For decades, visual art has been a fulcrum for the gentrification of neighbourhoods, but many people still vaguely feel that the art world is pure, while conventional enterprise is corrupt. Such an appeal to purity necessarily contains a delusional element. Nonetheless, it is exactly this ethos that for so long helped sustain the SoHo art community's self-definition. The autonomy of the artist, however, is only a relative autonomy: freedom from day jobs typically demands a low-cost lifestyle. Artists are willing to sacrifice a better standard of living in exchange for a return in cultural capital, which depends on institutional recognition. In turn, the aura of cultural capital makes artist neighbourhoods attractive to trendy businesses and, thus, real estate gets more expensive.
Amidst the cheers surrounding Chelsea's rise as New York City's premier art district, Michael Smith and Joshua White's installation Open House (1999), sounded a dissonant note. The two artists replicated a Soho artist's loft in the New Museum's basement, right down to the lovingly crafted water stain on the kitchen ceiling. Its seemingly incidental details come together to tell the tale of 'Mike', Smith's well-known alter ego, a droll Everyman thrust into selling the loft which served, for many years, as his home, his studio and ratified his status as a bonafide artist.
Mike's story is an allegory and a polemic. By looking back on SoHo just when the art scene had so conspicuously renounced it, and by showing a fictional artist caught up in the shuffle, Smith and White consider how aesthetic legitimation works within a matrix of art and real estate.
Mike plans to cash in on SoHo's real estate boom by putting his loft on the market and for once seems to be coming out on top. A video tour greets the viewer. Mike appears on camera, recording himself by remote control. He earnestly explains the pros and cons of loft living in general and his loft in particular. Ever the budding artist, he has also turned this open house into an opportunity for a modest retrospective. With titles like Sweat Equity, Demolition Process Piece #3, and Survival NYC #2, his artwork mostly concerns the nuts and bolts of fixing up a loft and, by extension, the valourisation of SoHo as a 'bohemian' lifestyle. The tautology is insidiously stifling. Mike considers Sweat Equity to be a site-specific work; to anyone else it's nothing but a poorly built plaster board wall. Likewise, Mike's activist performance ensemble The Sohoods, never gets beyond its territorialism. Photo-documentation shows the troupe sporting hooded sweatshirts, each emblazoned with a single letter. Predictably, they spell 'S-O-H-O-O-D-S'. By painting banners with slogans like 'Soho for Artists!' and 'Soho Co-opt!' the group hopes to safeguard its enclave against encroaching tourists and boutiques. Nearby sits Mike's video production studio, the home business which supported him after his stint in construction. One monitor plays Interstitial, a cable arts magazine devoted to 'the space between the arts' as Mike calls it. Another plays The Downtown Look, a point-of-purchase commercial identifying 'lip definers' with Soho as a fashion centre. Mike fails to see that his various projects are at cross purposes, yet his oblivion is no worse than that of his real-life peers.
Elsewhere in the open house, a trail of letters, posters, announcement cards and studio equipment completes the portrait of an unimaginative hipster who's dabbled in installation art, performance, agit-prop, video art and video production: a hipster who's now trying his hand at real estate. The deadening effect of Mike's artistic - and commercial - ventures is that they are always knee-jerk responses. Although Smith and White imply that Mike has never succeeded as a 'real artist', i.e. one legitimised by museums and galleries, a now more ominously instrumentalised prospect is the fully networked over-achiever: the Chelsea prototype.
The formal structure of Open House complements its narrative drive. Putting a false interior inside an exhibition space reconfigures that space as a kind of non-site, showing both the actual interior and the illusionary one to be social spaces. In their consideration of public and private space, Smith and White imply that SoHo dilated the institution of art into a generalised lifestyle open to degrees of popular access and participation. One artist Mike interviews for Interstitial proudly displays a denim jacket onto which she's embroidered 'Art Star'. Another, Mark Kostabi, tells how he wants his art to be everywhere: in stores, on the streets, on TV and radio. 'Just like Interstitial!' enthuses Mike.