“When I worked for the Seattle Times fifteen years ago, our building overlooked this lot,” remarked Molly Dilworth during a recent artist talk. Her project, 2421 Miles, is a 52,000-square-foot earthwork (organized in collaboration with ALL RISE) located on a vacant city block in the heart of downtown. Returning to the site this spring was a homecoming of sorts for the Brooklyn-based artist.
The ALL RISE series explores a site’s iterative potential for residential, political, commercial, agricultural, spiritual, intellectual, and utopian use. Dilworth’s 2421 Miles is the most recent installation, and required over 400 cubic yards of dirt and 182 pounds of wildflower and grass seed to transform the site into an urban meadow. Arranged into fourteen individual garden beds, the work employs plants that, once blooming, evoke the colorways of corporate logos and civic flags found along the sea trade route between the East and West Coast. The entire composition, which can be viewed from a neighboring rooftop or via the ALL RISE webcam, is a large-scale tessellation with geometric swaths of vibrant green growth against slate gray gravel, joined together like pieces of a massive quilt.
2421 Miles is the product of many months of conversation and research, interspersed with experimentation and near failure. Curators Megan Atiyeh and Elizabeth Spavento joke that their resumes have expanded to include urban farming as a professional credential. Given that they studied soil composition, made sure the seedlings were properly irrigated, and negotiated the chaos of a derailed Bobcat, few would dispute the legitimacy of their claim. 2421 Miles takes its name from the distance between New York and Seattle—a commute the artist made as a contract employee in the tech industry just a few years ago. The installation is inspired by the transitory nature of labor. Conceiving of the piece, Dilworth meditated on the movement of the material and immaterial products of capitalism, considering the hybrid cultural formations that emerge from this global system.
Dilworth is perhaps best known for her body of work Paintings for Satellites, which started in 2009 and has continued in various iterations. The series began as a desire to create a painting on a New York City rooftop that could be documented by Google Earth—at the time, an emerging technology. Dilworth received permission to create three paintings within the span of a year: 547 W 27 (2009), on the roof of a shared studio building; 16 Manhattan (2010), on an apartment building; and 561 Grand (2010), a collaboration with 350.org to promote infrared-reflecting roof coating as a low-energy alternative to air conditioning. The story of Paintings for Satellites was picked up by national and international press, and the success of the series led Dilworth to her largest project to date, Cool Water, Hot Island (2010), a five-block, 50,000-square-foot painting commissioned by the city of New York to cover the surface of Broadway from 42nd to 47th Streets, through Times Square.
The process developed by Dilworth to create Paintings for Satellites is a methodology that went on to inform 2421 Miles. She maintains a “daily practice,” a rule-based system used to produce small painted studies that become templates for patterns to apply to her large-scale works. These graphic compositions contain reverberations of Constructivism, cartography, and ambiguous tribal art configurations. Further, they reveal Dilworth’s background in weaving, for many of her studies are woven together like the reeds of a basket or the threads of a textile.
Despite her craft-based influences, the artist claims to “understand the world through painting.” 2421 Miles operates as a living painting, provoking conversations on labor, the role of gardens in urban development, and the ways in which new technologies mediate and archive our experience of the world. The work will not only be viewed by the art goers who seek it, but further, by the fleet of tech workers and art students just down the street, and the myriad passersby traveling between Capitol Hill and Downtown. Through the month of June, the piece will continue to bloom and evolve, revealing new colors and new patterns within the temporary urban meadow.
Seeing the smattering of California poppies and dwarf catchfly flowers that populate the installation today, it is impossible to ignore the question: Was this project worth the effort? Would the 26 truckloads of fertile earth and countless labor hours be better served by a site-responsive project that is generative, community-driven, and lasting?
Currently, there are eight tower cranes visible within the cityscape that surrounds ALL RISE. These gigantic machines are reminders of the transitory nature of urban space and the continued push for development and change. At the end of June, 2421 Miles will be returned to the ground with the help of a heard of goats. Much like the cranes, Dillworth’s installation incites us to consider the evolution of urban structures, and the ways that we can find reprieve from concrete and steel by allowing a bit of wildness to be let in.
Molly Dilworth: 2421 Miles is on view at ALL RISE, 1250 Denny Way in Seattle, through the end of June 2015, at which point the installation will be consumed by goats. The site is closed to the public, but accessible by special request and viewable by webcam.