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Fairism: Art Basel As Heterotopia
Bárbara Borges de Campos , July 21st, 2019 09:25

At this year’s Art Basel, Bárbara Borges de Campos ponders the uncertain nature of the art fair as ephemeral city or space station, mall or brothel

A week after being at Art Basel I was trotting along listening to Pete Seeger’s ‘Little Boxes’, thinking in a way it was a great metaphor for my experience at the fair. Don’t take this too literally, art is not all the same, and most galleries were unique in the way they curated their spaces. But after a while, it got to be information overload – “there’s a green one, and pink one and blue one and a yellow one…” 

I had prepared to write an article on whether art fairs and particularly Art Basel, could be thought of heterotopias. The term is Michel Foucault’s. Not utopias – ‘good places’ or ‘non-places’ but other places. Places set apart, somehow distinct, with their own norms, rules of conduct. The answer became self-evident rather quickly. So I ended up spending the rest of my time there thinking about the role of the market, and how the age of fairism at this unprecedented scale impacts the art-world beyond these spaces. The two are not necessarily unrelated.

Messe Basel, where the fair takes place, is an impressive building, it was designed by Herzog & de Meuron. It’s gigantic, sinuous and metallic, almost like a small spaceship on earth. As you walk through the City Lounge, which bridges one side of the building to the other, you are confronted with a magnificent opening which concentrates your experience on the sky and light. A church-like atmosphere, transporting you to another space. Squares are typically the most public of loci in a city but this one is at once inward-looking, as it closes in on itself, and outward looking, as you look up and see this narrow expanse of sky. The scaley aluminium plates, the sky, the contradiction between the old town, and this ostentatious symbol of modernity, are the first signs that this is another space: a heterotopia.

In the paper ‘Of Other Spaces’, the manuscript of a lecture delivered by Foucault in 1967, the French philosopher delineates six principles which characterise heterotopias: “places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality”. Art Basel, and, indeed, other art fairs, have specific locations. Yes, you can pinpoint them in a map, yet they remain like clouds floating over the cities in which they take place, ready to breeze off at a moments notice. 

The first principle of heterotopias is that they “are privileged or sacred or forbidden places, reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis”. Art is at its most critical point when it reaches the market, it is the moment of selling and trading which “feeds” the entire operation. It provides the necessary capital for artists, gallerists, curators, handlers, etc. A sale can keep a gallery open, pay for studio expenses for a given artist, and most importantly pay for the costs of attending a fair – the hotels, the travelling expenses, the booth, etc. 

This may seem removed from Foucault’s examples of individuals who find themselves in heterotopias of crisis – “adolescents, menstruating women, pregnant women, the elderly”. People who have to be in some way hidden or removed from society for being at moments of transformation. But if you think about it adolescents are the perfect metaphor for artists, somewhat rebellious but attached to authority figures – the galleries. The galleries are pregnant women bursting with art. The elderly are the poor gallerists who walk around like dozed ghosts by the end of the exhausting week. I’m not sure who the menstruating women are, maybe the general public, the dirty ones with no money? 

The second principle establishes that “heterotopia has a precise and determined function within a society.” This one is self-explanatory, within the insular society of the art world, naturally, fairs have a very specific function: to sell. They are market places, to an extreme they are malls for art. 

The third principle is more complicated: a “heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible.” The easy route would be to say the fair holds several galleries from around the world, which generates incompatibilities, but, often, that isn’t necessarily the case. There is a sense of cohesion as you walk from one booth to the other, from a gallery in New York to one in Berlin and another in Lisbon. Foucault narrows his idea down, giving the example of the garden as "the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world.” Like the garden, Art Basel becomes a small parcel, which reflects a total, in this case, the art world.

The fourth principle links space with time, and heterotopia to heterochrony. “Museums and libraries have become heterotopias in which time never stops building up and topping its own summit.” Though Art Basel does not operate exactly under the same principle as museums, which archive and collect for generations, it has nevertheless a sense of timelessness. Contemporary art is set against modern art, bridging two very distinct time-frames, each one building on the other. The lack of any sense of passing time inside the fair also contributes to a feeling of a moment arrested in the normal chronometric run of things.

The fifth: some heterotopias “seem to be pure and simple openings, but … generally, hide curious exclusions.” The exclusive UBS sponsored Collectors Lounge high above, promising an Eden of overflowing champagne, is the most basic example of this phenomena at the fair. Though the fair is open to everyone on its public days, there remain days exclusive to press, collectors, VIP guests. Spatially there are also the allusive storage areas within the booths, some are open and even used as exhibition space, but some are locked only to be open for buyers and interested – or interesting – collectors.

The final principle brings us neatly to the idea that heterotopias hold up a mirror to our reality: “They have a function in relation to all the space that remains … a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory (perhaps that is the role that was played by those famous brothels of which we are now deprived).”

So in a way, like brothels, which in their lack of those normal pretensions of civility and cultural repression expose reality as futile, phoney, and inhibited; Art Basel is a space of illusion. An illusion because it does not operate under the “normal” order. It is a condensed experience of art acquisition, usually a far lengthier process that might include a studio visit, a visit to the gallery, a meeting here and there. There is also a factor of it all being out in the open. Transactions which happen behind closed doors, say a gallery (a semi-private space), are now just a conversation you can listen to. This is exactly how one imagines brothels to be: spaces where sex, normally kept to the most private of spaces, is openly available and open to view. Yet, neither Art Basel nor brothels are public spaces. They are heterotopias, places of passage, of crisis, created out of necessity by individuals within a given society.

It is clear the fair represents a heterotopia. It’s almost a non-place, to borrow a term from the anthropologist Marc Augé, like an airport, a mall or a gas station. You pass through it. It’s impermanent, ephemeral. A safe-haven of sorts for the art world in a border city (which in itself only intensifies its status as a heterotopia). 

This is what I had set out to do in Basel. But after being there only one hour immediately realised that, although this was an interesting idea, it seemed a cop-out. A way of avoiding talking about a complex system, which over the past years has come under scrutiny. It became apparent that I had to address its role and its model.

In 2018 Jerry Saltz tackled some of these issues in his cleverly titled piece ‘A Modest Proposal: Break the Art Fair’. Some of his proposals have partly been adopted. This year the price per square metre at the fair was reduced by 10 to 20% for smaller galleries. Blue chip galleries – Hauser and Wirth, Gagosian, et al – picked up heftier but proportional prices. 

Yet there is more that can be done to combat lack of diversity at the fair. It’s easy to argue that there are countless fairs (like neighbouring LISTE), which showcase a wider spectrum of galleries, but it is ridiculous to partition things this way. The idea of mixing established blue-chip galleries with smaller or more obscure up-and-coming ones makes the idea of going to a fair far more thrilling and enriching. 

Art Basel attempts to do this, but surely fragmenting the fair into two levels creates an unnecessary barrier (note here again: heterotopias are seemingly accessible yet contain curious exclusions). It generates some very curious disparities. I even talked to someone who said, “I’m more of a ground floor kind of guy.” I’m not saying the solution is sandwiching smaller galleries between blue-chip ones, but there has to be a sort of happy middle, which might encourage ground floor fairgoers to look beyond and explore other galleries. 

It’s harder to assess how this impacts life beyond the fairs, but between going to fairs and biennales don’t forget to visit galleries. The truth of the matter is that gallery visits decline each year, though of course, as Tiffany Jenkins points out in a piece last year for The Guardian, “the obsession with numbers is a dereliction of the original purpose of the galleries”. Still, going to flashy calendar-marked events should not be your sole contribution each year. Plus if you really want to look at art surely Basel is not the way to go – especially Unlimited, where experiencing an installation also becomes experiencing twenty other people. Art should be enjoyed leisurely, seriously and with time. The fair experience is like being overloaded with fast-money flamboyancy.   I had arrived at the fair in a sleepy and sceptical haze but I was quickly zapped into reality. Although I did spend much of my time at the fair questioning its power and role, I also did immensely enjoy it. It’s not often one gets to see so much art at once, and from such different countries and backgrounds without having to travel to multiple locations. Needless to say, it is also a great space to visit if you are interested in the market, even if you’re a total newbie. It was refreshing to talk to some younger people there who seemed grounded and in touch with the fair’s problems. If you’re thinking of going next year (or to another big fair of this sort), do. It’s a unique experience.