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December 10, 2012 at 12:33 PM

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Art Basel 2012 recap: Millennial art, music everywhere

basel sunrise.jpg
Photo by me

After a week of arty beach parties in December, in a place where winter never really happens, Art Basel 2012 is a wrap. For the unfamiliar, that would be Art Basel | Miami Beach, oceanfront sister to the major contemporary art fair in Basel, Switzerland, operating a satellite in Florida since 2002. The annual event was a blast of international art action in convention centers and hotels across Miami. There were hundreds of gallery booths and thousands of artworks. And wherever there was art, there was also fashion and music.

With so much to see and many miles to cover, there can be no unifying Art Basel experience. Everyone has their own story of what it was. And this year there was no news item that rose above the others, no major controversy. One story is that gallerists reported making lots of sales, which could be some kind of positive sign for the industry.

Personally, a few things occurred to me while walking around Art Basel, and riding shuttles/taxis to auxiliary fairs.

One, Millennial artists are obsessed with the 1990s, and Life on the Internet.

Two, Art Basel is (almost) ready to become a music festival.

Feel free to read a bunch of words about those topics below, or click these links to get a general feel:

Art Basel photos: THEESatisfaction and more
Art Basel photos: 'Untitled' art fair, GIF party and more
Art Basel photos: NADA fair

About thing number one: Don't fret that we're whittling our lives away online and nobody wonders what it all means, or what it's doing to us. This age will not go unexamined. From what I experienced at Basel, artists are preoccupied with the effects of nonstop computer use. Millennials might be the best to comment, since it's their generation. Their responses at Basel were skeptical and inward-looking.

I noticed those wary/navel-gazey reactions to life online not so much at the main art fair in the Miami Beach convention center, where Picassos and Basquiats hung and Diddy and Rick Ross hung out (super-cool hip-hop dudes, or, depending how you saw it, rich squares hobnobbing with the art establishment) — but more at the "Untitled" art fair on the beach, and definitely at the Deauville Resort for the NADA fair (New Art Dealers Alliance). That's where a crude painting hit me with an inscription, "blog this." Sarcastic as it was, the sign made me think: What's a blog post worth? In this era of easy self-publishing on the web, sometimes we should should just say no.

In the NADA booths and by the pool/theater area outdoors, backdrops hung that mimicked the style of "Doom" and "Myst," so-called "realistic" computer games from 1993. The retro gaze kept with the 20-year rule, mirrored in the very apparent return of Doc Martens boots on the NADA clientele. Grunge style was everywhere. I reminded myself where it came from, that in large part it was fashion designed to be anti-fashion. Are these old computer graphics like that, too, played for an outdated joke? Or sincerely appreciated? Maybe both, like Kurt Cobain's grandma-style cardigans.

Some of the NADA art was straight-up beautiful, but a vague ugly-on-purpose thread tied everything together. You caught a whiff of it right away. The well-heeled crowd at the convention center smelled like perfume. NADA was armpits.

Far and away the most Internetty thing I saw: "Moving the Still: A GIF Festival" in a warehouse in Wynwood. Sponsored by the social media platform tumblr, it was an idea whose time had come: celebrating the art of Graphic Interchange Format technology, aka GIFs, short web videos that load quickly and repeat a few frames. They are typically sent in emails or embedded on web pages, used to make an emphatic point — not shown in a gallery. Parents of Millennials who watched "Ally McBeal" may remember the dancing baby, a classic GIF. It's old technology. But returning to the old-school CompuServe/Geocities era for aesthetic inspiration is popular now. And since many of us never got tired of GIFs anyway, it's gotten to the point where they are just part of our language. A new enhanced soundbite. The party should have been sponsored by Merriam Webster. It was a time to think about how we communicate.

Seattle native Sean Pecknold (brother of Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold) screened his short claymation documentary there, about the history of the GIF, which projected on a wall while a thousand people drank free vodka in a cavernous, blue-lit room. They danced hard to Dan Deacon, who deejayed shameless '90s R&B. The art part of the "festival" occurred inside a quiet adjoining space, a brief maze in a darkened hangar, GIFs projected on the walls of the maze. The tone was oddly serious. Predominantly GIFs are vehicles for comedy, but you wouldn't have known from these melting smiley faces and deadpanned bits of dialogue from "Ghostbusters." Some of the artists featured in the exhibit twittered at me, asking if I saw their stuff. I didn't. But right away I had it on my phone (love that glittering beach by Adam Ferriss, from Los Angeles). And as I looked down at my screen, then at the wall, I wondered: Do GIFs belong on a wall?

In the end I thought so. They looked good up there. But a theme to link them would have been nice. Not just, "these are GIFs." I walked away from "A GIF Festival" thinking less about the GIFs I saw and more about GIFs in general.

Beyond loving the look of throwback computer visualizations, artists at Basel expressed skepticism about social media on the Internet, in platforms like twitter, tumblr and Facebook. The "blog this" painting at NADA was delightfully puckish to me (wish I remembered the artist), and on a similar tip, somebody else there printed and scattered a bunch of political campaign-sized signs that said, simply, "LIKE." Resting against a wall in various booths, each sign recalled the "like button" on Facebook, seeming to ask what it meant to like something. Did the "LIKE" signs appear at booths operated by friends of the signmaker, or the signmaker thought were important?

Questions of valuation — who is valuing, and what are the criteria — are important to ask in a new era where everyone's a (published) critic. They were posed by Seattle hip-hop duo THEESatisfaction Wednesday night at The Stage, in a particularly fiery version of their song "Naturale." The performance sunk in deeper than usual, with language in the hook about requesting to follow them on twitter opening up, when Stasia Irons rapped the word "follow" until it felt like a diss.

The song seemed to ask: how much of ourselves are we giving away on the web? When you follow someone, do you enrich your life, or sacrifice something? Does the Internet make a joke out of discipleship?

Music leads me to the grand finale of this recap: Art Basel could be an incredible music festival.

It's currently similar to South by Southwest, with parties using the same "email for RSVP" model for attending as SXSW. But with all the music that happened down there — Chromatics, Rick Ross, Danny Brown, movie director Robert Rodriguez's band Chingon — it's begging for a little more music infrastructure.

When it comes to music festivals that are enjoyable to attend for real fans and not just party-hardy yahoos, the rule is simple. Big, heavily sponsored events are always too crowded, people don't go there for the music, just to be there, and the vibe is bad, mindless party energy. But when you talk about small, carefully chosen sets of performers, staggered and scattered among venues with help from the local scene, that can be a beautiful thing. From what I saw, Art Basel could go either way.

"Basel Castle" on Saturday was a bust, featuring Purity Ring and other acts, the setting grossly corporate, full of carnival style games for promotional prizes, graffiti artists painting everywhere, the whole crowd accidentally huffing. The SPIN party on Friday with Araabmuzik was similar. But THEESatisfaction at The Stage had the perfect feeling, happened in exactly the correct bohemian, indoor/outdoor club with music picked by local arts-man Torrance Gettrell, who introduced the headliner Georgia Anne Muldrow, from Los Angeles, as a great inspiration to THEESatisfaction, which was right-on. People paid attention to the music and partied until two in the morning, on a school night. A clutch of THEESatisfaction fans in the front chanted "Black weirdo!" — the name of THEESatisfaction's blog. It all went with the photography of the Mochilla crew, classic/unique hip-hop scenes projected on the wall.

Make no mistake: Basel is an art thing. But more shows like that — even if it's just three or four and they all happen on the same day — could change the game.

A giant, suddenly erected stage with huge Doritos banners, though, would not be the way to go. So let's hope that doesn't happen. But a concentrated dose of this or that record label or aesthetically similar music, paired with this or that visual artist, organized by people who know the landscape — that could be the next wave of inspiration at Art Basel.

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