ArtSEA: Vacation in the uncanny valley with Seattle art shows

Plus, Taylor Swift concert alternatives at Bite of Seattle and Capitol Hill Block Party.

a grid of photographed faces, each split in half diagonally so that a whole face is composed of two diff people

Seattle artist Troy Gua explores the multiplicity of identity in his new show ‘MULTI: (Self) Portraits from the Uncanny Valley’ at Gallery Axis in Pioneer Square. (Troy Gua)

Recently, a local friend of mine needed a professional photo for work. To save time and money, she decided to try a new tech trick she’d heard about: AI headshots. It sounded simple: submit 10-20 “training” selfies — featuring different angles and clothing, no sunglasses allowed — and an hour (and $17) later an online robot would spit back images tailored for casual, business or formal occasions.

The tool generated 100 digital portraits, inventing new outfits, jewelry and hairstyles for each (we agreed her hair looked amazing in all cases). But while most of the images resembled her, they were all slightly off.

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Several looked as if she’d had some work done, specifically a chin implant. Others were downright creepy, with warped irises and a nightmarish number of teeth. (For an extra 10 bucks you can get a “human editor” to touch up such errors.)

But in most cases it was harder to define what was wrong; the images just seemed a little too… smooth. Plasticky. Lacking the texture of humanity, the nap of experience. This is the “uncanny valley” we’ve visited before, that metaphorical place where faces mess with our minds by appearing almost but not fully human.

You can glimpse this phenomenon in the new solo show by Seattle artist Troy Gua: MULTI: (Self) Portraits from the Uncanny Valley (at Gallery Axis in Pioneer Square Wednesdays through Sept. 6; artist present July 22, 12 - 3 p.m. and Aug. 3 for First Thursday). 

Gua peppers his canvases with pop culture faces but just as the brain starts to recognize them — David Bowie, Eddie Murphy, J.P. Patches — it glitches, thwarted momentarily by the fact that half of each face (split diagonally) has been artfully replaced with someone else’s visage. Instantly a mental game of who’s-who commences.

The artist says says these composite photo portraits reflect the people who have influenced his own identity, from Prince (a longstanding source of Gua’s artistic inspiration) to Gua’s wife, from friends to a few “haters.” Hand-embellished and trimmed into “quilting squares,” the rows of portraits serve as a multi-fold mirror of the artist — faces that in some sense are embedded in his own. 

“Trail,” one of Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir’s “Wayfinders” stationed around the grounds of the National Nordic Museum in Ballard. (Brangien Davis/Crosscut)

Meanwhile at the National Nordic Museum in Ballard, a troupe of androgynous silver statues has invaded the premises. Wayfinders (through Nov. 5) consists of 13 life-sized humanoid figures by Icelandic artist Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir

Made of cast aluminum, the sculptures — which she calls “alien beings” — are shiny but otherwise nondescript, their toes often more defined than their facial features. These Wayfinders are not smooth; their surface could be mistaken for silver duct tape.

They stand around outside and inside the museum, sometimes in pairs but usually solo. Two appear to be scooching down the high walls of the narrow lobby, which was designed to resemble a fjord. 

So we find ourselves again in an uncanny valley. What the brain puzzles on in this case is what are they doing here? What are they telling us? These characters are neither whimsical nor dire (though one did freak me out when I noticed it peeking over my shoulder). They are blank slates, ready to absorb whatever we imbue them with.

In an interview with the museum, Thórarinsdóttir says the figures represent migration — surely an alienating experience — including the huge numbers of Nordic people who bet it all on making a new life in America. But the wider reference is “the general human psyche,” she says, and the border crossing required of all of us. “The emphasis is on the fact that we are all connected as humans despite our differences,” she says. 

The Wayfarers make a nice thematic pairing with the permanent airborne installation of migratory birds by Faroe Islands glass artist Tróndur Patursson, as well as with the audible boom and swell of temporary exhibit FLØÐ (Flood).

I wrote about the latter sound/scent/sight installation by Sigur Rós musician Jónsi when it opened in March — and if you haven’t been yet, you have until August 6 (recently extended) to get there! Whether you experience it during the special Farewell to FLØD: Silent Disco event (July 28) or otherwise, I highly recommend it. 

(Valerie Niemeyer)

When I learned Taylor Swift’s “Eras” tour would be making a stop in Seattle, I had no idea it meant she would rule the comings and goings of the entire city for the weekend. (What can I say, I’m in my naive era.) 

Her two sold-out shows at Lumen Field (July 22-23) have spawned countless satellite events, including themed workout classes, special menu items at local restaurants and King County Council’s proclamation of July 18-25 as “Taylor Swift Week.” (Also courtesy of Swift plus the Mariners games: a traffic hellscape — beware!)

At the risk of inciting the wrath of Swifties, I humbly submit a few alternative music suggestions.

Bite of Seattle is back (July 21-23) with the customary smörgåsbord of food options, plus more than 50 music performances outdoors at Seattle Center. Included in the impressive lineup are local faves Grace Love, Cytrus, Reposado, Tomo Nakayama, Polyrhythmics, Dusty 45s and Sir Mix-a-Lot himself. 

The Capitol Hill Block Party (July 21-23) will take over the neighborhood with multiple outdoor stages featuring bands like Sofi Tukker, Denzel Curry and Louis the Child

This year’s Downtown Summer Sounds series is also sounding good, with free outdoor lunchtime shows by local bands, including Dude York (July 21 at noon in Freeway Park) and, next week, Shaina Shepherd and Hollis (July 26 at noon in Lake Union Park). 

And coming up next weekend: Pack a tent for the popular Timber Music Festival (July 27-29) in Carnation, Wash., where bands like Jeff Tweedy, Black Belt Eagle Scout, Terror/Cactus and Adra Boo will serenade you outside city limits. Plus: organized hiking, biking, birdwatching and bat-searching.

Stay hydrated, music fans!

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