Curating isn’t an easy job. At its best, the act of curation is its own form of artistic creation–a kind of creative essaying. The curator has a thesis derived either from his/her own observations about the world or filtered through a particular cultural criticism that is then supported through the arrangement of art objects. There are curators that have aesthetics and philosophies every bit as unique as the artists that they show: Bob Nickas, Alison Gingeras, Charlie Fox, and other curators like them have used curation as a means of defining their own idiosyncratic viewpoints and creative belief systems. I highly disagree with the iconic curator and director of Serpentine Galleries Hans Ulrich Obrist when he said, “I don’t believe in the creativity of the curator.” I do believe in the creativity of the curator. I believe in the curator’s ability to communicate his/her own vision of the world.
But if there is one notion that can totally sink a curator’s creativity, it would be nostalgia. And I don’t mean nostalgia in the way of pastiche. Pastiche can deconstruct nostalgia and reinterpret it in the eyes of a contemporary generation. Quentin Tarantino’s entire career is proof enough that nostalgia and pastiche are related, but ultimately different approaches to creation. No, nostalgia in its rankest form, devoid of the conceptual deconstructions of pastiche, is rotten with the stank of personal memories. When a curator looks back on the good old days, the days of their youth, he/she is likely to make some bad choices. One can’t be objective in critique or analysis when looking at the era in question through the haze of a memory clouded in cannabis smoke, sleazy sex, opiated bliss, and the growing resentment of bygone youth. Nabokov once wrote that “One is always at home in one’s past.” And comfort zones must be avoided with utmost rigor when in terms of creation, or in this case, curation.
This comfort zone–this nostalgia–is the primary problem with the tacky and gimmicky tourist trap of an exhibition currently on view at The Hole Meet Me in the Bathroom: The Art Show. Curated by Hala Matar (primarily known for her work in fashion film) and journalist Lizzy Goodman, the exhibition is devised as the visual art counterpart to Goodman’s book, also named Meet Me in the Bathroom, that documents the New York rock n’ roll scene of the early 2000s. As is an undesirable tendency of The Hole, the show doubles as a populist Instagram photo-op with design mimicking the iconic Downtown bar Max Fish, where both artists in the exhibition like Dash Snow and Ryan McGinley, and bands like The Strokes and Interpol undoubtedly all did key bumps of cocaine of questionable quality (though I appreciate trash, I don’t appreciate populist pandering). Though I didn’t read the book (I know enough about it to know it’s not something I’m overly interested in), the conceit of the exhibition itself caught my ire. The music scene that Goodman documents–bands like The Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem and the utterly dreadful Interpol–was itself a music scene baked in careerist nostalgia.
What do I mean by “careerist nostalgia?” I mean that most of these bands (MOST, not all) were creating music in homage of various post-punk and garage rock bands of the past. But far from trying to evolve this style of music, most of these bands were simply aping and devolving styles of music that had already been done before with far more radicalism and sincerity. Unlike genuine NYC homegrown radical music scenes, like No Wave in the late ‘70s for example, these bands were all creating music with success in mind.
The Strokes stole the song structures of the last Velvet Underground album Loaded, and fused it with some mainstream appealing licks and choruses. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs updated the likes of Blondie and Siouxsie and the Banshees. And Interpol copied Joy Division down to Ian Curtis’ distinct baritone vocals, but stripped JD’s ghastly auditory manifestations of urban blight and industrialization in favor of a “cocaine and models” philistinism. Even the most enduringly fascinating and brilliant band to come out of this era, Liars, have done everything they can to distance themselves from New York’s “early VICE Magazine” era, including moving to Berlin and recording two abstract electronic and percussive albums (They Were Wrong So We Drowned and the masterfully mesmeric Drum’s Not Dead) that have little to do with the hedonistic dance punk of their debut (which aesthetically shared more in common with the ‘scene’ as outlined by Goodman in the book).
In his legendary essays on postmodernism in the 1980s, theorist Frederic Jameson noted an increasing tendency of cultural products to vaguely allude to the past while still technically being a contemporaneous work. One of his examples was the Lawrence Kasdan neo-noir erotic thriller Body Heat which, while taking place in the 1980s, used many of the tropes of 1930s and 1940s film noir. The theorist Mark Fisher tried to understand this tendency and elaborated upon it in his book Ghosts of My Life. What he came upon was, of course, related to neoliberal capitalism. He saw that some of the most radical cultural movements tended to coincide with eras that had excellent access to affordable housing, and as housing rates increases, so did artists’ tendency to create work vaguely mimicking successful styles of the past. “Neoliberal capitalism has gradually but systematically deprived artists of the resources it takes to create the new,” wrote Fisher. Bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Strokes are exemplary of this notion: they were using retro styles to break big, but not to create a new subculture. This exhibition then doesn’t feel like a celebration or commemoration of a self-sustaining radical art movement, but one of a kind of base materialist careerism. This is beyond nostalgia: nostalgia for a musical era without ethics.
There is a philosophical disconnect between the visual artists shown in Matar and Goodman’s exhibition and the bands written about in Goodman’s book, despite the geographical proximity of where they were working and the era in which they started. Whereas the bands that Goodman writes about were on a one way trip towards record label riches and excess, some of these visual artists maintained distance between themselves and the hopeless culture that they were living within. Most of these artists didn’t present hope for a better future; they opted for a nihilist race to the bottom. They advocated for a heroin holiday in response to the end of the world. But at least they offered cultural critique. By lumping these bands and artists together into one space, it’s hard to say Goodman and Matar are making any sharp observation about culture other than their own fun memories. Curatorial “trying too hard” always comes off as kitsch and boring.
There have, of course, been examples of artistic scenes in which visual artists and musicians shared ideologies and common goals (some of those artists actually played in the bands). Certainly the aforementioned No Wave has ideological connections to No Wave cinema, not to mention visual artists like Jimmy DeSana whose photographs manifested a transgressive eroticized nihilism that could be heard in the noisescapes of No Wave bands like Mars and DNA. The Los Angeles performance art scene too had much crossover with noise and avant-garde music: Mike Kelley, of course, played in iconic noise rock band Destroy All Monsters, he and Paul McCarthy recorded noise music with Japanoise musician Violent Onsen Geisha, artist John Duncan was equally known for performance art and noise recordings, etc..
And it’s not like New York didn’t have its own truly radical music going on in the early 2000s: Dominick Fernow’s Hospital Productions label and East 9th Street store, and Carlos Giffoni’s No Fun Fest briefly made New York the world’s premiere destination for truly extreme noise music. The “freak folk” or “New Weird America” scene largely crystallized around New York-based collective No Neck Blues Band. And rapper/producer El-P (now world famous as one-half of Run the Jewels alongside Atlanta rapper and best friend Killer Mike) pioneered a whole new style of underground rap music, let’s call it “sci-fi dystopian rap,” by releasing his own records and ones by other hip-hop iconoclasts like Cannibal Ox to his Definitive Jux label.
Could any of these more genuinely idiosyncratic music “scenes” be placed in context with the visual art happening in the city at the time? Who knows. But depressingly, Goodman and Matar chose to focus this exhibition around the trendiest, least authentic, least artistically innovative musicians of the era. These musicians, unlike their visual counterparts in the show, weren’t products of the impossible to recreate energy of a bunch of weirdos finding each other, taking drugs together, and introducing each other to art. They were the products of a semi-corporate branding machine: major record label deals, fashion magazine co-signs, and SPIN Magazine articles by the likes of Goodman and Marc Spitz. I don’t want to besmirch Goodman or the late Spitz, but it’s possible that Goodman is having trouble recognizing that despite the good times she had going to these shows, she most certainly was not part of an avant-garde sub-culture that changed music history. She was part of a branding strategy.
But, as stated above, the visual art of the early 2000s did have a nihilistic, “no future” energy that, far better than career-minded bands like Interpol or The White Stripes ever could, addressed the cultural climate of New York and America at large during the time. These artists lived through 9/11. They saw human beings jump out of the architectural embodiment of American capitalism. With American empire in decay, with Giuliani and Bloomberg eradicating New York’s authentic cultural flavor and danger in favor of the clean lines of mega-corporations, and with the promise of an egalitarian future more distant than ever due to the height of neoliberal austerity with Clinton and later W. Bush, these artists were living through the end of the world, or at the very least, the end of America.
At their best, these artists were living lives and making work that reflected the utter dystopia of it all. There was no future. They–Dash Snow, Ryan McGinley, Rita Ackermann, Urs Fischer, Nate Lowman, and other artists featured in this exhibition–did all the drugs, had all the sex, and made art utterly devoid of utopian or political sentiment. Bataille once wrote, “I am in harmony with my annihilation.” These artists reflected the end of times in their work and lifestyles. When there’s no tomorrow, obliviate yourself today. The problem with this exhibition, of course, is that this radical Dionysian quality is deeply diminished when paired alongside musical mediocrities like The Moldy Peaches. But I digress.
In retrospect, it feels more and more like Dash Snow, who has a blown-up Polaroid and a bizarre sculptural piece on display in the exhibition, really was the era-defining artist of early-2000s New York. Born rich to the art collecting De Menil family, Dash got addicted to heroin, joined the legendary Irak graffiti crew, and was ostracized by his family before emerging as a fascinating and successful artist on his own terms. Dash’s work, perhaps more than any of his artist friends, reflected a disillusionment with mass culture that bordered on an outright rejection of it. His work, and frankly his life, celebrated the discarded, the unloved, and the criminal. Like fellow excommunicated blue blood junkie William S. Burroughs, Dash viewed the art life as most authentically an anti-social life. When asked in a 2005 interview for the documentary Beautiful Losers about why he got into art, Dash said, “The first time I ever got into trouble was for drawing dirty pictures on the bathroom wall in the first grade, I was never a fan of doing what you should do.” For Dash, a life in art was a life as an outlaw.
Dash’s work was, on the one hand, a rejection of the gloss of late-’90s and early-’00s MTV culture and high production: Polaroids, assemblages made of found porn, snuff films, records and books, crude drawings, collages of paper and his own jizz, and of course, his graffiti, which was a direct assault on corporate gentrification. But at the same time, Dash was clever. At the risk of sounding like a hack, it’s easy to detect connections between Dash and Kurt Cobain. No, not just because they were pretty blond junkies and members of the “27 club,” but consider the late theorist Mark Fisher’s analysis of the dilemma of Cobain as written in Capitalist Realism: “Cobain seemed to give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it even happened.” Likewise, Dash seemed to know at a certain point that regardless of how flagrantly provocative, maniacal and tactless his work would grow, like the jizz collages or his infamous “Hamster Nests” in which he’d take drugs, rip up magazines, and live like a hamster trashing hotel rooms and later galleries, his ideas would still be co-opted and sold into the art world. So even though on the level of form his work is a modernist rejection of postmodern sheen, his critique is thoroughly one of postmodern irony. It seems to recognize that nothing matters and everything can be sold–get high and get rich because it’ll all be over soon.
And the funny thing about Dash being in this exhibition is it’s obvious he would have hated it. I don’t know exactly what his music tastes were. I know he liked The Stones because McGinley has been on the record saying Dash always sang Stones songs. And I know he liked noise because a stack of his noise cassettes, including harsh experimentalists like Skin Crime and Black Leather Jesus, were included as an assemblage in Dash’s incredible posthumous retrospective at Participant Inc. earlier this year (The Hole could do well in taking note of what Participant Inc. does–now that’s a gallery that knows how to put on shows with a peg that still have intellectual and cultural resonance). But, Dash certainly would have hated a band like Interpol, and their need to be liked by Pitchfork and appeal to mass audiences.
And that’s what this kind of exhibition does at its worst: in the name of satiating the curators’ need for nostalgia, it ends up diminishing the cultural importance of these artists. If Dash’s art would have a soundtrack, it would be somewhere in-between outlaw Americana blues and flagrant avant-garde sleaze noise, possibly a band like Pussy Galore or early Royal Trux (for what it’s worth, one of my three all time favorite bands). Art damaged drugs noise blues. But definitely not the trendy electroclash that lasted in New York for two years before everyone got full-time design jobs and stopped caring.
Throughout the “art half” of the exhibition (the other half is dedicated to memorabilia of various bands), one struggles to detect any kind of connection between these artists and these musicians. The closest it gets is an Urs Fischer photograph of a hand cracking an egg yoke that graced the cover of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ 2009 album It’s Blitz, but it’s mostly just a sub-par Fischer that hardly indicates the absurdist postmodern artist’s larger body of work. Also, the great Hungarian-born painter Rita Ackermann, represented by an early example of her lush figurative paintings, was actually in a band called Angelblood with future Gang Gang Dance members Brian DeGraw and Lizzi Bougatsos. But that band played a deathrock boogie No Wave style of music that shares little characteristics with the mainstream-leaning acts that Goodman largely framed her book, and she and Matar framed the exhibition around.
Ryan McGinley, represented by the puke self-portrait and two other images from his iconic first book The Kids are All Right, took photographs of the drug decadence amongst his group of artists, graffiti writers, and skateboarders, but rarely did his lens capture the musicians on display here. The brilliant art duo Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe are now known for their Ballardian, dystopian large-scale installations that the duo have dubbed San San International, a fictional bombed-out housing project allegedly somewhere in-between San Diego and San Francisco. Not only are Freeman and Lowe not associated with early 2000s New York rock n’ roll culture, their work exists in an implied narrative rife with cultural ruminations on poverty, addiction, and postmodern despair. Goodman opts to take their work TBT, a sculptural object that looks like a bathroom mirror caked in drug residue, and work it in to make it look like the mirror of the constructed Max Fish bathroom in the gallery. It’s clever, sure, but it also vastly cheapens the power of the duo’s conceptual ideology in order to fulfill the curators’ narrow nostalgia trip.
The problem is that Goodman and Matar can’t zone in on any actual “scene.” The exhibition is drenched in Goodman’s own nostalgia for her youth. But just because you knew artists and saw bands around the same few years of time doesn’t mean you were part of a scene. A scene connotes a shared belief system. A cohesive ideology about what creativity is. That isn’t the case here, and even if it was this exhibition fails in illustrating how it would be so.
If there was anything that tied together early 2000s NYC bands and artists, it would be a deep debauched and detached nihilism that borders on the “capitalist realism” as outlined by Fisher in his iconic book of the same name. Despite these artists and bands working at the apex of the decline of American empire and hegemony, none of these artists tried to envision a better world or a world beyond capitalism. On the contrary, a resignation bordering on that tired belief “this is just the way it is” courses through the era in question and the exhibition. After all, VICE Magazine, the hip publication of record of early noughties New York culture, has evolved into a Murdoch-owned media conglomerate pushing neoliberal identity politics that really just reinforces the already existing economic power structure. Considering its two founders have become a disgraced capitalist and a disgraced white supremacist respectively, this should come as no shock. Similarly, the bands in Goodman’s book all displayed a professionalism and desire for success antithetical to radical experimentation: nostalgic retro rock styles repackaged for major label appeal. And unfortunately, the “capital rules all” mentality inevitably made its way through the visual arts: McGinley’s crude portraits of youthful hedonism eventually gave way to staged, lush images of nubile youths running through nature and big money corporate gigs, Dan Colen has become something of a Damien Hirst-like artist, etc.
But at least some of these visual artists maintained some critical stances towards the vacuous culture that they inhabited. Artists like Dash and Freeman/Lowe offered thoughtful analysis of a city in the throes of annihilation: big shots of icy hot heroin, ant hills of impure cocaine, bottomless debauchery, and radical art objects became mechanisms for watching a city burn and be reconstructed in the image of Wells Fargo executives.
But this isn’t the sense I get from Goodman and Matar’s exhibition. What I get from this exhibition is misguided pining for a troublesome era, the longing for a youth so quickly passed by. There is nothing wrong with longing for your youth, we all do it, but it is a problem when you try to lump entirely different worlds and modes of thought into an imagined era that never existed in the first place. Not only do Goodman and Matar falsely lump in visual artists and musicians that have nothing to do with one another under the false assumption that a shared location and era define “a scene,” they also don’t acknowledge the myriad cultural realities that created all this nihilist debauchery in the first place. Can the “good old days” really be good when they mark the dawn of a new era of neoliberal austerity politics, late stage capitalism, gentrification, financial crisis and the new reality that America is no safer from global terror than any other place in the world? “I don’t know, but remember the Smiths Karaoke nights at Lit Lounge?” seems to be all this exhibition is capable of saying in response.
Adam Lehrer is an artist, photographer and writer. Lehrer’s work consists of manipulated photography, collages made of mostly Internet sourced appropriated images, and video loops. He has had solo shows at Spring Break Art Show, Governor’s Island Art Fair, and has been featured in group shows. Lehrer is also a culture writer, and his art, film and music criticism has been featured in Autre Magazine, The Quietus, Forbes, VICE, Bedford & Bowery, Bullett Media, i-D, SSENSE, and more.