On the 28th floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower—where about 100 employees help customers with overdue bills and run the mail room for Seattle City Light—there's a row of five TV screens, each one turned vertically, hanging on the elevator lobby wall. They're silent and dark: turned off. They've been blank since March, when the fight over them escalated past the point of tolerance, city curator Deborah Paine says.
Here's what happened: The city's One Percent for Art program commissioned seven works for the seven lobbies of City Light's offices. One of the artists was Pittsburgh-based Kerry Skarbakka, and he created a 50-minute video epic that depicted him immersed in each of the elements—earth, water, fire, and air. It was called The Elements of Attraction. In it, wearing a pinstriped business suit and a hidden oxygen tank, Skarbakka swims through murky blue-green water, past eerily swaying trees. He taped that part in an overflooded lake in Arkansas. In another segment, footage of him leaping through a flame has been slowed down: What you see in the video is his body gradually emerging from a blazing fire three times from various angles, then him exiting stage left. In each part, the artist is calm and seemingly at peace, which contrasts with the extreme environments.
The other segments of the video, involving sand dunes and a hot-air balloon (called the Emerald Shazzam), presented no problem to any workers on the 28th floor. But a protest began when one City Light employee said walking past the art, and looking at it while waiting for the elevator, brought back past memories of a house fire. Another said the art triggered painful thoughts about a relative who had drowned. The workers had seen the art as it was being installed—and at the opening on December 16, 2008, a few of them approached the artist. He had been warned, and he explained that there was no death and no pain in the video, and that he intended it to be "cool and fun, colorful and intense," he now says, in a phone interview.
But the complaints did not stop. Over the course of three months, Paine and City Light bosses held several meetings with the workers to talk about the art, but it only made the grievances more entrenched, Paine says. The two employees who originally protested gained sympathy from coworkers; a knot of 10 or 15 employees, depending on the day, became involved, according to Paine. Other workers testified to enjoying the piece, she says. (City Light denied a request to interview the employees.) Formal complaints were filed: The protesters wanted the art to move, but if it didn't, then they were asking for their work areas to be moved instead.
Frustrated by the entrenchment, Paine offered to recommission the artist to make something new. (The piece is part of the Portable Works collection and could be moved to another floor, but Paine calculates that would cost about as much as a new commission because of its technical complexity—and who knows what reactions it would provoke there.) The piece was having technical difficulties anyway, so she turned it off. Paine had $25,000 left in the budget for the lobby artworks, and Skarbakka accepted the new $25,000 commission. (His first commission was $40,000.) "I'm not a therapist, I was just making artwork that I thought was pretty cool," Skarbakka says. "I really thought everybody was going to like it, and it didn't turn out to be as well-received. I think maybe the imagery was bringing back some bad emotions, so I agreed that I would modify segments of the video to take that edge off. I'm going to modify it to the point that I'm removing the bodily element from what's going on. It seems to be that that's where the problem lies, is these figures underwater or moving through fiery space, I think. I'm not sure—I have no real idea—but all I'm trying to do is replace portions that may cause issue. I actually don't know all of what may be the problem with it. So in my mind, I'm just trying to produce something as good as before for them and in a different way. I'm still editing. I'm just trying to be sensitive. It's their workplace, not mine... And I'm still one poor guy. I'm glad to have the new commission in this economy."
"It was kind of a win-win," Paine says. The employees are happy—or will be, given that they approve of the new segments. The artist got a steady paycheck and a trip to Honduras and Guatemala to shoot more colorful underwater footage. And the city is bringing its projects in on budget.
But questions still hang in the dead air around the blank video screens on the 28th floor: What kind of precedent does this set? And does public art necessarily have to be neutered—have to "take that edge off"—to exist?
"That was a powerful piece, and that's what you look for—it's just you can't leave some of that stuff hanging around," says longtime Seattle public artist Jack Mackie. "It's hard. It's hard to figure out what gets to go in public and what doesn't."
Curator Beth Sellars, who runs the downtown installation lab Suyama Space, used to have Paine's job and says she's sympathetic to Paine's position. But Sellars says she handled similar situations differently. After 9/11, when Municipal Tower workers complained that a five-by-seven-foot Gaylen Hansen painting of a crow pressed in upon by a crush of red grasshoppers reminded them too much of terrorism, Sellars refused to remove the painting. In fact, when it was time for the painting to rotate, she sent it to an even more prominent location in the Regional Justice Center. Sometimes the art is resonating because it's hitting a nerve, she says, but sometimes people are just looking for something to pin unrelated annoyances on. "You could ask the person at City Light, 'Do you avoid driving by the Sound? Do you not take a bath?' It's just easier to take it out on the art," Sellars says.
"To do another one, I think that's kind of pandering," she says. "I know how it is, and I think Deborah's done a really good job, but there are a lot of people on that floor. Ten people complaining? You hate to have those people dictating what's going to happen. It's a real bad precedent to set, and it's a lot of money to keep moving something without the assurance that you're not going to have 10 bitchy people again."
Paine admits that, in her view, the video was not the problem: "It wasn't anything like what [the protesters] perceived it to be, but once an idea gets in somebody's head, they kind of go with it." She says the decision was partly undertaken to avoid bad publicity for the public art program at City Light, which was already weakened by a 2004 lawsuit that limited how the agency's art money can be spent.
Norie Sato, who has been making public art in Seattle since the 1970s, says people have particularly strong feelings about public art because they can't control other aspects of their built environment: whether a Wal-Mart moves in next door, for instance. Paine, who managed Microsoft's collection for a decade before coming to the City of Seattle, experienced this firsthand. One disgruntled Microsoft employee decided he hated a Chuck Close portrait of Philip Glass so much that he or she took it down and sent Paine a ransom note—eventually she discovered the art hidden behind a fire-wall door. She left that area of the office art-free after that. "It was grand larceny!" she says. "There's crazy people out there. Sometimes they're just having a bad day and they like the art the next day. If you can't complain about anything else, you can complain about the art."
Even after Skarbakka completes the new commission—he hopes to finish it this summer—the city will still own the original work by the artist. In a way, it joins the ranks of other works that city employees skip over when they're picking the art for their offices from the already existing collection. That art is like a problem shelter animal: Nobody wants it. "No one chooses them because they're deemed violent or weird, or they have to do with nudity or dancing skeletons or something," Paine says. So her office on the 17th floor takes in those cases. To see an exhibition of public art rejects, take the elevator up to 17.