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1000 WORDS: ART CLUB 2000

Art Club 2000, Untitled (Art in America Library 2), 1992–93, C-print, 8 x 10". From the series “Commingle,” 1992–93.

IN THE YEAR 1993 you were about twenty years lighter, and everything was that much cooler. People were weirder and partied more (and better). We all stayed out a little bit later. Which is surely why that year got picked up as the ostensible subject of “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star,” opening at the New Museum in New York this month, in which the most interesting or important (in the curators’ eyes, of course) art from that date will be installed, syncretically, throughout the building.

OK, maybe this all seems a bit arbitrary, but the show’s broad if procrustean scope will certainly hit some marks. In 1993, “quality-of-lifers” went ahead and elected Rudolph Giuliani mayor, which in some ways spelled the beginning of the end of “old New York.” It was a touchstone year for identity politics, with a legendarily fraught Whitney Biennial. A twenty-six-year-old New York artist (Matthew Barney) took the Europa 2000 Prize at the Venice Biennale. It was also the year Colin de Land rounded up Art Club 2000—seven “snotty” Cooper Union art students he buffed into a potently glib, media-savvy collective—and gave them their first show, “Commingle,” at his American Fine Arts, Co. The exhibition was “about” the Gap, the store’s bland ubiquity and its consequences for a New York landscape soon to be tranquilized, but it was also “about” institutional critique and the art world’s fetishization of youth and contrived generations. The brilliance of this ambivalent aboutness lay in its quicksilver, have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too attitude, the idea that the work could combine, in one smart package, being a thing and critiquing it. “Commingle” took up, maybe admired, and certainly parodied textbook strategies of institutional critique, but it was the stagey photos, featuring the AC2K recruits in matching Gap outfits (purchased and then—zing!—returned to the store post-shoot), that defined the show and much of their collaborative careers. For “NYC 1993,” AC2K is showing ten of the original photos, some of which were in fact published in a February 1994 Artforum portfolio.

From here, 1993 looks about as far away as 2000, maybe even as far away as 2012, depending on who you’re talking to. In this case, we’re talking to Daniel McDonald and Patterson Beckwith, two original members of the now defunct Art Club 2000, in a spare and compact second-floor gallery near Astor Place, a stoner’s throw from the school where they met and around the corner from the furniture store (no longer in business) that provided the prefab loft setting for the group’s most iconic photo, Untitled (Conran’s 1), 1992–93. Downtown. Or something like it. Where else? A cigarette is lit, a window opened. The recorder runs, and the rest is herstory.

David Velasco

THIS CAN BE YOUR CLOSER: These pictures were done pretty much behind Colin’s back, and he hated them. But not because he didn’t like the photos or the way we made them or the critique they employed: He thought they would be consumed in the wrong way. And that’s why he made us print them small and put them in the second room of our first show, because he knew what would happen. And then that’s what happened. Although it wasn’t necessarily our goal, the pictures immediately and inescapably branded us generationally.

And that’s why now we’re doing a show with these photos. Not just because they’re from the year 1993, but because this is what we’re known for. And you know, ironically we did many, many shows after that, all of which had more thought put into them, more maturity, and a little more bite than what gets carried with just these pictures.

The initial impetus for—well, not just for our club but for a lot of things Colin did—was his frustration with what people were getting away with, the status quo of the art world. We had been precocious art students studying with some of his artists at Cooper Union, and we’d gone to American Fine Arts and demanded to see slides and stuff. Colin liked that we’d studied with Hans Haacke at Cooper Union, and he invited us to form the group. The deal was that we were going to do a show in the summer. We weren’t just precocious; we were snotty assholes.We thought we knew. We were aware of the constructed nature of the group, and we were aware of him as a player, at least in terms of his outlandishness. Andrea Rosen was cool. You know, 303 Gallery was cool. Pat Hearn was amazing. But Colin was the magnet that drew us.

There was this idea of having a critique of institutional critique. And we started talking about that and we started talking about the Gap. It wasn’t necessarily because it was a perfect symbol. It was because it was beneath contempt and was not a serious subject, like HIV prevention or gentrification, subjects that we were criticized for not picking up on. But we chose the Gap because it represented nothing: a gap.

Art Club 2000, Untitled (Times Sq./Gap Grunge 2), 1992–93, C-print, 8 x 10". From the series “Commingle,” 1992–93.

We performed different styles of institutional critique: research, reportage photography, garbology, wall texts, and there was a participatory artwork where you could commission your own Gap ad. We also used an advertising mode of critique in Artforum, which was a political sort of “Fuck you, Gap,” but also an inside joke between Artforum and Colin. Then we made these products, which were our press photos in frames, you know. The photos were the first thing we figured out we could all really do together. Collaborating is great. But with two people, maybe three. When you get seven people, it’s really a fiction. You know? So we became more focused on the Gap clothes and the specifically keyed settings. Untitled (Limbo Cafe 2/Loved to Death) [all works 1992–93] was about coffee culture. Gen Xers love that. It was in a ’50s-style café. Untitled (Art in America Library 2) doesn’t just show a library; it’s Art in America’s library. It’s about media. Untitled (Times Sq./Gap Grunge 1) is classic postcard New York, and we wear faux-grunge shredded-denim Gap outfits. In all of our photos that year, we looked for locations that would backdrop our own ambivalence about a romanticized urban lifestyle that was totally artificial. For the New Museum show, we’re planning to hang a line of ten of these pictures, all shot around these kinds of locations in New York. Gary Carrion-Murayari, one of the show’s curators, and our group chose from the original selection of about twenty-five eight-by-ten-inch exhibition prints. We start the line with one from our first shoot, the most informal and “plain-clothed” picture, Untitled (Star Trek Party 1A), and move on to plushie animal–costumed shots and then the more “classic” Gap-outfitted ones, ending with Untitled (Paramount Hotel/Nude 2).

There was an ambivalence toward all of the subject matter, but it was not your average Gen X ambivalence. Our educational experience had been inflected with people who were actually radicals. We studied with Niki Logis and Mark Dion but also people like Doug Ashford, Laura Cottingham, Douglas Crimp. That was what we woke up to in the morning—our fucking teachers showing us, like, safe-sex fisting videos.

With that and Colin as this sort of unconscious—or conscience—on top of it, we were, you know, ambivalent about stuff in part so we could be critical of some of the miasma of thinking around it. That, like, yes, we know we’re supposed to be ambivalent. And perhaps we can be, and say, “Fuck you, Gap,” at the same time. We wanted to implicate ourselves by wearing the clothes and stuff but use that ambivalence and the unspoken frustrations everyone had, which were the beginning of, like, “Oh my God, not another Starbucks.” Our intentions were dubious. Everything was a little tongue-in-cheek. If it was a question, if it was a problem, we brought it into the picture, even if we couldn’t figure it out.

There’s a big difference between 1993 and now. New York, certainly downtown, has been swabbed in vanilla. And khaki. And it sucks. Back then people were weird looking, they did cool stuff and partied. It was mass communication through style. Artists then were aware of the idea that fine art is the research-and-development wing of popular culture. We felt cheated by the setup and looked for ways to redirect that information highway. Bernadette Corporation represented that as well. Our groups started around the same time, and there’s a lot of crossover with roommates and friends and schoolmates. And lovers. (Don’t strike that.) We knew that nostalgia goes hand in hand with style, as the driving force behind all these decisions. What art succeeds or gets remembered and functions again? What has shelf life? What makes it? It’s all nostalgia. We knew we were engaging in that. History is always as close as the person you’re talking to and what they’re talking about. In New York, especially, everybody fucking fetishizes their practice and their life experience. And now that the whole culture is doing that on Facebook, people who didn’t do it on Facebook look somehow more authentic. But they’re not. We were a bunch of fucking superficial assholes taking pictures of ourselves and trying to get laid. But still, 1993 is a good idea for a show because that was a turning-point year. Nineteen ninety-three was the end of the ’80s. Around SoHo and downtown, artists were still living in lofts. There were great galleries, flea markets, restaurants, and nightclubs, and they were, like, getting boarded up and going down, you know? And we were there with this guy from the ’80s, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory style, getting to see the last gasp of it. Art Club was an ’80s gesture. It was dissecting what was left of the art star.

This is something that’s maybe interesting: Colin was a sometime handyman, and he did work for Artforum sometimes. He sent us over there one day to paint their hallway and had us bring a box of our prints. And then he called [publisher] Tony Korner and [editor] Jack Bankowksy and said, “Check out these guys out there. They have a box I’d like you to see.” They freaked out. They loved it and kept some. And they called Glenn O’Brien, and the rest is herstory. It was so funny to see that happen. What an education. The best part of our club was the educational experiment, which is what Colin was always about, showing us that yes, this is just a game but it’s a particularly interesting one, because it’s a game that has ongoing repercussions. Colin tried to teach us how art “works,” and the continuing life of what we made with him, and the surrounding conversations, often proved more interesting than the work itself.