Seattle, with its drab skies and chilly dispositions, could really use something like Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable or Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters' Acid Tests. Along with the heady aesthetes of Portable Shrines, one local clique striving toward something like these disorienting multimedia spectacles is the graphic-arts/web-design/marketing company Dumb Eyes, via its recurring audiovisual night Penetration.
The debauched brainchild of Dumb Eyes' project manager Michael Ellsworth, creative director Christian Petersen, and web architect Corey Gutch, Penetration had a successful yearlong run at Capitol Hill bar Bus Stop before ending in February. An increasing workload forced Dumb Eyes to take a hiatus, but now the principals are ready to resurrect the night at the new Unicorn bar for what could be an even more potent display of their audiovisual mindfuckery.
Dumb Eyes began in 2005 after Ellsworth and Petersen decided to close their Sweatshop Inc. gallery. The new endeavor unofficially launched with a button featuring a gorilla skull shooting rainbows from its eyes, and then got serious with an antismoking ad campaign for King County Public Health. Ex-Adobe employee Gutch became the company's web-developing expert in 2007. It was Gutch's infamous New Year's Eve parties that inspired Penetration; ringing in 2009, Petersen flaunted his excellent records on the decks, and Penetration started to thrust into fruition.
Before getting too deep into Penetration, though, some background on Dumb Eyes is instructive. Start with the firm's website. Its home page communicates a multifaceted vision, sans text. No matter where you move your cursor on the screen, the four—and then six—op-art eyes that ogle you shift and seemingly oscillate, projecting a disorienting kineticism. The outlook is innately, unmistakably psychedelic.
You can trace that aesthetic mainly to British expat Petersen. Burned out on the dirtiness, the crowdedness, and the torrid, hustle-intensive pace of London's graphic-design ecosystem, Petersen moved to Seattle in 2005. He immediately found the city's artscape to be deficient.
"There seemed to be a backlash in Seattle at the time that kind of continues today against modernism," Petersen says in understated, deadpan tones during an interview at his company's Capitol Hill office. "When we started, it was a lot about doing band posters, and, on that level, we were growing beyond that. A lot of the most popular poster design here has a crafty kind of homemade feel—which is cool, but we wanted to do something that was obviously different to that. I'm not saying it's better or worse, but we're trying to bring a bit of modernism, if not futurism, to the design scene in Seattle."
Besides finding much of the city's design staid, Petersen notes a pervasive tweeness. "It's a reliance on characters—a cuddly brontosaurus with a rainbow or something, and badly drawn. If you look at all the posters [around town], the majority of them are in that kind of 'we don't want to look like we've got any skills' approach. There's no one taking graphic design seriously, it seems. It has to be tongue-in-cheek to be acceptable."
Dumb Eyes combats twee with startlingly surreal and vividly hued art that dazzles your third eye, as evidenced by their Penetration posters, the CD packaging for Seattle hiphop innovators Shabazz Palaces, and the quarterly zine I Want You (www.iwantyoumagazine.com) that Petersen curates.
Growing up in the 1980s shaped Petersen's aesthetic, but he also loves the striking images and vibrant colors that informed much of the psychedelic 1960s and 1970s graphic design. He claims not to follow hot contemporary trends in his field, saying that music, film, and life have more of an impact on him than anything you'll find in Juxtapoz.
Dumb Eyes has managed to thrive in this competitive field by attracting a wide range of clients, both mainstream (Microsoft, Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, Sound Transit) and artsy/edgy (Noise for the Needy, Northwest Film Forum, First Thursday Art Walk).
But Dumb Eyes' collective creative restlessness spurred its members to branch out from "merely" being a business. These players love to play, too. Penetration allows them to flex their artistic muscles while also enabling high-level revelry through WTF?-inducing videos on multiple screens and a diverse mix of songs selected from vinyl epicurean Petersen's vast stash. Penetration's tenure at Bus Stop was fun, but the tight space and spartan decor seemed ill-suited for its ambitious scope.
Ellsworth concurs. "Bus Stop is not really a place to go party; it's a place to go drink. We felt like if we're going to do this, we should do it at a place to go party. That was the original idea, anyway. Then Unicorn opened and we thought, 'That's really a good venue for this,' because it's so colorful inside; to project colorful things inside that venue, with the prism glasses, I think it's going to be pretty wild. And it's larger. We're hoping to have multiple projectors. It's going to be more of a party atmosphere and there's room to dance. We're hoping that this one goes well so they want us to come back."
"We attended a couple of Penetrations at Bus Stop," says Unicorn co-owner Paul Blake. "It fitted in with my plans to start introducing the idea of showcase/DJ nights at Unicorn—particularly in anticipation of opening our 5,000-square-foot show room downstairs." The Unicorn's planned basement expansion will have a 300-person capacity and include a new bar, pinball, a pool table, a stage, the show room, and a private greenroom. Blake projects that construction will take eight months.
To mark the change of scenery, Dumb Eyes has produced Unicorn-branded prismatic glasses with horns on them, and three projectors and screens will be deployed for even greater discombobulation. Petersen hasn't decided if he's going to change his musical menu for Unicorn, but he may adjust his repertoire after scoping out the room.
"I thought I'd go in a strange, electronic, Euro-disco direction, but I probably will end up not going that way at all," he muses. His Bus Stop sets were unpredictable mélanges of psych rock, soul, funk, disco, R&B, hiphop, and even Bronski Beat's "Hit That Perfect Beat" ("The kitschest, gayest song ever," Petersen enthuses). Petersen doesn't set out to surprise listeners so much as he does to "test" them. "No matter how different the records seem, in my head there's a natural flow," he says.
"When I started, it was more like a New Year's Eve thing—music designed to party. But it became clear that it was hard to incite a party in [Bus Stop], so I took it in a different direction. It became more of a crazy, psychedelic journey through sound. Also, it got louder and louder—which was part of forcing that journey upon people."
"The videos evolved a lot," Ellsworth notes. "We don't know exactly how this one's going to be, but it used to be just straight-up animation. Now we've incorporated the manipulation of live video." Penetration is also looking to collaborate with other animators to expand its palette.
"At Bus Stop, I wanted people to pay attention more, so I played stranger records and turned them up louder and made the visuals even more brain-melting," Petersen says. "I tried to inspire a reaction in people. But again, I don't know how it's gonna be at Unicorn. I'm sure it's still going to be psychedelic, because I can't seem to do film stuff without it becoming psychedelic in some way. There were times at Bus Stop where I thought, 'This is quite intense. This isn't appropriate, but whatever.'"
"Often what [Petersen] plays is perfectly not right, but it makes perfect sense in some kind of way," Gutch says.
What is given is that these sound visionaries' patented extreme images will commingle with an eclectic stream of outstanding songs and strong libations; add the Unicorn's fried pickles, and things could get out of hand.
This story has been updated since its original publication.