A photograph in a small silver frame depicts an art class in full swing. Rather than heads down in whatever passed for educative tracts in the early 1990s – Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (1985) or Douglas Coupland’s Generation X (1991) – the class are gathered in front of the television studying Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987). Welcome to Bruce High Quality Foundation’s ‘Brucennial 2010: Miseducation’, sited in a former Soho fashion retail unit owned by property developer and art collector Aby Rosen. The photograph is a work by the now defunct collective Art Club 2000; it’s an artful, wilfully satirical inclusion, correct in its suggestion of lineage. Founded in 1992 by New York dealer Colin de Land and seven Cooper Union students, Art Club 2000 were the last generation of critical scenesters to cause a ripple in the fabric of New York time and gentrified space. The similarities are numerous: as Art Club 2000 took on Gap advertising and gentrification in works such as Soho So Long (1996), BHQF take on American Apparel and the new rise of the hipster in their musical Cats on Bowery (2007). Art Club 2000’s Night of the Living Dead Author (1998) an homage to Roland Barthes’ infamous essay, is revisited in BHQF’s Isle of the Dead (2009), in which deceased artists rise and stumble through the radical ruins of downtown counter-culture, doomed to wander its well-trodden paths.
So, BHQF: simulacra or Generation Y? To the uninitiated they have become, in a matter of months, the cause célèbre of New York, participants in the Whitney Biennial 2010, X-Initiative, the Independent art fair and P.S.1. Contemporary Art Center’s current ‘Greater New York’. Formed in 2004, BHQF consists of five anonymous male artists. They run a free school, the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, where ‘students are teachers are administrators are staff’. (Full disclosure: I am, if somewhat lapsed, a member of this university.) They’ve produced a series of engaging and satirical art-lectures, mounted a photo-documentary assault on the state of public art and hold yearly ‘biennials’. It’s a heady career path.
Spun to coincide with the opening of the Whitney Biennial, in which they also exhibited, this year’s group show had an impressive roster of some 250 artists, and boasted a star cast including Francesco Clemente, Harmony Korine and Julian Schnabel, alongside scenesters Rita Ackermann, Nate Lowman, Terry Richardson and Aaron Young, with support from curator (and son of Julian) Vito Schnabel. In a self-portrait photocollage, Richardson’s face is superimposed over that of a well-endowed male porn star, Korine has drawn the late Tupac Shakur in a tutu and Young suggests miseducation via the frat-boy theft of a police barricade, which was propped against the gallery wall. There were more than one or two engaging works but, lost in the soup of the dense salon hang, nothing that held attention for long. The closest thing to a critical position was a bound volume of art magazines by Maya Kishi Anderson re-titled as All I Have To Unlearn To Make Art (2010). (OK, it’s more cute than critical.) It’s not the fault of the assembled work necessarily – more to do with the frame. Like the student who’s heart and mind is in the right place but, due to that late-night commitment to the band, is rarely awake during class, ‘Brucennial 2010: Miseducation’ lacked something of the bite of their other ventures. Simply overstretched, I guess. The seeming smarts of their university and the potential of a ‘miseducation’ were never really addressed; the cluttered Victorian hang, if generous, stifled any critical agenda.
What is palpable (and clearly a lesson BHQF have learnt) is that people respond to a scene. Friends who want to hang with friends who have celebrity friends equals hip – it’s not that complicated. In fairness, this is not the group’s sole raison d’être – it’s more generally applicable to life and art in New York. What does it mean if, on behalf of the gallerist, the latest starlet invites you to check out the new show, or artists create categories and art awards as weak laughs and fund-raising grease, or that once pioneering institution gives over its walls to a member of the board? If, as the writer Mark Fisher has it, ‘all that is solid melts into PR’, what then is a young art collective to do but join in? Does BHQF offer an alternative or is it more of the same? The Urban Dictionary website lists 163 definitions for ‘hipster’. Amongst the name-calling, hair-pulling, geographically specific slurs and wrangling over allegiances to bands, what’s uncontested is that nobody wants to be one. It does however have its advantages and goes a long way to securing quick if short tenancy of the art crown. Norman Mailer defined the hipster as the true American Existentialist, one who seeks the uncharted journey into the ‘rebellious imperatives of the self’. From what I understand of BHQF, this latter definition is more in keeping. Call it hipster, scenester or just dudes being dudes, it’s been with us a long time and New York thrives on, nay, demands it. As long as they don’t fall foul of the hipster’s curse – the reverse Midas touch that kills everything it momentarily loves – they’ll probably be OK: a storm in the fabric of gentrified time rather than a ripple.