By Chloe Sevigny
I live in Manhattan, which for the last sixty years has pretty much ruled the art world. Growing up in Darien, Connecticut, I often cut class and drove into The City to inhale this hive of reckless and boundless energy – New York was a magnet that pulled me into its orbit and dazzled me with its sheer power and creativity and total rejection of conventional, conservative, uptight places like Darien. It didn’t matter if it was skater culture or graffiti art or fashion or film – it was all happening simultaneously and endlessly interwoven. New York was the epicenter for any kid wanting change or opportunity, any kid that didn’t fit in, or wanted to make art or do anything creative. New York City was a giant vacuum cleaner that sucked up artists from all over the place – not just New England, but all across the country. It’s where the term ‘brain drain’ originated. That was what was so great about it. Our island was the creative engine of the universe and no city, in America or anywhere else, even came close to competing.
Sure, Seattle was the home to Bruce Lee and Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, but it never really popped up on my radar as a creative place, as a place I wanted to visit. I think New Yorkers had this basic sense of Seattle – of Starbucks and Microsoft and the birthplace of grunge music, but it just wasn’t on my top 10 list, or top 100 list for that matter, when you dreamt up all the places in the world that you want to go. And I don’t think that I was alone; it lacked glamour and industry and no one in New York was talking about it, or going there – we were the city that drained other cities of their talent. I state this as what I believe to be a common East Coast impression and the excuse why I never stepped foot in Seattle until the summer of 2007.
In the spring of 2013 I was asked to play the character Alexandra on Portlandia and did spend a lot of time shuffling back and forth between coasts. Of course I’d read a lot about what was happening in Seattle and how effective Walden Three was in minting new art careers, and new ways of looking at art – heck I even bought a piece of Gala Bent’s online (which I love and adore), but I remained unconvinced that it was giving New York a run for its money. I did after all live in Manhattan – the center of it all – and there is a bit of snobbery in that, justified or not, true or false – we were number one and who really cares what city is in second place.
Kristi Turnquist came up to me on a Friday morning and told me to pack an overnight bag. We had the weekend off from filming and she and Carrie Brownstein were making the three hour trip up to Seattle for the opening of the Harold Washington exhibit at Walden Three. Considering they were my Portland girl posse, I packed without hesitation and we were on the road by noon. I had heard a lot about Walden Three, but I still expected a dank warehouse filled with flannel shirts, beards and art made out of recycled building material and dirt – made by people who were sincere and probably very nice, but ultimately just couldn’t make it in New York.
When we were parking the car I bumped into Nicki Minaj. “What are the chances I would bump into you here!” She rolled her eyes, put one hand on her hip and said, “Girl, what are YOU doing here? I’m meeting your boyfriend – oops, exboyfriend. Making a movie, you know.” I gulped hard, squinted my eyes at her, but she just destroyed me with her quadrillion dollar smile. “Shit.” And we laughed, locked arms and ran across the street.
We all checked in to the hotel, threw our bags on the bed and walked next door to Walden Three. Nicki hadn’t been inside yet either, and when we passed through the entry and discovered the Stylist Station, Nicki and I dug through tubs of old vintage clothing, bolts of fabric, racks of ties and hats and wigs. We met Mark Mitchell and Mandy Greer who were in charge of the wardrobe/costuming station that day (and totally great in every way) and we just kinda got stuck. Kristi and Carrie headed in without much fuss (Kristi grabbed a pair of leather studded earmuffs and Carrie found a hot pink cashmere scarf), but Nicki and I dove in head first – completely ditching what we had on and making our new costumes with matching denim jumpsuits (cut off mid-thigh) , these felt neck/shoulder pieces with matching plastic dandelion broaches, sheer gloves made from raw silk (that Mark made for us) and yarn purse/flashlight things that Mandy whipped up (that I still wear). Anyways, we bonded, stayed in the Stylist Station as their new volunteers, dressing, stitching and transforming visitors into major fashion victims. And on that front line, preparing people for the Walden Three stage (it was after all a movie set) we quickly discovered that this place was not some rink-dink operation. Walden Three was a machine – a machine equipped with its own artist-sized vacuum cleaner and high-powered people magnets.
At some point I had to stop saying “What are you doing here?” There were so many familiar faces – New York City faces – that I felt, er, um – I felt at home. At some point I began making a list of all the New Yorkers streaming in off the street. Alaina Stamatis, Maya Hayuk, Jesse Hlebo, Olivier Rousteing and Katie Ermilio. Jennifer Catron and Paul Outlaw, Julia Kaganskiy, Lindsay Howard, Jayson Musson and Zach Lieberman, Elizabeth Peyton, Todd Haynes, Ron English, Yui Kugimiya, Legacy Russell, Joe Ahearn and Kenny Scharf. What was going on? It was crazy. And there was this collective sheepish blushing going on, like we were all traitors, like we were embarrassed, bumping into each other at a sex shop or an AA meeting. What were all these New Yorkers doing in Seattle? Was this some fluke, some accident that so much East Coast creative talent was in Seattle, on the same day, in the same place, or was Walden Three emitting the same magnetism that drew us all to New York in the first place? When Nicki and I finally left the Stylist Station and walked into the upper galleries, there was Harmony Korine and James Franco sitting on the floor cross legged, excited and talking fast and hushed. I approached the two and said, “What are you two doing here?” and they responded in unison, “Nothing” meaning exactly something (turns out Franco and Nicki are both starring in Harmony’s new picture tentatively titled “3.1428”) and looking like two kids caught with a dirty magazine in their lap.
I met with Walden 3 executive director Greg Lundgren in the Dial on November 12th to ask him what all the fuss is about.
SEVIGNY: You know I grew up about an hour and a half from Walden Pond? It seems like a million years ago but I used to have a Volkswagon bus and we’d drive out there in high school and smoke pot and look around for Thoreau’s cabin. We never did find it, but I had some good times out there. It was a beautiful place. I don’t know if it’s a sore subject, with the Jack Daws controversy… Disaster? Is it fair to call it a disaster? Maybe that is the wrong way to start off the interview. I think maybe an easier question would be if you believe in reincarnation. That’s kind of what it all hinges on. Is Jacques Henri a crazy pants or do you think he’s the real deal?
LUNDGREN: Reincarnation is the easy question? Hmm. Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve met him and he seems to know an awful lot about Thoreau’s private life. And besides pulling active railroad tracks up for building materials, I think Jack is a good judge of character. I think reincarnation is in the same camp as ghosts and aliens and god. I want to believe, I know that humans are only seeing a little fraction of the whole picture, but I don’t have any personal experience to make me convinced that these things exist. I go out to the desert a lot and I look up and stare at the stars and really ask for some alien ship to land. But it never has happened. A guy committed suicide in my office and sometimes late at night I wonder if his spirit is still there, but I never see him. I guess I am agnostic – I lack faith, but I really, really want to believe. Is Jacques Henri the reincarnation of Henry David Thoreau? Probably not. But that’s my opinion. You ask Jack Daws and he shrugs and says he doesn’t know for sure either, and follows it up with a ‘does it really matter?’ I think we want to believe because it just makes the world more interesting. I think we are far away from being able to prove if there is an afterlife, if there are aliens or ghosts or magical spells, but I think it is important to imagine them. That’s what creativity is – imagining what could be. How boring would life be if we were certain about everything, knew everything. How boring if there were no unknowns, no mysteries… I think I want Jaques Henri to be telling the truth. That is much more exciting than calling him crazy.
SEVIGNY: When I was little, like four or five, I had an imaginary friend. We played together and hung out in the yard and he slept in the corner of my room with a little blanket my aunt had knitted. It went on for a long time, maybe three years. I think my parents chalked it up as something that kids do, just an active imagination. When I was a bit older, my parents were showing me a family album, just pictures of relatives and wedding pictures and that sort of thing. At one point I got really excited and pointed to a man in the picture and said ‘that’s Charlie! That’s my best friend in the whole world’. The picture was of my grandfather who had died six years before I was born. Was my imaginary friend actually the ghost of my grandfather? Yes, I think so. I know so. I totally believe in ghosts, and aliens for that matter. Connecticut is full of ghosts. Every town has a haunted house or some terrible thing that happened. Is that a vintage Pucci tie you are wearing?
LUNDGREN: (looking at his chest) Yeah, actually it is. Ed McMann bought it for my friend’s dad. They used to be friends, and when they found a tie they liked, they would buy two and give the extra as a gift. I got it as a birthday present. Actually, it was from my friend Matt Richter, who used to run Consolidated Works in Seattle. Conworks was one of the few formidable art centers we have had in Seattle. It just didn’t last long enough. The good things in Seattle have a tendency to fall part after a few years.
SEVIGNY: In the name of progress no doubt! But can’t that be a good thing? If something isn’t working or vibrant, isn’t it best to let it die? New York goes through restaurants and art galleries and boutiques like paper plates.
LUNDGREN: Maybe with a business, but I don’t think it is healthy in the arts. I think it is important to create a strong infrastructure for emerging and mid-career artists, something that protects them, inspires them, exists to serve them. Art spaces pop up and get torn down just as they start to get their momentum. Seattle has a lot of great arts organizations, but very few that focus on exhibition and marketing of an artists work. We had a long history of making great work but very few places to show it, and fewer opportunities to make a living as an artist. If you want to keep artists in the community, if you want to encourage more artists to move to your city, there has to be a system set up to support them. And by support, I mean specifically, to give them a high profile platform to exhibit, and access to a marketplace that will finance their projects.
SEVIGNY: Walden Three has been open for a little over a year, and already the artists that you have exhibited and represented have done great things. I think of Warren Dykeman and Jennifer Zwick, Paul Rucker and Susie Lee, Dan Webb and Mandy Greer – these are names I really had no idea about a year ago and now they are everywhere. Not to mention the creative migration to Seattle that is happening right now. The profile piece on Walden Three in the New York Times called Seattle “the new creative capital of America”. That’s big.
LUNDGREN: The whole reason why Walden Three started was because of this enormous talent. Seattle harbored it, but it couldn’t convert it. We didn’t discover them, we didn’t improve them – we just helped give them more opportunity and visibility. There is so much talent in Seattle, so many smart people, there was just no functional device to bring them together and synthesize their talent. We are still really in the beginning of what we hope to accomplish, but it is exciting to see the artists that we support reach such highs in such a short amount of time.
SEVIGNY: There are always smart, talented artists that go unnoticed and live lonely, desolate lives. I look at who is famous, or making a lot of money, or making it and sometimes there is no reason to it. Sometimes the brilliant get the spotlight, and talent dies broke and undiscovered. You seem to thing that there is some creative marrow in people and it’s about finding the right technology to extract it. You make it sound like Seattle is sitting on a goldmine and all you have to do was dig it out. It sounds to simple, but I know it wasn’t. Were there a lot of people in Seattle that thought you were dillussional – that W3 was too big a dream? Did you have a hard time convincing people it would work?
LUNDGREN: It was a big idea, and people in Seattle can be skeptical. Overly cautious. I’m sure there were some people who thought I was crazy or had a bad business plan, or wasn’t qualified – which maybe I am not – but there was never any real visible defiance. It was more of a deafening silence from some of the people that I wanted to be supportive. We had a long list of artists, curators and arts activists that endorsed the project early on – kind of our declaration of independence. And I asked a number of artists, curators, and dealers to help me envision how the space would run, what it would look like. But it wasn’t outright defiance. It was more of a subtle, quiet defiance – key people not supporting it, not fighting for it, maybe because they didn’t think it would happen or that they didn’t like the direction I was proposing. I guess that was to be expected.
SEVIGNY: Are those silent voices now knocking on your door?
LUNDGREN: (laughing) Sure, of course – some of them, but that’s okay. We want to work with the smartest, most dynamic people in the region. We don’t have to all hang out, we don’t all have to like the same things. But it sure would have helped to have their endorsement, to have them talking about it, and lobbying for it in the beginning, when we needed it.
SEVIGNY: So if I understand this right, you kind of created an imaginary version of the project, kind of a creative art fiction about the project, long before you had the keys to the building.
LUNDGREN: Yeah, that’s how we ultimately got funded. We realized that there were probably a dozen people in Seattle that could finance a project like this. And maybe a couple of thousand in the United States. And maybe ten thousand around the world – with the capital, the motivation – viable investors. We knew we were employing the internet to reach our audience, so why not use it to find our investors? The website, the blog, was our way of reaching outside of the city. It was our way to show how the center would work, the kinds of shows we would exhibit, the ways we would build our audience and grow over time. We wanted a brick and mortar building, we wanted to employ a team of highly capable, smart people. But we didn’t have any money.
SEVIGNY: So you created a fake blog?
LUNDGREN: The blog was very real. A Duane Hanson sculpture of a cowboy isn’t a fake sculpture – it’s very much a sculpture. And a Monet landscape isn’t a fake picture, it is a painting of a landscape, an interpretation. I saw the blog as a way to create something real – sure it was through my filter, sure it was imaginary, but it was a very real idea, and a very real vision of what I wanted, of what I thought Seattle deserved, and what I thought would help elevate creative expression. There is this artist in Seattle by the name of Charles Parrish. He sculpts figurative busts out of foam and then paints them so they look like cast bronze. He would rather be casting in bronze but he can’t afford to. I don’t think it is a con that he makes them look like bronze – he is presenting his work as closely as he can to what he envisions. And maybe someday he will be able to cast them in bronze. My interest and desire to see Walden Three realized hadn’t wained, but the money wasn’t there, so I built the art center that I could afford, which at first was built out of pixels.
SEVIGNY: If you didn’t show people outside of Seattle what Seattle was capable of, you would have never gotten financing.
LUNDGREN: There is no way we would have been financed without the blog. Some people thought it was real, some thought it was a stunt, a prank, but in actuality, it was the best marketing tool we had. We proved that we could export our ideas, we proved that the model was solid, flushed out, that we had considered so many dimensions of it. Instead of waving our hands around and saying ‘trust us, it’s going to be awesome’ we wrote it all out, week by week, month by month.
SEVIGNY: I read somewhere that people in Seattle would show up at the doors of Walden Three looking for an exhibit and finding only a condemned building. Piss off a lot of people?
LUNDGREN: (gulping down the rest of his bourbon) Yeah. Yes. Yes, I’m sure we ticked a few people off. But the desire wasn’t to fool people, to make them look dumb, it was to inspire people, to show them what our city could become with a little strategy and long range vision.
SEVIGNY: If someone ponied up the money.
LUNDGREN: Yeah, if someone ponied up the money.
SEVIGNY: So is Walden Three a movie or an art center? Sometimes I hear it referred to as a movie set and sometimes I refer to it as a gallery.
LUNDGREN: It’s a movie. That will take ten years to make.
SEVIGNY: And then what?
LUNDGREN: I have no idea. We signed a ten year lease with a ten year option. If we have the money in the bank, if the documentary does well, or the programming budget remains healthy, it could go another ten years. But there is still a big chance that it totally collapse, that the whole deal falls apart. I never said it was going to work. In the business plan, we realized that even a total failure – and by failure I mean the inability to prop up the culture and talent in our region – it could still make for a really interesting film. Sometimes tragedies are more exciting to watch that success stories.
SEVIGNY: Well, speaking of movies, I know that Nicki Minaj and James Franco are staring in Harmony Korine new film, and that it’s centered around an art center in Seattle that is loosely based on Walden Three. So, if W3 the art center is the stage for W3 the movie, is it weird to have another director filming a movie on your set, with a story that parallels yours in so many ways?
LUNDGREN: It does feel like a Charlie Kaufman script at times, but ultimately we have to look at what Harmony is doing and see if it benefits Seattle culture, if it benefits the artists that work here. And it does. No doubt. Our documentary film won’t be released until 2022. The more that happens between now and then the better our film will be. It was the same thing with the Joan Woo show we did. A lot of people were giving us blow back for having BMW as a corporate sponsor. Say what you will about the car manufacture, but it allowed Joan to do things we couldn’t afford to do, and it gave her another entirely different audience to view her work. Sponsorships and collaborations can be very dangerous when their is a threat to censor or dilute the ideas of the artist, but if we do not inject artists into popular culture, someone else will occupy that bandwidth.
SEVIGNY: It happens in the movie industry every single day. Scripts get compromised so much, what they began as is rarely what they ended up as. But what I hear you saying is that the careers of the artists come first, not the trajectory of the film? How can that work?
LUNDGREN: If we can cultivate our artists and give them more opportunities, bigger opportunities, larger audiences, increased sales, more cultural sway, more creative license and ability to redefine what art is, who it serves and how it is consumed, if we can do that – the documentary has a really powerful narrative. You don’t bend the artists to follow your story arc, you put running shoes on them, give them a good breakfast and watch them run.
SEVIGNY: What are you thinking about now, what are you excited about?
LUNDGREN: We are working with SpaceX and Vulcan on a new exhibit entitled Moonwalk, which I’m really thrilled about. In an effort to build public interest and support for a 2021 manned mission to Mars, there is a return mission to the Moon scheduled for the summer of 2016. One aspect of that mission is to bring the first artist to the surface of the moon. Moonwalk is an exhibition of their proposals for land art and/or performance, on the Moon. Basically, the artist gets 6 cubic feet of payload, and 4 hours on the surface of the Moon. A jury will select the winner, but the collection of proposals is really mind blowing.
SEVIGNY: I would fill that box full of… wait… I would bring a broom and – that’s hard! I think I would just bring a beach towel and a good book.
LUNDGREN: Well played!