On March 26, 2014, Ann Hamilton (b. 1956) receives a $1 million commission -- the largest art call ever issued by the City of Seattle -- to create a permanent art installation on the Seattle waterfront. A MacArthur Fellowship recipient and internationally renowned artist who has represented the United States at the Venice Biennale, Hamilton is chosen to make Seattle's iconic Pier 62/63 her canvas. Four other artists -- Oscar Tuazon (b. 1975), Buster Simpson (b. 1942), Norie Sato (b. 1949), and Stephen Vitiello (b. 1964) -- also receive commissions. The art commissions are just one component of a much larger waterfront redevelopment project to rebuild Seattle's badly deteriorated seawall, replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with an underground tunnel, and create "vibrant new public space" ("About the Program") in the new connection between the waterfront and Pike Place Market.
Following the 6.8 magnitude Nisqually earthquake in 2001, city engineers deemed the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which carried State Route 99 through downtown Seattle, seismically vulnerable. Noting significant deterioration and earthquake-related damage, they called for replacement of the viaduct as well as the seawall that held water back from the fill on which Seattle's central waterfront, including the viaduct, was built.
In 2002, the City of Seattle and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) presented several proposals for a combined seawall-and-viaduct-redevelopment project. Dozens of viaduct alternatives were proposed over the course of the next decade, with momentum building around the idea of a viaduct-free neighborhood bounded by the Olympic Sculpture Park on the north and the Washington State Ferries terminal on the south. The public discussion and civic imagining of a Seattle without a viaduct inspired the Seattle Design Commission in 2005 to outline plans for an integrated waterfront that connected to Pike Place Market.
Ultimately, the seawall and viaduct-replacement projects were separated, although coordinated planning continued for the new waterfront that would result. The city and state moved forward in 2011 with a plan to replace the viaduct with a bored tunnel. After city voters approved a $290 million seawall bond in 2012, the Seattle Department of Transportation began work on replacing the seawall in November 2013.
A Working Plan for Waterfront Art
In 2012, a team of consultants hired by the city released a five-volume plan for development of the waterfront space to be created by removal of the viaduct and replacement of the seawall. One volume, titled A Working Plan for Art on the Central Seattle Waterfront, outlined an art plan to anchor the entire redevelopment of the central waterfront. The plan's authors described the role of art in connecting the public with the city's new waterfront:
"Art should address the large scale of the waterfront's continuous elements and contribute to the understanding of narrative along the waterfront. It should draw connections between the waterfront and its adjacent neighborhoods through landmark works, projects, and events that connect a constellation of sites, and through active engagement with the public" (A Working Plan ..., 5).
Pier 62/63 -- the open pier immediately north of the Seattle Aquarium, used in previous years as a venue for outdoor concerts -- was described as "iconic" and "perhaps the premier location in the Waterfront Seattle design" (A Working Plan ..., 42). Announced less than two years later, Hamilton's early commission for that site was expected to define the future shape of the development for years to come.
House of Birds, House of Books
At the time she received the waterfront commission, Hamilton, an Ohio native and professor of art at Ohio State University, had been making art in Seattle for more two decades. In 1992, she installed accountings at the Henry Art Gallery on the University of Washington campus. Wax casts of human heads filled freestanding vitrines in every room of the Henry's main floor. The walls, which had been painstakingly blackened with soot from burning candles, enclosed 200 live canaries that chirped, pooped, stood, ate, and flew around the space. The Seattle Times reported that the exhibition drew protests from animal rights activists:
"One couple who entered was told, 'Tell your daughter about the dead birds.' When a group of children walked by they were told, 'They're killing birds in there.' One woman, Elizabeth Schweppe Whistler, who entered despite the protests, emerged to say she saw nothing wrong with the treatment of the birds. 'They were singing beautifully,' she added" (Birkland).
For the Seattle Public Library's new Central Library building, which opened in 2004, Hamilton designed a 7,200-square-foot wood floor, made up of 556 lines of text in 11 languages, to welcome library visitors to the Literacy, ESL, and World Languages collection. The raised lines of inverted text, set like blocks of type about to be pressed onto a page, are the first sentences of books from that collection. Visitors are both immersed in text and, like the pages they pore over, imprinted upon.
Shortly before the announcement of her waterfront commission, the Henry Art Gallery held its 2014 gala in honor of Hamilton and in anticipation of her October 2014 exhibition that would take over a full floor of the museum for six months.
Buildings as Scaffoldings
In the projects that immediately preceded the Seattle commission, Hamilton relied on buildings to serve as scaffolding for her immersive environmental installations. In her 2012 installation air for everyone at an abandoned metalworker's house in Japan, Hamilton used a combination of pulley systems, mounted musical instruments, air, and human interaction to enable participants to hear when wind and textiles spoke in new, surprising tones. Visitors to the house played its walls by tugging on pulleys connected to wall-mounted accordions. A brick kiln wailed when participants blew into huge plastic tubes that emerged from the kiln's interior.
From December 5, 2012, through January 6, 2013, another of Hamilton's immersive experiments, called the event of a thread, occupied the Park Avenue Armory in New York. New York Times critic Roberta Smith described the project:
"It centers on an immense, diaphanous white curtain strung across the center of the armory's 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall. Dispersed on either side are 42 large wood-plank swings, suspended from the hall's elaborately trussed ceiling beams by heavy chains that are also tied to the rope-and-pulley system that holds up the curtain ... The swings, which are clearly not built for small children, are wide enough to accommodate two, or sometimes even three, adults or adolescents. At the opening on Tuesday evening, people swung singly and in pairs, slow and low or higher and faster, often with helpful pushes from friends. The air filled with sounds of glee punctuated by cellphone rings, which actually sounded great in the general hubbub" (Smith).
Rhythms on the Waterfront
Hamilton's work demonstrated her comfort with and interest in exploring the relationship between built structures and environmental forces. Part of the reason the art selection committee chose her was for her creative investigations of huge spaces. Prior to her selection Hamilton did not prepare plans for the installation on the waterfront, but her past work hinted that the new installation could involve birds, threads, tables, and/or and texts.
In a March 2014 interview with The Stranger art critic Jen Graves, Hamilton gave "a few hints" about her preliminary ideas:
"She dreamed aloud about using the hydraulic power of the tides to set functional elements on the piers (tables, benches, whatever) rising and falling, appearing and disappearing. She's thinking about motion first, before material. 'There are all these rhythms,' she said. 'The rhythm of the city. The rhythm of your walking. The rhythm of the tide, the wind, the light'" (Graves).
In the summer of 2014, Hamilton's installation was still in the early planning stages, with construction on the pier originally scheduled to begin in 2016 and finish in 2019. Excitement about her commission was set against concern over potential delays to the waterfront redevelopment project after the tunnel-boring machine broke down in 2013 shortly after it began digging. A May 2014 progress report on the city's overall redevelopment program noted that "the delay to the WSDOT SR 99 tunnel project may impact construction start and completion for the Public Pier program elements" ("Waterfront Program Progress Report," 22).