The first corpse to be dressed up was the Bridge Motel. The viewing—a sweaty, crowded, rowdy affair that smelled of rotting carpet—was held on Saturday, September 15, 2007. The hundreds and hundreds of mourners were in high spirits, but not because they were pleased that this degraded roadside stop originally built for traveling salesmen was going to be torn down to make way for townhomes. No, they were ecstatic because a deep craving was being satisfied. In the rash of development all over Seattle, buildings are summarily disappearing. Protest is futile, and anyway, not every development is bad. But memorial services are needed. We can all feel that something is happening to the city.
"This is just an outgrowth of what we've been doing," said DK Pan, sitting inside the newest corpse last week. This one, a single-story bit of 1940s modernism made of brick and curved glass at Third Avenue and Battery Street in Belltown, has been waiting for its wake for a few years. It was once a record store, a place where movie dailies were screened, and a Cruise West office, but in recent years, it has stood empty. Super-developer Martin Selig bought it and intends, according to his company's real-estate office, to erect in its place a sleek three-story commercial building. With the sagging economy, the project isn't yet under construction, and Pan and his artist partners, including NKO (pronounced "nico"), have a lease on the building through the end of the year, with the possibility of an extension. The sign on the door says Free Sheep Foundation—there are installations and video in the windows, a gallery that's open Friday afternoons inside, and further into the heart of the 10,000 square feet they've leased, a handful of artist studios and a cabaret slated to host performances.
This wake, obviously, will last considerably longer than the one for the Bridge Motel, or the similar one last November for the beloved Belmont Building in central Capitol Hill (which was replaced by a parking lot)—one-night, flaming hurrahs that included noisy, dissonant performances and the construction and destruction of art and property. Recently, the producers of these wakes have incorporated more formally (they're working on nonprofit status) and taken the name Free Sheep, which makes reference to the liberatory politics of the 1960s and '70s, and proposes that the sheep separate from the flock is not lost, just free.
What's great about Free Sheep isn't the potential for art of lasting quality. The quality of the art is secondary. Right now what's up in the building at Third and Battery is a show of paintings made exquisite-corpse style on sheets of building blueprints, aptly enough, and miscellaneous installations by Pan, NKO, Garek Druss, No Touching Ground, scntfc, Static Invasion, Amy O'Neal, Karn Junkinsmith, and Wen Marcoux, none of whom have connections to the formal Seattle art world. That's not entirely intentional: The next round will include Gretchen Bennett, an artist represented by Howard House, among others. But what draws Free Sheep artists together is their sense of theater, of event-ness, of time. "It's not really about the art, it's about the action that occurs," NKO said. "This is a temporary time zone where something real can happen." All of their interests, NKO said, "are based around the ephemeral and play and memory."
So far, the artists behind Free Sheep have delivered ephemeral monuments to the ephemeral monument we all live in, the city. They've been mythic and short-lived; the challenge now will be to preserve that spirit over the length of a three- or six-month lease. The idea is that once one lease expires, the artists will move to another disused space, or maybe even take over more than one at a time. It's a moveable feast of artists in real-estate purgatory.
Pan and NKO said Free Sheep's presence in Belltown is designed not only to give artists a space in a zone where they're otherwise marginalized, but also to brighten and lighten up the tense place, where wealthy condo dwellers and homeless crack addicts live in volatile proximity. The artists are trying to embolden the other artistic ventures in the area by pushing the Belltown Artwalk (did you know there was one?) on second Fridays. They've encouraged the artists who work in the building's front windows to change their works over time, so that the installations build up memories of their own, and eventually, narrate the impending demolition of the building itself.
Independent artists have always been on the losing end of the real-estate market, and they've often turned their work toward the subject. Didn't Mimi, Puccini's La Boheme heroine, die of consumption in part because she lived in a freezing garret? The impressionist painters spent the bulk of their lives on the move, renting one Parisian suburban house or country cottage, falling behind in payments, and disappearing to another with their wives and children in tow. Is it possible that the fleeting nature of their images is due in part to their very real lack of permanent ground? Another analogue: In the early 1970s, Gordon Matta-Clark documented the impossibility of the American dream of land ownership by buying tiny leftover properties all over New York. These Fake Estates were so small, he could do nothing more with them than occasionally visit, stand around, and flummox the actual residents.
But recent projects in Tacoma are the closest models for what Free Sheep is doing in Seattle. When a developer turned Tacoma's historic downtown Woolworth Building into a machine-filled switching station with no street-level activity, a nonprofit group stepped in and now mounts rotating art installations in the windows. The art serves as a memory holder for the building. Another installation, Winter, Season of Light, was created to commemorate the tragedy of blighted blocks where Tacoma had sold a row of central downtown buildings to Seattle developers who tore them down but then built nothing. Beginning just before midnight at the turn of the millennium, Seattle artist Iole Alessandrini transformed the area into a cathedral of memory, bathing the ruins in red, blue, and purple light all night, every night.
This went on for more than a week, until it was destroyed in a freak windstorm. Alessandrini had the option of rebuilding, but she chose not to. The fact that the art died proved it had also lived. Alessandrini, now, is on the advisory board of Free Sheep.