As I write this, I’ve just come from a wonderful music venue. It’s a beautiful space, carefully and lovingly put together. It’s well hooked into the local music scene, but I would guess that, even if you go to a lot of music in Seattle, you’ve never heard of it. It’s an unofficial, hidden space. Whether or not it’s in the same place tomorrow or in two weeks is anybody’s guess.
But as I left, the crowd was thick, the music was flowing, both the dance floor and the drink glasses were full, and a toddler bounced on his mother’s hip wearing noise-canceling earphones. All was well, for now.
I’m convinced that this place is not alone in Seattle, that a good number of events and places happen across the city, in house concerts, pop-up joints, backyard theaters, open studios, with lively discussions, that I, and most people, never hear about. And despite the constant push for larger audiences, I’m also convinced that this is a good thing.
I can think of two good measures of the cultural vitality of a city. One is simply the sustained presence of surfeit: too much to do, too much to go to, too much to engage in. The other is the existence of a deep cultural under-layer, a demi-monde, a floating world that at any given moment is invisible, even to most of its participants. These days, Seattle has both.
Any city worth its salt has a twilight world where strange magic happens, for better or worse. It’s an outsider world, a place of lives lived in the margins. The French term is demi-monde, a half-world, though that term tends to focus more on self-indulgence, drugs and sex, than on the art and creative elements. But the assumption of connection to earthy pleasures is correct: creative elements usually rub up against wildness and escape from convention. The Japanese called it the floating world, ukiyo, a place of kabuki players, geisha, sumo wrestlers, gangsters, and the artists who made ukiyo-e, the woodblock prints that chronicled the vividness of the whole thing. Historically, these spheres have arisen around a market for art among a rising middle class hungry for culture and entertainment. But for everything the twilight world produces for the middle class, in theaters and clubs and galleries, it is also producing work and culture for itself, and this is where real magic can happen.
A twilight world may be like the samizdat networks of the Soviet Union, where culture flourished as an underground, publishing, producing, and performing in private homes and small spaces, away from the eyes of the censors and the KGB. And it certainly owes something to the juke joints of the old south, where African American music could thrive below the notice of the white world.
In literary and theatrical depictions of any twilight world, sex and drugs usually loom large, usually showing up both as hedonism and desperation. Opera loves the demi-monde, especially if it involves courtesans and libertines more than working artists, and death, usually from tuberculosis, looms large. A good example is Verdi’s La Traviata, a retelling of Dumas fils’s La Dame aux Camelias. Puccini’s La Boheme is the ultimate twilight opera, full of struggling artists living in a garret. Hemingway’s Moveable Feast Paris is a twilight world, as was Henry Miller’s Paris a decade later. The Haight in the 1960s was one, as was Berlin in the 1920s, or Shanghai in the 1930s. The wild world of filmmaker Jack Smith in the early 1960s in Manhattan was definitely a twilight world. As influential as he was, his scene and work remain mostly invisible.
The trek to Burning Man each year is about going into a floating world. The denizens of Burning Man’s Black Rock City can be divided into two groups: the first are those who yearn to live, if only for a week, in a place where people wear strange costumes, make huge climbable sculptures, and do wonderful things. The recent press about the plug-and-play camps at Burning Man, catering to wealthy customers who want to visit the floating world without any dust, sweat, and tears, is a classic example. The second are those who already live in a twilight world, for whom going to the desert is about going home, making contact with their kind, pulling bits of flamboyance out of their costume closets, assembling pieces of creativity for the trek to the desert. It may be that Burning Man is at its most effective when people in the first group come back from the desert with the resolve to live their everyday lives more in the style of the second, in a twilight world.
What is the demi-monde of today, in Seattle? And what does this have to do with the core vitality of the city? The first thing to observe is that our twilight world is indeed, for the most part, invisible. To the extent that it is invisible, I can’t really say if it exists. I think it does.
The other week, I went one afternoon to a beautiful and fanciful play about sidewalks, complete with a Greek chorus. It was done on several driveways and porches on a back street in Wallingford. The audience was intentionally small, trooping from one house to another to follow the narrative. Later than night, I saw a production a one-woman show about a queer woman of color in gay and lesbian bars and clubs of Seattle in the decades before Stonewall. Again the audience was small, and intentionally so, I think.
Both performances were wonderful, neither was heavily publicized, and the small scale allowed for an imaginative flexibility that might be difficult elsewhere. There was almost no overlap between the audiences and artists in both events, and similarly no overlap with the mystery venue I describe above. The vitality of each of these, and fact that they cater to widely different audiences, suggest that there are more of them, perhaps many more, that I know nothing about.
One might argue that I’m pressing for an atomization of culture, everybody off in their own bubbles. But it’s easy to see that for every tiny, nearly invisible event or venue, there are ten or twenty or a hundred that exist and even grow and above the surface, more in the main, away from the twilight world. It’s also clear that the players in the twilight corners that I’ve seen are not atomized; they’re often some of the most active and connected people in the city. These little hidden corners provide places for experiment, for magic, opportunities for collaboration and, perhaps unexpectedly, interconnection.
One of the most beautiful things about the corners, these bubbles, is that they provide a growth medium for relationships to grow, often deep friendships and mentorships that grow into intentional families and sometimes much more visible organizations. As such, they are the foundation for the cultural vitality that is essential to the future we must create.
If there’s a glue that holds these bubbles together and gives glimpses into their existence, it’s a broad network of bars, cafes, and small restaurants—and this true in the country as well as the city. I’ve seen these bubbles thrive in the country as well as the city, held together by a key bar or café. A good bar can become the essential core for the twilight world that swirls around it. A good bartender or barista can become the sticky tar of a twilight world. But it’s not just any bar or restaurant or café. It has to be a place where the owner, and often the staff, use the place as a launching pad for small, perhaps invisible projects, as a home for ideas and foment.
I’ve been reluctant to name any of these hidden venues, groups, events; as part of a twilight world, they have the right to surface themselves. But we can name some of the Seattle bars, cafes, and restaurants that are portals into this world: the most obvious are Vermillion and Joe Bar on Capitol Hill, the Hideout on First Hill, Hazelwood in Ballard, and the once and future Hidmo in the Central District. There are other places, including a number that I know nothing about, in keeping with any good twilight world.
If you get what I’m talking about, if you grasp this floating, twilight world and know it as your own, that’s fine. If not, if all of this seems foreign, that’s okay. Living in a twilight world is not belonging to a club; it’s a state of mind, a way of imagining. The best way to go there is to make your own little place, your own corner, maybe in your home, maybe on a street, maybe in a theater lobby during the off hours. Create something there, or if it moves you, help someone else create something. With that, you’re living in the floating world.