by Patrick Ellis

Mere blocks from Richard Serra's Wake - still settling into its new home at the sculpture park - and steps from Seattle's oldest punk record shop, Singles Going Steady, lies a Victorian rooming house, which, renovated and re-dubbed, is now a gallery and bar, the McLeod Residence. Launched amidst controversy upon the bounty of locals 1, the new media gallery opened in January 2006 with some wry self-help fanfare: founder Buster McLeod reported calculating "the math of getting things: [weighing] desire dollars and difficulty costs," and seems to have balanced the ledger with McLeod's. 2 Although the gallery appears to draw its name from its owners, Californians Buster and Lele McLeod, they in fact had their names legally changed to correspond with the residence - a grave whimsy, characteristic of their curatorial practice, which aims to merge corporatism with bohemianism, and the hi-tech with the low-rent.

This July, the McLeods put together the Interactivity show, outfitting their six themed rooms with art that had, in fact, varying expectations of interaction. Certain pieces asked only for the push of a button; others allowed blunt sculpting; and others still asked nothing. The most novel form of interactivity that any piece required was simply for the user to stand in front of it: the Barbarian Group 3 provided an LCD screen that functions as a mirror; when looked into, it forms the viewer's image in a mosaic fashioned of tiny, pixilated images of countless previous viewers, all captured by the mirror. (The portrait-mosaic technique has been used statically in many advertising campaigns, and it comes as little surprise that the Barbarian Group are ordinarily an advertising firm, and only artists of late.) The McLeod Mirror Series 1, as it is called, changes and reforms with the movement of the viewer; when a reflection is inspected - and its location, in the restroom, invites such activity - any narcissism inherent to mirror-gazing is upended, as the physical qualities and flaws of the gazer are made up of fellow McLeod visitors.

The Barbarians are also responsible for the Biomimetic Butterflies: pinned in cases, the thin, fractal-patterned wings of these artificial butterflies shiver morbidly when a visitor gets close enough to be detected by a sensor. Complicated technology has apparently been employed to achieve this effect. In the press that surrounds the butterflies, we are told of lasers, rare earth magnets, and Voronoi cells; the effort does not come across. Nevertheless, these algorithmic feats resemble the work of a child prodigy of paper snowflakes. Their placement in the conservatory, as though by a Victorian lepidopterist, is very smart, too.

In the parlor, Maggie Orth's Running Plaid and Pedal Pusher make use of thermochromatic fabrics in a way that fashion forecasters, trying to sell a more basic, though similar, technology in the 1980s - Hypercolor, for instance - did not anticipate. Running Plaid, which activates at the press of a button, weaves heat-sensitive threads over a canvas-shaped board and, lo and behold, the pigments of the threads change color. At its best, and though it may threaten occasionally to transform into one of those vivid but grotesque plastic-lawn-chair plaids, it's like a Mondrian-spun quilt. The colors, myriad and clashing, change so gradually that patient attention must be devoted to perceive their transformations. The result is mesmerizing. Orth's Pedal Pusher, however, requires a little more activity. A wall of 21 mounted light boxes wrapped with textiles illuminate, individually, to one of three degrees at the slightest touch. Viewers can (and do) orchestrate their own panorama of colors and lights.

The lounge, with its genuinely boozy aroma, is home to a few pieces, some of which linger from prior shows. By far the most interesting is Jeremy Bert's large reclaimed-neon cut-up, Ransom Note (not remotely interactive, unless one counts its few extinguished lights, probably bumped into by revelers), which overshadows and illuminates the bar. It reads: "leave nineteen million dollars in unmarked bills." Like Chris Curreri's (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear, a neon work using Elvis song titles, which, at Toronto's first Nuit Blanche, used the top floor windows of an entire residential block, Ransom Note works because of its scope; it is just large and audacious enough to be funny, and it sets a convivial atmosphere. Also, drawn as it is from found signage, Ransom Note is the sort of collage that could only be produced in Seattle, a city with one of the finest commercial neon traditions in the world.

The show's modest extremes of interactivity are where it lapses. Felix Livni's ambitiously titled The Four Seasons - four photographs of trees - might work in another context, but situated in a hallway at an exhibit expressly for interactive works, there is an urge to keep moving; that they are static, where much else at McLeod's is not, makes their inclusion peculiar. Although Genetic Mandalas, Barry Tolnas's computer program, is probably much less interactive than a standard video game, it was still the most interactive piece in the show. Its premise is vaguely evolutionary; the player chooses a preferred aesthetic from a screen of 20 (or so) kaleidoscopic shapes, nearby shapes begin to correspond in make-up to the selected, and the process is repeated until most of the forms are of a similar aesthetic. Five minutes can be spent this way, but the touch screen is gummy, the mandalas uninspired, and the process unintentionally frustrating.

Genetic Mandalas is installed under the auspices of another, permanent (and interactive) contraption located in the foyer: a photo-booth that uploads directly to Any visit to 4 on a Saturday morning will reveal festive scenesters from the night before posing for the camera; visitor demographics throughout the week, thankfully, may vary. In the photo-booth, the McLeod Residence intuits what's valuable about new media and the web; the 14,000 pictures it has taken in less than a year attest to this. In August, there was some talk of the gallery going under; it hasn't and, if the Interactivity show is suggestive of their plans, it oughtn't.

1 : A couple of years ago, the networking site - of which Buster McLeod was a founder, and where viewers listed 43 things they wanted to do with their lives, from the ambitious to the mundane - was bought out by An article about the purchase was published, accusations flew, and the whole thing remains unresolved; but users were definitely annoyed that their semi-private desires were (seemingly) made market research. Not long after the buy-out, the McLeods started up the residence.  

2 : Buster McLeod was speaking at an Ignite Seattle event (an occasional and informal technology forum; the founders call it a "geek night"); a video of his talk is online.  

3 : See the Barbarian Group's website:  

4 : See  


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