I was fortunate enough to be invited along with Bad At Sport's (most excellent podcast) Amanda Browder for interviews at this year's Armory and other art fairs. Aside from seeing the shows and doing the interviews, the real treat was going as "press". Much has been written on the atmosphere of galleries, museums, and art openings, but art fairs are notorious for their own particular formula for tension. Fairs are not the best places to view art (Or are they? More on that in a bit) so people watching easily becomes an allowed priority . With the shield of the press pass, people watching, and personal interaction, became an official priority.
The job though, was to talk about art. It's all too easy and always in fashion to turn your nose up to these events so it's a good idea to remember that they are "fairs". Off we went with our badges to the Armory opening night. But we didn't interview anyone at the opening, just catching the tail end of the non-public party. Having not been in a few years myself I wondered how long the shows had been this blue chip and conservative. No booths showing a dangled Urs Fischer crumpled pack of Camels here (not that that didn't sell in Miami a few years back for a load). The standout piece was Ivan Navarro's neon fence at the Paul Kasmin space. Does it represent a shift in the economy that the most talked-about, indulgent f-off work of art has switched from proletariat tease to kitsch barrier?
It's a good thing when one piece can capture the tone of a fair like this, even if the fence really wasn't typical of the Armory works. Ambience and aura usually leave more of an impression than specific works after the mosaic soup of salon after salon. Not that the fairs aren't designed to sell specific works, but the yearly growing number of fairs, to someone with no intention of purchase, leads to an initial comparison of fairs, not art. These are, after all, markets, and the familiarity of commerce is exactly what the public finds refreshing after the lofty concepts of museum and gallery curation. From that point on, it is up to each different fair to conjure it's distinct sense of mood and atmosphere.
The Volta fair for one opts for the smartly recurring idea of having one artist per booth. This - right off the bat - clarifies while allowing for a hybrid effect mix of museum/bazaar. The galleries also get to stay in their comfort zone while avoiding the "everything must go" barrage that the splatter groupings display. You can walk through a mini Chelsea on a convention floor and have a decent memory of what you saw and where (it also helped that each space had a handout of their one artist). The random elements here were mock art tours where actors, complete with tourguide flags, led groups booth to booth making up whatever they wanted to about the art.
To get a good sense of disparate atmos"fairs", we did back to back visits from Fountain to Independent. The lively Fountain was on the Hudson river's panhandle barge, so the choice of location itself was boisterous. All fairs have their own events and parties, but this one had the most Burning Man funky feel despite being set up as the most admittedly sales oriented. Bobbing on water and appearing the "craftiest" also helps. The art and crowd at the Independent came off as notably austere after the Haight St vibe of Fountain. Independent was last years upstart show, but going from the river to the former Dia space in Chelsea gave it a comparatively establishment mood. The distinction of Independent is boundless placement of work on the floor confounding connections with the galleries. Sometimes the work itself acted as divider - a freestanding hurricane fence for example. To compare these two fairs is to open a discussion of what an "outsider" fair and it's ironic contradictions can mean. One shows art that is obviously art in an art "market, set in a rowdy buoyant thunderdome haunted by LES barflies. One shows post-modern "but is it art" art, drifting from the sales desk in an arthouse visited by black turtlenecks and architect glasses. If there was a signature piece for this outsider fair paring, it was Folke Köbberling and Martin Kaltwasser cut up Saab cycle/car hybrid (best use of the word in this post) parked near the Jack Hanley area. A Saab 900 has been chopped to reconfigure parts in to a cancerous emerging motorcycle ready to give as a more energy-efficient ride back to Fountain.
More hybrids within hybrids were found at Scope, which had everything from sales booths to bacchanalian theater stages. We ended up in Andrew Ohanesian's walk-in bodega cooler. Originally serving free beer from a great art/life/fair/street mashup, the piece was "shut down" when the food vendors complained to Scope that they were losing business, and their overhead, to an artwork. The interview, and drinking, had to be done inside the cooler in a space that was appropriately both cool and lively.
I only mentioned one interview here. For the rest, please go to badatsports.com