ONE OF THE PERILS of political art is that it stays still as politics, trumpeted by the daily news, marches on. Laura Poitras, the Pulitzer- and Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker whose “9/11 Trilogy” culminated in CITIZENFOUR (2014), a fly-on-the-wall account of Edward Snowden’s disclosure of the National Security Agency’s family jewels, opened her first art exhibition, “Astro Noise,” at the Whitney Museum on February 5.
During “Surviving Total Surveillance,” a sold-out panel discussion held at the museum the day after the opening, Poitras said that she finds the straight news approach to covering the Snowden archive more “alien” to her than artists’ visual responses. She doesn’t like the “prioritization of the new” in journalism, she continued, being more interested in what material can make the biggest impact. This thought was foreshadowed in her gripping “Berlin Journal” from 2012–13, which details Snowden’s initial attempts to contact her and is excerpted in the show catalogue, Astro Noise: A Survival Guide: “There is a danger working with news events—they lose their meaning once public. I need to make sure everything has bigger social and human meaning.”
Since the panel, the US intelligence community has generated some news of its own, news that points up the need for activist work like Poitras’s even as it monopolizes any attention average citizens might have paid to the opening of “Astro Noise.” First, three days after “Surviving Total Surveillance,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, he of the under-oath lie that the NSA does not “wittingly” collect data on millions of Americans, announced in congressional testimony that US intelligence agencies “might use” (read: already are using) the nascent “Internet of Things” (e.g., your Web-enabled espresso machine) for surveillance purposes.
This notion, at once chilling and comical, calls to mind Philip K. Dick’s annotation to his 1953 short story “Colony”—“The ultimate in paranoia is not when everyone is against you, but when everything is against you. Instead of ‘My boss is plotting against me,’ it would be ‘My boss’s phone is plotting against me.’ ” Ironically, this is the attitude taken by the FBI in a far bigger story that broke on February 16: The security features of the Apple iPhone 5C have conspired to prevent the agency from brute-force cracking the password of the work-issued phone of Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooters.
Despite the facts that (i) the FBI can already obtain from the wireless carrier (if not the NSA) all of the phone’s metadata regarding Farook’s communications; (ii) Apple has already provided the FBI with the phone’s iCloud backup data up to six weeks prior to the shooting; and (iii) Farook and his accomplice destroyed their personal cellphones and computer hard drives in advance of the attack, indicating they were well aware of digital forensics and making the likelihood of the agency finding anything of investigative value on the work-issued phone next to nil; as well as (iv) the remote possibility that this is a psy-op run by the FBI with Apple’s complicity, intended to tout the unbreakable security of iPhones to the rest of the world as a lure to malefactors, big businessmen, and world leaders, when all the while the NSA has the full exploit at the ready; despite all this, the FBI came to Apple with a court order based on the functionally medieval All Writs Act of 1789 and to the American public with hat in hand, playing the poor, put-upon public servant just trying to do its job on one, just one, little case that happens to involve Islamist terrorists on US soil (dead terrorists, but hey, they might be planning more attacks from beyond the grave).
Left: The audience at “Surviving Total Surveillance.” Right: Laura Poitras speaks at “Surviving Total Surveillance.” (Photos: Andrew Kist)
As novel, specific, and limited the FBI’s order seems at first glance, it is just the latest strike in the government’s decades-long war against encryption of digital voice communications and Internet-connected computers. For a pocket history of the “Crypto Wars” of the 1990s, when these issues first came into view for millions of Americans, look up the Clipper Chip and the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA). (Steven Levy’s 2001 book Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government—Saving Privacy in the Digital Age is a good primer.) The FBI has been strategically waiting for a case that would push the right emotional buttons in the American public to help them achieve their goals in this area. A terrorist attack inside the homeland provides the perfect cover, as it did for the rapid passage of the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001.
In fact, the FBI already has a number of other similar locked iPhone cases moving through the courts. On February 23, the Wall Street Journal reported that a newly unsealed court document indicated that the FBI was seeking to unlock “about a dozen” other iPhones, also using the All Writs Act as a legal wedge. Because none of these other phones was used in terrorism cases, you never heard about them. This gives the lie to FBI director James Comey’s repeated assertions that the Farook order is only about one phone. The case is about setting a precedent. Cyrus Vance, Jr., New York County district attorney, has already said to the press that he has “155 to 160” locked iPhones waiting for the conclusion of this case. There’s little doubt that the Chinese and Russian governments are also closely monitoring its progress. Apple’s refusal to build the same back door for them would hold little water if they’d already done so for the FBI.
This is not about one phone. Indeed, it is not even about breaking encryption. The FBI is compelling Apple to write a different version of its operating system (iOS) that would disable three security features preventing people or machines from guessing another user’s password: one, ten wrong guesses in a row, the phone wipes its data; two, during those ten guesses, the system creates increasingly long delays between each try; three, the phone does not allow a computer to make the guesses, only human fingers. The FBI wants these features removed so they can guess the password by brute force using a fast computer, trying every possible four- or six-digit permutation until they unlock the phone. Independent cryptographers, software developers, and computer security experts—people who actually understand the principles of digital security—are nearly unanimous in their opposition to the FBI’s order. Even former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden, who never met a data exploit he didn’t like, has come out on the side of Apple. (This is so unlikely that it almost lends support to the psy-op theory.)
Supporters of the FBI have reached for myriad physical analogies for the situation (houses, safes, etc.) and can’t grasp why the idea of Apple writing this iOS just once for Farook’s phone and destroying it is untenable. Their arguments misunderstand the fundamental differences between physical and digital security. “The virtual world is not like the physical world,” Erik Neuenschwander, Apple’s manager of user privacy, stated in his declaration in support of Apple’s motion to vacate the FBI’s order, issued on February 25. “When you destroy something in the physical world, the effort to recreate it is roughly equivalent to the effort required to create it in the first place. When you create something in the virtual world, the process of creating an exact and perfect copy is as easy as a computer key stroke.” In other words, even if the FBI swore on the Bible that it will never ask Apple to build this exploit ever again, it most certainly will (it already is), as will state and local law enforcement agencies. Hence Apple’s engineers would either have to retain the documentation and rebuild a new version for every order, or they would do what anyone else who is constantly asked for something would do: They would store it.
Needless to say, there would be few other pieces of software in the world more interesting to criminals, terrorists, malevolent hackers, spies, and foreign intelligence services. Apple is good at security, but so is the NSA, and yet Snowden, a contractor, liberated thousands of their most sensitive documents. The recent hack of the US government’s Office of Personnel Management, in which foreign actors absconded with the personal data of twenty-two million current and former US government employees, also makes the idea of storing such software unacceptably dangerous. Even if Apple were able to prevent any leak or theft of the alternate iOS, defense lawyers in criminal cases prosecuted using evidence obtained in this manner would be entitled to compel discovery of the iOS from Apple, not only the software itself but all of the methodology involved in its creation. From there, it will proliferate around the globe with the “ease of a key stroke.” Finally, unbreakable encryption software is already widely available and has been for decades; Apple does not have a monopoly. Sophisticated criminals and terrorists are already using it and will no doubt switch en masse if the FBI prevails in the Farook case, so the only people who would be negatively affected by this precedent are dumb criminals/terrorists and millions of innocent iPhone users around the world.
Apple is no saint when it comes to the commercial exploitation of personal data, though it is marginally better than Google and Facebook as it is primarily a hardware company, making actual products instead of packaging its users’ data as products. But it is doing the right thing in this case, while the FBI is being blatantly disingenuous. We never would have arrived at this impasse if the FBI had not instructed San Bernardino county officials to change the phone’s iCloud password, preventing one last automatic backup that could have revealed any data from the six weeks prior to the shooting. After publicly releasing its order, the FBI arranged for a local attorney to represent the victims’ families in a push to whip up public sentiment against Apple. When pressed, Comey even admitted that the FBI seeks to apply the precedent set in this case to others. It would of course be comforting to believe the government’s pure intentions, but look at the record: J. Edgar Hoover and his blackmail files; COINTELPRO and other domestic intelligence abuses that led to the Church Committee reforms; the fabricated rationale for the Iraq War; the machinations surrounding the CIA torture report; warrantless mass surveillance and other unconstitutional domestic snooping programs revealed by Snowden; Clapper’s perjury in congressional testimony; and on and on.
Poitras, a US citizen, is herself under effective exile in Berlin due to constant harassment and intrusive searches by US customs officials every time she returns to her native country. Some of her sources for CITIZENFOUR, including NSA whistleblower William Binney, found it necessary to imply that the intelligence community would have them killed for what they had disclosed. “He [Snowden] also said that he would never commit suicide,” Poitras wrote in her “Berlin Journal,” which recalls Winston Smith’s clandestine diary even as she describes rereading 1984. “What kind of fucking world is this that everyone in my film says this to me?” It is a world in which many hundreds of people will line up outside a major museum to see an oppositional, activist exhibition like “Astro Noise,” approximately half of whom (if we’re to believe current polling on the issue) are sympathetic to the FBI in the Farook case. This is the type of cognitive dissonance that the “Snowden effect” has instilled in the general public.
One of the components of “Astro Noise” is Bed Down Location, a darkened room with a large mattress-like cushion on the floor, encouraging viewers to lie down and observe projections of the night sky over Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, jurisdictions where US drones often fly overhead in pursuit of “targeted killings.” After passing through another segment of the show, Disposition Matrix, viewers enter a final room where two screens show, respectively, heat spectrum imagery of the viewers’ bodies as they lay on the cushion and a ticker of all of the viewers’ wireless devices, identified by MAC address, time, and location. This last reveal is intended to instill in viewers both a sense of fear and of complicity in the surveillance apparatus. As I walked into the final room and saw the screens, I was momentarily distracted by noticing Snowden’s father, Lon Snowden, among the crowd. Just then, a young couple saw the screens and the woman exclaimed joyously, “That’s us!” The thrill of recognition was not in response to the cleverness of the reveal or the message of the show; it was the same digital narcissism that keeps social media afloat and stops more people from grasping the implications of our current predicament and the part they play in it.
If you want to prevent and not merely survive total surveillance, do what you can to support Apple in this case, regardless of what you may think of it as a company. While it sounds counterintuitive in the post-9/11 era, law enforcement is not supposed to be easy. What keeps free societies from becoming totalitarian societies is precisely how many limits the state places on its law enforcement agencies. It’s a sad state of affairs when we’re dependent on the richest corporation in the country to school us on American civics and constitutional law, but that’s where we’re at. From the conclusion of Apple’s motion to vacate brief: “Examples abound of society opting not to pay the price for increased and more efficient enforcement of criminal laws. For example, society does not tolerate violations of the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, even though more criminals would be convicted if the government could compel their confessions. Nor does society tolerate violations of the Fourth Amendment, even though the government could more easily obtain critical evidence if given free rein to conduct warrantless searches and seizures. At every level of our legal system—from the Constitution, to our statutes, common law, rules, and even the Department of Justice’s own policies—society has acted to preserve certain rights at the expense of burdening law enforcement’s interest in investigating crimes and bringing criminals to justice.”
IT’S 2016 and people still talk about the Internet like it has a mind of its own. Discussions that depict “the digital” as historical agent or, worse, a space unto itself, are a cottage industry. For the art set, these exchanges run the gamut from crowd-pleasing canards about Instagram’s disruption of the art market to full-length books (by Melanie Bühler, Phoebe Stubbs, and most recently Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter) on digital art and its “post-Internet” fate.
The New Museum and Rhizome recently joined the fray with their inaugural Open Score, an annual symposium exploring the state of art and technology. The name honors the fiftieth anniversary of an eponymous work from “9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering,” a flashpoint in Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver’s germinal Experiments in Art and Technology. Art and technology have always been imbricated, but today connectivity is ubiquitous and “software is eating the world,” at least according to one venture capitalist.
Four panels packed in a who’s who of digitally inclined theory and practice. New Museum director Lisa Phillips, whose introductory remarks echoed the zero-sum script written by the Silicon Valley architects, cited “the infiltration of the digital into every facet of our lives.” (Such technodeterminism should be taken with a grain of salt. When you’re a cultural institution being crowded out by digital networks, hyperbole is your best friend.) If early art-tech collaborations had the veneer of autonomous experiments, now our network is dripping with politics. We may have jumped into a “democratic space,” but we brought capitalism with us. As Cornell and Halter explain in the introduction to their book Mass Effect, a recent crop of artists is the “first to respond to the Internet not as a new medium, but rather a true mass medium.” Digital networks demand an expansion beyond the medium-specificity to which art practices have long clung.
The initial panel, “Generation You,” was moderated by Andrew Durbin and featured artists Simon Denny, Juliana Huxtable, and Jacob Ciocci and poet Cathy Park Hong. How has social media influenced their obligation to self-brand? How do they navigate its pervasive commercial pressures? Ciocci was the first to cast doubt on the habitual and spectacular othering of social media. Technology, he offered, is “anything that organizes or takes apart reality.” It’s nothing new under the sun. Denny spoke next, unapologetically embracing social technologies. He began by recounting his research into the NSA slides leaked by Edward Snowden and how he used networks like LinkedIn and Behance to track down David Darchicourt, the illustrator behind the slides’ infamous “bad design.” For Denny, Darchicourt’s work was sublime, and his installation for the New Zealand pavilion in Venice placed Darchicourt in the Marciana Library alongside Titian and Tintoretto, creating a lineage of representations of the mastery of information from Renaissance humanism to the distributed networks of the present.
Wouldn’t you know it—information overload concerns poetry too. “Poets have been oversharing way before the Internet,” Hong suggested. But faced with a metastasizing archive, poetry has, paradoxically, simplified. Hong observed that poetry on the Internet has become less “difficult” and more efficient, reduced to “content” that is often epiphanic or confessional. She took a cynical view, aligning this poetry with the software ideal “user-friendly”: “[Gertrude] Stein would have very few Tumblr followers.”
When we reflect on the messy constellation of technologies known as “the Internet,” time is a vector, a trail, a trajectory, and only a partial host for memory. Absent that, it is servers that may or may not be connected. The backlash is in full swing. Huxtable spoke of the difficulty of reconciling her critical relationship to social networks with her feeling that they are “necessary” and “omnipresent.” Huxtable argued that a historicization of the Web’s contents might challenge illusions of its democratic nature. The Google “archive” began at a certain point in time, Huxtable noted: The Internet is not simply an atemporal mass. The panel continually returned to the Internet’s inherent plurality, reacting to its monolithic metaphorical status.
Digital platforms may improve accessibility, but how do their designs impact criticism proper? For the second panel, “Liking and Critiquing,” Halter spoke with four practitioners of art criticism (loosely considered). Hypertext is the new normal, and writers must now confront their feudal relationship to platform owners. In the span of a few years we went from “Google is making us stupid” to “Wages for Facebook!” Of course, the administrators of the networks to which we’re beholden—surprise!—didn’t set out to run charities. Some, like Kimberly Drew, who doesn’t consider herself a critic, are less bothered than others. As the founder of Black Contemporary Art, which is hosted by Tumblr and Instagram, Drew remains optimistic about the peculiar forms these platforms have borne. “Why does a listicle have to be such a bad thing?” she asked.
This perspective crosses generations. Jerry Saltz claimed he discovered his social-media voice almost by accident from an innocent Facebook comment about a Marlene Dumas show. But now his love of pure opinion and palpable disdain for the “grip of a mandarin jargon that was taught in academia” aligns with the casual many-to-many voice of online discussion. Drew and Saltz have a point: Some days it can seem like the main argument of an expertly composed article could be better handled by the business end of a Facebook thread.
For many critics, social media is more agile than the measured claims of a monographic essay, able to host both the polite comments at the opening and the gossip spilled afterward at the nearby bar. But Brian Droitcour and Laura McLean-Ferris wondered about the impact on sustained, rigorous discourse. For McLean-Ferris, the online transparency of an art critic’s “IRL” social ties can make objectivity difficult. New forms of digitally mediated art criticism are merely additive, Droitcour argued. Their voice is closer to speech than text. Droitcour’s perspective is unique: His Yelp reviews of arts institutions exist alongside his contributions to Art in America, where he is an editor. “So much of art criticism is just affirming these power structures that already exist,” which Droitcour says is analogous to how our desire to share our experiences online affirms the existence of massive social platforms.
The final panel, “The Future of Internet Art,” asked how Net-art practices have evolved with the mainstreaming of the Internet. Rhizome artistic director Michael Connor began by interrogating the form’s rarely acknowledged (often Californian) ideologies. “Net art grew out of a pure frustration with mass media,” artist Constant Dullaart reminded us. For a while, there was a glimmer of freedom from corporate control. But Net art, a genre predicated on confused metaphors about digital technology, is correcting for the damage. Post-Snowden, of course, it’s impossible to think of “cyberspace” as an autonomous, deinstitutionalized Wild West. (Dullaart called today’s social-media platforms “neo-imperialist.”)
Triple Canopy director Peter Russo considered how his “provisional institution” navigates online power structures: “A minor browser update can debilitate an entire project.” But Triple Canopy’s expensive, artisanally spun custom publication platform isn’t available to all. Most artists use out-of-the-box products. Artist Shawné Michaelain Holloway reflected on her medium’s blank canvas, the empty browser. “This is where I work,” she explained. “Where can I gain power, but also, what kind of powers are imposed upon me?” In spite of certain drawbacks, both Holloway and Colin Self, whose projects use consumer Web products to offer DIY services to an LGBT community, have made these platforms a tool of emancipation.
So what happens when humans exchange information faster than ever before? Open Score captured the paradox of digital art practices in 2016: We want to retain the specialness of our virtual materials while acknowledging their ascension of the commercial-media food chain. Thankfully, artists are actively reimagining this bundle of affect we call the Internet, and the rising tide of technodeterminism may now be receding. Just in time, too: Observers have begun to interrogate our narrow frames for Internet culture. In Mass Effect, Cornell and Halter wonder about their book’s usefulness in twenty years: “[W]ill the concept of a specific mode of art engaged with the Internet have, by then, become meaningless?” Perhaps we’re already there.
ACROSS THE STREET from sunset tourists posing for snaps in front of Chris Burden’s Urban Light, jumping distance from chopped-up sections of the Berlin Wall, the first-floor windows of an International Style two-story building read over and over again, I WILL NOT MAKE ANY MORE BORING ART.
An exercise cooked up in 1971 for a class at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, the words adorn these windows but also currently a hallway downtown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and are available on pencils as merch across the street at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a marketing tie-in for a retrospective five years ago for one of Los Angeles’s most iconic artists (who also designed LACMA’s logo): the white-bearded godfather, longtime professor, and jokester Conceptualist John Baldessari, here the debut artist for his German art dealers’, Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers, brand-new space on Wilshire Boulevard.
“It’s for the artists,” said a joyful Magers Tuesday night. “Barbara Kruger suggested it and John didn’t have a gallery in LA anymore. It all went from there.” Founded in 1983, the Sprüth Magers operation’s Los Angeles digs add to galleries already in Berlin and London, an office in Cologne, and a planned outpost opening in Hong Kong in May.
Row after row of fluorescent light bounces off paper-white walls and polished concrete floors. A heavy cement column here and there pokes through from Pereira and Associates’ 1971 design, clad in bright paint that leavens the place’s solidity. Surrounded by windows on all sides, a couple of walls lined the space to make room for the pictures. Baldessari’s paintings lightly deconstruct stock photos and add a line or two of unrelated narrative in a white bar that runs along the bottom: “Yeah I know me too.” “Some other way, I’ll figure it out.” “Maybe that is the simplest way to explain it.” In a second-floor office a Rosemarie Trockel knitwork banner—“Made in Western Germany,” it said—hung behind the eighty-four-year-old Baldessari, who sat receiving former students and contemporaries come to pay their respects. “I’m very pleased to be here,” he said, “I don’t have too many good shows left in me. I’m glad this one is here.”
Outside, a line had formed, or rather two. A “general public” queue circled the courtyard and stretched all the way to the street a few hundred people deep. Another VIP line ran from the entrance, but even this cut-through began to accumulate and run long to Wilshire. I heard more than a few curators, collectors, artists, and patrons exclaim some version of “I’m not fucking waiting in line.” Baldessari’s last opening in 2012 at the since retired Margo Leavin Gallery had been a modest, almost family affair, still certainly crowded but nothing like this. The professionals were plumb aghast at how wildly popular gallery openings had become in Los Angeles.
Left: Artists Larry Johnson and Allan Ruppersberg. Right: LA MoCA chief curator Helen Molesworth and Susan Dackerman.
The hundreds in line and milling with drinks in the courtyard were shoed away at 8 PM as the gallery turned off the lights. For another hundred and more, the night continued on at a steakhouse on the first-floor of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, table after table filled with familiar faces, all the museum curators, many of our most important artists, almost like a gala but more in between the gentle exuberance of a wedding and one of those cheesy Hollywood paintings where James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and Jim Morrison all drink together. Except under the soft light of the restaurant it was Allen Ruppersberg chatting with Larry Johnson, Eli Broad passing by Maurice Marciano. Wolfgang Puck slinging his arm around Udo Kier, Joseph Kosuth brushing against Catherine Opie, Sidney Felsen sitting a few seats away from Irving Blum a few seats away from Paul Schimmel, Barbara Kruger leaning in closer to hear Ann Goldstein.
Around 11, many of the diners checked out of the hotel and drove to the afterparty up in the Hollywood Hills manse of collector and juice-magnate Eugenio López Alonso. Past Maurizio Cattelan’s stacked skeletons and Donald Judd’s stacked gold boxes and a Warhol Jackie O, Baldessari quietly sat on the living room sofa alongside longtime dealer Marian Goodman as the party raged past them and into the garden. Beyond the glass wall, revelers milled around a giant flat green elephant by Jeff Koons and the still cyan waters of the pool. The heat wave didn’t inspire anyone to leap in, but the warm night and the cool pool surely added to the reasons Berliners might open a gallery in the middle of winter in a sultry Los Angeles.
Maybe that’s the simplest way to explain it.
SMILE. DON’T SAY CHEESE. SAY PUNK’S NOT DEAD.
“I don’t know,” Kim Gordon replies, “it might have died last night.” It’s a joke, you think. But maybe she’s talking about the in-exile Saint Laurent fall 2016 fashion show that took place the night prior at the Palladium in Hollywood, an odd coupling even in Los Angeles.
Visitors love to write off our peculiar cityscape with offhand references to Baudrillard’s hyperreality. But you were born here. Star Wagons and velvet ropes are as natural to you as aloe vera plants and buildings fringed with ice cream stucco. How does Los Angeles not play itself? You are, after all, standing in a re-creation of a punk record shop hosted by Gordon and sponsored by Gagosian. It’s a fittingly self-conscious project for an art-book fair that, since landing on the West Coast at least, has stressed punk and sex as ciphers for authenticity.
The temperature is at an all-time high and the price of gas is at an all-time low. An ideal alchemy for tripping the Los Angeles art archipelago, were you not struck with a fever right as the fourth annual LA Art Book Fair flung open its doors last Thursday night. You frontload the weekend, stopping first at LaRosa Social Club, a co-branded popup interactive art-bar situation situated in a project space called The Project Space just a few blocks from the new Hauser Wirth & Schimmel compound. Everything from the artist-designed cocktail napkins (NO CHARGE WITH DRINK PURCHASE) to the limited-edition artist wines to the VIP wristbands collude in a Mission School nightclub vibe. “In LA,” says curator Aaron Rose, “you have the freedom to show art and experience art outside of the white-cube paradigm.” The digs are slick but the faces are friendly and the drinks are cheap and you are running late for the opening of the fair. “The art world and entertainment industry have a… complicated relationship,” Rose adds. For better or worse we are getting over it.
“Put your fucking camera down and feel me!” CHRISTEENE screams at the phalanx of iPhone screens separating her from the crowd. The Geffen is packed as the first wave of eager consumers descends on over 250 exhibitors, ranging from megagalleries with special projects (Gagosian’s aforementioned record shop, David Zwirner’s Jason Rhoades reissues) to independent presses and even independenter individual artists and bookmakers setting up shop in the crowded zine section.
You go outside for some air and catch some more CHRISTEENE. Dressed (to use the term loosely) in a pink glittery jockstrap, smeared with dirt, humping the air, and screaming into the microphone about art that makes her pussy wet, CHRISTEENE represents all that is right with this harried event. “Everyone in that box over there, I want to fuck,” she says. “Without the shit in that building, the world is no good.” On the way to the opening of Rob Pruitt’s Flea Market, you run into a gauntlet of friends and nonfriends huddled outside various Little Tokyo storefronts, awaiting their post-fair ramen. (This is an unofficial tradition for many fairgoers, and a good one.) A gallery director whips out her phone. “I’m going to show you three things on Instagram,” she says, “and I want you to tell me which one to go to.” One is the flea, one is the art bar, and the other is a dog meme. You point her to LaRosa, which by now has been kicked up a notch with DJ Sets from Dean Spunt of No Age and artist Chris Johanson.
It takes longer to park near the flea market than it did to drive there, but no matter. If the fair’s size overwhelms, Pruitt’s dusty warehouse extravaganza, put on in collaboration with LAND, short-circuits the eye by sheer range of offerings. You, you who have neon-limned bone marrow, are overwhelmed by the spread—from books, clothes, records, and general flea-market fare to editions of work in museum collections, actual trash, and studio refuse as merchandise. Dean Valentine fingers the goods. How’s business going? “Compared to what?” artist Sarah Rara asks. Fair enough.
The night ends at a strange house thirty minutes north in the hills of Eaton Canyon. Your partner-in-crime blasts trucker songs in the car to keep the mood up. In Los Angeles, soundtracking your itinerary is paramount, lest you give into the urge to simply drive home. The backyard is covered in string lights and heart-shaped Mylar balloons. The host is wearing a gorilla costume. The living room has been papier-mâché’d into a hot-box love cave, where artists Kate Hall and Rachelle Sawatsky are doing a sexy reading that turns into an all-gender topless dance party. A whisper of pink peeks up from the eastern horizon when you finally stumble back to the car.
“What I love about LA is how everything that’s beautiful is marred by something shitty,” declares writer, editor, app developer, and pop singer Claire L. Evans. It’s Friday afternoon. Your fever is only getting thicker, but you make it a point to catch Evans and Martine Syms in conversation at the fair. The talk spools out from an effort by the participants to categorize themselves. Syms reveals her “conceptual entrepreneur” epithet was jokingly inspired by one of Sol LeWitt’s paragraphs, “but my feelings toward the name have changed. Everyone’s an entrepreneur now.”
On Saturday, Camille Henrot holds forth on the relationship between fatigue and knowledge in her new book Elephant Child. Lost fairgoers pop in and out of the Geffen’s tiny reading room. “The world is being transformed into a square” Henrot says “I want to escape the white box and cater to no space.” Is a book a kind of escape from the white cube? “Sometimes making books is a way to avoid studio visits.”
You swing by François Ghebaly for a Channa Horwitz opening, catching the tail end of Hannah Black reading from Dark Pool Party next door at LACA. “I love LA,” Black says outside. “It’s only my third time. Every time I’m just trying to figure out what the hell is going on.” You try to make plans with a gentleman friend, an actor, but he’s working a party in Beverly Hills. A rich woman is throwing a birthday party for her husband, he tells you. His job, should he choose to accept it, is picking up one hundred burgers from In-and-Out. He is being handsomely paid. You go to bed at a mostly reasonable hour.
The LA Marathon makes for a sparse Sunday crowd, and most exhibitors have caught whatever is going around. The fever dream is over. Kim Gordon’s Body/Head plays to the Little Tokyo sunset. Rachel Mason closes out Pruitt’s flea with a cameo by Future Clown. You recall the words of the immortal CHRISTEENE: “There’s still a lot of strange people in this town, and that’s cause for celebration.”
BETWEEN SEPTEMBER 2010 and February 2011, Christchurch—New Zealand’s second-largest city—was hit by a series of earthquakes. The first, in the early hours of September 4, registered at 7.1, and caused plenty of infrastructural and property damage. But it was a shallower, 6.3 quake on February 22 that devastated the city: 185 people were killed; 115 of them in a single, multistory building that “pancaked.” There was widespread damage to homes, workplaces, and city assets like hospitals and schools; underground sewer and water systems were destroyed; and there was a massive amount of “liquefaction”—in which silt bubbled out of the ground, making whole neighborhoods uninhabitable.
The earthquakes are New Zealand’s Katrina, and the fallout has been eerily similar. Many people upped and left. Of those who stayed, many had to battle insane levels of bureaucracy to get their insurance payouts. There have been nightmarish stories about families living in garages or cars, as well as increased mental health issues. And yet the grim irony for the rest of New Zealand is that, from an economic perspective, the disaster has been a boon. The cost of the rebuild is estimated at $26.5 billion, and has been essential in protecting the country from the worst consequences of the global financial crisis.
The reopening of the Christchurch Art Gallery (CAG), then, after its five-year closure, was less about what it had on the walls than the fact it was open at all. After both the September and February quakes, the CAG had become the city’s Civil Defense Headquarters. It did, however, suffer damage below ground, and was closed for remedial work and strengthening—a drawn-out process that kept pushing its opening date back.
Jenny Harper, one of New Zealand’s most stoic and highly regarded museum directors, has headed the CAG since 2006. She had, in the earthquake years, also served as the Commissioner for New Zealand’s participation in the 2011 and 2013 Venice Biennales. Her team at the CAG had also managed to run a program of sorts while the building was closed, using temporary spaces around the city and producing a widely read blog and magazine.
But there’s no replacement for having a home base. At the reopening, Harper and her colleague Blair Jackson greeted every one of the guests as they came through the doors, often with a warm embrace. The relief was theirs to finally have their institution back, but everyone shared the elation. That’s because the New Zealand art world as a whole needs a healthy, functioning Christchurch; as the South Island’s biggest city, it is an essential part of the country’s art ecology. The number of people who’d made the trip highlighted the significance of the occasion. Among the gathered were senior artists like Billy Apple; museum directors like Simon Rees and Elizabeth Caldwell; curators including Christina Barton, Aaron Lister, and Zara Stanhope; dealers Olivia McCleavey, Sarah Hopkinson, and Hamish McKay; and collectors Jim and Mary Barr and Rob and Sue Gardiner.
Harper’s opening speech was affirmative and fearless. In her voice you could hear the kind of “take-no-prisoners” exuberance that has been a characteristic feature of her reign, hardened by years of dealing with engineers and government bureaucrats, as well as occasional media criticism—most recently from former curator Neil Roberts, who had flayed the CAG for taking one of its “Old Masters,” The Dutch Funeral, 1872, by Petrus van der Velden, out of its gilt frame. Harper couldn’t resist a dig at Roberts in return (she was absolutely right to defend it too—it is a marvelous piece of curating). She was followed by Christchurch’s mayor, Lianne Dalziel, who was also in a good mood, not just because the CAG was open but because she’d recently concluded a long-running insurance dispute for the city, netting it $420.5 million to get on with the rebuild.
The CAG is the city’s flagship art venue, but it’s just one player in Christchurch’s art scene. Alternative spaces like The Physics Room have bravely battled on since the quakes, and the Centre of Contemporary Art (CoCA) has just reopened with a new director, Paula Orrell. The Ilam School of Fine Arts is set to be reenergized with the appointment of curator and writer Aaron Kreisler as Head of School, and prominent artists like Steve Carr to the faculty. And the Scape Public Art Biennial has turned Christchurch into one of New Zealand’s best places to encounter outdoor sculpture.
Earlier that day, I’d taken the chance to see whether contemporary art and architecture really were becoming major forces in the city’s recovery. The local journalist Beck Eleven picked me up from the airport and took me first to the city’s most famous landmark—its central Cathedral, all but destroyed in the February quake. We then swung by its semipermanent replacement, the so-called “Cardboard Cathedral” by Shigeru Ban. Every so often on our drive, we were confronted with residual works from Scape, including pieces by Christchurch-based Julia Morison, and the Auckland/Berlin-based artist Judy Millar. We stopped by the Avon River to see one of the city’s most recent public artworks, Antony Gormley’s STAY, and rounded things off by clambering up a narrow flight of stairs onto the roof of the building that houses The Physics Room. There, we were able to commune with one of Christchurch’s most iconic works: Comin’ Down, a massive self-portrait by Ronnie Van Hout with one finger pointing into the air in a gesture of ambiguous defiance.
Sculpture, it seems, is becoming the signature art form of the recovery. The CAG had also put its high-profile contemporary pieces on display for the reopening—works that highlighted Harper’s connection to the Venice Biennale. On the ground floor was Michael Parekowhai’s On First Looking at Chapman’s Homer—a full-size grand piano topped by a bull, which was part of his Venice exhibition in 2011. Hovering above the gallery’s marble staircase was Bill Culbert’s light work Bebop, from his 2013 Venice installation. Upstairs, there was also a major new wall painting by Simon Morris. The crowd though, seemed unhurried about seeing the exhibitions on the night, choosing instead to lay into the excellent local beer and wine that kept flowing in the atrium. This was anchored by a strange sense of relief at the fact that—finally—we could come back whenever we liked to look at the art.
In the end, about thirty partygoers migrated toward The Physics Room and regrouped at Smash Palace—an outdoor bar named after one of New Zealand’s most famous films. It was a warm night, and many of us proceeded to get absolutely wrecked in the evening air, eventually staggering home to one of the central city’s only hotels, a charmless Ibis. The drab accommodation couldn’t dampen the evening’s mood though, best summed up by Martin Creed’s work on the outside of the CAG. Comparatively unnoticeable at dusk when we arrived for the opening, it was glowing in bright neon as we left. EVERYTHING, Creed’s well-known proclamation spelled out, IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT.
If only it were so simple. Just a week later, Christchurch suffered its worst shake in years—a 5.7 quake which, though causing limited damage, reminded everyone just how fragile and precarious this city’s recovery really is.
ON MONDAY, at Narcissa, the aptly-named restaurant for the fashion-forward at the Standard Hotel East, the indefatigable, infamous Purple editor-in-chief Olivier Zahm explained his party philosophy, which in its arch-fury reminded me of Houellebecq, six years his senior: “The world outside had its own rules, and those rules were not human.” Perhaps it’s just that they both have that particularly French air of being the toad who gets the princess, only to make their first royal decree about free love.
Delicacies must be eaten in moderation, especially French men. But if fashion dinners during New York Fashion Week are in themselves gastronomic holidays, then the Purple dinner is the one that always leaves me feeling sated. Perhaps because there’s no force-feeding. Culturally speaking. “I hate seated dinner! You sit next to people—You don’t give shit!” Zahm finished, triumphant, and flitted off to eat with someone else.
Four days prior, at Madison Square Garden, Kanye West dropped the song “Real Friends”: Lookin’ for all my real friends / How many of us? How many of us are real friends? The guests didn’t seem to share the rapper’s preening paranoia. People happily self-selected, seated themselves, and sexed up for photographs. The scene was ripe for squad-stalking, perhaps because so many people gamely invited themselves, as is the perennial spirit of the Purple dinner. Call it… laissez-faire.
“This is the first year I didn’t crash,” relayed six artists, one gallery owner, and two people who have the kind of careers that only sound plausible when you’re stoned in Silver Lake. (“I’m in the culture industry,” said a girl without blinking, so I didn’t blink either.) If I were to gander who didn’t crash, it’s everyone I recognized from their offshore weddings profiled in Vogue: Alessandra Brawn and Jon Neidich (married “at a family friend’s historic villa in Tuscany”), photographer Rachel Chandler and Tom Guinness (who enjoyed a “shamanic wedding, at Tom’s sister’s house, Damsels Farm”), and Sofia Sanchez Barrenechea and Alexandre de Betak’s (trooped to Patagonia). As a friend likes to say: “Too bad you can’t Google, Who is Derek Blasberg?” Blasberg confidently wore a bandanna around his neck, which I note only because I’m not sure how else one could wear it.
On the other hand, doesn’t Rita Ackermann just look like she deserves to be famous? You can’t buy her brand of dew, like frost on a summer morning. She has the done-down look of the 1990s from which she came, the era that deserves to coincide with the coinage of “It Girl,” a metallurgical feat no less dazzling for being the bright idea of a brat-packer. Ackermanns’s look is eerily reminiscent of a Purple editorial from Winter ’98—the year Zahm founded the magazine with Elein Fleiss—cheekily selling Bernadette of Bernadette Corporation’s “latest ideas” in makeup: “Violet and Black lip gloss, pink eyebrows… pre-Raphaelite tresses.” Elfin! Ditto for the brightly blonde, kind-eyed/hearted PR dynamo Gina Nanni, who I hadn’t seen since Miami, when I was seated between her and husband Glenn O’Brien, who, though not in attendance (“flu”), also works the platinum angle from inward-out now that I think about it.
“I’m on, um, relational aesthetics”—to quote actress Hari Nef right before she went off the record. The great grand-daughter of Diana Vreeland was also in attendance, and one of the Rolling Stone scions in a Carhartt, plus a Schnabel. “That’s either Sting’s daughter or Mick’s daughter,” someone whispered behind me of Alexandra Richards, three or four hours later, right before everyone followed Paul Sevigny to Paul’s Baby Grand. (And by everyone I mean everyone who was talking about their hours-old The Life of Pablo bootlegs “from the VIP section at Madison Square Garden” at Paul’s the night of the Richardson party. Another self-advertised intellectual-cum–sex magazine founded in ’97–’98 for those who know where Lispenard Street is, basically.)
But back to following the gaggle, which I always have to reflexively catch myself from assuming is a model horde: Langley Fox, who draws, looked fresh as a daisy in a floppy brimmed hat and wild printed stretch pants, and promptly returned to her seat upstairs with Lili Sumner. And Ellen von Unwerth, in an equally splashy pink polka-dot button-up! The photographer of “feminist erotica” later table-hopped to winkingly tell the artists Alex Da Corte and Sam McKinniss—who happen to be best friends, and ended up seated with me—that they’re too attractive to be taken seriously as artists. “That’s a problem I didn’t know I had, frankly,” McKinniss replied, laughing. It’s a problem that, if the women and gays at their dinners are any indication, Purple exists to debunk.
All the problems at the Purple dinner seemed to be fixed by sitting on a lap. Well, almost: “I don’t have any immediate connections here. I’m just waiting for my wife. She’s over there in a rather sensual area,” said the only person the entire night I caught standing alone, a little lost, sans squad. I recognized him slightly, maybe from his wife’s Instagram account. I complimented him on her looks while trying to simultaneously herd six to ten of my closest friends and acquaintances to a table so we could eat. “Yes, it’s fun to have an attractive wife,” he said, seriously. I must have looked at him queerly, but only because I hadn’t heard the word “fun” all week.
But he was right. There was something airy and easy about the whole thing. Not keeping to the moody blues of winter at all. Maybe it was just the insouciant casualness of this dinner vis-à-vis fashion week, best summed up by Georgia Ford—whose mother wrote E.T.— as she signaled for the waiter to carry over a chair for McKinniss: “What is this, the Dazed dinner?”
The seating arrangements had narratives all their own, due I suppose to “those two great considerations, the practical and the mystical”—to needlessly quote Conrad. The mise-en-scène, if you will: McKinniss came to dinner from his studio, where he’d just finished a portrait of a young Drew Barrymore in E.T. Which, though he doesn’t want me to say so, is being swooped up by Marc Jacobs, who (when he was a long-haired lad) starred in an Iceberg Jeans campaign, which was true of the other half of our table when Zahm art-directed the 2015 spring campaign: artist Jeanette Hayes, Vogue sex columnist Karley Sciortino, Ford and her boyfriend, the musician Donald Cumming. Nef headed the table. I’d caught Nef—New York’s It Model, don’t you think?—on Valentine’s Day coming from a “chat with Marc.” She was again in her fashion-week uniform of a giant white fur coat, which looked très chic, transcending as only fur can a coloration not unlike that of city snow. Perhaps I’m just complimenting Marc for always having his finger on, well, a pulse, or for, um, fingering the squad to which I was adjacent. Like I was the only one who hadn’t been invited to join Raya, the “dating app for famous people.” Nef and Hayes comforted me, claiming that they only get DMs asking “to collaborate.”
But it was a fashion dinner. So dinner disintegrated before the food could be served, and talk was whisked away by waiters who wanted to flip all the tables in their section, hungry only for another gratuity. I ended up sucking down cigarettes in the Standard’s courtyard, which abuts the restaurant. Dinner and dessert. “Aurel asked me this thing yesterday,” said artist Lucien Smith to those milling about, referring to the artist Aurel Schmidt, after he and Ford, twenty-five, established that they met in a “knife fight” ten years ago in LA. “Don’t you want a legacy? Don’t you want people to know who you are? Don’t you want a wife and a car and a house?”
But everyone shrugged. Knowing you don’t want to meet anyone on Raya is different from knowing what you want.