THERE IS A SPECIAL MIX of bewilderment, exhaustion, and despair that I feel only when visiting an art fair. The intensity of this feeling was the one metric in which the “exclusively online” VIP 2.0 Art Fair outdid its convention-center antecedents. Within the limits of its domain at vipartfair.com, the fair made a maze of 135 exhibitors showing over a thousand artists, all of whose work had a sameness imposed by the format—a monotony more emphatically pronounced when caused by file compressions rather than uniform booths. At least I got to stay home by myself while taking it in Friday and Saturday. If the “real-life” art fair combines the museum’s hauteur with the supermarket’s aisled blandness while eliminating, respectively, their edifying mission and practicality, then VIP 2.0 might be thought of as a similarly impoverished hybrid of ARTstor and FreshDirect.
Buying groceries online is safe because the products are packaged, preserved, standardized. Do you really need to rub your fingers on the glaze of a Damien Hirst spot print to know you want one? All the weirder, then, that the VIP 2.0 interface tries to model the physical encounter with art by letting visitors choose silhouette avatars—there are six options, two each under the monikers Mr., Mrs., and Ms. VIP—who float in front of the works, shifting in size to help you gauge dimensions. I picked Ms. VIP II, slim-waisted with generous hips. She nearly fell off the screen as she backed up to view a series of tiny Anri Sala prints at Marian Goodman, then shrank to a smudge below Kader Attia’s monumental neon installation at Galerie Krinzinger. “Galerie Krinzinger’s booth @vipartfair is a knockout that never could have worked in a physical stand. Pieces are too big and strong,” one visitor tweeted. I can just imagine the gallery’s archivist opening these images on her computer at work and giving a low whistle of awe.
The fair is labeled “2.0” to reflect upgrades to the program as well as to the technology since its inaugural 2011 edition. There was a slate of special projects, the kind that fairs organize to make themselves into cultural events. On Friday, Thaddaeus Ropac presented a twenty-four-hour video “performance” by Terence Koh, who divided the day into one-hour chunks and farmed them out to collaborators who streamed whatever they liked. I let it run all afternoon as I went about my work. It was, like analogous projects anchored by art fairs, background noise. An array of “insider tours” invited visitors to explore the fair by lists of works selected by curators and collectors. “Hard, Fibrous Tissue Found in Trees,” by Jens Hoffmann of CCA’s Wattis Institute, highlighted sculptures made of wood. “In a living tree [wood] performs a support function,” Hoffmann elaborated in his curatorial statement, “enabling woody plants to grow large or to stand up for themselves.”
Once on a tour you can continue it by clicking a button in the screen’s upper right, or you can drop out to scroll to the left or right of a work and see what else is for sale at the same gallery. The blue-chip galleries pay up to $20,000 for the privilege of being listed under the “premier large” tab at the top left of the VIP 2.0 page and getting a big tile on the fair’s “map.” The lateral, hiccupping patterns of Web browsing drawn by the crisscross of lists and tours become galleries’ paths to reaching new audiences. Besides the publicity, what participating galleries are paying for is the opportunity to harvest the personal data that the fair’s visitors must supply to register a user account. A day after I clicked on one booth, the gallery sent me an e-mail. “Dear Brian Droitcour,” it said. “Thank you for your interest in our booth at VIP art fair. I would be glad to send to your attention our private rooms, should you be interested in receiving them.”
VIP 2.0 borrows from the Internet’s toolbox for marketing, but not for sales. I read an article in the December issue of Wired about Art.sy, a startup that has built a “genome” of traits found in artworks in order to provide inexpert potential buyers with suggestions. If a user wants a blue artwork for under $10,000 and likes Roy Lichtenstein, the Wired reporter writes, “[a]fter accounting for color, price, and location constraints, the recommendation engine will display artworks that are available for sale for under $10,000” and that share a quantifiable je ne sais quoi with Lichtenstein’s oeuvre. I know what art I would buy if I had money. But I can appreciate the inventive effort to harness the Internet’s so-called “democratizing” capacity and truly change the way artists find their patrons. VIP 2.0, on the other hand, tries vainly to make you forget that it’s just another tab in your browser with a barrage of words like “exclusive,” “private,” “insider,” and, of course, “VIP.” As it constructs digital models of art-market institutions, it clings to the tried-and-true sales tactics of opacity and mystique. The shadow of Ms. VIP II stretches and shrinks beneath the sun of very important art.