Feeling #rank (Part 1)

by powhida on December 11, 2010

Now that I am back home from Miami and have had a couple days to think about #rank, I am feeling rather that, just rank. Every year that I've gone to Miami, I leave feeling like I've lifted the curtain and stared at the great god Pan and learned some horrible truth about the universe. Normally, when an individual confronts the unknowable, they go insane. I always feel like I've lost my mind getting on the plane after witnessing the spectacle that is ABMB. Then, the ensuing year glazes over the awful feelings of self-loathing, disgust, inferiority, and well, shame, with a patina of hope that maybe it will be different this time. I find myself feeling vaguely optimistic each year as I confirm my flight in October. The hill doesn't look so bad, the boulder not so large. Once again, I am back in New York, in Bushwick, with my regrets. It is a particularly difficult decompression because there is far more at stake than my personal feelings of deep inadequacy and lack. During the fair week, The Smithsonian bowed to conservative pressure and pulled David Wojnarowicz's video A Fire in My Belly from the National Public Gallery's show "Hide/Seek", the United States Government declared war on the freedom of information inducing some more nationalist fervor, and President Obama caved on reducing the deficit by taxing the wealthiest Americans.  It was a trifecta of bad news regarding expression, information, and responsibility. Trying to think about those things amid the Miami party culture is normally impossible, but I was working with the amazing Jen Dalton on #rank in the corner of an art fair trying to manage a continuous series of events from 11am to 7 pm.  It was an overwhelming task where I became simultaneously enmeshed in logistics, appeasement, engagement, and escape.  There's nothing like managing two cellular wifi networks, streaming video, people's luggage, participants, a twitter feed, a collaborator, and the curious spectator to make a person lose their shit.  I wanted to hide in Mandies and get shit-faced.  I'm not sure I fought that impulse very well as Jen and I  were both knocking down cups of foamy beer by 2pm everyday, sometimes earlier.  I think we started leaning on the keg around noon after Emily Auchincloss's lecture on Post-Traumatic Art Disorder. The idea of including Andrew Ohanesian's bar, Mandie's (which had the simultaneous effect of ruining and saving us), was to disarm the audience with a casual atmosphere and get them talking.  The fundamental problem with #rank was there wasalmost no time to talk.  We programmed so many events into the day that we lost one of the elements that made #class such an interesting environment, which was the down time in transition when the audience stopped observing and started interacting with each other.  During #rank, the conversations took place on the periphery; in the bar, in the sightline of Steve Mumford's painting, on the sidewalk outside, everywhere except the space we hoped to carve out a conversation about people's overwhelming queasiness with the art fairs in Miami. With #rank I feel like we missed an opportunity to have the conversation that nearly everyone I know wants to have during fairs.  The conversation about how they measure themselves in relation to the art fairs and the vision of success it professes.  This feeling is not a reflection of what  the participants brought to #rank, they did a fucking awesome job under difficult circumstances.  No, we may have failed them in a very crucial way by asking them to present and perform in the corner of a commercial art fair.  Despite the admirable goal of the galleries in SEVEN to create a different atmosphere than the booth fairs, they still had the responsibility of selling art.  Going into the project, Jen and I understood we were being invited to provide some sort of disruption by design, but when it actually happened in the space, I felt like we had failed to provide the right kind of disruption.  Instead of being edgy, we were uncool, a little dirty, ragged, and embarrassing.  The looks of disdain that we received may have been unintentional or related to other concerns, but they were plain. The tension that #rank caused within the commercial environment was palpable, not that I would've had it any other way.  We weren't there to convince collectors to buy art.  The problem was the tension seemed to stem from the fact that #rank failed to engage most of the people who came to SEVEN.  Again, this isn't the fault of the participants, but of the context in which they participated.  During ABMB week there are a dizzying array of art fairs, collections, events, and of course, parties to attend at any given moment.  It is not uncommon for someone to spend the week going from one thing to another and STILL not feel like they saw or did enough. Jen and I were asking people to show up for specific events with set start and end times.  This may have been the single biggest miscalculation on our part, because we should have anticipated that the majority of people would get to SEVEN and #rank at any point in time.  Instead of experiencing interesting performances or actions, most people walked in during the middle of something with little or no idea why it was happening.  I feel like we were asking far too much of our potential audience, even people sympathetic to the project.  For those visitors simply looking to shop, I can't imagine what they thought of the circus.  Well, I do know.  Their expressions and lack of interest said it all.  I felt like a dirty goat in a petting zoo looking for a handful of oats. This is at the heart of the my own disappointment with #rank. I think we simply overestimated our importance based on the critical and public reception of #class at Winkleman Gallery where we became a destination and we did not have to compete for their attention in the space.  At SEVEN, we were just another thing on display that only a few people were making a destination in comparison to the rest of the fairgoers.  There were an estimated 46,000 visitors to Art Basel.  I can tell you, we didn't have that kind of attendance at SEVEN, and certainly a significantly smaller number actually knew what was going on in the corner being drowned out by the steady hum of the portable air-conditioning unit and generators just outside the garage door. I cannot emphasize the disruption that noise posed adding to the cacophony of  casual conversation taking place all around us (or the music pumping out Mandies. I felt like a giant asshole having to ask Andrew to keep it down.)  It made discussions difficult and distracted, performances hard to follow, and the streaming audio a muddle of sounds.  The streaming video was also dismal due to the poor reception our wifi card, generously donated by Michelle Vaugh and Felix Salmon, received inside the warehouse in Wynwood.  Between the poor audio and wretched video, our efforts to bring #rank out of Miami was a disaster.  That was coupled with our general inability to engage whatever twitter audience we may have had because we were busy  trying to cope with facilitation and management.  I have been a teacher for 11 years in Brooklyn and it was more difficult than any week of teaching I've ever had.  The pressure I felt was absurd to the point of ceasing to matter leading me to seal off my borders and retreat to the bar, to the sidewalk, to something approaching a casual denial of the entire event.  "Well, it's something!" I would mutter when asked, "How's it going?" Amid all of the difficulties, there were important ideas thrown out into the world for the audience to consider.  Unfortunately, aside from Maritza Ruiz Kim, Laura Issac, Peter Dobey, John Pyper, and a handful of other repeat viewers, the main audience for all the ideas was myself and Jen. The  accumulation of challenges, critiques, and ideas about art that became impossible to really think about in any meaningful way without time to discuss them, to process them with others, and reach any conclusions. I really feel like we ended up doing a disservice to some really meaningful events by not taking an hour for everyone to respond. By programming so many events, we did not allow enough time in between events to let people talk about what they had just seen.  I would have loved to follow Greg Allen's excellent lecture on the gala as art with an hour of discussion, but it was on to the next thing.  The reason why we programmed so many events had to do with something that Jen and I are not in total agreement on. When Ed Winkleman asked us to do #class in Miami, Jen and I decided we wanted to make the project specific to Miami and the art fairs.  #rank  grew out of our shared ambivalence about going to Miami and participating in the fairs.  We wanted to examine the hierarchies that persist in the art world, but are laid bare in Miami.  At that point, we were still modeling #rank on #class and we put out a call for proposals and set  a deadline.  After the deadline passed, we found we had twice as many proposals as we had two hour time slots for.  After some debate and misreading of each other's idea of what #rank was, Jen and I agreed  on one hour time slots and programmed everything, regardless of our individual judgments about the proposals. Why did this happen? First, when we were confronted with the possibility of  telling people we wouldn't be able to accommodate their proposals,  Jen made the convincing argument that #rank was not about gatekeeping when the fairs represent one layer of exclusivity after another.  The second reason  reason was very practical.  If we were going to accept any proposals, we had to do it fast to give time for participants to their book their flights and find accommodations in Miami, which gets increasingly expensive and difficult as the fair approaches.  Perhaps this rushed our decision and in some way we skipped an important and thorny discussion about the nature of what we were doing with #rank.  The third reason was my fault entirely.  I deferred to Jen despite my own doubts about having so many events because I didn't feel like I had contributed enough to both the organization of #class and #rank.  I reasoned that since Jen had organized all the proposals, responded to far more emails, and generally knew more about what we were saying yes to, I agreed to one-hour times slots and saying yes to everything.  In fact, I was the one who sent out all the happy emails saying "You're in!"  In retrospect, I should have been the asshole sending "You're out" to half the proposals, so that those who eventually would participate would have an hour to discuss their projects in relation to the questions Jen and I had about the art fairs.  What we bypassed in saying yes to everything was a discussion about we both wanted #rank to be.  I didn't just want it to be about saying yes to every proposal, but being a place where visitors might drop their guards and share their own perspectives with people from radically different backgrounds. It's worth noting that one of the things that refined #class was our constant 'debate' with Ed Winkleman and his partner Murat Orozobekov about the implications of our decisions.  By the time Jen and I announced our program to Ed and Murat, the invitations were already extended and plane tickets had been bought.  We did not have to make our case to them about what and why programmed for #rank because there was no turning back, and to do so would've undermined our agreement that #rank would not be exclusive.    While we thought we were prepared for whatever tensions, conflicts, and difficulties hourly events would pose in privileging access, I don't think Jen and I  really talked it through.  The schedule became increasingly important, and in effect the central premise of #rank as opposed to our initial inquiry, "What's wrong with hierarchies?  What's wrong with a week of art fairs and parties in Miami?"  We had crowded that out of the day. When I began to realize that we hadn't left enough time to talk about the events and the programming might be problematic, it was too late to make any changes.  We hoped that the discussions we programmed would allow for the kind of processing that defined #class.  Unfortunately, the discussions were also fraught for a number of reasons.  First, the discussions did not provide the time to address the central question "what's wrong with the fairs?" or reflect on the previous events.  They  had their own topics and felt somewhat disconnected from the events.   Secondly,  the environmental factors; noise, space, seating, petting zoo setting, but also our general state of bewilderment and stress made  hard to engage the discussions.   The casual, informal atmosphere that made #class discussions unique were transformed into something rather different.  During Christopher Ho's Regionalism as a Model discussion there was a Creative Capital party happening around us.  Chris took it in stride, but the focus that #class somehow allowed was missing.  Finally, there was the pressure of the strict hour limit and the feeling that we were performing, not talking.  We literally had an egg-timer ticking down and whatever may have organically grown became a race to make some point before the buzzer sounded.  Austin Thomas's discussion on Being a Legend in Your Own Mind felt like a competition to score points about recognition in front of some invisible audience or at worse to sound like whatever we were discussing was important.  It felt like we were on a stage with a disinterested audience.  I would not have been shocked at all if Ed had walked over with a note saying "talk about the art fairs." Unlike the Steve Martin debacle we were not in any position to offer refunds.  We were a loss leader for Winkleman Gallery and SEVEN, something novel to attract a broader audience than collectors and as John Lee said to me, "to make the fair a verb, not a noun," and provide something people could actively participate in. This is why I'm left feeling the project did not accomplish my goal.  The structure of #rank may have prevented more engagement with our central thesis than it allowed for.  Some projects resisted that.  Sean Naftel's free art stand gave away over 150 works including one triptych that will be donated to a major museum.  Andrew's bar was a microcosm of what I hoped #rank would be, a place where everyone could drop their guard for a moment and speak freely.  That was my hope and I maintained the belief that we could still provide that right up to the last hour of #rank.  I also hope that everyone who generously donated their time, money, passion, and art to #rank felt they were heard and that their ideas were received by the audience regardless of its size.  I reserve some anger for the dismissive glances of certain passerby, but also my own inability to give my full attention to every project.  Hindsight is a bitch in this case, and I realize belatedly that the circumstances in which we presented #rank were impractical. So, it's not easy to admit that #rank wasn't exactly what I had hoped it to be, but I won't concede that it was a failure. It was just something different, something closer to Jen's vision of inclusivity, process, experimentation, and a little chaos to subvert the expectations of what art fairs are.  Despite it's lack of time between events, I still feel like it was one possible answer to the question about what exactly are the alternatives to big box, commercial art fairs that force everyone to recognize that we do live in a society based on divisions of wealth, education, race, gender, and geography.  The one thing ABMB does the best is let everyone know EXACTLY what they are worth.  The fairs make notions of social mobility appear like quaint justifications for accepting how it is.  #rank was not for sale, it did not offer the usual transactional interaction with art objects in booths, and it was not easily grasped in a fifteen second drive-by.  It was messy, uncool, chaotic, and a little shabby, but it was also free.  Whatever #rank was, I am only disappointed that the we were unable to directly engage in discussion about the caste system proudly displayed in Miami.  More than anything, I wanted to take up Ben Davis on his radically obvious assertion that the art world is not apart from the world, that it is simply a microcosm of the rest of society, and that the art world's problems are not internal.  We live in a world of political, racial, gender and class divisions under the shared umbrella of bubble economies, speculation, collusion, economic disparity, and servitude we call the free market. In part 2, I will be reflecting on the projects, events, and lectures at #rank. "Artists are the elite of the servant class.” -Jasper Johns, via John Yau http://brooklynrail.org/2009/07/art/john-yau-with-phong-bui -@gregorg (thank you, sir)

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