It's important for a paper that can be tirelessly critical of Seattle's art scene to dedicate an event like this—and a quarter of a hundred thousand dollars in no-strings-attached cash, thanks to Art Patch—to sincere, dedicated praise of worthwhile artistic pursuits. It's equally important for the event to be open to the public, if just so that hundreds of people can shake their asses and talk dirty with each other in the name of celebrating intelligence. Saturday, October 21, the Henry Art Gallery hosted the fourth annual Genius Awards celebration, and the party was irreverent, big-hearted, and slick with booze.
Amid the waiters with trays of roasted eggplant and salmon with mango spread, conversation was varied and thrilling. Someone shared a tongue twister ("I'm a pleasant pheasant mother-plucker...") that she learned, no joke, on a train in Spain. The crowd was resplendent with Geniuses from the past three years: Sarah Rudinoff, Michael Seiwerath, Susan Robb, and Web Crowell were all spotted. These past prizewinners had something new to celebrate: On November 2, the Henry opens a six-week retrospective featuring work by everyone who has ever won a Genius Award.
Almost everyone on this year's shortlists—among them the ever-classy Lyall Bush, folks from the Moisture Festival, and the young turks of Washington Ensemble Theater, along with dozens of other big-brains—were in attendance, fluffing the crowd with discussions about poetry, film, and Ellen Forney's giant cartoons of the winners that loomed over the crowd in red, white, and black, like adorably intelligent Communist dictators. A heated debate began over whether next year's Genius Awards should include a political category. The fashion on display was another kind of smart: Besides the rare joy of seeing Seattle men dressed like real grownups, it was the kind of night where a group of people can wear nothing but mixed animal prints and get away with it.
Two alcoves in the Henry were swathed in black gauze. In one was a video installation of Lead Pencil Studios's Maryhill Double being created and disappearing. In the other, James Longley's 22-minute documentary Sari's Mother was showing along with a trailer for his feature-length Iraq in Fragments, though the mild-mannered director lamented the near-total lack of soundtrack caused by a low volume. As DJ Fucking in the Streets revved the crowd for the awards presentation, the certified Geniuses became positively giddy. Jennifer Zeyl, a scenic designer who won in the theater category, posed for a photo, asking "Is this for Drunk of the Week? I am the Drunk of the Week! I'm Drunk of the Year!" She was well on her way, at least, because each winner received a silver pimp cup with GENIUS written on the side in gaudy, flashy faux diamonds.
Stranger publisher Tim Keck opened the awards ceremony by saying, "Our country is a huge mess right now because we value idiocy over intelligence. What we at The Stranger are trying to do with the Genius Awards is to be a bulwark against the idiots. All of us are here because we like smart people." And the room broke big into applause for smart people, but also probably a little bit for the excellent use of the word "bulwark."
Visual art editor Jen Graves gave an incredibly cute—think Kermit the Frog at the top of The Muppet Show—introduction to Daniel Mihalyo and Annie Han of Lead Pencil Studio. Han recalled the delivery of the sheet cake that announced their Genius. "We're both allergic to dairy, so we kept trying to refuse it, like, 'No, that's got to belong to the people next door.'" When they realized that the cake read "Congratulations! You're a frickin' Genius!" they were so excited that they ate the entire thing. "We got really sick the next day, but it was so worth it."
Lane Czaplinski, managing director of On the Boards, which took the arts-organization award, humbly declared their win "a sham" before thanking everyone who'd contributed to OTB through its 28 years. Stranger film editor Annie Wagner encouraged everyone in attendance to go see Longley's Iraq in Fragments when it opens November 10 at the Varsity. Jonathan Raban brought a hush to the room. He thanked The Stranger for its "extraordinary range of journalism," citing the issue of the paper that dealt with the Capitol Hill shootings, particularly Megan Seling and Eli Sanders's reporting. "It's a terrific paper. I read it every week, I read Slog every day," he said, declaring himself "utterly astonished, immensely grateful, and generally thrilled to win this award." The speech made him the belle of the ball. After the awards ceremony, a couple informed me of their intent to marry the author.
With the awarding out of the way, the celebrating laid down cardboard and pulled out some moves. Har Mar Superstar took the stage in a fringed red and white vest: "My goal is to start a dance party, or get paid a thousand dollars. One of the two. Or both!" Then the stocky performer stripped down to his tiny blue briefs and pranced. His set was followed by the soaring sounds of Aqueduct. It turns out the angular hallways of the Henry are perfect for conducting rock and roll: The music spread around corners and up stairs, creating a unique and euphoric echoing soundtrack for the evening.
The novelty of getting drunk in a museum was setting in. One fabulous lady announced her intention to get "rehymenated," and another woman apparently strutted in from backstage at a Poison concert, circa 1986. Employees of the Henry watched nervously as people began to have animated arguments about the art on display. Painful noogies were given to bulging, genius-sized craniums. The Aerialistas, a group of trapeze artists, were wandering around looking like unspeakably hot carnie cheerleaders.
Meanwhile, the tireless bartenders missed a bottle or three of wine that were liberated by a particularly ambitious partygoer. Rumor has it that this same wine thief ended her night in rock-star fashion: Her purse disappeared and was then found by a burly Henry security guard, who received a make-out session for a thank-you to remember, which was cut short by a vomiting session as colorful as the evening's palette of emotions, only more projectile-y. Obviously, there are certain, unclassifiable kinds of genius that are not yet rewarded by The Stranger—maybe next year.