Strange Coupling Plays Matchmaker

The whimsical tradition pairs artists with UW students for surprise results.

5247800090 (Performance), part of Strange Coupling 2015. Courtesy Ellen Xu

The orchestration of encounters between strangers is a major fixation of the information age. Abetted by technology, it has blown open the dating game and become a pillar of the reality-show genre. Omegle, Chatroulette, Periscope: All operate with a shared curiosity about the potency of an incidental meeting.

Strange Coupling adds art to this formula. Strangers are coupled—a current art student and a member of Seattle’s greater art community—to produce a creative work for a show. An annual tradition of the University of Washington’s School of Art + Art History + Design, the show shape-shifts every year, due to both the rotation of the pairings and the student organizers. This year’s Strange Coupling is led by third-year photomedia and cinema-studies student Aurora San Miguel, alongside peers Ruth Kazmerzak and Kalina Chung.

In city living, we brush shoulders with thousands of strangers daily, whether intentionally through apps or by virtue of commuting on a busy street. Most of these connections are fleeting, and seldom evolve into full-fledged emotional or creative investments. San Miguel tells me that the value in Strange Coupling is in “getting a bunch of people together who would otherwise never interact. I don’t think you can get that same quality being comfortable.”

A Strange Coupling pair, Peter Kohring and David Rue. Photo courtesy of Aurora San Miguel.

The show’s idea was conceived by current School of Art Senior Lecturer Timea Tihanyi, in her final year of grad school at the UW, with the help of classmates Kris Lyons and Julia Cole. The project’s original intention was less focused on the fascination of unexpected collaboration than on harnessing connections for young artists. “This was in 2003, and the landscape of the art world was quite different at the time,” Tihanyi says. “There were not very many opportunities for artists right out of school, very few alternative spaces. There was also very little interaction between school and the established artists and art community of Seattle.” That support is present in current shows, which include a panel of jurors who match the students to established artists and provide feedback.

Strange Couplings are loose and playful, perhaps because they’re organized by students. They tend to have a DIY, itinerant quality: 2015’s was held at the OK Hotel building on the Alaskan Way viaduct, 2016’s at King Street Station. One of my favorite collaborations was from 2015, between then-student Ellen Xu and artist Neal Fryett. In the four-hour performance 5247800090, Xu and Fryett remained behind a section affixed to the wall, invisible save for their protruding arms, which caressed each other’s and those who approached them. It was intimate, soothing, and slightly unsettling (my favorite trifecta of feelings).

I ask San Miguel what we can look forward to this year: “We got a pop-up shop, a rad-looking 4k video with sound, a dance performance for the opening night, zines, sculptures, what I believe will be a twin mattress, and more!” Go with a friend. Or, on second thought, go by yourself and experience the couplings among strangers.

Strange Coupling. Good Arts Bldg., 108 Cherry St. Free. 6–9 p.m. Sat., June 3.

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