The Civic Impact: Art and Social Activism at the Seattle Art Fair

June 28, 2017

Seattle Art Fair's Artistic Director Laura Fried (photo by Kate Schlichter)

As thousands of visitors await brightly lit booths and incredible art from around the world, Seattle Art Fair Artistic Director Laura Fried feels the hustle and bustle of behind-the-scenes production. Since joining the fair staff in 2016, the Los Angeles-based curator has been charged with developing an engaging public program giving visitors unique experiences. Here’s what Fried had to say about this year’s fair, and her tips for taking it all in.

Between your first and second year, what changes have you made?

We are experimenting with the different types of projects audiences will encounter and the way that we can disperse these experiences beyond the fair. While we’re following a similar model from last year, we are really foregrounding performance in 2017, both at the fair and in the surrounding neighborhoods. When it comes to our Talks program, it’s very focused on artists coming together to talk about their respective practices, whereas last year the focus was more interdisciplinary. We really wanted to bring it back to visual artists.

Can you discuss some of the performances we can expect to see at the fair?

There are three particular aisle projects in the fair’s aisles that are activated by daily performances. Naama Tsabar’s work “Closer” is first encountered as a simple architecture of two walls in an L shape. However, the artist has built a string instrument within the walls, which reverberates with ambient vibration. The artist and her collaborator will activate the piece each evening with a performance. Ellen Lesperance, an artist from Portland, is making a series of garments based on a 1980s all-women’s protest group in England. They will be presented in the fair on a designed-display, and every day Lesperance will engage various local artists and writers, who will don the garments and perform both on site and off.

Gerard & Kellly, "Modern Living: Glass House," 2017. Video Still. Courtesy of the artists.

One of the projects I’m most excited about is by Gerard & Kelly, an artist duo trained in choreography and dance who will be presenting the world premiere of their film “Modern Living.” The work itself is the result of a few years of performances at iconic modernist homes. They’ve choreographed movement pieces that respond to the architecture at the Schindler House and the Philip Johnson Glass House and they’ve been making a film along the way. The work takes performance as process and subject, but of course you as a viewer activate a kind of spectator performance as you experience the two-channel film, an installation which has been highly choreographed by the artists.

Why are on-site projects important to visitors’ experience at the art fair?

An art fair is a very particular creature. More likely than not, you’ll find most booths showing more than one artist from the gallery’s program, so you’re looking at carefully planned small-scale exhibitions. The larger-scale projects allow visitors to take a step back from the intensive booth experience and have a more singular or intimate encounter. It’s beneficial for your viewing and allows a change of pace. All around the exhibitor presentations are capacious spaces begging to be filled with single works by individual artists.

This year’s fair features talks and installations dispersed throughout surrounding neighborhoods. How do you hope this will impact visitors’ experience?

This continues to be a critical part of the public programming because our aim is to reach a broad audience with the fair — not just those who are coming to collect, but tourists and Seattleites alike. The goal is to offer and create meaningful interactions with artwork in these neighborhoods. By activating off-site spaces, the fair has a bigger civic impact in the daily lives of our community members. I think there are different kinds of encounters that you’ll have which bring an opportunity to see these neighborhoods in a new light, and to create spaces of reflection.

"Survival: The beginning of the war will be secret," by Jenny Holzer, 1984. Cast-aluminum plaque. Holzer's iconic plaques will be integrated within the public architecture of Seattle's historic Pioneer Square during the fair. This will be the first public installation of multiple plaques in an open urban setting.

What do you hope visitors take away from the event?

On one hand, if, as a collector, you come to the fair and you find one work that really speaks to you — you realize as you see it that you can’t bear to live without it — that’s a wonderful thing. If you create new relationships and get to know this community better, that’s also tremendous. Beyond that, if you can have an encounter with an artwork that gives you more questions than answers, that you continue to think about when you go home and you can’t get it out of your mind, I would call that a success.

In curating this lengthy lineup of programming, how do you create balance between big-name international artists and galleries, and more local Pacific Northwest contributors?

Both last year and this year, there has been a spotlight on production from the west coast — artists and galleries alike that are choosing to make work in this region, from Southern California to Vancouver, BC. This is the fair where you have an international program of exhibitors, you have some of the best galleries from both coasts coming together, with what I think is one of the strongest regional programs among the art fairs. To have that reflected in our public programming is essential. Since 2015 we’ve had a really strong showing from Portland and Seattle, and I hope that continues. It’s important to offer a dialogue between the local scene and the larger art world presence, as each can influence and inform the other.

Is there a visual picture in your office space of how this might come together?

I experimented with that last year! I downloaded a bunch of new software as I was putting the initial pieces together, but I really start to fully map it out visually when we’re at the point where the projects start to gel. When my conversations with artists are still in progress, and those puzzles pieces are starting to line up, the final concept still kind of floats in the ether. Finally, a lot of it comes down to the pacing and how tightly everything is programmed.

Children interact with teamLab's "Sketch Aquarium" courtesy of teamLab and Pace Gallery at last year's Seattle Art Fair.

Last year’s exhibitors featured an underlying technological theme. Do you see anything similar happening this year in terms of a motif?

This year you’ll see what I think is an inevitable manifestation of our times: a focus on social activism. It will come out in many of the projects, but it doesn’t touch every single one. The public program isn’t organized under a specific curatorial rubric — but themes do emerge as the projects come together, and common thread.

What are you looking forward to the most this year?

I’m really proud of this program. Without exception, these projects are outstanding — whether we are producing new projects or bringing in existing works, and the fantastic lineup we have for the talks. It’s going to be really fun to be here for the most beautiful week in Seattle and spend it with friends and artists I admire, and get to know more people in the city.

A look at last year's installation, "Correspondence" by Kishio Suga, during the fair.