This new DC hotel is also a political art gallery

Posted at 11:10 AM, Sep 28, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-28 13:10:01-04

On Wednesday, the night before the Ford-Kavanaugh Senate hearing that captivated a nation, projection artist Robin Bell was waiting out the rain in the highly-Instagrammable lobby of Eaton, a new downtown Washington hotel.

Bell is best known for his projections on the side of the Trump International Hotel several blocks away, and he’s projected onto buildings all over the city. Tuesday, he projected, “Brett Kavanaugh Must Withdraw,” and other phrases on the front of the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse by the Capitol, where Kavanaugh currently works. And later that night, after it stopped raining, he would test the message he planned to project on Eaton’s facade for its Human/Progress Festival this weekend.

Eaton is more than a just a hotel. It’s proudly progressive. It has a restaurant, coffee shop, 50-person theater, library and rooftop stage. The hotel takes upt ten floors, and four floors are for Eaton House, a co-working space. Memberships for the workspace start at $400 a month, and there’s a photography studio with equipment for rent.

Eaton is clearly a business — rooms this weekend start at $239 a night, with a pied-a-terre suite going for $409 a night. But it’s also a political art gallery.

“It’s a pretty impressive venue,” Bell told Cover/Line Wednesday. “It’s new for the city. Usually, we don’t say ‘hey, let’s go hang on K Street,'” which is an area better known for its lobbyists.

Bell was inside helping to set up one of Eaton’s first installations, “Ritual Political,” by documentary filmmaker AJ Schnack. The piece, in the back of the lobby, shows looping footage from recent presidential campaigns across a wall full of vintage TVs bought online. Finding the right accessories to play the footage isn’t as easy as swinging by Best Buy.

Schnack’s piece includes seven channels that play more than five hours of footage filmed over ten years. One channel shows the DNC and RNC balloon drops from 2016 then plays them in reverse, and another was shot by a camera attached to Sen. Joni Ernst’s motorcycle at her inaugural Roast and Ride in Iowa. One channel will be just applause.

“I wanted to focus around the idea of ritual in politics,” Schnack said. Turning documentary footage into something non-linear that’s shown across multiple screens with fuzzy image quality challenged him to think differently about how to tell a story. “I’m able to use stuff I would never use in a documentary,” he said.

Eaton’s inaugural pieces were curated by artist and director of culture Sheldon Scott. There’s a room with a wheat pasted ceiling done by John Deardourff. In the adjacent Allegory bar, Erik Thor Sandberg painted his first-ever wall mural, an “Alice in Wonderland”-themed telling of Ruby Bridges, who was in the first group of African-American students to integrate Southern schools. And upstairs on the roof, Zoe Charlton made a mosaic inspired by Liberia, a country founded to relocate free blacks from the US.

Other art in the lobby will be rotated through every four to six months. Eaton Radio will play music, live acts, DJs, and interviews, and Eaton Media recently commissioned its first short film, about indigenous people. In August, they previewed a music-video-style documentary about Baltimore called “Dark City” by TT the Artist.

Political Hospitality

“We’ve put a tremendous amount of resources into art and culture and music,” said Katherine Lo, the company’s founder, said.

She set out to “use the hotel as a platform for art and social change,” and wants to give artists and activists in the District a home base and working space.

“Promoting and supporting emerging and established creative talent was a really important part of our mission,” she said.

Some other hospitality brands have spoken out on political issues since Trump took office. The Standard installed a phone booth with a direct line to the Capitol Hill switchboard last August and guest rooms have fill-in-the-blank scripts for how to call your member of Congress. Airbnb has released multiple ads responding to things like Trump’s travel ban and his “s***hole countries” comment about developing countries. But using art to make a political statement isn’t something hotels really do.

“Most hotels treat art as decoration,” Lo said. “To take a mission driven or explicitly political approach is definitely unique I think for the hospitality industry.”

Lo said Eaton has the potential to foster a “modern-day counter-culture movement,” and be a “gathering place for people who need a home, especially radical and progressive thinkers and activists and creatives.”

“Art has historically been a huge part of what moves society forward in a better, more just direction,” she said.

The Future Is Bright

Bell has to test his projections on walls to adjust for different conditions, including street lights. Across the street from Eaton, under a pop-up tent, he works on his computer to make his projection more visible. There’s one particular street light on the corner he wishes wasn’t there.

Light is his medium. And although he’s projected on courthouses, statues, and the side of a Subway location in Washington’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, his primary canvas is the hotel. He may be the only political street artist in town capable of “tagging” the president’s hotel time and time again — live streaming it no less — and never get arrested for it.

After the 2016 election, Bell said he felt like he failed. “I know for myself and a lot of artists, after the election we were crippled,” he said. He started projecting on the Trump Hotel before Trump even took office.

Most of Bell’s projected messages are against something or someone — usually Trump — and it’s a trait he sometimes sees in other artists’ work too. His list of Trump hotel projections have included “Trump Is A Pig,” “There Is A Rapist In The White House,” “Guilty,” and “Criminal.”

“We’re always against,” he said, but artists are “pretty pro- people.”

He’s hopeful that Eaton can be a place for artists and activists to meet and work and be motivated. “When you’re around other artists and art, it makes you step up your game,” he said.

Bell’s been telling people, “If you’re upset, don’t be too upset. Don’t burn yourself out.” He thinks this is “just the beginning.”

And it shows in his projection for Eaton’s weekend festival. After a few minutes of adjustments, Bell found the right settings.

Written across the building in light, it reads, “Human Progress The Future Is Bright.”