All over the floor are these fallen streetlights, like avalanched boulders. It's 11:30 on a Friday night in a former condiment factory south of downtown Seattle, and eight of us are trespassing, shining flashlights at the dead lights and the pigeon shit three inches thick before we climb the stairs to the second (and top) floor.
It's right to visit in the dark, since the lights have already gone out on this place. Sometime soon—it could be anytime, since the permit for demolition has been granted, and timing just depends on the demo company's schedule—everything up on the second floor will come crashing down. Then all of it will be swept away.
Upstairs we make out flashes and flickers of what will collapse and disappear: wood-paneled rooms with mossy floors that feel like sheepskin rugs, banks of full-length lockers (turquoise) marked with names in black cursive letters ("W. L. Schaller"), cracked windows, toilets and sinks, a decades-old stack of tiny boxed maxi pads, empty dispensers of things. At some moment in the demolition, there'll be a shower of papers dating back as far as 1954: handwritten payroll ledgers, typewritten notes payable, orders for cherries and strawberries and raspberries.
There isn't a lot of talking. The eerie atmosphere has a quieting effect. But when we get into what was apparently the accounting department, where wooden drawers have already spilled their contents onto the floor, someone blurts out: "People came here to work every day. They had office romances. They suffered a death in the family. They hated the boss. They loved the boss."
When the remainders of these events finally fall, a 9,000-square-foot art installation will join them in the crash: The walls have been covered in storms of black paint, and one room is a cemetery of pallets arranged to form arched walkways and headstones, overseen by life-size prints of owls wheat-pasted on perches around the space, watching. All the art is in funereal tones, as if it formed a united team of zombie pallbearers, holding up the coffin and waiting for the cue.
The artists are NKO, No Touching Ground, and Dan Hawkins. Hawkins chose the place, played assistant to the other two—including hauling pallets, on foot, on dollies up and down streets in the middle of the night—and then photographed their results. Hawkins's interest is deep: He's been photographing derelict buildings around the country (starting here, at home, and working out to coal country and Detroit) for 15 years. This often involves trespassing and ignoring criminal behaviors going on while he's photographing (he never turns his lens on people). But Hawkins is just a regular working guy who manages projects for an aerospace company (not Boeing, though he's sometimes contracted by Boeing, whose old buildings he's talked his way into photographing).
NKO and No Touching Ground are styled more as artists and outsiders. They go by their street names (it's pronounced "Nico"; both are men) and they do street stuff—solicited and unsolicited graffiti; this project is very much unsolicited, so they've asked to keep their real names out of the paper—and at least one of them has extraordinarily messy hair. But their projects are not about getting their names out there or getting in trouble. They're primarily social-memorial artists, like Hawkins in his way, and there's a soft side to what they do, almost as if they're consciously countering conventional street-art machismo.
Last year, NKO covered an entire white van in the mournful words of a Haruki Murakami novel, until it was almost solid black. No Touching Ground's signature: wild, almost spiritual animals, like owls. He was a high-school art teacher until he was laid off in the recession last year; both artists have worked to help Free Sheep Foundation put together huge, free, art-centered bacchanalian send-offs for beloved city haunts slated for demolition (the Bridge Motel in Fremont, the Belmont on Capitol Hill).
The best street art always rallies people, gets them organized, even if it's in some undefined way. (See Keith Haring, even Banksy.) This new installation, called tomb, has logistical limits in terms of bringing people together. I've been asked not to tell you which building it is so you don't try to visit (some people will read that as a challenge, to whom I can't help but say: Go for it!). And the place could disappear from the map at any moment. But even if that happens before this story is printed, tomb will be the subject of an installation at the public Gallery4Culture next year, incorporating new paintings and posters as well as Hawkins's haunted photographs. And already it is a success by the other metric with which street art is judged: the power to create meaning for places that's unrelated to ownership of those places. Sacha Jenkins, in Jon Naar's book of photographs of the birth of graffiti in New York in the late '60s and early '70s, writes, "The first wave of snot-nosed knuckleheads who were willing to bleed for fame called the sport 'writing.'"
And that's what you need to know about tomb: It's narrative. The writing on the walls made visible. It'll hover there like smoke; then it'll be gone.
It's not such a grandiose achievement, that. But the way street art has moved in the last 20 years—deep into the crass, stupid logic of high-priced art—it's a relief and a minor miracle to experience major projects that are more than egotistical spectacles. Don't believe me? Watch Exit Through the Gift Shop, which opens this week at the Harvard Exit. It's a hilarious and brilliant movie by the elusive British street artist Banksy, telling the story of "street" "artist" Mr. Brainwash, possibly the dumbest dangerous artist living, if he even is who he says he is (some question whether he's another Banksy act, which would be delightful).
Mr. Brainwash, in the film, is Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman with a penchant for saying things like "Everything that I do, somewhere, brainwashes your face." The basis for his art—very big, very expensive (he sets his own prices, of course) colored prints and paintings—is celebrities and consumer products. If Warhol threw up, and then Damien Hirst threw up on top of that, and then the throwup threw up, Mr. Brainwash's work would be the result. And yet hundreds of people show up to his openings, buy the art, and pronounce how happy they are that this art isn't all snotty and exclusive. Here the banality is actually banal. The brainlessness is not ironic. The hype is the only meaning. Two hundred kids are standing in a line to get into the show because 199 other kids are standing in the line. In the film, Mr. Brainwash makes Banksy—who can be ingenious but has not been above an empty publicity stunt (painted elephant? Really?)—look like a monk. Banksy comes across as the smartest guy in the movie. Go figure: He directed. But Exit Through the Gift Shop is not a grisly dissection of the hump that has metastasized on the back of street art since it became popular. It's a funny-as-hell comedy. When Banksy was challenged about the veracity of the film, his defense was: You think I could have made that up?
Exit Through the Gift Shop is one side of the coin of street art today, tomb the other. They couldn't be more different, but they'd like each other for sure. Where Exit is a warning about how flat the art can become, tomb is a demonstration of depth of field. NKO's black paintings reveal themselves through rows of doors, unfolding down corridors. They don't depict images and don't use words. They follow the architecture, responding to it violently, with slashes and sprays, or sympathetically, with distant echoes of what came before; for instance, the dish-soap dispenser that clearly used to hang in that spot but now is gone. NKO's walls are very nearly sonic. No Touching Ground's room is where the bodies are buried: the owls sitting at attention, the wooden crosses (based on photographs of real cemetery markers from a remote village in Alaska, where the artist's from) standing erect, the pallets resting on each other's backs. Street art is dead. Long live street art.