Pocket Utopias and the Perennial Game of Death and Resurrection
People keep telling me that most people who live in Seattle were born elsewhere. I can’t find any data to link to, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this was true. I moved here in 2003 for the MFA program at the University of Washington, and from my vantage point, it sure does seem like lots of Midwesterners and West Coast suburbanites make Seattle a transitional stopping-off point on their way from someplace “worse” to someplace “better.” Those who are primarily drawn to what big city livin’ has to offer rarely stay. Our artists, as I have discussed in an earlier post, are only enticed to “bloom where they’re planted” if they feel that some aspect of Northwest culture—often in the form of enviable proximity to the wilderness—has an important role to play in their work.
The oft-lamented architecture of Seattle is a palimpsest of the various waves of upwardly mobile flux the city has played host to since the Klondike gold rush brought the first trainsful of opportunists. Most recently, this has meant the rapid “gentrification” of traditionally lower-income areas of the city, where buildings are unceremoniously felled on an almost daily basis.
In September of 2007, artist D.K. Pan and a number of co-conspirators who call themselves the Free Sheep Foundation created the temporary art installation of the century inside the condemned Bridge Motel on Aurora. The project was the first in a well-documented and well-attended series of art projects that created ecstatic monuments to doomed buildings.
Until last week, a slightly more conservative, publicly funded cousin to the Motel projects could be observed in the temporary art project STart on Broadway, which featured street-level installations from more than two dozen artists in the two city blocks that are slated for demolition to make way for Sound Transit’s new Link Light Rail station.
A large part of the appeal of these projects is their ephemerality. Since all of these buildings are destined for demolition, participating artists have had rare opportunities to make drastic, subversive alterations to the physical structures themselves. The Bridge Motel had Jack Daws and Faith Ramos’s roofless, indoor campfire; STart had Joanna Lepore’s Reclaim (ACE), a post-apocalyptic snapshot of an Ace Cash Express being left at the mercy of nature. Like all good living things, the death of these projects was implied with their inception.
Seattle conceptual artists SuttonBeresCuller have just taken the art of urban reclamation one step further, envisioning a permanent pocket utopia on a site too toxic for developers to touch. Their recently launched project website minimartcitypark.com details one of Seattle’s most ambitious appropriations of architectural obsolescence since Gas Works Park was forged from the ashes of a former coal processing plant. Scheduled to open to the public in March 2010, the trio’s Mini Mart City Park is determined to become “a pocket park, public sculpture, and environmental intervention,” according to the project’s statement:
We will design, construct, plant and maintain a public green space and botanical conservatory in the former Perovich Bros. Gas Station in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle. This multifaceted installation will blur the boundaries between art, architecture, and green design. […] Elements of the original building will be utilized and transformed–refrigerated display cases will be converted to climate-controlled environments, simulating tropical, temperate and arid ecosystems. The park will include a meandering path, trees, fountains, and park benches.
Their statement doesn’t mention the logistic hardships, back-breaking labor, and bureaucratic red tape that continue to stand between the artists and the realization of their goals. The incomparable Kelly Igoe has written a piece for WorldChanging Seattle detailing these obstacles and what it will mean to have overcome them.
As American cities go, Seattle is precariously close to the edge of so-called civilization. We are so close to the wilderness here that we can press on it—and actually feel it pressing back. We are constantly embedded in a wet web of life and death, where mosses and mushrooms perform their mysterious rites in (what passes for) broad daylight. In this respect, Seattle artists are perfectly poised to provide a ray of hope even as the illusory notion of an American Way of Life based on unsustainably cheap energy collapses in a rusty heap on Rick Wagoner’s private runway.
If Americans hope to live gracefully in the inevitable post-petroleum purgatory awaiting us, we are going to have to overcome our cultural delusion that resources are infinite and objects can be thrown “away.” We need to reevaluate our relationship to that most-abused mythological tenet and actually learn what it means to play the perennial game of death and resurrection. SuttonBeresCuller have begun by performing the role of decomposers, breathing new life into architectural obsolescence through the transformation of outdated infrastructure. The conversion of a gas station into a community green space is a small step for mankind, but it’s also a potent symbol for the road ahead.
For more information about Mini Mart City Park, visit the project’s website minimartcitypark.com.