George Legrady: Making Visible the Invisible

Seattle Central Library


If there is one building in this city that didn't need to get better it's the Seattle Central Library—but it's gone and done it anyway. Like a champion athlete adding to an already formidable workout regimen or a platinum-record-selling singer hiring the next big producer, the library has added a completely engaging piece of artwork to its fifth floor. Installed in September and titled Making Visible the Invisible, the piece by George Legrady takes what is already there and illuminates it. Legrady is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in both the Media Arts & Technology graduate program and the Department of Art. This installation shows what can be done when these two worlds engage.

The objective of the piece is to document all items being checked out of the library. Legrady feels that this can create a picture that conveys "what the community is thinking at that moment." The architects of the library (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) had long referred to the fifth floor Mixing Chamber as a "trading floor for information" where visitors would be surrounded by information sources. That belief made locating this piece within the Mixing Chamber an easy choice. When one takes the escalator from the Fifth Avenue Living Room, they are met by this work of art: six plasma screens placed horizontally and integrated into a glass wall behind the main librarian desk. Real-time calculated animations using custom software render all items being checked out in the last hour. The data is presented in four visualizations that carry titles such as "Data Matrix Rain" and "Vital Statistics" and provide the floor with a type of information ticker tape.

On a recent visit, minutes after the library's opening, two pairs of words emerge from the far-right side of a previously blank bank of screens: "Fond Kiss" and "Behaving Badly." The words are red and share center stage as they travel from one screen to the other until disappearing off to the left. These were the first utterances of the day, presented much like the opening title sequence of a Pedro Almodóvar film, in beautiful shades and with seductive pacing. As the hour passed, activity increased with books, rendered in red, and media (DVD, CD, video, etc.) in blue, battling for screen time and most-popular status. This visualization named "Floating Titles," which places the titles vertically according to their Dewey decimal number and spaces them horizontally based on checkout time, continues until all have completed their flyby.

If "Floating Titles" is the intro to this digital feature, then the visualization "Keyword Map Attack" is certainly the grand car chase or shootout at the end. Keywords associated to each title are added to a list of main words for all checked-out titles of the past hour. Words with at least nine hits are then "thrown onstage" with the most-used coming first. Each word appears on the screen with a border followed by a white line that flares off to the corresponding Dewey decimal numbers bordering the top and bottom of the visualization. The lines serve as a synapse between the word and its extent.

What the artwork doesn't harvest is personal information, so its data bank is devoid of the name of the person who checked out Lick the Sugar Habit at 2:20 p.m. this past Saturday. What it does reveal is that books account for slightly more than half of all items checked out and slightly more than half of them are fiction. It also affirms Garfield's big-cat status, as titles that bear his name litter the daily statistics. The data will continue to be collected for the next 10 years, after which time it may provoke an offshoot project. (The $100,000 budget for the project came from the city's One Percent for Art program and a $50,000 contribution from the Committee of 33, a local nonprofit organization of women who fund work in public art, landscaping, and streetscape improvements.)

What is truly impressive about the work is that it seamlessly embellishes an already stirring environment. On a floor that seems much more sci-fi set than Seattle, Legrady strengthens the belief that we are equipping ourselves for the future. JERRY GARCIA



Through Dec 31

While it may be the season for list making—cue the chorus "five golden rings"—neurotic organization really doesn't make the best subject in art. For proof simply head to SOIL (a nonprofit gallery in Pioneer Square), where this month you'll find neurotic, domestic cataloging from floor to ceiling. There's a colored square grid of tiny hairballs on one wall—the balls were made from 121 different people's hair—and a video titled NBC Nightly News with all the words from an evening news program rearranged to play in alphabetical order. There are lists and groupings everywhere, right down to the curatorial wall text that details how many artists are in the show and how many mediums are being used.

True, Catalog, curated by the artist group GRR, is thematically centered on classification and inventory. Sadly, however, the premise is just not that interesting. We've seen it before—the minimalist art of Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, and so on and so on. Catalog only makes what was once a stripped-down and polished act (i.e., minimal) more crafty. Under the guise of classification and sorting, the work presents a portrait of the 12 artists as fixated. They are manically obsessed with organizing household objects and subjects into little, trite categories. But list after list and work after work, the cataloging isn't visually interesting. Sure, it is a thematic way to fit the 12 artists into a nice little package, but ultimately it's pointless.

For example, take the photographs of Ariana Page Russell, a recent UW MFA graduate. Using a knitting needle to scrawl words and objects across her sensitive skin, these photographs are both intimately distinct and rudely routine. You are both curious and unaffected by what you see. Everyone's skin flares up when you scratch it, but Russell takes this to a whole new level; you can literally see words on her delicate Caucasian skin. With repetition as their subject the photos become a tired diary of self-mutilation.

Yes, the majority of the art has an element of repetition, but that is happenstance, not content. The artists in catalog are technically skilled and the work finely detailed. But because the art isn't given the kind of space that it needs, few of the gorgeous subtleties are of consequence. The show is stifled by the neat little bow tied around it. But I suppose that makes perfect sense. It is, after all, almost Christmas. CARRIE E. A. SCOTT