A friend, artist Katy Krantz, recently took a studio space in the old INS building in the Sodo neighborhood of Seattle. In the shadow of the stadiums, this is where immigrants were "processed" from 1930 until 2004, when the building closed. That could mean detention and deportation, or citizenship swearing-in ceremonies. The building evokes strong memories and emotions in Seattle immigrants and, presumably, among countless others who were turned away. The deported left their mark on the building in the form of graffiti they painted with hot roof tar. The words in many languages cover the brick walls surrounding the upper floor courtyards which were used for "recreation" by the detainees.
I admit to feeling ambivalent about Katy's choice of studio space. How could you "convert" a former prison into artists' studios? Would the history and the fate of those no longer here be remembered and commemorated? How would it affect the art created there? Katy struggled with the same questions and her response was an installation which brought her in intimate contact with those detained years or decades before, a visual memorial to the symbols they left on the building. She talks about her piece here on KPLU's Artscape.
During the opening, other artists also presented thoughtful responses to the building's past. The Seattle Butoh dance troupe performed a powerful work, other installations acknowledged the pain and joy contained within the walls, and a group of Seattle immigrants held a storytelling festival featuring immigrants and refugees telling their own histories with the building.
Inscape is the name of the new conversion, but also the name of a concept developed by English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins referring to "the distinctive design that constitutes individual identity, [an] identity is not static but dynamic." After the successful opening last month, most of building is now rented to artists and creative non-profits. I hope the commemoration of the past and retelling of the stories that the building holds will also be dynamic and not forgotten as the building's new tenants shape its future.