Highlights from the first annual ARTBASH
Art Alliance Austin's inaugural fall fundraiser, ARTBASH, was held on Saturday, November 7, at the Belmont in downtown Austin. It was an event that demanded attention (as you may have guessed from the capital letters), notable both for the breadth of work presented and for its ambition. Many of Austin's most buzzed about artists had pieces on display, and the assortment of visual art, music, and performances made for a night that was more celebration than exhibition. Highlights of the show included Naming Your Baby in the Garden of Digital Delights, a playful take on kawaii culture, complete with a giant faux-Tamagotchi. The piece was created by artists Natalie Bradford, Tsz Kam, and Kate Wilson, three-fourths of the quartet behind the fantastic Labile Affect exhibit that displayed with Co-Lab Projects earlier this year.
Naming Your Baby in the Garden of Digital Delights doubled as a set for performances by Crash Alchemy, a dynamic dance troupe that pranced around the venue with costumes and glowsticks. The interaction between the artwork and the performances (which were not created collaboratively) was a nice touch, and helped create an atmosphere of fun and fantasy. Everything from Alyssa Taylor Wendt's surreal prints to Terri Thomas's erotic photography worked to sustain the illusion. As befitting a self-proclaimed "art party," the event was heavy on dazzle, but ultimately impressed in substance as well.
We spoke with ARTBASH's co-curator Seth Orion Schwaiger to get his take on this and other high-profile events that have been taking place in the Austin arts scene as of late. He also shared his thoughts on the upcoming East Austin Studio Tour and some of the exhibits and galleries that excite him most.
Kate Wilson, Naming Your Baby in the Garden of Digital Delights (2015)
How did you go about choosing the artists for inclusion at ARTBASH?
SOS: Fellow curator Andrea Hyland and I really wanted to try something ambitious, something that would stick in the minds of the viewers like a bacchanalian carnival, but would do so because of the art rather than in spite of it, as can at times be the case when working in the art party format. Andrea, [Art Alliance Austin Executive Director] Asa Hursh, and I met several times over the course of six months to shape the show. We started with broad conversations about what the event could look like and settled on ideas of revelry, dreams, and the subconscious. At one point we thought about the Belmont as a sort of physical manifestation of the sleeping mind, with separate areas for social engagement, nostalgia, fear, desire, and fantasy all loosely connected. We knew we were looking for a certain type of artist to include in the exhibition: their work had to have this ethereal, dreamlike quality of course, but given the logistical hurdles we knew were in front of us, we had to limit our selections to those we felt could handle the pressure of a single day install in a non-gallery venue. We knew we needed professionals. With that in mind, each of us formed separate lists of artists we’d been keeping tabs on that fit the bill. (I’ve found this is a compulsion common to all curators, regardless, so there wasn’t much trouble there.) Then we had a bit of show-and-tell and narrowed down the pool to artists that we were unanimously excited about. Almost all of our first selections agreed to be in the show. The exhibition naturally gelled from there with interesting tangential connections forming between several of the works.
A number of folks have told me that these sorts of fancy art events are relatively new for Austin. What's behind this recent push?
Good question. There’s two ways to answer this: one is to acknowledge the falsehood in the statement, and the other is to acknowledge the truth. I’ll try and do both.First, the idea that fancy art events are new to Austin is a bit of misnomer;
fancy art events are new to Austin. In fact, it might be more true to say that fancy art events are at the historical, and present day core of Austin’s art ecology. Just trace the Contemporary Austin’s lineage back through AMOA and Arthouse to the Laguna Gloria Art Museum and even further back to the Texas Fine Arts Association . You can track virtually all of the longstanding arts infrastructure back to TFAA including Art Alliance Austin, the UT Art and Art History Department, Elizabet Ney Museum, and the previously mentioned long family tree of The Contemporary—the thing is, TFAA was primarily financed through two avenues: city funds and … a fancy annual art event called Fiesta that started in 1950. That art party included food, music, and dancing and in the '80s and '90s generated around a quarter of a million dollars a year to support exhibitions at Laguna Gloria. Since that time, other even fancier art parties have remained a huge source of revenue for The Contemporary (think events like La Dolce Vita, 5x7, and the Austin Contemporaries program) and The Blanton Museum (the first Austin institution I think of when I hear the words "black tie").
That’s not to say there’s no truth behind the idea that fancy art events are relatively new for Austin—they are for less institutional players like Art Alliance in its present day form, POP Austin, and even Big Medium (no one ever guessed they’d one day have a VIP room at their annual fundraiser, Due EAST). There does seem to be a different vibe to these than the parties listed previously—younger, glitzier, more fashion forward—and I’m not afraid to hazard a few guesses as to why. The city is getting bigger, and I think it’s trying to act like it. Organizations other than the museums are seeing the potential of these types of events as a way of generating funds, but more importantly (and somewhat ironically given the cover charges) as a point of access to those otherwise intimidated by the gallery scene. So many of us in the city have made it a mission to create a stronger ecosystem for art, and one way of doing that is to attract folks who don’t mind paying a bit for culture. Another is to break down the barriers between the arts and embrace music, performance, and the culinary arts as welcome partners to visual art. One more point I want to make though—and I think it’s an important one—is that these younger arts organizations, many run by millennials, are less concerned with separating art from "lower" forms of entertainment. They (we) see that contemporary art can be full of meaning, even life changing, and still be ridiculous and fun. This generation is so good at holding ostensibly conflicting points of view simultaneously. We can see the great importance of art without holding it in a revered sanctified status. In short, we can make a party of it. And why wouldn’t we? I had so much fun at ARTBASH partying with exhibiting artists like Terri Thomas, Sarah Stevens, Rebecca Marino, Alyssa Taylor Wendt and the lovely Elizabeth McDonald my face still hurts from smiling so much—and I feel like I have just as much cerebral art to think about than if I’d been through a formal museum space.
Rebecca Marino, Mother's Arm (NASA) (2015)
What are you most excited about for the East Austin Studio Tour (EAST) and for the Austin arts scene in general in this upcoming year?
SOS: For EAST I’m excited that my studio has climate control this year! I’m excited for the thousands of people who will look closely at contemporary art, many for the first time, because of the gravity of the studio tours. I’m excited for the studio complexes that have weathered breakneck gentrification and increasing rents (R.I.P. UP Collective; sorry no one can afford you anymore, Artpost). I’m so excited about the Museum of Human Achievement’s AS-IF [Applied Self-Instruction Foundation] experimental exhibition where only one viewer is allowed to enter at a time, and I’m very glad to see Co-Lab plans to keep "Life Machine," a solo exhibition by Angelbert Metoyer, open through both weekends of EAST.
For Austin’s scene in general I’m excited for the increasing complexity of the city’s arts ecology. With Co-Lab out of commission for several months this past year many viewers looked to other galleries to provide them with regular exhibitions. Now that Co-Lab has opened its satellite space and looks to open its new primary space soon, the exhibition schedule will significantly increase, and the viewing public will be more evenly shared between them and lesser known galleries like Not, ATM, Little Pink Monster, and Mom Gallery. Local grassroots publications of every scope like Free Beer, Trust Your ArtGut, and fields are adding to the discourse lately, and in many ways are providing insights that more regional publications have failed to deliver. Pastelegram and Conflict of Interest will both have a presence this year during the studio tours, and I’d highly recommend stopping in to see what they are up to. There’s encouraging renovations planned at The Contemporary Austin and a strong line-up of exhibitions this year, including work by Mark Mothersbaugh and a smaller but no less exciting show by Lise Haller Baggesen called "Mothernism," curated by Julia V. Hendrickson of Permanent.Collection. And of course UT will bring a massive Ellsworth Kelly chapel to the campus. I feel like every week I hear about big changes at the larger institutions and new upstart galleries that I’d like to visit. It may or may not be true, but when I’m optimistic I feel like we are in the early days of a Cambrian explosion—a huge and sudden diversification of curatorial and artistic voices trying new formats and carving out unique strategies of viability.
Interview and photography by Sean Redmond.
Collages by Rob Schneider