SUMMARY: The series of art fairs clustered around Art Basel Miami Beach — known as “Art Week Miami” — was for me a fitting conclusion to an eventful year of artistic career development, post-graduation from NYU. What I thought might be a tame art world affair ended up being a wild carnival of parties, business and pleasure. Miami acted as a great catalyst for the tribes of the art world, presenting a venue for various power plays, great and small; it was a key opportunity to forge relationships and gather intelligence about how the art game is played. Drinks were drank, Cuban sandwiches eaten, some reputations were consolidated, while others were eroded — but everyone left Miami a bit different. The following report distills my observations and reflections of Art Week Miami 2019 as a newcomer to the art scene.
REPORT: From December 5–8, 2019, during Miami Art Week, I participated in the Contemporary and Digital Art Fair (CADAF), which was my first ever art fair. I presented four new light paintings under the banner of the Eldograte Gallery, basically an art start-up by Eleonora Brizi, my petite-but-feisty Italian curator/gallerist who speaks fluent Mandarin and previously worked for Ai Weiwei in Beijing for six years. Her gallery is focused on re-imagining the traditional gallery space, instead focusing on a de-centralized, global presence that is able to connect digital art with traditional art collection.
“Art Week Miami” (AWM) is the unofficial name for Art Basel Miami — arguably the world’s most important art fair — which occurs annually in early December in South Beach, Miami. Alongside Basel, AWM features competing art fairs of various sizes and flavours, each of which occupy a place in the intricate art world hierarchy. To quote the New York Times, “Art Basel Miami Beach is not only a fair, but also the linchpin of a whole event ecosystem.”¹
At the top of the hierarchy is Art Basel at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Somewhere lower down, which I suspect to be mid-to-high level, are the Untitled and Scope. Then there’s Art Miami, Perez and many others. Being green, I don’t know enough to assess the hierarchy of fairs, I don’t even know the names of all the fairs — however I do know that in the hierarchy, my fair, CADAF, was definitely the grungy new kid on the block. And I appreciated what we were. Composed of just digital art, we were a bunch of artists and galleries that did Machine Learning, VR, AR, blockchain, video, light and other weird stuff categorized as digital. (Somehow one guy’s art piece was a video of himself breeding bedbugs and infecting a Trump hotel with them — gross). We were different from what’s out there.
Our fair had a grungy feel: a dusty, darkened warehouse on a street full of graffiti with two other art fairs and three music festivals at full blast within a one block radius. We were in the thick of young Basel, punk-looking graffiti artists littered the street with empty beer and cans of spray paint. Across the street, Grimes played a music festival down our street on our opening night. The CADAF opening had an open bar with unlimited Bacardi drinks. Comment: I can explain art so well after five rum-and-sodas.
On the whole, AWM was a gathering of the various art world tribes and a carnival of sorts. I rolled with the New York digital art tribe, which is part of the NYC art tribe more broadly. They were a core group of people in New York dedicated to promoting “digital art”, a broad term that unites all any art that involves some level of programming. Elenora’s start-up, Eldograte, was linked to the MOCDA (The Museum for Contemporary and Digital Art) and to DADA, who are, in turn, linked to a guy named Jason Bailey, a leading critic on the digital and generative art scene.
Nearly every person I met in Miami was from New York. I made friends with people who lived a blocks away from me in Brooklyn. I sold a piece of light art to a collector who lives in Greenpoint (also in Brooklyn). In this way, Miami was like going to the Catskills, but a thousand miles away, with better weather and more bikinis. The social role of Basel Miami, at least amongst the New York art world, was a place where customary art world boundaries in New York City are let down, and a great mixing can occur.
Hierarchy & Selling: Miami served as an arena for the internal politics of the various art world tribes to play out. AWM can be considered a directional event — one does not leave Miami in the same place. Whether artist, gallery or curator, the development of one’s reputation and place in the overlapping hierarchies was fundamentally based on selling. The two key questions in this regard were: A: did you sell art? and B: in what manner did you sell art. “B” is important because B directly informs the value of A. For instance, if your work was unvalued in order to sell, the value of your A is decreased. Or if you sold the work before Basel, but brought it along just to put a red dot on it (the red dot is the indicator of a sale), that also devalues your reputation, as it is dishonest. Many other factors weigh on reputation, including social dynamics, what dinners you get invite to, who knows your name, etc, etc.
Curators and Gallerists: Gallerists hosts spaces where art is sold, curators put shows together. Based on the info at hand, it is my preliminary theory that curators that succeed will end up as gallerists. Gallerists are where the money flows through, where the buck stops, where beyond the ephemerality of the art comes down to basic sales: relationships, discounts, power dynamics — ABC “Always Be Closing” (and sometimes “Closing” means doing nothing.) Gallerists and curators may be the same person (especially in the beginning, before the big money). This was the case for my curator, with whom I felt this was a joint venture. [REDACTED — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — REDACTED]. There was something pure about this stage. Rothko once said: “When I was a younger man, art was a lonely thing; no galleries, no collectors, no critics, no money. Yet it was a golden time, for then we had nothing to lose and a vision to gain.” I very much felt this to be like that.
Money, Social Power, Hedonistic Novelty: AWM was an event dominated by money, yet how money flowed was shaped by articulations of social power, dominated mostly by the power of exclusivity. Within the context of a hedonist environment, exclusivity creates a climate that is one part fearful (fear of dropping down in the hierarchy), one part sterile (money comes with security and accumulation, things which breed sterility), and one part wild. The wildness seems to be generated by the artists, who can generate novelty and entertainment for masses at any social-economic level. While there was a plenty of genuinely inspiring art pieces, they formed a more quiet backdrop for the buzz of pieces that are more like “Art as Hedonist Novelty”, something that is one magic trick, one part fuck-you-art-world and one part love-me-please.
Art Collectors: Collectors are to the art world what movie goers are to the film industry. Without their dollars, none of it happens. Yet what struck me in my very few interactions with them is that they are a mixed bag of people. Some are very normal and some are extremely eccentric. (That said, this is one of the fields of analysis which I have the least information on.)
Narrative, Object & Symbol: Throughout the week, my curator would receive advance warning from CADAF leadership that a group of curators would be coming at specific times, and she would Whatapp me to ensure I was at the booth. She wanted me at the booth because it was a known fact that if an artist is present to talk about the art, there was a 50% higher chance of selling. I found this to be true. When I articulated the philosophy and approach I took toward my light paintings, things clicked with the viewer more so than if they didn’t have that information. While this may seem to contradict notions that art needs to function, firstly-and-foremost as a direct experience, I have found that a powerful narrative is not a replacement for a direct experience, but rather serves to amplify it. A well articulated narrative and a good direct experience serve to reinforce one another. This mutual reinforcement is what changes the art in the eyes of the viewer from that of a mere object to that of a symbol. As a symbol, the art achieves a permanence in the heart of the viewer — and it is my understanding that it is on this bedrock where art selling is most likely. Comment: but who knows, really — I don’t know how to sell a bananas for $120K
The Banana: While I remain undecided about whether I like the Banana, I have decided that it is interesting. Somehow, a bit of information plus the entire life history of Mauricio Cattelan created the conditions that allowed a deli banana and some duct tape to be exchanged for $120,000 USD. And somehow, this created a spiralling mass of people who came, both near and far, to get close to and take pictures with this object. It was like a nihilistic version of how Muslims circumambulate around the Kabaa during Hajj in Mecca.
My official classification is that it is not art — it is a neat trick, perhaps the neatest trick ever, but it remains a sleight of hand, a brilliant maneuver that is not art because it fails to engage the emotions. It serves to entertain the bored, rich & high-as-fuck collective ego consciousness of the art world. It was a symbol of the vapidness of Art Week in South Beach, Miami. Yet unofficially, I remain undecided on the banana.
Despite the vapidity of AWM, I personally had many incredibly beautiful experiences. How could this be? How could vapidity (a lack of meaning) create the conditions for beautiful experiences (meaning). It is the presence of those opposites that lead me to doubt my own assessment of the banana. If I had to make an argument that the banana is “Art” in the capital-A sense, I would say its art was in how the entire Art Week Miami was compelled to revolve around its the axis, like a galaxy revolving around a black hole. The banana served as that black hole, devoid of meaning, around which meaning circumnavigates. Because I had fun going to the banana, and Eleonara and I took fun pictures with it, and all my people on IG liked my banana picture, and I became marginally cooler in the eyes of some peers because of the banana. The banana gave everyone something to talk about. Something for strangers to talk about, whether it was business or pleasure. Something so ridiculous — and everyone knows is so ridiculous — that it was the perfect conversational piece that led to people to participate in meaning even as the vehicle with which they participated, lacked any meaning. And the ultimate argument is: whatever — it’s fun.
This Medium article is written in the style of Canadian diplomatic reporting, because I formerly worked as a Canadian diplomat, and I really enjoy writing in this style. It’s the part of my former career that I miss the most — besides having money.
Normally the “comment” section of Canadian diplomatic reporting is reserved for speculation, or saying things that couldn’t be said in the report body. But since I am the corporate entity that I am reporting for in these weird diplomatic-style art reports, I will simply state what I know.
For me, one thing to clear: [ REDACTED —— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —REDACTED ].
On a personal note, after grinding for a whole year without a break, it felt like a great validation to sell in Miami and to gain the mutual respect of all the amazing people I met. It felt good to walk the walk and talk the talk, and hang with the big kids at my level, since I am sure every level has their schoolyard and every level has their big kids.
On an artistic level, I am inspired by what I saw. I saw what the next level, in terms of professionalism, finish, and depth of art work, consists of it. In this regard I have a long way toward mastering of my own pieces based on seeing what more established artists put into theirs.
Jason Yung is a Brooklyn-based Canadian artist primarily working with light as a medium. You can see his work on Instagram @BushwickLightbox or jasonyung.ca
This medium article is part of my ongoing understanding of the art world, and reports of my own development in this regard. Please feel free to forward this to anyone who you think would find this interesting.
If you want to reach out for any reason, please email me: jason [dot] yung [at] gmail [dot] com