ON WEDNESDAY, a man with a plan was talking into a banana, walking down Lincoln Road. Two wives, fidgeting with rings and bracelets, prepared to step into a large inflatable concept—TRUTH—while the husbands stood a few paces back. At a bar made of sand, a woman wearing a pure white silicone alligator, clipped like a bib around her neck, told me I could buy one for $85, and I wondered if anyone had ever told her she had only to make it six times the size to sell it for two hundred times the price. Outside the Miami Beach convention center a man in a ten-dollar suit was handing out cards that promised INVITATIONS to ART SHOWS.
Jordan Wolfson, the cute young artist represented by David Zwirner, was occupying a pool chair, complaining about the “levels of exclusivity” in Miami. He was staying at the Edition, where lines for the basement sometimes snake up two flights of marble stairs and down the hall. I nodded, and said that if exclusivity is his bęte noire, his artwork must be priced so reasonably.
Wolfson looked at me through green and gold shades. “I fed two thousand kids in Africa last year,” he said.
“Oh, you went to Africa?” I said.
Jordan Wolfson had not gone to Africa and did not like my line of questioning, or maybe it was the way I asked, as if I didn’t particularly want to fuck him. I wanted to see him get dirty. Most artists I know work with shame. Only the hand of the rich guy shrinks from touching his own money, and the very few, mostly straight, mostly male artists who can make six figures on a sculpture are usually unkeen to admit it (Sterling Ruby, who is represented by Hauser & Wirth, once told me he didn’t know the prices of his works). It’s no fun to think about what we deserve, especially if we’ve already outgotten it. Some of us, however, know that money is the last thing a person can deserve, and you can’t imagine an artist like Wolfson using a word like “earning.”
On Thursday at the NADA art fair, where the best sculptures sell for more like four figures, maybe five, Alex Israel and Hans Ulrich Obrist were discussing the several pieces of really big clothing on display: Jose Lerma’s sail-size polo shirt, for example, or Amanda Ross-Ho’s body-size single blue glove. Obrist declared the trend “urgent,” a word he also used to describe my meeting Israel and his interviewing FKA Twigs. Israel said the trend meant people were feeling loose. Almost simultaneously, I said it meant people are feeling small.
Over the Venetian Islands on Friday the moon was bigger than anything. The radio stopped playing “Tuesday” and started playing a remix of “Tuesday.” A dinner at the home of Design/Miami director Rodman Primack was warm and surprisingly chill, given that fifteen percent of the attendees weren’t speaking together. Meanwhile, a shindig for the Jack Shainman Gallery, DJ’d by the singer Solange, actually felt like a party and not an event, probably because there were no VIP seats and no flashy cameras and the majority of the guests weren’t white things in discount Jil Sander.
“We just found the one party at Basel,” said the artist Ryan McNamara, “where the black people in the room aren’t only on the stage.” He was exaggerating, obviously—but barely. The other such party had happened Thursday at Soho House, with Russell Simmons hosting and Miguel singing, and had been attended by like a thousand fewer people than had lined up to see Miley Cyrus, accompanied by a six-foot-tall topless black woman, open Wednesday’s Jeffrey Deitch party with a cover of “Super Freak.” Here too there wasn’t a line to get in, and the mood was far from exclusive; it’s too bad Wolfson couldn’t make it. When a dancer from DC asked me if I was having fun I had a sudden desire to say yes.
Left: Miley Cyrus at the Raleigh. Right: Miguel performs at the 5th Annual Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series at the Soho Beach House. (Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images)
Later, in the sinking breeze, the poolside fete for MoMA PS1 had become neither a party nor an event but a nice familiar nonevent. Everyone literally sat around. Seven people named Alex said hello or were introduced to me. Angela Goding, the museum’s director of development, took very specific drink orders (“I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants,” she said), while Klaus Biesenbach, the director, went out to get sandwiches from Subway. And it wasn’t until I noticed that he was only giving sandwiches to his friends (or his critics) that for the first time all week, something actually happened at a party.
At first I thought Mykki Blanco, the New York rapper and performance artist, was starting a food fight, because he was throwing bits of a sandwich in Biesenbach’s face, and because Miami is a place where a food fight might be positioned as an experience. I thought nervously of my discount Jil Sander, a white dress I’d just had dry-cleaned. Then Blanco was yelling. Biesenbach was mumbling (an apology, someone said later). “My legacy will outlive your curatorial bullshit,” Blanco was saying. Everyone sat up straight. Blanco got up on a table.
What Blanco did may or may not have been rehearsed, and it may or may not have been a “stunt,” as some said, and it may or may not have been, as many speculated, “justifiable” in the particular. What he said, however, was that Biesenbach doesn’t care about black people unless they’re famous. What he said, and the demandingness with which he said it, was in the general so just—so urgent—that the wish for it to be justified is disgusting. “He wants to hug Mickalene Thomas, he wants to hug Kehinde Wiley,” said Blanco, three or four times. “I’m not Mickalene Thomas, I’m not Kehinde Wiley,” he said, twice. The second time I caught that he was saying, “I’m not your Mickalene Thomas.” He talked about being black in America. He talked about being hated. When he said your, I didn’t think he was talking to Biesenbach, and when he called him a German and a bad word for gay, I thought “German” sounded more like the slur. “He doesn’t like black people,” said Blanco, just once. “He likes black culture.” I felt a little bad for Mickalene Thomas, but mostly I just felt bad. Blanco went out to dance, and Biesenbach said, of the queer black artist’s performance, “That’s entertainment.”
Left: Glenn O’Brien and friends at his TV Party. (Photo: Neil Rasmus/BFAnyc.com) Right: Frida Giannini, artist Kris Knight, and LACMA director Michael Govan. (Photo: Joe Schildhorn/BFAnyc.com)
I SWEAR THE AIR in Miami is cut with tourist-grade cocaine, making sleep uneasy, sunshine itchy, each nighttime destination like being still stuck in the acid-lit caterpillar traffic. At a Monday evening preview of Kris Knight’s wonderful exquisite-realist paintings, hosted by Gucci and Spinello Projects, the mood was already restless. When, having forgotten how to do my job, I asked Knight what he was excited to see this week, he looked around nervously. Art people don’t get excited; we find things exciting. Behind me a man in white said the quality was high, but it was simply too early to tell.
In the old Playboy theater at Castle Beach Resort, Ryan McNamara was giving the first, Art Basel–sponsored performance of MEƎM 4 Miami, “a story ballet about the Internet” that works like an experimental, immersive cure for its sundry effects: attention deficit, a fear of missing better. Nearly thirty dancers, performing as individuals or in groups, gave looping, hypnotic, and occasionally glitchy shows to an audience carted, seat by seat, from scene to scene. The climax was a full-body high, gorgeous ecstasy. After the applause, nobody knew whether to leave; the rush, for a second, was elsewhere.
Left: Serpentine codirector Hans Ulrich Obrist watches Alexandra Albrecht perform in Ryan McNamara’s MEƎM 4 Miami: A Story Ballet About the Internet. Right: Dancers/choreographers Waldean Nelson, Jos McKain, Joshua Weidenmiller, Jen Rosenblit, Mickey Mahar; artist Ryan McNamara; and dancer-choreographers Kyli Kleven, Kim Brandt, and Fana Fraser at the Interview, Dsquared2, Performa, and Maserati party. (Photo: Sam Deitch/BFAnyc.com)
The next morning, at a hair salon inside the Shore Club, a long blonde woman in four-inch heels and foils was having an air-conditioned meltdown. “The work was supposed to arrive at 9 AM,” she said into the phone, under the dryer. She said she understood, of course, “but you fucked up, and to make it better, you’re going to have to do something you’ve never done before.” I thought about how this might be a maxim for making things. I thought about Agnes Martin, and how she would paint daily, destroy almost everything, fix big mistakes by changing the style entirely. I decided to get Agnes Martin paintings on my fingers.
At the Vanity Projects nail salon pop-up on South Beach, while my manicure was being Martinized, owner Rita de Alencar Pinto showed off a new iPhone 6 case: matte black, with trompe-l’oeil lines of coke. “I should give this to Mr. Brainwash,” she joked. “Like: Here, do it all. I’ll just take the crumbs.” The locals all laughed. “Fucking artists,” said a club promoter with a Miley Cyrus haircut. “They think everyone in Miami has drugs.” But it was too late to change my lede, and somewhere on Sunset Island, Paris Hilton was arriving to make it truer.
Left: Interview editor-at-large Christopher Bollen with artist Jeremy Kost. (Photo: Sam Deitch/BFAnyc.com) Right: Paris Hilton and musician Swizz Beatz. (Photo: Rodrigo Varela)
At Tuesday night’s Interview dinner with Dsquared2, artists and actors Hari Nef and India Salvör Menuez compared notes on performance as a bridge between the two disciplines. “You never get the reaction you plan for,” said Nef. “So you have to stop planning, let go.” We followed the wind down Collins and wound up at Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, hosted by NeueHouse at Casa Claridge, where a man dressed as the United States of America wandered in behind Josie and the Pussycats after a change of spots. “I’m a curator by day, Amazon by night,” explained the trio’s leader, Coco Dolle, in so winning a way it took me a minute to remember when exactly the Amazons dressed as zebras. Kembra Pfahler, dressed as a goth Kembra Pfahler, took the stage to shout sentences involving “rich,” “aristocracy,” and “New York” (a Patti Smith cover?). “All my cohosts are women,” said O’Brien, then turned to his producer. “I want Kembra talking [on the TV set upstairs]. I want Hayley talking, I want Scout talking. I want Fabiola talking. She’s beautiful.” An opera singer named Jamie stumbled in, wearing a pink velvet suit—embarrassing, since the nearby sofa was wearing the same thing, and wore it better. “I don’t know anybody at Basel,” said the opera singer to Nef, “but I’m surprised by how much we all have in common. Look at all this performativity!”
At a party for W and Ian Schrager at the Miami Beach Edition, newly open after a decade-and-a-half’s abandonment, I kept thinking of this Chris Rock interview in New York magazine. I read it three times on the flight. He says: “If poor people knew how rich rich people are, they’d riot.” I’m sorry to bring up poor people when we’re trying to talk about art, but as I dazed through the downstairs space at the Edition, a space occupied severally by a disco lounge, a dance floor, a bar or three, a bowling alley, and an ice-skating rink with its own alpaca-chaired waiting area, I felt like I was in a future ghost town. When Jena Malone sailed past in a sick white gown, Jena Malone being a star of the Hunger Games movies, the feeling was double. It was late, and I knew I wouldn’t sleep; I was already destroying my art nails, edgy with ambient money and dust in the air. Sure, I’d volunteered, but for the wrong side of the revolution, the side that has one thing correct: It doesn’t feel right to be excited.
Left: Kembra Pfahler. (Photo: Neil Rasmus/BFAnyc.com) Right: Ice skaters at the Miami Beach Edition. (Photo: Madison McGaw/BFAnyc.com)
IN THE FIRST FEW HOURS after my arrival in Shanghai, all anyone seemed to talk about were the films Lucy and Interstellar, and I was suddenly reminded of 2012, when one had to follow the popular soap opera Legend of Zhen Huan to participate in any conversations. It seems the Chinese art world’s interests have shifted from Qing Dynasty–era royal politics to apocalyptic futures grafted with fabulist science. A welcome change, in my book; if our fictions speak to a certain truth of our social life, how much more fun to privilege the future over the past, science fiction over fusty politics?
Fictions were also at the center of “Social Factory,” the tenth edition of the Shanghai Biennial and the ostensible reason so many of us made the trek over. Anselm Franke, who curated the biennial along with Freya Chou, Liu Xiao, and Para/site director Cosmin Costinas, takes as his premise the role that fictions play in the institutions that shape our daily life, his title invoking that Durkheimian metric the “social fact” as well as the proletarian mythologies central to modern Chinese political identity. It was a properly heady subject, and even if the biennial had been the only game in town, it would have been worth the trip.
As it was, I wish I’d had access to an Interstellar-style wormhole to make it through all the shows and openings. I lucked out with the second-best arrangement, a car and a group of like-minded friends. With this we were able to truck it through both the outer museums and galleries—BANK ART, Rockbund Art Museum (showing Ugo Rondinone), and Pearl Lam—before hitting the thriving M50 district, where we discovered MadeIn’s new production line at ShanghArt, Tang Dixin at Aike Dellarco, Yu Honglei at Antenna Space, and a smart doubleheader at Chronus Art Center: Jeffrey Shaw’s Advanced Visualization and Interaction Environment system and Hu Jieming’s mechanical monster.
Our sci-fi fictions also played a role in one of the more inspired shows I saw last weekend, “Cosmos,” the inaugural exhibition at Shanghai’s 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. The show brims with all sorts of fantastical work—from Ryoji Ikeda’s Radar (Shanghai) to Yang Zhenzhong’s interactive installation Please Sit—while the catalogue spins on weird and wonderful allusions. “[Stephen] Hawking’s arrow of time turns 360 degrees; do not attempt to exhaust all history within one second.” writes Dr. Ai Min, vice chairman of the Social Responsibility Management Committee of Minsheng Banking Corporation—and also, it turns out, a poet.
I finally made it to the massive Power Station, China’s only state-run contemporary art institution and the biennial’s current home, just in time for the 2 PM Saturday preview. The VIP and media desks were busy sorting out the different versions of invitation cards and entry bands, but the real chaos was in the exhibition itself, as preparators scurried to put last-minute touches on installations before the show opened—a common enough story in Chinese contemporary art. Even given the late adjustments, this biennial appears more polished than the last edition, when certain artists were encouraged to adapt their works to incorporate unintended transportation damages.
“Social Factory” touches on many disparate narratives: techno-animism and China’s early-twentieth-century enlightenment movement, the younger generations’ cyber explorations, middle-aged artists’ long-standing dedication to the heritage of the Cold War. Franke’s catalogue essay conjures an ambitious number of references, including Mao Zedong’s famous principle “seek truth from facts,” Alexander Kluge’s idea of the subjectivity of history, Confucius’s theory of the “living flow of things,” James Scott’s criticism of the nation-state, and, of course, cybernetics. None of these narratives are in opposition, and yet it’s also difficult to track direct relations among them. There are a lot of interesting associations, but also a lot of missed connections.
Left: Dealer Leo Xu, UCCA curator Venus Lau, and artist Cui Jie. Right: Yuko Hasegawa, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, and artist Natascha Sadr Haghighian.
Indeed, the task of translation puts great pressure on Chinese art institutions who work with foreign artists and curators. “Such a big museum is operated by a small staff of under forty employees,” said Li Xu, the director of the biennial’s office. “Yesterday, I stayed at work until 4 AM, then came back a few hours later without even having time to take a shower.” The persistent tradition of installing minutes before the opening is at least partially due to the lack of staff who can coordinate between Chinese and foreign systems.
Even in situations where there are no language barriers, obstacles remain. At the entrance I encountered Chen Chieh-jen, who, as a Taiwanese artist dedicated to tracing labor and social movements through film, certainly makes an easy target for bowdlerization. Chen had just finished installing the day prior, but the delayed arrival of his work was not due to any political reason; rather, it was an administrative mistake on the part of the museum. “If my work were to be shipped back to Taipei, some Taiwanese press would seize the chance to label the incident as another case of censoring art’s freedom of expression. So I told the curators that such a situation should be avoided at all costs.” To Gao Shiming, member of the biennial’s “academic” (i.e., non-market-oriented) committee, Chen’s work Transformation Text—an installation that archives his prior practice in chapters, inspired by the Bianwen literary form of the Tang Dynasty—represents the biennial’s core. “Many do not realize that biopolitics must be discussed together with classical political economies,” Gao argued.
The “social factory” theme continued at the parallel Inter-Asia Biennial Forum. As part of the event, Japanese Tent Theater director Daizo Sakurai set up a temporary stage on the Power Station’s outdoor plaza, where independent media from Hong Kong, workers’ bands from Taipei, and members from Daizo’s Beijing theater troupe would gather for daylong performances and discussion.
Left: Theater director Wang Molin and artist Chen Chieh-jen. Right: Shanghai Biennial academic committee member Gao Shiming.
Tent Theater began as small underground productions in the 1960s with strong connections to Japan’s social movements. While contemporary art’s popularity in Asia rises, Daizo insists on keeping a distance from institutional structures. The members of his Tokyo group are mostly recent graduates from professional schools. According to Daizo, these youth are nomads, exiled from the collective of society at large. The professional art crowd that gathered at the Power Station during the biennial opening was like another kind of nomadic tribe. Its members speak multiple languages and travel between different countries; they believe in the power of art and culture; they are workaholics, activists, practitioners. To them, slowness is the enemy, and one must rapidly grasp opportunities and digest information.
Keeping on the fast train, that night more than one hundred guests gathered in the museum’s grand hall on the seventh floor for a dinner celebrating twenty years of the biennial. After a ten-minute black-and-white film, in which key figures recounted their personal involvement with the biennial accompanied by nostalgic music (“I wouldn’t want my face projected that big on a screen. You’d be able to see every pore on my nose,” artist Shi Qing murmured), committee member Homi Bhabha raised a glass and offered his own incisive if sentimental toast to this edition. “In this moment,” he said, “confrontations and differences will be resolved only through a repetition of slow reflections of the complexity with which we have to struggle. In every way, this biennial is struggling as we speak.”
Who can argue with that? Though the practice may be harder than the preach. For the nomadic art tribe, someone suggested, the surest way to achieve “a repetition of slow reflections” might be through that most universal social fact: the hangover. And with that goal in sight, we merrily repaired to the afterparty.
Left: Artist Martha Wilson. (Photo: Sarah Bodri) Right: HotNuts cofounder Produzentin Proddy and Das Hussy. (Photo: Josh Chong)
“ART CAN BE TRICKY in Toronto,” said art critic Bill Clarke. “Once you find it, it’s incredibly vibrant. But you have to find it.” We were standing in the VIA Rail Panorama Lounge in the Great Hall of Union Station during the cocktails and dinner for the fortieth anniversary of Art Metropole. Founded by artist collective General Idea in 1974, Art Metropole has for decades, with resolute passion and meager resources, distributed artists’ editions and publications, as a nonprofit bookshop, lending library, gallery, publisher, and most simply a center. The group who assembled for Thursday’s event reflected that spirit: a bit punk, certainly smart, totally committed. As the crowd, including collector-philanthropists Gilles and Julia Ouellette and curator Jonathan Shaughnessy from the National Gallery of Canada, shifted from champagne to the dinner, a few sculpturally peculiar foam cushions poked out from the seats. A graying dowager whispered with delight, “Mine goosed me!” Laurie Kang of the collective Fiancé Knows admitted with a mischievous smile that a few had been intended as “stimulating pillows.”
Though introduced and MC’d by effulgent drag queen Mary Messhausen of Hotnuts and a duo of mysteriously gendered cohorts, the official announcements came from current Art Metropole director Corinn Gerber and board copresident Danielle St. Amour, both of whom were only twinkles in their respective parents’ eyes when the institution was inaugurated. “Art Met has been doing so much with rather little for so long now that it was nice to do something a bit brazen,” St. Amour told me after her speech. “And being brazen on one’s fortieth seems like a fine indicator of doing a decent job of life.”
Throughout the dinner, one critic and a variety of artists spun tales about the donated artworks for the charity auction. Clarke wove a heartbreaker about a sketch his grandfather made; David Horvitz talked about a series of moody Polaroids of road trips to the Spiral Jetty, for some years forgotten in a red bank bag and later saved from a closet; and a radically coiffed Martha Wilson discussed one of her earlier experimental haircuts, documentation of which constituted the many-petaled chrysanthemum of her donated print.
Between each story, Atlantic chef Nathan Isberg pulled off strange course after strange course. The mix of locavore slow-cooking, Rasputinish alchemy, and minimalism could easily be described as “stark” or “uncompromising”; mostly it was gently and high-mindedly delicious. The first course consisted of three hollowed-out and gilded eggs with their tops shaved off, each filled with a delicate dollop of sashimi, slivers of fresh vegetable, or roe. Each morsel was like a succulent poem that lasted no longer than a haiku, so no one could blame those diners who snuck backstage to eat a few cold slices of leftover pizza from the volunteers’ early-evening pies.
The dinner emptied into a party already in swing next door in the station’s Great Hall, a yawning, vaulted industrial cathedral, with the names of Canadian cities taking the place of saints circling the mantle of the muscular brick columns. A difficult place for the sweaty intimacy of a rave, but the mostly youngish artists that made up the revelers danced with fervor. I snuck around the edges sipping weird cocktails and Canadian beer, trying to glean something of Toronto’s contemporary art scene. No one seemed particularly territorial, though people were quick to mention Michael Snow or Suzy Lake (currently enjoying a retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario). Largely driven by mostly ephemeral artist-run centers (Art Metropole one of the heroically lasting exceptions), one could sense a wealth of talent in the city, but not enough opportunities to support or export it, with the result that a lot of said talent either struggles or splits.
A couple nights later, cool rain washed away an early snow and a crowd amassed for an opening at the delightfully named artist-run space 8-11. When EDM DJ Skrillex passed through the city, he posted a snap of their storefront, resulting in the space going viral and leading to a cease-and-desist letter from the aggrieved corporate overlords at 7-11. But the sign still beams brightly in the dark night from the crumbling heritage building it shares with a bonsai shop and a gentleman’s club. The collective’s membership “hovers between eight and eleven people, though currently at nine,” I was told by Xenia Benivolski, a talented organizer of sundry artist-run projects around Canada and member of the collective running the space. From Russia by way of Israel, Benivolski had been in and around Toronto for fourteen years, and was able to put the city in perspective: “Artists always want to leave Toronto, but when they do, they always want to come back.”
Left: Artist Tom Sachs. Right: Creative Time artistic director Anne Pasternak with designer Waris Ahluwalia. (Photos: Christos Katsiaouni)
CREATIVE TIME is a venerable nonprofit arts organization that is literally forty-one years old, so if Friday night’s Fall Ball sleepover felt like a Sweet Sixteen party planned by an overanxious momma, we’re not being mean, just insensitive. We arrived at Neuehouse a little before 10 PM, or two hours after start time. The party would go until 8 the next morning. Dinner was over and beginning again; salmon and salad and wild rice, exactly right for the art world’s pre–South Beach diet, were served in quantities larger than the crowd. Yet around the corner, a line was winding up for red beans and regular rice, cooked by the sculptor Tom Sachs. Is there anything a professional can do that an artist can’t do better?
Ben Bronfman, best known as the father of M.I.A’s child, was complaining about the lethargic bartenders. “Kanye once started a meeting with me, ‘You know, when you’re a king…’ ” he said, wistfully joining a drink line somewhat lacking in art-world royalty and the service they’re accustomed to. One admires Neuehouse for commissioning and installing Jill Magid’s cursive neon sign, MAKE ME ANONYMOUS, just above the bar.
A long-haired man was wearing dark purple shades in low lighting, so we asked if he was famous. He answered that he had been in jail for eighteen years and seventy-eight days, and we immediately hoped that Damien Echols, a member of the West Memphis Three, had a very good night. Later, a PR girl informed us that he was reading tarot downstairs. (“He learned it in prison! He lives in Harlem now.”) Mel Chin arrived with a patch over the left lens of his eyeglasses—“I taped it myself,” he said of the glasses, “with gaffing tape”—but didn’t stop to watch the male contortionist in Dr. Caligari makeup flatten himself into a paper clip. Dustin Yellin came by, and we pretended to write down things he said. The Citizens Band took the stage. Some Weimar Republican bantered idly into the microphone about “happenings,” then made an Ebola joke. It was not even 10:45.
Left: Contortionist with the Citizens Band. Right: VFiles' Ruth Gruca with vmagazine.com editor Natasha Stagg. (Photos: Luis Ruiz)
There were so many places to sit, and few ways to relax. The designer Sebastián Errázuriz held an attenuated game of Pictionary. Some people in jeans played Twister, while a couple dressed for business did Robert Lazzarini’s “Porn Puzzle” (like a regular puzzle, only printed with a pornographic image). A “Casper Divine” explained their skimpy tank top: “This is mesh, honey. My friend designed it but I forgot her name.” Another nameless friend of Casper’s flashed pink, Pop Rocks–like nail art designed by non–nail artists Rob Pruitt and Will Cotton, saying, “It’s very Rihanna, don’t you think?”
“It’s Katy Perry!” exclaimed a lithe young man, dashing into a darkened enclave that turned out to be a karaoke room. We looked in anyway, because you never know. She might have come with Damien Echols. Four young people sporting rainbow-zigzagged onesies— “made from synthetic alpaca wool”— moved slowly through the crowd, as if worried one might get picked off for slaughter. “We’re from Vermont!” they said, obviously. “We’re f-c-k-n-l-z.” (A brief inquiry via Neuehouse’s excellent wifi revealed FCKNLZ to be a “gypset lifestyle collective” that “specializes in mistakes.”)
We headed downstairs to survey the resting quarters. Rows of tightly packed white cots, like an army barracks for consumption patients, were bathed in a low green light. Alessandra Brawn—now introducing herself as “the wife of Jon Neidich,” Neidich being a Creative Time board member and former manager of the Boom Boom Room—was politely telling a friend how to Instagram her. Brawn rearranged herself on the cot, throwing one arm casually above her head.
“Tarot is booked until 4 AM,” said a clipboard, but did we want a quickie? We sat cross-legged in front of Jen DeNike, barefoot. She laid out a four-card spread, explaining that reporters are particularly suited to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s deck of tarot cards: The filmmaker based Holy Mountain (1973) on Mount Analogue, René Daumal’s 1960 novel about “a journalist who finds a lost mountain.” We’re less the type of journalists to ask where a mountain is and more the type to ask how you could have lost a mountain, but never mind. “You need to bring the fire up,” DeNike told us. “You need to bring yourself up more, I guess, and come out of hiding. Be a little more extroverted.”
Dustin Yellin came by again, more up and out of hiding than ever, with no shirt and a bare ass hanging out of a pair of orange shorts. The spirit world had sent us a guide. “You must know Dustin Yellin,” said a gallery guy, wryly. “He’s a famous artist.” Dustin Yellin looked humble for a moment. “I’m a small guy in a big town,” he said. Later, we learned that the “Nick Cave for IKEA” piece at Neuehouse is actually a Dustin Yellin sculpture.
Pizza materialized by 1 AM, along with a pile of confetti. Rich girls changed into matching pajamas. The night was so exquisitely coordinated; it’s a shame no one danced. We did, however, find the action amid all the activities, in a small room manned by David Colman and a pair of TSA-style “officers.” Inside it was bright, and when our officer slipped on his blue latex gloves and took off our clothes, too slowly, until we had to stop (had to literally say “I insist that you stop”), we felt like we were playing at adults, which after all is the point of a sleepover.
“ARTISTS ARE NOT PERIPHERAL to our daily lives, but central,” said Creative Time artistic director Anne Pasternak, speaking from a multicolored, inflatable podium, one of three playful props situated around the stage of Stockholm’s Kulturhuset. With issues such as migration, nationalism, xenophobia, and surveillance as foci, the sixth iteration of the Creative Time Summit wasn’t going to be light fare, and the whimsical decor by artist Bella Rune, who’s also worked on sets for the Knife, offered welcome comic relief throughout last weekend’s two-day marathon. Rune’s design aimed to render the summit “more Creative Time and less TED.” It worked. “I feel like I’m in Pee-wee Herman’s playhouse,” said Creative Time chief curator Nato Thompson in his opening remarks.
This was the first Summit to be held outside New York City—and the US—as Creative Time partnered with the government-affiliated Public Art Agency Sweden to bring the summit to Stockholm. The event largely consisted of thematic clusters of ten-minute presentations by artists engaging with social justice and activism, often probing the loopholes of the law to challenge institutions of power. In one instance, artist Tania Bruguera, inspired by Pope Francis’s 2013 Mass on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa that commemorated migrants dead at sea, launched a campaign petitioning the Pope to declare the undocumented migrants to Europe as “citizens of the Vatican.”
The harsh, Procrustean format dictated a degree of professionalism usually missing from presentation in the arts. The Summit’s curators—Thompson and Magdalena Malm, director of Public Art Agency Sweden—stressed the multiple methodologies found across politically and socially engaged public art. While situated on the periphery of the art world’s locus of power, said Thompson, socially engaged artists “outnumber those who are in the center.” When projects from the vast field of cultural production that deals with the social and political enter the “center”—commercial galleries and museums—the issue becomes that of legitimization. The works are suddenly critiqued based on moral and ethical questions they never sought to address. Maybe the “periphery” isn't a bad place to be.
Sociologist Saskia Sassen’s opening keynote sketched out the connections among recent financial crises, the increasing power of multinational corporations, and the decrease in the rights of citizens. Her “hobby,” she stated, was “counting the rights we’re losing.” Immigrants suffer most from low-level interventions by the state, she maintained, as immigration authorities are bound to homeland security. “How much do we know of these abuses of law?” she asked, exiting the stage with a call for action.
Ram Manikkalingam, director of Dialogue Advisory Group, moderated a cluster of presentations on “Nationalisms,” a sentiment which, as demonstrated by recent elections across Europe, is on the rise. Sweden, frequently referred to on The Daily Show as a sort of sane haven, was bitterly criticized for its institutional racism. Swedish writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri, who discovered his love for language through gangster rap (he cited hearing Nas’s line “Begin like a violin / End like leviathan” as a formative moment), read aloud a passage describing how Stockholm, and his view of himself, alter according to which group of friends he associates with in public space. Artist Jonas Dahlberg spoke of the ideas behind his design for Memory Wound, the memorial to the victims of the 2011 terrorist attack in Norway.
As the day progressed, the presentations began to drift in all directions, despite moderators’ efforts to hew to their respective themes. A particularly strong talk by the Ford Foundation’s Roberta Uno provided a much-needed sense of anchoring, and criticality. Uno named examples of self-sustaining, community-organized efforts, like the revitalized canoeing tradition of First Nations peoples by younger generations, calling out a “segregation” of ideas in the arts community. She suggested that the art world ignores important examples of public space already activated by the arts, because those occur in a “parallel universe”—that is, outside the world of nonprofit arts communities, and often within specific ethnic groups. In a changing world, Uno argued, we have to recalibrate “our thinking about the arts community, reshape its values and identity, and learn” from successful examples emerging within cultures of scarcity.
At the end of day one, presenters, organizers, and friends gathered around small tables at the Moderna Museet for a vegetarian Ethiopian-Swedish dinner designed by artist Loulou Cherinet and head chef Malin Söderström. Guests were also encouraged to give back “energy” to Kultivator, an artist-run farm from which the food had been sourced, in a specially designed toilet.
The second day was packed with presentations on intersections of social justice and politics, with high-profile speakers and moderators such as Edi Rama, prime minister of Albania and artist; Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a Pirate Party representative in the Icelandic Parliament; and the impressive powerhouse politician Soraya Post, the EU Parliament’s first member elected on a feminist ticket in Sweden, and only the second Roma candidate ever elected. Creative Time’s Laura Raicovich opened the day, which focused on surveillance and migration.
Some of the most captivating presentations included the brilliantly simple subversions of the Ghana Think Tank, which sets up self-sustaining laboratories in so-called “developing countries” to help solve first-world problems. When Westport, Connecticut, residents complained about the lack of diversity in their community, Ghana Think Tank’s task force on El Salvadoran issues suggested they invite the day laborers who clean their houses and tend their gardens to Westport social functions. Ghana Think Tank hired workers to do precisely that, for fifteen dollars an hour. Tomáš Rafa’s documentary New Nationalism was particularly intense, equal amounts brave and bleak. But not all presenters were as compelling. Artist Dora Garcia waxed philosophical on a recent work constructed from East German Stasi archive material. Not only was the work itself misguided in its breach of Stasi victims’ privacy by using their files for the purpose of an art project, but her conclusions were equally naive: She essentially declared Big Data to be harmless based on East Germany’s failure to anticipate the fall of the wall despite the Stasi’s ubiquitous surveillance—that is, neglecting to recognize the difference between mere information and metadata.
Privilege, power, and empowerment were ultimately the weekend’s buzzwords, as artists reflected on the impact of their interventions. Danish curator Tone Olaf Nielsen drove home the point regarding long-term impact as she stressed the need for permanence: “Asylum-seekers and forced migrants in Denmark are sick and tired of artists coming in temporarily to do a project inside the camps and leave again.” Shifting power relations between artists and the disempowered they are seeking to help is arguably the most essential element to effecting meaningful change. The summit proved that there’s a lot of pragmatic “artivism” around.