Why do I give a shit about art?

February 25, 2015 · Print This Article

Zona MACO and Material, the fairs that ran more or less concurrently the first week of February here in Mexico City, helped synthesize a number of threads floating around in my mind since arriving here. Those threads: Boris Groys’s essay “On Art Activism,” published in e-flux shortly before I moved, a talk by Donna Haraway that a friend e-mailed to me, and the thought, in general: why do I give a shit about art? Do I even?

We arrived at Zona MACO an hour before it shut. I was surprised that I was there: a few days earlier, in an impassioned speech to Andrew Choate, I had said something like, you know, this fair is in this posh neighborhood that you have to own a car or a chauffeur or have a chauffeur who’s driving your car or whatever to get to, it’s only accessible to the very rich, fuck the rich and fuck their art, they can keep it. So anyway, there we were, at MACO, the phenomenal lighting making the average MACO-goer’s Lacoste polo shit look gorgeous and my oil-stained clothes look ratty as hell. We moved fast, visiting only galleries where one of us knew somebody. I didn’t think about anything or really look at anything: Maurício Ianês at Y Gallery was visually striking but maybe a little hamhanded, but then again given the subject matter maybe it’s ok to be hamhanded, maybe nothing else will ever work; Debora Delmar Corp at DUVE Berlin was actually kind of beautiful in person, although I guess I can see why some jackass gave it “worst of MACO,” because, I don’t know, no marble? no expressionist lines? who cares, I’m sure that guy would prefer a show of staircase pineapples thickly streaked with paint or blood in a really emotional way; at Chert, Petrit Kalilaj was a little scattered, but also maybe hilarious and heartbreaking; I heard a funny story at Gaga and wondered how Labor won the 1800 Tequila prize and what that meant—how it would affect my life. Then we left past an army of art handlers ready to pounce.

some furniture at MACO

A few hours earlier I had been at Material, the satellite fair that first happened last year. I had no thoughts at Material, either, I was too hung over and tired. I didn’t have the coffee I needed until after I left. I talked to people, which I usually don’t. I talked to Aaron Harbour and Jackie Im and liked how weird and gross but also really appealing Chris Hood’s paintings were; I talked to Steve Kado at Kunstverein Toronto and was totally freaked out by how similar his speech pattern is to another Canadian I know; I talked to Travis Fitzgerald and Josh Pavlacky at American Medium, who were extremely congratulatory and very friendly about a performance I had done at Bikini Wax the night before, two stories above a great video by Skip Arnold—not the one below. It was also the only show/booth/experience I spent more than ten minutes in during the entire week. Anyway, I didn’t talk to anyone at Queer Thoughts, but I wondered if their desk was intentionally positioned in their booth such that you couldn’t really look at David Rappeneau’s drawings without putting your ass in someone’s face. Everybody I talked to, well not everybody but a sizeable sample, mentioned that both sales and attendance had been slow, and either Travis or Josh said something like, “I don’t know why they even call this an art fair, they should call it something else.” For this sizeable sample, it seemed like the opportunity and experience to meet other people interested in similar art, to talk and hang out and party or decide not to party, was as or more important than actually selling anything. Then again, everybody needed to sell things.

I guess it’s kind of like how it’s more fun to have a drink with your friends than go to your mind-numbing day job. Or how it’s more fun to have a drink with your friends than stab yourself in the eye. How it’s more fun to have a drink with your friends and talk with them like they’re people you want to talk to than it is to have a drink with your friends and talk to them like you want them to buy something from you. People who I either knew or had established a friendly-level acquaintanceship with apologized for “giving me the spiel,” which I identified with, having worked for a year selling wine, which involves a similar kind of activity.

Wine is vastly more enjoyable, or more able to be enjoyed, if you know what the hell is going on with it: where it came from, what grape(s) it’s made out of, what year it’s from, what things taste like from that place, from that grape, from that year. It helps also to know how it was made, using what process, where the winemaker used to work. You have to spend time reading, learning, tasting, feeling like an asshole for not knowing, feeling like an asshole for knowing, that kind of thing. It’s certainly possible to have a good time with a glass of wine knowing nothing at all, but in order to have a great time, to have an interesting perceptual experience or a moment where you feel like you are suddenly the fucking king of everything, a feeling which wine is uniquely qualified to deliver, you have to know stuff. Sometimes it’s also nice to know little narrative bits, too, you know, how these winemakers make a big deal out of paying their grape-pickers fairly, or how this is the only woman wine-maker in her region, so on and so forth, but this sort of narrative is usually reserved for the selling of wine, by winesellers like I used to be, and is usually delivered in the same tone of voice, with the same cadence, as the art spiel.

This champagne is really good

Which I guess is why I’ve been wondering: what differentiates a photograph from a bottle of wine? A painting from an antique chair? Why do I think that an artwork is different, exists on a “higher” plane, than a humidor? A year ago, I badmouthed an LA gallerist for having a side business selling antique furniture. I perceived the proximity of the antique furniture practice and the gallery practice as some kind of affront, some kind of insult to art. Like art belongs in a different moral/ethical universe than chairs, or wine, and treating it as if it were the same kind of lifestyle commodity is somehow dirty. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s a good dirty.

In “On Art Activism,” Boris Groys draws a distinction between the aestheticization art performs versus the aestheticization design performs. For him, design takes the tools—a hammer, a speech, whatever—of the status quo and makes them more attractive, more usable. Now you, too, can get rich making videos on YouTube advertising our products! That kind of thing. Art, on the other hand, takes the status quo and presents it as a relic, as something already dead, useless. For Groys, this lends art a degree of political agency insofar as it treats the status quo, which is always impossible to imagine ending, as already over, a fossil. In Donna Haraway’s conception of our current epoch, the “capitalocene,” ruled and primarily defined by the processes and logics of capitalism, the production and exhaustion of fossils is paramount. What for Groys is the possibility of political action for art against the status quo, is for Haraway is the very fuel for the status quo. I’m tempted to believe them both: while art has the potential to cause problems within the status quo, it is ultimately an integral part of it, consumed, traded by, conferring status upon a small superrich class that controls the vast majority of the globe’s wealth, right alongside furniture (also a part of Zona MACO), boutique alcohols (also a part of Material), and so on.

Donna Haraway

Donna Haraway

I’m wondering, actually, if maybe this idea that art has some kind of actual political efficacy, that it can “change the world,” is maybe the last vestige of the sort of 18th/19th century romanticism that moved art somewhere—up, definitely—different than, say, furniture or wine, that it delivers something different, something more, something to do with morality, something to do with ethics in a conception of “the world” that assumes it to be homogenous, somehow able to benefit uniformly from a single given action or idea that moves—ineffably, certainly—from the particular to the universal, a movement governed by a set of rules, standards of taste, beauty, and judgment, that it was assumed every “good” work of art, or “good” person, could be shown to follow.

At the outset of “On Art Activism,” Groys dismisses claims that activist art is bad because it is “bad art” — that is, it looks bad or doesn’t exhibit technical mastery. “In the twentieth century,” he writes, “all criteria of quality and taste were abolished by different artistic avant-gardes—so, today, it makes no sense to appeal to them again.” If MACO and Material made me feel anything, it is that I hope that the avant-gardes of the twenty-first century can make equally obsolete the idea that an artwork can or should have some kind of ability to move itself and/or its viewers into some kind of universal realm of political agency, because there is no “universal” any more than there is “the world,” and any politics that depends on the universal—”the world”—is necessarily self-defeating. I hope that we can forget the Enlightenment and become total fucking idiots or squids or cyborgs or really anything non-Enlightenment-human, and try something else, because that shit did not work at all.

Episode 460-Dana causan problemas en México

June 23, 2014 · Print This Article

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Bad at Sports Episode 460-Dana causan problemas en México
This week: Dana B makes a run for the border. Dana B from What’s the T? interviews jet-setting artists Leonor Antunes at ZONA MACO and Carson Fisk Vittori at Material Art Fair.

In her final dispatch from Mexico City, Dana B. interviews Joel Dean and Jason Benson of Oakland’s important projects on IP’s booth at Material Art Fair, their duo show at Lodos Contemporáneo, fashion earring trends, blue masa tortillas and how we suggested she become a drug mule in order to pay her expenses on the trip versus sending in her receipts to the home office.


February 17, 2014 · Print This Article

Good times in Mexico City.

WTT? Goes SoTB

MEXICO, D.F.– Last week art world snowbirds descended upon Mexico City for the biggest Latin American art fair outside of Art Basel Miami Beach. While ZONA Maco, now in it’s 11th year, is obviously the big fish, 2014 also saw the launch of MACO’s first satellite, the ambitious Material Art Fair. We couldn’t stand the idea of missing out, so WTT? headed down to Mexico City to experience the fair scene in DF first hand. Armed with recording equipment and having just watched an Anthony Bourdain program on Mexico City, we were off.

The colonia we stayed in, Condesa, was just west of the center of the city and felt like a way cooler Logan Square. Nice apartments, lots of cute cafes, tons of bars and restaurants. Everyone, including Bourdain, told us that tacos al pastor were the best. We ate like a million immediately at a place closest to our airbnb. We briefly made it to the opening of Material Art Fair and after a comically unsuccessful attempt to go to the after party we ended the night at a dank little bar with heavy red curtains for doors called Bósforo.

First up. MACO, the monolith, was just that. It featured all of the usual bells and whistles: a massive convention center, an artsy partnership, a myriad of sponsors and all of the regulars. MACO also wins the award for worst branding and website possibly ever.

Fancy seeing you here.

Finally, something that even I couldn’t kill in the design section at MACO.

To be fair to the fair, we did discover a couple of sweet Mexican galleries: O.M.R., Kurimanzutto, LABOR and House of Gaga. Apart from the local galleries, Nuevas Propuestas, the smaller single artist booths were the most interesting. Featuring younger artists and more comprehensive views, we spotted work by one of our fav Miamians, Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova, at Alejandra von Hartz’s booth. Rodriguez-Cassanova’s precise assemblages of screens, 2×4’s and vertical blinds felt oddly appropriate in the setting of the hastily constructed booth partitions.

Work by Rodriguez-Casanova in the Alejandra von Hartz booth.

We also loved seeing new work by Leonor Antunes on view in the “curated” section, Zona MACO Sur, with Marc Foxx gallery. Attracting our attention through the labyrinth of drywall, her bronze hanging work based on Anni Albers’ textiles were just the right amounts delicate and gold. Bonus points for having the most impressive rigging in the fair. The scaffolding supporting the works were tied with thick black ropes around the convention center’s ceiling vents.

Work by Antunes in the Marc Foxx booth.

The Vázquez at Odabashian.

On the way out we met the charming father and son team at Odabashian, who were only the millionth people that day to advise us to visit the Museo Nacional de Antropología. One of their rugs was even designed by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, the architect of the museum. In retrospect, you can totally see the repetitive polygonal facade of the museum in the gold and silver geometric pattern of the rug.

Before leaving Condesa for downtown on Saturday morning we walked to House of Gaga in Condesa and then O.M.R. in La Roma just to the east. On the way we grabbed the most amazing cornbread I’ve ever eaten from a bakery/cafe called Maque. It was my favorite breakfast in DF and really cemented our love for our temporary home of Condesa. Over at House of Gaga, Emily Sunblad’s en plein air paintings of elephants and jaguars at the Santa Barbara Zoo were just as delightful as the cornbread. Less delightful were the various cuts of meat placed throughout the gallery, but I was really feeling the dresses and the casual floral still lifes in the back. We also heard that musician Matt Sweeney performed with her at the gallery and was spotted at Bósforo during the fair. If you’re interested, the performance audio (which was avaiable on USB’s throughout the gallery) is also on the gallery’s website. The exhibition was House of Gaga’s first in their new space, the paint was still fresh and made our head buzz.

Work by Sundblad at the House of Gaga gallery.

A wall of happiness at Maque.

Facing the Plaza de Rio de Janiero and a gigantic bronze David replica, O.M.R. is easily the most grandiose gallery space I’ve ever been inside. Mexico City is terraformed and like many of the old buildings in DF, the luxurious old house is sinking back into the swamp. From the moment you open the iron gate into the ornate white staircase it’s on. I’m convinced that the gigantic marble slabs rigged up by Jose Davila for his exhibition only enhanced the effect of the sloping floors and vise versa. Also on display were some wild old James Turrell work from his Mendota Hotel period in the early 1970s.

Can I just live here already!?

Cristobal Riestra in front of work by Jose Davila in the O.M.R. gallery.

The main galleries were impressive but I was most partial to Pia Camill‘s work in the project space adjoining the main gallery. Her bright abstract curtains with sumptuous blues hanging in front of windows and throughout the gallery were complemented by the large shapely ceramic works and painted walls. Despite the massive population of the city, the art world in Mexico DF feels roughly Chicago-sized, so we weren’t too surprised to discover that Francisco Cordero-Oceguera, the artist behind Lodos Contemporáneo also has a gig as Camill’s assistant. The bookstore downstairs was pretty cute too. We found a kids book designed by Niki de Saint Phalle called Malo Malo that I only wish I had as a toddler.

Pia Camill at O.M.R.

Our final stop before returning to Material was the oft recommended Museo Nacional de Antropología. Totes worth it. From the Vázquez building to the Sone of the Sun and the countless artifacts and displays, you could spent an entire vacation in the museum. It was all pretty spectacular, even if we could only decipher about half of the label text. After drooling over the elaborate marble and molar sacrificial jewelry we took a walk through Chapultepec Park where the Museo Rufino Tamayo is also located.

Antique artists pallets and tools.

Just some morning yoga at the museo.

Sacraficial teeth necklace!

Recreation of a mural inside of the pre-Colombian wing.

Bone instruments at the Museo Nacional de Antropología.

For the slightly more adventurous and internet savvy art enthusiast, Material Fair at the Hilton Reforma in El Centro was the place. The marked difference between the two fairs was palpable as soon as you made it to the entrance on the fourth floor. Far from a chore, Material felt like a hip family reunion with newly discovered extended cousins. Their signage was also way more to my liking. By invitation only, the fair was a tightly curated selection of 40 art galleries and alternative spaces from Mexico, the States and Europe. I like to think that this fair would have been Bourdain’s preference.

While some familiar veterans like Andrew Rafacz (Chicago), Kinman (London), Clifton Benevento (New York), Michael Jon (Miami) and Green Gallery (Milwaukee) were present, the inclusion of project spaces (aka alternative spaces, apartment galleries, pick your favorite) such as Queer Thoughts (Chicago), Regina Rex (Queens) and Important Projects (Oakland) galvanized fairgoers and established fraternal bonds amongst the visiting artists and galleries. The anchors of Material were absolutely the Mexican project spaces (Yautepec, Otras Obras, NO Space, Neter, Lodos Contemporáneo, and more) who also acted as generous hosts and guides for the artists and gallerists visiting from abroad.

Chelsea Culp’s work inside the QT booth.

QT booth on the opening night of Material.

The success was largely due to the personal touch and attention of fair organizers, Daniela Elbahara and Brett W. Schultz, who also run Yautepec in the neighborhood of San Rafael. Drawing on relationships they established through visiting other cities and fairs, and the observation of like-minded spaces on the internet, the fair felt like more of an authentic survey than whatever Hans Ulrich Obrist thought he was doing with 89plus.

I was feeling the crying payaso at NO Space’s booth.

The always easy to spot Birk and Delmar at the fair.

The project spaces, many showing outside of their own closet or living room for the first time, responded in a variety of ways. Some spaces, such as Important Projects, who’s own small residential Oakland space usually exhibits single artists, presented a group show which included DF locals and NO Space proprietors Debora Delmar Corp. and Andrew Birk. They also debuted print editions from Leisure Press, a project of Medium Cool’s Ria Roberts. Regina Rex’s booth was dominated by Black Beach, an impressive clay wall by Hugo Montoya, which was created on-site and continued to dry and crack throughout the duration of the fair. It paired particularly nicely with Michael Merck’s plaster casts of limited run fast food items and Alina Tenser’s jiggling vases in her Hip Openers video.

Schultz participating in a trust exercise at Otras Obras.

La_Compañía’s booth at Material Art Fair.

Other’s took a more experimental approach. Yautepec’s booth featuring Debora Delmar Corp. and Natalia Ibañez-Lario was installed with a mix of curtains, pillows fitted with printed bras, semi-household objects and brightly colored cut out legs that made it feel like the most fucked up living room in the best way. The unofficial faces of the fair, NO Space’s Birk and Delmar decided to show finished garments alongside the raw material of fashion designer Roberto Sanchez. Otras Obra’s use their booth as a studio and filmed many of the artists and attendees over the weekend. The resulting film, Dando y dando: pajarito volando is available to watch here

New blog idea…

The Regina Rex booth at Material.

Michael Hunter’s work at the Important Projects booth.

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the closing party for Material, a showcase by Mexican label N.A.A.F.I. It more than made up for our first attempt at a Material Party. People were jammed packed into Bahia Bar, the music was good and loud and there was nothing else to do but dance. As you might expect, we spotted Schultz and Elbahara breaking it down right by the stage. The party was so fun we heard Sayre Gomez changed his flight back to the states just so he could stay at Bahia longer.

Yautepec’s booth at Material.

Artists Chelsea Culp, Leonardo Kaplan, Sarah & Michael Hunter and Ben Foch on their way to Bósforo.

Elbabara receives all the flowers on a night out in Plaza Girabaldi.

The Friday night Lodos opening for an exhibition by Important Projects’ Joel Dean and Jason Benson at their space in San Rafael only reinforced the camaraderie. On the corner across from the gallery I fulfilled my dream to eat blue masa tortillas like Anthony Bourdain did and it was divine. Back to the exhibition, it was based loosely on the last line of an Amiri Baraka poem, “Another Name for Liar,” and was crammed with the fanciful arrangements of the duos “post-studio” practice. Dean’s “Poster Boy,” a double sided takeaway featuring Elroy Jetson and Trayvon Martin on the back was the most singular and powerful work in the exhibition. Other arrangements seemed to rely on an inner narrative and possible a speaker set up that wasn’t audible over the din of the crowd. That night we also got a chance to see the NO Space space, located in the dining room of Delmar and Birk’s super sweet apartment on the top floor of a nearby building.

Delmar and Dean at the opening for “Another Name for Liar” at Lodos.

The holy grail.

“Poster Boy” by Dean at Lodos.

Artist Carson Fisk Vittori in front of work by Jason Benson at Lodos.

The point is that Anthony Bordain was right. Going to Material and seeing the impressive programming around the fair was like drinking a refreshing glass bottle of agua mineral. It also doesn’t hurt that Mexico, DF is probably the most captivating city in the Americas. It’s 100% nothing like people described it beforehand, except the water thing– that definitely seems real. Having visited though I’m not surprised to have met so many ex-pat artists living there. People are super nice and interesting, there’s an obscene amount of awesome wrought iron fences, brightly painted buildings, all kinds of old and new stuff smashed together, lots of trees and anything else you could ever want ever, and so much color. We left the way we arrvied, with tacos el pastor. Mexican food in Chicago is never going to be the same again.

So… Next year in Mexico City?

Hey! PS- Watch the podcast for my forthcoming interviews with Daniela Elbahara and Brett W. Schultz, Important Projects and Cristobal Riestra from O.M.R. for more on Material Fair, MACO and why you should move to Mexico City. Hasta luego!

Todos Juntos by Rirkrit Tiravanija at MACO.