What Shall We Do With The Gum Wall? Whatever We Chews!

skepticWould someone please be so kind as to fill in a recently discovered egregious lacuna in my general education by answering the following burning question?

Why the HAY-YULL is Seattle’s gum wall a … well … why is the Seattle gum wall a thing?

I emphasize "Seattle gum wall" because other cities have a different attitude and terminology for their own analogs of the gum wall, like … I dunno … “health hazard” … “quarantine zone” … “disease vector” … etc. Only in Seattle do we call the gum wall a “gum wall” and, going one step beyond, turn it into a tourist attraction instead of the environmental blight, or at least vandalism, that any rational assessment would deem it to be. But … hey! … never one to stand in the way of progress, I propose that – as long as the precedent, deranged as it is, has been set – let’s capitalize on it. The following are ideas for similar tourist attractions whose aesthetic and … dare I say? … pathogenic DNA is traceable to the Seattle gum wall … f'r instance ...


o How about other gum walls elsewhere?

Museums and college / university art departments could dispatch cadres of gum-art prospectors to any number of seedy, down-at-the-heels, B- or even C-grade, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and, perhaps by paying the proprietor a nominal fee, turn over the tables in the restaurants and look at the underside for globs of chewing gum past patrons have stuck there before swilling down their pints of Oxbelch Lite beer and Old Jockey-Shorts boilermakers. Buy the table-tops from the restaurant -- or just promise lots of free publicity to same in future exhibition catalogs -- detach the tops from the tables, fasten them together at the edges, and display them at SAM or in Bellevue or install them in the Sculpture Garden. If repeating gum-wall-like constructions seems unduly repetitive, remember that any number of artists, including immortals like Rembrandt, made dozens, even hundreds, of prints from an original work. And those were indeed only copies. Think of the resulting multiple gum walls as Jackson Pollock paintings, just done in a different medium.

o Collect gastric emissions of people who got drunk at abovementioned dining establishments


OK ... I am being as delicate as I can here, so work with me, 'kay? ... The last thing anyone, including your Faithful Skeptic-in-Residence, wants to remember is the aftermath of Thermopylae-scale overindulgence in the fruits of the vintner's and distiller's hermetic art, occasions that would make Linda Blair's iconic scene in The Exorcist look like high tea at Downton Abbey. (I have never had a literal "lost weekend," but if I had more space, I could tell you about a "lost evening" on a business trip to Yokohama, post-karaoke ... but I digress ... ) Collect the detritus from such Dionysian excesses, laminate it -- preferably after fumigating and disinfecting it first -- and frame it. We could even found a separate gallery to display the results ... lots of polished wood ... indirect lighting ... a string quartet playing in the background (I would suggest Haydn's String Quartet in F-Major) ... waiters in formal finery quietly mingling with the attendees with trays of glasses full of Veuve Cliquot ... gallery curators in discreetly postmodern attire circulating among the guests ... and call the establishment something like "The Emetic Emporium". Even if people did not care for the exhibition -- unlikely ... remember, this is in the city where gum stuck on a wall is a cultural apotheosis and not an incipient micro-ecological hazard -- the dissenting party would probably never berate her partner for having gone to the opening, because no one, I guarantee, would want to hear a response like "Why do you keep throwing that up to me?"

o Cruise doctors' offices and ask for the -- appropriately sanitized -- leftovers for certain procedures


Speaking of being delicate, this is another such case, as anyone knows who has undergone any such in-office invasive procedure that left one feeling improbably violated and healthy at the same time. (Dave Barry is much braver than I, as witness his 2008 column on one such procedure ... just in case your powers of indirect inference make those of George W. Bush look like Marcel Proust.) Any such procedure -- their name is "Legion," for they are many -- inevitably produces art-worthy mounds of detritus that is usually just discarded after suitable medical precautions. Surgical gloves ... masks ... tissue ... you name it. (But do leave the "sharps" container alone!)  All could be assembled and repurposed into collage-like displays of gum-wall-like testaments to the transformative power of applying the magic term "art" and allowing it to thereby morph trash into treasure. We could even found another gallery for medical cast-offs:  much like "The Emetic Emporium," but call it "The Colonoscopy Colosseum".

o Assist in the clean-up of Hanford by diverting a portion of the radioactive junk and sludge to aesthetic endeavors


Gathering the radioisotope-bearing  and -contaminated equipment and sludge into a public-art project, a la the New Deal art that adorns many public buildings to this day, would not only help clean up the facility but provide public-works jobs for the unemployed. To protect the workers, I am sure we could enlist the assistance of Energy Northwest -- formerly the Washington Public Power Supply System ... the notoriously but appropriately named WPPSS ("Woops!") -- in this effort. One can imagine wildly avant garde abstract sculpture made from ferociously radioactive pipes, conduits, and equipment, and vats often coated with whatever radio-toxic sludge they once contained being assembled at a safe distance -- say a few hundred miles -- from any human settlements. It would be no more dangerous than the material presently leaking from the tank farms. Much of the art would glow in the dark, which would save on power costs. Of course, the viewing of the art would be problematical. (Many eyewitnesses in Ukraine report birds dying and falling out of the sky when they merely flew over the raw, open pit of Chernobyl.)  For that, one would need high-resolution optics in low-earth orbit like the surveillance systems currently installed on American early-warning / DSP satellites. (Even automated robots on the ground with imaging equipment would not be reliable, as the Soviets found out when they tried to use such devices for clean-up:  the ambient ionizing radiation from Chernobyl fried the robots' electronics.) On the other hand, the very hazard of viewing the art "up close and personal" might provide a certain enticing frisson to mega-wealthy one-percenters who would be willing to ante up ... let's say ... $250,000 per hour for the privilege of wearing a haz-mat suit for an in-person examination of the art. At the very least, such attractions might well divert the ueber-wealthy from using their energies and assets to decimate the lion population of Africa.

On second thought, the clean-up of the gum wall may prove to be at least a short-term economic advantage to the people commissioned to break the old gum off the wall -- presumably to make room for new gum -- by enabling them to answer both literally and truthfully "Just scraping by" when someone asks how they are doing. So maybe the architects of the gum wall, though missing the mark in their execution, did get the general idea right:  take stuff that would ordinarily be discarded and repurpose / recycle it for the enhancement of the community, not only ecologically but aesthetically.  In fact, that is even good environmental practice.

You know, when you think of the gum wall that way, it doesn't seem so offal.

James R. Cowles

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