A bewildered Tony Conrad sticks his tongue out and gives two thumbs up. Then suddenly, the avant-garde composer and filmmaker is scowling, and has decided that the ungainly woman perched on his lap is initiating a stupid, poisonous project. Uncomfortably we watch the defeated hostess retreat for the door. On that particular week's webisode of Artstars* there was little chance to bait the unwilling "guest"; she was dismissed guilty before making her charge.
Of late the art world has been lured to the potential for mainstream outreach offered hesitantly by the medium of television; witness Work of Art, the Project Runway for competition-inclined artists soon to premiere on the Bravo network. With a mind to undoing the telegenic (or at least tele-ready) face of the art world, each week the confrontational Toronto-based vlog ArtStars* bring their gonzo art criticism to computer screens worldwide. The project belongs to digital artist Jeremy Bailey, who remains behind the scenes as reporter-provocateur, editor Krzysztof Pospieszynski, and Nadja Sayej, whose outfits include a cozy blue snuggie and a Wonder Bread-sponsored NASCAR top, and reports like some kind of deranged newscaster on gallery openings and the local art scene.
Each webisode begins as Sayej explodes onto the screen with a cartwheel, or swimming on the ground, or stomping like a self-parody of a diva, pausing to deliver her cliché campy tagline, "SNAP." A line of percussion summons the show's 3-D digital logo, which mimics Sayej's movements, rains down on her umbrella, or once causes her head to explode. The duo then hit opening night guest lists with a hand-held camera, an a/v closet microphone, and contentious attitude.
Much of the ethic of the show is Oedipal: the artists confront artists and professionals they have decided represent the lackluster nepotism of an old guard, and a younger generation they accuse of complicity. In 1984, critic Philip Monk panned an exhibition by General Idea, only to see them rise in the coming years to international notoriety; to make amends, Monk restages the exhibition at the Art Gallery of York University. The ArtStars* are compelled to call boisterous bullshit towards the flip-flop.
ArtStars* mimic primetime (or even daytime) TV's of misleading fight-dirty mechanics, namely jump-cuts and post-production editing. Clocking in at under three minutes per webisode, they can fashion their particular agendas whether it's a fully plausible critique or not. For instance, when asked if she could explain her work on the next, more complicated level Kriistina Lahde attempts to defend her cut newspaper kaleidoscopes, her words are speed-up beyond recognition, while the word "ArSpeak" digitally flashes before her mouth. The result produces a dilemma: Sayej might be correct in her assessment, but comes off as a tyrant.
Sayej is a former contributor to the Toronto Globe and Mail. But with her theatrically intimidating air, she exudes the bluster of a Greenberg-ian era evaluator willing to throw down rather than allow the repercussions of arts writing that's mostly provincial boosterism.
The series takes place in a Toronto that national and municipal stakeholders have advertised as undergoing a Creative City Renaissance. Over the past decade significant investments have strengthened the major institutions: the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario among them, in an attempt to foster a national cultural capital. Canadian Council on the Arts grants have been primarily allocated to art making, which has benefitted the careers of a minority. Very little of this national money goes to the few monthly glossies, which often produce safe profiles because bluntness burns bridges.
Weary of hospitable generalities the ArtStars* direct themselves to the responsibility of the critic, hoping to overcome stereotypical politeness. ArtStars* is a descendent of GalleryBeat, the pioneer of gotcha arts journalism who took swipes at the Soho gallery landscape in the 1990s. Hosts Paul H-O and Walter Robinson crashed seminal shows (the 1993 Whitney Biennial; Cady Noland at Paula Cooper Gallery in 1994; Tracy Emin at the 1995 Gramercy Hotel Art Fair) and clunkers alike (Beth B.'s "Pussy Pictures" at Deitch Projects), asking strange, simple questions to serious minded people. The series also recalls of New York City's public-access glory days of offbeat productions.
Some artists, like Joseph Drapel or conceptualist Christian Giroux, appear content to play the patsy, happy for any and all recognition. Others offer professional facades, exchanging curt pleasantries with the interviewer. In one recently shot at Mercer Union, the venerable artist-run center, Sayej begins by immediately announcing her distaste for the audience, and then finds some spectators literally running in the opposite direction upon her screaming out their names.
Choosing not to hide behind quasi-anonymity, as is a real possibility on the Internet, the ArtStars*make a potentially anti-careerist gesture against the white cube.