There is a beautiful lake in Burien that's hidden. It is called Lake Burien. Its surface is 44 acres and its deepest point is 29 feet down. When people first move to Burien, they have no idea that Burien has a lake. When they find out about it, they can only get stolen glimpses of it: glimmering from behind a stand of trees, shining through a chain-link fence, glassed off and contained by the windows of the houses that sit on the lake's edge. The people who own the lakeside houses are the only ones who have access to the lake, despite the fact that federal law deems any lake surface of this size to be public. The public could be dropped from the sky into the lake, but the public cannot cross private property to get in. A group of people calling themselves the Committee to Free Lake Burien has been trying for a few months to change that, because a piece of lakeside land is opening up and is zoned for a park, but with little success. This civic cause recently was taken up by an art project. On July 2, a group of artists and thinkers led by German city-philosopher Thomas Sieverts took a walking tour of Burien that culminated in Sieverts's son Boris rallying for the cause of the lake.
How can Lake Burien access be an art project? Easily: Think of it as a line drawing, just one added to a real map—a proposed earthwork. The marks of people traipsing down to the waterfront would generate a spindly new design on the land and, more importantly, generate a new in-between social space connecting the hyperconstructed Olde Burien shopping area and the close-by but unseen wilderness (now privatized) of the lake.
Critics of the proposal have written that a public lakeside would become a "hooligan" haven, open not only to crude displays of low-class behavior but also to environmental destruction. Of course the "public" does not consist of dutiful, litter-llergic organic picnickers, but the day we decide private interests are more deserving than public ones is the day we lose everything.
The prospects aren't good for the cause: City of Burien manager Mike Martin flatly told B-Town Blog this spring, "We are not interested. We have not discussed it." But the artistic point is not lost. The artistic point is to refind and reenvision land as a cultural construct that might be, or could be, turned into sketch form. How could even the least possessed of us be—or how are we already—artists of the landscape where we live?
Leading this artistic charge is the writer Matthew Stadler, who has written extensively and provocatively on Sieverts's idea of "Zwischenstadt," or a zone "in between" old city centers and rural outposts. Stadler, a Northwest stalwart formerly based in Seattle (and once a Stranger editor), is now based in Portland and applies Sieverts's theory to nearby Beaverton. In Seattle, Stadler's target—or one of them—is Burien, which is how his megaproject suddenly, also envisioned and curated by Reed College's Stephanie Snyder, landed there in early July.
Just as the artists and thinkers involved in suddenly are devoted to discovering new or underknown routes through familiar landscapes, suddenly itself cuts a swath more around the art world than through it. At each of its incarnations since 2008, in Portland, Pomona, and now Seattle (and it will continue to migrate around the globe), suddenly has included what can easily be seen as a fairly standard gallery exhibition of art objects, photographs, paintings, and documentations of actions. But it also has included meals in abandoned parking lots, talks, writings, film screenings, and the adaptation of a forested section of the Interstate 5 median near mile marker 27 into a temporary human habitat.
Blown-up hand-scribbled maps to this temporary habitat—with written directions—were part of the Seattle gallery exhibition, which was only up for 10 days (from July 5 to 15). It took place not in an established gallery but in an unmarked storefront in Occidental Square, undefined between galleries, law firms, and high-end furnishing shops. People passing by asked each other, "What is this?" Some went in, some didn't.
Part of the exhibition was well traveled in art circles: photographs of Skagit River Delta utopias by brothers Eli Hansen and Oscar Tuazon previously displayed at Howard House and Seattle Art Museum; meth-lab-looking/hooch-bubbling homemade distillers with semilegal contents and handblown glass bottles containing tinctures made of material gathered from Northwest superspots like a Green River Killer dump site and Chief Sealth's grave by Hansen and Joey Piecuch, seen at Helm Gallery in Tacoma. "Semilegal" is the key concept—as artist Molly Dilworth has written, suddenly's interest is not in breaking rules outright but in worming around in loopholes. Objects, images, and locations that don't fit categories work to this end: If you notice posters around the city that feature a person above a series of words and that look like a cross between public-service announcements and advertisements, those are from the suddenly exhibition, which distributed them free with encouragement that they be posted, by the artist Marc Joseph Berg.
The hot center of the suddenly exhibition was around back, in a side room with a shelf—the "gallery" space was blatantly repurposed from an unspecific past, with a giant built-in filing cabinet on one wall and this shelving area on the other side—on which sat a video of Stadler and Boris Sieverts "flying over" the greater Seattle area on Google Earth while discussing/discovering what they were seeing and three photographs of dark and watery places at the edge of the Pacific Ocean where people have died. Zoe Crosher's romantically conceived but visually dreary photographs paired with the sober knowledge-seeking of the virtual explorers captures the dual heart of suddenly, its pragmatism and its idealism, its grounding in the present but its reaching into other tenses.
In a demonstration of how to apply their ideas, Stadler and Sieverts looked down at the land from the eyes of Google Earth searching for paths that have been created informally, away from the scars of superhighways and carvings of residential culs-de-sac. There were many of these paths, made by use alone. They fall just outside what is visible to a mainstream land user, suggesting that other worlds are as close by as across that stand of trees, that other ways are right there, right here.
A thematically related show is still ongoing: I Am from Bellevue, at Open Satellite in Bellevue. For the installation, Greg Lundgren performed the same kind of close-by excavation of the familiar, a suburban archaeological dig. He went on home tours throughout Bellevue in order to find objects that somehow reconnected him with the hometown he left behind for urbanity (in L.A. and now Seattle), and in the process he created a map of himself. Don't simply observe it. "It is my hope that you will join me in these free falls," Lundgren writes. Free falls, footpaths: It's about finding your own ways to the water.