PLAYGROUND DETROIT is pleased to present artist and designer Patrick Ethen in his first solo exhibition on Friday, February 12th. His work has been previously seen as large installation sculptures at various events such as Detroit’s internationally-renowned Movement Electronic Music Festival. He describes the collection of pieces he has created for Light Works as “pseudo-spiritual semi-psychedelic, techno-futuristic light objects.”

Ethen’s work takes viewers directly to the source of vision: light. As his intuition led from architecture to artistic practice, the networks of luminous bulbs comprising each of his hand-wired pieces seem to have their own intuitive motion. Embodying the rhythms of Detroit and Chicago’s own electronic house music, Ethen pairs sound and visual senses as light stimulates receptors of the eye. Hypnotizing patterns travel along the plotted lines, as represented in his pencil-drawn Gravity Mandalas.

The body of work, which includes proximity sensor activated Mira, Mira (one of many collaborations with Ellen Rutt), is literally and figuratively electric, enlightening the audience with the possibility of mergence between hard-wired architectural design, the artistic eye, and the influence of sound.


Ethen will also be presenting work in the niche windows at David Klein Gallery Detroit, as curated by PLAYGROUND, opening with Kari Cholnoky’s solo show on February 6th. These light works will be visible to passers-by 24 hours, seven days a week.


How long have you been a practicing artist?

You know, I only started to occasionally tell people that I’m an artist about two or three months ago. I usually still don’t- I’ll opt for something that sounds more professional, like a designer. It’s probably all in my head but I feel like there’s a stigma associated with being an artist; like I’m worried people might not take me seriously. But I’m starting to care less, which is a good thing.

I started my career in engineering but quickly failed my way into architecture school. That was a huge emotional trip for me because I transitioned from almost flunking out to being great in a very short period of time. For a while it was really good and I was certain that I was going to live my life as an architect, but then the recession hit. Architects were losing their jobs left and right, and there really wasn’t much room for anyone new in the field. I was in this Catch-22-esque scenario that I think a lot of college graduates find themselves in- you can’t get a job without having work experience, but you can’t get work experience without having a job.

I decided to take initiative and start building architecture installations on my own. At the time I was totally unqualified and often in way over my head, but as a result I learned how to design and build- and at the end of the day I had flashy projects to add to my portfolio. Over the years, I realized that making these installations was actually way more rewarding than working in the architecture field, where people are routinely overworked, underpaid, and surprisingly miserable. I needed a change so I sacrificed a family of sheep and bathed myself in the sweet, crimson blood of Art and Design. And my life hasn’t been the same since. I’m still working out how to make money from it, but right now the most important thing is to live life in the hot, sweaty pursuit of my dreams.

My architecture professor and former employer Vivian Lee once turned to me and said, “Patrick, you’re an artist!” And I realized, “Wow! You know, she’s probably right.” And she was, obviously.

Gravity Mandala (above), Image credit, Rachel Roze

How does your background in architecture influence your work?

My architectural education plays a critical role in shaping the work that I make- it’s taught me how to think, how to draw, how to design, and how to talk about my work. I think in systems, in interconnected spatial relationships, in plan and section. My ideas are usually paired with some notion about how to build that idea, which is of course super valuable when it comes time to make it. I’m lucky that my architecture degree is more design-oriented, because design is one of those universal skills that’s applicable across a variety of careers and mediums. It gives me an excuse to have fun, to push boundaries and tackle an entire diversity of projects which might not otherwise be available to me.

What is your medium of choice?

Lately my favorite medium has been light. I like it because it’s so ethereal and intangible- it’s all around us but we can only see it when it interacts with matter. Light pulls all the strings- it effects our mood, attention span, sleep cycle- basically our entire quality of life is boosted by its presence. Our brains and eyes are hard-wired for light, and I think it has the ability to resonate with people on some deeper, physiological level. It’s like gazing into the embers of a campfire- calming, meditative, experiential.

As a species the production and control of light is a relatively recent development. Light is a field that we’re still learning about- new devices are being made, they’re getting cheaper, smaller, more efficient, more malleable. New technologies tend to open up possibilities for art that simply didn’t exist before their invention. I’m certainly not on the cusp of technology but it feels good to be riding the wave- it feels like my work is current, like I’m exploring new territory.

Polyhendra Lamp (above), Photo credit, Rachel Roze.

What inspires you?

The fact that life exists is almost too inspirational for me to even deal with on a daily basis. I try not to think about it.

Who are influential artists in your life?

The most influential artists in my life have to be musicians. I’m really into house music- the original Detroit and Chicago varieties- and I’m always trying to make work which feels like it’s of the underground world, like it’s some futuristic artifact from that scene. I have this insane romanticism for the golden days of warehouse raves; I associate it with a sense of freedom, reckless abandonment and creative expression.

What about your creative process have you found to be the most successful for you?

I usually try to focus on the small scale-  maybe an image that’s iconic, or an idea that sounds neat. If I can’t do a cheap test in my living room, or if it’s too complex to draw, it’s probably not gonna make the cut! It keeps me honest, and it keeps the projects clean.

My most valuable tool is, without a doubt, my laptop. I can model an entire project in 3D, know what it’s gonna look like, budget it out, and figure out how to fabricate it- and it’s all virtual. It’s amazing.

What is the most important concept or theme that your work revolves around?

Aesthetically speaking, I think I’m pushing a sort of pseudo-spiritual, psychedelic techno-futurism. My work traditionally revolves around the production of affect- the construction of illusion. I want people to question their eyes, to lose themselves for a second, to be caught in a world that’s immersive, ethereal, and mesmerizing. Questioning one’s senses is a way of questioning one’s reality, which I think is always healthy to do. Magic doesn’t happen in the real world- it happens in your mind.

Bloom (above), Photo credit, Rachel Roze

How does your collaboration work with artists such as Ellen Rutt happen?

For the past year I’ve been teaming up on creative freelance design projects with local ginger celebrity artist, Ellen Rutt. What can I say? It’s super inspirational, and highly rewarding. I feel like when lots of artists collaborate the attitude is like, “I’m gonna do my thing over here- you go do your thing over there.” But when I work with Ellen we’re able to combine our ideas into design solutions that neither of us would make on our own.

Our process is remarkably consistent- we talk about ideas incessantly and with increasingly frenetic levels of desperation until one of us gets so dizzyingly frustrated that the future of a project becomes questionable. And then we’ll kind of snap out of it and realize, “Wow this is actually super fun! We’re basically working our dream job, and life is amazing.” Then we’ll buckle down and work like crazies and knock it out of the park. In hindsight the friction is always good- it opens up dialogue, allows for an evolution of ideas, and keeps our work feeling new.

What does the electrical engineering component add to your work?

It started off as the most daunting, challenging aspect of the whole process but now it’s probably my favorite. The biggest constraint it brings to a project is that the artwork has to be functional. Everything has to work, all the time. Everything has to be wired properly, none of the components can be broken, the electricity has to be distributed correctly and the code that controls the hardware can’t have any errors. The majority of my process is a situation where the thing doesn’t work and I’m bashing my head against the table trying to figure out why. It can be debilitatingly frustrating- one misplaced wire in a sea of thousands of connections can, and will, fuck everything over. But when it works, it’s extremely rewarding. It’s like building your own instrument and then teaching yourself how to play it.

Can you pick one piece of work that you would consider your favorite?

I think the Orbital Lamp is my favorite- it’s such a simple idea but watching it play out feels effortless, cosmic, and elegant.

What is the concept behind the show you are installing at The Playground?

Something I’ve been exploring recently, especially in the coding of these lights is how simple rules can generate systems with complexity and emergent visual behaviors. Our brains are always searching for meaning, finding patterns, pulling order out of the chaos- I think it’s fascinating.

Image Credit, Rachel Roze

Together (above), Photo credit, Rachel Roze

How long have you lived in Detroit?

I grew up on the west side of the state, in a suburb of Grand Rapids called East Kentwood. After high school I received my college education in Ann Arbor and I lived there for almost 8 years before moving to Detroit. I had friends in Detroit, and I’d been making art installations there for a few years so it wasn’t a huge move for me, but I think the night life is what really pushed me to make the jump. House music, soul music, world, funk, jazz… DJs ripping vinyl until the sun comes up. There’s a sense of isolation out here- and I think it’s a good thing. In Detroit you see a lot of people doing things for the right reasons: because it’s good, because they love it. That’s why I’m here.

What are challenges as an artist in Detroit?

I think the biggest challenge as a Detroit artist is getting exposure. Do a project in San Francisco or New York and you’re guaranteed that it’ll be seen by thousands of people, and many of those people will have the money to fund future projects. But, it’s a trade-off… living in SF or NY also means giving up personal freedoms- big ones, like space, time, and money. I’d choose keeping personal freedoms over exposure in a heartbeat.

Describe what you imagine Detroit to be in 10 years.

I’m worried that the people who are working to “revitalize” the city are losing touch with the community of residents who stayed in Detroit when everyone else left- the true makers and formers of this city. There’s a lot of money to be made in Detroit right now, and as a result the place is changing very quickly. I’m skeptical about the new change. I’m skeptical about the homogeneous culture that seems to follow money around.