LAST THURSDAY, while at the opening night preview of Silicon Valley Contemporary, a new art fair in San Jose, I shared six posts on Instagram. Here they are, ranked by likes:
1. The Marina Abramović Institute presented The Mutual Wave Machine, an installation by empathy researchers Suzanne Dikker and Matthias Oostrik. It’s a tented pod, with room inside for a pair of volunteers to sit facing each other as their brain activity is measured and visualized on the screens that surround them. White spots cluster when their thoughts are in sync, and dissipate in blackness when they aren’t. While waiting for it to start, I took a selfie that showed my head in profile and the headpiece that gripped my temples and scalp with its padded fingers. My neurofeedback was projected on the wall behind me—a cluster of colorful zigzags. The headpiece wasn’t uncomfortable, but it had taken Dikker a long time to adjust it so that the sensors could find my brain. My thick hair was to blame. Exasperated, Dikker asked: “Can we shave your head?” My post got thirty likes, more than anything else I posted that day. People love selfies, and the caption was good: “I donated my brainwaves to Marina Abramovic.”
2. When seen through an acrylic sphere, a grid of suspended spools of thread yields an image of the Mona Lisa that’s choppy, as if 8-bit. Devorah Sperber’s After the Mona Lisa B, presented by Bentley Gallery of Phoenix, is an elementary lesson in optics with a price tag of $42,000.
2. Second place was a three-way tie. The spool trick got twenty-six likes, and so did my ad hoc still of a video documenting the making of the paintings in the Hole’s booth. Katsu, the artist, and an assistant wore full-body garments that looked like hazmat suits as a hobby drone sprayed paint on canvas. Palettes favored bold graffiti colors—orange, pink, black—but there was nothing like a tag to indicate authorship, just a thinness to the paint’s application that conveyed the drone’s distance from the canvas and its busy flight, though a couple of splotches marked points of crash contact. The spattery hail on the paintings also covered the chair, rug, and media stand that decorated the booth—an allover interior concept. Krysta Eder, the booth’s steward, wore a matching sweater. “I have a different one for each day of the fair,” she said. She didn’t seem thrilled about it.
Piloting a drone is hard. It takes a mastery of simultaneous movement on x, y, and z axes. Katsu compared making a successful painting to “fiero”—the term game designers use to describe the feeling of winning after intense engagement. Then, with a searching look on his face, he asked me what I thought of the work. I said I don’t like spray paint.
2. Bitcoin’s trademark font is surprisingly cheery, given the digital currency’s antiestablishment bent, and there it was on a desk at the booth of KM Fine Arts: “Bitcoin Accepted Here.” Twenty-six likes. (My favorite part of the image wasn’t the sign itself but the can of Rockstar energy drink behind it.) Bitcoin-rich buyers might have purchased a Julie Mehretu light box or one of Domingo Zapata’s graffiti-inflected paintings, but the gallery directed their attention to the themes of alternative finance in Off Limits but Blessed by the Fed, a painting on unstretched canvas by Dana Louise Kirkpatrick. A mashup portrait of Mona Lisa and Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington smirked below a crude Confederate flag, and in the lower right corner the artist scrawled a bitcoin with a made-up motto: LIBERTAS AEQUITAS VERITAS IT HUSTLE. It’s a tribute to “a modern-day punk/anarchy movement,” said Kirkpatrick with Hollywood vocal fry. It sold on opening night for forty-three bitcoins ($22,000).
5. Tiffany Trenda, a performance artist from Los Angeles, paced a wide aisle in a red pleather jumpsuit tiled with little touch screens and seamed with fluted ribs that held the wiring. She approached passersby, took their hands in hers, and invited their fingers to explore the touch screens, which flashed brief messages: “Go ahead” and “It’s OK.” I tried to make an Instagram video showing my finger’s contact with the screens but Trenda kept stopping me, taking my hands and moving them over her body. Other people interrupted us, asking me to take their picture with Trenda. My post only got fourteen likes because of the clumsy breaks, and because no one wants to watch videos on Instagram. Doing an interactive performance in a costume as extravagant as Trenda’s is troublesome, I realized, because most viewers (including me) will just want to gawk and photograph rather than participate. I asked her about it when I saw her the next night at a reception at the San Jose Institute for Contemporary Art, where donors’ names are chalked on a blackboard like the soup of the day. “I want people to engage in the experience, but the urge to document it is strong,” Trenda said. “I understand that, and that’s why the screens say ‘It’s OK.’ ”
6. The first thing I saw at the fair that stopped me in my tracks was a video by Noah Kalina, who since 2000 has taken selfies every day and compiled them in video flip-books. Changing environs and hairdos dramatize the jerky hurtling of a body toward death as the unchanging expression of somber cow eyes hovers timelessly and wobbly in the middle of the frame. The video he posted to YouTube in July 2006, with his first 2,356 daily selfies, has been viewed more than twenty-five million times. People love selfies! And yet the video I posted to Instagram with an excerpt from his latest compilation, which hung at the booth of Long Island’s Salamatina Gallery, got a meager twelve likes. No one wants to watch videos on Instagram. I asked Oksana Salamatina, the gallery’s owner, what brought her to San Jose. “I was just fascinated,” she said, and spread her hands expressively: “Silicon Valley!” She brought Kalina’s video because she knew tech entrepreneurs had commissioned portraits from him—he even took wedding photos for Mark Zuckerberg.
AN EPILOGUE ON THE UNGRAMMABLE: The iPhone’s current operating system calls images taken with its camera “moments.” I shared six moments of the five hours I spent at the fair, between the press conference and dinnertime. (It was one of those press junkets with regimented days.) I wouldn’t say these moments were representative of what the fair was. I only shared things that I thought were funny—that I thought my followers would think were funny—to see at a fair called Silicon Valley Contemporary. I did it for the likes, and the exhibitors did it for the likes, too. They call them “sales,” of course, but the booths, like my posts, had a thirsty feeling of playing to an audience based on some vague expectation of what the confluence of “Silicon Valley” and “contemporary art” could mean. What does a tech millionaire put on his walls? Anything he wants, and possibilities offered by Silicon Valley Contemporary’s fifty-two exhibitors—from de Kooning to generative digital painting—were a motley variety unlike anything I’d ever seen at an art fair. Novelty suits San Jose, where more patents are filed per capita than in any other city, where the museum of art titles a show of new acquisitions “Initial Public Offering.” I can’t predict whether future editions of Silicon Valley Contemporary will homogenize and blend into the international art fair circuit or whether its quirks will calcify in another kind of institution; as an early adopter, I just enjoyed the innovation.