Sadly, these days it ain’t secret enough. Art fairs are cropping up everywhere, holding out the promise of instant cultural cachet to any dummy with deep pockets and a few connections. Plebes like me can buy a ticket to lookie-loo at any one of these high-end craft conventions, our new sacred, with the desperate hope of stumbling across something good (which happens… sometimes) or, indeed, even something great (much less than sometimes). Once upon a time, we tried to see God with art. That time might be distant history, but the need for magic, and for the terror and mystery that so often accompany it, hasn’t entirely left us. It’s still out there—in art and, of course, in life—and blessed be to the numinous handful who seek it out to show to the rest of us.
Jesse Bransford and Pam Grossman, two such people, united their charmed energies last weekend to bring us “The Occult Humanities Conference: Contemporary Art and Scholarship on the Esoteric Traditions,” at NYU Steinhardt’s Barney Building in the East Village. Bransford and Grossman gathered an impressive array of artists, publishers, and scholars who work almost exclusively with the history and imagery of occultism. In the building’s Rosenberg and Commons exhibition spaces, there were also temporary exhibitions, organized by Bransford, of magic-influenced art. Sponsored by the Phantasmaphile blog (“art – culture – mirabilia”), Observatory, and NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Art and Art Professions, the conference itself was intimate—a sold-out event of approximately one hundred attendees—and brought together a mixed audience of art students, curious novices, and the esoteric-sympathetic, along with fully immersed, hard-core experts and magickal practitioners.
I’m sad to report that I missed the first lecture, Saturday morning, by Susan Aberth, an associate professor of art history at Bard and author of a book on Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, the subject of her talk. Many spent the weekend swooning over Aberth’s insights into the life and art of Carrington, who, since her death in 2011, has experienced something of a renaissance. And why shouldn’t she? Carrington, after all, was an unsung feminist maker of phantasmagoric images and texts who, when barely out of her teens, abandoned a privileged life of debutante balls and royal connections to become an artist and make Max Ernst—over twenty years her senior—her lover. Fabulous.
I did, however, catch the afternoon session, which included an amazing talk by William J. Kiesel, the director of Ouroboros Press—publisher of some seriously exquisite and lavishly produced books on esotericism. His “Alchemical Vessels: Vehicles of the Hermetic Tradition” was a lecture on the history of the various ovens, alembics, and crucibles used in alchemy, and an attempt to make a distinction between their literal and metaphoric functions as described in ancient alchemical texts. “Read, pray, do your work,” said Keisel. “This was the alchemist’s motto in hopes of cultivating the divine.” Lovelier words never spoken.
Left: Acep Hale and William Kiesel. Right: Pam Grossman delivering her lecture at the OHC.
A little later that evening, Pam Grossman, founder of Phantasmaphile and one of the women behind Observatory, discussed contemporary art and the occult, and explained how she uses magical thinking to détourn the vicissitudes of daily life in New York City. “If only,” mumbled an evil witch in the audience, who was enshrouded in some kind of fucked-up Laura Ashley/harlequin drag. Grossman also framed Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room, 1977, and Broken Kilometer, 1979, as sites of otherworldly power, comprising earth, brass, lucky numbers, and sacred geometries—temples of magic tucked away on West Broadway and Wooster that seem to have much in common with archaic traditions and earth mysteries that go back to that premodern time before Minimalism and Land art.
The highlights continued on Sunday, with Chicago-based artist Elijah Burgher’s talk, in which he showed off his gorgeous, modestly sized colored pencil drawings of wicked pretty boys, ruthless ex-boyfriends, and sigils, some of which the artist “activates” with a ritualistic wank session. “A sigil is an abstraction to which one appropriately responds to by masturbating,” he said. There was also Mark O. Pilkington’s lecture on “magical technologies,” like the Hieronymus Machine and Emery Blagdon’s heartbreakingly beautiful Healing Machine. Robert Ansell, the founder of Fulgur Esoterica, presented on one of modern occultism’s patron saints, the artist and writer Austin Osman Spare, while Dr. Amy Hale discussed her scholarly research into the art and life of Ithell Colquhoun, erstwhile Surrealist, sorceress, and time traveler.
Bransford, the director of the undergraduate studio art program at NYU Steinhardt, wrapped up the conference on Sunday evening with a talk about his decade-long project on the seven planets of antiquity (the Sun, Mars, Mercury, the Moon, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn). He opened with a projection of his Aleister Crowley–inspired drawing Every Man and Woman Is a Star. More validating than even a VIP pass to Art Basel, that night, it felt like all of us really were.
IF EVER A PERSON were to overdose on art, London during Frieze Week would be the place and time to do it. From the VIP opening of Frieze Masters last Tuesday afternoon to Sunday’s close of Frieze proper, the city’s galleries, museums, and fairmongers majorly turned it out, offering abundant opportunities for overindulgence in every quarter.
Off the Regent’s Park campus, the big news was Pablo Flack and David Waddington’s Hoi Polloi. At two weeks old, this serene bistrotheque in the Ace Hotel Shoreditch is already the best art clubhouse since 1980s Odeon in New York, or ’60s Max’s, though it’s much, much calmer and serves far better food.
Just as striking was the disparity between the two fairs. Frieze got smaller and, partly because several dealers defected from PAD in Berkeley Square, Masters got larger. One of the switcheroos was Per Skarstedt, who pronounced this hybrid show the coolest fair of all. With a tent designed by Annabelle Selldorf, low lighting, soft carpeting, and gray walls, it may also be the most refined. “I came last year and saw all my clients here,” said Old Dutch Master purveyor Johnny Van Haeften. “So I thought I better get a booth.” At its center, a large Breughel, The Census at Bethlehem, was getting its first public exposure since 1611. “Frieze is like the kids’ table compared to this,” said dealer Liz Mulholland, who was working the Andrew Kreps booths at both.
Another bald fact that Masters turned up is that there are no visionaries in art today, at least not compared to rule breakers like Carl Andre (at Sperone Westwater) and Gordon Matta-Clark (at Thomas Solomon). But we have to hope. The next genius could be incubating among the young, crossover brainiacs and wits from science, medicine, and technology that Hans Ulrich Obrist and Simon Castets picked for their “89plus” marathon in the Serpentine’s new Sackler Gallery.
Meanwhile, the nearly two dozen galleries selected by curator Adriano Pedrosa for the Spotlight aisle focused on still-underappreciated artists—women, mostly. A few (Liliana Porter, Nil Yalter, Judy Chicago) were on hand to claim their due. Still, it was hard to tell if Spotlight’s history lessons turned profits or if they simply added context to the contemporary fair, which has none.
That task was left to London’s galleries and museums. Getting to Mark Bradford’s Tuesday opening at White Cube Bermondsey meant moving quickly from Regent’s Park through London’s increasingly Mexico City–style gridlock and across the Thames—impossible at rush hour. More accessible, or at least closer by, was Sadie Coles’s champagne-and-buns reception for Ryan Sullivan at her stupendous new space in Picadilly. This was the feel-good event of the night, maybe of the whole week. That was because of the obvious respect paid to Coles by the many artists and dealers in the room. “Sadie’s kicked the big boys in the balls with this gallery,” said Rachel Lehmann, in a sistahs-are-doing-it-for themselves moment. Meanwhile, Norman Rosenthal looked at the five-figure paintings on the walls and cooed about a vase he’d purchased—for Ł5,000—at Masters. “It’s from the time of Plato,” he said, still awed by his triumph.
Over in Knightsbridge, the Victoria & Albert Museum was touting “Tomorrow,” an inspired, artists’-choice exhibition by Elmgreen & Dragset. Its opening drew hundreds of people—enough to convince Erik Dragset that his son Ingar was onto something with “this art thing.” Curator Louise Shannon wasn’t surprised. “I knew these artists would stir up the museum,” she said. Most emotional was Michael Elmgreen, who could hardly believe that filmmaker Mike Leigh had cut the ribbon on the show.
“We didn’t want someone you’d expect to see at this kind of thing, like Tilda Swinton,” Elmgreen said. That’s the reason Leigh stepped up—because no one in the art world ever asked him to do that kind of thing. It may happen again. The movie he’s working on now is a biopic of J. M. W. Turner. “He had a fascinating life,” Leigh said. If only the director could have heard Nicholas Logsdail’s reading of his artist roster at the Lisson Gallery’s Frieze dinner, which was just then taking place in the magisterial Banqueting House at Whitehall.
The formal, cathedral-like dining hall has ceiling frescoes by Rubens, an awfully elaborate setting for a gallery that has long staked a claim to austere Conceptualism. By dessert, when composer-DJ Hans Berg was spinning music for an animation by Nathalie Djurberg, Jay Jopling’s dinner for Bradford at Il Bottaccio was also winding down. The candlelit room had a heavy complement of serious curators, museum directors, and collectors—Paul Schimmel and Simon de Pury, Gary Garrels, Thelma Golden, Sherri Geldin, Eileen Harris—easing to the exit. At this point, the night wasn’t exactly young, but Victoria Miro’s party for Elmgreen & Dragset at Ognisko was still swinging. “Wasn’t Mike Leigh amazing?” Elmgreen said. “Wasn’t he great?”
Despite all the revelry, VIPs filled the Frieze tent next morning from the 11 AM jump. They included an unusually high number of artists, whose presence somehow validated the whole crass enterprise, a necessary marketing component for galleries today and a boon to the social calendar too. No matter who they were, everyone needed a map. Fair directors Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp had moved every single dealer to a new location. There were also twenty-five fewer galleries, which meant wider aisles and larger booths. But the lights were still blinding, the acoustics still rotten, and, with the exception of Gagosian, whose all-Koons grandstanding seemed almost redemptive, dealer presentations borrowed more from the flea-market aesthetic than that of a saloniste. It didn’t matter.
“Everyone’s busy selling,” said former Swiss Institute director Gianni Jetzer at Frieze Projects, where early visitors were sparse. Unlike past years, when the projects were scattered throughout the tent, curator Nicola Lees’s first outing was isolated within a single, mazelike pavilion designed by architect Andreas Angelidakis. “It’s good to have a curated, critical entity in the fair,” said Artists Space director Stefan Kalmár, though it had stiff competition from its neighbors, a café and the VIP lounge. On the other hand, it also had paintball robots by Ken Okishii, a foaming bed by Lili Reynaud-Dewar, and “Temple of Play,” a modular daycare center by Angelo Plessas where one hundred kids a day could remake the room or practice meditation while their parents hunted art.
Back on the killing fields, Maureen Paley was deep in conversation with Tate director Nicholas Serota. Across the aisle, at Gisela Capitain and in the crowded White Cube and Sprüth Magers stands, serious business was definitely going on. “We’re having a super great day,” Marc Foxx told me. “I’ve sold everything.” At Michael Werner, Gordon Veneklasen livened up the booth by hiring four interns to reconstruct a 1968 James Lee Byars performance that required them all to wear a single black dress—together, all at once. It wasn’t the only stand to go for Masters-style secondary market works. Because they believe that Julian Schanbel is primed for a reassessment, Contemporary Fine Arts’s Bruno Brunnet and Nicole Hackert hung their walls with six Schnabel paintings dating from different years. Not everyone understood the strategy. As Brunnet reported, “One big collector came in and asked, ‘How much for that Oscar Murillo?’ ”
Left: Tate Modern director Chris Dercon. Right: White Columns director Matthew Higgs with Glasgow International director Sarah McCrory.
Overall, the art looked good, the people looked good, and the celebrity factor was low, unless you count artists like Jeremy Deller and curators like Lynda Morris. “I worked on the original ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ at the ICA,” Morris recalled, when dealer Toby Webster introduced us at the Modern Institute booth. “Afterward, the installers all became roadies for the Rolling Stones.”
The day’s Instagram op was at Stephen Friedman, where Jennifer Rubell had installed a giant, reclining white marble nude of herself with a cavelike “womb” at its center. People climbed in. Photos were taken. People moved on. Another attention getter was the tower of drums by Terry Adkins that set off the Salon 94 booth. It was one of four artworks acquired by the Outset Frieze Art Fund for the Tate, a partnership celebrated that evening with an especially cheerful cocktail party in Chelsea hosted by Nicoletta Fiorucci, upbeat founder of the Fiorucci Art Trust. Among the artists present was Goshka Macuga, who had orchestrated a live performance in an upstairs room that featured seminaked women whose scant clothing was partly painted on their bodies.
How to fill the hours on Thursday till the Frieze/Alexander McQueen dinner? Well. One option was the new 1:54 Contemporary African Art fair at Somerset House. Another was the Maja Hoffmann/Louisa Buck conversation in the Frieze VIP room. At the same time, there was a BFI Film Festival screening of About Sarah, a strangely banal documentary about an artist who isn’t, Sarah Lucas. She is also the subject of a career retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery that shows many of her rudest, ballsiest sculptures to distinct advantage. The Judith Hopf show at Studio Voltaire was calling then, and after a trek through a political demonstration in Trafalgar Square that snarled traffic for hours, I made it there and back in time to catch opening day of the independent, twenty-two-gallery SUNDAY fair several levels belowground on Marylebone Road.
“This is my first time here,” said collector Richard Chang, who was looking for something new and different. At this relaxed, open-plan fair, the new and the strange are most likely to make an appearance. That was certainly the case at the Arcade Gallery space, which had an indescribable sculpture of expanding soft foam by John Wallbank, while Rob Tufnel offered an aquarium by Aaron Angell, who surrounded his stoneware with live, pink or black axolotls, Mexican walking fish that seemed as bewildered by the fair as visitors were with them.
As night fell, Victoria Miro opened a second gallery, in Mayfair, with a show of “infinity net” works by Yayoi Kusama, and the David Roberts Foundation cleared its block-long building for the swarm of young people who showed up for an evening of performances by artists who included the collaborating Rodney Graham and Kim Gordon. I’ll bet it was good but I don’t know, because I had to leave that firetrap for the Frieze/McQueen dinner in the eighteenth-century Christ Church Spitalfields. That sanctuary, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, was the site of McQueen’s historic “Dante” collection show in 1996, only Stuart Shave, who attended, said it was the breakout “Highland Rape” collection that first appeared here.
Whatever the backstory, this dinner was hands-down the glam event of the week. Guests were about evenly divided between art people and fashion people, with a few music people (Neil Tennant) and troublemakers (Otis Ferry) thrown in. Singer Florence Welch and McQueen creative director Sarah Burton wore the label’s clothes, naturally, as did Kate Moss, at whose feet Peter Saville, Stefan Kalmár and other male guests kneeled for private confabs. I wondered if there was a woman in the art world who could inspire, or even tolerate, such worship. Marina Abramović? But she wasn’t here and in this crowd she wasn’t missed.
Left: Curator Nicolas Trembley with collector Mera Rubell. Right: Artist Goschka Macuga with Fiorucci Art Trust curator Milovan Farronato.
Dinner was served family style at two oak tables that ran the length of the church, one dish after another delivered by white-gloved waiters. After a few courses, it became apparent that fashion people think art people are the only ones who understand them, so John Currin and Rachel Feintstein, Massimiliano Gioni and Cecilia Alemani, Tracey Emin, Cathy Opie, Elmgreen & Dragset, Tim Blum and Jeff Poe, Nicky Verber, Toby Webster, Tate Modern director Chris Dercon, MoMA curator Laura Hoptman, and the many other dealers and collectors on hand mixed well with fashion editors, writers, and models like Suzy Menkes, Sarah Mower, Penny Martin, and Annabelle Nielson. Before dessert, the black-robed London Community Gospel Choir performed a few numbers, starting with “You’ve Got the Love,” the 1986 Candi Staton hit since covered by Florence and the Machine. But it takes more than love to get through a be-on-your-best-behavior night like this. (Choose your poison.)
Moss, for example, left the church on her own steam, but she needed help to get down the steps to the street in her towering McQueen heels. Reaching out to grip the hands of two female companions, she squealed, “Look! We’re like a bunch of lezzers!”
By the end of a Frieze Week, aren’t we all.
FRIEZE LONDON (as opposed to Frieze Masters and Frieze New York) isn’t just an art fair with a split personality. It also has the UK capital itself, splendid museums, and galleries hither and yon. In some ways they are really the hosts of Frieze Week (or the “Frizzes,” as one cab driver put it). On Monday, October 14—ostensibly the week’s “quiet night”—a bunch of them threw out the welcome mat with a round of openings and dinners that brought out the special pleasures and anxieties of living simultaneously in past and present.
Historically minded visitors with VIP cards could dip into Whistler at Dulwich Picture Gallery or Paul Klee and Mira Schendel at Tate Modern. Those who like to season their legacy issues with a sprinkle of currency only had to scoot to Pace Gallery in Soho, for curator Nicolas Trembley’s exhibition of contemporary and modern artworks inspired by Mingei, the nineteenth-century Japanese arts and crafts movement. But the night belonged to those seeking tomorrow’s yesterday today, particularly in Mayfair, where three American artists—Jeff Elrod, Daniel Arsham, and Kehinde Wiley—were having UK solo debuts at Simon Lee, Pippy Houldsworth, and Stephen Friedman, respectively. Another, Rob Pruitt, produced paintings and sculpture at Massimo De Carlo that treated the subject of suicidal depression to a Popish optimism. This sanguine mien also turned up, with a tad more violence, in refreshing paintings of the 1960s and ’70s by the late Jerzy (“Jurry”) Zeiliński at Luxembourg & Dayan, while the French-born Cyprien Gaillard found a kindred spirit in Morris Louis at Sprüth Magers, where his folded National Geographic magazine collages made clever formalist connections to the painter’s ethereal waves and spills.
Left: Dealer Massimo De Carlo. Right: Dealer Daniel Buchholz, choreographer Michael Clark, and dealer Nicholas Svennung.
Due to traffic, time constraints, and jet lag, I missed Simon Lee’s celebration of Elrod but arrived at Pippy Houldsworth just as choreographer Jonah Bokaer began a ten-minute movement dialogue with Arsham’s glass and volcanic-ash sculptures. A world and a few minutes away at Friedman, Wiley’s smashing new portraits of smiling Jamaicans posed nineteenth-century British style against his signature William Morris–patterned grounds inspired an impromptu voguing session by Art Production Fund cofounders Yvonne Force Villareal and Doreen Remen. Standing beside his installation of pedestal cubes, Pruitt described his Color Field paintings as portals to the afterlife. “They’re Prozac ads with the text removed,” he said, before departing for a pass-along dinner in the charmingly shabby environs of a Portland Place townhouse—perfect for a veteran depressive.
Over at Simpsons-on-the-Strand, an old-timey British restaurant that came alive with a multinational crowd that included Hans Ulrich Obrist, Abdullah al-Turki and supercollector Steve Cohen, Gaillard pronounced Louis “a prophet” who made “veiled paintings” in Washington, DC, home of the veiled. Here, in the parallel universe of the art world, it was hard to remember that the American government was entering its third week of terminal dysfunction. Perhaps it could do with an art fair.
Meanwhile, at St. John restaurant in the East End, dealer Maureen Paley toasted Wolfgang Tillman’s seventh solo show in twenty years with her gallery, characterizing his single-subject exhibition as “intimate and daring.” The crowd itself was a tribute to the artist. “I know!” Tillmans said, eyes wide. “Every museum director in town is here!” That was pretty close to true. The Tate’s Nicholas Serota and Chris Dercon were both on hand, as were the Whitechapel’s Iwona Blaswick, the Hayward’s Ralph Rugoff, and the ICA’s Gregor Muir. But so were Artists Space director Stefan Kalmár and White Columns director Matthew Higgs, a complement of artists who included Michael Craig-Martin and Gillian Wearing, collectors Maja Hoffmann and Phil and Shelley Fox Aarons, and dealers Nicky Verber, Jake Miller, Chantal Crousel, and Daniel Buchholz. There was some talk of a competition between the two Frieze fairs in London, whether or not there was really any crossover audience, and if even a reformatted Frieze could meet the challenge of Masters, its elegant sibling. “I’m doing both Masters and Frieze,” Buchholz told graphic designer Peter Saville. “How?” Saville asked. “I have a different dress for each,” Buchholz replied. “Polyester for Frieze, linen for Masters,” Saville advised. “Masters is very linen.”
DOUG AITKEN GREW UP IN LOS ANGELES.
“I’ve been passing through Barstow since I was a teenager,” he said. “This drive-in was always the last thing I’d see before we went into the desert. But it was always these white screens, you know? Because you pass in the daytime.”
Two high-res movie cameras and a boom mic zero in on the two members of Lucky Dragons, who are propped in a Formica booth inside the Skyline Drive-In’s concession stand. The ubiquitous Content Team hovers around them, adjusting LED lighting panels and trying dolly shots.
“You make your work, and I make my work. But if you zoom out a little bit wider, you see work that’s being made to fit within a system. You zoom out wider and you see the limitations of modern music, or literature, or of film. All these things are containers, but the space in between doesn’t have a discourse.”
The video is more than documentation, more than just blogging. It could be the final and most permanent form of Aitken’s Station to Station, a self-described nomadic, public art and music festival spanning three weeks and ten American cities, rolling by train, east to west.
“It’s not a tour. It’s not a package. We’re allowing it to be an exquisite corpse, essentially.”
The Content Team, as much or more than the artists and musicians, churns out product with abandon, like latter-day Merry Pranksters littering the country with footage—more gigabytes than will ever be recovered, let alone watched.
“I mean, it’s kind of preposterous. It was four years ago that I started working on this. And now we’re sitting here at this popcorn stand in the desert.”
Which comes first: the Experience or the Movie?
Wandering up and down Barstow’s shadeless sidewalks, you could kind of spot the S2S personnel. Two folks from the Levi’s media wing were roaming town with a vintage Polaroid camera, looking for “interesting characters.” A kid in a baseball cap and plaid shirt, which is open except for the bottom button, offers to pose—for ten bucks. “Oh, no thanks…” But he’s just playing, just messing with you. But he’s walked off.
Barstow is caught in the confluence of the I-15 and I-40 freeways, straddles Route 66, but was founded as a water stop for steam engines. Folks here serve in the military, railroad, and service industries, in that order. It’s a transient population. Barstow Station is a combination McDonald’s, Panda Express, gift shop, and liquor store built in 1973 to serve tour bus passengers. It’s made of seventeen junked rail cars. The men’s restroom is a caboose.
That evening, across town at the Amtrak station, the Los Angeles Times’s Deborah Vankin and I met Adam Auxier, Train Producer. He’d been contracted to supply the private train, provide the crew, and liaison with Amtrak. Long strips of LEDs—a piece by Doug Aitken—ran along one side of each car. The blinking, glowing locomotive drew a few curious onlookers—but how to explain? It’s art—but there’s not so much art in the train as on, or near it. But we can’t really give you a tour… The Happening is tomorrow at the Drive-In, but—it’s sold out… And—and everyone is confused by this—the train will be nowhere in sight.
A few of the train’s ten crew members were grilling flank steak on a Weber on the non-LED side of the platform. All the artists, though, were nestling into their hotels by then. People worked hard. Sleep to catch up on. Blogs to write. “It’s not a shitshow,” said Auxier.
The 1970 Festival Express, featuring Janis Joplin, the Band, the Dead, et al, was waylaid at every stop by riots over ticket prices, i.e., Music/Art should be free, man. (And don’t we still kind of feel that way?) A ticket to a Station to Station Happening cost $25, no matter what city, no matter which acts: Jackson Browne or Beck. That’s pricey for an art show most places, but cheap for a festival.
Levi’s bankrolled S2S almost entirely (and if you have to ask how much it takes to rent a train, let alone move it someplace), while minor sponsors provided gear and consumables. All ticket sales benefited a Cultural Fund for experimental programming at nine Cultural Partner institutions. Accordingly, while they technically had no content control, denim-clad Levi‘s people were a major presence. Leave it to those Levi’s guys to claim Manifest Destiny, to make Industry chic, to own Wide-Open Spaces, in a way that made Station's vague Americana- and train-themed art seem out of touch.
Here and there on the dust and gravel of the Skyline Drive-In was an art crate with an artist-designed poster on it (YOU ARE ON INDIAN LAND / SHOW SOME RESPECT, said Sam Durant’s), or a hired hand buffing the Levi’s Airstream to an unreal shine, or artist assistants Windexing the mirrors of the Nomadic Art Structure (it’s a yurt) by Urs Fischer. There were three of five artist yurts being readied in Barstow, although none were scheduled to appear. The two Nomadic Levi’s Structures were proceeding as planned.
As night fell, around a thousand paying customers strolled over the berms of the drive-in. A pair of ORV’s perched on the nearby ridge. Bands played short sets, intercut with video art and performances. Fischli & Weiss's sprawling The Way Things Go was trimmed to three kinetic transfers. A whip cracker snicked out a rhythm and an auctioneer barked numbers while a woman sang. Locals watched as photos by Stephen Shore of a desertified town (their own) flashed onto a giant screen from a projector on a scissor lift. The image wobbled in the breeze.
Then a gospel choir took a lap through the audience then up on stage with—Beck, yes—backed by Fred Martin and the Levite Camp choir as he played foxcall harmonica for “One Foot in the Grave.” Bifurcated train footage behind him provided weakly trippy visuals. “The train’s on the track. / You can’t hold the train back.” Beck riffed on the train, the desert, the atmosphere, and on designer jeans; a list of the Authentic. “Well there’s a hole in this world.” The space between worlds persisted, though. “You can’t fill it alone.” The night was too wide open.
Then again, it’s possible to just enjoy things, right? Like the surprise UFO by Peter Coffin, slowly buzzing the crowd—clearly a disc of rigging covered in LEDs—to suspend disbelief, as if from the proverbial helicopter. Beck couldn’t resist. He kept bantering about it. “I think we’re being visited by life forms from another galaxy,” he drawled. “Maybe that’s my ride home.” Then, “Two turntables and a UFO.” After the show the stage transformed into a truck and rolled away.
You didn’t have to be rich to ride, or connected, but it helped to know someone who was. Press, media team, friends of artists, friends of crew made up the manifest. A surprising number of folks seemed to have no music to play, no story to file—only experiences to experience.
“These molecular moments can be disseminated by anyone,” said Aitken, across from me in a booth in the Super Dome dining car, the second floor of which is a Lexan bubble. “Which is kind of the more utopian side of media.”
Do you consider yourself a utopian?
“No—actually I can paraphrase Paolo Soleri,” founder of Arcosanti. “I said to him before he died, ‘Are you a utopian architect?’ And he said, ‘Doug, there is no utopia because we don’t know tomorrow.’ ”
The Allan Kaprow Happenings were small and ephemeral, whereas even the train doors are two inches thick and metal.
“You know—it’s not a parking lot with melted ice on it.” But for Aitken, the train is nomadic. It’s a freewheeling platform. “Like a mobile studio. I mean Lucky Dragons might be down there right now, creating a sound experiment. But that will be influenced by maybe the miles per hour we’re going or the sound of the cars.”
Sure enough, the Recording Car, while I was there, hosted two bands—Cold Cave and Lucky Dragons—but at two times, they didn’t jam, and LD seemed almost coerced into going “down there,” like kids placed in a room full of expensive toys while the adults watched. They don’t normally “noodle around,” either, so they made a field recording of the train between cars, clacking, rhythmic, then shifted the sample, sprinkling round warpy synth with metallic creaks. Cold Cave reportedly also sampled the train. After all, as crew kept reminding me, blues ain’t nothing but the four-four time of a steam engine’s four-stroke cycle.
More than the Happenings, and probably more than Aitken’s eventual video, Station to Station was about Train Time: where a hand-picked cast of makers and doers were a community, where a ticketed high-budget spectacle was a public art festival, where a meticulously routed thousand-ton train was nomadic, where corporate underwriting was benevolent and necessary and divorced from content. The train contained its own relativity.
Artist Liz Glynn, the LA Weekly’s Catherine Wagley, and I glided through the Amtrak yard and into Los Angeles’s Union Station in the “Sinatra Car”—a Skytop Lounge caboose by Brooks Stevens, the industrial designer that pioneered planned obsolescence. It’s only two hours from Barstow to Los Angeles, but on the train it took six.
On one side of the Union Station concourse, the main stage was set up in the old Ticket Lobby; across the bustling main waiting hall the yurts and bars were clumped together in a courtyard, and beyond that was a big bar that, like Barstow Amtrak’s Casa del Desierto, like most of Station’s nine stops, was once a Harvey House—restaurant-and-hotel combos built along the Santa Fe Railroad: the country’s first food chain.
The Carsten Höller yurt had some pole problems, but Liz Glynn’s was there. A docent handed me a headlamp. I entered a black spiraling space subdivided by industrial felt walls, graffitied with cryptic chalked phrases, like: THIS IS WHY WE CANNOT PREDICT THE FUTURE. Behind a heavy curtain in a felt alcove was Glynn, red headlamp beaming, wrapped in a felt shawl.
“Would you like me to tell you a little bit about dark energy?”
Well, yeah! And she launched into a manic physics lesson. “There’s relativity, right?” All us headlamped wanderers pressed in close. “There’s dark matter.” And this talk, like her yurt, had been evolving, expanding, ever since New York, encapsulating/abstracting the extent of human science–cum-cosmology. Glynn’s lecture in Oakland, the train’s final stop, would feature collapse. In the meantime, “Dark matter causes things to come a little closer, but dark energy continues to push us out.”
The S2S Los Angeles afterparty was supposed to be held on the train, but was canceled for Security Reasons. The Levi’s party was at the Standard Hotel downtown. Blacklights electrified five Ping-Pong tables, nets and balls, everyone’s dandruff, the washes of folks’ jeans. At some point somebody rolled back a wall and revealed eight more tables.
Are you with Levi’s?
What do you do?
The next morning, Friday, I went to Track 13 at Union Station to see the train off. After the cars reached Oakland, discharged their Station to Station passengers and cargo, they would go their separate ways—most up to Seattle, the rest back to Minneapolis by way of Chicago on the back of the California Zephyr, chartered by another client. I had some idea of a big closing shot, a photo of the train’s orange Hiawatha Skytop smudging north across the frame—but that didn't work out, the train looked still, a video would have been better.
“THIS IS NOT A BIENNIAL,” said Athens Biennale codirector Poka Yio as he introduced its fourth iteration, “Agora.” “It is not an exhibition.”
This nonbiennial nonexhibition is the result of a collective experiment carried out by a “nameless and ephemeral group of artists, curators, theorists, and practitioners,” and seeks creative alternatives to a state of bankruptcy. Starting months before with weekly meetings of three teams, it ended with the occupation, fittingly, of the former Athens Stock Exchange building. The whole thing is a sort of ongoing performance: The point is, you have to be here.
The air of mystery shrouding the process, in spite of the number of people involved (some thirty curators), gave it a buzz that was enhanced and eclipsed in equal measure by current events. The day of the preview, Saturday, September 28, was dominated by widespread euphoria over that morning’s arrest of leaders of the Golden Dawn party, whose neo-Nazi members had perpetuated fear and loathing on the streets, beating and killing immigrants, since their election to parliament in 2012. Spurred by the slaying of a Greek, a young antifascist rapper, that day was the first time since the demise of the dictatorship in the 1970s that MPs had been put under arrest, and seemed proof of the government’s willingness to rout out corruption. “It’s crazy,” said curator Daphne Vitali as we dashed to the press conference on her motorcycle. “My little sister spent the night at the police station,” caught up in a protest sweep the day after the killing.
Like the Athenian agora, where classical brainstorms took place in the form of power lunches, this biennial is an open platform for discussion, with daily workshops, screenings, performances, lectures, concerts, and a forum on Sundays—a democratic takeover of an extinguished capitalist structure. Nikos Xydakis, editor in chief of Kathimerini, ignited a heated exchange when he questioned whether the public would really participate or just the usual group of hipsters. “Why do we have to be so cynical?” curator Katerina Gregos retorted.
Artist duo Fyta had already set up their “camp” in the middle of the main hall to facilitate a weeklong “Situationist burlesque,” complete with a self-devotional shrine and the continuous video Quotedious, exploring boredom as a constitutive force for creativity (alongside unemployment, perhaps). Among their workshops would be “Facebook Unfriending Advice” and “The Four Types of the Neo-macho Alternative Boy”; however, “It will not be self-help,” Fil Ieropoulos warned, pointing at his partner. “He is a Lacanian, so he is aggressively psychoanalytic.” They would also host the opera New Greece (The Making-Of), a populist oratorio about the rise, fall, and rebranding of the nation (described by Poka Yio as “a carnivalesque orgy-parade”). “They are the worst artists, but I love them the most,” said curator Mary Angela Schroth.
Across the space was DashNDem’s Reaching Re-birth, a bank of videos running lectures by motivational coaches about overcoming crisis. “You know what setback does?” Wassili Zafiris asks in a soothing voice. “Setback shows you how resilient you are.” Hanging above it all was June 26, 2007, artist George Harvalias’s appropriation of the stock-exchange quotation board from the day it shut down, reflecting a typical pre-crisis moment.
Occupying buildings certainly has its hazards: As we went up the stairs we saw a man sitting in the elevator, as if meditating. “Is it a performance?” I asked. “No, it’s an accident,” was the worried reply, as he awaited liberation from the stuck mechanism. The overwhelming question was whether it is really possible to evoke process in a visually alluring and educational way in the context of an exhibition—yes, exhibition! Design 99 (Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope) created a lounge displaying humorous videos about occupying and reactivating the ruins of a derelict Detroit neighborhood; alas, it didn’t succeed in conveying the energy of their fantastic living experiment. On the other hand, Roman Signer’s photograph Stiefel (Boots), depicting a single pair of rubber Wellingtons redirecting the flow of a river, was poetic and effective. “The whole project has a strange kind of cacophony and coherence,” noted Schroth.
That evening the Guerrilla Optimists (artists Jennifer Nelson, Alexandros Georgiou, Rosina Ivanova) sat in the middle of Omonoia Square ringing bells to recalibrate the energy of the ugly cement plaza, famously populated by junkies and immigrants. We joined in on our way to the biennial, while curious passersby photographed the anachronistic scenario. “Actually there is nothing really wrong with the spirit of the place,” Georgiou concluded. “We are the ones who have fucked it up.” By the time we arrived at Sofokleous 10, the Athens Stock Exchange was heaving and the crowd was being served ice cream designed by Poka Yio and a new Greek beer called Z.
Fyta, dressed in construction outfits ŕ la Devo, performed the song “Yellow Soup,” and sometime later we headed to a nearby tavern with a posse including Gregos, Kunsthalle Basel director Adam Szymczyk, Kunsthalle Athena director Marina Fokidis, curator Aqua Marina, and artists Stefanos Tsivopoulos and Nikos Navridis. “It doesn’t look like anybody here is in crisis,” said curator Luigi Fassi, as virtuoso musicians played rousing bouzouki. Civil disobedience is another great Greek tradition, and Gregos described her own recent clash with authorities: Her proposal for an exhibition in honor of the upcoming Greece EU presidency, focusing on the artistic response to the crisis, was curtly rejected by the foreign ministry. “It didn’t suit their official narrative that the crisis is over.” She will curate the exhibition anyway, which will show at the BOZAR in Brussels too—just without the Greek government’s stamp of approval. “We are sexy now because of the crisis,” Gregos added.
Left: Troktika performs. Right: Curator Mary Angela Schroth and artist Thanos Kyriakides.
On Sunday Hito Steyerl’s brilliantly scary talk, “The New Flesh: Material Afterlives of Images,” focused on Internet connectivity in an age where images have become actions, even weapons, and instruments of our own exploitation. Could images actually become activism? Tania Bruguera advocated art-as-activism, starting with the complaint, “Why are we still doing twentieth-century art in the twenty-first century?” Her proposal for new models of production, implementation, aesthetics, and activation for art that generates change, not just showing you stuff, was an apt instruction manual for the show as a whole.
Whereas the last biennial, “Monodrome,” pondered the recent past and heralded no way out, “Agora” conveys a sense of endless possibilities, if not concrete solutions. Full of both contemporary and ancient ruins, Athens is a city in dishabille, waiting for a new identity. As artist Geof Oppenheimer observed, “Greece is at the forefront of global problematics.” And there is a feeling that the country has the potential to create a new model for sustainable existence. The fact that the biennial came off with such camaraderie and cooperation—and not least of all, humor—is cause for hope. Will it spread? For now, it is just a temporary utopia in the birthplace of Western civilization.
Musician Dan Deacon at the Atlantic Ocean Comedy & Music Festival. (All photos: Seth Olenick)
“IT FEELS LIKE we’ve inserted a bizarre multiverse within the ship.” Comedian Kurt Braunohler and I stood on the aft of the Royal Caribbean cruise liner, gazing out at some heat lightning scarring the horizon on the third and final evening of the Atlantic Ocean Comedy & Music Festival (aka “boatparty.biz”), masterminded by the Maximum Fun network of podcasts. Indeed, our group of 250 tattooed, Twitter-literate, tech-savvy weirdos did stick out from the other 90 percent of RC passengers (the “normals,” as they were fondly dubbed), who seemed to view us with a mixture of curiosity and confusion.
The majority of the AOC&MF crew had never been on a cruise, yet we proceeded—with caution and without Internet—to acclimate ourselves to ship life (“the most surreal experience available to human beings,” noted festival comedian John Hodgman). And though there was plenty to do all day (gambling, conga lines, and rock-climbing on board; deep-diving, jet skiing, and parasailing off, during our daily Bahamian island sojourns), us boat partiers felt particularly lucky to have private access, each night, to a powerhouse artistic lineup—an escapism from our escapism that might have sated even David Foster Wallace.
For the comedy programs on the first and final nights in the dim and loungey “Spectrum Room,” Max Fun founder Jesse Thorn took a cue from festival comic Eugene Mirman’s tour model by including at least “One of Each”—a male, a female, a gay, and a nonwhite comic. Thorn upped the ante by booking two UK performers, who in the European comedy tradition added a dose of theatricality. One of them, Josie Long, enacted a film noir/Jay-Z mash-up (“I’ve got ninety-nine problems but I’m unable to disclose all of them at this time”); the other, Nadia Kamil, performed a feminist burlesque show, removing wrap dress after wrap dress to reveal political slogans (STOP ASKING ARE WOMEN FUNNY & DO SOME PROPER JOURNALISM) and her tassel-bedazzled Cambridge diploma.
Left: Comedian Kurt Braunohler. Right: Comedian Josie Long.
Unsurprisingly, many of the comedians referenced the peculiar circumstances of the cruise ship itself, while others offered satisfying gallows humor. (“We’re always just a touch away from dying here,” teased Braunohler.) Nick Thune joked about the audience’s unbridled enthusiasm: “Thank you guys for being here, I know it means a lot to you.” Mirman performed a wedding ceremony for Braunohler and his girlfriend, as well as for AOC&MF comics Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher, forcing each to agree to vows like, “I promise to bottle up my feelings and then get mad at you for hiding things I’ve actually misplaced” and “I promise to let you squeeze my breasts in a way that I don’t really like but you seem to enjoy.”
Not all performers kept things strictly silly. Braunohler related a vulnerable story about his first sexual experience, at the age of twelve, with a McDonald’s apple pie. Wyatt Cenac gave an account, for the second time ever onstage, of his father, a New York City cab driver who was murdered by a passenger when the comic was five years old. Ever the professionals, both comics did of course make us laugh, but they also brought us back to reality, cracking through the cruise’s bubble. Cenac eventually concluded his set with the dark and whimsical “palette cleanser”: “I want to start a racist bakery…and call it Cake Cake Cake.”
As Hodgman and I discussed over surf ’n’ turf during our formal dinner on Saturday evening, the Boat Party participants were a “self-selecting population” who chose “to isolate themselves from the world” to support the performers they love. The artists, too, benefitted from the setting, which inspired a “conspiracy with the audience” and a “return to authentic interaction.” This was certainly not the “Oddball,” the concurrent, ongoing music and comedy festival whose Hartford, Connecticut, audience notoriously heckled so much that headliner Dave Chappelle wound up leaving the stage in disgust after just thirty minutes.
Instead, the Boat Party’s hypercamaraderie served as proxy compensation for the festival performers. “To say no one got paid their market rate is the understatement of the century,” Thorn acknowledged in his final thank-yous. Talking poolside with me on the very last evening of the fest, electronic music wunderkind Dan Deacon enthusiastically lauded the “instant community” that had formed on board (cemented, in fact, by his own ecstatic performance during Saturday’s music show, alongside John Roderick, Nelly McKay, and John Darnielle). “Everyone here just wants to have fun. It’s this weird, cool sliver of society that doesn’t normally have a critical mass. And there are no assholes!” Moments later, some fifty of us weirdos all jumped in the pool.