Fairland: The missing chapter – the future of art fairs

  Charlie Levine  
  Ben Street  
  Karl England  

June 2014

CL The art fair is in constant battle, whether its opponent be the biennial, the art institution, the auction house or the shopping centre. It is never seen as an individual thing, it is always compared and it is mostly discussed as a problem, but what about comparing it to itself? If we were to hold a mirror up to the art fair and its surrounding discourse, what would it look like?

KE Fairland is littered with references to the constraints the market places on the art being produced and shown and yet it fails to proffer an alternative. And that seems to be because the idea of the art fair being led by commerce is seen as the starting point. Whereas with Sluice and fairs like Poppositions in Brussels and Springbreak in New York this commercial model is inverted which allows more interesting things to happen. The reason this chapter is missing from Fairland is because the art fair has been pre-defined as a commercial exercise. If the very definition of what a fair is for is not up for debate then the debate is doomed to be a pretty self defeating exercise: “fairs are problematic because of the financial pressures inherent in art fairs are problematic because of the financial pressures inherent in….”

BS Interestingly, the spike in public interest in art fairs has led to a change in their definition – to the extent that mega-collector Adam Lindemann decided to boycott Art Basel Miami Beach a few years ago in protest at the sheer number of what he called ‘phonies and scenesters’. To quote him, ‘art fairs should be for collectors only; if you’re not coming to buy art, get the hell out.’ And yet his ‘Occupy Art Basel Miami Beach’ (honestly) is doomed to fail, simply because contemporary art is too tainted by glamour and coolness not to be affected by it. So regardless of its current limitations, the ‘art fair’ now means something very different to what it meant in its inception.

CL The art fair as defined in 1967 by Hein Stünke and Rudolf Zwirner with KUNSTMARKT was designed primarily to sell and has since culminated in an art world calendar organized around the major art fairs. You could, technically, go to a different art fair every week of the year. The over saturation of the art fair internationally and the formalised and expected presentation of said fairs (the continuous white booths lining corridors and walkways) is so familiar to the art world that it no longer acts as an exciting hub to see what’s new and happening, rather it is the same as the other, as last year, as that one over there. The art fair format as we understand it via the major players, is stale.

KE I agree with that, but visitor numbers and sales figures suggest otherwise. I think the attraction of fairs to the public is the – exposition like – shear number of diverse galleries in one space. The attraction for collectors is that the art therein is pre-validated as commercially viable. But art needs to be conceptually relevant as well, and the major fairs are now realising they can’t afford to be seen merely as trade fairs.

BS Another appeal to the public is of course getting an insight into the way the bizarre world of the contemporary art primary market works. You don’t see that at Tate Modern or a biennial, where the machinery’s hidden away. There’s an honesty about art fairs that can be a welcome respite from the phoney piety of the biennial – which are commercial enterprises too, after all. Plus, commercial galleries aren’t much visited by members of the wider public that might go to Tate or the Serpentine. So, again, in broader cultural terms, art fairs are no longer closed shops. This, I think, is a good thing – but art fairs themselves have made little effort to adjust to this change in cultural position.

CL The architecture of the venues, the VIP presence, the hidden cash flow and the see to be seen culture has lost its playful edge. Ten years ago Frieze attempted to rectify this by introducing curated not for profit activity on site during the fair as well as through a thorough education programme of talks, events, screenings, performances etc.

KE Sluice is positioned as a provocation to the dominant model but with all major fairs now carrying a facility to include non-commercial galleries and projects does this make that provocation hollow? You could say that these are either hugely cynical manoeuvres to bolster credibility whilst ‘inadvertently’ undermining any perceived threat by younger rivals and/or they’re a benevolent attempt to nurture the grass roots by the establishment. It may be the motive doesn’t matter, it’s the results that count. Or maybe it does matter, maybe the establishment remain the dominant force controlling the narrative by activating this release valve. When a non-profit or non-commercial jumps at the offer of a free pitch they’re actually propping up the exclusionary capitalist system they stand against.

CL We should also be thinking about the impact the art fair has on the smaller, practice/artist led scene. How can they keep up? How can they afford to participate? And how can they maintain a presence in an art world that continues to expand and seemingly get more and more glossy? Are events like Sluice the future of the art fair? The seemingly loose presentation, the informal atmosphere and grass roots activity all happening together under one roof? As there is less pressure so these fairs can play, they can push the boundaries of what an art fair is seen to be and can offer audiences alternatives that the more established fairs cannot. They can take the format, rip it up and start again. The art fair and its reputation will, at this point, seemingly not diminish. It is on the rise and has gained such critical gravitas to collectors, critics and audiences that it will either carry on as it is or have to implode.

BS I don’t agree with your point about critical gravitas. The problem with the dominance of the art fair model is precisely that it skips any kind of critical engagement. The format of the art fair is itself an endorsement of the works within it. They’ve already succeeded. What something like Sluice can do is open the format up – to assert that one huge advantage that the grass roots or artist-led scene we represent has integrity through self-reflexiveness. That questioning the terms of practice is at the root of practice. There’s no sign that the primary market will significantly collapse, which means that the art fair as it’s conventionally understood will continue exactly as before, because it’s simply the best possible means to display certain kinds of works of art to be sold to certain kinds of collector. On the other hand, there’s no sign that public interest in contemporary art (including the market) will wane. Both of which are probably good news for Sluice…

KE That’s true, we’re strategically placed to benefit from the glow of Frieze, but I don’t see us as being a feeder satellite fair. If Sluice was just a stepping stone up the commercial ladder then it’s easily ignored (there were thirteen art fairs in London during Frieze week last year) – but it would be a mistake to lump all of the new wave of fairs in with all those other fairs ranged below the mega fairs that cater to collectors bracketed by an ever diminishing cultural and financial clout. Our stance is primarily that cultural capital is not controlled by the financial elite (despite their best efforts). Sluice exists as a platform for artistic activity that sees itself as an end in itself and not as a means to an end. We’re not competing with the likes of Frieze and Basel for the highest sales figures. We’re saying there’s some fantastic art out there that will never see the inside of the big tent, often because it’s resistant to financial commodification – but that’s okay, we can give it a platform because we believe in it – not because of some projected financial return.

BS Well that I can agree with. And have you got an anecdote to finish this conversation off?

KE I remember a few years ago, a couple of ladies from some Christies Education course came to a Sluice event and started asking questions about it. They were trying to ascertain whereabouts in the market we slotted. They could only engage with the art as a financial commodity. In the end they said “ahh its pre-market”. At the time I didn’t really know how to respond to these people as they approached art from such a completely different direction as me. How could they completely miss the point of Sluice? Now, a few years later, although inaccurate, I’m quite fond of that label - Sluice is made up of art that is pre-market, art that has a market and also art that’s alter-market (or anti-market art). Where Sluice sits in relation to the market is beside the point, it’s that it grants access all these artistic activities, that these activities have a place at the table that is so exciting. s

  Charlie Levine / Sluice associate curator
Karl England / Sluice Director and artist
Ben Street / Sluice Director and educationalist