Feeling #rank (Part 3)

In my original post about #rank, I argued that there were too many events going on back to back without enough time for reflection. Having time to casually discuss what we were attempting to do at #class, as I’ve said, was an important access point for visitors. Another thing that also helped people drop their defenses was beer. I know it doesn’t sound like much, or that maybe we both have drinking problems, but turning a commercial gallery into a ‘think space’ took a little more than putting chalkboard paint on the walls. We also had to find other ways to make such a passive environment into an active social space. It turned out that most people who came to our discussions were more than happy to have a beer, or six. It wasn’t a raging party by any means, most people had to work the next day or had grown comfortable with the booze industry’s refrain “enjoy responsibly.” As #rank approached, Hrag Vartanian wrote “Mandie’s is the coolest art project in New York.” I didn’t know what Mandie’s was, but I quickly found out that Andrew Ohanesian had built a compact, ostensibly two-person bar at Arch Space in Bushwick.

I ended up at Mandie’s late one night with Jade Townsend after some openings in Bushwick. We crowded into the tiny bar with a rather large group of people. I think I counted 13 at one point, but then again, I was wasted and had started arm-wrestling various patrons. Eventually, with Andrew’s encouragement, I punched a hole through the wall. The next day, my torn up knuckles and terrible hangover reminded me what a great time I had at Mandie’s. I immediately told Jen about the bar, hoping that maybe we could convince Andrew to bring the project to #rank. Jen and I had already budgeted about $500 for beer for #rank, and Mandie’s came ready-made with a refrigerated keg on tap. When Ed visited Mandie’s on a tour of a few spaces in Bushwick led by Austin Thomas and Jason Andrew, he thought it would be a fantastic idea. Andrew was also incredibly enthusiastic, and agreed to get Mandie’s to SEVEN and become part of #rank.

Down in Miami, Mandie’s was without a doubt, one of the coolest things at SEVEN. I have no proof that it was one of the best installations in Miami, since I only saw Aqua for an hour on Wednesday night, but I’d make that assertion anyway. Mandie’s provided exactly what a good bar should, a quiet place during the day to hide from the world for a beer and a private chat with and old friend (or a total stranger depending on were you are at with your alcoholism). During one of the days at #rank, I had the pleasure of talking with Helen Toomer, a former assistant director at PULSE and Dylan Fareed of Artlog. Having caused a bit of disruption at PULSE in 2008 with Jade at our Lemonade Stand, I was a bit apprehensive around Helen, but it turned out she no longer worked at PULSE. We had a nice discussion about the fairs and shared a bit of gossip over beers. If #rank had that same vibe, which could have benefited from a room with an entrance and exit, I’m sure there would have been more opportunities for such informal and informative discussions. While the option to hold #rank upstairs at SEVEN was an option, we did not want to ghettoize the project, and remain a part of the the fair. I just found that the balance between public and private titled a little too much towards display. Mandie’s was an ideal environment for talking about art and the fairs, not because it is an awesome dive bar, but because it is art. It’s impossible not to think about what art is and can be when you find yourself transported by simply stepping through a doorway. I told Andrew and his assistants, Pedro and E-man, that I loved Mandie’s so much, because I felt like it had been built for me (I hope everyone feels like that about art once in a while, too bad I can’t afford Mandie’s). Partly because I like to drink beers, alot, but also because I tried to build a little two-person bar-themed confessional in 2005 for Parker’s Box IAM5. It was sort of amazing to see a fully-realized version of a what amounted to a 3-D sketch on my part. Andrew’s skill-set puts mine to shame, and if I ever try to re-stage the artist’s confessional, he’s the first person I’d want to talk to about creating it right. The authenticity of Mandie’s was a major part of what made people grin in awe then drink a beer and stay awhile. Speaking as an artist, I learned from Andrew how far you can take an idea from conception. Unfortunately, we never had time to arm wrestle down in Miami. That’s my only regret about the project. Well, that and the kegerator Andrew scoured Miami for broke down after the first day resulting in some seriously foamy beer for the last two days of #rank.

Aside from Mandie’s we also hosted four durational project ‘stands’ at #rank. Sean Naftel’s Free Art Stand was a major success, giving away over 150 pieces of art by unknown and emerging artists. He told me a South American artist who contributed work to the project sells his prints for $3,000. Sean was dealing a range of excellent work for free, and I could hear him talking about the artists and their work all day. He even managed to place a triptych with a MoMA curator who said she was donating it to the permanent collection. For me, personally, that is an amazing success for Sean’s project and the artists who donated their work to the project. It wasn’t just a free art stand, but a place where price ceased to matter in relation to how the collector or perhaps more appropriately, the caretaker, valued the work. I didn’t get any details if there were any conditions to taking work from the art stand, but it allowed a large number of artists to have their works placed with art dealers, other artists, serious collectors, and maybe people who wouldn’t have been able to afford the art being offered at most of the fairs. For the majority of people in Miami, even a hundred dollars can break the bank. I mean, a new washing machine can be had for $700 dollars. Once art gets past the price of major appliances, it’s easy to see how sticker shock can set in, “How much?! For that?! What the fuck is it?!” Regardless, the art fairs are not aimed at middle class wage earners, and the reverse may also hold true for certain collectors; if the art is not sufficiently expensive, then it must not be important enough. Without getting into the thorny debate about artists deserving to be paid for their labor, I think Sean’s stand was all about access and getting some artists past the border patrol of the art fairs. Jen and I made it a point with #class and #rank to try and keep it from turning into a salon style group show of frustrated visual artists. We didn’t really want their ‘art’, rather we wanted their frustration, experience, and ideas related to the hierarchy of the art world. Sean was able to ‘sneak in’ a large number of artists and used the pre-text of the art stand and the lure of ‘free stuff’ to engage the audience. It worked, quite brilliantly, and I am hoping to post the list of artists who had work placed through the free art stand. While the project may not support artists economically, it may have fulfilled other affective needs like the desire to be recognized and have their art reach an audience.

In a similar vein to Sean’s project, Destineez Child set up a booth of unusual, low-fi art ‘products’ at bake sale prices. I apologize to Destineez Child for never taking a moment on the hectic first day to talk with them. Again, this was a downside of the schedule, something was always happening at #rank that dragged me away every time I got curious about the funky table behind us. It’s also a bit disappointing that I also didn’t see as many collectors engage Destineez Child, perhaps because even the nominal prices kept them at arm’s length. It’s absolutely crucial to note that even a $5 dollar price tag seemed to be a psychological barrier for the audience, but perhaps that was the point for Destineez Child. Their campy art products seemed designed to bring the lofty assumptions about what art is back down to earth through their playful display. It was pretty hilarious to see paper plates stuck on our #rank column with handwritten prices. It was evident by the lack of interaction with the fairgoers that Destineez Child’s humorous take on art and commerce seemed to keep the fairgoers at a distance, which may not be bad thing. It added to the tension between between the art and the commerce taking place all around us.

The other table/booth projects that took place on the last day of #rank were Sarada Rauch and Barish Gorkturk’s Guidance Counselor table and Identifier Corp’s Hello My Name Is artist re-branding station. Both projects engaged the public on Saturday, and I was able to participate briefly in both, although I will have to recover my re-branded identity on the Identifier Corp website. I can’t remember what absurd name I got, but they were all pretty hilarious. Identifier Corp was run by two artists going by the names Pumkin Folgers and Corduroy Jackson. I also happen to know both artists real names from our shared time as undergraduates at Syracuse University, but pre-branded is no brand. According to Pumkin, Identifier Corp handed out nearly 200 new artistic identities through their proprietary database. The artists were giving out name tags with the memorable names that seem to be a prerequisite for contemporary artists; Banks Violette, Cory Arcangel, Banksy, Blu, Slater Bradley, Dash Snow, or whatever combination of sounds that evoke privilege, skateparks, and video games. Thankfully, I’ve already been tagged with a phonetic interpretation of a Slavic handle by some well-intentioned Catholic nuns in upstate New York seventy years ago. That accidental re-invention seems appropriate to Identifier Corps project, which gels nicely with one thing Jen and I learned at class “Don’t be boring.” Unfortunately, my partner-in-crime goes by the boarding school handle, Dalton, but still manages to find numerous ways of subverting any expectations of such a well-heeled name.

But, boarding school and Miami share some things in common; gossip, cliques, peer pressure, and the never-ending quest to be ‘cool’. Those pressures were the subject of Sarada and Barish’s Guidance Counselor table, where they shared intimate conversations with the audience. Seriously, you had to put on eye-glass frames (so no one could see you) and talk through a plastic tube to ensure privacy in the open environment. I won’t share the content of my conversation with Sarada, but it was a much necessary conversation that I really needed at that moment. Despite the humorous framing and communication devices, the talk was emotional; part therapy-session, part tough-love. In some way, the short time I sat with Sarada and Barish, I realized that the conversation we were having was not happening around us. It would have been a major accomplishment if we could have carved out a space that could have allowed for such unguarded, empathetic talk that I had with Sarada. I don’t think we could have ever achieved the kind of intimacy that Sarada and Barish rather brilliantly hosted through very modest means, but it was a project that I imagine could have spanned the entire duration of #rank, providing people with the necessary excuse to really say what they were feeling. The art fair week in Miami prompts any number of emotional reactions from people, as they encounter the social sorting that separates the haves from the have nots. I believe Jen actually saw two people crying during their private sessions. I don’t think that is an uncommon emotional reaction to the aggressive sorting that forces people to acknowledge where they are in the social and cultural hierarchy of the art world. You can’t pretend that the art world is an egalitarian place when you don’t have a VIP card or your name on the right list for the best, most important parties with beautiful people. Sarada and Barish also provided some handouts for trying to make unsense out of the pressures facing the miami fairgoer. It was, for me, a very generous project that I would highly recommend to anyone willing to address their own feelings of inadequecy and lack that the fairs cultivate so well.

Anyway, I’ve been protesting censorship today, but there are more events to reflect on at #rank that I will continue in this series of posts leading up to and beyond our #rank discussion to be generously hosted by Edward Winkleman at his gallery December 30th. We will have details regarding the follow-up soon.

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