Monday, February 5, 2018

B-side: Ghost busses and phantom transit data

I published an article in Model D this week that describes my and Michel's surprisingly rich six month experience living car-less in Detroit. In it, I glancingly touched on something I wanted to dig into a little deeper here: my experience using the DDOT bus system.

I'm a very recent DDOT user, having just gotten started in October. As I mentioned in the article, I have really come to love riding the bus in Detroit. I look forward to it, every time, for a whole bunch of reasons.

View from my bus last week

But as much as the system has evidently improved in the last couple years, it still has its problems — namely, busses occasionally not showing up when they're supposed to. As I mentioned in the article, this has been an infrequent occurrence, in my experience, but that doesn't mean that it's not a maddening, frustrating inconvenience when it happens. It's a real killjoy, especially in the cold. It's also unsettling, in a very specific way. You're standing there, squinting into the horizon, hoping to catch a glimpse of the indistinct but telltale orange marquee lights that means a bus is coming, wondering — did I get it wrong? Did I miss the bus? (Did it come early?) Is it five minutes away? Is it ten minutes away? Is it just not coming? Should I call a Lyft? Should I wait for the next one? Then you see those lights, and you feel relieved, but it gets closer and you see that it's not your bus at all, but another line, going someplace else.

Besides the glaring, systemic problem of the bus not being on time, there's another problem here, a human-scale problem: a problem of information. You don't know. There are tools that are supposed to help you know, but these are confusing and, evidently, inaccurate. For instance, the first time I caught the bus, I used DDOT's "Text My Bus" service, where you send a text and get an automatic response telling you how far away the bus is. It worked perfectly — it said the bus was five minutes away, and five minutes later, the bus showed up. But the next time, it said the bus was two minutes away, and two minutes later, no bus. Five minutes later, no bus. Ten minutes later? No bus. I texted again: next bus, 35 minutes. It was like a ghost bus had gone by.

"Use Transit," a friend said when I relayed my experience, referring to the free smartphone app that purports to offer realtime bus tracking info. "It's more accurate." Great! So I downloaded Transit, and after struggling a bit with the so-simple-it's-complicated-interface, I got the hang of it (or thought I did). Transit uses GPS to determine where a user is and shows the buses that should be coming by, displaying a list of upcoming, realtime pickup times. Except, when I started using it...more ghost busses. More confusion. What was going on here? Transit is supposed to be displaying real time data about the busses in Detroit. But is it?

I posed this question to the folks at Transit and got an illuminating response from a friendly representative named Katie. "Transit does in fact offer real-time information in Detroit for DDOT buses as well as SMART buses, and the new Q Line," she wrote. But she said that she noticed that some DDOT busses didn't have realtime data available. You can tell when there is realtime data, she said, by the radio wave icon that appears next to certain departure times. In the screenshot below, realtime data is only available for the 4:48 and 6:12 bus. The other times are all extrapolated from bus schedule data.

It's a subtle thing, that little radio wave icon. I never even noticed it before Katie brought it up, and the folks at Transit would do well to make its significance clearer up front. But now that I know, it's great! At least now, I know what I know, and what I don't. (And a few subsequent tests have proven this out — each time I've seen those radio waves, the bus in question has come right when it's supposed to.)

But that bit that I don't know remains problematic. Why, on the screenshot above, do only two of seven busses have realtime data? Why can't I know exactly when all those busses are coming? To understand that, I turned to Neil Greenberg, manager of service development and scheduling for DDOT. (He's also a bona fide transit enthusiast, a former bus driver, and the mastermind behind Freshwater Railway, the intricate but totally made-up regional Detroit transit system that made a splash in 2011 when it got Detroiters dreaming about what real, connected transit here could look like.)

"The realtime DDOT data just isn't consistent," Neil admitted. It's not reliable." The problem, he said, is that DDOT is using a 25 year old AVL, or automatic vehicle locator, computer system. "When you try and feed data from an old system into a newer system," he said, "things really get messy." So in the transfer, the data become unreliable. Buggy. It's the same problem for Text My Bus that it is with Transit — as users, we simply cannot expect reliable data every time, or even most times. His advice? Use bus schedules instead. The busses, after all, tend to come when they're scheduled, so in the absence of consistent realtime data, the schedule's the most reliable option.

The good news here is that, according to Neil, DDOT is currently embarking on a multi-year tech upgrade that will include a complete replacement of the AVL. "We're investing pretty heavily in all new systems," he said, "not just for the AVL, but downstream from that — apps, data processing, everything that ultimately makes it to the customer's hand. It'll be great to have. We don't just want something new, we want something that we can maintain and keep up to date." He expects the overhaul to be complete in 2019-20, and lists better realtime data as a major goal. He cited other forthcoming improvements, too, including a notification system to alert riders about delays, and a new website that would help make the experience of learning how to use the bus system more straightforward and accessible to more Detroiters.

So evidently, there's a lot to look forward to. For now, of course, the most pressing concern remains the big one: those late or MIA busses. The best way to address that problem, Neil counsels, is to let DDOT know about it. "We really like complaints," he said, "but please don't just blow steam and tell us how we wronged you; tell us when, where, and what line. We need specifics."

Ideally, of course, the bus system wouldn't wrong its riders at all, but as you may have noticed, we don't live in an ideal world. I'm going to keep riding DDOT because I like it and it's convenient and, in my experience, it usually works just fine. I'm sure, here and there, another bus or two is going to not show up, and I'm sure I'll feel frustrated and wronged and curse the fact that we just can't seem to get transit right in this town. But I'm glad I spent some time digging into this, because I'll also take some comfort from the thought that something better might be coming down the road. If I squint, I can almost see it.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Making rock music with Kathy Leisen

Oh Detroit, what have we done to deserve Kathy Leisen?

If you don't know Kathy, she's an artist, musician and singer with a voice like a smoldering, late night campfire beneath a big, starry sky somewhere out West, with some ragged clouds just starting to roll in and drizzle, but it's OK because you're with your friends and you've had a little whisky and you just spent the whole day outside. Her band Soft Location, with their mellow, slow-burn rock tunes crowned by Kathy's aching lyrics of love and longing, is a Detroit essential. Put on a Soft Location record and time slows; you drift a little. You melt. Here, listen:

Kathy also happens to be disarmingly graceful, forthright, and generous of spirit. I will perhaps forever associate her with the peaceful, matter-of-fact good vibes of the Detroit art community. She's one of the first people I met, seven or so years ago, when I started writing about Detroit art with any semblance of seriousness, and I won't soon forget the kindness and openness with which she welcomed me (nervous, unsteady) into the little sound art gallery in Eastern Market where she was noodling on an acoustic guitar.

Last weekend, she amply demonstrated that welcoming spirit in "Harmony By Any Means Necessary," an intimate performance at Popps Packing, the Hamtramck home, studio, and artspace of artists Graem Whyte and Faina Lerman. The concert was part of the Lounge of Saturn, an ongoing exhibition and performance series at Popps featuring work by a dizzying array of Detroit artists.

Popps Packing

For the occasion, Kathy donned a plain, billowy garment that her friend, the artist Chad Wentzel, created, a sort of giant apron that makes her one with her keyboard. ("I feel like I'm getting ready to go into surgery," she joked as she slipped into it. Chad told me that his ambition is to make a room-sized version of this piece, an environment, basically, that would join Kathy and her keyboard with the audience, a la James Lee Byars, maybe. Sounds like fun.)

As she set up the keyboard, Kathy placed five or six stones, maybe 2-5 inches long each, along the top of it, as well as a couple rolls of masking tape, and told the assembled company that she needed some help with the performance—or the game, as she put it. ("Art should be fun, shouldn't it?") The idea was that she would start playing, and then we would commence to shape the music together, with each audience member encouraged to walk up at any time and place a stone on a key, or group of keys, or else tape down a particular key. As the tones shifted, Kathy would correspondingly modulate the tone of her voice, producing a unique, improvised composition, co-created on the spot.

I've seen Kathy use her stones in a more straightforward solo performance recently, at the Shells record release party at Trinosophes, and it's a subtle but powerful gesture. Visually, tactilely, the stones carry a certain weight. They're of course such natural objects, freighted with idiosyncratic meanings about their (be)holder's connection to the natural world, about childhood exploration, ancient beginnings and environmental degradation. There is something fruitful, dialectical, about the relationship between the stones—with their utter simplicity, their mute, compact, essential rock-ness—and the keyboard, the big sound machine, hard-angled and complexly engineered. Their union (their reconciliation) could be gimmicky or precious, but it's not; instead, it's unexpected, a little whimsical, and quite elegant.

The sound, meanwhile, is notably...visual. There's the background, the pure, hard tones of the keyboard, which are minimal, even, unambiguous, and insistent: a drone. (A plane.) And the foreground: Kathy's voice, reverb-ed and echoing, freeform, soft, shifting, and abstract. (There are lyrics there, but they're fuzzy and indistinct—mostly you can make out an "I" here, a "you" there—all, perhaps, you need to know.)

With participation, of course, there is much more: you hold the rocks in your hands. You make choices, informed or not. (Kathy is definitely not worried about whether or not participants "know" music, which is in itself pretty incredible.) You perform the ritual; you walk up and make an offering, to...what? The god of music, maybe, or to Kathy, or to the Earth itself. And you do it in concert, with strangers, perhaps, or with friends. You play (in more ways than one) and then enjoy the remarkable result: that voice, that sad, silver voice, ringing out over the tones that you've manifested, together.

"Harmony By Any Means Necessary" was all over pretty quickly. Just three distinct compositions, maybe 15 or 20 minutes in total, but what a gift: a precious opportunity, these days, to shake off the weight of things, the anxiety, the despair, the ceaseless chatter, and to make something that stands apart—something simple and still, sacred and shared.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Essay'd: Nicola Kuperus

The Perfect Accent Piece, performance as Kuperus/Miller, 2017, 30 minutes. Photography by WSU Art Galleries.
(originally published 12/15/17 in Essay'd)

It makes sense that Nicola Kuperus was onstage at the Detroit Institute of Arts recently, running her big yellow vacuum up and down a strip of beige carpet. And that a few minutes later, her face obscured by a long, black wig, she started to play the vacuum, using an effects pedal to modulate and amplify its heavy roar. And that a few minutes after that, she pulled out a tall, pink vase and began to fill it, maniacally, with fake plants, while on a screen above her, another Kuperus appeared, dressed up and gesticulating like a cross between a magician, Laurie Anderson, and some faceless horror movie creep, and that that Kuperus had the same vase, which she began to slap with her white-gloved hand, asking it, over and over again, “Ya like that?”

It makes sense. After all, at the base of The Perfect Accent Piece (2017), a collaborative performance with Adam Lee Miller, lies a grab bag of familiar obsessions and tendencies that Kuperus carries with her from a prolific, 20 year career in art and music—obsessions we’ve seen before, in different forms.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Selling Flint's water? Art installation raises funds and awareness for Flint, Detroit water victims

My bottle of Flint water
(originally published 10/1017 in Model D)

Art, which plays so many different roles in life, has long been used and understood as a means of social critique. We have come to expect that the work of a great many artists will illuminate inequity, draw attention to the malfeasance of corporations and elected officials, and start provocative conversations about the many social struggles and structural biases that continue to plague society.

But what if art could do more? What if it could make a difference, in ways more traditionally associated with political and community action? What if it could be used to improve lives and ameliorate social problems not abstractly, but concretely?

These are big questions for contemporary art, which is witnessing the ascent of what is variously termed "social practice" or "public intervention" art—that is, art that seeks to intentionally intervene in the wider world for the material betterment of individuals and communities.

One such intervention is the "Flint Water Project," a multifaceted installation/performance piece by the Chicago-based artist William Pope.Lcurrently on view at What Pipeline, an artist-run gallery in southwest Detroit. For six weeks, the 1,000 square foot gallery is serving as a makeshift production facility, showroom, and storefront. The product being prepared and sold is tap water from Flint, Michigan.

Proceeds from all sales will be donated to the United Way of Genessee County, which has pledged to use the money to mitigate the effects of the ongoing Flint water crisis, and to Hydrate Detroit, which fights water shutoffs in Detroit. Visitors can walk out the door with an unsigned 16-ounce bottle for $20, a bottle signed by Pope.L for $250, or a case for a sum that's more in line with traditional art world prices. The goal is to raise $100,000.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Essay'd: Gary Eleinko

Autumn, 1995, oil, canvas, wood, 33 in x 38 in
(originally published 9/13/17 in Essay'd)

What is an artist’s practice but a universe unto itself? A total environment, with the artist at the center, in which a vast but finite set of ingredients—think experiences, materials, impulses, and predilections—cohere, by means both mysterious and prosaic, into related forms that evolve over time. It’s an apt metaphor for the work of Gary Eleinko, a lifelong Detroiter who came of age as a painter during the bricolage days of the Cass Corridor movement (where any cast off thing could become art) and who remarks with frank wonder that, “Everything in the world is made up of 98 natural elements. There’s nothing else. 98 ingredients make up everything we know.”

Scientific knowledge is one of the many distinct elements that come together to form Eleinko’s ever-evolving universe. Others include a fascination with the natural world (particularly plant life and natural disasters), a tendency toward certain shapes (bars, lines, Xes and triangles proliferate), and a consummate craftsman’s concern with construction and form. In an age of increasing interdisciplinary promiscuity, Eleinko is a monogamous maker. He labors daily in the full-to-brimming Corktown studio he has occupied since 1988 over canvas, paper, wood, and found objects—arranging, considering, painting, and building. As a painter, he is part of an influential movement of artists who reconceived the painting in sculptural terms, as a constructed object—who remembered, for instance, that canvas is a malleable material, confined to the familiar shapes of square and rectangle only by stretcher bars and convention.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Beautiful people at the Dally

Yesterday was the 40th annual Dally in the Alley! The one-of-a-kind independent street festival takes place in and around the alleys in a tiny section of the Cass Corridor neighborhood of Midtown (right near where I work at the Green Garage). I started going to the Dally when I was at Wayne State in the early 2000s, and I look forward to it every year.

Maybe I idealize it all out of proportion, but Detroit feels different during Dally. For a hot second we're tight, not spread out. Not divided but loving and inclusive. Queer and open and fly as hell, not "straight-acting" and blue collar-dowdy. It's like the neighborhood puts on a mask, but it's a mask that shows the truth, because it's all real; we're all here. We're just distributed, typically -- kept apart by highways and sprawl and racism and fearful urban planning, I guess. For one full day in September, though, you can shake off the weight of the cars and the stadiums and the empty lots and live a different Detroit dream: small, freaky, human, and pretty damn splendiferous. (The fact that it's managed to go on without corporate sponsorship for 40 years is some kind of miracle manifested by an incredible volunteer corps.)

Back in 2009 and 2010, I brought my camera to Dally and had a lot of fun shooting what I saw. I decided to do the same this year and I'm really glad I did. There was a special energy about the 40th Dally. The vibes seemed extra loving and the freak flags seemed to be flying extra high. Maybe we need it more now, in these godawful Trumpy times. Resist, resist.

My favorite shots are below. I hope the love comes through.