- The Washington Times - Friday, July 20, 2007

It’s 6 p.m. on a lazy summer Saturday. There are still prime daylight hours to be relished, ideally on a patio or poolside with a burger in one hand and a Bud in the other — yet, a handful of twenty- and thirtysomethings has opted to forgo the day’s last rays and instead loom around the darkened bowels of a lounge in Northwest called Be Bar.

Their reasons for doing so vary, although they all spring from the letter “X” (and no, not in the naughty sense). That’s the short-and-sweet name of the monthly party they’re either investigating or participating in — a party that bills itself as a “21st-century live-art happening.”

The house cocktail is a blend of graphic designers, DJs, dancers, multimedia manipulators, visual artists, and makers of apparel and handicrafts (the “art” part) who’ve been chosen to showcase their skills, mostly in improvisational bouts (the “live” part).

Other bars, boutique galleries and one-off’s around town (Hirshhorn After Hours and Starscape, for example) have some of these ingredients, but rarely does one recipe pull them all together, which makes X’s combo feel all the more fresh and distinct.

Here’s what the concoction tastes like on this particular Saturday in June: Three graphic designers are huddled at what looks like a kitchen table, creating original artwork on their laptops based around three random words (“obesity,” “orbit” and “omnipotent”) that someone called the “curator” has just delivered. Above their workstation is a projection screen where patrons can watch their work, mouse-click-by-click. (Is that a doughnut or an eyeball? Oh no — is that Paris Hilton?)

In an alcove hiding behind the bar, a gentleman is blackening out segments he’s sketched on a large piece of paper while a young woman next to him talks up her felt critters, cutesy earrings and mustache-shaped pins to an admirer.

Atop an elevated area to the rear of the venue, a musician is splicing together trippy beats in front of a large screen that’s pulsating with abstract images.

Once the crowd has thickened a bit, a tribal belly dancer will also mount the stage periodically to writhe around — at one point with a gleaming sword atop her head.

Meanwhile, some patrons are engaged in a doodling game called Exquisite Corpse where, without looking at each other’s segments, one person draws the head, another the torso, and another the legs of a body. Given the surreal forms produced (they’re taped to the wall upon completion), it sounds about right when someone mentions that the concept was invented by surrealists in the 1920s.

Like the drawings produced in this exercise, X itself is a hodgepodge. Its eclectic elements don’t mesh together smoothly and seamlessly like a martini. Instead, they’re more like a chunky smoothie where each gulp produces slightly different effects; sometimes it goes down easy, a delight, while other times, it might taste odd or not to one’s personal liking.

After a full serving, though, patrons get the gist of what the experience is all about.

In some ways, it resembles an early-era hip-hop party: a gathering of artistic minds working in different disciplines who celebrate their right to create; who vibe off one another; who draw inspiration from their urban environment; who employ and push the capacities of new technologies; who hopefully entertain a few people; and, perhaps most importantly, who have the potential to create a new dialogue between creators and consumers.

“It’s breaking down barriers between the normal, everyday population and artists and their craft and the skill behind it,” says David Fogel, who conceptualized X and co-founded 88, one of the groups that produces the evening.

That’s important because “the artistic community in general in D.C., it’s almost like it’s underground,” says Be Bar co-owner Michael Watson. “You don’t realize all the creative talent here in the District because there are so many other things that are in the forefront — politics, for example.”

Beth Baldwin, a fulltime prop designer for the Shakespeare Theatre Company who peddles felt creatures and other goodies on the side, was particularly struck by the dialogue she witnessed as a vendor at last month’s X.

“Everyone was asking a lot of questions about me and what I do,” she says. “I really like that it’s not just an evening where you’d drag along three friends and sit alone in a bar; you intermingle, which is unique in this city.”

Mr. Watson says that some people would prefer to maintain the status quo, however. Be Bar, which typically caters to a homosexual clientele, draws in a slighty different demographic on X nights: mostly straight, young, creative types. “There are a lot of ideas as to this separation of the art community,” says Mr. Watson. “Some people react negatively.”

Dave Gutierrez, founder of the event’s co-producer Flavored Layers, is helping engineer an online component for X (www.xindc.tv) that he hopes will expand the event to other cities, secure more work for participating artists, and provide additional online-only entertainment and arts content (even Web TV).

For now, though, X isn’t likely to attract a crowd of 1,000 at Be Bar. For one, the sleek, modernist lounge wouldn’t hold that many. Also, as Mr. Fogel points out, the party and its products aren’t really manufactured for mainstream appeal. “It’s fringe,” he says.

Ultimately, numbers seem less important to him than the impressions people take from this “happening.”

The next X is tomorrow from 6 to 10 p.m. at Be Bar (1318 9th Street NW; 202/232-7450; www.bebardc.com).

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