Editors' pick

The Modernist Society

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Editorial Review

Socializing With a Hint of Sophistication
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, July 20, 2007

Some nights, when you're out at yet another bar having yet another martini, a little voice pops into your head: "Shouldn't you be doing something more intellectual? Something to improve yourself with some semblance of culture? Something where the stimulation doesn't just come from alcohol?" You can ignore it, but you know it's true.

The Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection host occasional book clubs, lecture-discussions with artists and happy hours, where you can talk about photography or painting while thinking about whether you should try to talk to the blonde at the bar. U Street restaurant Busboys and Poets has sponsored open forums about race and culture. On the more wholesome side, the Catholic Diocese of Arlington's "Theology on Tap" brings questions about God into local pubs.

Joining them in the ethos-after-dark stakes is the Modernist Society, a new monthly event at Bourbon on 18th Street NW featuring a moderated interview and question-and-answer session with a person of note, bookended by DJs, dancing and an open-bar happy hour.

On Thursday, the society welcomes Josh Rushing, a former Marine who served as a spokesman for U.S. Central Command in Qatar during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, then left the military to become an American correspondent for the Arabic television network al-Jazeera. Show up early for free Absolut vodka cocktails, then stick around to groove to vintage funk, chic French pop and Brazilian beats.

"The Modernist Society is a celebration of multidisciplinary hedonistic individuals," founder Jason Mojica explains by e-mail. "We mix business with pleasure. We combine brain-stimulating activities with brain-destroying ones. Our evening is for people who are, for all intents and purposes, extraordinary nerds who are just as comfortable quoting Jung as showing a little skin and dancing their ass off."

Mixing socializing and philosophizing is a centuries-old tradition in France, where the salon allowed artists, writers, politicians and the well-to-do to meet, mingle and exchange ideas. The inspiration for the Modernist Society, though, comes not from Madame de Rambouillet or Gertrude Stein, but from Hugh Hefner.

Starting in 1959, and again in 1969, Hefner hosted the short-lived syndicated television programs "Playboy's Penthouse" and "Playboy After Dark." The format was simple: A diverse group of actors, musicians, comics and other cultural figures came to a party at Hef's swingin' bachelor pad, where they sang songs, told jokes and talked about issues of the day. Ella Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat "King" Cole and Bill Cosby all swung by the freewheeling show at some point.

"[The shows] were nods to the fact that the most stimulating conversations tend to occur in social settings," Mojica says. "I wondered what it might be like to take that concept and put it in a room full of real-live people, drinking real-live booze. In that setting, both the guests and the audience tend to let their guard down and speak more freely, often to comic effect."

Four years ago, while living in his hometown of Chicago, Mojica conceived the Modernist as a webzine focusing on modern art, design and travel, and eventually founded the Modernist Society, a DJ night focused on interesting music, whether that was James Brown, Jamaican dub or old-school hip-hop. (His friends Daryle Maciocha and Neal Becton ran an affiliated DJ night at D.C.'s Cafe Saint-Ex.) When Mojica moved from Chicago to Washington to study political science at George Washington University last year, the 33-year-old brought the Modernist Society with him.

After months of planning, the expanded "inte llectual lounging" version of the event made its debut last month in the upstairs room at Bourbon with special guest Trace Crutchfield, a reporter and producer for Vice magazine's Internet television station, VBS.tv. Crutchfield has become a cult figure by exploring the coca markets of Bolivia, the shantytowns of Rio de Janeiro and Houston's codeine-fueled hip-hop scene.

Every thing began well -- free gin cocktails for all attendees, a good-size crowd of party-hoppers, scenesters, DJs and media types -- but the evening didn't turn out as well as Mojica had hoped. Thunderstorms in New York led to the cancellation of Crutchfield's flight to Washington, we were told, so he took Amtrak -- and arrived almost three hours late. By the time Crutchfield made it to the stage, the crowd had thinned significantly. Once the interview began, with Mojica and Crutchfield taking seats in the center of the bar, the microphones worked sporadically, and sometimes emitted squealing feedback.

Those who stuck it out were rewarded, though, with video clips of Crutchfield's work and a sprawling discussion and Q&A session that included Crutchfield's impressions of the Venezuelan government, what it's like to be threatened with a gun in a Brazilian slum, the relative safety of Houston vs. the Gaza Strip, the merits of lambskin condoms, and the time he stumbled into a long interview with Imelda Marcos.

Crutchfield told an extended anecdote about when he was in the Philippines to do a story on psychic surgeons, who claim to be able to extract tumors and diseases through small incisions, when one of the men he'd met asked him if he'd like to meet the former first lady. "She talked to me nonstop for seven or eight hours, constantly, and then she made me watch a PowerPoint presentation of essentially the same things she just told me.

"She says things like, 'My husband wasn't a dictator, but we were into power and beauty.' " Marcos showed Crutchfield her collection of van Gogh paintings and insisted he stay for a huge dinner. "We talked about shoes, and she told me she just supported Filipino shoemakers. She went all over the world, so she had to have amazing shoes. She was just amazing for an old bird."

Mojica's eclectic wish list of guests includes actor John Astin, best known for his role on "The Addams Family" as Gomez Addams; musician and recording engineer Steve Albini, who has worked on albums by Nirvana, the Pixies, Cheap Trick and Fugazi; and 20th-century design expert Richard Wright, who runs an auction house for modern furniture in Chicago.

The question is whether the Modernist Soc iety can build a steady audience. Will the Vice-reading hipsters who came to see Crutchfield come back to hear someone talk about Herman Miller tables or the military's public relations efforts in the Middle East? Mojica certainly thinks so. "I think we'll have a core audience who turns out each month because they know we're going to bring in interesting and entertaining folks, regardless of their familiarity with their work. In September, for example, we'll be bringing in debut novelist Porochista Khakpour, who, by nature of being a debut novelist, nobody knows! But years from now when everyone else is watching the inevitably lousy film adaptation of her book, you'll be able to boast about how you had drinks with her at Bourbon."