Nested squarely in the sprawl of South Lake Union’s corporate glitter, one unassuming building is packed with a glut of excellent artwork. For Facebook’s new Seattle office, the company commissioned a great deal of work as part of an extraordinarily innovative artist-in-residence program. 

Launched at Facebook’s San Francisco headquarters in 2012 by the program’s founder and curator Drew Bennett, the company’s AIR program aims to bridge Facebook culture (in this case with the emphasis on playfulness) and local art communities. The company’s employees have enjoyed some serious doses of creative freedom for years. For example, they’ve been given free rein in the sprawling screen printing shop set up at HQ in 2010. Called the Analog Research Laboratory, employees are encouraged to mess around with printmaking as much as they like to keep their heads in the realm of the analog. 

The first AIR program evolved from the energy of that laboratory-like space. Professional artists were commissioned to transform the offices, slathering the walls with vibrant designs and murals. It was such a success that the program has been integrated into Facebook’s regional offices, including New York, Dublin and now Seattle. Unlike many companies that acquire artwork to flesh out a corporate collection, Facebook’s AIR program doesn’t mind if the art created on-site is temporary or plays with atypical materials. In fact, the curators prefer that artists do something outside of their comfort zone. Seattle’s old guard rightfully harbors misgivings about the Silicon Valley companies terraforming the city’s neighborhoods, but this program should assuage some of their fears.

“Our roots are inviting artists and compensating them for their time, not for their objects,” Bennett says. An artist himself, Bennett painted murals on Facebook’s Palo Alto office walls back in 2007. He officially joined the company a few years later as art program manager to imagine a new kind of artist in residency program from scratch. “We want engagement,” he says. “We want it to be very clear that the artist was here.” The words interconnectivity, utility, sharing, communication pop up often in his speech.

“The language we use tends to mirror the language of our workplace,” Bennett says, “Because whether or not artists are aware of it, a lot of the art-market infrastructure can be intimidating and there might not be a clear entry point for the uninitiated. For a lot of people, the idea of collecting art is something that only the affluent do—a precious, privileged practice that can seem off-putting. We’re trying to strip all those trappings of the art market and get straight to the issues of creativity, innovation, inspiration. And we’re interested in relationships with the artists. We’re trying to socialize these different communities, and by doing so, build those communities.”

During a recent tour of Facebook’s Seattle office, City Arts was joined by Bennett, curator for Facebook’s North American offices Dina Pugh and recent artists in residence Claire Cowie and Sasha Barr, who filled us in on their experience.  

Photos by Kelly O.

Immediately upon entering the lobby—prior to the security desk, where none save employees and sanctioned guests shall pass—the walls are lacquered in large pieces by Seattle favorites, including a mural by Stacey Rozich. An oversize coffee table is strewn with a few VR headsets but none of the art is happening there, or on any screens, period. Facebook wants employees to take a break from screen-world, so installations tend toward the touchable, tactile, physical.

Marie Watt’s Skywalker/Skyscraper (Portal) is made of reclaimed blankets pieced together and hand-sewn by a community sewing group, each stitch a metaphorical thumbprint. Like much of the art on site, it exudes its labor-intensive, detail-oriented process.

In keeping with the tactile sensibility, Electric Coffin‘s piece is practically petable. The four-member artist collaborative—whose work is currently on view at Bellevue Arts Museum—rendered their bricolage in hypercolor high-relief, comprising a mashup of figurines found in thrift stores coated with multi-colored flocking. It’s inspired by sound; the topography of the design was derived from the phrase “Live like the future is on fire,” which they recorded and then translated into a waveform.

Andrew Dexel, a Canadian artist from the Nlaka’pamux Nation, makes paintings inspired by Salish design and graffiti art. On one huge wall across from a fleet of elevators, he inscribed 12 mandalas, one for each month of the year, as well as a traditional Salish welcoming figure—the very first thing encountered on the first floor. 

On the second floor, Sasha Barr’s installation Cosmos spills out from the walls and creeps underfoot, offering a cartoon constellation of eyeballs, pastel-colored building blocks, diamonds and other easter eggs tucked away in a sparkling void. Its edges fan out, framed by a zigzag of interlocking puzzle-piece crenelations. It was Barr’s largest project to date (in addition to being an artist, Barr is also a designer and Grammy-nominated art director at Sub Pop Records), and he worked completely solo on the piece for nearly two weeks, solving the mechanics of painting permanent work on the floor as he went.

Artists working with the AIR program aren’t given specific directives about themes or content. They also aren’t given enough time to overthink things. Claire Cowie had only two weeks to prepare materials in her studio before gaining access to the freshly finished fourth floor of the Dexter Station office.

Once on-site, she collaged cut-out fragments of silkscreen prints directly to the wall. She also printed block prints onto unfinished wood panels. The resulting pastiche of imagery weaves like connective tissue, with small symbols and figures interlocked in silent conversation. Branches and root systems flow into bubble gum clouds, fantastical chimera and curlicue snakes. Tiny cats populate the landscape (“Because who doesn’t love cat videos on the Internet?” Cowie says, laughing). As the project unfurled, Cowie found she was drawn to the challenge of embodying the idea of the tangent, of conversation threads and the edges and intersections of communication. She also ended up working beyond the initial space she was assigned: “They let me keep going around the corner, so I did!” Cowie spent 100 hours installing the piece, mostly at night while only a few employees were around.

Corey Bulpitt’s installation is inspired by a blend of graffiti art and the tribal symbolism of Haida iconography. As a Haida painter, metalsmith and wood carver, Bulpitt’s integration of hands, feet, faces and motifs from the natural world synthesize his personal history and heritage, braided into a single fluid and unmissable gesture.

Since launching the Facebook AIR program in Seattle, Bennett has partnered extensively with Urban Artworks, the prolific Seattle-based nonprofit that provides art opportunities for youth, pairing them with artists and businesses to create large-scale projects in their communities. To construct his gigantic, multimedia whaleboat installation, Kyler Martz teamed up with Urban Artworks students to create a piece that harkens to Seattle’s life aquatic. (Appropriately, the “tail” of the boat points eastward to MOHAI and the Center for Wooden Boats, easily visible from the fifth-floor windows that look down on Lake Union.)

For his installation, Evan Blackwell recycled building materials from construction sites, where the bones of old buildings have been crumbled and discarded. He pieced the reclaimed materials together in a crystalline trail—again, easily slipping between metaphors of networks, mimicking natural structures that resemble labyrinths, nodes, organic codes.

Katy Stone’s installation flutters as workers walk by. It’s frighteningly fragile, made out of slivers of translucent mylar that she cut out by hand, painted with milky pigment, then pinned to the wall. 

On the ninth-floor deck, Aleph Geddis’ sculpture takes inspiration from Pacific Northwest totemic sculpture or “houseposts” in the Salish tradition. Geddis is not from the Salish tribe, but his homage pays tribute to an Indigenous concept of world-bridging animals. With imagery carved symmetrically onto multiple sides, an owl looms on top, which linked to a land otter, which is in turn linked to a frog at the base.

Jesse Brown, an artist specializing in design, illustration and public work, graduated from the Urban Artworks youth program. His mandate to EXPLORE melts into walls and a patchwork of symbols.

The work here is far from done. Currently, a number of blank walls are slated to be altered by more artists, including street artist No Touching Ground and further collaborations with Urban Artworks. In addition to the programming underway, the AIR program is expanding its global vision and will soon integrate lecture series, artist-led workshops and other chances for employees and artists to mingle. So far, it seems to be working.

“The freedom they afforded—there was something incredible to it,” Cowie says, when she and Barr sat down in one of a seemingly endless string of random, cozy glassed-in meeting rooms, surrounded by the buzz of the lunch hour. “No committee or approval meetings. And I was allowed to do whatever I wanted and was actually told explicitly that I didn’t need to talk about Facebook or the web. That made me think about what I’m genuinely interested in, about the dynamics of a place like this. In doing that I was able to genuinely address issues about Facebook’s community without it feeling forced. I did it in a way I wanted to.”