Everything we overheard at this year’s parties, from an alleged break-in and surprise shit at a museum, to gallerists making up fake press clippings, to what Uber drivers think of it all
“Rich people really will do anything,” someone murmurs to a friend. We’re standing in front of ATM Leaderboard, perhaps the most talked about installation at Art Basel Miami Beach. If you haven’t already heard, it’s a working ATM machine that ranks users by their bank account balance, simultaneously capturing and displaying an image of them—puffed up chests, nervous peace signs, blurry hands in front of faces—for all to see. The first time I encountered, on the fair’s preview days, the number one slot was held by a young man with a pink t-shirt and a $2 million checking account; a few days later, he’s been replaced by the rapper Diplo for his $3 million balance, who has since been eclipsed by a man with a whopping $9.5 million. As we watch, the leaderboard cycles down to zero, with a smattering of intentionally-crafted bank account balances—“fun numbers” like 420 and 69—in between.
Made by MSCHF—the art collective behind Lil Nas X’s infamous Satan sneakers—ATM Leaderboard quickly went viral when the fair opened, though a savvy local collector snatched it up for a mere $75,000 days before. “From its conception, we had mentally earmarked this work for a location like Miami Basel, a place where there is a dense concentration of people renting Lamborghinis and wearing Rolexes,” he says, describing it as an extremely literal distillation of wealth-flexing impulses—a way to cut to the chase and allow people an opportunity to showcase their net worth in real-time.
In my few days in Miami, I encountered more affluence—and imposter’s syndrome—than in the rest of my year combined. On the first night, I find myself at a four-course caviar dinner in the company of art world VIPs, where I was served a series of gastronomical feats so ornate it’s impossible to tell where it originated on the food pyramid (“What, uhh, is this?” asked the woman next to me, when a small tube-shaped appetizer was deposited in front of her; no one knew, and there was a sigh of palpable relief when, at the end of the meal, the chef sent out some bread.) It’s a persistent theme: Because so many of the parties are sponsored by alcohol brands, it’s often easier to find caviar and champagne than coffee or water.
It’s not my first time at Basel, but it’s my first time attending as press. Having first worked the fair some seven years ago as a fresh-faced gallery assistant, I’m surprised by how little I remember about the monied atmosphere, and the way inhabiting those spaces spikes my blood pressure. In the years since, it seems that even the art world’s newcomers are getting more comfortable: NADA, short for The New Art Dealers Alliance, rang in the 20th edition of its Miami fair with its largest edition yet, featuring nearly 150 exhibitors from more than 40 cities around the world. Dedicated to championing emerging artists and gallerists, the organization offers a more accessible alternative to expensive events like Art Basel Miami Beach, and fostered a more relaxed vibe than its South Beach counterparts. During the day, people read books, gossipped, lounged in hammocks, or else chatted with each other in booths, taking in more eclectic offerings than one would see in Basel proper.
“This year, commodification seems to be the word on everyone’s lips—and it’s been made literal in the form of art that calls out the disproportionate distribution of wealth, while netting a hefty figure of its own.”
This casual atmosphere extended to NADA’s festive dinner party. Conceived in collaboration with ILY2—an experimental gallery whose booth showcased the photographs, sculptures, and tastings of psychotropic beverages of artist Sol Hashemi—the party eschewed formal seating arrangements, instead encouraging guests to mingle over edible arrangements and tropical cocktails. Crowded around the buffet-style dinner offerings, I met several gallerists showing at the fair—one of whom gleefully told me how he made his own fake press coverage for Instagram. “People are eating it up,” he said, showing me photoshopped articles by art world royalty like Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith on his phone.
Later that night, I found myself at the Perez Museum, the site of one of Miami’s iconic annual art parties. People milled around with drinks in hand, heads bobbing to the music, or else posing in front of a LaCroix-sponsored installation. I met up with a friend to peruse the art. “I wish people would have a little more shame,” she remarks, as we wander through one of the museum’s more Instagram-friendly installations: what amounts to an empty room with clublike lighting, in which we witnessed the making of countless thirst traps. A lot of the installations provide one of three things: an Instagram-friendly environment for self-promotion, an opportunity to flex one’s status, or a commentary on people doing one or the other.
The next day, the atmosphere at Basel feels uptight. “If I had to live a day without email, I would be biting my own arm off,” I overhear one fairgoer say, her tone dead serious. “But how would you type?” her friend says with a laugh. As I coast from booth to booth, picking up on fragments of conversation, I can’t help but feel that whatever people came here for—the glitz, the glamor, or misguidedly, the art—was proving elusive. I’m reminded of the thing I always forget about art fairs: the environments are sterile and mall-like, so performative, that it’s hard to transcend the setting and feel truly moved by an artwork. There are, nevertheless, a few pieces that catch my attention: María José Arjona’s Chair, a work of durational performance that sees the artist suspended in the air on a wooden chair for six hours a day, moving her limbs in small, measured movements like the arms of a clock. Displayed by Argentina-based gallery Rolf Art, the work is described using phrases like “concepts of objecthood,” “political choreography,” and “ephemeral aspects of experience”—the kind of ubiquitous “art world speak” that’s often employed to little effect, but actually seem to apply here.
“A lot of the installations provide an Instagram-friendly environment for self-promotion, an opportunity to flex one’s status, or a commentary on people doing one or the other.”
It’s not the only performance. In a piece titled Corpo Ranfla 2.0, the artist Rafa Esparza impersonated a lowrider cyborg-turned-25-cent ride-machine. Conceived both as a commentary on the social and political landscapes of car culture and an opportunity to examine the function of cyborgian machines, the piece sees Esparza invite a select few ticket-holders to hop aboard for a ride. “I want to be especially careful with my body and how I’m choosing it to be consumed,” he told the LA Times ahead of the performance, explaining that while many of the people who received the special ticket to ride may not make it to Miami, their slots aren’t going to be given to someone else. “Like, who can buy a ticket to get into the fair? They’re expensive tickets… [But] having those people be from my community—I want to prioritize that. It’s a small gesture within a world of commodification.”
This year, commodification seems to be the word on everyone’s lips—and it’s been made literal in the form of art that calls out the disproportionate distribution of wealth, while netting a hefty figure of its own. Along with ATM Leaderboard, this theme is exemplified by a re-staging of artist Guillaume Bijl’s 1984 work Casino, which transforms Meredith Rosen Gallery’s fair booth into its namesake—complete with roulette and blackjack tables and retro decor, in a room concealed just beyond red velvet curtains. Unlike MSCHF’s ATM Leaderboard, however, visitor participation was not encouraged—at least, unless you drop $250,000 on the artwork.
On the fourth day of the fair, an artist friend texts me. “How I imagine art basil,” she says, captioning a meme of an unhappy-looking faux gangbang between characters labeled “curator,” “collector,” “artist,” “gallerist,” and “unpaid intern,” before asking, “But really, how is it?” “It’s a bit of a shit show,” I say. This turns out not to be an understatement—that night, someone tells me that a thief broke into a prominent museum in the middle of the night and took a shit, but that no pieces of art were reported missing. (Banksy, is that you?) It’s the most interesting thing I hear at the i-D x Marc Jacobs party—at least, until the rapper JPEGMafia delves into the crowd for an explosive performance that culminates, unexpectedly, in a highly stylized cover of “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen.
Throughout my stay, I’m curious about what Miami Art Week is like for the locals. “Honestly, when Basel rolls around, I usually turn off my app,” one Uber driver, Susan, tells me. “The people are insane.” Another driver claims it’s good for the city infrastructure: “Not a lot happens here,” he says, “And it brings a lot of money to the city.” Another driver asks me, upon entering his car, if I like art, and proceeds to tell me about his extensive art collection of over 1,000 works, and requests that I follow him on Instagram—but when I ask what he thinks of the art fairs this time of year, he doesn’t know what I’m talking about. “What I like about art,” he says loudly, talking over me, “is that it never depreciates in value.”