warren and Trumbull, and one on the Michigan Paper Die building on Harper, east of St. Antoine. (That last one is adjacent to a field overlooking the junction of I-75 and I-94 -- it's a great spot for a picnic!)