Three Things I Know About Space
I can often be found standing in front of empty space, imagining artspace. Three times in my life this loitering has, amazingly, resulted in the creation of actual space for art.
The empty storefront at 608 19th Avenue had a toilet hanging 10 feet in the air, connected to a giant cast-iron pipe—a vestige of a missing loft floor. This one became Rm 608, a “grey box” gallery for visual and performing arts. At 410 Terry Avenue North, an old bicycle factory with homeless guys lighting oil drum fires on the loading dock sprawled into the messy, sweaty, inspiring Consolidated Works (I). At 500 Boren Avenue North, a cavernous 23,000-sq. ft. furniture warehouse became the all-grown-up, mayor-cut-the-ribbon, international contemporary arts center Consolidated Works (II).
Today I manage the Storefronts Seattle program, putting artists into vacant storefronts in Capitol Hill, South Lake Union, Pioneer Square, Chinatown, Rainier Beach and Auburn. Much of the job is to stand in front of empty commercial space and imagine artists there. (We’re the group that put a Pinball Museum into a disused chiropractor’s office.) In the last 18 months, we’ve commissioned and presented installations by more than 75 artists in more than 25 storefronts, putting galleries, boutiques and museums in Seattle’s empty spaces.
In short, I imagine myself as a starving cartoon character in a lifeboat, the one who imagines his also-starving partner as a roast chicken. Except the lifeboat is my city, the starving partner is an empty building, and the chicken is artspace.
She who builds it wins the imagining game. Space is literally what you make of it. Friedrich Weyerhäuser stood in the virgin forests of the Cascades and imagined towns, cities, metropolises. Mimi Gates stood in Unocal’s permanently contaminated “brownfield” in downtown Seattle and imagined the Olympic Sculpture Park. The Madison Development Group and David Hewitt Architects found a thriving coffee shop and bookstore culture in the Pike/Pine Corridor, they found Bauhaus and an art gallery and a vinyl record store and Le Frock and my fancy pet food store, they found all this and they imagined seven stories of mixed use Pike/Pine condos and retail. They’re going to knock down the Wall of Sound.
Recently I stood in front of what used to be an old cheesy Vietnamese karaoke nightclub and imagined a contemporary culinary arts center. When I pitched a group of investors on the idea, one woman asked what the building’s ultimate “highest and best use” would be. I was stumped. “But I just told you,” I thought. “A contemporary culinary arts center.”
Architects, choreographers, and arrangers of candlesticks on dining tables encounter, daily, the tensile elasticity of negative space.
Two things (two buildings, or dancers, or candlesticks) move slowly away from one another on a block, or a stage, or a dining table. As they separate, the space between them expands, stretches, strains at itself like a rubber band.
It stretches to some (precisely measureable) point where the imaginary band is at maximum tension. Beyond that point the band fails and the tension immediately dissipates.
As the two dancers, or candlesticks, move towards each other again, the space between them compresses, getting denser and denser the closer the two get, until it compresses to a (precisely measureable) breaking point and explodes under the pressure like a crushed boulder.
In each direction, there’s a correct answer—a point of maximum tension, or pressure, between any two objects. This idea holds whether the objects are the same (two candlesticks) or whether one is a candlestick and the other a building, whether one is a building and the other a man.
Madeline Gins wrote a tiny poem about this phenomenon (at least I think it’s about this phenomenon, but who knows, really—Madeline Gins is quite insane) called “The Sharing of Nameless”:
a localizing of spacetime within
blank provides for (grounds)
subjectivity. Subjectivity grows
out of what parts of spacetime
do to each other within (and
by means of) blank.
Madeline Gins is an architect, and an artist, and a poet, and, with her partner Arakawa, the founder of the Architectural Body Research Center.
The Bioscleave House, one of the couple’s last projects before Arakawa’s death last year*, was designed as means to achieve human immortality through architecture. The concrete floors of the house are cratered and mounded like a lunar landscape. There are swinging poles placed throughout the house to help visitors navigate the open but uneven floor plan. The walls are all set at odd angles, the built-in furniture (some set in doorways) intentionally dysfunctional.
As described by Fred A. Bernstein in The New York Times: “All of it is meant to keep the occupants on guard. Comfort, the thinking goes, is a precursor to death; the house is meant to lead its users into a perpetually ‘tentative’ relationship with their surroundings, and thereby keep them young.”
Here’s a space designed to remind you to pay attention to space. Its only function is to confound your desire for comfort, to fight your growing familiarity with it. You could never walk through this house mindlessly. You could do nothing there without giving it your full attention.
There’s a walkway in the SFMOMA, four stories in the air, that’s made of that steel lattice bridge-decking, so that when you walk on it you can look straight down a 50-foot drop. You can’t walk across it and be anything but fully present.
I told an artist once that my ideal gallery space would have a floor that could tilt subtly, barely noticeably, a few degrees in any direction. Every day I would tilt it just slightly differently, so that every time you walked in, you would be reminded to pay attention to space. You would be reminded that this space offered you a slightly, but literally, off-kilter way of looking at the rest of the world.
*Gins, his partner of 43 years, was quoted in his obituary as saying, "This mortality thing is bad news."