click bait and its effect on contemporary art

By Willy Reed

Cat Life

Herding online cats into real life galleries: Click baits effect on contemporary curationThere are a lot of different cats out there in 2014. First there are the real life cats, purring, offering us low-impact companionship and playing games with pink feathers. Then there are Internet cats. Their existence is more complex. Above all else, they are here to give us societal LOLs, but they also have another more crucial purpose—they are the catalysts for the E-Crazy-Cat-Lady. She differs from her real life counterpart in that she is not a reclusive shut-in. In fact, she often takes on the role of the loud, entitled, public voice of the Internet and we are all victim to her capricious and sharp claws.

All cat ladies are just sick and tired of all the nasty caca in the world and the only respite is the soft, fluffy fur of kitty. The public voice of the ECCL manifests itself in many ways on and off the web. Most prominently it is the proliferation of banal cutesiness. It’s the reason that a food-truck that only serves bacon is the highest reviewed restaurant on Yelp. It’s the reason why your parents have embraced texting. It’s the reason you overheard someone say “om nom nummy” without self-hatred, and that razor scooters are currently more popular with adults than children. So Internet cats, which are much more than just cat GIFs, have become an integral part of pop-culture and our social language. It’s as if something you already recognized as an annoying, perhaps somewhat insidious, element of society just began babbling at you in a cutesy baby voice. The end result is that you have been infantilized against your will.

It is tasty
This societal embrace of kitsch is infectious. Cultural institutions that we once thought of as protecting some vanguard of old boring snobbery (the museum) or, alternatively, new boring snobbery (the contemporary art gallery) have folded (the stage was lost long ago). The E-Crazy-Cat-Lady has taken the role of curator, or perhaps the curators have given into the loud demands of the Cat Ladies. In September of 2013 the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened, “Balthus: Cats and Girls”. It was a small show of early drawings by the virtuosic artist prior to his reaching any level of mastery, but that doesn’t matter because there are cats!

Balthus is one bad cat
The titling of the show seems rather dubiously interested in cashing in on a population comfortable with consuming their visual culture through Tumblr. Of course, let’s not blame MoMA when the Walker Institute’s most significant show is their yearly Cat Video Festival. It’s a light-hearted summer in the park type affair, only remarkable for its wild popularity—the Walker website quotes its attendance at 10,000 “serious” art goers this year. These events overtly acknowledge their kitsch sensibilities, and while the only question they seem to be asking is “Can’t we do better?” they are also harmless and forgettable. But Internet cat curation becomes troubling when the sensibilities of Internet cats are there, but the cats aren’t.

Two shows that best exemplify the disease of the cat are both MoMA summer blockbusters—2013’s “Rain Room” and the upcoming Bjork retrospective, both organized by Klaus Biesenbach. Biesenbach is perhaps best known for curating the 2010 Marina Abramovic retrospective, ‘The Artist is Present”. This exhibition had a number of elements that were interesting and challenging and belong in a museum of MoMA’s scale and prominence. Imponderabilia featured two naked people standing about a foot apart and facing each other on either side of a narrow doorway. People then tried to comfortably (or uncomfortably) pass/squeeze by them. “Skeleton” focused on naked performers lying on a plinth with a skeleton on top of them. It was that type of show.

Are any of them innocent?
The marquee piece, however, was Marina Abramovic sitting in the MoMA atrium where audience members waited (in very long, slow lines) to sit and look into her eyes while she looked -- silently and stone-faced -- back at them for however long they desired. Many people had some pretty emotional responses to this. Clearly, all these pieces involve a high level of endurance (Abramovic did not move from her seat during MOMA’s operating hours for the duration of the three month exposition) and the public knew this and seemed to find such commitment even more artistic or moving or astounding. It’s hard to tell. Furthermore, watching YouTube videos of Abramovic you can see that she is very much ‘present.’ Although still and silent, she engages each viewer and seems to engage in quite a bit of non-verbal communication. People had real responses and real experiences, and yet the biggest take away from the show is that Ambramovic is an art deity.

In the years since the retrospective opened she has starred in a documentary about herself, opened a school devoted to her mind and perhaps most famously did what ever the fuck she is doing in Jay-Z’s shitshow, “Picasso Baby”. Abramovic brings a high amount of celebrity and spectacle with her, and looking back in hindsight, it seems likely that this was a large part of the attraction for Biesenbach and not her ability to actually engage audiences in creating unique artistic experiences.

Museum or Amusement Park
“Rain room” followed as part of a summer long feature called EXPO 1. EXPO 1 was a multi-site exhibition that focused on environmental concerns. There was a geodesic dome created by Volkswagen, performance and video hosted at PS1, and a temporary rooftop garden that inspired a special dish at the museum cafĂ©. The gestalt of all these experiences was found at MoMA, where one encountered the Rain Room. You enter a darkly lit room and rain is falling, but, and this is the big surprise, wherever you go sensors stop the rain from falling on you. It sounds like a pretty fun and neat experience, although one entirely more suited for a venue like the Exploratorium or even Six Flags, which seems to be its eventual destiny. “Rain Room” also generated daylong lines, which seems to be how MoMA judges success.

The next multimedia summer blockbuster extravaganza to land at MoMA will be a retrospective focused on the extraordinarily talented pop singer Bjork. The exhibition will be centered on a fictitious narrative of Bjork’s life and culminate in a 3-D movie made for the exhibition. This show threatens to dangerously miss the target in two ways. Bjork’s career, and probably her most memorable moments, is less about her virtuosic authorship and more so by her keen ability to find great collaborators. Remember, she just wore the swan dress she didn’t design it, she sang on the track but Matmos made the beat. Secondly, and perhaps most toxically, the exhibition is courting pure excess and only excess. Instead this is the museum equivalent of a Michael Bay production and a crazy attempt to reify Bjork’s importance as an artist. Again, it’s sure to be a great experience, but completely inappropriate for the MoMA.

Who am I? I am Bjork!
While Biesenbach’s curation hails the ideals of performance, installation and social practice, the results belie that ideology. These ways of working were born out of arts troubling past as a career for virtuosic white men. When Biesenbach creates an exhibition that frames one performer as the single source of a team effort he is invoking the violence of kitsch. The pleasure first responsibility later way of thinking that created “Rain Room” is identical to that of Internet Cats. It is characterized by impatience, a need for LOLs, or wowza instagrammable experiences. Biesenbach places spectacle and celebrity at the forefront of his curatorial agenda and has become a master at creating IRL click bait for MoMA.

In refreshing response to all this are two exhibitions that opened in the last year, both focused exclusively on cats. In June of 2013 White Columns opened, “The Cat Show”. Featuring eighty artists at different levels of success, including Andy Warhol, Richard Prince and Marilyn Minter, it showcased a wide range of cat work. During the opening a rescue agency was offering kitty adoptions and the cats were housed in an incredible habitat designed by architects Gia Wolff and Freecell. About a year later 356 Mission in LA opened “Another Cat Show”, this time featuring around three hundred artists, essentially an enormous warehouse packed with kitty art. Both of these shows featured a number of performance and time based pieces in conjunction with paintings and drawings.
Oh, Kitties
The sheer number of artists involved works to subvert authorship and hierarchy between media, you are unable to focus on or single out a best piece. Instead you experience everything in tandem. It is akin to the difference between a great DJ set and a compilation album. With a DJ set the low points let you catch your breath and makes the highs better, with the compilation album you skip to the next track. And this is made possible by the quality and ambition of the art that is shown. None of it is a cheap LOL. It is the product of people whose careers and lives are based on the questions of how and why to make contemporary art. Where Biesenbach is giving us kitsch insidiously packaged as fine art, the curators at White Columns and 356 Mission are expertly transforming kitsch into fine art.

Who loves you pretty baby?

©Willy Reed and the CCA Arts Review

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