The Alternative Is For Sale

My roommate wore a jacket originally suggested by her Facebook algorithm to Alt Citizen’s Alt Space Pop Up Show + Shop “Nowhere Now” in Chicago on March 24th. The jacket was seven dollars, came from China, and took six weeks to arrive. The “store’s” “ad” on her “news” “feed” had served up many jackets for many months but one fateful page refresh in the winter of 2016 finally took it home. The show was at Salon 1812, a concept beauty studio and art space in Pilsen that has hosted pop-ups before. This one looked like the Internet.There was a lot of plastic foliage and a lot of silver hair. As the show winded down (time-wise not body-count-wise, the ~600 sq. ft. space was packed to capacity the whole night) everyone seemed to be waiting for an epilogue, as if someone in charge was soon to announce, “Drake wishes he could be here and wants to thank you all for coming.” The abstract ideas of ‘Alternative,’ ‘Show,’ and ‘Shop’ intersected weirdly at “Nowhere Now” and I kept wondering, “Alternative to what?”

Every big player in the art criticism game has condemned corruption in the contemporary art market and calls for an Alternative. Jerry Saltz condemns the auction houses, Andrea Frasier condemns the privatization of institutions via reliance on wealthy donors, James McAnally wrote a manifesto about it, David Palmer declares, “While people motivated by profit have had incredible power to influence trends and reputations, those with less financial stake ought to take it as their duty to resist these tendencies and to question the supposed absolutes of the market.” The “alt” that everyone seems to be calling for does in fact exist. They are new media artists that the art media doesn’t care to cover because they will never be in large institutions and don’t actually care to be. (Any art writer who calls for the rejection of big money art market practices should stop writing about the institutions that clearly have no intention of ending these practices).

All the work in the show is really special in that it is new media work that doesn’t feel the need to address its own inner internet. It talks about life online without being cold or trite or without ignoring actual human experiences or feelings that are mediated and presented online –real ones not caricatures. It is residue from an unadulterated and virtually earnest life online, it is artifacts from not-only-virtual-but-actual personality performance. The works are surprising without being (unnecessarily) shocking. What these works address is really no conceptual enigma: they address the artists (personalities) who made them and in turn they address the audience that participates by consumption (you can’t be a persona with 50k followers on instagram without the 50k followers).  

Grace Miceli, artist and co-curator of the show, has made a space where online superstar personalities come together and make real connections and extend these personalities and friendships into a physical space. Crystal Zapata’s laser-cut black and white painted wood carvings talk about a struggle with her online friendships and identity. They speak to the impulse of a new media artist/personality rejecting the digital and the virtual by returning to material objects, but questioning that impulse and then questioning that questioning. Elizabeth De la Piedra’s photographs and the little finger candles that were arranged on a table as a disturbing-but-not-unpleasant fleshy little army are surprising without being grotesquely (annoyingly) shocking. They have tension that is playfully relieved, like her holographic photos that change as you move your head side to side.

None of this art is about art and none of it is even about the things that art is sometimes about that is not art. Sometimes I really like all of it and sometimes I really don’t like any of it and I think this comes in waves with struggles or conflicted moments with my own identity and my own experiences of performing that identity. It can seem so fake and silly to be a person on the internet on purpose, but at other times it can feel incredibly vulnerable in the best way. These works as residue of identity–or at times artifacts from performed identity–can be really powerful when they resonate while at the same time seeming isolated and so wrapped up in the artist’s persona that the works seem to have nothing to do with anything else.

But I’m not here to discuss these works–or identity performance that rejects institutional support and instead relies directly on audience, or even new media in general–as a revolution (either you’re in or you’re out). What I am interested in is that this show was actually in fact a shop and works are presented as retail goods. It was all for sale!!! Like real sale, like “I Like Your Pants” – “Thanks, They Were On Sale!” sale, like I-don’t-have-a-haunted-yacht-but-I-can-afford-this-art sale.  An incredibly enterprising bunch, young new media artists mimic the corporate super-brands (who first mimicked the artists) and present their stuff in pop up shops! Born of neoliberalism, turns out that the “alt” every institutional debutant has been calling for is an “alternative means of” rather than “alternative to” capitalism.

Neoliberalism promotes progress via individualism and entrepreneurial spirit, its end game being  a world where every business is a person and every person is a business. So when work is being made to present in a world where there is pressure to sell, sell, sell (sell your brand, sell your identity, promote yourself, promote your work, stay relevant), the revolution is presented…for sale. It seems we are fighting capital with capital (the currency of which may not be wealth directly, but cultural currency of relevance that accumulates audiences that can lead to actual profits through indirect channels like those kids on tumblr–even the word ‘relevance’ as we know and love it was coined by them). Lisa Nakamura explains, “The neoliberal position maintains that social disadvantage is a result of an individual’s failure to ‘make themselves’ correctly and that inequality is due to poor personal choices” as opposed to systemic or institutional failings. So the struggle for relevance, in the humble opinion of neoliberalism, is then a struggle of life or death.

In an age and a space where identity performance, connectivity, and relevance are all important (again, life or death!!!), the pop-up shop move is no big surprise for artists trying to make internet art and afford Brooklyn. Pop-ups have been around for 15 years, peaking around 2010 – and without decline (an Eventbrite study found that there was still 82% growth in pop-up dining gigs since 2014). Pop-ups are temporary, only existing for a few hours or a few days. Even using the word pop-up invokes urgency and relevance, catering to the madness of a FOMO economy where all your social media marketing adds up to basically zero ROI but one good party at a club in East London that actually exists to secretly sell a Nissan will create a “lifelong” “relationship” (of probably just good vibes) with the brand. Even the big art institutions are affected by the experience economy, throwing real bangers of exhibits while getting shit on by the critics for it and experiencing declining visitors nonetheless.

The new media pop up show/shop combo is a brilliant solution for information dissemination to these personas’ huge audiences that are for the most part just as freaky and niche as they are, kind of like a “for the Millennials, by the Millennials” situation. It’s not an institution or a space, it even extends a bit past the physical pop-up itself because online life is so integral to it: it’s a branded scene. Alt Citizen is one of many collectives of creatives that I would call a branded scene. As opposed to artists and “art movements,” these collectives are people using the aesthetic of communication and relationships and simply performing themselves, friendship, resistance, hegemony. Alt Citizen has a physical space now, but many of these collectives are just online friendships between identity performing artists. It’s not a new movement, it’s a reorganization of creative efforts to fit neoliberal and digital capital consumer enterprise.

And it’s not that bad. It’s actually pretty cool and pretty inclusive and pretty queer and has great design, but yes it mimics everything about super brands and corporations 2.0 (the ones that “get” the internet). The gaze is not inward nor outward (referencing Jerry Saltz’s description of emerging institutional artist) but rather towards our own belly buttons which have become mirrors of the branded scenes with which we choose to identify. And we are mis en abyme de each others’ belly buttons, echoing affirmations in a never-ending production/consumption cycle of identity that is the product of Facebook’s algorithms and the landscape of online communities that create perspective echo chambers (Remember that person that Liked everything on facebook for two weeks and what happened?). Everyone is talking to everyone, both artists and personalities and consumers/followers: when you are on camera you are talking to your audience using “you” and everyone feels like they are talking to each other, but you are talking at your computer, which ultimately feels like you are talking to yourself–to a mirror.

For example, in Molly Soda’s first log entry in her Story of My Life video series, she is talking about her breakup and is being incredibly vulnerable and crying. She says the only thing that is really helping is talking to her computer but she says it with a tone that recognizes its own absurdity. Then she talks about sharing feelings publicly and asking us (the audience? herself?) what is wrong with that? But actually asking, not rhetorically asking, as if she really wants to understand why everyone thinks that is so wrong and we all want to ask that, we all want to ask why can’t we just do what we want to do and share/experience (the relationship between “share” and “experience” is no longer mutually exclusive) our feelings when and where we want.

Works by these artists don’t feel like works but rather real experiences up for mass consumption. The “alternative” is an epitomic neoliberal system where the line between production and consumption no longer exists: in a world where everyone is selling themselves and their identity and their brand, and even their “creative consumption” is an expression of the very identity they are producing, the production/consumption cycle is a closed circle with no beginning and no end.

The consumers–the followers, the audience–I think are the most interesting part of these works and the pop-up art shop/sow concept in general. These are creative consumers that are equally important to the works, if not more, because their participation fuels the whole rodeo. Their participation involves 1) actually consuming the works for sale at the show/shop and 2) consuming the experience of the pop-up itself which, in an experience economy, is the product. Fundamentally it can’t be a pop-up without being a good time, and the ones having the good time are essentially supplying the secret ingredient to the whole affair.

The consumers are affirming the identities of the artists and the artists are affirming the identities of the consumers. The artists make the stuff because there is a community that is “performing identity” similarly, the community buys the works because they want to confirm/assert their relationship with each other. Some of the less robust pieces in the show betray the weaknesses and dangers of this echo chamber. Large hoop earrings that say “Bushwick” inside the hoops, highly-stylized photographs of pizza and bongs on colorful seamless backgrounds, zines with photos of old toilets. These pieces, though still freaky and niche and anti-hegemony, go down too easy, are too consumable. When artists are selling work –residue and artifacts from their experiences online– to their community who is consuming it and spitting it back out as part of their own identities online, we are left circling the drain of a neoliberal feedback loop.

What makes me wary is if a work is way too likeable without addressing its own consumption. At a show that is a shop, everything must be liked because everything must go. If you can buy something impulsively after less than an hour of looking at it, is it really asking you important questions? Is it really challenging you? If not, can it still be the art market’s saving grace or do we continue seeking another “alternative”?

Walking home (somewhere? nowhere?) after the show, a person experiencing homelessness asked my roommate for some money. She said sorry and he said thank you. I thought the subtle humor in the unrelentingly pathetic sadness of the exchange (on both sides) would do well as an illustration. On a t-shirt. That I wear in a selfie. Online.




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