The Eternal Space

The main point of a show in a nonprofit space isn’t profit—it’s you get to have an art party. There’s nowhere to sit and sometimes people wear headbands, but it’s still technically a party.

A good party is an end in itself (and a good party is arguably the end to which all profit is merely a means in the first place) but in business terms the point of a party is you meet other art people and they hook you up with the means to have more shows and throw more parties. If that never happens, you’d better hope the party is an end in itself.

Does the system still work? I asked a major American artist where she met the publisher for her recent book deal. “Oh, on Twitter,” she said, “same as I meet everybody else.”

Now, since you can meet art people on Twitter and sit down, this poses a serious threat to the utility of alternative spaces. If the art in question is a video or a web-based piece then the web undeniably throws a better party. The only reason video art ever appeared in galleries was to prove it belonged there, and now that it has, much of it can go back to where televisual entertainment can be most conveniently viewed—from a couch. Also, on social media, if someone is wearing a headband you can block them.

Add in the fact that everyone knows you can drink and type simultaneously, the edge the real space has dwindles further. True, in a real-life alternative-space party you can sleep with people you meet right away. But Tinder and the like are busily cutting into even that once-undeniable asset of meatspace.

Just as the commercial gallery has always existed in contested territory between “museum” and “store,” an alternative space exists somewhere between “museum” and “advertising.” It’s kind of a place to just see the work, but seeing the work is a step to someone somewhere actually buying the work. This is exactly the same space a work’s online presence occupies.

And “presence” is the word: work released online has a phantom life—something that’s always there but not always in the same way. Ideas, videos and images are released through dispersed networks, appearing on searches, sites and only brought into focus through a mix of luck, spontaneity and the net-mining journalist’s specific kind of daily deadline pressure. A piece might be scrutinized because of an interview for an article you knew was coming a month ahead of time or because of a reTumbl at 3 a.m. out of nowhere. This phantom life has real teeth: The street-art boom has been possible, ironically, only with the web’s ability to bring work to an audience’s attention without that audience having to go into an alley or a train yard, and to bring that work together with context and criticism that gallery-ad-driven old media had no motive to provide.

The one thing art shown online can’t do yet is reliably create an event, and the press still wants those. Although art works have never been more dematerializable and reproducible, the art press is still event-driven, as continuing scrambles to ever more dazzlingly eventify the seasonal art fairs prove. The art, the justifications for the art, the criticisms of the art, the criticisms of those justifications and even the artists themselves have never been more accessible—so an art world built on the value of exclusiveness has to find new ways to exclude. The old saw “you have to see the thing in person”—which was never enough of a barrier to begin with—doesn’t work in an era where a third of the art doesn’t have to be seen in person, and another third doesn’t have a physical presence.

It has never been more clear that the art reviewer doesn’t report on artworks, he or she reports on the fact that an event on a calendar has been planned around artworks and then successfully occurred. In the case of, for example, a Laurie Anderson or Bas Jan Ader retrospective—the reviewer is essentially reporting not that there is an opportunity to view the art (there always is, on YouTube) but that it has been advertised in a public space. Interested parties can then… go to YouTube. Nothing has changed: a gatekeeper is announcing that another gatekeeper let something through a gate.

For now, art just has to suck it up and wait to be “shown” in the 19th-century sense of the word while living on in the eternal ethereal electronic exhibition space in your phone—in spaces bearing all the hallmarks of an alternative: neglect, passion, experiment, haphazardness, fragility in isolation, indestructibility as a whole, confusion, obvious underfunding and weird democracy.

Illustration by Alisa Yang.