‘On Loneliness, Solitude, and Shifting Histories’ by Sharon Arnold

— Melissa Mesku

Will the last bad bitch leaving Seattle turn out the lights?

1971 marked a low point in Seattle when the largest employer in the region, Boeing, dwindled to almost a third of its former size and unemployment in the area threatened to triple the national average. Residents were priced out; the mood was such that The Economist ran a piece about Seattle headlined, ‘City of Despair.’ In the bleakness of recession, some Seattle real estate agents, as a joke, put up a billboard out near the airport that said, “Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights?” One of them said that when their out-of-town clients visited, they “were amazed that Seattle wasn’t a ghost town with weed growing in the streets.” The billboard was only up for two weeks, but came to be something of a symbol around the world, its message repurposed for local contexts while still conveying its odd blend of civic desperation couched in dark humor.

As part of a multi-site art exhibit going on this month across the city of Seattle, a billboard in roughly the same area now reads, “Will the last bad [bitch] leaving Seattle turn out the lights.” The Stranger reported that Leena Joshi, the artist of that particular installation, explains it in the context of the situation Seattle is now facing—that this time around it’s not a recession, but quite the opposite, with tech workers flocking to the city and high rents driving out longtime residents. But perhaps the message is subtler than that. Perhaps it’s not about economic despair but something softer and less easy to pin down. The citywide exhibition, called A LONE, put on by Seattle-based art collective Vignettes in partnership with Gramma Press, is about the notion of loneliness and being alone in the city. Featuring other billboards, and works of different types from a wide range of artists, the exhibit recontextualizes the city in terms of loneliness. It also recontextualizes the billboard’s message. This one seems less a joke about people leaving en masse, and more about the loneliness we feel en masse. There’s no point in telling the last bad bitch to do anything once you realize that you yourself are that last bad bitch, and the choice is yours: lights on, or lights out? A lovely essay about the exhibit, part personal and part criticism, appears on Temporary Art Review.

Temporary Art Review