A trio of Seattle artists has taken a unique approach in an attempt to “undo three-quarters of a century’s worth of polluting”: canning and selling dirt.
The “premium-quality hand-canned dirt,” which are available for $25 a can, are a commentary on how a community can share in the responsibility of cleaning up a contaminated urban site.
The artists’ work focuses on one specific site, a brownfield in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood. Once home to a gas station, it is now choked with blackberries, littered with drug baggies and covered in contaminated soil.
Artists John Sutton, Ben Beres and Zac Culler want to transform the place into a green space and art venue.
“There’s hundreds of thousands of these sites all across the United States, and we are one of the few people who are actually giving them a creative response,” Beres said.
And that’s where the cans of dirt come in.
The artists, who work under the moniker SuttonBeresCuller, scored grant funding to purchase the abandoned property. They waded through mounds of bureaucracy and rounds of environmental testing only to realize it would cost a fortune to clean up and haul out the site’s estimated 106,000 cubic feet of contaminated soil.
The polluted soil would have to be trucked to Oregon for disposal, Beres says. To the artists, the whole notion sounded environmentally wrong and even ridiculous.
“So we thought, ‘Why not can this stuff up ourselves?”’ Beres said.
The result, as told through a campy sales video featuring the trio in hazmat suits, is cans of premium “not non-toxic” dirt. The dirt is from the actual contaminated site and the can label specifies, in detail, the various contaminants identified through environmental testing.
The artists have packed 1,300 cans of dirt, which are available for sale online as well as at the Greg Kucera Gallery as part of a larger SuttonBeresCuller art show. Sales benefit the Georgetown project, which is being called Mini Mart City Park. The artists have calculated all the contaminated soil would fill more than 5.5 million cans. If they sell out their first batch, Beres says, they will make more.
SuttonBeresCuller, who’ve created a host of buzzed-about projects over the years (a floatable island in the middle of Lake Washington, just to name one), first came up with this idea of upending a piece of property back in 2000.
Back then, Seattle was considering extending the monorail line and buying up several parcels of land. SuttonBeresCuller envisioned transforming a convenience store on Crown Hill into some sort of public space. Then voters voted down the monorail proposal.
When they decided to hold onto their concept, they went looking for old gas stations in an urban environment, ideally something retro-looking that was situated in a neighborhood with limited open space.
“We liked the old-timey feel of this station,” Culler said. And the Georgetown neighborhood isn’t teeming with parks.
SuttonBeresCuller formed a nonprofit entity and paid $50,000 for the Mini Mart City Park site. The gas station, which opened in 1926, was owned for decades by the Perovich Brothers. Boeing stored fuel tanks here during World War II, according to the artists.
The artists have already started to remove blackberries and paint parts of the lot, but they acknowledge it will take years to finish the project. But Mini Mart City Park has already played host as a temporary art venue. The site will feature a video installation by Brent Watanabe in October.