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  • The Bomb That Blew Up SeattleJason Sprinkle and the Performance of Municipal Identity
  • E. J. Westlake (bio)

On 15 July 1996 there was a bomb threat in downtown Seattle, Washington. City police evacuated all buildings in a six-block radius and cordoned off all streets. The Metro Transit rerouted buses that pass through downtown, including those in the metro bus tunnel that runs directly under the location of the supposed bomb. A state of total chaos reigned over rush-hour traffic.

News crews stationed cameras as close to the scene as possible. The cameras zoomed-in down the street to show a small, blurry image of bomb robots sniffing around a large truck that had been abandoned in front of Westlake Center, a busy shopping mall in the heart of downtown. For hours, the eyes of the Seattle area were trained on this scene, a scene that echoed all too closely the truck bombing in Dhahran just three weeks prior on 25 June.

Later that evening, the streets were opened, the buses were allowed to pass through the tunnel, and the truck, now determined to be harmless, was towed away. A young man named Jason Sprinkle had turned himself in and was now in custody. He had been on the scene for some time observing his "art act," then left, and was afraid to come back after seeing all the commotion. With the traffic jams and the truck and the robots gone, a furious debate began. Was it art? Or was it terrorism under Washington's strict new antiterrorism law? Sprinkle claims he meant no harm, that he was just making art, and that he could not have predicted the ensuing panic. The police, the district attorney, and a flood of editorial letters charged that he must have known.

Many social forces and power relationships frame this tension between art and real life. Diverse discourses come into play in an attempt by both actors and spectators to make a distinction that cannot be made. No consensus exists within competing mythologies, which seem only to slip against each other and dissolve at their conception. The reactions seem to flow into and out of the confluence of national nightmare and municipal identity, with peripheral issues orbiting. [End Page 29]


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Hammering Man, a sculpture at the entrance of the Seattle Art Museum, with ball-and-chain attached by Sprinkle and the Fabricators. (Photo by Barry Wong; courtesy of the Seattle Times)

Meanwhile, Sprinkle's performance prompted a string of performances that played out, on the stage of law, the anxiety over this amorphous boundary between the real and the representation. The postperformance performances take on the guise of reaction to an original. But beneath the surface lurks a trace of manipulation: a contest of the micro-forces of power, manifest in the institutions of the law. To facilitate an understanding of the nature of this contest I will outline the events leading up to the performance, explain what I mean by "performance," and examine the mythologies and local identities that shape the performances.

Jason Sprinkle, a product of the Job Corps and the local community college, began his long career of abandoning art in downtown Seattle on Labor Day 1993. Sprinkle and fellow metal fabricators hatched an idea to affix a giant ball-and-chain [End Page 30] to the Hammering Man, a moving sculpture that stands forever hammering at the entrance of the Seattle Art Museum as an hommage to work and craftsmanship. The Labor Day ball-and-chain altered the reading of the artwork, an alteration that annoyed the musuem directors but amazed Seattlites. The media dubbed the group the "Fabricators of the Attachment" and Sprinkle, "Subculture Joe."

Several other projects followed, including a giant, fire-spitting Frankenstein-like fabrication, called Frankentree, on Halloween and a ten-foot heart left for jilted lovers to strike with a mallet on Valentine's Day. The Fabricators and Sprinkle with them became part of the city lore—in a city that views itself as the cauldron of alternative artistic activity—its biggest claim to fame being that it is the birthplace of grunge music. Sprinkle...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1531-4715
Print ISSN
1054-2043
Pages
pp. 29-38
Launched on MUSE
2002-03-01
Open Access
No
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