Sometimes the creative process requires flood insurance

A new Capitol Hill arts space, The Project Room, breaks all the rules of classical arts display spaces, instead turning its focus on the creation of art in all forms. One event is Friday (Oct. 28).

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Musician Stuart Dempster making music from found materials while artist Suiren creates sumi painting in response to the music during the event "Accidents of Manufacture"

A new Capitol Hill arts space, The Project Room, breaks all the rules of classical arts display spaces, instead turning its focus on the creation of art in all forms. One event is Friday (Oct. 28).

On Oct. 18, about 20 people filled a cozy storefront space on Pine St. to hear two respected Seattle-based sculptors — John Grade and Leo Saul Berk — along with curator Emmett V Smith, talk about why they make things. These three “makers” gathered in The Project Room, an idea and event space born this past July in Capitol Hill.

What The Project Room (TPR) is not is a “gallery.” Director Jess Van Nostrand refuses the label “gallery” for several reasons: “Gallery” connotes sales, and galleries and museums tie curators and their visitors to certain habits and expectations. Curators prepare statements that preface the work; the work itself fits into four white walls and a tidy time frame. TPR shares a museum’s “intellectual curiosity,” as Van Nostrand puts it, but with more freedom of execution. Compared to a large scale museum, “there’s so much less at stake,” Van Nostrand said.

She prefers what she calls the “Gertrude Stein model of curation.” Stein invited famous and soon-to-be-famous Parisian friends, from Picasso to Hemmingway, right into her home to create and discuss new work. (Woody Allen’s recent Midnight in Paris gives a playful look at Stein’s salons.)

That said, TPR does feel like a gallery on first encounter: white walls, high ceilings, and some fine photography on the walls frame the visitor’s experience. But the space quickly begins to defeat many of the expectations associated with galleries and museums: nothing is for sale, no pieces are fixed long-term, and much of what TPR offers is not “art” at all, but concepts and conversations about “making things.” In a sense, it’s an abstract venture: You need to be ready to read and listen and follow Van Nostrand’s big vision to get the most out of TPR.

While Van Nostrand is the first to point out that others before her have broken the standard gallery model, her concept goes further than that. She is trying to push those boundaries now in Seattle, to see what new innovation on standard structures might be possible.

Seattle and Capitol Hill have a particular draw for Van Nostrand, and perhaps for innovative art in general. As she put it, Seattle’s atmosphere prepares people to “do it differently.” Capitol Hill especially generates a sufficient amount of energy and density to support a non-profit that depends on foot traffic and neighborhood participation to exist. People have expectations that “something unusual might be happening, and you’re invited to participate,” said Van Nostrand. In that sense, TPR represents a growing trend in locally sourced art events that involve audience participation and a permeability between visitor and creator, patron and artist.

Rather than curator, owner or editor, Van Nostrand considerers her role to be “lead questioner.” She posed to herself and then to each of the invited artists and makers the big question: “Why do we make things?” Each maker reflects on that issue and responds in whatever way fits best: in words, sculpture, dance, conversation, or debate. Van Nostrand has in mind two other “big questions” that she hopes to pose in future years, but she’s not yet ready to reveal those provocations.

At the end of Grade, Berk, and Smith’s presentations, Van Nostrand asked the collaborators a different big question — What were they going to make in her space over the next month? The three presenters exchanged glances, before asking with some seriousness if she had flood insurance and if the west wall was permeable.

When I interviewed her a week later, Van Nostrand still had no idea what these energetic artists were planning to execute, in what she considers to be an extension of her home. This flexibility helps Van Nostrand achieve one of her goals at TPR — transparency in artistic process — which she exposes through the TPM event series and applies the same principle to her curatorial role, allowing things to unfold openly and unexpectedly in the space. Apparently, that might involve some flood insurance.

If you go:

Authorship presents Leo Berk, John Grade, & Emmett Smith. Berk, and Smith's work, will be on display at The Project Room, Dec. 3.

John Grade’s sculpture, created from salvaged wood from the schooner Wawona, will be installed in the New Museum of History & Industry / MOHAI building on South Lake Union. November 2012.

Other upcoming TPR events:   

Merce Cunningham, Maker of Dances: A conversation with members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, today (Friday, Oct. 28), 6-7:30 pm. RSVP required. Join dancers from Merce Cunningham Dance Company as they discuss whether they feel a sort of “authorship” in relation to Cunningham’s notoriously difficult choreography. 

Kathleen Hermesdorf/La Alternativa (SF) & Amy O’Neal (SEA), Oct. 28-29, 8 pm, Velocity's Founders Theater, $12-18. TPR authorship participant Amy O’Neil presents new choreography. On Dec. 10, you can come to TPR to hear her describe her creative process in generating that piece.

(Editor's note: This story has changed since it first appeared.)


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