Motor City’s magic is in its DNA

Unites States (Detroit)

After the success of Somos Brasil – a photography, sound and DNA exploration of Brazilian identities – British artist Marcus Lyon further developed his concept of multi-layered, interdisciplinary investigations into the human capital of different places in the world. What emerged is the Human Atlas series in collaboration with award-winning British graphic designer Jim Sutherland.

Second in the series to follow his Brazilian odyssey was WE: Deutschland, and then came a study of a city that has captured his heart: Detroit, home of the auto industry and Motown Records, and a case study in regeneration and resilience.

“Devoting three years to research, photograph, interview, DNA map and publish a book and exhibition on the change agents of the City of Detroit has been the most extraordinary gift” says Marcus. “Gritty and full of hustle on the surface, but warm and welcoming underneath – the people of the city are as amazing a group of fellow planet-dwellers that any artist could hope to study and build life-long friendships with.” This social impact art initiative is supported by the Kresge Foundation and by The Charles H. Wright Museum.


As with the other Human Atlases, the project was built around a nominations process from within the city to put forward changemakers and social innovators from every area of endeavour to feature in the work. Each of the 100 people selected recorded an oral testimony about their life in the city, had their ancestral DNA analysed with Family Tree DNA in order to build a map of their generational migration to Detroit, and had a photographic portrait taken by Marcus in the temporary studio he set up there – like this one of activist architect Tiffany Brown of social enterprise 400 Forward

idetroit 400 forward

The spoken stories from each Detroiter form part of a rich soundscape built by Rethink Audio which can be accessed via an app created by Calvium that accompanies the book and exhibition. Each limited-edition book  also includes a 45rpm 7″ single created in collaboration with Brian Eno and Detroit Techno legend Derrick May.

“The purpose of a Human Atlas is really simple,” Marcus explains. “It is to inspire a new generation to co-author their lives, not in the shadow of those who came before them, but in honour of them.”

This sentiment shines through the story of his life that Kirk Mayes, “a father, a son, a husband and a man of my community” tells through the project. Kirk explains: “the people that I feel an affinity for in Detroit, and the people that are my family in Jamaica are connected very viscerally by Africa, through blood and through slavery. The challenges that are indicative of the communities that are in Detroit that I am a part of, I don’t feel like running from that, I feel like running towards that and saying, what can I do? Because I’m a man of this community, I’m a man of this culture… and if I don’t do something about it, who else will?”

AtlasAction: Explore all the soundscapes and books on the new Human Atlas website.

Read more ► ? A Human Atlas of an American City: 5 stories from Detroit

Written by

Cathy Runciman (07 October 2020)

Project leader

Marcus Lyon, artist


This project has been selected as part of CultureFutures, a storytelling project that maps creative and cultural projects with a social mission – and the artists, collectives and entrepreneurs behind them.

Atlas of the Future is excited to join forces with Goldsmiths Institute of Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship and the British Council Creative Economy.

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