Black Box 2.0: A Movable Festival in a City Too Busy for Art?

This arts fest can be hard to find, much less define, but that may be part of its diffuse potential in a changing marketplace.

The culture industry usually works like this: buy a ticket, stand in line, spend a few hours in appreciation, discuss with friends over coffee or drinks afterward. But since millennials aren’t exactly packing museums, opera halls, and traditional theaters these days, and since busy tech workers rarely have time to make a gallery opening or rising curtain, the challenge for arts mavens is to adjust their schedules and accommodate the needs of prospective new eyeballs. Journalists, too, are struggling to reach the same demo raised on Xbox and iPhone. Museum hours, like set movie start times, can seem an annoying imposition to such younger folk, an anachronism. Computer games, after all, start whenever you like, and you can play them on the bus or a park bench. These cord-cutters are accustomed to streaming TV and movies whenever and wherever they want.

At the same time, however, some of us still like a fixed schedule and defined place for culture consumption—that’s what makes it special, separate from our harried daily routine, like a secular church. It’s not hard to find Seattle Art Museum or McCaw Hall; and the pre-movie routine at SIFF or the Seven Gables has a certain reassuring pattern: parking, popcorn, turning off the phone, watching the trailers. You come to the art, rather than having it come to you. Black Box 2.0 raises, and perhaps challenges, such notions of place, time, and spectatorship. It’s a distributed, amorphously defined affair, billed as an “art, film, and technology festival,” which opened on May 7.

Says Julia Fryett of its nonprofit parent Aktionsart, “The technology does draw people in in a way, and that gets people interested in the art. The more access people have, the more they’ll see. There are so many people working in tech.” And Black Box certainly has a central location, dubbed the Hub, right in the heart of Seattle’s technology district. There in Amazonland a big garage door rolls up on a doomed former one-story school building—“It’s gonna be condos,” says Fryett—to reveal video monitors playing on continuous loop. The programming changes almost weekly, meaning that passersby can regularly see new works on their lunch breaks. Nearby, Black Box is operating two venues at Cornish College, and the Hub is also open late on Thursdays to accommodate the after-work crowd. (Anne Couillaud co-curated the festival with Fryett.)

“Last year, it was a much smaller program,” says Fryett—Black Box 1.0 was basically a sidebar of shorts during SIFF. This year’s fest runs a week longer with a half-dozen locations. “It’s definitely more expansive,” says Fryett. “We’re going to have over 70 artists, including online.” About 45 artists, some local, are having their works rotate at venues also including the Seattle Art Museum and Seattle Center. At the latter, and in a Ballard location, videos and new-media installations are displayed within steel shipping containers, an appropriate emblem of what Fryett intends to be a growing, ongoing, and portable exhibition series. “I think the festival will always be spread out,” she says of future years. “We want to have it in as many locations as possible. The festival and Aktionsart in general are designed to be nomadic. And that way it remains flexible. It’s important for the festival to be super-adaptable.”

Fryett’s adaptable motto applies to its temporary home, which she found by happenstance. “I just walked by” last fall, she recalls, noticed the white DPD sign, and called the owner—who swiftly agreed to donate the space. the Hub may keep going after Black Box, she says. “Hopefully I’ll continue to program this space through the summer and maybe into the fall. I’d eventually like to have a dedicated space some day.”

For now, the Hub enjoys a terrific location (if limited hours), just up Westlake from the MadArt studio/exhibition space, where John Grade’s Middle Fork was recently created by volunteers and visitors. “It’s growing and changing,” says Fryett. “There’s a lot of foot traffic. ” SLU does have a few established galleries left (like Winston Wächter) and numerous pop-ups (e.g., the city’s Seattle Storefronts program). Vulcan and other landlords can provide short-term gallery spaces while waiting for their building permits.

Yet, as with Seattle’s apartment market, rents for long-term arts venues are rapidly rising out of sight. The Black Box website, which runs a month beyond the fest (until July 8), is one way to remain visible, Fryett explains. Still, if you missed a video in one of the shipping containers, “Most of the works that are in the physical venues are not online,” she says. (To be fair, the same is true of a film or video you might see at the Henry or Frye.)

One welcome exception is local artist Tivon Rice’s light and sound installation Fear, made in conjunction with L.A.’s Hannah Sang-hee Park. I first saw it in a shipping container outside the SIFF Film Center at Seattle Center (in the courtyard by the DuPen Fountain), but it’s since been relocated to the Hub, where one can also appreciate Park’s hushed spoken-word texts.

Much of what I’ve seen among Black Box’s half-dozen locations will be swapped out by the time you read this, so there’s little point to describing it. At the Hub, I did like Jonathan Monaghan’s computer-animated Escape Pod (possibly ongoing), which is like a seamless GQ tour through the luxuriously well-appointed lair of a James Bond villain.

Video art can tend toward a certain sameness of experience; if you watch too many of them on the same small screen(s), they blur together. Black Box’s largest screen, apart from SAM’s Plestcheeff Auditorium, is within Cornish’s Raisbeck Performance Hall. The rest are mainly monitor-size, lacking the grandeur of, say, SAAM’s current wall-filling Takaamanohara video by Chiho Aoshima. Watch any of Black Box’s online-only offerings, and they seem even more diminished. And that speaks to the limitation of home viewing in general: It eats away at the aura of art experienced in a gallery or museum. It’s not separate. It’s not special. It’s just another form of channel surfing—TV, in other words.

Still, I like the experience and potential of shipping-container exhibition spaces, their shoebox-like layout (if not scale), and the notion that they can be carted and opened almost anywhere in the city—like a food truck, almost. Black Box had to temporarily remove its containers from Seattle Center during Folklife, which seems a missed opportunity. Bumbershoot manages to make room for visual arts (including videos); and sometimes it’s useful to force engagement with festivalgoers otherwise expecting music or hemp or food.

The problem for Black Box, however, is that it can’t simply dump containers in parks and expect people to appreciate the art. (CoCA’s summer Heaven & Earth show in Carkeek Park inevitably suffers vandalism.) Hence the need for gallery attendants, and hence the limitation on hours. A permanent arts space requires the permanent costs of rent, upkeep, and staff. Black Box, with its borrowed venues and short duration, fits neatly—for now, at least—into the margins of a booming city. Whether its busy citizenry has time for art is a question that Black Box certainly engages, but can’t be expected to solve on its own.

BLACK BOX 2.0 201 Westlake Ave. N., Seattle Center, Cornish College, Olympic Sculpture Park, and other locations. See for schedule, venues, hours, and free passes. Ends June 7.

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