"It's not that different—to inspire somebody to make a great work of art, and to get somebody off," Amanda James Parker told me.
She's been an art model for years. She's been drawn, sculpted, painted, and cast in bronze. For two years, she was also a stripper, and her new installation, The Ghosts of Flesh Avenue, is in the gutted-out building that used to house a historic Seattle peep show down on First Avenue. It's the same place where she danced, though there's nothing left of that peep show now, just a dark, empty shell of a brick building.
I'm not saying the name of the historic peep show, though many people will be able to guess what it is, because while the artists who are running a pop-up inside do have the permission of the landlords to occupy it—like many buildings in this time of gentrification, this one stands temporarily empty, but who knows for how long?—they're a little nervous about being too public.
Image is powerful.
When Parker danced here, she created her own image, a high femme named Buttercup who wore hot pink garters and lip gloss and a big blonde wig. She had a great time because dancing naked with other women is fun, she said. The women-managed cooperative was the only place where "the dancers were nurtured and cared for and protected and respected," she said. There's no place like that now, thanks to restrictive Washington laws that are supposedly protective (no liquor, dancers rent space from clubs) but make it hard for strippers to make decent money. That means they're needy and competing for scarce resources, which exposes them to risk and cuts off camaraderie, let alone any kind of organizing for better conditions, Parker said.
The difference between a strip club and a peep show is only one thing: the boundary wall. Parker loved that wall. "I'm queer," she said. "I'm not really into being up against guys' bodies."
All she knew when she heard she'd be able to build an art installation in the former peep show building was that she wanted a wall.
The wall became the center of The Ghosts of First Avenue. It stands in the middle of the large open space. When you come in, you are faced with a bisected area in front of you. You can choose to go onto the side with the light and the dancers projected onto the walls, where mirrors rest, or you can choose to go onto "the creeper side."
"A lot of people instinctually cling to the shadows!" Parker told me, describing the crowd on opening night and the people she's seen visit the piece since.
The wall is perforated with peep-like openings that pay tribute to the windows that used to slide open and closed when you put in a quarter. Inside the peep show, the walls were mirrored, so dancers could decide whether to focus on themselves and each other, or a client. That's when they could figure out what was what.
"You'd lose yourself in there, look around and go 'Oh, that's a cute butt, whose butt is that? Oh, it's my butt!'"
Here in the aftermath art version of the peep show, the dancers are projected in shadow, larger than life, cast in hot-pink light like Buttercup's lip gloss.
Parker got her former coworkers back together to dance for the video (in shadow). They do it with abandon, like they're having a genuinely great time all back together again getting down. They helped Parker make a stripper playlist for the opening, and plenty of them came and danced.
Up there on the wall in pink, they look so innocent and happy—and out of reach, gone from view except in shadow. Seattle's once-licentious Flesh Avenue is gone, too, and things are cleaner and more expensive down there. One strip club, Deja Vu, does still scream out onto the street. It's very different from what this women's collective was.
There's no shame, to Parker, in being a peeper. She wonders out loud whether every artist is a voyeur and an exhibitionist, then changes her comment to ask whether it actually just applies to every human being, artist or not.
But The Ghosts of Flesh Avenue is for the dancers, "for anyone who's ever had the balls to get up and dance," Parker said. "There's that moment of getting into your groove, and it feels good, and that consciousness that people are watching, but being in that zone of knowing you're being watched but owning yourself."
To me it sounds like advice for living properly.