A visit to Pioneer Square on the first Thursday in December will reveal something that looks like it came straight out of a movie: a fire barrel.
But instead of producing real flames to keep people warm, this sculpture plays a stop-motion video of a fire on a translucent monitor. One quarter buys 20 seconds of these faux flames. Britta Johnson, the artist behind the sculpture “Heat Transfer,” is fighting against homelessness in Seattle through this piece that collects spare change on their behalf.
Johnson said that she wanted to make a sculpture that was a tourist attraction but acknowledged the historic presence of homeless people in the park.
“Nobody actually uses a fire barrel in Pioneer Square,” she said. “That’s a real Hollywood kind of depiction of homelessness. If I made something that was like a cross between a gum machine and a fire barrel, that would be a weird attraction.”
It will be on display in front of the 4Culture building, a King County agency dedicated to cultural development and community engagement through art.
“It’s fairly unique. I don’t know any art piece quite like this,” said Charlie Rathbun, the art program manager for 4Culture who is coordinating the display. “Britta incorporates light and projection and some irony by the fact that this is a fire barrel traditionally used for heat, but it does not actually produce any heat.”
All of the money collected will be donated to the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), a nonprofit organization that provides housing and care to homeless men and women.
The money will help fill in gaps in DESC’s budget, said Megan Mayes, the director of fund development for DESC. The yearly One Night Count in King County, a single-night census of the county’s homeless, has shown an increase in the homeless population every year since 2011, and the center has experienced the effects of this firsthand. The shelter’s 381 beds are filled to capacity every night, and they now serve over 10,000 people per year compared to the 7,145 they served in 2008.
Mayes said she is grateful to Johnson because her project is helping raise awareness as well as money. Because the center doesn’t spend any money on marketing, it’s hard to get the word out to the public about their services.
“Little projects like this really do a lot to help us,” Mayes said. “People become more aware of the work that we do so that they can support us.”
Heat Transfer was originally installed in Occidental Park in 2010, where it raised $46. Johnson is bringing it back because she is trying to draw attention to the homeless problem in Seattle through her art.
She recounts how she used to walk by the new condos on Jackson Street and how she saw their big, fully lit lobbies devoid of any people. She remembers the fireplace being lit on a lot of the nights, even when there was nobody around to enjoy it.
“That used to drive me crazy. It just seemed really gross. There would be homeless people walking past this empty lobby with a fireplace that the people who live inside aren’t using. It just seemed like excess,” Johnson said. “I think this attraction is kind of like excess. Seeing this pretty fire feels a little bit decadent.”
Johnson hopes this sculpture will remind people that heat is a luxury not all humans have access to. In the end, she wants to remind everyone that the homeless are people too.
“We all have a right to be in the city,” Johnson said. “Those people are citizens and they’re part of what makes the city what it is.”