Artists behind the Seattle Demo Project alter doomed buildings with dramatic art installations, and hope to work with squatters to turn the buildings into transitional housing.
If you happen to stroll by, the old house on the corner of 12th Avenue and Thomas Street looks like other empty houses waiting to be knocked down across Seattle: peeling gray paint, crumbling red shingles, rickety front steps that seem as if they’d melt the next time it rains.
But an eerie, yellow glow radiates through its windows every hour of every day: This is “When Lightning Strikes,” an art installation by the Seattle Demo Project, a group of artists and architects who’ve been treating doomed buildings like blank canvases since 2012.
Their current project, the 117-year-old house at 12th and Thomas, is a mess of contradictions.
A conversation about redevelopment in Seattle inside a teardown house that’s been turned into an art installation by the Seattle Demo Project. 6-9 p.m. Thursday, July 14, at 302 12th Ave E., Seattle (seattledemoproject.com).
It’s a property where squatters, a developer, artists and anti-homelessness activists tried to make a tricky alliance — developer Robert Humble of HyBrid Architecture allowed the Demo Project artists (some also work at HyBrid) to turn a house he plans to raze into art, but also tried to be responsible about the squatters living there, one of whom was pregnant.
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“Instead of asking them to vacate, we flipped that around to empowering them,” said Rex Hohlbein of Facing Homelessness, who helped Humble talk to the squatters, suggesting that they stay and act as caretakers during the art installation. “The owner made a quantum leap of faith — to open the house up instead of having the police come in, boot them out, and then board it up.”
In the end, things didn’t turn out as planned. The squatters — a military veteran and his pregnant partner — were asked to leave. “I gave them the keys for six weeks or so under the condition that the cops weren’t called, the neighbors weren’t called and there’d be no trouble,” said Humble, who plans to tear down the building for a new apartment complex. “But they didn’t hold up their end of the deal.” (The former squatters did not respond to requests for comment.)
The squatters are gone, but their presence can still be seen — if you have the gumption to climb up the embankment the house is perched on and peer into it, you’ll see gorgeously scuffed hardwood floors, walls that have been kicked through and graffiti by the squatters (with an ace-of-spades theme), all illuminated by long tubes of fluorescent bulbs by the Seattle Demo Project. (There’s no sign inviting you up — but you’re allowed to peep through the windows if you find yourself drawn to the light.)
Max Bemberg, one of the artists behind “When Lightning Strikes,” said the Seattle Demo Project has turned houses slated for demolition into artwork at roughly eight properties so far. “When you bury someone,” Bemberg said, “we usually put them in the ground and pretend they disappear.”
But opening up doomed houses for artwork, he explained, is “more like a Viking funeral” — shoving a body into a boat and setting it on fire. “Houses don’t have to deteriorate into the ground. They can go out in a flame of glory.”
During a recent visit with Humble and the artists, the house showed residue from the former occupants and other Seattle Demo projects — fishing line on an old fireplace hearth, a battered plinth that the squatters left behind, broken glass on the floor, a washer/dryer unit tilting so far it threatens to break through the wall and a toilet bowl with an impressive mound of excrement.
At first glance, “Lightning” is a straightforward project — find a teardown, make an installation — and one that has been done many times before. In 2011, local art trio SuttonBeresCuller used winches and straps to knit two doomed buildings together for a project they called “Ties That Bind.” In 2007, artist dk pan staged an impressive art happening at the Bridge Motel on Aurora Avenue, with graffiti and indoor fires, before it was finally abandoned.
But the Seattle Demo Project has arrived at an unusual time when homelessness is spiking while homes are being knocked down at a startling rate. (Humble said the house where “Lightning” has been installed will probably be torn down in the fall.)
Even though a partnership with squatters at this site didn’t work out and no plans to accommodate future squatters there are in the works, said Tony Kim of the Seattle Demo Project, “we’d love the opportunity to do that in the future — but we realize the intricacies of that. It’s really dependent on the relationship you have with the inhabitants.”
This Thursday, July 14, the Demo Project is hosting an event at the house called “Public Comment,” where Humble and the artists will invite the public into the house to talk about teardowns and redevelopment in Seattle.
Overall, the alliance — developer, artists, anti-homeless activists — seems optimistic about turning teardowns into both art projects and transitional housing. Hohlbein said he’d be thrilled if a property owner approached him to say: “We have a vacant building — do you know anyone who’d like to live there for a year?”
“We know plenty of homeless people who are also artists,” he added. “And they could be temporary caretakers for the building. It would be beautiful.”