This past weekend, I experienced my first Basel. I've lived here my whole life, and for the first time, because of my job as a reporter, it's something I can actually attend. It seems like there were hundreds of things going on, all at the same time, and I didn't know which fair was truly essential, which party was unmissable, which of the thousands of artworks were actually good. I felt like I'd been thrown into the deep end of a pool and couldn't find the life preserver. Such is the nature of FOMO, that dastardly millennial disease.
Still, I was determined to have a complete Basel experience. I dove headfirst into the pool and rifled around for its sunken treasures. This is my story.
I might be a bit late to the party. VIP showings, contacts, and sales between buyers and galleries have been going on for days already; the rich and famous, the ones who can actually buy the art, have already perused the various fairs and made their preliminary choices. This means I've probably missed out on any chance to spot celebrities, like Frank Ocean, who was sighted at Design Miami early in the week.
This is the Basel that a first-timer doesn't think about: the exclusive economy of art that most of us aren't privy to. I can feel it as I walk the Miami Beach Convention Center floor a few hours before it opens to the public: Men and women in formal attire, most of them white, sit bored in their booths or engage in heated negotiations with potential clients. Some of them are probably perfectly nice, but I don’t dare lock eyes with any of them, lest they find out, beneath the suit I’m sweating through, that I’m here only to look.
So I look, because what is Basel but the world’s largest temporary museum? I am flabbergasted, rendered mute by the sheer quantity of works from artists I idolize. I count four Barbara Kruger pieces, at least three Basquiats, and a handful of Calder mobiles (including one I could place on my desk) and paintings (I didn’t even know he painted). And that’s not even considering all the wonderful pieces by artists I’ve never even heard of.
I think about all of this after I’ve left. I’m chilling at NADA, a much lower-key fair at Ice Palace Studios, where the art is quirkier and the people more approachable. Superchunk is playing an acoustic set. It’s far from the rarified atmosphere on South Beach. At Basel, there’s so much color and so much to see, and combined with the stifling climate of wealth, it overloads you. I realize that, as a local, I am only on the periphery of this type of thing. Like many Miami events, we're only hosting the community as they use us for their business. We get to spectate instead.
I have ended up in a room in a disused hotel in North Beach watching a man pole-dance in a leopard-print thong.
I'm not totally sure how this happened.
The dancer, dark-skinned and lithe with fabulous muscles and magnificent glutes, calls himself Dangerous Rose. The room, with its walls covered in mirrors and TV sets, is his exhibition space, and the routine, in which he twists and contorts his body around a silver pole, is his performance art.
I am at Satellite, an art fair that we might as well declare the anti-Basel. It happens in a crumbling, abandoned beachfront motel on 74th Street, close to the North Beach Bandshell. In its temporary residence at the Ocean Terrace, a group of artists, galleries, and collectives presents challenging, off-kilter work that defies easy categorization. Each takes a room, painting walls, hanging decorations, creating immersive environments to display their art.
Brian Whitely, the head organizer, tells me the group was working to secure permits till the fair’s official opening, convincing the city that the building, though outwardly dilapidated, is structurally sound. I meet him outside while we’re both watching a performance piece: a man who has shaved his chest hair to make it look like a shirt is walking slowly toward the ocean. People come up and ask if he’s going all the way in.
This is the essence of what’s going on at Satellite: It makes you ask questions. It makes you consider what counts as art. Is a VR installation where you stare into an expanding black hole and witness CG models of Egyptian gods art? I think so. Is striptease art? In the early days of French ballet, most of the dancers were prostitutes. You be the judge of that one.
The loose, DIY nature of the fair forces communication between artist and spectator. In other words, you feel encouraged to talk to the people in the booths, the artists, the gallerists, the other creative types who are attracted to this strange festival. And if you need a moment to yourself, you can always visit the Vagina Chapel to unwind.
Obviously, I am much more comfortable in the Magic City because I'm a local. It’s a bit ironic to hold a massive fine-art event in Miami considering the city is the most garish in the nation and Florida the most absurd, shameless state in the Union. Satellite embraces that side of Miami, the side that most of us live on. One installation, The Haunt, even used it as inspiration, constructing a nightclub for our deceased local icons, serving cocktails and using augmented reality to make the ghosts appear at the club. Gianni Versace is here, but so is Julia Tuttle. Mac Klein tends the bar. These organizers did their research.
Most people who come to Miami during Art Week use it as their playground, but the folks at Satellite use it as a canvas. Only one is doing Basel right.
It’s close to midnight, I am on NW Second Avenue in Wynwood, and the street is filled with people. Revelers and street performers fill the blocks. On one side of the street, a man beatboxes for a gathering crowd next to a woman holding a large python that will probably end up in the Everglades next week. On the other side, a mediocre DJ spins EDM on a soundstage. The Viceland Bus is probably somewhere around here getting hotboxed.
It’s pandemonium, but it’s not worse than the traffic and the resulting parking bullshit. I’m in the area to cover the Wu-Tang Clan show at Mana, and I’m braving the packed streets instead of Lyfting because New Times’ offices are in Wynwood and I figure I’ll be able to park in our lot. When I finally reach my space, which I use every day, a guy comes up to me and demands $30. The lot is for valet parking for the night. Fucking awesome. I talk him down to $20.
Obviously, I can’t talk about Basel without talking about the parties. For many, the art is simply a pretext for hosting wild soirees where celebs and influencers revel in classic Miami exclusivity. I had a couple of party invites, including one at Soho Beach House Friday night, which I am assured is A Big Deal, but I just couldn't persuade myself to go all the way out there. I don’t quite know why. Maybe it’s fear. Maybe I had enough hot air at the convention center. Maybe I already had a good thing going while hanging out with friends from out of town.
For many, the point of Art Basel is seeing what you can get into, whether it be a party or a VIP section or some other function lousy with the rich and famous. But parties happen year-round in Miami, and celebs come and go. The novelty wears off when you live here full-time. Maybe next year I’ll try my hand at all of that, but for my first Basel, I was satisfied simply by spending time with great friends and great art. Isn’t that enough?