publication of the International Sculpture Center
Models for Public Art:
Seattles Salmon in the City
On March 24, 1999
Seattle received the shocking news that the Chinook salmon was officially
listed as an endangered species. Two years later, Seattle received more
bad news: drought and power crises further threatened salmon habitat.
Chinook salmon, the largest of all salmon, live in the ocean for five
to seven years before returning to spawn upstream. They require a carefully
protected freshwater environment for spawning and an easy passage back
to the sea. For centuries salmon have been the lifeblood of Puget Sound
peoples, serving not just as food, but also as a spiritual source for
Brad McCombs, Hydrological Legends, 2001.
Seattle is the only
major metropolitan area in the U.S. that includes a prime habitat for
a federally protected species. City agencies work constantly to sustain
and protect the interlocking relationships of water, power, and fish habitats.
Water levels are monitored, streets rebuilt with new drainage systems,
woody creek habitats restored, culverts and other blocks to spawning removed
or redesigned. But only three Chinook adults spawned in 2000. More than
40 salmon populations are already extinct in Washington State.
The Seattle Arts
Commission responded to new concerns about salmon habitat restoration
with Salmon in the City. The multi-media project demonstrated
the ways in which the Seattle Arts Commissions Public Art Program,
led by the intrepid and imaginative Barbara Goldstein, continues to reinvent
itself and the city of Seattle. Fifteen temporary public artworks appeared
all over Seattle in the spring and summer of 2001, with funds from Seattle
City Light and Seattle Public Utilities Percent for Art Program and support
from City Salmon Team and Seattle Parks and Recreation. The artworks included
poetry, photographs, performances, banners, boats, barbecues, animation,
installations, and sculpture. Work appeared at shopping malls, parks,
Two of the artists,
Peter De Lory and Dan Corson, were part of the ongoing artist-in-residence
program. An artist-in-residence actually works at a city agency, learns
about it, and produces art that forms links between the agency and the
populace. At Seattle Pub- lic Utility (water supply, sewer, drainage,
solid waste, and engineering services), De Lory made black and white photographs
of the employees at work, extraordinary structures (such as huge pipelines
running through watershed forests), vehicles, and facilities. Although
his work concentrated on how the utility operates, the process of supplying
water to Seattle is integrally connected to the problems of protecting
fresh water habitats for spawning salmon.
Sculptor Dan Corson
works with structures and systems rather than objects. At Seattle City
Light he observed that dam operators watched twigs bobbing in the stream
through a remote video as a means of monitoring water levels and developed
a more environmental approach. Through a live feed on the citys
optic link, Corsons Skagit Streaming uses three camerasunderwater
(fishcam), on the shore of the river (bearcam), and microscopic (bugcam)to
project real time information about the river. It is projected on the
Web at www.cityofseattle.net/skagitstreaming,
on monitors in City Hall, as well as on a 28-by-40-foot screen on the
wall of a center-city parking garage. Standing in the middle of Seattle,
you can view spawning salmon, insects, animals, vegetation, and micro-organisms.
as an alternative type of sculpture is an increasingly prominent aspect
of public art programs. Kim Stringfellows interactive Web site:
created for Salmon in the City, targets the urban viewer and
water consumer with its slick color scheme on a black ground, but it also
contains a technically and intellectually sophisticated tour of basic
facts about salmon. It is still accessible long after the other temporary
projects have vanished.
30,000 Vanishing Species is, in contrast, as ephemeral as the public
wants to make it. At various community events, Miller gave out a salmon
print on undeveloped blueprint paper in light-blocking envelopes. As a
metaphor of our stewardship of the environment, the print disappears when
exposed to light; if it is treated with the proper chemicals, it will
turn blue and be a permanent artwork.
a multi-media installation by Kevin Johnson, Christine Bauemler, and Kelty
McKinnon at Rainier Beach High School, was inspired by the restoration
of salmon habitat in the Duwamish watershed, a heavily industrialized
canal south of Seattle. It included historical maps of the river before
it was straightened, texts about the river, test tubes of water, light
boxes with images of human and salmon circulatory systems, and other components.
The artists worked with art and science students at Rainier Beach High
School in South Seattle, one of the most ethnically diverse parts of the
city, as well as other groups from near the Duwamish.
Brad McCombs placed
Hydrological Legends at the Hiram M. Chittendon Locks. The Locks,
which divide the salt water Puget Sound and freshwater lakes in Seattle,
are a popular recreational destination, but also a major block to spawning
salmon. McCombs created two maps on the ground near the visitor center,
one depicting the watershed 150 years ago and the other showing the altered
migration patterns after the introduction of dams and locks. On one day
in May, McCombs also introduced a robot fish that followed migration patterns
then and now along the map.
Ries Niemi, Fish Bridge, 2001.
Also at the Locks,
Judith Roche was able to persuade the Army Corps of Engineers to introduce
her five poems into the audio system at the fish-viewing windows inside
the Fish Ladder. With the push of a button, viewers held a poem that corresponded
to what they were seeing in the window and to a different phase in the
salmon cycle: Steelhead (winter), Smolt (spring), Celestial Navigation
Sockeye (summer), The River Dance Chinook/Sockeye (late summer), and Ghost
Salmon Chinook (fall).
In addition to these
innovative models, Salmon in the City also included traditional
sculptures, such as Jim Pridgeons two-part Salmon Cycle,
which used industrial materials as a metaphor for fish DNA and fish ladders.
Ries Niemis welded metal Fish Bridge was shaped in the form
of the skeletons of two salmon, back to back. As we walked into the mouth
of one salmon and out the mouth of the other, the salmon devoured us,
instead of vice versa.
While all of the
artists explored interconnections between our own survival and that of
the salmon, Lillian Pitt, the only Native American artist, together with
Ken Macintosh, went to the heart of the history of salmon in the culture
of the Northwest. Salmon Offering, a bronze cast of an actual salmon
drying rack, is installed near the salmon cooking area of the Daybreak
Star Arts Center, owned by the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation.
The artists have donated the permanent work to United Indians in honor
of Bernie Whitebear, the Native American leader who, with other native
leaders, won land rights from the American government. The rack is the
soul of a fish camp, where families come together to smoke and dry fish
for the winter. It is also a focal point for telling myths and legends,
sharing prayers, and trading with other tribes. As Pitt stated. Salmon
sustain more than the bodythey feed the soul and spirit of a community.
Perhaps if more
European settlers had understood this relationship, salmon would not be
endangered today. The public art projects dynamically reached out to the
community, beyond traditional spaces for public art, as artists connected
to new publics and new issues. Most of the artists focused on restoration,
just as the City of Seattle is doing, but all of these efforts, important
as they are, seem a flash in the pan compared to the Native American belief
that we are all profoundly wedded to salmon physically and spiritually,
even if we dont know it.
Salmon Team sponsors scientific research to learn more about the Chinook,
developing and implementing projects to improve habitat. More information
is available at www.cityofseattle.net/salmon.