Patrick Ethen’s installations explore sound, technology and perception and brighten up Detroit’s music scene and beyond
By Patrick Dunn
Hundreds of thousands of people have seen Patrick Ethen’s hypnotic light art in some of Detroit’s most prominent events and venues, from the Movement Electronic Music Festival to the Foundation Hotel. But that didn’t start out being Ethen’s goal. “I basically avoided being an artist for my whole life,” says the 32-year-old, who adds that he journeyed into the art world in “the most roundabout way you can imagine.”
Ethen, who grew up outside of Grand Rapids and now lives in Corktown, initially studied engineering at the University of Michigan before switching to an architecture major. When he graduated in 2011, the Great Recession was in full swing and Ethen had trouble finding work in his field. “I needed a way to teach myself skills I should have been learning at a job, so I started making art installations that summer,” he says.
Ethen’s architecture studies had given him an understanding of “sculpture and how light hits surfaces,” and he’d been inspired by courses he’d taken on light installations and microprocessors. Shortly after he began making art, friends invited him to participate in a competition to create an installation for 2012’s Movement festival. They scored free tickets to the festival, and Ethen says the experience of watching people respond to his work was “addicting.”
Two years later, Ethen moved from Ann Arbor to Detroit — “because everywhere else in Michigan is f—ing lame,” he says. He was also drawn to the city’s electronic-music scene, which he calls “full, holistic and all-encompassing.”
That “scene” has frequently played host to Ethen’s work: His installations have repeatedly appeared at Movement, as well as Mo Pop (another Detroit-born msuic festival) and events held by Texture Detroit, a collaborative that hosts experiential music events exploring the intersection of light and sound, where Ethen has been a resident for the past three years.
While electronic music has been a major inspiration to Ethen, his artistic interest lies more in examining the broader themes of “technology, complexity and perception,” he says. “It’s about the idea of technology as savior, or technology as angel of death — and how those ideas may really be one and the same.”
Ethen’s work has an ephemeral, almost spooky quality to it, but it also encourages curiosity and participation from its audience. His “Spirit Mirror” is a framed wall hanging that creates the illusion of a ghostly spot of light following viewers as they pass the piece, suggesting a reflection of the beholder’s inner glow. Other Ethen works invite spectators to take a closer look at back-end craftsmanship that might traditionally be concealed. “VLVA,” his installation at the Detroit Foundation Hotel, presents a colorful, ever-shifting 8-by-8 LED display at first sight. But if viewers go to the bathrooms located behind the installation, they’re likely to be dazzled by the color-coordinated, artfully arranged rainbow of exposed wiring on the piece’s back side.
“As a sensory experience, [Ethen’s work is] really engaging and it’s a different experience for every person,” says Paulina Petkoski, who has hosted two of Ethen’s solo exhibitions through her art gallery, Playground Detroit.
Ethen says his career has been “defined by me throwing myself into situations I shouldn’t be in and then improvising,” a description that applies to his creative process as well. Rather than planning a new project through animated digital simulations, he often starts by building a physical piece and then works on programming its illuminated elements. He compares the process to building a musical instrument. “It’s like, ‘How do I play this instrument in its best capacity?’” he says. “It’s twofold: Make the thing and then figure out how to play the thing.”
Petkoski says Ethen’s approach of “constantly pushing and testing what he’s already done and evolving it to a new place” reflects Detroit’s innovative spirit as well. Still, the artist bemoans Detroit’s “brain drain,” as members of the creative community migrate elsewhere, and wonders whether he’ll eventually follow that path. But his love for the city, and the impact it’s had on him, are undeniable.
“Detroit is an island of ideas and culture,” he says. “I feel like, because it’s isolated, you get a bunch of really left-field, terrific, creative ideas coming out of the space.”