ArtSEA: The Seattle monorail ride that was all a blur

Plus, new uses for construction cast-offs in South Lake Union, and the return of Seattle Opera and Lit Crawl.

All aboard The Pepsi Zero Sugar Express. (Daniel Spils)

Like many longtime Seattleites, I am an unabashed fan of the monorail. The truncated train is emblematic of local culture — our World’s Fair history, sure, but also our reputation as a high-tech hub, our perpetual striving to become a “world class city,” our patchwork attempts at car-free infrastructure.

Before we began working remotely, I was a regular passenger. The vestigial route is perfectly placed for trips between the Crosscut offices at Seattle Center and downtown gallery visits, doctor appointments and movie nights at Cinerama (sigh).

ArtSEA: Notes on Northwest Culture is Crosscut’s weekly arts & culture newsletter.

I love the monorail’s retro-futuristic vibe, and the fact that it has remained largely unchanged since 1962. So when I learned a $6.6 million monorail makeover would be completed in time for Climate Pledge Arena’s grand opening (Oct. 22, with Coldplay), I approached with some wariness.

After parking at Seattle Center, I purchased my ticket from the handy new self-serve kiosks and hopped aboard … The Pepsi Zero Sugar Express. So says the garish new black, red and blue branding wrap. I didn’t so much mind the Seattle Kraken tentacles unfurling across the co-branded image, but riding The Pepsi Zero Sugar Express left a bad taste in my mouth. (Also: shouldn’t there be a hyphen in there somewhere?)

The heavily obscured view through the monorail’s new branding wrap. (Daniel Spils)

Reader, that wasn’t the worst of it. Taking my seat on a red vinyl bench, I realized the branding wrap obscured an essential aspect of the monorail: the view. Looking out the windows of The Pepsi Zero Sugar Express, I felt like I forgot to put my contacts in. Trees were green smears, buildings just brownish suggestions. The whole experience was like being inside a pointillist painting.

Unlike Metro buses, where riders maintain laser focus on their phones, the monorail is all about looking out those big windows and seeing the city from this unusual carriage — a chrome caterpillar trundling along an elevated track. I used to love watching tourists enjoy the quaint charms of the monorail, seeing kids scramble toward the bulbous front window and parents capturing video of the city passing by. (And I always answered gently when they asked, “How do I know when it’s my stop?”)

I reached out to monorail staff to find out if the branding wrap was a long-term strategy — and heard back just as this newsletter was going to press. “There was a production issue with the windows,” the monorail’s Maya Fraser-Philbin wrote, “and we will be replacing it as soon as possible.” So while the branding wraps will likely keep coming, it sounds like there’s a chance the view will improve.

Here’s hoping that replacement comes very soon indeed, so the train’s new crop of Kraken riders (capacity has been doubled to 6,000 passengers an hour) will be able to view the city from this unique perspective.

Update: The monorail replaced the faulty window wrap on Oct. 16. The view is clear.

“Niche Audience,” a new exhibit by Leo Berk and Claire Cowie, features materials recycled from a South Lake Union construction site, including sheetrock stacked horizontally and safety netting. (MadArt Studio)

Our swiftly changing cityscape also plays a role in a new installation at MadArt studio. Seattle artists (and domestic partners) Leo Berk and Claire Cowie created the large-scale installation Niche Audience (Oct. 14-Nov. 20) using castoffs from nearby construction projects in South Lake Union. With this insistence on recycled materials, the duo has turned the industrial studio into their own climate pledge arena.

Collaborating on an expansive art project for the first time, Berk and Cowie have made clever use of safety netting, steel studs, sheetrock panels, shipping crates — even a discarded bathtub — to craft a series of architectural niches (built by Berk) inhabited by curious humanoid figures (built by Cowie). 

“People have been sticking people in niches forever,” Berk told me on a recent studio visit. He was talking about architectural nooks designed to hold figural sculptures in Greek temples, Roman cathedrals, museums and other buildings.

A discarded bathtub makes a perfect architectural nook, in “Niche Audience.” (MadArt Studio)

But niches are also metaphorical. Berk and Cowie conceived of the project during the beginning of COVID-19, when everyone was sheltering in place. During the brief early summer months of 2021, when it felt like the pandemic might be ending, the couple wondered if their concept would seem outdated. But now, Cowie says wryly, “Nope. Still relevant.”

Placed inside Berk’s niches — which include a lumpy rock face made of carpet padding and a Greek philosophers’ nook made of something Styrofoamy — Cowie’s meticulously outfitted figures wear some clothing from Goodwill, but are mostly adorned in garments made from sandbags, twine, frayed plastic, netting, tubing and a mosaic of broken glass and reflectors.

After all the isolation of the last year, Berk noted, “We like the idea of how these materials have been touched by multiple people.”

You can add your participation to the collaborative mix, too. One niche has been left empty, inviting visitors to step inside and, in another, a figure with hands made of pink swim fins has made room for a new friend to stand close.

Washington State poet laureate Rena Priest will read as part of this year’s Lit Crawl lineup. (Hillary Cagey)

No matter which artistic niche you prefer to crawl into, there’s plenty to do this weekend.

In the music realm, Seattle Opera resumes indoor programming with Puccini’s La Bohème (Oct. 16-30), the story from which sprang the musical Rent, about Parisian artists trying to hustle in an expensive city.

Down at the waterfront, outdoor concerts have resumed on the remodeled Pier 62, formerly home to Summer Nights at the Pier, where I remember seeing a particularly awesome Ben Harper show way back in 1996. This weekend, the Pier Sounds concert series will be headlined by Seattle soul singers Lady A and Tiffany Wilson (Oct. 16, 1-4 p.m., free with registration).

And at MoPOP, the new show, Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop (Oct. 16-March 2022), presents iconic photos — and the unedited contact sheets from which they were selected — of musicians including Queen Latifah, Jay-Z, Missy Elliott, Tupac and a few local folks, including Sir Mix-a-lot.

If you’re feeling bookish, consider a virtual reading by wonderful Bellingham poet Jane Wong to celebrate her (extremely useful sounding) new collection, How Not to Be Afraid of Everything (Oct. 16, 6 p.m. streaming via Elliott Bay Books). Bonus: she’ll be in conversation with stellar Seattle poet Anastacia-Renee.

Seattle Arts & Lectures is hosting bestselling novelist Lauren Groff (Fates and Furies), whose new book is a tale of historical fiction about real-life religious crusader and poet Marie de France (Oct. 17, 7:30 p.m. online and in-person at Benaroya Hall).

Finally, consider the annual Lit Crawl, which this year has been reduced to a single venue, Hugo House. Less crawling is required, but the lineup of writers both emerging and established is still electric, including Rena Priest, Washington state’s first Native American poet laureate (Oct. 17, 5-9 p.m.; Priest reads at 8 p.m.).

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