Polite Conversation Can Be Boring

Today's lesson: Everyone has an agenda.

I learned this the hard way. I discovered that uttering the seemingly innocent phrase "I'm writing for the Houston Press" at an art gathering will immediately draw a small circle of artists desperate for media attention. I just stood there in my homemade "Polite Conversation Can Be Boring" T-shirt, while the agenda-ed gathered to lecture me on the merits of performance artistry and clitoral butterflies. Standing there and nodding politely, I wondered how the hair of Houston artist David Brown got to be so bouncy.

I'm telling you, it was really nice hair.



But let's back up. It's well known that artists will seek out any excuse to break out the free vodka, and so Thursday night found me and my neighbor Cindy heading downtown to celebrate the end of FotoFest, an arty vodka excuse if there ever was one. One hipster friend recommended that I "dress like a poseur. Break out the faux-hawk!"

And with that, insert agenda No. 1.

My goal for the night was simple: to look and act like a Real Artist. Cindy and I got ourselves gussied up: she in jeans and "Everything Will Be Okay" T-shirt, and I in my hand-lettered T-shirt, jeans, boots and laughably oversize Texas belt buckle.

We headed first to Clark's (314 Main), where FotoFest and the Houston Press teamed up to bring together artists, journalists and yuppies. I was all geared up in full poseur effect as we walked to the door, but once inside, all I could think was, Hello, khaki! Seriously, I could've sworn that the Flying Saucer (705 Main) had exploded and rained Republican upon the rest of downtown. Everyone inside was so nicely dressed. The three Desperate Housewives-ish blonds at the door looked us up and down as we passed the velvet rope. "Artists?" they asked. Agenda successfully achieved: They were already slipping red rubber "FotoFest" bracelets onto our wrists and telling us to "drink on the house. We love artists."

Cindy and I got our free drinks and settled into conversation with a couple of journalists. Out of everyone there, only the journalist types were wearing denim. I could just see the yuppies at the bar engaged in water-cooler talk the next day: "Oh, yes, I was at a party for artists last night. See how cultured I am?" The whole thing was a bit stuffy, and a bit not my scene, and when Death Cab for Cutie came over the loudspeakers, I knew it was time to go. I mean, Death Cab? Jeez...how five weeks ago.

We rounded up two more friends, and the four of us headed down to DiverseWorks (1117 East Freeway). On the way, a tipsy Cindy tried to get some pictures worthy of the next FotoFest, snapping blurry shots of Metro bus drivers and close-ups of my nose. We pulled into the Warehouse District, where DiverseWorks's front porch was already flowing with free vodka, grungy artists and gurgling trance music. Cindy immediately found a friend, DiverseWorks executive director Sara Kellner, and left my side to engage in a round of hugging. As for me, after a Red Bull and vodka (a drink aptly labeled by the bartender as a "fad"), I was ready to start talking to the crowd.

Whereupon I was confronted with the next round of agendas.

Staffing a free cupcake table (score!) was Barry Blumenthal. A 40-ish-investment-banker-looking-like-a-late-20-ish-skateboarder was raising awareness for PUSH (pushhouston.com). PUSH is trying to bring a world-class skatepark to downtown Houston and needs to raise more funds. Slapping business cards and promotional materials into my hands, he complained that the Houston Press wasn't friendly enough to their cause.

"You do all this stuff with Roller Derby, but what about us?"

He has a point. I was at Roller Derby prom last week, and there were no free cupcakes.

By now, Cindy had disappeared into the exhibit of 60,000 butterflies designed to look like vaginas ("Eros-Thanatos" by Erika Harrsch). I searched the crowd for a genuine FotoFest exhibitor: "Are you an artist?" Sadly, that question received only bumbling responses along the lines of "Well, you know, at heart every one of us are artists. Don't you think?"

Uh, yeah. Didn't you read my T-shirt about polite conversation being boring? I have to go over there now. Oh, look! There's Sara Kellner! Still giggling with Cindy.

I asked Sara to point out a real (not just at-heart) artist, and she immediately steered me toward David Brown. This guy looked legit: white T-shirt, five-o'clock shadow and, as previously noted, amazing, beautiful hair. His FotoFest exhibit was housed in DiverseWorks. He had transformed pictures of Houston sprawl into cathedral-like faux stained glass.

"I was on 59 North, at the 610 interchange sitting there last summer. No a/c. No radio. I was annoyed, but then I started thinking of how do I show this moment? How do I recontextualize the bridges, the cars, the concrete?"

Insert agenda No. 3: David knows the importance of press, and handed me all sorts of flyers for his nonprofit. You crafty bugger, you.

I moved on.

Cindy and Sara were still giggling, this time about sex. Eventually the conversation shifted, and Sara started going on about the most outrageous exhibit she's seen in her six and a half years at DiverseWorks: Claude Wampler's Stable (Stupidity Project Part 10), where the first half had the audience watching dogs on a stage. After intermission, the second half of the show consisted of video of the audience watching the dogs while, unknown to them, a naked woman was riding a saddle directly behind them in the tech room.

Her day job is so much cooler than mine.

By now it was 10:30, and the crowd was thinning out. A promised taco truck never arrived with its goods, so Cindy and I decided to leave the art crowd and head back home.

As soon as we pulled onto 610, however, my buddy Eric called: "JR.'s. Now." Suddenly recognizing that we were in the midst of one of those Houston nights when the party never stops, Cindy and I turned toward Montrose and the social enclave known as JR.'s Bar & Grill (808 Pacific).

We walked in the door, and I headed to the back, where my favorite bartender works. While I was ordering one Coke and one ice water, I felt the eyes of an icky older man firmly clamped on me. He smiled. I looked away.

I'm telling you: Everyone has an agenda.


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