“It Took a Long Time to Get There, but Washington has Now Finally (e)merged”
“… art fairs are a little like hot dog eating contests… After a while, you stop savoring each individual hot dog. You’re just trying to get as many into your mouth as you can without losing your lunch.”– Michael O’Sullivan, The Washington Post [online], writing preliminarily of last year’s event (5 Oct. 2012)
One might say it was only a question of time, in several ways, before Washington DC had to have its own important international art fair; and it can be suggested that is also one reason why it is called (e)merge. For the city, as press releases for this event stress, has now finally “arrived” as a “cool” destination for a new generation of young professionals and savvy hip consumers.[i] Or rather, since this is the Fair’s third annual installment, in 2013 it is re-re-(e)merging, having instated itself as a cultural fixture: fittingly situated, given D.C. is routinely descended upon for by tourists, in a hotel. This is the Capitol Skyline (so-named because the dome of the Capitol building can be seen hovering above I-395 from some of its windows). It is situated in a strip of Southwest only about a half-dozen blocks from the Mall—studded as it is by Smithsonian museums, including those which to an extent still throw their shadows across the capitol’s art scene. Speaking as someone who actually stayed at that hotel before it was purchased by real estate investors and big art collectors Don and Mera Rubell, to be transformed by the ground-breaking work of Leigh Conner and Jamie Smith of Connersmith. annually into a mecca for a Contemporary art and cultural event, who would have suspected it?
Situating the Fair
The funkily early 60s Morris Lapidus building has been left largely as if a found object incorporated into an assemblage, and definitely has that collaged feeling when experienced loaded full of art as well as roaming visitors on an opening night. It sports a neo-flashback lobby, like a retro installation piece in itself, a bar (great for video art), and a swimming pool complete with plastic orange deck chairs (perfect for performance pieces). But one cannot leave out the underground parking garage, where the initial 2011 (e)merge had located collaboratively constructed installations by students of DC-area art schools; this time performance/installations seemed a little like they were camped out there. It all felt as if you dropped into an updated Breughel painting, with nitty-gritty decentralized things going on everywhere and the experiential texture of a marketplace. (Belgian artist Guillaume Bijl made caravan-like installations at art fairs and had booths of his own where he “marketed” other kinds of wares than art, reflecting the “trade fair” quality back on itself.[ii]) This is true especially when you take the elevator to the second floor, where art galleries have rented hotel rooms[iii]—it cost extra to have their furniture moved out—to competitively display their art-wares, all vying for your attention.
Note: click on any image to enlarge
So it was/is “about time” for Washington to (e)merge, then, in the same sense that it might be the right moment for the city to “go for” hosting the Olympic Games. But it is also “about time” because of the sheer quantity of Contemporary art now produced and shown in the D.C. metro area. This is judging, for example, by a list the author recently compiled for this publication, of 200 exhibition venues in and around the city (including Baltimore, suburban Maryland and Virginia as well as Annapolis, Easton and Rehoboth); and the fact that apparently hundreds of un-represented artists applied to show their works or perform in the Capitol Skyline’s public spaces during each (e)merge fair.[iv] These are the two “platforms” composing this fair, as explained in the releases, borrowing terminology from IT-parlance in artworld use at least since Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 of 2002: with galleries showing their own stables of emerging artists, and artists not yet emerged into the official art market “busking” alongside. The final reason for this fair’s coming into existence now might be suggested by its website’s background imagery, the hotel pool: liquidity, or the hopefully-increasing financial viability of markets in general, and art investments in particular?
Yet given (e)merge’s relatively small scale (80 exhibitors, including both galleries or non-profit spaces and independent artists; Art Basel has 300+[v]), with its particular character, given the predominance of performance and installation art, emphasis is seemingly not especially placed upon salability. And despite a third of the galleries/art spaces being from abroad, with about the same foreign/U.S. proportions among the vetted independent artists, there is something of a “local” D.C. Metro area orientation among the chosen Americans.
The sense a visitor gets here reminds me of art fair curator Paco Barragan’s clever observations in his The Art Fair Age. There he points out both that what is being “sold” in such a setting is largely an “experience” rather than objects; and that the fairs’ convenient nature for those who want to be “in the know” but do not have time or resources to visit galleries and follow artists is why such a plethora of art fairs has (e)merged since the turn of the 21st century (replacing the 90s’ “biennial culture”). It seems spot-on when Barragan writes: “If shops are turning into cultural sites, then art fairs exemplify like no other event the union between leisure, commerce and novelty… ‘Experience economy’ is a concept that has found its way in recent years… According to this theory, society has entered an era where experience has become the most prized economic offering… We pay for experiencing or accessing a product… and not so much for the product itself…The art fair as a concept represents par excellence the paradigm of that experience economy…”[vi]
If we have thus entered an “info-tainment world” at the Capitol Skyline (and perhaps within the ever-more-evanescent, event-dominated artworld in general lately), a further point Barragan makes is on the money when he describes another function of such events, which is certainly true of [e]merge. As he puts it: “In the current neo-capitalist system, the art fair has assumed the status of Urban Entertainment Center (UEC)… It is considered that it was the Walt Disney Company that first gave birth to the concept when it rejuvenated the decayed Times Square area in New York by means of restoring the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street… UEC’s are created with the goal of recovering and revitalizing an impoverished and derelict downtown area, where property contractors, municipal government and, even more importantly, companies specializing in the entertainment industry… all join forces to intervene.”[vii]
From a city, the District of Columbia, which has in the last 5-10 years brought you the “new” H Street NE corridor, NoMa, 14th Street NW, up-scaled Adams Morgan and Shaw, as well as the Nationals Park area: is this an initiative to take on the rest of SW? For real estate investors, hotel chain owners and major-league collectors Don and Mera Rubell who bought the Capitol Skyline, thus making the (e)merge art fair possible, also purchased the unused Randall School across the street, which they planned to develop into a museum, hotel and apartments.[viii] This would be the second time the Rubells have renovated a venue for their personal art trove, since they have already established the Rubell Family Collection and Contemporary Arts Foundation (in 1964, in Miami since 1994), housing it in a repurposed Drug Enforcement Agency confiscated goods facility. They established the “Miami Model,” where collectors create their own rather than contributing to public institutions, apropos given they possess ca. 5,000 works (like a small museum). The Rubells were also crucial in negotiating Art Basel Miami into existence.[ix]
It seems important to look at precedents for this fair in particular, as well as at the beginning of a modern-era art fair model, before moving on to experience the plethora on offer at (e)merge 2013, brought into being by veteran dealers Leigh Conner and Jamie Smith, a force on the Washington art scene, manning Connersmith. The feeling preceding (e)merge’s launch in Fall 2011 was clouded by a previous effort by Ilana Vardy to provide DC with its own art fair. “artDC” was held at the Washington Convention Center in 2007, its subsequent installment disappointingly closed before opening due to insolvency.[x] So the stakes were high and the precedent daunting when the Connersmiths threw their expert hat into the ring (aided by Pulse art fair founder Helen Allen), in part motivated to focus their fair on (e)merging artists because of the success of their series of shows of new work by DC-area art school students. As Jamie Smith has elaborated in interview: “It all started with [our] annual Academy exhibition, for MFA and BFA graduates in the Washington and Baltimore area… We have learned from 10 years of showing over 200 emerging artists that a new platform was needed to help them start their careers.”[xi] So that became (e)merge’s goal, with “inspiration” for its setting lying in the precedents of other “hotel fairs” that had also introduced “the careers of young galleries and artists: Grammercy Park, the Times Square Show, and Ritz Hotel Exhibition.”[xii] A lineage (e)merges.
One which began when—going back to the Ur-beginning of contemporary art fairs as event-genre—the very first took place in Cologne in the 60s, in a fashion Olav Velthuis has usefully described: “When in 1967 the German art dealers Rudolf Zwirner [now prominent] and Hein Stuenke drummed up a few colleagues to spend a few days in Cologne selling art, there was no sign of the glamour of the contemporary art fair. Not more than 31 galleries, German all of them, participated… Zwirner and Stuenke took the idea from the second-hand book fair then held in Stuttgart, and simply called their event Kunstmarkt—Art fair… the first modern art fair became a fact…” Pointing out the immense impact this paradigm subsequently has had (there are now at least 100 globally), Velthuis explains: “This overwhelming success stems from the fact that the art fair was in fact far ahead of its time: it offered an answer to developments which in 1967 were of no concern whatsoever, but which would, from the eighties onward, transform the artistic landscape in a significant way: the explosive growth of the number of artists, galleries, and collectors of contemporary art; globalization; the ‘festivalization’ of the art world; the strong status-related sensitivities of the new art buyers. Kunstmarkt was the prelude…”[xiii] Ironically, despite the transformations it has wrought, Art Cologne is now no more.
Similar events closer to home presaged (e)merge in Washington, like the unjuried Artomatic exhibitions. The first took place in 1999 in the empty Manhattan Laundry Building; it occupies a different unused structure each time and was in Crystal City in 2012, with the scale of response seemingly demonstrating a growing appetite for new contemporary art here.[xiv] And as perhaps any successful endeavor will, (e)merge’s first foray called into being a number of if-quasi dissident “satellite events:” among them “Submerge,” “But is it Art?”, “FairFairFair,” and even a large-scale event (show/party) “Art All Night” in the Shaw neighborhood.[xv] It is arguable the energy propelling even such “anti”-ventures demonstrates this more-“official” undertaking has achieved critical mass, as a partial roster of (e)merge’s third edition indicates. Among its participants: NOMAD, Brussels, Amstel Gallery, Amsterdam and Aureus Contemporary, Basel; Segal Projects, LA; C.Grimaldis Gallery and Goya Contemporary, Baltimore; and from D.C. Charles Krause/Reporting Fine Art, Flashpoint, Hamiltonian, Transformer and WPA. While some of these sit on the vetting committee for choosing independent artists, rather than a potential conflict-of-interest this (as explained to me by Amy Raehse of Goya Contemporary) is the self-conscious mentoring strategy of a core group that would step back when a subsequent generation (e)merged. That board included as well: Molly Donovan from the National Gallery of Art, curator of White Columns in NYC Matthew Higgs, Director of the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh Eric Shiner, and Yvonne Force Villareal (co-founder of Art Production Fund).
There were also two panel discussions: one Friday, “CONNECT: Artists + Community;” and Saturday, “COLLECT: Emerging Art;” while the whole agenda wrapped up with a “Mapping Project: Visualizing the World of Contemporary Art,” locating yourself using “geo-location technology… creating a virtual nexus.” You can “be there” virtually.
Nonetheless, one major motivating force behind an event like (e)merge is that everyone on or in the art scene is (for once) physically all together and can see one another (or themselves) as being part of it. There we were, with gossip and kibbitzing echoing in the Skyline’s narrow hallways, people celebrating their in-the-knowness and recognition, self-consciously browsing and commenting upon the offerings en masse while watching each other do it. In such a context the boundaries putatively separating “performance art” from its audience blur; while the panel discussions’ topics precisely characterize the location of this exhibition setting, poised as it is literally between the artists’ community and projected collectors of their work.
With respect to the “galleries platform,” to begin viewing with that half of the fair, there is a certain fascinating titillation with going into peoples’ hotel rooms, not to mention the further amazement as to how completely different the same identical spaces placed one-beside-the-other can be made to experientially be. The sheer inventive surmounting (or creatively accepting) of the technical difficulties presented by displaying art in spaces not intended for it impresses; and for admittedly entirely different reasons, a half-dozen of (e)merge’s participants warrant mention. By way of lead-in, there are evidently three general approaches to confronting what is unavoidable, all equally valid: one, working with and acknowledging the idiosyncratic showcase in some (more or less) intriguing way; two, treating a retro hotel room as a “normal” venue, simply exhibiting works within it in traditional fashion; and three, attempting to transform these spaces in some physical way shaping itself around the art being shown.
Interesting instances of the foremost approach included both ROCKELMANN& from Berlin and Segal Projects from Los Angeles, in different fashions. In the first case, artist Jeffrey Teuton lay pseudo-beefcakelike across one bed opposite his painting (also “autobiographical”) with head propped in hand, a magic-markered piece of paper laconically prompting the visitor to question him, and proffering a book he had written (as if the viewer had entered his actual living and/or mental space). In the second, the featured Erik Mark Sandberg had designed the entire coordinated “ensemble” embellishing the room—utilizing his skills in printmaking, painting and sculpture to create an inter-relating “interior design” of 70s-reminscent objects including even the landscape bedspreads. Director Gilad Segal explained SEGALprojects generally works with one artist at a time to develop a group or series of related works, so their strategy synched. Among instances of option two above, proceeding in a relatively straightforward modernist white-cube fashion to exhibit within the nonetheless idiosyncratic hostelry space, were Aureus Contemporary from Basel and Washington’s iconic WPA (where Lisa Gold agreed setting up shop at Capitol Skyline was analogous to what has, by now, become their standard “pop-up” operating procedure of utilizing varied venues, since not having their own space).
Both, in different senses, made gestures seeming to acknowledge the unique nature of this exhibition context: first Aureus, with its ubiquitously clever director Kevin Havelton, had hung one wall allover with smaller momento-like works grouped in a manner evoking a private-residence salon (with its striped wallpaper). While the Swiss played with the private/public nature of a hotel room, one of the artists WPA had chosen—Australian Marley Dawson—crafted six-packs of turned wood spiked with aluminum bottle-rockets, paired with their trajectories on the wall: simultaneously referencing refreshments in the BAR/LOUNGE down the hall, and inserting a vaguely dangerous but celebratory note to the proceedings.
Rounding off the gallery platform was Krause/Reporting Fine Art’s (also of Washington) strategy that best exemplified the third option for encountering “alien” exhibition terrain: altering the space to reconfigure it around the artworks being presented. Its director engaged a designer to assist in transforming his allotted room into an integral gridded structure both enclosing and showcasing the major-league works of Boris Lurie, Holocaust survivor and founder of the 1960s NO!Art movement; and Jerzy Janiszewski, creator of the Solidarity poster which provided a focus for the 1980 Polish uprising against the USSR. K.M. Ramich’s mechanized robot-like pieces relating to the gallery’s previous “Newtown Show” about gun control reminded that outside (e)merge’s aesthetic bubble that day a deluded dental technician had run amok and just been shot, not far from the hotel. Against the backdrop of recent shootings at the Navy Yard and current government shutdown, upstairs news from outside the walls of this if-important artworld event did not seem to otherwise color its proceedings. This despite one of (e)merge’s major sponsors being The Washington Post; and the painter turned performer Andrew Wodzianski, showcased in the lobby directly facing the visitor on entering, as he continued to type “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” over and over (rather than say, watching a wire-service machine with the latest bulletins). Yet his Self-Portrait as Jack Torrance certainly relates to pop culture and even perhaps references insane violence, since the character he is “playing” is from the Stephen King novel Kubrick adapted into The Shining. Wodzianski here embodies a fictional personage who became a filmic icon (as Jack Nicholson), who has been read as an alter-ego of that novel’s author.[xvi] All of that practically before one gets in the door.
Downstairs in the garage, where collective groups/workshops as well as some more conceptually oriented performance/installation phenomena were parked, things got more externally relevant, and three seem worthy of note. First was Benjamin Andrew’s Chronoecology Corps, purportedly founded in the 23rd century: two gentlemen in lab coats accompanied by natural samples in glass jars, little piles and a cabinet, clearly hand-made low-fi tech “equipment,” with a microphone to record the visitor’s memories of how it all used to be when there was still “nature.” They claimed to time-travel (“yesterday we were in the Renaissance,” while a brochure image documented Andrew’s presence in a 1941 group photo), their chronological trips powered by nostalgia, gathering various input along the way: “Remember, only you can create a better tomorrow by volunteering your memories and stories for the citizens of the future.”, its text reads.
Next door was young Mark Williams—actually standing in for his friend Paul Shortt, artist of this conceptual piece, who was not present that day (although in such a context one never knows what is intentional or “true”). Against the wall was propped a gigantic academic degree painted on a piece of plywood maybe three feet by four, from the University of Illinois at Champaigne-Urbana, titled Diploma, which Shortt carried awkwardly through the crowded hotel’s narrow hallways and small rooms as his performance. Could there be a more fitting analogy for (e)merging artists’ situation: lugging their schooling credentials into exhibition spaces and thoroughfares like an intellectual sandwich-board, getting in the viewers’ way? Or for the millions seeking employment these days?
Finally, the third garage-level installation which said something interesting was that conceived by Borjana Ventzislavova, a Bulgarian artist associated with the Viennese gallery Baeckerstrasse4, which also had a second-floor booth. Here she had ironically arranged a set of hotel furniture from upstairs on the garage’s concrete floor to mimic a room, with passport-like small booklets containing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights resting on the bed. The visitor-participant was invited to inhabit this conceptual “room” and use the bed as a resting-place on/in which to read these seminal American documents for 15 minutes (Andy Warhol’s oft-quoted window of “fame”), while the artist took their Polaroid portrait and their reflection process was video-recorded, to be shown on the hotel’s ground-floor level (in one sequence Mera Rubell was to be seen doing this). The implications of this relatively simple set-up of course included being monitored while interacting with the founding premises of this country, thematizing currently relevant issues of constitutional interpretation and surveillance, here “resonating” (literally and figuratively) in an uncanny borderline architectural zone, a parking garage (think of “Deep Throat”). Compared with the likes of these “underground” manifestations and what/how was on offer in the galleries’ second-floor rooms, unfortunately the bulk of unrepresented artists’ works encountered on the main floor were too easy to walk by: visual one-liners, plays with the hotel’s spaces or runic constructions proffering little by way of accessing their nature or message.
But perhaps the main thing this observer learned, to counter Michael O’Sullivan’s quote about hotdog-eating contests with which we began, was embodied in the name and operating philosophy of the Chicago gallery occupying room 203. It is called “slow,” one of its collaborative operating body’s members, Paul Hopkin, explained to me, because a number of its artists are older (in a city often dominated by younger ones, with the presence of the School of the Art Institute) and because some of its members’ works’ meaning can only be grasped over a longer period of contemplative observation. Here “slow” is also meant in the sense as the culinary movement opposite to “fast” food: taking the time and involving the effort to make your own rather than consuming the pre-prepared. It is in this way a parallel with the art fair experience can be drawn: rather than having to take in everything on display at once, beyond reasonable capacity, slow down to pick and choose, and make its meaning yourself, or your own. The mind can only process and memory can only hold so much, connecting it in turn with the past; even if you are not a collector, is it not what means something to you, or you connect with personally, which you will take with you?
NOTE: Since (e)merge’s organizers declined in-person and email interview requests, it unfortunately was not possible to directly incorporate their responses to factual queries, their viewpoints and goals into this article.