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)

Dennis BarrieIn 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 bulb."
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?."

Gino_RossetiEMEA 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 of downtown. 

Washington 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 the river. 
Over the decades Washington Boulevard had evolved into a broad elegant avenue.  Six traffic lanes separated by landscaped islands.
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.
The street was broadened and ornamented in the early part of the 20th century.. It 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 around it. 
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.

The 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.
It 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)  
 Singing Star Maquette 
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.

Gus Pallas at Gale Factory
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. 

Diane and Tom Schoenith

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 Pointe.

  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 class." 
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 welder.  

 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.
Rene Vega 1978

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 instruction.  

In 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. 

randy Mims and Rene Vega in the Grosse Pointe Studio

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 tape recorder.( 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.

Progmod Disassembled

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 light up."

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!
 Time 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 factory - Rehearsal

 The 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 Boulevard.

.  The old boulevard was completely demolished.   Parking 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.
In 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.

The sculpture itself worked amazingly well.  Rene Vega's engineering and design was simple and robust.  Randy Mims' tiny elegant program was bug free. An occasional 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 maintenance crew could turn on all the lights and see which ones were burned out and 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. 

Mr. Vasqueez and Jim Zalewski

 I 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. "
 That 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 of the mandala's supporting struts distorting the patterns, one of the sequence of four arm spiral patterns appeared as a rotating swastika.  I 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 their family.

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 twenty years.  
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."

I sent  a letter to the Building Authority asking them to add a pump. They said they'd consider it.

Well, 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 task.  In the process he eliminated the mysterious flicker light and the infamous Kluge-a-face unit.   Jim tends improves whatever he touches.

Eventually 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 created after 1984. )I told everyone that I preferred to help them find a suitable site for the piece and move it there.
Proposed site at Hart Plaza    Proposed site at The detroit Science Center

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.

Maypr Kwame Killpatrick

The Kwame 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.

Waymon Guillebeaux
Eventually, 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.  Mandala Stored at Jenkins Construction Yard

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 way would be even more beautiful.   In 2012, I designed an inexpensive demonstration of the linear version using translucent vinyl film.  Furthermore, 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.

Jim Pallas
September 2018


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.