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November 20, 2014

Art takes center stage on new waterfront

  • Six artists are creating large-scale works. Ann Hamilton's piece will be the largest art commission in the city’s history.
    City of Seattle


    From the beginnings of Waterfront Seattle, the opportunity to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with 20 acres of new public space was seen as a stunning art opportunity. Waterfront Seattle is an opportunity to recenter the city on Elliott Bay, making new connections between the city and its waterfront.

    For more than 40 years, Seattle has devoted 1 percent of city construction budgets to art, integrating public art into the fabric of the city. Just as the removal of the viaduct creates a stunning opportunity for visionary design, it provides a prominent new platform for public art in the city.

    The city approached the project with the intent of integrating art into every aspect of the design: not just working to commission permanent works by internationally known artists from Seattle and around the world, but also bringing an “art intelligence” to the planning for the waterfront generally. Artists have been integrated into the design team from the beginning, and will continue to work as part of Waterfront Seattle through the design and construction phases. Long term, we hope to weave artists and arts programming into the fabric of the waterfront so artists’ contributions continue beyond completion of construction.

    Working waterfront

    A Working Plan for Art on the Central Seattle Waterfront, written as part of the Concept Design and Framework Plan for Waterfront Seattle, guides our art commissions and cultural planning. The plan sees the waterfront as a continuously changing place, formed and reformed in the intersections between the shoreline ecology, the waterfront economy and the city’s community.

    Throughout its history of human habitation, the central waterfront has been a site of exchange. As a port, the waterfront was the meeting point between Seattle and the broader world; the art program sets out to continue this exchange, bringing together artists from around the world as well as here in Seattle.

    Photo by Thibault Jeanson, courtesy of Ann Hamilton Studio [enlarge]
    Ann Hamilton’s “the event of a thread” was installed at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City in 2012. She is planning a $1 million work for the Seattle waterfront.

    The waterfront has been for most of its history a working waterfront: the finger piers that now entertain tourists were the domain of longshoremen. The waterfront now serves mostly to entertain and educate, but we hope to bring working artists and performers, and their labor and production, to the waterfront as an echo and reminder of the labor and exchange upon which the waterfront was founded.

    During the long period of design and construction, artists will be present in a number of ways, from temporary commissions and performances to talks and other events.

    One innovative program bringing artists to the waterfront now is Low Res, a new program of short-term residencies that asks artists from all sorts of disciplines, media and backgrounds to explore and respond to the waterfront. The first series of residencies, inaugurated this fall, invites photographers, poets and musicians to the waterfront. The products of their residencies will be put up as posters, distributed through the Waterfront Seattle website and social media, or performed at waterfront events.

    More than decoration

    Major permanent public art commissions center our work on the waterfront. Six artists are currently working on large-scale commissions: Cedric Bomford (Winnipeg, Manitoba), Ann Hamilton (Columbus, Ohio), Norie Sato (Seattle), Buster Simpson (Seattle), Oscar Tuazon (Los Angeles) and Stephen Vitiello (Richmond, Virginia). An open call will bring in an artist who will work to express tribal history and presence on the waterfront.

    Internationally known artist Ann Hamilton has been selected for a commission on the public piers being rebuilt as part of the project. Her project, budgeted at $1 million, is the largest art commission in the city of Seattle’s history. Known locally for her projects at the Henry Art Gallery and Seattle Central Library, Hamilton intends to incorporate the transient nature of the waterfront in her piece, looking at ways of registering the changing tides within her work.

    Sound artist Stephen Vitiello also seeks to use the waves and water in his work, activating a set of bell-like forms created from salvaged marine materials. Along the promenade, Canadian artist Cedric Bomford will create a project aimed at children and play. His method of “thinking through building,” which has resulted in fantastical constructions inside museums or floating on barges, will bring a spirit of adventure to the playful aspects of the waterfront.

    Los Angeles-based artist Oscar Tuazon was born in Kitsap County, next to the Suquamish Reservation at Port Madison. His commission seeks to make connections between Seattle and Port Madison, the site of Chief Seattle’s grave, and represents a homecoming for an artist who has built a reputation with major exhibitions around Europe while maintaining strong connections to Seattle and the Northwest.

    Seattle artist Norie Sato entered the U.S. as a child on a ship which landed not far from the site on Union Street where her commission is sited. Having worked in a studio along Alaskan Way for decades, she, too, will in some ways come home to the waterfront.

    Along the edge of a new beach designed to improve habitat for migratory salmon, Seattle artist Buster Simpson has designed a series of works inspired by what he calls the “Anthropocene Beach.”

    Looking at the interactions between humans and nature, and the way nature itself can now be man-made, his works will draw their forms from sandbags, root wads and tetrapods, various interventions that suggest protection from climate change and rising sea levels. He also plans to preserve several columns of the Alaskan Way Viaduct to repurpose as a kind of “climate gauge.”

    Through these commissions and the temporary projects and events, and their associated research, outreach and exploration, we hope to use art not as simply to adorn or decorate the future waterfront, but to build new understandings of its history, its industry, its persistent changes, its habitats and natural forces, and its future meanings to the city.

    Eric Fredericksen is the waterfront art program manager for the city of Seattle.

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