Sociologist David Lyon at “Images of Surveillance” at the Goethe-Institut. (All photos: Jacobia Dahm)
LEAVE IT TO THE COUNTRY that brought us the Gestapo and STASI to teach the Land of the Free about the perils of surveillance. Unlike the British, who have inexplicably embraced CCTV and other snooping technologies despite having produced Huxley and Orwell, Germans well remember the total paranoia and rigid control engendered by authoritarian systems overly concerned with “your papers.” Hence it was unsurprising but slightly ironic that one of the more substantial and wide-ranging symposia about surveillance on these shores to date was held at the Goethe-Institut New York over the first weekend of December. Titled “Images of Surveillance: The Politics, Economics, and Aesthetics of Surveillance Societies,” the two-and-a-half-day conference gathered artists, scholars, theorists, and activists from Europe and North America to discuss the increasingly inescapable digital fishbowl in which we all live and work.
Our response to electronic surveillance, particularly the tracking of online behavior known as dataveillance, mirrors our response to climate change—everyone knows it’s happening, but because it’s largely imperceptible and easily forgotten in the day-to-day, only a small minority does anything to fight it. Also, widespread user complicity—enjoying the “upsides” (Facebook, SUVs) of otherwise baleful trends—stymies mass action and credible resistance. Indeed, social-media addiction closely resembles fossil-fuel addiction. Many people say something should be done, but few are willing to change their own behavior. Press an average person on this point, and you will encounter tortured doublethink not unlike CNN legal pundit Jeffrey Toobin’s initial reaction to the Edward Snowden revelations—calling them “a good thing” while maintaining that Snowden was a traitor who should rot in a cell for the rest of his life. “Hey, I’m all for privacy and the Fourth Amendment,” they’ll say, “but you’ll have to pry my iPhone from my cold, dead hands.”
There is such a miasma of obfuscation emanating from the government and Internet companies around these issues that it’s worth keeping a few fundamentals in mind, all of which were touched on at the conference. One, state dataveillance is not about preventing terrorism; it is about social control. When questioned in congressional hearings following the Snowden leaks, representatives of the intelligence community were forced to admit that not a single terror attack was stopped by the domestic phone metadata bulk collection program. Statistically, you are far more likely to be struck by lightning or eaten by a shark—to say nothing of being killed in a car crash—than to be anywhere near a terror attack, and yet in less than fifteen years the government has squandered billions of dollars and shredded the Bill of Rights, ostensibly to protect us from this exceedingly remote threat. Why? That government boosters of Big Data—quantitative reductionists all—appear to be defying their almighty god Probability in this one area is telling.
Artist Trevor Paglen at “Images of Surveillance” at the Goethe-Institut.
Two, the highest officials in the intelligence community—Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA director John Brennan, FBI director James Comey, former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden, and others in both the Bush and Obama administrations have blatantly and repeatedly lied to Congress and the American public about both the purpose and scope of the government’s domestic dataveillance programs. (The Snowden files proved that Clapper perjured himself under oath during congressional testimony; nothing was done.) Following the recent Paris and San Bernardino attacks, the familiar bugaboos were trotted out once again by these shameless sharksuckers—Snowden! Encryption! Civil Liberties!—all apparently to blame for terror operations in which no encryption was used and to which Snowden’s disclosures had no relevance.
Three, for all of their Ayn Rand–inspired corporate libertarianism, the moguls of Silicon Valley are not the oppositional, stick-it-to-the-Man players they make themselves out to be. Their frenzied denials of their complicity with the NSA’s PRISM program had everything to do with brand reputation, user trust, and their bottom lines and very little to do with principle. After all, they pioneered the data collection and mining techniques the government has leveraged since 9/11. Not that I recommend it (you’ll feel more powerless than you’ve ever felt before), but if you actually read the online Terms of Service of Google, Facebook, Apple, et al., you’ll see their desire for your data makes the STASI’s methods look like a Neighborhood Watch program in Pleasantville, Ohio. And it’s all available to the government. While the mere mention of this sounds conspiratorial, it should be unsurprising that the CIA’s venture capital wing, In-Q-Tel, has been directly or indirectly involved with Google, Facebook, and many smaller Internet companies offering dataveillance technologies.
It was with high hopes and, as is perhaps clear, an unnatural surfeit of personal research that I entered the Goethe-Institut on Friday night for the opening of “Images of Surveillance.” The keynote lecture was delivered by David Lyon, a sociology and law professor at Queen’s University in Canada who has researched electronic surveillance since the 1980s. (I recall reading his book The Electronic Eye in the mid-’90s as the Internet was going mainstream.) A compact man with white hair and beard, Lyon specializes in simplifying the complexities of surveillance and its effects for layman audiences; as such, he was a natural choice to present an overarching view of the issues. He defined surveillance as “focused attention to personal details for entitlement, influence, or control,” adding that it was an ancient practice enhanced by new technologies. Discussing dataveillance, he rightly noted that we are automatically sorted into categories based on our online behavior and that categories are then treated differently in terms of access and eligibility; in other words, our life chances and choices are mediated by surveillance.
As we are increasingly surveilled, Lyon continued, we have less transparency regarding the process and which entities—public and private—are collecting our data. He faulted the “user-generated content” of Web 2.0, and the shifting norms regarding public disclosure of personal information it inspired, as part and parcel of our current predicament. As he summarized some of the NSA’s domestic dataveillance programs revealed by Snowden, he reminded us that “the Cloud is not fluffy” but instead composed of solid server farms and undersea cables, and implored the audience not to succumb to paranoia. Lyon concluded that Snowden and his practice of parrhesia, an ancient Greek concept loosely translated as “truth telling,” should be an inspiration to us all—a model for active resistance against murky and dispiriting developments.
Merve editor in chief Armen Avanessian at “Images of Surveillance” at the Goethe-Institut.
On Saturday morning, I walked in on the tail end of a talk by technology writer Evgeny Morozov on “surveillance and the emergence of the neoliberal welfare state,” and settled in for presentations by three academics who would then join for a panel discussion. The first of these, Columbia law professor Bernard Harcourt, looked straight out of central casting, with his Trotskyite glasses and layered black-on-black ensemble. Arguing that Orwell’s Big Brother and Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison (Foucault) were no longer useful metaphors for contemporary surveillance, he proposed instead the notion of an “exposure society” driven by desire. “Hate Week has been replaced by likes,” he quipped, and panopticism, which ultimately leads to self-censorship, could not account for the “mad frenzy of disclosure” on social media. Harcourt offered Dan Graham’s installation on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Hedge Two-Way Mirror Walkabout, 2014, with its reflections, opacities, and distortions, as a more accurate update of the Panopticon metaphor. Contra 1984, he concluded, it is easier to tame the passions by feeding desire than by brutally crushing dissent or instilling fear of observation in a populace. And it is our own desire that has enslaved us.
Merve editor in chief Armen Avanessian followed Harcourt, discussing the ultimate aim of dataveillance: prediction. Noting how “smart” personal assistants like Google Now tell us what we want to do today and tomorrow (and we actually do it), he outlined the concept of the “preemptive personality,” the endlessly profiled and guided subject who is shunted into precalculated futures in a system that could be characterized as digital predestination. He added that the “derivative paradigm” of cybernetic capitalism increasingly pervades all of life in that our predicted future value determines our present set of opportunities. Avanessian described contemporary capitalism as “digital feudalism,” in which the lords are data aggregators and the serfs are the users who willingly disclose their data to the system.
Historian of science Jimena Canales at “Images of Surveillance” at the Goethe-Institut.
Jimena Canales, History of Science professor at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, delivered one of the weekend’s more illuminating presentations, walking us through the roots of surveillance from medieval times to the present. She cited the Domesday Book (1086), William the Conqueror’s extensive and unprecedented survey of the British Isles, as the foundational project of modern surveillance. Describing the Casa de Contratación (“House of Trade”) in Seville, Spain, a sixteenth- through eighteenth-century bureaucratic agency that recorded and regulated all trade and emigration to the New World, she showed a slide of the handwritten “CV” of Don Quixote author Cervantes, which he had submitted to the agency in order to travel to the Americas. Displaying quotes from Pierre Laplace and Charles Babbage, she discussed the concept of the “Ideal Chronicler,” an omniscient God analogue that is able to see the past, present, and future simultaneously, a role increasingly played by the Internet. Ultimately, she concluded, being for or against surveillance was beside the point; we should instead take an epistemological approach toward understanding it and its effects.
On Sunday, I arrived to a packed house for a midday talk by artist Trevor Paglen, the former geographer who has embarked on multiyear project to “watch the watchers” by taking long-distance photography of top-secret listening stations around the world. He also dives for undersea fiber-optic cables between the continents that the NSA, GCHQ, and other intelligence agencies tap at their “choke points”; quantitatively tracks the paths of surveillance satellites; and exposes the cartoonishly villainous insignias and mottos of arcane government subagencies tasked with electronic surveillance and cyberwarfare operations. Paglen showed slides of all of the above activities, lingering on the absurd patches for the NROL-9 unit of the National Reconnaissance Office, which depicts Earth in the clutches of a gigantic octopus with the slogan “Nothing Is Beyond Our Reach.”
Paglen then Skyped with well-known hacktivist and Tor Project contributor Jacob Applebaum in Munich. Paglen recently collaborated with Applebaum on Autonomy Cube (2014), network hardware repurposed as a sort of living sculpture. The sculpture creates a free Wi-Fi network within the gallery or museum in which it sits that is connected to the Tor network, enabling users to browse the Web anonymously. It also serves as a Tor network hub, one of many peer-to-peer relays that make the network possible. Applebaum described today’s Internet as a “hostile network,” with the NSA storing all communication activity in databases for future searches and the British GCHQ’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG) using “dirty tricks” to “destroy, deny, degrade, and disrupt” enemies by “discrediting” them. Applebaum reserved special opprobrium for GCHQ, whose practices are modern-day versions of the “reasons we shot British soldiers and broke away from the empire” in the American Revolution.
Paglen said that museums are currently installing internal tracking systems, but he believes that they should instead be “safe spaces,” free autonomous zones unconnected to the larger surveillance network. His project with Applebaum—an “institutional enhancement” that also served as institutional critique in the mode of Hans Haacke—was a step in this direction. Neither technology nor art will save us from current trends, Paglen concluded, but they can help.
Left and right: Artist Simon Denny at “Images of Surveillance” at the Goethe-Institut.
New Zealander–born, Berlin-based artist Simon Denny followed, presenting a survey of his often tongue-in-cheek images and installations that satirize and investigate the iconography generated inside the NSA and similar agencies (e.g., the laughably designed slides Snowden disclosed). To create his installations for this year’s Venice Biennale, Denny tracked down commercial artist David Darchicourt, essentially a cartoonist whose hand resembles a less warty and detailed Drew Friedman, who was contracted by the NSA to produce many of its internal graphics. Ironically, Denny and his partner were able to find Darchicourt through social media, specifically Adobe’s LinkedIn-like design job network. Darchicourt was also an exhibition designer for the NSA’s public cryptography museum, and Denny constructed miniature versions of some of his designs for the Biennale. Chillingly, Denny said that some people approached him outside the Biennale, identifying themselves as members of the US intelligence community, and told him that they (and by extension, the intelligence agencies) regarded Denny’s work—and even the Snowden leaks themselves—as “trivial.”
“Images of Surveillance” was capped by cultural critic Diedrich Diederichsen, who abandoned his scheduled topic “how to win the war against positivism,” which I was looking forward to, in favor of a somewhat rambling distillation of the various issues raised over the weekend. He began by translating a 1927 Brecht poem he was reminded of by one of the talks, its repeated refrain: “Erase your traces.” The subject with interiority has been replaced by the subject with data traces, he said, and the constant collection of personal data resulted in flat subjectivities. This echoed an oft-referenced quote from Hannah Arendt: “A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow.” Riffing on Canales’s presentation, he mused about “total collection entities”—God and the Internet—saying that machines, like God, cannot get bored; they record all data and regard each point equally. He then asserted that biometric and other self-generated data put us on the other side of Guy Debord’s “spectacle”—the wall of media imagery between the subject and direct experience—allowing us to share in the joy of being objectified. The contemporary narcissist faces two screens, he continued, entertainment (spectacle) and mirror (biometrics). He bizarrely claimed that, despite the total collection entity of the Internet, the most boring among us would inherit the earth.
Diedrich Diederichsen at “Images of Surveillance” at the Goethe-Institut.
Diederichsen’s talk, such as it was, illustrated one of the pitfalls of surveillance studies. As a topic, it’s endlessly interesting, always mysterious, and easily lends itself to wild or half-baked theorizing in the contemporary academic mode. While occasionally thought-provoking, such lines of inquiry can ignore or trivialize some dire realities that need to be faced now before they become so entrenched that they are ineradicable. To my mind, dataveillance promises to be one of three major issues we as a species will have to confront in the next twenty years, its unchecked expansion promising increased digital feudalism; the clockwork determinism of predictive analytics, which constrains our life choices if we don’t have the right data profile; and malevolent hacking and disruption by both governments and private individuals or collectives.
Of the other two issues, one concerns the dark implications of recent advances in genetic science. Personal clones and designer babies are on the horizon, and a new eugenics movement will eventually arise, one based not on race or ethnicity but simply on “viability”—the genetic potential to live a full, healthy life, free of disease, disabilities, or mental illness. (If you’ve seen the movie Gattaca , you have a sense of how the new eugenics will play out.) Naturally, the new eugenics will make great use of the identification and prediction powers of dataveillance to cull the “invalids” from the herd, perhaps even before they exhibit any “invalid” traits. The third issue is, of course, climate change, which has the force to render all technological systems inoperable and hence irrelevant.
With respect to dataveillance, I throw my lot in with tech activists like Snowden and Applebaum, computer people who can translate this grim reality in a way that is both horrifying and galvanizing to the general public. Repurposing Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s slogan, my motto is “Fuck Art, Let’s Hack!” In any case, for all of its diverse offerings, “Images of Surveillance” didn’t present any opportunities to dance.
WE WERE CLEARLY amateurs of the Iranian veil as we disembarked at Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport a few weeks ago, fumbling with our headscarves and piling into the van that drove us to the “CIP” terminal—a priority arrival and departure service for the Commercially Important Person. This particular pack of CIPs comprised art enthusiasts with American, French, British, and Spanish passports coming to see a retrospective—of a leftist Iranian artist who hails from a royalist family—organized by Italian and Iranian curators at a state-run museum originally funded by the Shah’s petrodollars in the 1970s. I could almost picture the sepia movie reel flickering CIP: Persia Art Expedition.
After two hours of Tehran’s notorious traffic, we arrived at our hotel and to a hard truth: The last clean air we’d have had been on the plane. The Iranian capital is forbidding at night, but come dawn, a softer, more charming city emerged as we gathered for brunch at the family home of India Mahdavi, the Paris-based architect and designer who was recently named an Officier des Arts et des Lettres, and her brother, the filmmaker Amin Mahdavi.
The majority of the sixty people in attendance had flown in for “Towards the Ineffable: Farideh Lashai,” curated by Faryar Javaherian and Germano Celant at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. We chatted over lemon meringue pie amid a diptych by Lashai and ceramic, glass, and bronze pomegranates common in Tehranian homes. Collectors Amer and Rana Huneidi of Kuwait’s Contemporary Art Platform, Tariq and Hessa Al Jaidah of Doha’s Katara Art Centre, and Bettina Böhm from Germany’s Outset Contemporary Art Fund met for the first time. On the terrace were members of Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue crew, Iranian artist Reza Aramesh, art advisor Wendy Goldsmith, and Eileen Wallis of Dubai’s PR firm the Portsmouth Group. Soon enough, the dealer Mina Etemad was whisking us away to one of the four branches of Etemad Gallery that she runs with her son Amir. There, we saw paintings and sculptures by the Iranian modernist Mohsen Vaziri Moghaddam, whose work we would also find later at the vernissage.
The story behind Lashai’s retrospective begins on February 24, 2014, the first anniversary of Lashai’s death from cancer. Javaherian, her longtime friend, conceived the idea for a show at TMoCA and began discussions with its officials. This wasn’t easy. (See the earlier reference to Lashai’s leftist views.) And yet Majid Mollanoroozi, the museum’s newly appointed director, insisted, “Lashai’s art is what’s important in her life, not her politics.” Score. The Iranian minister of culture Ali Jannati attended the vernissage. Score again.
Meanwhile, Maneli Keykavoussi, Lashai’s daughter, met Celant in—where else? —Art Basel. It was June 2013, and Keykavoussi found herself seated next to Celant at a dinner hosted by New York dealer Edward Tyler Nahem, who represents Lashai. They spoke about their mothers, and she sent him images of Lashai’s work. Earlier this year, they met again at the Venice Biennale, and when Keykavoussi asked him to give a talk at the retrospective, he offered to curate the exhibition, pro bono. (This for a curator with a reported $1 million fee for his Milan Expo show.) Of course, it hardly hurts for Celant, the director of the Fondazione Prada, to be on good terms with TMoCA, whose famous collection of Western art was assembled in the 1970s by former Empress Farah Pahlavi and her architect cousin Kamran Diba, who designed the museum. How great to score a loan from that prize group. In fact, rumors abound that TMoCA and the Fondazione Prada are in discussions.
Javaherian welcomed Celant on board, and in they sailed to TMoCA’s legendary vault. “The Reinhardt is the biggest I’ve ever seen,” said Celant. Of course he’d known firsthand about the museum’s collection: “I was with Leo Castelli at the gallery when Farah Pahlavi came in the ’70s,” he said. “They were talking about Lichtenstein.” Four decades later, Celant has included a work by the Pop artist from the museum’s vault in Lashai’s retrospective.
Lichtenstein wasn’t the only outsider gracing the TMoCA walls when we arrived. As part of the retrospective, the museum’s lobby is filled with works by Bacon, Kline, Giacometti, de Kooning, and Warhol juxtaposed with equally priceless pieces by some of Iran’s foremost modernists: Bahman Mohasses, Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, Behjat Sadr, Moghaddam, and Sonia Balassanian. “Where is Farideh?” was the resounding question between the oohs and aahs. This opening salvo is apparently a gesture on Celant’s part to put the retrospective in historical context. But some of us didn’t catch the drift, and felt it was more of a minisurvey of TMoCA’s prized wares. It’s important to note, however, that the Lashai show is not the first time that works from the Western collection have been shown, even if some—Renoir’s Gabrielle with Open Blouse and Warhol’s (presumably slashed) portraits of Farah Pahlavi—have not been exhibited since the Islamic Revolution.
This Western and Iranian grouping hangs in an architectural design that resembles a cascading version of the Guggenheim in New York. TMoCA is rough on the inside, with its minimal lighting and unfinished, somewhat aged concrete pillars, which, along with a spiraling walkway, feels heavy against the softness of Lashai’s works. Her chronological survey moves through eight descending galleries. One gets the sense of a remarkable, multitalented woman and humanist. It’s clear she didn’t like waste. She experimented in and mastered many forms, and she seems to have been relentless in her productivity. Curatorially, the show is a wonderful journey through the life of a brave, determined woman, but the inclusion of non-Lashai works inside was sparse after the heavy dose outside. The first gallery is strongest, contrasting Lashai’s early Impressionist works with those of Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, and Pissarro. I understood the inclusion of Sohrab Sepehri’s 1971 Tree Trunks—the modernist was a mentor and friend to Lashai and both shared a love for nature in their oeuvres. But I was perplexed at the addition of a Rothko and a Pollock in that room. “Context,” Keykavoussi kept insisting.
The show ends with Lashai’s memorable video projections on canvases. Once you get there, you have to go back where you came from, as there is no other exit. Or, like me, you go through a black curtain and are greeted by a forlorn-looking 1966 Donald Judd work, missing a panel. “Is this the Hotel California?” laughed one American enthusiast. At least it didn’t end with a gift shop. But it’s a disappointment for such a major show not to have a catalogue. (Apparently, Celant didn’t like what was printed and ordered them destroyed. A Skira monograph will be released in the spring, alongside another incarnation of Lashai’s work at the Sharjah Art Foundation, curated by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, who wasn’t at the TMoCA opening.)
We were whisked away again to the beautiful Golestan Palace, seat of the former Qajar Dynasty and where Reza Shah crowned himself, as did his son the Shah and his queen in 1967. We dined in the least magical area of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, feasting on delectable Persian cuisine sponsored by Hamid Reza Pejman’s foundation, a young, ambitious nonprofit keen to promote the arts in Tehran. More glamorous attendees were spotted: dealer Ivor Braka and his partner Kristen McMenamy, Iranian collectors Negin Fattahi Bin Dasmal and Mariam Massoudi, Art Dubai’s Antonia Carver, the Delfina Foundation’s Delfina Entrecanales and Aaron Cezar, and Kuwait’s Sheikha Paula and Sheikha Lulu Al Sabah. Wi-Fi is übersketchy in Iran, and Instagram even sketchier. But by evening’s end, most had posted pictures of the Western work in TMoCA’s collection. Would Lashai’s aura be diluted by all this celebrity? “It’s no problem,” the humble Mollanoroozi told me later. “We see potential for presenting the museum and famous Iranian artists.”
The next day we sampled Tehran’s mushrooming gallery scene—Aaran, Assar, and the young and progressive Dastan + 2—and then made our way to the surreal cupola that is the Central Bank of Iran, which holds centuries of Persia’s jewels. Somehow the quantity—and size—of those gems made people see Iran in a whole new light. Civilization goes back some five thousand–plus years here, after all. We topped all this off with a visit to the studios of two of Iran’s most important artists, the nonagenarian Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian and the septuagenarian Parviz Tanavoli. (Neither had attended the vernissage, nor was their work included in the Lashai retrospective.)
Lacking a live translator, the next day’s symposium was a crash course in Farsi for many of us. Catherine de Zegher, director of the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent, read a moving eulogy about Lashai. “She did not belong to any isms, neither to Abstract Expressionism nor to Minimalism,” said the esteemed curator. Venetia Porter of the British Museum spoke about Lashai’s final work—When I count, there are only you… But when I look, there is only a shadow, 2013—a seminal piece inspired by Goya’s Disasters of War, which is the only video work in the British Museum’s collection. A talk between the curators was more of a Q&A, with Javaherian asking Celant to describe Lashai in two words. “A poet,” he responded. I would have preferred a conversation on the making of the exhibition. “Which ism would you include her in?” Javaherian asked Celant.
“Farideh is Farideh,” he replied.
“By the time he closed the show,” Keykavoussi had told me earlier, “he knew my mother better than I did.” Celant also told her not to be upset if people don’t like the show. “He said the best shows are those that aren’t perceived well,” she continued, “because they’re ahead of their time.” Then, time will tell.
THE OPENING DAY OF “OMONOIA,” the fifth Athens Biennale, was typical for the ancient city: Traffic was disrupted by the latest in a series of anti-austerity demonstrations at Syntagma Square—this time the pharmacists, followed the next day by the farmers. It was an auspicious backdrop for the inaugural forum, “Synapse 1: A Laboratory for Production Post-2011,” a series of panels organized by anthropologist Massimiliano Mollona debating alternative solutions to capitalist problems like “precarious work.” This edition of the biennial builds off the last, titled “Agora,” where a series of performances, debates, and workshops held in the former stock exchange responded to the big question triggered by the economic crisis: “Now what?”
There was a full house at the 1930s National Theater New Rex, where presentations ranged from occupations of factories and cultural institutions to sharing networks and alternative currencies, all observed by buff male laborers (most of them scantily clad to distraction) who looked down from a trompe l’oeil ceiling mural by Yiannis Tsarouchis. “We are all living out of thin air,” biennial cofounder Poka Yio admitted, “apart from a few artists who can make a decent living.” Citing Hito Steyerl, Angela Dimitrakaki made the case for art to be associated with production rather than public good, rendering it as work rather than an occupation from which one is not expected to make a living. “We had to find a common language and try to understand what is the intersection between art and politics,” Mollona explained. “We don’t want art that functions like politics, and we don’t want a political art. So we are trying to understand whether artists can help set up the framework of the biennale itself—or if the biennale can only work as a container of art.”
The debate got heated somewhere between the “Alternative Economies” and “Rethinking Institutions” sessions. Professor Leo Panitch ditched his scripted lecture and angrily chided the assembly for not addressing the real world, with the reminder that “in this country alone on the face of the planet a left party has been elected to power.” (A few days later, a leftist coalition took over in Portugal.) “We have been living in an anarchist moment,” he continued, “the reason being the failure of socialism to exit us from capitalism.” Another professor, Robert Meister, argued that “capitalism perpetuates and accumulates past injustices,” and he compared the ruthless tactics carried out by the banking sector to terrorism. “The answer is direct action and politicization, and there is no better place to start than Athens,” he concluded. Hillary Wainwright added hopefully: “Defeat and failure can be valuable motivators.” Performance artist Georgia Sagri, a pivotal figure in the founding of Occupy Wall Street, sat in front taking notes.
“Bridging the big divide between politics and art is not easy,” Documenta head Adam Szymczyk said during a break outside the theater. Someone else suggested that we should all be hanging out at a café drinking coffee on such a gorgeous day. “This opening is very different from the first biennale, ‘Destroy Athens,’ which was very social, with lots of international dealers, curators, and collectors,” noted the Breeder’s George Vamvakidis. “It seems like the outcome of the theme—to destroy all preconceived models of the biennial.” Just about the time we started to enjoy ourselves, biennial cofounder Xenia Kalpaktsoglou came out and herded everyone back into the session with a mock warning: “I will not give you notes to catch up!”
The Documenta team was in full force all week, including Paul B. Preciado, the recently appointed curator of public programs, who lectured at the Benaki Museum conference “The Inclusive Museum” about the exclusionary nature of museums via Foucauldian taxonomic hierarchies. The previous week had seen the launch of Documenta’s iteration of South, a publication started by curator Marina Fokidis at the now defunct Kunsthalle Athena. The biennial mounted the play “Magda Goebbels,” by George Veltsos (“not suitable for viewers under eighteen years old”), at the theater that evening, but I headed to Atopos for artist Georges Jacotey’s somewhat more cheerful channeling of Lana Del Rey, in Lana, Tears of Emotion—“I’ve realized, suddenly, I had to become cold, stone cold to survive”—followed by a spirited party in the courtyard of the gorgeous neoclassical mansion, surrounded by a neighborhood full of bordellos, attended by all the pretty young Greek artists.
By the time I arrived at the Bageion Hotel the next day, a general planning assembly was breaking up. Wendelien van Oldenborgh, one of the artists in town to feel out possibilities for producing work for the biennial, seemed impressed with the ambitious proceedings: “There were so many different voices and people, and conflicts broke out but never escalated—it is such a courageous effort.” It marked the first of a ten-day program of workshops and performances hosted in various rooms of the elegantly decaying hotel on Omonoia Square that will serve as an exhibition space and incubator for grassroots groups to exchange ideas. Partnering with the municipality of Athens, the team had begun months before by mapping all of the independent political and artistic movements acting within the urban fabric: “It is a city that is exploding with experiments,” Mollona told me.
At the moment, there are few places where politics and daily life are as closely related as they are in Greece. Artist Katerina Kana and I zipped across town by scooter for sushi near Syntagma, within earshot of yet another protest: “I like this way of overthrowing the whole art institution and clearing the table, like rebooting the system,” she said. “We can’t continue the same way: just another show, object, fair.” We headed around the corner to the Embassy of Cyprus for the opening of “Plexus,” curated by Stamatis Schizakis and Tina Pandi, who work for the National Contemporary Art Museum, currently waiting for the funds to open its massive new building, the beautifully retrofitted Fix brewery. The show was a radiant and thoughtful meditation on the way grids appear in natural and digital objects through work by Efi Spyrou, Petros Moris, and Bia Davou. A few days later a bomb ripped through the building next to the embassy, blowing out its windows and closing down the exhibition until further notice.
Next stop was the Breeder, where Andreas Lolis was showing hyperrealist objects in marble. The only presence in the first room was a “wooden” ladder leaning against the wall; downstairs was an installation in which bamboo canes made of marble had been planted in a field of dry, cracked mud, recalling Alberto Burri’s “Cretto” series: a poetic metaphor, evoking Greece’s situation, for a rich culture rendered useless in the context of deprivation. The biennial party took place that night at Romantso, a café bar–cum–creative startup that has revived a neighborhood filled with Indian and Bangladeshi shops and cafés. Mollona leaned against the entrance surrounded by a group of artists among the crowd sprawled out on the street on the unseasonably balmy evening. The intention to make it an early night was sabotaged by dance-crazy curator Pádraic Moore and a great DJ, starting with ’80s dance music and moving on to an electronic midnight.
Left: Ugo Mattei and Robert Meister. Right: Dealers Rebecca Camhi and Stavia Grimani.
The week had begun on Monday with the opening of “Psi” at Fokidos 21, a convivial project that is emblematic of the underfunded yet fecund activity in Athens these days. Returning from a few years in London, artist Sofia Stevi began inviting artists from abroad to stay and produce shows in the apartment where she had grown up. Curated by Stevi and Pádraic E. Moore, this show comprises vivid, geometric wall paintings by Navine G. Khan-Dossos interpreting texts by writers on personal ideas or images: Europe has become an unfashionable idea in these days, Marco Pasi writes. Distrust and malaise roam around, hearts have grown cold. The shows are put together with collective contributions, as are the parties, always packed with young artists and curators. “I don’t know what will happen,” Stevi said by way of goodbye, referring to both the future and the evening. “I often find myself dancing on the table by the end of the night.” The biennial week ended on Friday evening with the opening of Eleni Bagaki’s lush contemplation of her own extremities, “Crack, Crack, Pop, Pop,” at Radio Athènes, the new nonprofit foundation founded by former dealer Helena Papadopoulos. Later the crowd moved en masse to take over a local taverna and finish the week in Greek family style.
Embodying a new model for art production in the making, “Omonoia” will occupy the city for two years and culminate with the biennial’s sixth edition, which will coincide with the opening of Documenta 14: “Learning from Athens.” As Szymczyk concluded at the conference: “Greece is emblematic of what is and will happen in Europe.” At the front line of what may be the impending implosion of capitalism, the country is once again a theater for debate about the state of things to come. To be sure, the homeland of philosopher-performer Diogenes is not a bad place to practice rising from the ashes of our disasters. If nothing else, we can certainly say that the Athens Biennale is performative. “Later you will say, ‘I was there,’ ” Yio said, like the enthusiastic leader of a revolution. Power is action. Be the change.
ONE OF MY FAVORITE THINGS happened Thursday morning, something I look forward to all year. It wasn’t the breakfast celebrating Isaac Julien’s collaboration with Rolls Royce at the National YoungArts Foundation or the Alexandre Arrechea Kreëmart project at the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation. It was the naming of Pantone’s 2016 colors of the year: Rose Quartz and an ethereal cornflower blue called Serenity.
The announcement is a seemingly simple, top-down decision with massive butterfly effects, like the federal funds rate or the dimensions allowed for a photo posted to Instagram. It was the first time that Pantone had chosen two colors instead of one, and as the company explained to the New York Times, the pairing has to do with “societal movements toward gender equality and fluidity” as well as “an open exchange of digital information that has opened our eyes to different approaches to color usage.” This sounds like a lot to project onto a couple of colors. This sounds like art.
I didn’t spot much Rose Quartz or Serenity in the halls of the Fontainebleau that morning, but there was certainly open exchange of digital information. This year NADA traded the Rat Pack for Afrojack, migrating from the faded glory of the Deauville on North Beach to this bastion of bottle service a couple miles south. The sounds of last night’s parties must have been echoing through the hotel’s marble halls; as I pinned a pass on my collar, the thing I noticed was that I couldn’t hear myself think.
So without hearing or thinking, I widened my eyes and set off scavenging the booths. The first entity I encountered was the Whitney Biennial, i.e., Chris Lew and Mia Locks, two people doubtlessly so pummeled by pitches that they’ve achieved a sublime if practiced state of chill. How is the show coming? “Ask me again in nine months,” Locks dodged. (Fourteen hours later, the duo were again the first people I ran into, at a party in a rock club on Espanola Way sponsored by Material Vodka and helmed by Pati Hertling and many friends. I entertained the hypothesis that Lew & Locks are contractually obligated to hang out together in Miami 24/7 for branding purposes. ABMB Week is, after all, one of the common era’s most unlifelike, real-life manifestations of social networking, where marketing supersedes all other priorities.)
Further down the hall there was a wake in the crowd. Its cause: Hans Ulrich Obrist, who had emerged from peripatetic analysis with Alex Israel to pronounce the art world’s theme for 2016, as drawn from NADA: collage. “There are at least twenty-five pieces here about Rauschenberg,” he said, gesturing with zeal. “Last year Alex told me it was giant shirts and pants,” in the style of Amanda Ross-Ho.
That afternoon Surface hosted a discussion among Obrist, Israel, and Bret Easton Ellis in the penthouse of the 1 Hotel, presaging a talk with the same trio that Art Basel would present at the fair the following day. The topic was Los Angeles, locality and soft power being excellent fodder for Miami ruminations. Fittingly, the venue evoked Malibu on a Dubai scale, consolidating hundreds of millions of dollars of driftwood and burlap. “ ‘Green’ as a fake aesthetic is so funny,” a music producer said as we queued for nigiri.
Left: Dorian Grinspan and Allese Thomson at the Visionaire launch at the Faena Hotel. Right: Visionaire cofounders Cecilia Dean and James Kaliardos at the Visionaire launch at the Faena Hotel. (Photo: Kevin McGarry)
The Angelenos talked driving, sex, and frozen yogurt, which triggered my angst about arriving too late for the forty-eight-hour Dominque Ansel (of Cronut fame) pop-up ice cream shop at the Setai. “I ripped Joan Didion off,” Ellis told the room, backlit by a wall of windows looking onto the Atlantic Ocean. “I think that’s what you do as a young writer is find a style that works for you and then rip them off.” No secret in his trade, but wise words during an art fair where young artists are perhaps less matter-of-fact about emulating their peers and forebears.
By dusk I was among the first to arrive at the grounds of the Faena Hotel. I walked about a mile to the swath of beach where a string quartet playing Outkast scored the bracelet allocation for the launch of Visionaire’s sixty-fifth edition, FREE. Spotlit ladders and a rising castle of mechanical smoke buttressed the oversize crates scattered along the beach containing complimentary posters by artists ranging from David Salle to Miley Cyrus. Viva Miami! The event was unabashedly art directed to inspire documentation, with naturally occurring selfie stations lending spatial order to what was otherwise on Cartesian par with Burning Man.
As storm clouds gathered, I was already late to a charity event at the Delano hotel I wished to attend primarily because it was sponsored by a vodka company and called “WATER ‘the most important drink in the world.’ ” It started to rain on the line; people were getting wet. Some with early alphabet names mistakenly in the “M-Z” queue had to get wet for twice as long. Others who were not on the list fumbled to retrieve confirmation e-mails, raindrops accumulating on their phones. By the time I reached the tent in the back, the downpour felt like a natural disaster. But I was basically in irony-ecstasy that the pool club of the Delano hotel during the vodka-for-water-benefit was flooding.
Outside, Collins Avenue itself was nearly two feet deep. I was worried about the crates of posters and buried wires at the Faena Hotel, but I was selfishly more worried about how I was going to get to an intimate dinner for Andrea Rosen Gallery at Mr. Chow in fifteen minutes. A man implored me to join him in a reluctant Uber. Inside the Suburban, which was quickly becoming a boat, he pitched me his online magazine that has allegedly “cornered 15 percent of art-world traffic online,” despite being only the 2,053,365th-most-visited site, according to Alexa. It was a mixed blessing that the driver kicked us out into the middle of the street. Stranded amid the rising tides, my last hope before fording a river that smelled like fundament was to solicit a taxi whose passenger window was going down. I shouted for help. Through the window came an iPhone. They were videoing me. I gave up.
I was late to Mr. Chow, but by then the city was operating according to its own weird water-time. The restaurant, while dry, was also in a state of calamity, with Larry Gagosian, intergenerational Chows, and professional athletes striding among hundreds of less fortunate people who seemed to have reservations and no tables. As our group composed chicken lettuce wraps to dubstep, I observed other dealers cap their day at the fair with another two hours of standing around.
The rain had presumably cleared enough for Ryan McNamara and Dev Hynes’s performance Dimensions at the Pérez Art Museum Miami to go on, but we knew it would be a photo finish to get across the causeway. Our hearts sank when we saw that our Uber driver had heedlessly pulled into the purgatory of the W hotel driveway. But the formidable Rosen (Andrea, not Aby, whose own banquet was taking place at the Dutch) stepped into the logjam and stretched out her palm to halt the other LUX SUVs so ours could do a five-point U-turn back onto Collins Avenue. Accounts of aquatic carnage hit the Internet. “This city won’t even be here in a few years,” artist Daniel Keller pointed out. The weather event underscored how unsustainable Art Basel in Miami Beach is—more vulnerable to the elements and to Uber oversaturation than perhaps to the oscillations of the international art market (whose players will likely never tire of partying).
Left: Traffic on the causeway. (Photo: Kevin McGarry) Right: Inside the Kill Your Idols/Material Vodka party.
When we got to PAMM it was 10:45 PM, and the performance was in crescendo. Stagehands pushed fluorescent floats on casters around the museum’s periphery, each a platform for a dancer in a correspondingly colored bodysuit and a musician, playing off one another, contrapuntal. They all inched toward a central station where Hynes was jamming on a bass guitar and McNamara, possessed by his signature zombified stare, was convulsing in and out of rhythm. As the performers drifted into formation like Voltron, merging the various tracks of Hynes’s unique musical score, I recognized that this promenade overlooking Biscayne Bay was precisely where I began my week, on Monday, when a dinner for the museum’s namesake had dissolved into a concert by Wyclef Jean. (“Dolla dolla bills y’all! Dolla dolla bills y’all!” Wyclef had shouted as he carried Jorge Pérez around on his shoulders while singing the chorus of “Sweetest Girl.” “Turn up y’all! Turn up y’all!”)
Miami isn’t realer than more insular art-world rituals. On the contrary, what has spilled over to fascinate the worlds of media, fashion, music, and the consumerist capital of Latin America is the week’s hyperbole—a commodity that fuels the art world even in ostensibly restrained instantiations, but which is more overtly on display in this pig-pile of branded parties. People love to complain, but ABMB is one of the few tent-pole events where members of the art world interface with other people. I can’t recall the last time I was at ARCO or the opening of the Gwangju Biennale introducing Julia Peyton-Jones to Pamela Anderson.
By Friday evening, the week’s sales and excesses were suddenly eclipsed when one woman stabbed another in the neck and arm with an X-Acto knife in the Nova section of the big fair. An audience was assembling for the second coming of the Ellis-Israel-Obrist conversation when a ripple of text messages struck the room dumb. Media spun a ridiculous falsehood of the attack being perpetrated by a collector vying for a piece of art. On Saturday I spoke to dealer Robbie Fitzpatrick, who described an equally surreal but true scene of “smacking phones out of the hands of people” who were convinced the blood spurting on the carpet was an impressively visceral flourish of performance art. By Sunday the photos of a girl covering her face as her blouse ran red and another meeting her eyes with the camera’s lens as she was handcuffed dominated all the feeds. Whether real or digital, I caught glimpse somewhere of a meme T-shirt that said “I survived Miami Art Basel 2015” with the 🔪 emoji.
Left: The Eckhaus Latta runway show at the MoMA PS1 party at the Delano. Right: Dealer Alex Freedman walks in the Eckhaus Latta runway show at the MoMA PS1 party at the Delano.
Everyone was still digesting the news and debating rumors (What was the motive? Was the attacker, Siyuan Zhao, an aspiring Chinese starlet or an Upper East Side–based architecture student?) when I arrived at a rooftop reception for a special-edition vaporizer designed by the collective K-Hole. I saw a woman there who, ten or eleven Basels ago, had stolen all the wallets of everyone staying in the four-bedroom oceanfront condo we had rented for $600 a week. How things have changed.
An hour later, MoMA PS1’s party commenced at the Delano, still soggy but habitable. Kevin Beasley DJed and Lady Bunny erupted onto the pool’s stage, a geyser of pure crass wit spouting a medley of top-forty hits rejiggered with vitriolic puns. (“I don’t care! I’ll suck it!” she sang to the tune of Icona Pop’s “I Love It.”) “We are here to celebrate greater New York!” she shouted. Surrounded by palm trees, that was news to me, but then K8 Hardy, McNamara, Alex Freedman et al. were diving into the pool for an inspired, chaotic Eckhaus Latta “runway” show. Miami is a singular cultural crossroads where the relaxed hedonism of the tropics is tempered by the volatile Americana of aggro bouncers and potentially litigious guests. As if by magic, no one was body slammed for getting in the water.
ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT I SAT, the lone New Yorker in a hotel room of an LA man and his LA friends, with the artist Alex Israel, who was lying on the couch wearing black sunglasses of his own design: “I was thinking about driving around and needing sunglasses in Los Angeles in the car. You’re driving. It made sense. Because it’s bright.” “High by the Beach” played on the stereo. Having basically written this very scene in 1985, in that first book with that first sentence—“People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles”—Bret Easton Ellis closed the sliding doors to the private terrace, and sat down to smoke a cigarette.
“They’re adults. What is this. It’s retarded,” said Ellis an hour prior, Periscoping, with amused contempt, the line of angry civilians waiting, not at all civilly, to get into the penthouse party at the new Faena Hotel in Miami Beach. Do you go out a lot, I wanted to know. “I live in LA. So, no.” Despite a career spent mining his bêtes noires for echt party people, he seemed perturbed to be subjected to the social mores of South Beach. Or plain bored. I said I hated the party, half to warm up Ellis, but also to warn off the collector David Simkins, who’d just arrived. He’s very fun! “Isn’t it your party?” asked a woman behind me, to Simkins. I halfheartedly apologized, but he cracked up and patted me on the head. Ellis put the red rose I had ripped out of a bouquet in his lapel. (“You do you,” sighed the PR girl on hand.)
I had in fact hated the party, despite having a soft spot for the unmanned bathtub-of-Perrier-Jouët “bar” and a pang of regret at exiting just as a tan clan of aging Italian men boasting a European flair for exposed button-up midriffs arrived with Mario Testino. “Darling!” he cried, probably because I yelled “Mario!” and threw my arms in the air. (An old party trick.) I brought up art. “Art is good!” He said, pausing dramatically and tapping my right clavicle. “Or art is bad!”
Left: New Museum associate director and director of exhibitions Massimiliano Gioni with Giacomo Gioni. Right: Artist Francesco Vezzoli, Garage Museum founder Dasha Zhukova, and Derek Blasberg. (Photo: Billy Farrell/BFA.com)
It’s certainly true of the parties, and the requisite social rigmarole that ensnares anyone with a passing interest in the Miami Basel circuit. Civilians spend Basel sweating in stasis, trying to manipulate the lines, the lists, and their luck. Watching my fellow man stomp heels and wag tongues at impassive doormen last night, I was reminded of a theory the writer-editor Chris Bollen espoused at the Interview magazine–sponsored interview of Francesco Vezzoli a mere twelve hours before, over brunch at Tiffany’s. Bollen playful-seriously accused all artists of the Dunning-Kruger effect, “a psychological term for people who highly exaggerate their skill sets. I feel like all artists have to be sufferers of it. What you are trying to achieve, like, outweighs even your own experience of what it is.” (In layman’s terms, to quote Rocky, “You gotta be a moron... you gotta be a moron to want to be a fighter,” which is just about the only segue I could think of to mention that Sylvester Stallone posed in front of Jimmie Durham’s Still Life with Spirit and Xitle, the 1994 Chrysler Spirit being crushed by a volcanic boulder, at the Art Basel’s vernissage yesterday. “Our booth weighs twenty-five tons,” joked Jayne Johnson, the director of Peter Freeman Inc. That’s about $50/lb, just FYI.)
Aesthetically, I’m more willing to diagnose the suits from last night with Dunning-Kruger; the men without so much as a Wikipedia entry, or even a personality, let alone charisma or looks, God forbid politesse, trying to talk their way into clubs. But I’m being morbid. “What is your criteria? I just want to learn,” said a man, angrily. “There’s no criteria,” said the doorman, a real cool customer. And there were women too: “You don’t understand the culture,” lisped (or rasped) a thickly beautiful woman in a thick Italian accent. “You don’t understand the culture.” Neither, apparently, did she, not that I don’t sympathize with the trials of a chunky-junky-jewelry woman. It’s a postlapsarian scene, baby—you can’t just walk in on the Louboutins you never learned to walk in. Some can, of course, and if you have it within the confines of your personality to learn from Ingrid Sischy, then by God learn from the master. Laurie Anderson writes, in this publication, of being turned away from an art party by “gatekeepers in unctuous unison.” To which Sischy replied: “C’mon, let’s go around back and climb in a window.” You know, style. You know it when you see it.
Culture’s a bit more of a toss-up. And wasn’t it culture we were after? One doesn’t hajj to Basel—year in and year out, let alone “once in a lifetime”—without, um, spiritual goals in mind. To the extent that all goals are just resolutions, and therefore manifest themselves to diluted gestures, I begrudgingly listened to what felt like an hour-long performance of a Chinese opera at the Warhol Museum dinner for Michael Chow at MR CHOW. Just to be clear, I grudged the high-minded soul who instructed all waiters not to serve alcohol during the performance, which might have softened the palette of our ears.
Perhaps it was that the VIP table—and roped off petting-zoo area (a look-but-don’t-touch kind of zoo actually)—was not deprived of its bottle service: Russell Simmons, Michael Govan, Basel’s First Son Vito, China Chow, etc. (I was informed shortly thereafter that the Mr. Chow party was meant to be enjoyed for its vulgarity. Noted.) Leonardo DiCaprio was not present, though he was spotted at the fair, and later by Nellie Blue—known in New York as the Thursday-night host at Paul’s Baby Grand, holding court tonight at Le Baron—at the beach party following the Artsy-Nautilus dinner, which I missed, though I waited in line for the party just long enough to see publisher Dorian Grinspan, twenty-three, moving his entourage of enviable cheekbones to Le Baron. (I passed.)
Of the parties I did not attempt, a short transcription of text messages:
Of the Sophie performance for Sotheby’s, from a spirited gay man: “It’s full of young and cute people. If that’s what you’re into.” (It’s not.)
Of the Jeremy Scott party at the Surflodge, from Vanity Fair’s editor-about-town: “Paris Hilton’s skin. Glowing.”
Of the Vito Schnabel W Hotel party we have to look forward to tonight, from a woman about to move to Los Angeles: “It can be fun when you’re in it, but a lot of thirsty people. There’s like three lines. You have to go through holding cells. You wait in one line. You wait in another line.”
Oh, but why the hell not.
Left: Out of Order publisher Dorian Grinspan and Christen Wilson. Right: Casey Spooner with photographers Asger Carlsen and Luke Gilford. (Photos: Billy Farrell/BFA.com)
Left: Dealer Andrea Rosen, collector Mera Rubell, and producer Tanya Selvaratnam. Right: Collector Don Rubell. (Photos: Neil Rasmus/BFA)
“I USED TO BE A GYNECOLOGIST! I feel right at home,” jokes Don Rubell in the Rubell Family Collection sculpture court at brunch Tuesday morning, duly cosseted by Nathan Mabry’s supine woman; Mera, his wife of fifty-one years; a dozen “women artists and Instagrammers”; and his daughter Jennifer—or @jenniferrubell, woman-artist Instagrammer. It’s a fitting introduction to “No Man’s Land,” the family’s spectacular new exhibition boasting over one hundred female artists from twenty-eight countries. (Fitting, too, that the first thing Don ever said to me, after we were encouraged to pick up knives at one of his daughter’s performances, was: “I feel like a mohel.” He is not the type of man to fear castration at the hands of a woman, or one who shies away from art that depicts it.)
“It’s all happening just in time for our first woman president,” says Mera of the show, laughing heartily. I ask if she planned on going to the Hillary fund-raiser later in the day, but she deadpans: “She’s already cleaned me out!” Upstairs, Jennifer cracks nuts in the vaginal environs of Lysa III, her interactive mannequin sculpture, as we chitchat; the nuts are imported “from California.” She was inspired to make it, in part, by the Hillary Rodham Clinton nutcrackers “you can buy online.” (Twelve hours later, Don, who has also upscaled his attire for dinner, wants to know who I’m voting for.)
Back among the lady ’grammers, Jennifer’s son Max is the only other male running amok in “No Man’s Land.” The patriarchal imperative being what it is, he “wants some performance art!” Mother gamely spins in a circle—“I’m channeling Mike Kelley. Performa 2009. Did you go?” I didn’t.—as the snappers snip snip snip.
Later that afternoon, the rain has stopped spitting and I’m trucking back to South Beach to see some real performance art, at the official “Art Basel Welcome Reception” in Collins Park. ETERNITY NOW (text by woman artist Sylvie Fleury) blazes in soft neon blue on the facade of the currently in-exile Bass Museum of Art, the NOW in a larger font. “It’s a baobab tree,” a man dwarfed by his heeled wife explains, pointing at a tree. “B-a-o-b-a-b.” I am reminded of a line from the pilot episode of Miami Vice: “This is Miami, pal, where you can’t even tell the players without a program.” Two Serious(ly) (young) Women, (Hubba Hubba Trouba and Ouchy Waa Waa Mama) is the title of a sculpture by Athena Papadopoulos, not just a comment on the vibe. The Paris Hilton DJ set is still a few days away, and yet already a large crystal swings clavicle to clavicle on a woman in a leopard-print skirt.
“Welcome to Miami!” says Marc Spiegler, don of the Basel empire, demurely festive in a dusty pink checked shirt and jacket. I bring up his attire because I ask about when he pierced his ears. “In Gen X, all men worth their salt had their ears pierced and got tattoos. For a long time, I had a hoop, but then I got old. Now the real story is off the record.” He tells the story like a pro journalist, which he once was; he wrote the 2007 New York article “Is Terence Koh’s Sperm Worth $100,000?” Is it, I wanted to know. “It was.” And what is it worth now? “I don’t know. No one’s trying to sell it.” The sculptures decorating the park, however, are for sale, and one knows—because one was once eighteen and met Tino Sehgal and got a monthly MetroCard to be in his “situation”—that you can buy the performance-art pieces as well.
What you cannot buy, perhaps, is a public. “Oh. Performance art,” sneers a man in an untucked paisley shirt he should not have paid anything for, let alone what he did pay. “So this is performance art,” says a man behind me. “Hm. Performance art,” responds his woman. Six men in blackface and Superman fat suits converge in the park’s corner to sing “America the Beautiful,” a performance by William Pope.L. In Xavier Cha’s performance art piece, I watch serious martial artist Ai Ikeda, in silken white boxing pants, long enough to wonder at the butterfly tattoo on her shoulder. An hour later in the Design District—the Venetian Causeway is closed, everyone complains again and again—I get déjà vu watching Silas Riener, proud owner of a constellation of star tattoos on his back, dance in Martha Friedman’s installation at Locust Projects. The bodies of lean, green, fighting machines.
“This is me and Swizz Beatz,” says Jeffrey Deitch outside “Unrealism,” the exhibition of figurative art he curated with Larry Gagosian. He holds up a copy of Haute Living with Jeffrey Deitch and Swizz Beatz on the cover. “It’s just one of those lifestyle publications,” he explains. Swizz Beatz, husband of Alicia Keys, who I would think had a better lifestyle, looks on, bored, or perhaps he just can’t think of something to say to Hans Ulrich Obrist, also in their posse. Inside, looking at Lisa Yuskavage’s sickly hued No Man’s Land, I wonder if the Rubells tried to secure one—she’s made a few—for their own show. (Northview, 2000, is in “No Man’s Land.”) In the painting, a woman squats, a woman bends over; the woman next to me has trouble with her alligator stilettos, tasteful maintenance of her visage aside. “That’s Marina,” said stilettos to her friend, also in stilettos, of Y. Z. Kami’s Untitled (Marina I), a 2001 portrait of The Artist. “Marina!” stilettos says to the tan suits trailing them. “Whoever owns this is sitting on a ton of moola,” says a man of a Francesco Clemente. “It’s so simple. I love it.” Whether he means the art or the acquisition of assets, I do not know, but concur on both points nonetheless.
An hour later the sky churns out cotton candy and I sit down with one hundred other special guests at the Rubell dinner—cohosted by W magazine and Roberto Cavalli and installed on the Rubells’ personal tennis courts, much to Don’s chagrin. Mera has switched boater hats, a black grosgrain ribbon for night. The tables are decorated with, oh…it’s like an empty fish tank…with sand in it…with tousled red and pink flowers slightly less saturated than the one in Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Money Makes Money), from the show, the same fuchsia that lines the rims of Mera’s glasses. “Look at the sky,” says Don. “Don’t forget we’re in Miami.” I couldn’t, not that table talk isn’t the same every city over: We discuss his library. “Art is only a secondary disease.” Forty thousand volumes, they have. I’m convinced, if I wasn’t before, when I toss out three titles at random and he discusses each (The Man Without Qualities, Underworld, and that Lincoln biography about his cabinet my father made me read in high school). Then we talk galleries: “There was no heat in the place,” says a clear-eyed long-haired artist, whose work and personality I quite like. “Yes! But the art was hot! Hot!” shouts Don, smiling. “We bought it all.” The artist doesn’t want to be quoted: “I don’t show there anymore.”
Much later, at the Out of Order x Snarkitecture “Just Another Miami” party cohosted by Obrist (not present), Jacolby Satterwhite (not even in Miami), and Ryan McNamara at the Surflodge, we decry the absence of other pledged cohosts Angela Westwater and Pamela Anderson. “Pamela Anderson is like concentrated Americana. You add water, and she’s a flag,” says Mickey Mahar, one of McNamara’s dancers, age twenty-five. The beautiful, and beautifully mannered, Francesco Vezzoli, in a bedazzled Prada cowboy-style button-up, tells us about his love life. Sorely unrequited. He marvels—a soft lust—at “Luke,” identified as “the man who sleeps in Pamela’s bed,” who has, for the occasion or because he quite often feels like he has a little something-something-on-the-end, cut a large square hole in the back of his black button-up. It complements his tan, and his cowboy hat. “I was hoping to gaze upon new gays, but I’ve seen all these gays before,” says the artist Borna Sammak, speaking for all of us. The painter Sam McKinniss pipes in: “Does Florida have their own gays? Did they have to import all their gays from New York?”
Art might be the last unregulated industry, and for now, the same can be said of its parties. But it’s only Tuesday.