December 15, 2006

The Little DiVA That Couldn't

Art Fag City: The best videos in Miami's art fairs were from New York -- but where were all the buyers?

By Paddy Johnson

A still from Jillian McDonald's Horror Makeup, one of the highlights of the DiVA fair last week in Miami

MIAMI -- Even with the 3-year-old Digital & Video Art Fair (DiVA) in town, it's pretty clear that cinema and the digital arts were not a priority to this year's various fair organizers. Reports of poorly attended and out-of-focus screenings plagued both Art Basel and DiVA, while Cinema Scope continued building upon less than substantial programming. Granted, the market for art video is relatively small compared to that of traditional media, which in part explains the overall lack of emphasis on the medium; as it remains relatively untapped among art fairs, the event planning is so splintered that only the most dedicated cinephile could capitalize on the screenings.

In theory, DiVA offers a solution to this problem with a focus exclusively on video and digital art. Founder and organizer Thierry Alet acknowledged this factor would likely explain the smaller audience. "I see DiVA as a destination show," he told me outside "the village" -- the fair locale, which comprises 18 sea containers as exhibit spaces laid out in the form of two concentric semi-circles. He went on to explain that the people who attend the fair are specifically interested in video art as opposed to the more casual Basel art shopper. But how many of these "focused" people actually showed up? Artist Martin Ramocki (about whom I wrote here in October) uploaded pictures from the first day of the fair on his gallery's blog vertexlistblog, documenting a total of three attendees. The numbers climbed in subsequent days, but you'd think that as a destination fair, it would have resulted in a single sale. Last I heard, the highest-grossing gallery at the fair was boasting a $20 profit after having found a bill on their floor.

Lack of sales symbolize large problems for any fair, but particularly for those in Miami, where countless transactions I observed over the course of the week indicate that money almost flies out of the hands of collectors here. Success doesn't even necessarily equate with quality; just look at Pulse, a fair that did exceedingly well despite the fact that the work exhibited was mostly poor. Finesilver Gallery is a typical example, rumored to have sold out their booth on the first day despite offering pale imitations of work that had been available by the same artists earlier this year at New York's Pulse fair.

While outstanding art may not have much to do with traffic and sales, location does. Much to his detriment, Alet chose to launch DiVA at a beach area removed from the rest of the fairs; nobody seemed to have any awareness of its existence, whereas on the main strip a comparably small fair such as Ink (a prints and publication fair) seemed to get plenty of foot traffic. Worse yet, sand and water from the beach caused additional complications. "These things are OK," Alet replied when I asked him about this. "It's a challenge because of the rain. I bet that it would not rain, which obviously backfired. Other than that … everything is working. All the shows are up." But it wasn't entirely true: Some exhibitors complained that their equipment wasn't working properly because of the sand. It's such an obvious misstep, but at a certain point you have to let the response slide and cut Alet some slack; at least he admits he'll pay better attention to the weather next time.

Beachfront properties: DiVA's trademark storage containers/art showcases laid out in Miami (Photo: Martin Ramocki)

The greatest shame in all of this is that DiVA featured some of the best work I had seen in the fair, and nobody is talking about it. The Brooklyn gallery ArtMoving Projects showcased strong works by Ramocki, Tom Moody and Jillian McDonald, whose Horror Makeup features the artist applying costume make up on her subway commute. The piece has the same kind of appeal that the TV show Candid Camera might have, yet it separates itself from such shows' mindless entertainment by using long single shots that demand greater investment from the viewer -- without resorting to cheap highlights of subway rider reactions. The glory of this video lies just as much in the documentation of the uniquely New York disinterest in the act as it does in noting the few who find the transformation shocking.

Also of note is Galerie Rachel Haferkamp's Jens Brand, who presents the G-Player -- a device that uses satellites to read the earth's surface and create corresponding sound patterns. "The earth is a disk," or so the slogan reads as Brand himself introduces the product to visitors. The work has a commercial look and feel to it, though Brand himself is too obviously an artist to wholly maintain this image in his pitch. This is undoubtedly to his credit, though; his offbeat humor and goofy charm make an essentially purposeless product completely desirable.

Like any fair, not all of the gallery containers were as outstanding as Galerie Rachel Haferkamp or ArtMoving Projects, but by and large the ratio of good stuff to crap was much better than that of other fairs. Still, how good can a fair possibly be if nobody knows about it? I met some of the most fascinating artists I had seen in a long time, and I feel like I was one of maybe 20 people who noticed. The odds of something like this occurring in during a time where there are 1,400 journalists in the city covering the art seem wholly unquantifiable. In the end, it may also serve well as the most compelling evidence that cinema and digital art are of little importance not only to fair organizers, but also to those who attend and report on them.

Paddy Johnson is the editor of the New York art blog Art Fag City.

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