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  • Writer's pictureBrian Gómez

On Basel, Culture, and Impact: How Art can Drive us Forward

I’m writing this as I’m winding down from the whirlwind of last weekend in Washington DC, a city  that is exactly what I needed: sleepy and uneventful. An art enthusiast by chance I headed down to Miami for the annual Art Basel event. In a year where the world and the country feels like it's bursting at the seams, the backdrop was quite jarring. Nevertheless I looked at hundreds of pieces, attended tens of events, and relished in the glorious parties the weekend is known for.

And I learned a lot about art but more so I learned about people. I think of art: visual, written, spoken, and directed as ways that culture speaks. And, like the CIA before me I also understand that the “tastemakers;” those who decide what is published, produced, and appraised also control the culture. Films like the recent “Leave the World Behind” are examples  of this, and I looked to Basel with that lens. 

I didn’t make the mistake as I did weeks ago by vocalising this frame when  I asked a crypto artist about periods in digital art. And like we saw with the Great Depression, would we see blues and greys in digital art?  A shift from the NFT neon kitties and rainbows that had inundated the market in the crypto boom. The artist scoffed and said he didn’t care about the market while a woman reassured me afterwards that the period question was relevant. What I learned at Basel was that the market itself is everything. While some fairs were more tasteful others like Spectrum Miami  felt like carbon copies of what the newest tech Billionaire would like in their living room. Artists stressfully stood at their stands waiting to make a deal.

Another panel I attended also sparked my curiosity. The panel was with staff at SSENSE and Jean Paul Gaultier about what kills creativity, and while the event spent most of its time defining the word, it made me think about how capitalism kills creativity and also intent. It creates a pressure to replicate the work that is already selling, and to pitch that movie, art, book, etc to those seeking to profit from the work’s distribution. But, works that resonate with people aren't always replicable and pieces like 'Leave the World Behind' interest me in that they are popular because social critiques and government critiques are resonating with the public today. We are hungry for stories that are able to put the feeling we hold as a society into words. And yet, in times of social unrest, both capitalist and communist governments use art to either repress dissent, or promote their own ideas.

This relaxed me a bit. While many people were annoying, none seemed to have a desire to control our social fabric and narrative in the same way other forms of media have been controlled. There was the Tulum artist event I stumbled into, filled with spiritual hustlers, selling fur puffers and potions. There was the bull run at the Perez Art Museum’s Preview night, filled with angry well-dressed people that were shocked to learn they were not the VIP of the VIP, only to have their expressions drop several inches as they grumbled and walked back to the winding line behind me. Finally there was the girl next to me at the  Barry's x Theragun workout class who oddly kept looking my way, only for me to learn she had a photographer who was trying to capture all her angles.

Self-obsession is somewhat harmless I think and I am rooting for the deals and content captured by these people that weekend but I also think there’s a larger opportunity there to tell a story with the art we are validating.

I was delighted by Design MIAMI. Many of the pieces of furniture were hyper-realistically nature inspired, with tables and chairs that could be mistaken for trees. With curves and edges that reflect the messiness of nature and of our world, it moved away from the sharpness of years past. Colours were also more natural and reflected our environment.

I also had great conversations with galleries at Untitled Art Fair about artists like Ana Teresa Barboza that are trying to advocate for a return to nature inspired surroundings, and climate-change driven work. She showed some work of indigenous and nature inspired housing, spending time in Northern Peru to inspire the work.

There was another artist, Therese Mulgrew,  who was hoping to capture the vulnerable and intimate moments we exist in. Her pieces made me seriously think about making my first purchase, as it evoked feelings  many in my generation I’m sure resonate with.

Other notable moments were at the ICA opening where a large exhibit by Charles Gaines displayed many pieces which were focused on the legacy of resilience in a people oppressed for too long. Then there was the complex geometries of thread work by many artists at a Collector Breakfast that was part of the Jorge Perez Collection entitled “To Weave the Sky”  that broadly yearned for us to stay connected to each other as a society, albeit in the  entangled and strained realities of the world.

These are the stories I’m hoping can get highlighted, and done so publicly not for private collections. I’d like to see art that is not necessarily the quickest sell or the most unusual combination but rather the art that is able to take the collective consciousness of the joy, the challenges, and the work needed to shift our society into peace through a combination of materials, ideas, and forms. 

Art can hold both the past, present,  and future simultaneously, as they exist in spacetime. And like in spacetime, while they are all connected they are not equally accessible or real in our everyday experience. I’ve become obsessed with art in a variety of forms including music, film, and visual art, mainly due to the lack of it in politics. Spending years working in climate advocacy I learned that the main war we were waging was not scientific, it was cultural. My time with the Sunrise Movement, and its success due the ousted Creative Director, Alex O’Keefe showed me the power of playing with culture. 

That people resonate with stories of the past, present and future. Individual and collective memory is what drives us forward like Salisa Rosa’s display at Basel: Topography of Memory showed. The piece(title photo) focused on the ways we can reprogram collective memory, and advocated for a shift from industrial memory to organic memory, constructing unique ceramic pieces from clay. 

And when we lose this, we lose the ability to make real change in society, which is why it's so important. And, for a long time money has influenced what ideas get produced, popularised, remembered, and replicated. Whether it was the Christian iconography funded by European Kings, or the taste of billionaires at Basel, power lies here. So- the question is how do we begin to produce art that is able to shift the narrative. Art that shows both the realities of our harrowed past as a species, in order to move towards a society that is peaceful, kind, and sustainable?

Many of the policies on book bans lately are part of the puzzle. Advocates say that showing students the reality of American history and its degradation of minorities throughout it is dangerous. And I partly agree. When we learn the truth of the country it is understandable that it could cause anger and violence. And while some might say that America is reaping what it has sown over the past hundreds of years, I advocate for a different lens. This is because to advocate for violence is harmful, and violent revolutions often exist to shift power to people whose only qualifications are aspirations to gain it and fulfill the fantasies of the educated upper-middle class- but hurt those most on the margins. Hierarchies retain the oppressive structures that govern us, regardless of who is in power.

While I believe this history is important to keep as  a collective memory, there is also another side of the coin: offer an alternative of what the future could be. We are quickly moving down a cultural spiral that is moving towards a dangerous place. And, art seems like the only needle that can move it. As stated, cultural and physical wars come with an underbelly of economic instability. So the work is two-fold. The first is to try to advocate for a slowdown of the economy. I think this is slowly happening as people spend less, and stay in more as well as the rise of unions and boycotts. The second part is to try to produce media that can shift the needle. Because most of us are now isolated it is hard to have conversations with each other. The financialization of third spaces has led to this: people can’t talk to each other because they don’t have enough money to exist in their own homes, much less outside of them.

So music, film, and to a lesser extent the ageing books and visual art forms need to be telling stories of what could be. Stories of connection, of repair, of duality and nuance that show the world as it is: organic fragments coming together. People and ideas that exist in the grayscale not the whites and blacks our emotions and our industrial politics manufacture them to be. These are the moments where a future can seep itself into. Into the collective memories and futures of our minds. In a world where our physical realities are paywalled, technology can offer a way out. Streaming can offer a low-cost alternative to deliver these messages to wherever we may be , even if we continue to move away from each other. Hopefully, these art forms delivered through technology can allow us to bring our minds closer, into a collective memory and a collective future, and work to bring our physical bodies in proximity, not in battle cry but for the betterment of this community we find ourselves in.

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