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Oh That Market

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any bigger, it does. The art market and art fairs have gone into overdrive. The most interesting one to me is Art Basel Miami and all the other satellite art fairs that are presented in Miami at the same time. The two most prominent spin offs are SCOPE and NADA (new art dealers association). Here in New York there are three main art fairs in February, the Gramercy International, SCOPE and DIVA (digital international video art). As an artist, I’ve participated in several art fairs here and in Europe. They are fun in an odd way. The fun part is that there is minimal curating. Contemporary galleries are invited if their artist are of a certain style or the gallery is so prestigious that having it participate ensures that other galleries will pay their fees for their booths. After all, an art fair is a cash business. It’s also a sort of simulation (ala Jean Baudrillard) of the art world, a snap shot of the current market.

Last Thursday I went to the VIP opening for SCOPE. I was invited by [PAM], artists Chris Borkowski, Aaron Miller, Raphaele Shirley and Lee Wells. They had invited some of the artists whose videos are in the [PAM] database to be interviewed by PLUM TV. As I walked around SCOPE, which is the younger version of the Gramercy International, I began to understand what was really happening. It was the shopping mall experience applied to the world of art. This made perfect sense to me. For the young, mostly white, mostly middle class artists who have grown up in the longest economic expansion in US history, a shopping mall experience is a daily experience. Hanging out at the mall and cruising to see who else is there is a natural way to socialize.

At SCOPE I was talking with an old friend of mine who is a gallerist. He started in the East Village and now has a gallery in West Chelsea. He said that the art collectors don’t bother going to galleries anymore. They do their shopping at the art fairs. He said of course everyone needs to maintain a showroom (gallery) but the main business now goes on at the fairs. He also confided in me that he preferred the 1970’s art world where there was much more creative exploration and less market.

Walter Benjamin, a Marxist writer in the early 20th Century, in his unpublished Arcades Project began to analyze how the shopping arcades in Europe were becoming the new social organizing principal for industrial capitalism. The products and the shopping arcades were presented to the new “consumer” class of Europe. The arcades are, of course, the pre-cursor to the shopping mall. What Benjamin, observed was that the manufactured products needed a new venue to be presented to the new “consumer” class. A similar analysis can be applied to the international art fair. There are intrinsic and extrinsic forces that are creating this art fair moment. There are also the seeds of a revolt or discursive repudiation of art fairs at work.

Back to the fun part, at SCOPE I observed how the younger artists were having fun being part of the shopping spectacle. (OK I admit I was having fun too) Most of the artists were circulating around or hanging close to their pieces and marketing themselves and their work. Lots of calling cards were exchanged. If you were there you were part of the action. Indeed, Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle could be the leitmotif for all art fairs.

“Behind the glitter of the spectacle’s distractions, modern society lies in thrall to the global domination of a banalizing trend that also dominates it at each point where the most advanced forms of commodity consumption have seemingly broadened the panoply of roles and objects available to choose from… The life in question is after all produced solely as a form of pseudo-gratification which still embodies repression. A smug acceptance of what exists is likewise quite compatible with a purely spectacular rebelliousness, for the simple reason that dissatisfaction itself becomes a commodity as soon as the economics of affluence finds a way of applying its production methods to this particular raw material.”- Guy Debord, - Society of the Spectacle, # 59

This analysis is fairly concise when applied to the general style that exists in the art world today. I call it the, “triumph of the East Village style.” The art market and the art fair can be called, “ …the most advanced forms of commodity consumption…” Indeed, the resurgence of the art fair in New York has its roots in the East Village. Two East Village art dealers, Colin De Land and Pat Hern, started the Gramercy International. Originally it was a sort of spoof or punk adaptation (think, “…A smug acceptance of what exists is likewise quite compatible with a purely spectacular rebelliousness…”) of the much larger international art fairs including the renown New York Armory show that introduced European Modernism to America in the 1930’s. The Gramercy was held in a seedy, down at the heels Gramercy Hotel. The impossibly small rooms functioned as booths for exhibitors. The size restrictions created a sort of neo-fluxus style. Small scale and a crowded market were what the East Village art scene was all about.

I can speak with some authority to the East Village scene insofar as I was one of the people who opened a gallery there in the 1980’s. The name of my gallery was Virtual Garrison. It was at corner of 2nd Avenue and 1st street. In the space of seven years, 1981-1988 the East Village sprouted around a hundred galleries. This movement to the East Village from Soho was perhaps heralded by Alan Moore, who instigated an occupation of the then boarded up and abandoned Essex Street Market on New Years Day in 1980, called the Real Estate Show. The Ad Hoc alternative space’s intention was to make a guerilla art show with a group of artists, that also highlighted the cities’ warehousing of properties. A year or so later, Gracie Mansion, opened her art gallery in the toilet of her apartment in the East Village. Herein lies the dynamic. On the one hand you have the Socialist-Utopian idealism of the Real Estate Show on the other you have the “…spectacular rebelliousness…” of opening an art gallery in the toilet of your apartment.

Looking a little deeper into the East Village aesthetic one has to mention the Punk bands and style of the time. Everyone was in a Punk Band. I was in a band called the Communists. Punk was a way to do performance art and meld it with pop music. Punk was also a style centered on the cheap. The Kinks had a line from a song that went, “I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth.” The people who opened art galleries in the East Village were for the most part young artists. They exhibited their friends. The sense was that there was no style and that all styles were equally viable. The informed historical progress of Modernism was gone having been replaced by a market of objects and styles that looked like previous art movements or combinations of previous styles. The artist/dealers were doing performance art by simulating art galleries and the art market. They were just a cheaper rendition. Indeed, the market was more important than the artwork or more to the point, what was made was a commodity that could be bought and sold. The value of the work was only as a chit in a trading game.

Stepping back and looking at any market, there are trendsetters or to borrow a stock market term, there are market makers. Whether it’s a color that is in season for fashion or a type of music or food style etc. a few people present and define original ideas and styles and then there are knock-offs. In the art market historical discourse has been replaced by marketability. Indeed, the presentation of art in an art fair performs the function, “…of a banalizing trend that also dominates it at each point…” This is the result of globalization of the International art market. Of course people in the art world are aware of this and some of the more adventurous dealers have chosen to allow a single artist to create an intervention instead of presenting a standard mini-showcase of all their artists. Interestingly enough this only adds to the marketing spectacle of the art fair. Indeed, if the intervention is successful within the art fair context, the artwork gains immediate value. Going back to Art Basel Miami, the hot event is not what you think it is. Indeed, the private parties and the corporate sponsored satellite events and the mini-art fairs and sub-genres in the South Beach hotels have created an almost orgiastic, pagan enactment of a simulated hyper-market that occurs relatively closely to the Winter Solstice in what can only be viewed as late Capitalism’s main celebration.

Herein lies a key question which is, ”what gives an artwork value?” Who decides? And furthermore is monetary value the only value that is appropriate? If that is the case than artists should find as many different ways as possible to monetize their project without relying on a sales system. Creativity is a multidimensional thing. There is an aesthetic to the market and an aesthetic of marketing. Creating value for art that is in the hands of the artist and is part of their oeuvre can only enhance the overall art discourse. In a Marxist discourse one would say that the artist needs to seize the means of production. In this instance it is the means of producing value for an artwork. Indeed, an art fair or a gallery system is a small part of the art world. An artist does not need a gallery or the sale of a work to make art. That is an absurd proposition. It is almost childish in it’s simplicity. Think about this, the thought that instigates much of what is seen at art fairs is simply, “What can I make to sell,” and “What will most easily sell?” Gone is any larger discussion about the role of art in society or propositions for new ways of seeing. Indeed, what one sees in art galleries and art fairs are for the most part, variations on sexual obsessions, and types of fetishized objects. Somehow, the contemporary art market has turned into a craft fair where people create interesting objects that have a built in fetish potential. The position is to cater to the "collectors" psyche. A collector will collect in a certain area, until their desire is satiated. They will then find a new area to collect. The market functions by producing areas of collectibility.

Since I am partly to blame for the current state of affairs insofar as I was one of the artists who started the hypermarket in the East Village in the 1980’s, I am now trying to find a new direction to liberate myself and by extension everyone else who finds the current art world to be limited by the market. They way I see it the historical and aesthetic progression for the past 30 years goes something like this: the 1970’s was an anti-market testing that challenged all the previous assumptions of what an art object was and what art was. The problem inherent in that era was that a large group of artists couldn’t gain entry, the scene was too small to accommodate them. The 1980’s was a backlash where all those excluded from Soho were showing their art in the East Village. In that instance the market acted as a liberating force.

Speaking of liberation, in the 1990’s I became involved in the digital art scene. Using computers and the Internet, I became part of a world wide community that circumvented the whole art world. I am still involved in that community. I was able to find a way to make art without resorting to creating a fetish object. What is most apparent is how there has been a disjunctive break between the digital art scene and the art world. New media is a tough sell. As a consequence most galleries and museums stay away from it. Which brings us up to the current time period.

I can say that there are some hopeful new approaches to counteract the market/fetish of art. One is the resurgence of artist’s collectives. This partially addresses the problem of monetizing ones’ practice. Collectives have their own dynamics and also have built in problems. Pooling resources is a very basic human technique for survival.

Digital art and New Media artists have found that the best way to monetize their practice is through teaching. Many art schools and universities are in the process of setting up digital media departments.
There is a down side to working in Academia. The teachers find they are tailoring their practice to what the students are interested in. Often the new media artist winds up teaching the skills of how to use any particular type of software. This creates a sort of trade school, craft mentality that doesn’t advance art ideas rather its’ focus is on either technique or programming skills.

At the beginning of this article I had made a reference to [PAM]. They are a collaborative group who also create their own individual art works. [PAM] is a database of artist’s videos that are presented on two touch screen. One has keyword tags and the other sorts and presents the keyword-selected videos in a grid. All the videos play at once unless you select one by touch. The selected video enlarges to take up the whole screen. In term of new media this piece is quite brilliant. It blends the programmer skills of Max MSP with the idea of a curatorial mechanism and it creates a community. The [PAM] community is one of the more positive steps forward for both the art world and the new media scene. The interesting thing is that they started by presenting this work at the SCOPE art fair. This year they expanded the practice as one of their members (Chris Borkowski) curates a 3 flat screen exhibition of new performance and body art. This sat in the middle of the marketing frenzy of the SCOPE art fair tent on Damrosch Plaza in Lincoln Center.

I would also mention my collaborative partner on many projects, Peter Sinclair, who along with Jerome Joy has set up an experimental sound art lab called locus sonus. This is operating within the French University system but does not have the same problems inherent to academia. Its nature is to be a nomadic experimental course that floats between two art school in Aix-en-Provence and Nice. Yes, the French ministry of Culture does fund this experiment but it functions outside of many of the turf wars that occur within the confines of any institution.

The terms for a new discourse on art are fairly straight forward. For example there is a lot of energy devoted to the finished object. This satisfies the demands of the market but is too restrictive when it comes to the actual creative process. The fallacy of the art market is that it funds the finished product. Up until the point when your work is sold it has neither value nor meaning. This is really limiting. For any artist the creativity is in the process. The finished product is at the end of the process and is only a point in a continuum. Given the abstract nature of commodity capitalism it seems entirely feasible that a futures market principle could be applied to the art process so that an artist can be funded to produce work rather than have to present a finished product for sale. This could function somewhat like an investment fund. The key is to de-emphasize the finished product as the sole mechanism for funding artists.

Along with funding the process one can also take a more open-ended approach to the art object and to the process of making. Indeed, what is needed here in the US is a celebration of the process of making without necessarily creating a finished product. It is the investigation, the insights that are gained, the procedures leading up to the finish that are the valuable bits. In this case I would call for the idea of art as an ongoing investigation that may obtain value at some point in the future. The value is in the investigation, in the research and the questioning. This presents the idea of the archive as a more fitting project for artists working at this time.

The idea of an archive is gaining credence within the digital art community as the only viable way to store digital and new media art works. Indeed,
major artists such as Marcel Duchamp with his green box and Joseph Beuys with his volumes of notebooks speak to a much enlarged arena for art and artists. It is therefore the responsibility of the curators and dealers and art institutions to find mechanisms that fund these types of endeavors. In the recent past there has been much hand-wringing about how digital and new media art are in a self-imposed ghetto and need to be integrated into the larger art world. I believe the opposite is true. Artists and the art market are in a self-imposed ghetto restricted to making commodity objects. It is a measure of intellectual laziness on the part of the art dealers, collectors and artists who find that insular market to be the most appealing.

corrected the NADA

Thanks Chris I corrected the YADA to NADA.