1. The first reason takes me back to a conference room on the upper floor of the Frye Art Museum last year. The arts editors of The Stranger were all treated to a very fine catered lunch and introduced to the idea that the Frye would be mounting an exhibition of the artists who've won the Stranger Genius Award. My food formed into little conflict-of-interest-shaped chunks as it slunk down my throat. I was relieved as months went by and I never heard another word about the exhibition, until I read about it in the press releases with all the other writers. Still, the fact remains that I had a hand in picking most of the artists in the galleries today.
2. The Frye describes Genius / 21 Century / Seattle as an "unprecedented, large-scale celebration of exceptional artistic practice in Seattle in the 21st century... featur[ing] over 65 visual artists, filmmakers, writers, theater artists, composers, musicians, choreographers, dancers, and arts organizations." The gallery exhibition that fills the entire museum today is a mere fraction of the dozens of events to come. This thing was built to defy depiction.
3. Genius is not about genius, or even the Genius Awards. There is virtually no mention in the galleries that the artist list is 13 years of Stranger Genius Award winners. We give the award annually, with a $5,000 prize, in five categories: art, music, film, literature, performance. How do we decide who's "Genius"? I can't answer that. No, I really can't. These artists range from drag queens to jazz trumpeters to the guy who runs Fantagraphics.
4. Genius contradicts itself. It is large, it contains multitudes, as Walt Whitman would say. But the greatest contradiction is that it is shockingly coherent. Nobody told the artists what to do. And yet the starting exhibition—the one that fills the museum today—is all about one thing, really: the flux state of Seattle.
5. I have two theories about why the artists are all so focused on this state, neither entirely defensible. First: The Frye paid the artists to make new works rather than showing old works. That's rare. They breathed in the art of the city, so no wonder their exhaled creations are full of the same spirit. The Frye won't tell me how much it paid the artists. I'm told only that it was "six figures" total for all the new commissions.
6. Second theory: The art is about Seattle because Seattle won't shut up about itself right now. You can't walk a block without coming upon a sidewalk-closed sign, or feeling the chill of a scaffolding shadow fall on your shoulders, or coming face-to-face with the relentless charm of a restaurant that wasn't there yesterday.
7. Genius invites the writer to make sweeping statements or observations that she will regret later. One of these is that Genius marks the first moment when Seattle artists as a group tackle Seattle's new status as a national financial capital—this show opened the day the president of China wrapped up his visit to our city, during which he kept closing the entire freeway to shuttle between Amazon, Boeing, and Microsoft CEOs. Seattle meant business. "This is the twilight," one artist said, referring to the fact that Seattle is getting whiter as money pushes out people of color and artists. There's a whole room of films and songs by Charles Mudede (a Stranger writer), Zia Mohajerjasbi, Ahamefule Oluo, and others depicting the sunset of places like the defunct African cabaret Hidmo, a pre-reformation Broadway hosting the homies of Sir Mix-A-Lot and the Mix himself, and the green-grass low-income housing landmark project Yesler Terrace, which is now being demolished.
8. Nothing needs saying about a hushed temple to Malcolm X made of three huge and exquisite weavings by Nep Sidhu, filled with the sounds of hiphop royalty Ishmael Butler, except that it exists at the Frye right now.
9. Two artists working under the name Lead Pencil Studio took an actual chunk of earth from the demo of Yesler Terrace and shaped it into a mound on the gravel lot outside the museum. On the tip of the mound there's roadbed and a full-height street lamp. People keep coming by and staring. They're looking at a mirror of history. This is a new version of the "holdout hills" of stubborn landowners who refused to give up properties while the land around them was lopped off to make downtown smoother for business in the early 1900s. Many Seattle artists make art referencing this regrade; it's time for a full-scale themed exhibition.
10. Change is unstoppable.
11. "Before Seattle was transformed into one of America's fastest growing cities, many artists thrived here because they weren't invested in a big-city ethos. [Seattle was]... a relatively protected environment. But I think we can all agree that robust artistic practice is now at risk in this rapidly changing cityscape that's marked by political, ideological, economic, and social disparities." So says Genius cocurator Erika Dalya Massaquoi. She's saying art is at risk here. She's saying it inside the only local museum that significantly supports local artists.
12. Massaquoi's cocurator is Frye director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, who just announced she's leaving. Will the Frye still be supportive?
13. Genius was funded by a one-time award from the Raynier Foundation.
14. Studio X is two time-lapse videos. Victoria Haven pointed two cameras out two windows in her studio. One video shows a vast construction site where nothing ever happens, day and night. Seattle's $3 billion megatunnel is stalled because the earth under the city won't budge. The title Studio X refers to Haven being kicked out of nine studios before this one. This 10th studio is on the edge of Amazon. She waits to hear from the landlord.
15. I have 300 words left.
16. Nostalgia is embarrassing to love. I love this sad thing: Jeffry Mitchell's funeral procession of 12 woodblock prints featuring a fading Snoopy lying on his doghouse under a ghostly sky.
17. There's a short story by Sherman Alexie printed on one wall. It has a marching rhythm and a heartbreaking ending. It's called "Capitalism." It was first published in The Stranger.
18. Night falls in a forest of tunnels made of white string. On each tunnel, dancers are projected in motion, trying to remember their moves. The walls of the gallery have been painted the last blue the sky can be before it turns all the way black. This Genius commission, by Zoe | Juniper, is called We were.
19. C. Davida Ingram hired a drone operator to film a quartet of black women slowly ascending the spiral staircase in King Street Station's historic clock tower, fiercely rising up as clocks tick in every direction around them. This video is tense, tight, formidable, and the best thing to come out of Genius so far. It arises because black women live under constant surveillance in this nation; it arises from terribleness.
20. What brings together a vision of black women at the top of the city, a streetlight over a mound of earth that will calve in the rain like a glacier, China's president, and the monster bites of excavators? Money.
21. Genius is similar to a 2012 show at the Frye (Moment Magnitude). In both of the cross-platform, multidisciplinary exhibitions, the museum says it's trying to behave more like an artist—taking risks, being experimental. Genius seems already more compelling because more of the art is new. It's fresh, and united in time and place. Money works.