Early in the morning on Monday, September 19, a Seattle Police Harbor Patrol boat came across a desert island floating in Lake Washington. On the island were foam rocks, a fake palm tree, a plastic crab and starfish, real coconuts, and three men in ripped-up business suits. One of the harbor patrol officers started asking questions: How long are you going to be shipwrecked? What are you doing? Are you trying to raise money? Do you need anything? John Sutton, Ben Beres, and Zac Culler had spent the night on the island and had enough food, water, and beer to last three or four more days. The harbor patrol officers asked a few more questions, wished them well, and sped off.
Two hours later, harbor patrol came back. A commuter on the SR-520 bridge had seen the desert island, thought it was a capsized ship, and called 911. Sixteen fire engines were waiting at the University of Washington to assist the rescue. Sutton, Beres, and Culler assured the harbor patrol that no one needed rescue.
Word spread quickly that something strange was floating in the middle of the lake. Before the end of the day, the island was visited by a photographer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a reporter for the King County Journal, and two news helicopters. A traffic reporter on KUOW at 6:29 p.m. alerted drivers that there was "some kind of performance art island... causing a huge distraction" on 520 and four minutes later a KIRO traffic reporter said, "Nobody still can 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 next day, the main headline on King County Journal's website was: "Trio's island art has drivers staring; traffic snarls on bridge during rush hour; police say island is not illegal."
Sutton, Beres, and Culler have been building environments and taking them out of context for years. They had the idea for Desert Island two months ago and it took them two weeks to build it. It is 20 feet in diameter, supported by a frame of 2-by-10s and plywood, glued and wrapped in canvas and bed sheets, and covered in yellow paint mixed with sand. It floats on eight empty 55-gallon barrels. It has no engine and was towed onto the lake by Vital 5 Productions' Greg Lundgren, who helped produce Desert Island. According to the original plan, the island's three occupants were going to write a constitution, form a government, and stall traffic until Wednesday or Thursday, but a technical glitch ended things early. Their anchor became stuck on the lake bottom and, in high winds, pulled loose the cleat that attached the anchor to the island. As they careened disastrously toward the 520 bridge—bringing them even closer to their audience—they called for assistance and were towed to shore Monday night. They were on the lake a total of 24 hours.
"If it were in the middle of the lake only rich people with boats would see it," said Sutton. "By 520, everyone could see it. We definitely wanted to catch people off-guard."
"The King County Journal was asking us if we're doing this to get more customers," Beres said. "They were like: why, why, why? They were trying to reduce it to dollars and cents. We said, we're doing it because we can. And we're taking it to people so they don't have to seek it out."
Other media responded stupidly, too. When the Seattle P-I photographer kayaked out to take a photo, he couldn't get a good shot from his kayak so he boarded the small boat that Lundgren was circling the island in. KIRO 7 Eyewitness News, overhead in a helicopter, got a photo of the Seattle P-I photographer stepping out of his kayak and onto Lundgren's boat, and ran it on their website under the headline: "Kayaker Rescued on Lake Washington." If you could widen that photo, you would see a desert island just a few yards away, which KIRO 7 Eyewitness News completely ignored.
Just last week, The Stranger named Sutton, Beres, and Culler winners of the 2005 Stranger Genius Award in the visual art category. The island isn't on the lake anymore, but you can see their mobile living room installation, There Goes the Neighborhood, this Friday parked outside the Broadway Grill (314 Broadway E) from 5–8 pm.