First, there was a voice. She didn’t even have a name, at least not on the page. The voice was so strong that she got called Alice Metropolis. Then she grew into a character in a stage show, 9 Ounces, which ran in various theaters for a couple years. Then people started checking in with Anastacia-Reneé, who was Seattle’s civic poet from 2017 to 2019, about what was up with Alice. How was she doing?
Anastacia-Reneé had conceived the character (not an alter ego, though they share some qualities: "If Alice and I were having coffee, there would be some things she said that I’d say, Oh my god, Alice, me too"), so she started writing a book of poems about Alice. A James W. Ray Distinguished Artist literary award led to an exhibition in the Frye Art Museum. "It only seemed natural to give Alice this kind of platform."
That show, (Don’t Be Absurd) Alice in Parts, was supposed to open back in September, but during Covid the museum pendulum—open, closed, open, closed—kept swinging. Finally, the exhibition premiered virtually on January 30 (you can watch it here), with a virtual walk-through, interviews, and performers reading some of the poems from the exhibition. And as we’ve now swung into a new phase 2, it should open at limited capacity on February 11 in the Frye’s main galleries.
If you do step inside, as I did for a preview last week, Alice’s voice—funny, anxious, angry, discursive—will strike you immediately. The sound ricochets around the space. Large screens project black and white videos of Alice (played by Anastacia-Reneé) onto the walls. She drinks Jack Daniels. She talks about how she likes to travel, about how she does yoga but doesn’t feel relaxed, but mostly about dealing with depression and about racism and sexism. She unbuttons her white linen shirt and checks her breast for cancer she hopes has disappeared (it hasn't).
Around these screens, painted on the walls, are 21 Alice poems. They begin with the line "alice leaves chard’s of herself all over the house in an effort to stay seen," which echoes through the exhibit: the work to “stay seen,” the chard (both self-care and fragment), the house. "The story is, Alice’s entire neighborhood has already been gentrified, and she is the last home on the block," says Anastacia-Reneé. In some sense, you’re walking through that house. In another, "because of the poetry and the text, you are also inside Alice’s brain."
That is what this poetry installation felt like: a consciousness you can visit. On the page, writers hew to the linear—left to right, top to bottom. But language doesn’t move that way in a brain; it comes in messy, simultaneous layers. Here you can experience such consciousness: The words from video feeds overlap, simmer in the background as you’re reading poems painted on the walls, or looking at the visual works.
That creates an experience of dizzying, ferocious juxtapositions surrounding the exhibit’s themes of racism and gentrification (houses on blocks, cancer in bodies). As you look at a sort of sanctuary to the poet Audre Lorde, you might hear Alice’s insomniac monologue in the background (stick to the plan stick to the plan stick to the plan Alice... sleep sleep sleep.... What if I die from a gunshot? What if the police just bust down the door and shoot me for no fucking reason?). Or as you’re standing there hearing Alice talking about going to yoga, cracking Lululemon jokes, you may be looking at a pile of Christmas presents with positive words written on them: Safe, Home, Sanctuary, Ownership, Hate-Free Zone. "The sorts of things everybody wants to feel when they’re at home." But Alice's home is being taken, and above the presents is a noose made of Christmas lights.
In “The Black Market” beside the door to the first room, a series of items is for sale: "candles ($3) jazz albums ($35) angry Black woman hair ($5)." "I’m playing with stereotypes and race and Black women’s bodies being commodities and commercialized... The exhibition is definitely going for the idea of the absurdity," Anastacia-Reneé says. "But isn’t it absurd? Isn’t racism and gentrification in general—of place and women’s bodies—completely absurd?"
Anastacia-Reneé: (Don’t Be Absurd) Alice in Parts
Feb 11–Apr 25, Frye Art Museum, Free