Dark voices from Seattle’s immigration past

Morgan Dusatko invites the public to his audio tour “left:behind” Sunday, noon-6 p.m. (Photo by Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Local artist Morgan Dusatko’s experimental audio tour of Seattle’s old INS building offers a chilling, emotional journey through a facility where thousands of immigrants were once detained.

“I don’t trust her; I don’t have a good feeling about this,” a man’s voice whispers into my right ear as a businesslike tour guide delivers a description of the Chinese Exclusion Act in my left.

Suddenly the bright bars of sunlight illuminating the terra cotta tiles of the Inscape Arts and Cultural Center seem ominous — the heavy metal doors of these now-artists’ studios become institutional and menacing.

I’m experiencing “left:behind” by artist Morgan Dusatko at Inscape, a big, beige brick building straddling the Chinatown International District and Sodo.

Once called the United States Immigrant Station and Assay Office (later known as the INS Building), it opened in 1931 to house an office that melted gold and served as a place to naturalize new citizens. Some called it the “Ellis Island of Seattle.”

But there’s a darker history here. The building was also used to detain and interrogate Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants when federal law restricted Chinese immigration, and to round up Japanese-American leaders during Japanese internment.

Many immigrants from around the world were detained here, and some deported, before the building closed in 2004 and was replaced by a larger facility in Tacoma.

It’s that darker past that the “left:behind” tour — which will be open to the public this Sunday — hopes to communicate.

Many Uch, who was detained in the INS building before it closed in the late 90's, gives one of the interviews used in "left:behind". (Photo by Alex Stonehill)Many Uch, who was detained in the INS building before it closed in the late 90’s, gives one of the interviews used in “left:behind.” (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

I was outfitted with earphones and an iPod, positioned at the tour’s starting point and told to press “play.” Immediately an authoritative woman’s voice begins explaining the visa applications process that once took place here, her high heels echoing as she ushered me down the hall.

But soon there’s a second voice, this one louder and more urgent, seemingly inside my head. He’s demanding help, telling me to “smile and nod” at the tour guide who notices my confusion.

Dusatko calls this the “interior voice,” a former detainee who’s returned looking for pieces of himself he left behind.

The tour’s narrative oscillates between the guide’s sanitized version of historic events and the former detainee’s raw, unfiltered memories. It quickly transforms from a typical walking audio tour into a disturbing adventure in which you, the visitor, are also in danger of losing yourself to the building’s troubled past.

“You have these two competing characters,” says Dusatko. “They don’t trust each other and they shouldn’t trust each other, I guess.”

Dusatko has worked on short documentaries about local history for the Museum of History & Industry. (I also worked with him on an immigration-themed documentary.)

But he’s careful to say that he’s not a trained historian or journalist. He says he wanted to make something about the building that was more emotional, and more frightening, than traditional forms of documentation.

“I wanted it to feel like there was stuff dripping off the walls … that the building is trying to trap you.”

There are subtle signs of the building’s past life, such as a plexiglass panel that once separated guards from detainees and a back alley where a detainee fell to his death, that are easy to miss if not pointed out by “the interior voice.”

Halfway through the tour I’m crouched on a terrace that was once an exercise yard and basketball court for detainees, staring at graffiti scrawled in softened tar on the high walls, a crude monument to all the nationalities that passed through here: “Sri Lanka, Laos, Mexico, Pakistan, El Salvador.”

Graffiti left in the exercise yard by former detainees. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)Graffiti left in the exercise yard by former detainees. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Cassie Chinn of the Wing Luke Museum, which provided oral histories for “left:behind,” believes Dusatko’s visceral approach brings a new emotional weight to understanding the building’s history.

The museum, a few blocks from Inscape, will also open an exhibit next week that displays some of the materials removed from the building when it was converted into artist space in 2010.

“So many people have passed by the building unaware of what has happened there,” says Chinn “this is another way for people to connect to … the heart-wrenching experiences of that place.”

If you’re interested in making that connection, “left:behind” will be open to the public this Sunday (Dec. 8), at the Inscape Arts and Cultural Center, 815 Seattle Blvd. S.

For tours by appointment: http://leftbehindseattle.tumblr.com/

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.