Alejandra Salinas and Aeron Bergman finish each other’s sentences. They make art together. They run the artist space INCA in lower Queen Anne together. Publish books together. Both of them teach art at the University of Washington in Bothell. Their emails are signed AA.
“We’re kind of each other’s family,” says Salinas, sitting at a small table next to INCA’s wide windows that look out onto Roy Street and Queen Anne Avenue. “It’s been 22 years that we’ve been moving constantly to places where we don’t know anyone. We’ve lived all over.”
“Alejandra is from La Rioja in Spain, I’m from Detroit,” Bergman says. “We met in art school in Toronto. Then we moved to New York, Detroit, London, La Rioja, Barcelona, Göteborg, Oslo… We’ve lived in Seattle since 2013, when we both started teaching at UW Bothell.”
Flash back to two decades ago: “The falling in love was first,” Salinas says. “Then came making art together. We were both working with sound, founded a record label together. When we started to make visual art, we couldn’t imagine not working together.”
Their small baby, Agnes, toddles through the space casting soft shrieks, looking for attention from parents who spent the last two days installing their latest exhibition. When Salinas passes Agnes some pens and a notebook in an effort to distract her, I manage to slip in a question.
Why the name INCA?
Salinas: INCA is short for Institute for New Connotative Action—an intentionally opaque and serious name. We started INCA in a cute neighborhood house in Detroit and wanted to communicate the idea of an institution, when it obviously wasn’t.
Bergman: The overly serious name is both a joke and a reconsideration of what makes an institution.
And the new connotation?
Bergman: We want to reconsider words. Their meaning is always contextual, based on cultural differences, socio-economics, class….
Salinas: We also liked INCA as an acronym, because of the Spanish conquerers, who took the Quechua name “Inka,” which referred to the ruling class only and then started calling everyone Inca—the historical equivalent of calling everyone in the US Zuckerberg. It’s…
Bergman: …about how the word INCA is more about the Spanish than the civilization they were taking over.
Salinas: Which ties into the idea of language depending on power structures.
You prefer “artist-run space” instead of “non-commercial gallery.” What’s the difference?
Bergman: The words are vaguely similar, but “gallery” carries a commercial connotation. INCA is the opposite. Most of the works that we show are unsellable. We prefer to think artists have a different take on the value of arts in society as opposed to a commercial value system.
Salinas: Even if we have objects in exhibitions, they are not the center of what we do. The talks, gatherings and discussion are.
Is that how it started in your house in Detroit?
Salinas: It was mostly a place for residencies, a domestic space that could be used as gathering space for artists, poets, scholars. When we moved to Seattle in 2013, we decided to make it into an exhibition space for artists.
Bergman: Within a month of moving here, we opened up an exhibition space in SODO. We did not want to wait around to see what happened, but offer something right away.
Salinas: It was similar to Detroit because it was also not easy to find us. We had to call people up, organize activities, try to find people that we could have interesting conversations with.
Was that hard?
Bergman: Every situation is both the same and different. The role of art in our neoliberal capitalist society is marginal. In that sense it is exactly the same. Although we don’t believe this is true, Detroit is presented as the “city of ruins,” and Seattle as the other side of that same coin. In both cities we’ve found people who are not satisfied with these narratives of ruin versus boom and the ideology of capitalism. Those people find their way to INCA.
Salinas: We’ve tried combatting the “ruin” narrative in Detroit. Access and lack of capital look very similar in many ways. Some neighborhoods have vacant lands, but here there’s so many empty lots waiting for redevelopment. The space we are in was empty for years.
How does that work?
Bergman: At some point they’re going to tear down this whole block. In the meantime, the owners needed someone who wouldn’t require a long-term contract. Any restaurant would do a big renovation, want a guarantee on being able to stay. We don’t really care.
Salinas: We pay some rent to the owners, below market price. They like that it’s an art space, and they keep us in the loop on what’s going on.
Do you have any idea when they’re going to tear it down?
Bergman: They keep delaying it constantly. That’s the Seattle process, I guess.
Salinas: It does kind of fit our work process. Because we don’t get funding, we often work last-minute. If an artist we like tells us he or she needs to be in LA for a show, we’ll arrange a show last minute. Sometimes we might keep a show up longer. And it’s also not a big deal if we don’t have anything up for a month.
The artists you show come from all over the world. What ties all the work together?
Bergman: Art is the most valuable if it possesses a political urgency and a poetic element in the form. It doesn’t work if it’s too much of one or the other. I see this balance in the work we show as well as the work we make ourselves. Currently we’re working on the idea of randomness and luck, gambling, astrology, algorithms… People think of success as a random event, but it’s a pseudo-randomness in a meritocracy. It’s about very strict social codes, class, race.
Salinas: We believe art has the responsibility to engage with the world, but at the same time it’s not too dry. It’s not like an academic essay.
You are both academics, however.
Bergman: In some ways, the academic system fails. Particularly in the results. The format often contradicts the process.
Salinas: There’s a more radical thing—and a lived experience—that you can’t articulate through it.
INCA also hosts the Autonomous University. Is this a way of doing something academic in a non-academic way?
Bergman: Autonomous University is a group of people who have been meeting for several years as a reading group, organized by [writer and poet] Robert Mittenthal. Sometimes they meet here, sometimes in a cafe. There’s no pressure, not this idea that you’ll get a job after, or that you’ll get something pragmatic out of it, just a place where you can sit down and talk.
Salinas: This collaboration is very important to us. It’s important to have a space where there’s poetry series, events, where people can come together. Also, from next week on, the Neighborhood Action Coalition for District 7 will meet here.
How have you navigated accessibility in the past years?
Salinas: I think that after two years people are now getting a sense of what we do.
Bergman: We get random people who walk in all the time.
Salinas: The best conversations we have are with homeless people. For some of our homeless neighbors it’s a place to hang out, get some food and drinks. And have good conversations about art.
Through the month of April, INCA is hosting a group exhibition curated by the Red May Collective.
Photos by Margo Vansynghel