You might have seen it from your car or on the news: a desert island floating in Lake Washington. It looked iconic, cartoony, utterly out of place, and weirdly beautiful. Tiny, sandy, dominated by a palm tree and a scattering of large (fake) rocks, it appeared there on a Sunday night one month ago. On Monday morning a concerned but confused citizen called 911 to report a capsized vessel, and 911 responded by sending a squadron of fire engines to the shore of the lake. That afternoon the island was repositioned closer to the 520 bridge. Commuters freaked. Radio traffic reporters freaked. KUOW warned listeners about "some kind of performance-art island... causing a huge distraction" and a KIRO reporter intoned, "Nobody can still figure out what's going on... There's a little floating island with a palm tree on it... If you want to get across the lake, skip 520."
The island's three occupants, John Sutton, Ben Beres, and Zac Culler—they make art under the name SuttonBeresCuller—had enough supplies (food, water, tequila) to live on the island for four days. When they had to return to shore after 24 hours, because they lost their anchor, they'd already done what they wanted to do. They'd jammed traffic. They'd had news helicopters hovering above them. "We don't want to speak to just an arts audience," Sutton says. "We don't make art for the elite few who've studied art history. Art should be accessible and it should make an impact."
"It was brilliant because it was the last thing someone would expect to see," says Vital 5 Productions' Greg Lundgren, who helped produce The Island. "When you can put things that should not exist in a context people are familiar with—people drive over that bridge every day and they never see what's around them—people have to pay attention to it. Anytime you've made something that people are going to remember for the rest of their lives, you've succeeded." Lundgren describes the artists as "evangelists about getting people to realize they can do whatever they want and they can do it without permission. I think they have a sincere desire to change the way people think about the world and their own lives."
Sutton, Beres, and Culler have been changing the way people think about the world since the late '90s, when the three of them met in the sculpture lab at Cornish. Their first piece together was a seven-foot-tall cinderblock wall they built in the middle of the night to seal off a section of the school in protest of tightening administrative policies. Some professors found it hilarious and apt. The administration, never able to prove who did it, was incensed.
"I remember not really understanding collaborative art, and I was kind of against it 10 years ago," Culler says, "but then we all started working together and it became really clear really fast how much larger the scope of your work can be if you work with other people." By 2001, the three of them were building new installations in Sutton's senior studio at Cornish every other week. In one of the simplest but most talked about pieces, they locked the door to the studio and filled the hallway with thousands of keys. An increasingly frenzied crowd ended up breaking down the door. Local curators started paying attention, and by the fall of 2002 SuttonBeresCuller had simultaneous shows at Consolidated Works and Suyama Space, both of which tested, in various ways, the audience's relationship to built environments.
"We like art as an active experience, not a static experience, not decoration," says Beres. Their work centers on inventing ways to engage viewers, to force them to participate in situations and make decisions and to keep them in a state of suspense. This focus and the trio's technical talents came together remarkably with Three-Day Weekend, a cluttered trailer home with a transparent floor suspended above crowds at ConWorks last spring. Amateur performers occupied the trailer—a different volunteer family made it their home every night, some with kids and one with a cat. For five-hour stretches the people inside the trailer watched TV, played games, rubbed their feet together, microwaved food, drank, made out, chased the cat, peed—all while a rapt crowd (including the artists) stood below, gawking. It felt inappropriate, wrong, and invasive to watch, especially from below—as if you were looking up the skirt of these people's lives—which was why it was so fun and obscure. The performers' participation implied they were comfortable being gawked at, so the audience had to contend directly with how comfortable they were to be gawking. A lot of people wanted to watch but didn't want to want to watch—a conflicted state of mingled voyeuristic compulsion and self-disgust—and each night the show was more crowded than the last. I went on the first night and then rearranged my schedule so I could go the next two nights as well; several friends did the same thing. Buoyed by positive press and unbelievable word-of-mouth, Three-Day Weekend went into encore performances.
"Their work survives a rigorous intellectual, theoretical challenge, and it looks super cool—how many pieces can marry those two?" enthuses Matthew Richter, founding artistic director of ConWorks, who created that organization's artist-in-residency program specifically for SuttonBeresCuller in 2003. "That's why they're masterpieces. Because they work on all of those levels."
Three-Day Weekend has since been dismantled, although a lot of what it suggested—about habitation, about the shapes homes take, about the inherent appeal and discomfort making quotidian realities transparent—will surface again next year in Salt Lake City, Utah, at the Salt Lake Fine Arts Center, where the artists will live (literally) for two months straight.
For the time being, SuttonBeresCuller have repurposed the frame of Three-Day Weekend's trailer and built a new piece called There Goes the Neighborhood, which is half a living room. It's three walls, a roof, a chimney (complete with smoke), windows, a chandelier of flame-shaped bulbs (on), a porch light and standing lamp (also on), a table, a loveseat, a recliner, a working TV and VCR, and tchotchkes like a coffee mug emblazoned with who needs hair with a body like this. It hitches to the back of their van. They've been parking it, and bewildering audiences rarely face-to-face with art, all over King County.
During lunch hour on a workday a couple weeks ago There Goes the Neighborhood was in the middle of downtown Bellevue. Sutton, Beres, and Culler sat inside it eating cereal and watching a movie in their pajamas. "We're watching TV. People don't necessarily want to interrupt. It's a strange thing," said Sutton, who then observed, "They're watching without wanting to let us know they're watching." A woman walked by and actively avoided looking while the children with her excitedly pointed. A businessman in a suit took a hard look at the scene, pressed his tongue into his cheek, and continued on silently. A couple walked by. As soon as they were out of earshot of the artists, he said, "Ask them," and she said, "Ask them?" and he insisted, "Ask them." She looked back, considered this, decided against it, and walked on.