Two hardworking women are making Seattle art history several times over this month.
It happened at least three times the week of May 10. On Sunday, independent curator Julia Fryett presented the premiere of a work of art—a 19-minute video called Untitled (Human Mask) by the French artist Pierre Huyghe—two days before the piece made its debut at the behemoth Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
On Thursday, Fryett received a FedEx delivery sent straight from the Museum of Modern Art to her apartment. Inside the package was a Blu-ray of the bizarre yet touching 82-minute film Tomorrow Is Always Too Long by Phil Collins (not the singer), a new work that made its American debut at MoMA—which Fryett unveiled in Seattle, too.
Both pieces are part of Black Box, a stunningly large-scale video and film art festival running concurrent with the Seattle International Film Festival. Over the five weeks, Black Box is featuring more than 70 works of art at eight different locations around Seattle. Most of the works are new, and a dramatic number are the latest creations of leading artists around the world. Admission to every Black Box presentation is free of charge.
It's SIFF for art people, and it exists only because of the passion and resourcefulness of Fryett and her cocurator, Anne Couillaud.
But nobody seems to know about it yet.
"What is Black Box actually?" asked Susie Lee. Lee is a Seattle artist who works in video. If she doesn't know, who does?
On my first day of Black Box, I sat in the darkened Raisbeck Performance Hall on Boren Avenue, site of the legendary erstwhile gay bar where part of the Twin Peaks pilot was filmed. It was the premiere run in Seattle of We Are Here, a 21-minute film by leading British artist Gillian Wearing, in which ordinary people from her hometown speak as if from the grave.
I got goose bumps watching We Are Here, partly because the film was eerie, and partly because I was completely alone in the enchanted dark. It was all I could do not to go out into the street and pull people from their cars into Black Box Festival with me. Maybe I should have.
Unlike the new Seattle Art Fair happening in July, which has the backing of a billionaire (Paul Allen), Black Box has nothing but Fryett and Couillaud.
Their headquarters is a deserted school building that's about to be torn down to make way for luxury apartments in the middle of South Lake Union. I find them there, in a stripped-down room, wearing scarves and puffy coats. There's no heat, and the only light comes from the video art projected on one wall and playing on a flat-screen monitor.
The art on the wall was Recycled Matter, a 16-minute film made this year by mixed-race South African artist Robin Rhode, whose work has evolved from the political to the "universal," according to the New York Times (and what's meant by "universal" would make for a highly timely discussion, by the way). Once again, I was the only one watching it. Why am I the only one who knows about Black Box?
A more answerable question: How did an art event of this caliber arise out of nowhere?
"You just have to ask," shrugged Fryett, the no-nonsense native of Pullman, Washington.
Well, sort of. Fryett and Couillaud have curating backgrounds, and they're connected. Both spent years working in the art world in New York—though they actually never met there—after educations in art history, arts management, and film and video production. They moved to Seattle separately in 2013, and they both brought their substantial networks of contacts with them.
Video art, a term that here encompasses films made by visual artists and new-media installations too, has "such a different distribution system than in film," explained Fryett. "Every situation is different. You have to have the personal relationship with the artists and the galleries, and the gallery has to trust you that you're going to show the work the right way."
And you have to ask.
Some multimedia artists don't want their work in cinematic settings, while others expect it. Some works require or create their own environments. (For Raisbeck, Black Box commissioned a custom, beautiful 16-foot screen.) Most of Black Box's works play on monitors of various sizes.
Aside from being merely compelling, Black Box has a greater purpose. Art featured in magazines and history books rarely travels here, so Seattle artists can rightfully feel like they're working in a vacuum, and audiences have little context for what they're seeing.
The advantage of video is that it's easy to ship. And then there's Vimeo, which the curators used to review hundreds of password-protected works provided by studios and galleries. This couldn't have happened even three years ago, Fryett says.
It cost $24,000 to put on Black Box, most of which came from a $15,000 grant from the City of Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods. Lucky thing, too: Fryett and Couillaud made a list of 200 tech companies in Seattle and the Eastside, contacted every one asking for sponsorship, and got several meetings. Zero of the companies sponsored Black Box.
Amazon is "sort of unintentionally" a sponsor—Fryett bought refurbished discount equipment through the site.
Fryett sees what she wants and once again, just asks. Walking down Westlake Avenue last fall, she noticed the empty school. She found out who owned it and cold-called the company, San Francisco developer MacFarlane Partners. MacFarlane agreed not only to give Fryett the keys but also provided the building for free. Black Box is alive because of in-kind donations Fryett solicited from creative partners including SIFF, Seattle Art Museum, Cornish, and DXArts.
"She doesn't take no for an answer," Couillaud said.
"Welcome to behind-the-scenes at the festival—chaos happens every day," Couillaud told me as she tried unsuccessfully to pick up a Car2Go she'd reserved to rush from one screening location to another on Thursday.
The festival site she was leaving is two shipping containers, big metal boxes on pavement in Seattle Center with art playing inside them. That day, the art was a stirring installation of light, poetry, and digital animation by Seattle artists Tivon Rice and Hannah Sanghee Park, as well as new installments in the intense, semi-ironic soap operas and music videos by sought-after New York filmmaker Kalup Linzy.
Guarding the containers at a table outside was the festival's only volunteer ("The others bailed"): one lone young woman sitting on a chair, reading the weighty volume Art in Theory 1900–2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas.
"I have to bring her a space heater again," Couillaud said as she hurried away.
Meanwhile, in the second location, Fryett was scrambling to figure out why the Blu-ray that MoMA had FedExed to her wouldn't play.
"We're basically out of our minds," Fryett laughed. "We may have to be institutionalized this summer."
Through the haze of production, Fryett and Couillaud were able to reflect on how Black Box could live up to its global ambitions next year: more artists of color, more artists from the Middle East and Africa, and more local artists. Six Seattle artists are in Black Box this year; only eight submitted works to the festival's open call, Fryett said.
Seattle's isolation worked in its favor. For instance, established New York artist Sue de Beer found it novel to show here, since she never has before. Her 2011 installation Ghosts will appear in the apparitional ambience of Raisbeck, where goose bumps may again occur. You should go get some.
This article has been updated since its original publication.