The Creation and Destruction of My Century of Light Artwork in Downtown Detroit
(An earlier version of this
memoir ironically titled "Century of Light Shines for Twenty-Five
Years" appeared in THE MIT PRESS Journal, Leonardo, VOL.50 #3 2017)
1978 Dennis Barrie, head of the Detroit office of the Archives of
American Art called me and said, "I put your name in for a possible
public commission. The Eastern Michigan Electrical Association
(EMEA), a vertical association of folks in the electrical industry want
to commemorate the centennial of Thomas Edison's invention of the light
I said, "The incandescent light bulb is way over a hundred and fifty years old and wasn't invented by Thomas Edison anyway." Dennis said, "Look, Smart Ass, do you want this commission or not?."
had asked for and been given a site by the City of Detroit for their
commemoration. It was a located in a proposed five block
redevelopment of Washington Boulevard, an elegant street in the heart
Boulevard was one of the the original spokes in General Woodward's
flawed plan for the layout of Detroit. Flawed because it was
based on a circle whose center unfortunately was less than a mile from
Over the decades Washington Boulevard had evolved into
a broad elegant avenue. Six traffic lanes separated by landscaped
According to a Wikipedia entry:
"Phillip Brietmeyer, a
florist, was elected to serve as mayor of Detroit in 1909 and 1910. He
sought to make the city beautiful.... He appointed a commission, one that included Daniel
Burnham, to make recommendation about improving Detroit.
street was broadened and ornamented in the early part of the 20th
was to resemble New York's Fifth Avenue and European boulevards. A
sculpture lined park between two one-way streets decorated a shopping
district and upscale residential neighborhood.... All of the buildings financed by the Book
Brothers—the Book Cadillac Hotel, the Book Building, the Book Tower and
the Industrial Bank Building—were designed by Louis Kamper The
Washington Boulevard intersection with Clifford at Grand Circus Park
was anchored by a huge Statler Hotel. "
It was, in short, for
seventy years a classy street.
But by 1977, downtown Detroit had
deteriorated. It was becoming desolate because of crime. Businesses abandoned it for the suburbs. The rise in crime was attributed to lack of adequate
lighting and empty streets. There was a cry for better public
lighting and events to draw people downtown town. Greek town and
the ethnic fairs at Hart Plaza were cited as examples of what was needed . Gino Rossetti responded with a five
block pedestrian mall. He reduced auto traffic to two lanes and installed water works, an
amphitheater, performance spaces, benches and plantings. An
antique trolley ran through it and hooked up with the People mover, a
monorail that circled the city center. All of this was well lit by a bold red construction from
one end to the other. It was envisioned this would invite
people to experience lively urban attractions such as informal
street musicians, dance performances and other similar
activities. The emphasis was on
pedestrians and lighting. The city hoped
to radically alter the area to function as a center of bars,
restaurants, shops, hotels and theaters. EMEA asked me to submit a maquette for a sculpture in
this setting, specifically for the pool of a fountain, the mall's the main water feature.
I proposed a circular grid of 144 lights
submerged in the 20 foot diameter pool of a planned fountain which
would display changing patterns in response to the activities of people
Now, in situations like this, generally several
artists are asked to make maquettes but only one gets chosen.
Consequently the rejected maquettes are useless. I
decided to make a maquette that could stand on its own as an artwork
and would look good hanging on a wall. Also, I knew at that time
the technology of integrated circuitry would be unfamiliar to the
committee. Often what's unfamiliar gets rejected, so I animated
the maquette with the technology to show them how it works.
committee complained that replacing burned out lights bulbs would
require draining the pool so I proposed to raise the grid of lights up
to the height of the waterfall. Also, they didn't like my title,
"Singing Star" because it referenced neither electricity, lights or
Edison,. Someone suggested "Century of Light." We all agreed. I got the job. But it had to be
finished in a short time.
was agreed that the members of the EMEA would provide much of the work
and materials as they could. They would pay for what they
couldn't provide. I would be paid $5000.. ( Later I was told they
estimated their contribution to the project to be around $200.000.
A few years after the artwork was completed, the City of Detroit
Historical Museum published an estimate of value at $250,000)
I couldn't design,
build and program the electronics that quickly by myself. My father,
Gus Pallas, retired at the time, had worked in machine shops all his
life, switching employers if the work load fell below 60 hours a
week. He required that overtime. Also he was a whiz at
math and geometry. He could solve algebra in his head and knew sine and
cosine like old friends. I needed his help in specifying
lengths and angles in the non-western pattern of the mandala. He
agreed to help me. He wouldn't take any pay which was good
because I didn't have any to give him.
The steel and
paint work was done at Gale Enterprise which Tom Schoenith owned, a big
old factory on the near east side of Detroit just off the I-94
expressway. Tom was a member of the E.M.E.A. and his staff made sure I had everything I
needed. Tom and his twin brother, Jerry, also owned The
Roostertail, a posh restaurant on the Detroit river. The name and
decor of the place reflected the Schoenith family's involvement with
power boat racing on the river.
He and his charming wife,
Diane, were frequent subjects of the society columns, noted for
the spectacular parties at the restaurant and their residence in Grosse
There was too much to do. I
intended to learn to arc weld well enough to fabricate an
eighteen foot diameter framework on which to fasten the lights. I
knew how to gas weld, sort of. At least I learned how to turn on
the tanks and light the torch to get a neutral flame without too large
an explosion. I could melt two parts of steel so that they ran
together. That's about all I learned in
sculpture class in an art department where the faculty was more
interested in the bar across the street than instruction. Once during
a graduate review, a professor handed me one of my welded sculptures
and said, "Drop this on the floor. I did. It fell
apart. He asked,"Where did you learn to weld." I said, "In your
My welds did not meet industry standards.
When Gil DeSandy a gruff project boss from Hutzel & Buehler saw my first attempts
to arc weld, he rolled his eyes and said, "This ain't going to
happen." At the factory the next morning, a pirate in leather and
chains roared up on a Harley and introduced himself as "Butterfly", a
name he picked up because of a shoulder tattoo. Bearded and bald,
his neck was dotted with "welders' warts", skin cancers caused by
exposure to the powerful ultraviolet radiation emitted by the extreme
temperature of the electric arc. He informed me that he was a
welder hired by Mr. DeSandy and asked what the job was about and where
did I want him to start. I reluctantly abandoned my
intention to learn arc welding and from then on concentrated on keeping
the work flowing.
Work in the factory became routine. We
would arrive at the factory in the late morning. It was a dark,
cold place run by a friendly and helpful shop boss. My father
worked on the arcane geometry of the mandala, translating the form into
various lengths of one inch steel bars and the hexagonal plates to
which the lighting fixtures would attach. I cut the bars
to length and stamped out the plates. We all got along.
Butterfly turned out not to be a pirate, but a gentle, genial efficient
I needed electronics expertise.
Luckily, a group of computer enthusiasts had recently formed and called themselves the South
East Michigan Computer Organization (SEMCO). I requested a spot
on the agenda at the next monthly meeting. I showed a few slides
of my previous works and described the Century of Light project and
invited interested persons to meet me after the meeting.
That's how I
met Rene Vega, a computer science student at the time. Rene and I
recruited another SEMCO member, Randy Mims who had a reputation for
writing elegant code. Rene blocked out flow charts for the
various circuits required to sense pedestrian movements, sound and
light and communicate that data to a microprocessor and the circuits
required to take the output from the processor and turn individual
lights on and off. I translated the charts into "chips" (
integrated circuits) and pathways to produce the printed circuit
boards, thirteen in all. Randy outdid himself by creating an extremely
small but powerful and versatile program that used a script of
intuitive commands to create beautiful behaviors based on the incoming
sensory data - light, sound and movement. Furthermore, Randy's
program, called Glo-1 uses terms familiar and simple enough that
children have learned to program the sculpture with very little
order to build the artwork and install it
at the site, it was necessary to duplicate the electronics that we were
installing in the sculpture downtown.. We needed them
in my studio with a keyboard and monitor so that we could debug the
circuitry and code and write the script that would fashion the behavior
of the lights. The circuitry grew like Topsy, spread out in a
tangle of cables and connecting wires on several tables. It soon
became apparent that the studio circuitry needed to be consolidated
into a coherent portable module designed for writing program.
Thus was born the PROGMOD. With Rene's genius, we made the
PROGMOD in two parts. One part was a duplicate of the downtown
circuitry, with a small mandala of 144 LEDS that represented the 18
foot mandala of the Century of Light, a radar unit, a microphone and
photocell to discern day from night.
We programmed the sculpture
to be off during the day.
We couldn't resist adding a few
other features. We often snacked on popcorn as we worked, so we
built in a popcorn popper. We added a bell to ding when some
programming event happened and a Yin-Yang symbol
that rotated under program control for good luck. Lastly, was an eight foot tall thirty inch diameter blue polyethylene tube that inflated for special events. The other part
of the PROGMOD was the keyboard, monitor and a cassette
the nearest component in the image below). Small hard
drives had not been invented yet. Our
programs had to be saved as audio files and "played" into the
microprocessor. The downtown electronics did not have a
keyboard, monitor or recorder. The PROGMOD's
keyboard/monitor/cassette unit slid out and disconnected from the
PROGMOD's circuitry. We could
take it downtown to Washington Boulevard and plug it into the Century
of Light's circuitry. There we could load updated versions of
GLO-1 programming language and tweak our scripts live on
the big mandala. Many nights that summer, we would nap
during the day and meet down at the sculpture after dark to sit in lawn
chaises and write scripts until dawn.
My wife was concerned for
our safety.. All the hype about inner city crime and violence
made her uneasy about us being on the sidewalk on Washington Boulevard
until dawn. So I called the police station that patrols that
precinct and handed the phone to her so she could hear the captain tell
her that particular area was one of the safest in the city
because "after dark there's no one there until the next morning."
And that was our experience. Down the street was Saint Aloysius
church that had an aid and rehab program . On the rare
occasion, a homeless person would be attracted to our activity and
would join us, marveling at what we were doing and asking questions and
offering suggestions. Sometimes friends would come down
specifically because they heard we were doing this thing. Once,
late at night, Senator Carl Levin and his wife Barbara came to see what
we were up to. Our noses were buried in the screen. We
didn't notice their approach, but when they walked into the radar's
range, a spectacular sequence of light patterns exploded across the
mandala. And every body burst into laughter.
Rene recalls another time:
"Though the streets were mostly empty, I do recall one night when a several
young guys (packing heat) visited us wondering what we were doing. My
Detroit street sense told me we were in trouble, but then when we explained
how the century of light worked, that it would respond to sound or music and
dance, it turned out to be a perfect bonding moment. One guy took his boom
box (an artifact of the late 1970s), turned it on and held it near the
microphone while the other guys did their twirls and hops, dancing to
delight as the sculpture reacted to their movements. This bonding between
sculpture and people that I saw happen often is probably the main reason the
sculpture was never vandalized. The COL responded to and rewarded peoples'
interactions with it, as if saying "I know you, I play with you"."
But usually, it was just the three of us, tweaking programs, creating patterns,
jumping up and gyrating like crazy men to stimulate the radar.
Night hawks swooped down, attracted by the moths drawn to the
lights. A street sweeping vehicle rushing by reminded us that we
were not camping in an isolated wilderness. All in
all, a marvelous experience.
We were encouraged by the EMEA to
finish the work in time for the Republican convention which was being
held in Detroit's Cobo Hall that summer. Ronald Reagan was the
nominee. A lot of their buddies would be in town and they wanted the party at
the unveiling to be on their social agenda. When Tom Schoenith, one
of the prime movers on the committee,was informed of some programming
obstacles, he said, "Look, everybody's gonna be there. It's gotta look like it works. I don't care if
you have to hire a hundred kids to flip switches down in the pump
room, when the Mayor presses the button, that goddamn thing better
The unveiling was billed as "a champagne
preview". Considering that the sculpture responded to sound, I
insisted there be live music. The EMEA disagreed and said, "If
you want music, you'll have to pay for it yourself. I called Judy
Adams at WDET-FM. She said, "Get Tony William's group." which
included Tani Tabal, Jeribu Shaheed and Faruq Ze Bey.' Perfect!
came for the "unveiling" which was, in fact, pressing "enter" on a
keyboard that launched the program that activated the lights on the
mandala. Mayor Coleman Young sent his aide who
pressed the key. nothing happened. Rene Vega, who was standing
behind her said, "Excuse me", reached around and re-entered the
command. Pop! The waterfall stopped. The lights came on and
did a special flourish. The crowd went "Ahhhh!" and
applauded. Everything went smoothly after that.
Harbinger Dance Company performed a 15 minute dance especially created
by Connie Dow (sitting) to interact with the motion sensing radar of the
sculpture. Rene who was a member of the group had suggested to
Connie that it provided a unique opportunity for some creative
choreography. The event was filmed by Oscar-winning Sue Marx of
Marx Handley Productions and incorporated into her film, "Jim Pallas:
Electronic Sculptor." The party broke up around midnight.
The sculpture was well received but reviews often mentioned dissatisfaction with Rossetti's treatment of Washington
. The old boulevard was completely
was eliminated. The street and sidewalks were torn up. Then the inevitable construction delays began and continued
for four long years of only sporadic activity. In that time, almost all of
the street level businesses disappeared, either into bankruptcy or to some other
location. When the new boulevard opened, it was to empty store fronts. The area remained desolate.
the summer, a year after the Century
of Light was unveiled, as an experiment, I installed a program in the
sculpture to record all of the pedestrian activity on the eastern
sidewalk for a 5
day period which included a weekend. Anyone walking or even a dog
passing by would trigger the count. I was shocked that the average
number of events
between 6:30 p.m. overnight until 7:30 a.m. was two! This part of
downtown Detroit was deserted. The police captain talking to my
wife was not exaggerating.
sculpture itself worked amazingly
well. Rene Vega's engineering and design was simple and
robust. Randy Mims' tiny elegant program was bug free.
flicker of one particular light remained a mystery. We couldn't
find a reason why that light should ever flicker.
Eventually the sculpture was assigned to the Detroit Building
Authority to "manage." They contacted me and said they wanted a
maintenance contract on the sculpture and offered to pay me $500 yearly
for six month inspections, diagnoses of any problems and
estimation of the
cost of any repairs. I said agreed and offered to repair anything
at no labor charge and would cover the first $100 for parts. Later, Jim
Zalewski added a switch to the controls so the city's
could turn on all the lights and see which ones were burned out
needed to be replaced. But, as years passed, I wanted to
demonstrate that my electronic artworks were not only reliable, but
that they did not need me specifically to service them. With the
documentation I provided, they could be serviced
by any qualified technician.
asked the Building Authority
to offer the contract to someone else, and recommended Jim Zalewski.
He got the job. I had met Jim after the sculpture was up
and running. For a few eeks the sculpture had been running with
its program in temporary memory. if it were shut of, or the power
failed, it needed to be reloaded and started again. This never
happened, but it was an unacceptable condition. The answer was to
permanently store the program in Programmable Read-Only Memory called
PROMs. in 1978, this was cutting edge technology. Few
people could do this. Prices quoted by the two companies I found in the
Detroit/ Ann Arbor area wanted unreasonable sums, hundreds of dollars,
for the service. I called SEMCO and was told there is a young guy
in Hamtramck, Jim Zalewski, who can do this. I called him up. He
said to bring them over after supper. I needed Randy to come with
me because he could answer any technical questions that might come up.
We climbed the stairs two the upper of a two family flat and met
Jim and his beautiful wife, Karla. I chatted with her while she
did the dishes and their two babies played on the floor. Randy
and Jim proceeded to "burn" the PROMS. It took only a few
minutes. When it was done, I asked Jim, "How much." He
said, " I don't know." Randy and I held our breath. "Give me $25." We exhaled.
That was the beginning for me of a long relationship of creative collaboration and friendship with
Jim that continues to this day. He has been indispensable in the
creation of many of my electronic artworks. including "Nose
Wazoo", "Go With The Flow, and "Law.'
The artwork continued to performed
flawlessly. A few years later, I got a call from the
Building Authority, who said, "The sculpture is making swastikas."
I said, "That's impossible. I designed all the patterns and there are no swastika's."
The Authority said, "Come down and see for yourself. "
night, I went to an apartment on the top floor of the Trolley Plaza
Hotel with the hotel's manager. He explained that this was
a serious problem. The family that owned the hotel had lost
relatives in the Holocaust. I looked down several stories onto
the top of the mandala. From the height of several stories, the
moving light patterns of the mandala were beautiful. I had never
seen it from that angle or at that distance. It was much more
effective than from close up at street level . But, yes, with some
mandala's supporting struts distorting the patterns, one of the
sequence of four arm spiral patterns appeared as a rotating
told the manager that I was horrified and would immediately modify the
program. I asked him to please relay my apology to the owners and
The electronics that sensed the street activity,
generated the patterns and switched the hundred and forty four lights
were housed in a standard seven
foot rack cabinet. The cabinet was located in an underground
equipment room next to the fountain's pool. With several large water
pumps, massive sweating pipes, generally dirty conditions and
frequent pools of water on the floor, it was not an ideal place for
sensitive electronics. Yet, they continued to perform for over
I believe it was Rene who noticed that
there was a sump pump in a floor cistern of the room. The cistern
collected drainage and occasional overflow from the pool. The sump pump pumped
it up to a city sewer.
He said, "There should be two."
"Why?" I said.
"When the first one fails the second one will do the job until the first one can be replaced."
sent a letter to the Building Authority asking them to add a
pump. They said they'd consider it.
it wasn't the pump that failed. It was human error. The
fountain had been designed so that the pool drained into the floor of
the equipment room and ran into the cistern where the pump pushed it up
into the sewer system.sump. A contractor to the city decided to drain
the pool and opened the drainage valves but forgot, or didn't know to
make sure the pump was functioning. Luckily to pool was only
partially filled. The water collected in the equipment room only
high enough to destroy the switching relays boards of the century of
Light. The water also caused the explosion of an electrical
transformer in the room, which resulted in the authorities being
alerted to the problem. Jim had to replace the boards. The
same thing happened a few years later. However this time the pool
was full and no one heard the transformer explode. The water
destroyed almost all of the electronics The room filled with
water. Several large fountain
pumps and an electrical panel was destroyed and the copper tracings in
the artwork's custom electronics were electroplated off. The
boards were devoid of their copper pathways. They were
blank. Rene had the foresight to arrange the Power supply and the
Synertek Sym-1 microprocessor board and its associated DRAM in the
cabinet at the top. They were
unharmed. Needless to say, most of the electronics needed to be
replaced. Jim Zalewski was up to the job. He took the
original circuit patterns, had the boards printed and, with
documentation I had provided, rebuilt over twenty components, a heroic
the process he eliminated the mysterious flicker
light and the infamous Kluge-a-face unit. Jim tends
improves whatever he touches.
the failure of the redesign of Washington Boulevard became an issue and
the city decided to demolish it and try to replace it to
something resembling the
original design as an European boulevard. I immediately
informed various parties that it was a violation of VARA, the federal
Visual Artists Rights Act to destroy a significant work of art without
first offering it back to the artist to remove at his own
expense. I said I was willing to accept it and remove it.
(Later I discovered that the law applies only to works
after 1984. )I told everyone that I preferred to help them find a
suitable site for the piece and move it there.
I wanted to help the city find another suitable
location. In the process, I made several suggestions about the work and
the ideal site including the new Performing Arts High School. I started to contact individuals to find an alternative
site. The frustrating two and a half years process is recounted in tedious detail from
my phone notes.
Kilpatrick administration ran the city like a criminal
organization. Contracts and appointments were sold. Bribes were
rampant. Incompetent people filled high level jobs. City
departments were abused and underfunded as appointees hustled to exploit
the situation. Life in the city worsened. However, the personnel
in the Building Authority were generally conscientious and cooperative.
I found a sympathetic spirit, Waymon
Guillebeaux, who made progress in cutting through the tangle of
bureaucrats. On November 18, 2005, Hands On Ann
Arbor Museum's director Mel Drumm had gotten approval from his
board to receive the mandala and support column. The city agreed
to deliver it to Ann Arbor. Waymon got a ruling from
the city's legal department that the artwork could be donated to
another city with Detroit City Council's approval. Waymon said he
would locate the mandala.
When he finally contacted John Kull of
Jenkens Construction in September of 2006, he was told their yard
supervisor needed the space so the the sculpture was
scrapped. Waymon's boss asked him to write a "forensic" report to
assign liability. I asked for a copy of the report. I have
not gotten a response.
The destruction of the huge iron mandala
is not much of a loss. The
important components of the artwork are the cabinet of the custom electronics
and the PROGMOD, the programming module. Both are
safe iin the custody of Jim Zalewski. While the behavior of the foot wide globes
was beautiful, the linear pattern of the connecting
strutsanimated in the same
would be even more beautiful. In 2012, I designed an inexpensive
demonstration of the linear version using translucent vinyl film.
if the mandala were flipped up vertically, it is much more effective
and could be seen from a great
distance, especially if mounted high on a building. From a mile
away, it would be a scintillating jewel responding to the life of the
community. I intend to take this concept to the
next level for the community.
Century of Light: Five minute video
PROGMOD :Off-site programming module
Technical: Information and images of the Century of Light
Animated Rendering: Temporary mandala on a building
Labyrinth: Futile attempt to save the artwork.