Hotelart.us on guerrilla-style curating, online galleries and why we really go to art openings.
It is fashionable lately to blame the Internet for many of the problems of modern life—from a cheapening of aesthetic experiences (there goes the Sublime, say the cynics!) to the collapse of social skills and destruction of deep relationships. But for the art world, the fact remains: Most of the art we encounter, we encounter on the ’net. Hotelart.us, a collaborative curatorial practice by Loney Abrams, Jonathan Stanish, and Ian Swanson, would like us to move beyond this “Internet, friend or foe” debate, and instead seek to harness the Internet’s nuanced capabilities. Over the past few months, hotelart.us has set up shows in rented hotel rooms, documented them, and then shown that documentation at a separate art space in a one-night opening. Their last show, Cultural Affair, was documented at The Cosmopolitan Hotel in Tribeca, and then “opened” at Interstate Projects in Bushwick. I met with Loney, Johnny, and Ian over backyard beers to discuss self-promotion, the difficulties of showing work in New York and their next show in August at Sadie Halie Projects.
Sophie Buonomo How did you guys come up with the idea for hotelart.us? Do you trace that genesis to one of you or to a specific moment?
Jonathan Stanish We were all out at a bar one night and someone had mentioned something about an hourly rental hotel around the corner from us in Bedstuy. Ian said, “Maybe I should do a show in a hotel.” This was December, early December. As the month progressed we began developing this idea into a collaboration between the three of us.
Ian Swanson I’d been thinking about new models for alternative spaces for a while. . . I don’t recall exactly how that conversation emerged. Initially we were going to try to actually do the openings at the hotel, but it just wouldn’t have worked and it couldn’t work, we couldn't have done it the way we would’ve wanted. For example, many hotels wouldn’t let us bring an audience into the room. Now we do it guerrilla-style, which is ultimately more interesting and practical. I proposed the initial model: How about we just document the shows and show the documentation—so it’s primarily a half online, half physical gallery? And it just evolved from there. The idea of documentation of a work being as substantial as the work itself is not a new idea. It is something a lot of artists are actively dealing with—we just took it back to the gallery to further entangle these concepts.
SB What has the response been from other artists?
IS We haven’t gotten anything for the most part except positive responses.
SB Why do you think that is? Do you think that’s because you guys are artists as well, because you’re in this community, because you’re operating outside of the institution?
IS Thus far we’ve been working with a lot of artists who use the Internet in some capacity, who also deal with the same things that we’re dealing with, though with unique approaches. It makes sense for this to be an appealing project for these artists because their work is already wrapped around similar ideas.
Loney Abrams I think there’s something fun too about getting to install in a weird place and think about showing or making work that reacts to that place, but then still getting to show in a gallery. It allows them to do something site-specific, without needing to drag an audience to some obscure location to see it.
IS The name hotelart.us is broad. It was used at the beginning basically just because the first events were at hotels, but now it refers more to the nomadic or rental-based notion of the project.
SB A certain branding.
LA Right, that’s public, private, accessible to anybody but. . .
IS . . . somewhat esoteric. Our next show will be at a spa and then we have some other ideas in the future for other sites. And we’ll return to hotels.
SB There’s been a lot written about airports and the fact that they are both “every place” and “no place.” Everyone belongs there, but your experience of the site is very fleeting. Do you see that in hotels?
JS I think that spas and hotels are places of transience and escape for everyone. So hotelart.us engages with these public spaces designed for “the getaway.”
LA Primarily it’s a practical thing, you know? They have walls and they are relatively cheap. And we only need to rent them for as long as it takes to install and document. We could pay monthly rent on an exhibition space in an expensive neighborhood, or pay 50 bucks for four hours in a hotel room. It seems pretty obvious, actually.
IS hotelart.us evolved out of pure pragmatism. I had been wanting to do a space and talked to Loney and Johnny about potentially starting something together. I have experience founding spaces in Detroit. . . but it just doesn’t make sense here, financially. And it just doesn’t make much sense anymore, because who the fuck needs a brick and mortar space actually when you have access to this whole other network of virtual spaces? (laughter) Real estate is somebody’s expertise but not mine, let them handle that side of it; let them do the gallery.
LA But it’s not just about pragmatism. The fact is, whether or not exhibitions consciously cater towards a ’net audience, the vast majority of any exhibition’s audience is online. A lot more people will see your gallery’s Tumblr than will see your gallery. So, really all that needs to happen is proof that we put together a show, and then it exists online. Having space on the Internet is way more important than having space in real life. Even when we have receptions in real space, they act more as a commentary on the function of the exhibition space, and less as a showcase for physical art objects.
SB How’s the reaction to that been, just showing the documentation at the openings without any of the works? Are people excited about that aspect of it or are people so used to seeing art second-hand that it’s not commented on?
LA People got heated on Facebook! (laughter) Some people got frustrated—
JS There was definitely some confusion at the first show. I remember one girl said, “I went to the hotel because I thought it was there, and then I was at Picture Menu [the opening space] and I didn’t understand!” (laughter) Even though on the Facebook invite it says, “It’s installed at one place and then shown at another”. . . but I actually think that confusion is good.
IS —It’s always the “if you see it in person you feel different, if the object is right there.”
LA Right. I think a misconception some people have is that we are promoting the idea that material art isn’t valued anymore, or that experiencing art through documentation is the same or even more valuable than experiencing it in real life. We aren’t making judgment calls. We’re just being transparent about how art circulates these days and about how the gallery is more useful as a means of networking, generating hype, getting associative status, you know? People don’t really go to openings to see art. They go to be seen and what brings people to a show is the bill of artists and the name of the gallery. If you go to an opening and you are interested in the art, you can’t even see the art, because it’s filled with people! If you like it then you go home and look it up online and you really experience the art on the screen. We’re not saying that that’s the best way, we’re just saying that’s how it is.
IS But it’s a different thing. A lot can be said for the effects of the aesthetic of Contemporary Art Daily or whatever, and the way artists document their work now. And okay, yes, we all feel those effects, but that conversation has been had. Most of the artists we work with are also making physical things, but what we’re doing is different because the actual opening reception is also the artwork. It’s a combination of the two types of viewing, a pure hybrid, actually. One doesn’t hold precedent over the other, at least not to me.
SB I remember going to your first show and the art on the projector was, I don’t want to say background noise, but it was in the background—
IS Like a social event.
SB Exactly. I don’t really remember standing in front of the projector and trying to take in each image. My conversations with other people at the opening were about the experience, what you guys were trying to do. . . but I don’t remember talking much about the actual art. Is that okay? (laughter)
JS The art totally matters and and we put a ton of consideration into the artists and works that we want to show. And we also spend a lot of time doing scouting missions to find good venues to document in. So for each show we team up artists with a specific spot that makes sense for their practice.
LA Right. The art is more important than anything. It might just not be the most important thing at the opening. Our second show was called Cultural Affair, which could be the name of any opening, really, because that’s what they all are.
IS An opening is better for performance than for showing physical objects. That’s why at Interstate Projects we had Chino Amobi do an audio performance as Diamond Black Hearted Boy, because the space could accommodate it.
SB There’s been a ton written about the idea that the Internet’s destroying our brains, that our iPhones are killing our concentration. . . no one has any attention span anymore.
JS Destroy is the wrong word. I think challenge, I don’t know about destroy.
IS I’ve been on the Internet my whole fucking life. . . I was an early adopter. (laughter) I’ve never thought of it as negative.
SB You never thought it was negative?
IS No. Whatever, the hippies can have that drama, we’ll keep the Internet. (laughter)
SB In a funny way hotelart.us is the best of both worlds, because people get to talk at your openings and are then free to go home and look closely at the images afterwards.
LA We’re able to add to this conversation involving the Internet, but show artists who aren’t necessarily part of this conversation. We work with some traditional artists, or artists very grounded within their medium, but by including them in this way of exhibiting, those artists sort of become involved in this conversation.
IS —Which actually goes some ways to demystify this whole “post-Internet” art conversation.
LA Right, it’s not like we’re a Net Art group, you know?
SB Now, switching gears a little bit, do you think that New York is very specific to this kind of project? Do you think you’d be able to do the same thing or would have come up with the same idea in Los Angeles, in London, in Detroit?
IS Yeah, I think I probably would have come up with the same idea in Detroit. But, I think the great thing about the project is that no—
LA —It’s not New York specific.
IS —not New York-centric at all.
SB But even if the project itself is not New York-centric, do you think the impetus for the model comes out of the New York scene?
IS No, that’s what’s interesting about this model, it’s adoptable by anybody: by kids, by twenty year olds. Just clear out your parents’ living room and do shows, and document that shit—call it a gallery. (laughter)
JS Go to White Castle, order a slider, hang your paintings up quickly and snap a cell phone pic and call it #chickenbreastslider.
SB So you would be excited about people taking this model and running with it?
LA Yeah! That’d be awesome. We’re in New York, where commercial galleries are at their sickening high point, so it makes sense for us to feel inspired to do something different. New York is the most impractical place to show art, in a lot of ways, even though there’s the most art going on here more than anywhere else.
SB What do you mean by impractical?
LA Even on a financial level, it’s just so expensive to be here. And like we’re saying, as long as its online, there’s the potential to have an audience no matter where you live. But also, with the hotelart.us model, since you don’t need the physical work to be at the reception, we can have the same exact opening in different locations at the same time. In the future we hope to document a show, whether it’s here or somewhere else, and then have an opening in two different, three different, however many different places and show the same documentation in all of those places. It doesn’t need to be in New York. It can be anywhere, and it is—online.
IS It’s everywhere. (laughter)
SB You were talking before about the “sickening height” of the gallery world. How are you guys feeling about the commercial space? Do you feel antagonistic or is it symbiotic with what you’re trying to do?
IS I think antagonism is always part of that art world symbiosis. So—(laughter)
SB Well played, touché.
IS Yeah (laughter), maybe that sums up my position.
JS I am into the agenda of DIY spaces over commercial galleries but I am also into chasing that paper. (laughter)
LA I feel much more excited about alternatives to these commercial galleries, that might give more autonomy to the artist. And I think that it’s becoming less necessary, because being represented by a commercial gallery—they’re basically your PR. They give you exposure; they connect you with collectors. . . But that’s what Facebook does, you know? As artists use the Internet to promote themselves, it’ll be less necessary to even work with galleries, because you can promote your own work and make your own connections and have your own network—use the attention economy to fund your practice somehow. I would much prefer not to rely on galleries as a source of income.
SB What about money? Does it make it harder? I mean do you guys have any interest, desire, or possibility of making money from hotelart.us?
JS Money that will fund the project, so that it can pay for itself.
IS We’ve also removed ourselves from the market side of things—if anybody were to inquire about a sale we would just give them the contact of the artist.
LA Right now it’s produced totally out of pocket and so now we’ve started to think, Okay, hotels are pretty cheap, but where can we install that’s free? We’re also looking towards grants because this shit’s expensive. (laughter)
SB How do your own artistic practices fit in with this? Is it completely separate or do you insert your art into it in any way?
JS I have always loved The Lawnmower Man (a 1992 sci-fi horror film that deals with virtual reality) and its take on immortality. Using the Internet archives, artists’ work and experiences are in an infinite structure that will continue to grow and expand forever. So yes, I think hotelart.us informs all of our own personal practices.
IS In a way, our hands are in hotelart.us more so than with single instances of our work. It’s collaborative hands, or rather like a giant hand. (laughter) For the past five years, being an active participant as opposed to a passive participant in shows has been part of my practice. It has informed my personal work—maybe in an informal way—but informs it nonetheless. The two are symbiotic.
LA For me, I’m starting to see conceptual curating as an artistic practice in a way. Artists aren’t anything without context, so as a curator, by actually producing the context, I can be clearer about my position—and more directive of the audience. And in my own practice, I’m always thinking about where and how these things will be seen, and try to anticipate their context as part of the work itself. So it sort of makes sense to be curating. It’s hard to think about these things as totally independent from one another because they’re inherently not.
SB How do you guys see your relationship with New York—do you have like an expiration date on it? Do you see yourselves leaving? Would you stay here forever?
JS Forever is a bad word.
IS I don’t plan that far ahead—I’m going to be here for a little while, I’m stable here. That was the idea, why I went to grad school. Before coming to New York, I was in Detroit and everything was just falling apart there. Besides, I had lived there my whole life, I just needed to leave at that point. New York was the next logical option.
JS And hotelart.us can work, let’s say, if Ian moves to Miami, Loney moves to Alaska—
LA God, I can’t picture Ian in Miami. (laughter)
JS Yeah, he’s off drinking daiquiris, Loney’s in an igloo scrolling Tumblr on a Macbook made of ice and it will work in a way that could even benefit our practice.
LA I don’t see anyone moving for a while, though—I think we’ll all be here for a bit.
SB Your next show is quite soon—what should I know?
JS We are working with the artist Debora Delmar Corporation and the exhibit opens at Sadie Halie Projects on August 31.
LA Also, we should say that if you’re planning on coming to the opening—
JS Bring a bathing suit.
LA You’re going to get wet.
The next event for hotelart.us will be August 31, 2013 at Sadie Halie Projects in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. For more details, visit their website.
Sophie Buonomo is the Associate Web Editor for Art at BOMB Magazine and a master’s candidate in History of Art and Design at the Pratt Institute.