INCA: Institute for New Connotative Action. Aeron Bergman / Alejandra Salinas

The Seattle art venue INCA used to be in a flimsy warehouse resembling a personal storage shed in Sodo. Today, it's housed in the prominent storefront of a corner brick building in Lower Queen Anne. The building had been a ruin for almost five years when INCA arrived a few months ago with the tools that laid the smooth concrete floor and uncovered the redwood beams of the original ceiling.

INCA, which focuses on language in and as art, specializes in transformations and translations.

The name INCA, standing for Institute for New Connotative Action, was intended to be "over-the-top serious," said INCA cofounder Alejandra Salinas. "But the idea was always to frame INCA the 'institute' as a parody that was also sincere in our mission."

"In the Quechua language, the term 'Inca' referred to the ruling class, not to everyone," said Salinas, who is from Spain. "So when the Spanish invaders arrived, they named the whole people Inca and the place the Inca Empire. This says more about the Spanish conquistadors than about the people who spoke Quechua. Language expresses power: The naming of things invents things."

Its next exhibition, Unstoppable, opens December 18, featuring materials and instructions for making low-cost DIY bulletproof clothing in response to Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Cullors's question "What would technology for black lives be?" The artists and activists Edxie Betts, micha cárdenas, Kiyomi Fujikawa, C. Davida Ingram, and Nikkita Oliver will lead a conversation about direct-action protection.

Salinas and cofounder Aeron Bergman are artists who met, fell in love, and began collaborating at art school in Toronto in 1995. They've since shown their own work in sound, music, video, and performance—which is deserving of its own separate story—in many cities, including Berlin, Paris, Mexico City, New York, Tokyo, Bangkok, and Melbourne. Five years ago, they founded INCA in Detroit, Bergman's hometown. Two and a half years ago, after coming to Seattle to teach at the University of Washington Bothell, they opened INCA Seattle, and they've mounted 22 exhibitions here.

INCA isn't like anything else in Seattle today. It's international but idiosyncratic. The shows represent a network of artists that Salinas and Bergman know through their years of living and teaching across the United States, Europe, and in the Palestinian city of Ramallah. In 2016, INCA will host a series of conversations with Seattle-area artists Max Kraushaar, Gretchen Bennett, Paul Berger, Rob Rhee, and Jessica Powers (and TARL), plus Seattle poet Melanie Noel (who curates a reading series in her grandmother's car), and Montreal-based writer Nasrin Himada.

Last October, the young New York video artist and performer Sondra Perry led a chanting public protest in the park across the street from INCA. Rather than give an artist talk, she invited the crowd of viewer/participants back into the gallery from the cold outdoors to talk among themselves about how to address racist police violence against the backdrop of her videos, stories that star and were coauthored by her actual extended family in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.

"INCA is a political space, but instead of generating statements, we create a space to have conversations," Salinas said. "We think art always does this: the social life of the object."

Tea and cookies: every art must have its snacks and drinks. Aeron Bergman / Alejandra Salinas

Art objects are on display at INCA, but the emphasis is on ideas expressed in words and printed materials. In November, Salinas and Bergman organized the exhibition Great Views, a retrospective of Konsthall 323, an art institution housed in a series of small four-seater cars.

Konsthall 323 was created in 2010 by Frida Krohn and Ylva Trapp, two artists who studied with Salinas and Bergman when they taught in Stockholm. Great Views included color photographs of the three Konsthall 323 locations thus far: a blue Mazda 323, a red Volkswagen Golf, and the rented black Ford Fiesta they used as their museum-car while they were in Seattle, hosting two visitors at a time for rides and discussions. Earlier shows had also included the actual display of art resting on the dashboard, leaning against the stick shift, et cetera. Coffee and cookies were always provided, because every art institution has its cafe aspect.

Salinas and Bergman run the space mostly on their teaching salaries "and lots of hustle. But INCA works only because of the generosity of friends, allies, and strangers who believe in and understand the project." It's open four days a week now, and the landlords of INCA's current home, Raj and Akhil Shah (and building manager Bobby Frank), have donated the space to the artists for at least one more year—they believe in and understand the project.

"We wanted to create this space that had this... affection," Salinas said, while she and Bergman sat in INCA's window on a recent early evening.

INCA is "a very personal project," Bergman added.

"Connotative action," they explained, takes place somewhere in the hazy territory of collective consciousness, within the sticky web where your brain meets all the other brains that speak its language. Connotative is opposed to denotative. The denotative meanings of a word are literal. Connotative meanings are the word's associations, all those feelings and references and impressions that come up when you hear it. Synonyms mean the same thing (denotatively) but they connote differently; their shades differ, which is why we struggle to pick the right one, to manipulate the terms.

"Language is used as a tool for oppression and willful ignorance: Stephen Colbert's joke about 'truthiness' pointed this out for the millionth time," Salinas explained.

Yes, and language also comes out of haphazardly individual mouths, which is why INCA is, in equal measure, intellectual and personal. (Microsoft Word synonyms for personal: private, own, special, peculiar, delicate, subjective, respective, intimate, not public. Antonym: public.)

I asked Bergman and Salinas why they collaborated as artists in the first place. They were giving me a ride to the bus stop in their car in between appointments. She was eight months pregnant with their first child, a daughter. They were both in the front seat.

Bergman: "Any female artist anywhere has to deal right away with the myth of the artist because it's Picasso, it's... male genius—"

Salinas: "Yes, and it hasn't died."

Bergman: "So an artist duo immediately complicates that."

Salinas: "There's no such thing as a lone genius sitting in a vacuum... Many people work the same way, but the market picks one guy to represent all of it. Jan Verwoert calls that the 'Who's the Man' problem. It's never about one person, one nationality, or one gender... But really, it started by accident, because we met so young, and we loved each other." recommended