On Sept. 26, when she celebrated the completion of what had become "Bridge Talks Back," artist Kristen Ramirez climbed down from the Fremont Bridge's northeast tower, where she'd spent the summer. Her audio installation continues through April, and she's moved on to new projects.
Like a certain Rapunzel, Kristen Ramirez sequestered herself in a tower last summer. Her goal, sponsored by a grant from the Seattle Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, was undefined at first. But by the afternoon of Sept. 26, when she celebrated the completion of what had become “Bridge Talks Back,” Ramirez climbed down from the Fremont Bridge’s northeast tower on a ladder of community.
Ramirez spent roughly 20 hours per week in the tower. As she chronicled on her blog, she recorded the sounds of the Fremont Bridge’s 30-odd daily openings and closings, and ambient sounds including birdsong and the impatient blare of car horns. She asked people to record their stories about the bridge via phone. A former Cornish College student of Ramirez’s, Travis Morehead, helped her put it all together.
The resulting audio collage was broadcast during a procession in which people carried signs with text taken from the stories, like “creaky” and “keep it beautiful.”
If you missed that event, well, the weather’s getting nicer — grab a beer at Nickerson Street Saloon and wait for the bridge to open. Ramirez’s piece plays each time it does. You can also hear it by calling 800-761-9941.
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Ramirez also solicited drunk-dialing confessions for her current show (through Feb. 27) at Tacoma’s Telephone Room Gallery, a teensy space in a private home.
Right now, Ramirez is working on “being an engaged teacher at Cornish, a good mom to my son who just turned 2, and a variety of small-scale visual projects in my studio.” I caught up with her to talk about “Bridge” as it comes to a close.
Q: Your project reminds me of “The Corner,” the public radio documentary chronicling the intersection of 23rd Avenue and Union Street.
A: I think the format Jenny Asarnow (who produced “The Corner”) used — in which one phone number provided both input and output — is remarkable. She and I started our research at roughly the same time, and we met to share ideas at one point in the early spring. I didn’t realize going into my residency on the bridge how similar our projects would be in the end. They are both celebrations of Seattle neighborhoods and the heart of the work is the memories of Seattle’s citizens. I wonder what this impulse toward investigating community identity says about artists in Seattle?
Q: What’s been the most rewarding aspect of working on “Bridge”?
A: The most rewarding and surprising aspect of “Bridge” is the extent to which I worked with people … from every walk of life. Going into the residency, I imagined a rather tranquil and solitary summer spent drawing, reading, painting, researching in the tower. Instead I found myself booked every day with various meetings, appointments, and endless conversations about where the work would and could go. Among the folks I spent the most time talking to were the SDOT (state department of transportation) employees — the bridge operators who I loved to gossip with, the electricians who assisted in getting the sound piece programmed into the bridge operators’ motherboard, and the miscellaneous engineers who seemed to always be around maintaining some aspect of this nearly 100-year-old bridge, other artists providing counsel whether technical or conceptual, city of Seattle managers, and members of the community too numerous to count. It was an extremely social summer!
Q: Were you happy with the amount of responses you got?
A: I was overwhelmed and overjoyed by the response to this project. I received well over 50 messages from people on the voice mail I set up. I also have hours of field recordings I took in and around the tower (birds, water, mechanics, bicycles, rowers and so on).
The beauty of setting up a hotline where people can hear the sound piece is that I can regularly check the call history and chart what time of day people call, how long they listen, where they call from, and how many people call each day. To date, there have been 1,900 callers listening on average 1 minute and 26 seconds. I may be misquoting this statistic, but it’s popularly mentioned that most museum visitors spend an average of 15 seconds looking at a piece of art. Despite the fact that the total running time on the piece is 4 minutes 30 seconds, I feel triumphant that so many people have called this number and listened as long as they have.
Q: The stories shared represent such a variety — a sailboat smashing into the bridge, a woman climbing it in heels.
A: The storytellers seemed thrilled beyond measure to be sharing these memories with me. No one declined my asking to use their material. In fact, just last month I got a card in the mail from the woman who left the story about her elderly neighbor climbing the bridge in heels. On the outside of the card, she had collaged images she took from the celebration on Sept. 26. Inside she wrote a very personal note, telling me that “Bridge” was the highlight of her year. For me, this was a major coup d’état! Artists get so used to working in isolation for an audience that is so small. This residency afforded me the opportunity to open up my ideas about why we make art and who we make it for. That someone like this longtime resident of Fremont would become so engaged in this project was absolutely amazing to me.
Q: What draws you to Ballard/Fremont as your home?
A: I’ve lived in Ballard since relocating here from San Francisco seven years ago. Of course, seven years ago these neighborhoods looked radically different! The development has been swift and unforgiving in some instances. (The hole that once was the Sunset Bowl comes to mind). For me, Ballard represents a collision of many things that make Seattle great: old Scandinavians and young hipsters, a neighborhood of farmhouses from the turn of the century that meet the maritime shoreline, gritty industry mingling with upscale restaurants, and so on. I also appreciate the urban density here: I can go to the post office, get my groceries, return my library books, all the while walking my dog. I suppose that has everything to do with Ballard having been its own town. Free Ballard!
Rachel Shimp: firstname.lastname@example.org