Bashed but Good
2005 Genius Awards Party Turns SAM into Glamorous Land of Happy Drunks
Even before their heralded arrival Saturday night at the Seattle Art Museum, The Stranger's 2005 Genius Awards had already instigated a modicum of drama. At issue was the introduction to last week's Genius Issue, in which Stranger Arts Editor Christopher Frizzelle cited The Stranger's "nearly nonexistent relationship with unabashed praise," casting the annual Genius Awards—wherein four local artists and one local arts organization are given $5000 cash grants, no strings attached—as a once-a-year break in our critical attitude toward the city. This brought an immediate response from a reader: "Why do you guys keep saying, in relation to the Genius Awards, that The Stranger never likes anything? Most every single week, I read some enthusiastic review or blurb that makes me go out and watch, listen to, or buy something. Yeah, you don't like everything, but you don't dislike everything either."
Thus spawned the great Slog debate on the nature of Stranger hate, which confirmed three facts. Fact #1: The Stranger doesn't hate everything. (Duh.) But when we do, we're not shy about saying so. Fact #2: Scorn lands harder than praise, thus bestowing one negative review with the power of 10 positive reviews, and distorting the public's perception of Fact #1. And finally, Fact #3, which was the true point of Frizzelle's Genius Issue intro: The Genius Awards are the one time of year The Stranger devotes itself exclusively to what we love, eschewing any and all nitpicking for an unqualified love fest.
Each year this love fest culminates in a ceremonial party honoring the new batch of geniuses. The premiere Genius Awards bash was held in 2003 at Consolidated Works, which hosted a terrific night of booze, food, and rambunctiously aborted seating plans. The next year, we stepped up the swank and relocated to Western Bridge, the gorgeous downtown gallery whose night of Genius will forever be remembered for its stunningly scrumptious food and still-contentious acceptance speech by 2004 Geniuses Seattle School, who showed their gratitude with a mini-performance featuring fried chicken, butt-fucking, and Jesus. Those years were practice. For the third annual Genius Awards, The Stranger aimed straight for the mainstream: the Seattle Art Museum, which threw open its hallowed main hall to The Stranger, the 2005 Genius Award winners, and a thousand of their friends last Saturday night.
The show began outside, with Trailer Park, the sweet "mobile environment" approximating a pleasant stretch of park on the bed of a trailer installed by this year's Visual Arts Geniuses, SuttonBeresCuller. Inside, the show continued with Kathryn Rathke's portraits of the 2005 award-winners—besides SuttonBeresCuller, the new batch of Geniuses includes writer Rebecca Brown, actor Gabriel Baron, Northwest Film Forum Executive Director Michael Seiwerath, and the Frye Art Museum—as well as all the other winners of years past. Rathke's elegant sketches, cast in transparency, hovered high in SAM's south windows above a gussied-up crowd that, for the early VIP portion of the evening, had room to roam. Strolling through the main hall and up into the grand stair court, revelers mingled and grew tipsy beneath projections documenting the work of the year's honorees—16mm films made by and starring Michael Seiwerath, a performance reel of Gabriel Baron, a scrolling excerpt from Rebecca Brown's The Dogs—all curated by Western Bridge's Eric Fredericksen.
As the awards ceremony approached, the once-elegant flock surged to mob status, and while wandering through the growing crowd I happily collided with a slew of beloved local scenesters—No Depression's Kyla Fairchild, Teatro ZinZanni's Kevin Kent, City Council Members Peter Steinbrueck and Nick Licata, half of Fankick!—and a bunch of handsome people I've never seen before. I caught tidbits of a dozen conversations: "I'm so happy for the Frye," said a whiskey-sipping woman to her friend. "After that Mark Ryden show, they deserve every award on earth."
By the time Stranger publisher Tim Keck took the stage to begin the awards ceremony, all three tiers of the vast, marble-lined stairs were packed. It was like Battleship Potemkin, except everyone was smiling and no one was getting shot. After an introduction by Stranger editor Dan Savage—who pointed out the Genius Awards' distinction as Washington State's largest MacArthur-style, direct-to-artists grants—the 2005 Geniuses were brought, one by one, before the worshipping throng. Among the delights: Michael Seiwerath dedicating his award to his two young daughters "who've been raised largely in darkness"; SuttonBeresCuller celebrating their rich artistic equation of "three heads, three bank accounts, and six arms"; and the women of the Frye pledging permanent allegiance to their "You're a Genius!" sheet cake, which remains, mummified and beloved, in the museum's fridge.
Gabriel Baron, absent due to a performance in New York City with locust dance theater, was represented by writer/performer Allen Johnson, who paid tribute to his friend and colleague with an emotional testimony to Baron's brilliance. But it was Rebecca Brown who delivered the most memorable speech of the night. Speaking plainly about the soul-crushing agony that is applying for a grant—characterizing your work, describing your artistic vision, trying not to throw up—Brown expressed deep gratitude for both the no-strings award ("Here's $5,000! Go write! Or go to Barcelona with your lover!") and its merciful method of deployment (the Genius Awards are bestowed, not applied for).
After the ceremony, the party turned into a full-fledged bash, with Voyager One and Helio Sequence filling the vast hall with spacey noise-pop, and hundreds and hundreds of people getting gloriously drunk. Conversation starter of the evening: ubiquitous nametags announcing, "Hi, my name is ___________ and I want to fuck John Sutton," created and dispensed by longtime SuttonBeresCuller supporter Matthew Richter. Best story stemming from conversation starter of the evening: Seattle Post-Intelligencer art critic Regina Hackett's tale of slapping on one of these stickers, then turning around and running into Sutton and his parents.
Like all great parties, the last hour or so of the SAM bash is a blur. Someone drew me an explanatory diagram of the "Reverse Cowgirl," found crumpled in my pocket the next day. Two adorable young lesbians made out in the midst of an oblivious crowd. A giddy local artist gushed to me about her engagement, then immediately swore me to secrecy: "We're not telling people yet!" Far too many people were drinking Sparks malt-liquor beverage. Eventually, spilled red wine trickled down the steps like blood, and slowly but surely, every last drunk was politely shooed out of the museum and into the night. Before my departure, I gazed up the steps at a scene that, in its way, perfectly encapsulated the Genius Awards: Before the projected text of Rebecca Brown's The Dogs stood a slew of woozy drunks, all transfixed by the words making their way up the high wall, describing a scene that brings the story's narrator to the edge of a cliff, where she methodically sends herself into infinity. When multiple drunks can be mesmerized by one piece of literature, genius is in the house.
Massive thanks to party sponsors Art Patch, who made this year's Genius Awards party possible.
Click here to see more photos from the party!