What is the Forest For The Trees (FFTT)? Most simply put, it’s a three-day, six-floor art “activation” of a yet-to-be-occupied office building in Pioneer Square’s new RailSpur development, on the south side of Occidental Park. The nonprofit organization FFTT does a lot more than just the festival, but that’s the thing it’s probably most known for in Seattle at the moment. The art show just wrapped up its second year at RailSpur — which, while maybe not the best news for the owners of the office building, is great for Seattle’s art scene.
Because FFTT happens by the grace of a large, out-of-state development group, we here at Real Change have to admit we slept on it the first year. While we really enjoyed seeing the art and speaking with the festival’s founders, we couldn’t shake the feeling that we would be basically doing sponsored content for a property developer, as we assumed the group’s motivation in allowing such a massive art takeover was to build hype and bring in tenants. We would like to take this opportunity to say we were wrong!
Sure, property management would like some tenants to move in. That’s why they redid the building, after all. But we’re just as sure FFTT wouldn’t have gotten a second go-round if that’s all they cared about.
At this point, we have to assume the main reason RailSpur is game to keep doing FFTT is because it’s fun and people like it. If some of those people later decide to rent out several floors of office space to build widgets or write code in, that’s great. However, given the stubbornness of commercial vacancy in downtown Seattle, it sure feels like we’ll be getting at least four floors next year, if not all six. And even if the building is full, there will still be a FFTT in some form, the RailSpur folks assured us.
“RailSpur is partnering long-term with Forest For The Trees and [co-producer] ARTXIV to bring accessibility to local artists, so you’ll see this event and many more to come in the future, along with art from these artists as a fixture in RailSpur’s existing retail spaces (and future buildings),” wrote Sarah Meyer, a spokesperson for the project’s developer, in an email.
We also wanted to shine some light on FFTT not just because it seems more permanent than we’d given it credit for, but because the art was even better this time. For the first year, FFTT founder and president Gage Hamilton and his co-curator, ARTXIV founder Dom Nieri, turned over the floors to individual curators, keeping only the top floor atrium for themselves. This year, they did it all, besides one floor dedicated to signs gathered by Vanishing Seattle. That floor was a treat, offering long-suffering Seattleites an opportunity to see some of the signage from their favorite lost businesses. Any Beacon Pub rememberers in the room?
Besides that, we enjoyed Anthony White’s hyperpop paintings, which were a color-mad cacophony of brands and products rendered in a type of plastic used in 3D printing, itself a comment on the artificiality of consumerism. It’s also probably no surprise that Derek Bruno’s work was of special interest to us: an entire floor of tents, the sale of which went to benefit local mutual aid organizations working with homeless people.
The art was interactive and varied from floor to floor. A film on the fourth floor, which was darkened and dedicated entirely to video art, captivated viewers with its time-lapse footage of wildfires ravaging California. It was organized into the stages of grief, as if the sight of entire hillsides and communities being consumed wasn’t on the nose enough. Another film imagined an 8-billion-person city, depicting a possible future in which humans consolidated ourselves to one spot on the planet to let the rest of it regrow.
Through it all, muralists were working on large panels on the main floor, a nod to FFTT’s origins as a mural jam in Portland.
After getting a full tour, we got the chance to sit down with Hamilton and chat a bit about the project’s history, what he and Nieri were going for this year and what might be next.
Real Change: So you were kind of talking about this downstairs, but FFTT existed before the RailSpur space, right? Just not in the same form?
Gage Hamilton: It started in 2013. It’s a nonprofit public art project, which is how we’ve operated. We haven’t done something every year since then. Like, through COVID, we didn’t do too much for a couple years. Last year here, it was kind of a comeback in a way. Because in Portland, it was murals. We did public art murals, and we would do like 25 in a week or something like that in August. Have a bunch of local artists, have people coming in from around the world. [We were] wanting to bring it back, and I had moved up here, and then we built this relationship with RailSpur.
You knew Henry Watson [project manager for the RailSpur building] through a family connection, right?
Yeah. They had wanted murals and stuff before, but the construction was behind, and then tenants weren’t coming in, so none of those installation projects were really happening. So then we just asked if we could use it, and they thought it went well.
What sparked the idea for you guys? Were you just looking at the space and thinking, like, ‘What if we curated a giant art show in here?’
There’s that gallery spot in the alley. That’s all we asked for at first. They kind of just wanted some activity and stuff and creativity going on. And we were like, ‘Well, we could do a residency thing in here.’ Then it’s like, ‘Well, if the whole floor is open, we could have it kind of open studio style; have multiple people working in here at the same time.’ We didn’t even know the whole building was empty. We hadn’t seen any other floors. And when we found that out, we’re like, ‘Well, the Seattle Art Fair is going to happen right there in two months, and what if we just filled the building?’ It was really kind of organic and easy, I guess. It was just asking questions.
And it seems like they really liked having the first one. It got what they wanted, which is publicity.
Yeah, I think they were open to it in the first place. And then I don’t think they expected it to be as big of a thing as it was.
Yeah, it was packed.
I think it’s worthwhile for them, obviously. It’s awesome for us to have such a beautiful, giant space, just free to use.
Did you expect that you would have it for a second year?
It was unclear. We figured we’d have something.
But it might not be six floors again?
Right. They had planned to do some things with the ground floor and then possibly the top floor. So I don’t know — can’t complain, because to be able to get any of it is awesome — [but] we were basically planning anything like a month out because we didn’t know how long we were going to have access to this.
You talked a little bit about the themes of at least the top floor, but what would you say the overall theme you guys were going for was this year?
The top floor is maybe more specific, but it kind of fits into [the overall theme], I guess. This struggle with modernity and what our relationship is with the planet and other humans. Like there’s Derek’s floor, which is the tents. There’s a lot of … maybe it’s critiques, but also just observation of what the current kind of capitalist moment is and where that leaves us. And then the video floor. We have the world on fire.
That one hits you right across the head with it.
Yeah. We have a city where basically people move out of the world and just go into one space. It’s either critiques, or it’s … suggestions about what might make things better, but it’s kind of done not with any idea that we have a clue what makes this better. It’s more just like that energy of people throwing out ideas. And sometimes it’s absurd, sometimes it’s unhealthy, sometimes they’re good ideas, but it doesn’t really matter.
It’s like everybody has this obsession with society and different ideas about how we should organize it. And those different ideas end up being part of what creates society.
Well, cool. I thought the show was amazing this year. Do you think you’ll be able to do it at this scale next year?
We’ll try. I think that they have some plans for the building. They had some plans last year. This year, too, and [it’s] still empty. But I think that long term, we’ll probably find we would like to keep doing things. They would like us to keep doing things. But whether there are businesses and tenants and things like that, I have no idea.
The more successful you guys are at getting them publicity, the fewer floors you might have access to, basically?
Yeah, that’s kind of how it always goes, I guess. But I don’t know; it’s one of those things you take advantage of in the moment, and there’s not really a long-term plan with it. Just here’s the opportunity to do it; might as well do it.
Were the artists primarily from the Pacific Northwest area?
Yeah, mostly Pacific Northwest or West Coast. I think there’s only one international [artist].
Did you feel that you created any sort of impact on the community? Because it feels like the first FFTT really made an impact.
I think [for] the arts community, for sure. I think that people were pretty over the moon about it last year. I think especially coming out of COVID and [with so many art] spaces being lost, to have that moment like this where that energy is back and it’s like active, creative energy. [There’s something] about being in spaces with the people that are interested in the same things. We’ve been having regular programming since May, and a couple of thousand people usually show up at the shows. So it seems like people are excited, because in Pioneer Square it seems like the Art Walk has dwindled a bit. So, to have a little bit of a resurgence of energy, people are ready for it.
I feel like Seattle specifically really feels like we’re ready for art. Also, I’m shocked you guys didn’t get any grants from the city, because this is exactly the type of thing they’ve been talking about with the Downtown Activation Plan.
We applied for one that was like, I don’t know, $10,000, and they didn’t give it to us. They said that we were too established. But I was delivering lunches all winter, because we just do this without a plan. It was like, ‘This will be awesome.’
But they assume because people know about you, you’re getting paid?
We make it look good. And then they assume that means we have a bunch of money.
Victims of your own success here! And yeah, that’s probably why it looks so good, right? Because you don’t have any money left.
Right. And yeah, obviously it’s good to have funding available for new projects and stuff like that. But I don’t know; if this is something that feels special, then there’s only one way for that to keep going and for us not to burn ourselves out and go completely bankrupt on it. We have to figure that out, too, on our own. But if the funds are available, it’d be nice.
Pay these guys! I think that’s a good note to end on.
Henry Behrens is the arts editor of Real Change. Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor.
Read more of the Aug. 16-22, 2023 issue.