Crossroads Shopping Center
“What brings people into the same public communal space in the age of online networking and virtual shopping? Confessions and observations in an urban shopping mall transform into theater and environmental art as shoppers interact with their own reflections and experiences.”
Fels spent 2005-6 as artist in residence at a suburban shopping mall in Bellevue, WA. The shopping center is run by managing partner Ron Sher, who is noted for community involvement and for his dedication to public spaces. The shopping center has a long established food court with locally owned restaurants serving authentic cuisine from around the world, a police station, public library, a performing stage, a people-sized chess set, and a program of public programs. The shopping center is located in an area that is home to a number of recent immigrant groups, as well as to Microsoft’s main campus, the employees of which arrive at Crossroads for lunch. Fels found the mix of visitors quite intriguing.
During his time with Crossroads, Fels researched areas where interventions could make a difference. There are several small-scaled pieces of ‘public art’ near the food court, mostly of a whimsical nature. Though a great deal of thought has been put into the interior of the center, little attention has been paid to the many acres of asphalt parking that surround the buildings. Fels discovered that runoff from eleven acres of roof and drainage from the parking lot was all being sent untreated to a nearby creek. During warmer months the temperature of the runoff is so high that it kills salmon in the watershed.
Fels met with the City of Bellevue, engineers from King County, The Washington Native Plant Society, and other stakeholders in the watershed. All were extremely interested in partnering with Crossroads to find publicly visible ways to address the drainage issues. Fels felt that the shopping center was a perfect place to get people thinking about the lifecycle of water. Demonstration projects using natural systems could be built into the center that would attract attention, make sense for the environment, and be visually interesting. He identified two major matching grants that would make these projects possible. The managing partner is interested, and is waiting a new phase of construction at Crossroads to begin incorporating more ‘green’ design approaches.
As with his other residencies, Fels wanted to broaden the perception of what an artist does, and do that in full view. A shopping mall is rarely seen as a place of either art- making or activism. Crossroads, in its quiet way, has been known for both. Fels wanted to turn up the heat a bit more even, and do it in public.
During Fels’ tenure, public meetings were being held to consider the addition of housing to the site. Participating in the meetings, Fels was pleased to hear community concern over the amount of impervious surface surrounding the center. This confirmed his sense of the timeliness of a fuller artistic vision for the landscape there. Crossroads has been known locally and nationally for its connection to community – the interest in ‘greening’ the forty acre site is the next logical step in integrating vision and reality.
Fels also thought it would be revealing to create theatre about the shopping center and perform it there. He received grants from 4Culture and Bellevue Arts Commission to bring WET (Washington Ensemble Theatre) to Crossroads. The young and highly acclaimed theatre collective spent several weeks interviewing visitors, fashioning a forty-five minute performance around the dialogue they collected. Fels collaborated with artist Carl Smool to build interlocking and mobile sets for the performances, which were held at lunchtime, over a two-week period in the central court. The sets, which are on wheels and re-combinable in various configurations, were moved by the performers around the court during their piece. They were designed to be reused for other performances at Crossroads.
Residencies provide a chance for reflection, for action, for redirection of priorities, or all of the above. Perhaps because it so successfully appeals to diverse elements of a vibrant community, Crossroads is also fertile ground for considering, and expanding the place of art in ‘everyday’ life.