A Survey of the Pacific Northwest

 

A “survey of the Pacific Northwest” poses a lot of questions. Why does the Pacific Northwest seem to be stuck in a perpetual state of surveys? There have been other art surveys here in the past; the Pacific Northwest was founded by surveys. In light of this history, I’m beginning to think of the Seattle Art Fair as a reification ritual— something that condenses a geographic area into a meaningful whole which can then be exchanged. A “survey of the Pacific Northwest” is the formation of a commercial platform that both validates (Big City Syndrome?), and makes goods and a distribution of ideas fungible. Highlight pieces like this from the Seattle Art Fair which bolster a regional platform show this.

One doesn’t see artists from New York or LA fighting to define or leverage their identity as a “New York artist” or an “LA artist.” They don’t need to; their value doesn’t come from that. Park McArthur’s location is never understood as a constituent of her work or worth. So what does claiming a regional identity really offer— financially? Culturally? Perhaps the mystique of the frontier. But, by contrast, this is a way of understanding oneself in the form of posing, in the way Craig Owens talks about the reflexive middle voice. The subject poses as an object in order to be a subject. To know and be known—in this way—requires a lot of internalized labor.

I think there is a misunderstanding that in order to have value the Pacific Northwest platform should be packaged and made exchangeable. There is a subsequent misunderstanding of the means to do this. I say this because if you were to ask people whether Out of Sight (or any of the past surveys) is a comprehensive representation of art in the Pacific Northwest, you would get lots of equivocation. At the same time, people will fight to participate in these surveys. When the Seattle Art Fair first emerged, Greg Lundgren’s response was to heighten the Pacific Northwest platform in the hopes that the region would be recognized as an equal stakeholder. These efforts, from different parties with different intent, all invest in the same identity platform.

In the course of working as a “curator” for Out of Sight, I’ve tried to trace the origin of our collective actions. They seem to me a series of reactions. In this particular case, what were the origins of the Seattle Art Fair? What was Paul Allen reacting to? And what is Out of Sight acting towards when reacting in turn? I think we’re acting out contradictory capitalist conditions that we feel on some deep level, but the alternative to “making ourselves fungible” (or wanting to make ourselves fungible) is unclear to us. Given our shallowly-supported art scene here, the feeling of being valued and validated is tied to survival. For all this emotional energy resting on art fair surveys, we don’t seem to be moving towards sustainability or, maybe more importantly, clarity. Our many surveys never seem to become intertextual. Is Out of Sight a survey for a region that only understands itself through internalized projections?

There is great momentum behind this. I’ve talked to (or been talked to by) a lot of artists and organizers recently. Specifically, I’ve seen how this "curator" role bears the weight of a lot of desire. Desire for a lot of different things. Greg has his hopes and desires. The artists want each their own form of validation— or they will reject Out of Sight and the Seattle Art Fair altogether as a way to reject the problematic premise these projects embody. And the fact that everyone in the art community here is only one degree away from being friends/colleagues creates a slightly incestuous network of desires. I’m not exempt from any of this, so I often have very conflicting ideas about how to act out my position.

The dynamics of our “curatorial” meetings have also been interesting to observe. Basically, Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore (1971) in real life. Who amongst the four of us is the first to concede? Who stonewalls? Who maneuvers? These dynamics determine the artist list as much as anything else. I realize I’ve never had to examine and defend my “taste” in such varied company and with so many different internal/external interests riding on a project. It is why I’m putting “curator” in quotes here. Perhaps “arbiter” is a better word.

I think about all of this in moments when Lisa Radon asks for far more than we had planned for her participation. Good for her. I am unsure to whom—or what—I am ultimately responsible. I feel guilty for inviting her, and artists like her (whose work I totally believe in), into a problematic situation that demands concessions— materially, ethically, emotionally, etc. In the course of producing Out of Sight, I've made decisions uncharacteristic of me. My center is uncertain.

I don't want to keep entertaining these questions by myself, even though we're under a lot of pressure to just get the show in the bag. Patience is thin and desire rides high, which strangely puts an anxious pressure on these questions I have. I've been following the reviews and reports of documenta 14, too— the result of so many decisions. And I think about the decisions of Out of Sight.


Though this piece speaks to more abstract issues, this reflection circles the particular dialectic between the Seattle Art Fair and the independent art fair, Out of Sight. The Seattle Art Fair was first sprung in 2015. In response to the lack of representation of Seattle artists, Greg Lundgren, a long-time member of the Seattle arts community, organized and produced an art fair that sold and showed the works solely of Pacific Northwest artists: “a survey of the Pacific Northwest.” Both the Seattle Art Fair and Out of Sight have continued to exhibit annually since 2015.

I write this, having hung drywall the first year of Out of Sight, worked as Exhibition Manager the second, and now as one of four curators of Out of Sight 2017.