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Party Volcano

How Three Fun-Hunting Art Lovers Became Seattle's De Facto Social Directors

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Greg Stump
It all began back in the sleepy peacetime of 2000. Facing a late-summer weekend devoid of interesting social and military engagements, Bernd Paradies and Susan Robb, a pair of art-loving friends with a quirkily discerning social streak, sought a cure for their boredom on the mythic level.

"The gods were angry with us," explains Paradies, a 38-year-old non-Microsoft software engineer originally from Hamburg, Germany. "We decided that if we made a sacrifice to the gods in the holy Party Volcano, our inboxes would be filled with invitations again."

For their sacrificial offering, Paradies and Robb recruited friend Andrew Havlis to help compile a discriminating, detailed list of every worthwhile art and social event of the coming week--from gallery openings and rock shows to performance-art happenings and kooky community events. This list was then e-mailed to 100 of their closest friends. "It worked," says Paradies with a laugh. "We had a great fall." And Party Volcano was born.

At its inception, Party Volcano was primarily a practical consolidation of information for the trio's overlapping circles of friends, who'd begun complaining about "always getting e-mailed the same information from all three of us," says Paradies. But over the next two and a half years, Party Volcano's weekly e-mails grew into essential reading for nearly 400 Seattleites eager for something smart and fun to do with themselves and one another.

"Basically, it's our friends and their friends," says Paradies of Party Volcano's followers. "Whenever I'm out, I ask people how they heard about the event. Strangers are always telling me they heard about it on Party Volcano."

Initially, Party Volcano's listings were posted without comment. But over time, an endearingly picky editorial voice emerged, belonging primarily to Paradies, who writes the majority of Party Volcano's editorial content.

"I think there are a lot of people in Seattle who get off on crazy shit," Paradies tells me--and an appreciation of crazy shit is at the heart of the Party Volcano aesthetic. Alongside each week's obligatory gallery openings, arts events, and occasional political shindigs (a recent Judy Nicastro benefit earned a PV nod) are a select group of what can only be described as life-as-art events, ranging from well-intentioned but beguiling community offerings (People of Color Against AIDS Network's welcome-back party for newly released convicts in 2002, championed by Party Volcano as "a great place to find a date!") to outlaw art happenings like the infamous Santarchy, in which roving gangs of drunken Santas gleefully terrorize holiday shoppers around Westlake Center before marching en masse to the Lusty Lady.

But what makes Party Volcano's recommendations worth trusting is Paradies' willingness to write the sometimes painful truth about less-than-worthy events--"downgrades," he calls them, pinpointing the first such downgrade at April 4, 2002, when Party Volcano decried the high cover charges of Seattle's "New York-style!" nightclubs, then offered tips on how to haggle your way in for cheap. Other recipients of PV downgrades include the tarot-and-fire-performance parties of Oracle Gatherings ("hippie Disneyland," warned Paradies), the Fremont Players ("The world would be a better place without mime"), and the entire neighborhood of Ballard: "Personally I believe Ballard was created by mad scientists in the late forties," Paradies wrote in advance of Ballard's annual Seafood Fest, detailing how diabolical gene-manipulation experiments "transformed tranquil Ballard into a neighborhood of deranged people."

Party Volcano's downgrades have drawn a few angry letters, but Paradies stands by his decision to call 'em like he sees 'em. "I know this is the Northwest," Paradies wrote in defense of a recent downgrade. "But most of our readers find our downgrades helpful and even refreshing, because [we] don't necessarily applaud every painted flowerpot in this city, even if the artist believes it's art."

(Unlike cofounder Susan Robb, a full-time artist whose work has been featured all over town, Paradies doesn't make art himself, preferring to remain an active imbiber of other people's work.)

Despite the occasional downgrade, Party Volcano's ultimate reason for being is to celebrate any and all "cool stuff" Seattle has to offer, and when I ask Paradies and Robb about their most cherished art and party experiences, the outpouring of praise is fast and passionate. Both Paradies and Robb (Andrew Havlis, I'm informed, is off in Thailand) gush about Vital 5's theater performance Manslaughter, Henry Art Gallery's Superflat exhibition, and the snacks at virtually every event at the Photographic Center Northwest. ("Never underestimate the importance of snacks," says Paradies.)

As for the most memorable "crazy shit," Paradies lavishes praise on the April 2002 going-away party thrown by artist George Graham, who commemorated the end of his life in Seattle by throwing himself a funeral, complete with open casket, teary testimonials from bereaved friends, and a eulogy.

"Coming here from Hamburg, I was a little disappointed, because Seattle is so small," Paradies tells me. "The fact that you're writing about me proves this is a small town. Still, you'll find a lot of crazy stuff here. It's not on the surface. You have to dig."

Wanna get on the Party Volcano e-mail list? Simply send an e-mail to partyvolcano@yahoo.com with the word "subscribe" in the subject line. "Party Volcano is not exclusive," says Bernd Paradies. "But if too many people sign up, it might become exclusive." So hurry.

 

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