In any museum shop, for a marginally affordable markup you will find a poster, a coaster, a postcard, some reproduction that allows you to have the power of art handily at your hands, to assemble those copies inside your house with a measure of sophisticated ease. This bourgeoisie envy for the art of the wealthy has mostly out of style, but not of conspicuous cultural consumption. This lumpen-bourgeois art still lingers above shag carpet in certain tract house hallways, but we are well past the age of mechanical reproduction and thus those kids with the smart phones crafted the Selfie, that auto-portrait that combines not only the proof of art witnessed but of you, unique snowflake, curating your smug mug into the picture. Enter the Whitney Selfie-ennial, courtesy of Taraka and Nimai Larson, the creatively-polyglot sister duo Prince Rama, whose varied forays into art, music, performance, and writing unite under the conceptual aegis of a future utopia that looks a lot like the 1980s. The Whitney Selfie-ennial is post-rationalized ‘meta-curation’ of the hallowed biennale of contemporary American art from which it derives its name. Prince Rama offered some insights into their project.
You’ve done several interventional art fairs (Cake Basel, Whitney Biennial 2067) that are very pro-active and imaginative. What inspired you to intervene this year through such a ubiquitous, passive medium?
Hey, there is nothing passive about selfies! We even had to be kind of aggro sometimes—pushing in front of people if they were in the way, dodging guards, cutting in line, and blocking people’s views to get the perfect picture… it was a very active process, lol. I guess we got inspired going to a lot of art fairs and openings and watching people just come, take a selfie and leave. It is amazing, honestly. Especially seeing people do it with our installations. It’s a whole new way of seeing art, and seeing yourself within the art. It has absolutely nothing to do with the aesthetic, conceptual, or cultural merit of the work whatsoever—instead, it’s like an emerging form of socio-aesthetic darwinism based solely on “what is instagrammable” and “what will get the most likes”. Sometimes the greatest works of art are the least instagrammable. You can be critical all you want, but at the end of the day the way a #normalbro weeds out which piece of art is “selfie-worthy” vs. “not-selfie-worthy” is a new and largely unconscious form of curation that is just as important to the course of history as the curation behind the Whitney Biennial, if not more so because at the end of the biennial the material works of art get torn down, but the ones that get instagrammed live on in the virtual non-space forever.
I might call an ‘unconscious form of curation’ passive. It’s funny, because museums are trying really hard to get visitors to not just stop in, take a selfie and leave (like the social media campaign for Slow Art Day, which challenges visitors to look at a single work of art for 10 minutes) Are museums trying to have their cake and eat it too, by urging visitors to engage via social media, but on the museum’s terms?
Why this campaign for Slow Art? I remember sitting in a Marina Abramovic lecture in Hudson about her new performance art museum she is trying to build out there, and one of the stipulations for entering the museum was that visitors had to sign a waiver promising that they would stay for a minimum of 6 hours. 6 hours!!! I can’t even sleep for 6 hours straight. I would want to make a museum that has a maximum stay time of 15 minutes. You serve energy drinks whenever there is an opening and offer discounts to people who show up on motorcycles. A Speed Art Museum. It doesn’t make any sense to me that when everything else is speeding up around us that art would slow down. When there’s an album on iTunes you’re interested in, you only listen to the 15 second song previews. When you scroll through your instagram feed you are spending a maximum of 1 or 2 seconds on each photo. Why the hell would you want to sit in front of a painting for 10 minutes? I mean you can, of course— and you should if you really feel the deep desire to. But if someone told you to stare at a bullet for 10 minutes before it produced “an aesthetic reaction”, you’d be dead! Maybe art needs to take more cues from bullets. If someone is pointing a gun at you, most likely your life will flash before you and time and space will become very elastic. Whether they hold that gun at you for 10 minutes or 10 seconds it doesn’t really matter, your experience of that moment will be so heightened and vivid that any measurement of time will be completely irrelevant. This is the kind of art experience we’re interested in.
Museums, as usual, are still trying to exercise a certain amount of control over the art experience. Space is a context; so they put up white walls. Time is a context; so they make up “slow art day”. Art is nothing but a context. Whoever owns the context owns the art itself. Social media is a means of opening that context up, which can be seen as pretty dangerous to art’s existence because suddenly anyone can be a partial owner if they see it that way.
Can a ‘socio-aesthetic Darwinism’ based on a work of art’s spectacular qualities, (ie, dicks and bright colors) really change the power dynamics of the museum space? For better? For worse?
I don’t think its even a question of IF it is changing the power dynamic it is like, a) how fast is it changing and b) how quickly can I post it. We’re in the middle of a major aesthetic paradigm shift that is starting to affect everything– not just the power dynamics of the museum space, but the space within ourselves. We shouldn’t look at it as something for better or for worse, but just embrace it as a new way of seeing… like Pop Art, but maybe we call it “Speed Art” or “Gram Art”, or something, ha. James Franco (omg did I have to bring him up) talks about the selfie becoming like an extension of the human body… the act of extending your hand out and presenting yourself at arms-length for the world to behold. Does art that is instagrammed become not-art when it hits your news feed? No, the walls of the museum just became extended. And your arm just extended it. So now you are part of its corpus mundi. I feel like you can look at it as either a degradation of beauty or a small step towards a more collective participation in its existence.
But back to dicks and bright colors.
One of my favorite artists ever, Paul Laffoley, uses the term “zombie aesthetics” to explain this sort of evolution of art towards that which is the most simple and eye-catching. I see it as kind of parallel to the Orwellian evolution of language toward “doublespeak” or tweet-speak with visual art… like painting a picture in 140 characters or less. Zombie Aesthetics is “art at the speed of light”, art that produces an immediate understanding and primal reaction upon first glance. Zombies don’t think, they just react. It’s like branding. Companies with the most easily recognizable logos and most memorable slogans are the ones that succeed in socio-aesthetic darwinism.
Do you think art—consciously or otherwise—will eventually cater to this mode of seeing?
I think whether it does conscisously or not, humans are already catering it to this way of seeing. Art is in the eye of the beholder, so if the eye is moving very quickly, the art it beholds will follow in rapid succession. I don’t see art as this thing existing outside of our vision, outside of our experience… the art world isn’t this abstract closed universe somewhere out there between the white walls of museums and the black holes of Artforum, it is the living breathing synergy of our bodies fucking the big bang. Most ancient cultures didn’t even have a word for art, and in this way the whole world became their museum. I say let’s destroy “seeing art” altogether, because as long as we see “art”, we will also see “not art”, and I think it is much better to exist without this delineation– just to live as if you are part of the painting, to speak as if your words are the architecture, to take photos of yourself as if every sublime landscape existed in the panoptic space between your eyes… and then when you make the “selfie”, the selfie becomes synonymous with the world, the world becomes yourself— The World-Selfie. A part of you dies, a part of you lives forever.
How did you go about choosing which works to photograph yourself with?
There honestly were no other ulterior motives as to what we picked except what would get the most likes on Instagram.
To view the entire Whitney Selfiennial, go to @_princerama_ on instagram or @princerama2012 on Twitter.