The floor is making you do things. It's a work of art, but let's deal with it first as a floor.
The floor is divided into parallel segments. They stretch from the door area of Suyama Space to the entrance of the Belltown architecture firm Suyama Peterson Deguchi at the back of the building. Each segment of floor is a strip of colored vinyl, in every color of the rainbow plus gray. To go forward, you choose a color.
Walk forward in the narrow path of your choice, and soon you arrive at the other side. What now? Turn around and come back? Yes, but if you stay on this color, you will merely go back and forth, back and forth. So it's time to cross between rows, from color to color, to push through the corn stalks, as it were.
It's the harder way because there are black borders sticking up between the paths. The borders are low, certainly not insurmountable. But they're just high enough that you'll need to lift a foot slightly higher than usual to step over them. While you're doing that, you tip off balance a little—it turns out the width of the path is awkward: too narrow for two normal steps, wider than one. You're marching a little, but it's an unfamiliar stretch-march.
The artist, Veit Stratmann, describes his floor as a game where you discover the unwritten rules yourself. He also calls it "an awareness zone." You're aware because the zone forces you to make conscious choices continuously: which way, how many steps, what about that other person, how soon will we intersect if we keep on our current trajectories, et cetera.
Other people arrive. The floor makes them do things. None of these people is the delivery guy. He will come later and change the terms of all this. But you don't know that. You want to see what these other people do, so you watch them surreptitiously. Plus, you want to avoid being gawkily squished too close to some other semi-trapped, semi-balanced soul.
Stratmann's title is The Seattle Floor. It's the same basic concept as floors Stratmann has made in recent years in Paris, where he lives, in Germany, where he was born and raised, and in Switzerland and Pennsylvania. But when I set eyes on it last week before the opening, I wondered whether Stratmann was making a local reference. Here's what came to my mind's eye: the rainbow crosswalks painted this summer on Capitol Hill, by order of the city's first openly gay mayor.
"The difference is, the crosswalks are univocal political messages—it's the gay community or the peace question, one of those two," Stratmann said. (It's gay, not peace, for the record.) "It's not an open thing. It's a statement. I think that"—he points at The Seattle Floor—"is not a statement, it's a proposal, and that's what I do. A work of art in the best case is a good question. If I'm lucky, it's a question raised at a good moment in the right spot and it's intelligent enough. That, I think, is all I can do.
"If I assume that to choose is the smallest unit of every political or social action, then I would be very happy if the decision of walking over [The Seattle Floor] would be an oscillation between making form and making the beginning of a social and political gesture," he told me as we sat on the staircase near the installation it took him three weeks to build. He squirmed and pushed his back against the wall, sore from the work of leveling the old Suyama Space wood floor before building the art.
To recap: Choosing to walk this floor is a series of decisions. Decisions are the smallest unit of social and political action. Check. But what about the third leg of the syllogism? Choosing to walk this floor is a social and political action? As the artist admits, each choice made in walking this floor leads only to the possibility of making more choices about how to walk this floor. These decisions lead nowhere, except more decision making.
He explained being caught in a gap. The gap exists, for him, between his ethical responsibility as a citizen—there are many things he would like to protest—and his ethical responsibility as an artist. (I believe him. He comes across as someone in the long line of abstractionists who hide utopian intentions inside blank forms in an attempt to keep them from falling into the wrong hands. He flinches at utopianism when I ask him about it directly, but says he's open to the romanticism in his floor, which appears most directly in its dreamy colored reflections on the white walls and the silver pipes in the ceiling.)
"What I need to do as an artist, I think, is to create discourse or debate," he said. "I have to open the debate, and as soon as I get to be a militant participant of something, I close the debate."
In political terms, The Seattle Floor is a sort of abstract-art version of a nonpartisan get-out-the-vote campaign. It's not tied to a candidate or a cause. It just wants to move you, and not in the arty emotional way. It's making a physical challenge that has to be translated intellectually.
I would like to believe that walking this floor can provoke thoughts that will lead to decisions that will lead to actions that add up to what Stratmann characterizes as militant participation.
But just as this floor would be absurd for a person using a wheelchair, its mental gamesmanship has a leisurely, European, Marcel Duchamp–like, detached vibe that would probably irritate, say, a contemporary Seattle activist experiencing the fear of imminent danger to people or planet. Those people are not imaginary. Seattle streets recently have seen an upsurge in protesters marching over those cheery rainbow crosswalks. The crosswalks aren't supposed to be art. They're supposed to be symbols of gay pride. But it used to be unmissable that you were in a gay neighborhood. Now the rainbows decorate the displacement of decades of queer counterculture, as luxury shops and restaurants multiply around them. Color and line are so easily mobilized for anything and everything.
Stratmann, born in 1960, inherited the Germany of World War II. When I asked, he admitted that it is "those 12 years" of Nazism that make him "nervous" when he hears a message providing reassurance to a population, any message. His generation might fear art invested with the power of a state more than art divested of power and reduced to commodity. What results is an art that's removed and theoretical, tentative and ultimately opiate despite its intelligence and convictions. It's hamstrung somewhere in between do-gooding and cocktail-party-innocuous. I'm thinking Stratmann would prefer wealthy overlords to ideological ones, but his work is locked in this curious grip, where fascists and CEOs hold hands in early 21st-century art. There is no easy out, but this does not feel like action-motivating art.
There's one part of The Seattle Floor that fails physically. Stratmann's floors usually go in art spaces, which are functional dead ends, in that nobody has to pass through them for non-art-related purposes. But at Suyama Space, the architects and the people who visit them and deliver their mail have to walk across the floor to come and go, even to get to the bathrooms. So for safety's sake, Stratmann had to make the black borders between the colors rubber, not his usual hard metal. I might never have discovered this.
But while I was obediently navigating the art by respecting those borders, a man delivering packages came in and traipsed right across, perfectly workmanlike, crushing the borders underfoot as if they meant nothing. I was shocked. I looked around to see if any authorities were going to scold me, but I was alone now, so I pressed my foot on the nearest border to test its effectiveness. Sure enough, it was soft, like any metaphor. I would need to devise a whole new set of rules for walking.