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To call Ryder Ripps’s “ARTWHORE” project provocative is an understatement. Few art projects can travel so quickly from execution to social media firestorm, critical takedown, news fodder, and finally casting a small whiff of remorse as fast as Ripps’s Ace hotel residency in Manhattan’s Flatiron district. A master of the troll, Ripps designs his projects with the same disdain (coupled with hunger) for attention that older artists, like appropriationist Richard Prince, often do in their own work. Some might call Ripps more of a viral marketer than an artist, but I think his best work often walks that spot in a Venn Diagram where all spheres overlap.
What made this one different from most of his projects was his lackadaisical attitude towards its ethics, his complete dismissal of his critics, and that the first signs of outrage emerged on the artist’s home turf, New York’s internet art community.
Critic Whitney Kimball at the Art F City art blog was the first to react at length, and she pegged the project to a “bizarre streak of misogyny has been flaring up amongst the influential men of the art world.” She found the male-dominated conversation on the artist’s Facebook page troubling but also called him out for asinine comments, like “I choose sex workers because great art is like great sex.”
The New York-based art nonprofit Rhizome then validated critics of Ripps’s project by tweeting their regrets about this latest “unethical” project. The statement came a short while after they nominated the 27-year-old artist as one of the 10 short-listed for their Prix Net Art prize.
Some people were taken aback by such an influential organization’s public statement about a specific art project, but Rhizome felt they had to respond under the circumstances. “Rhizome has long supported Ryder’s work, and made the argument for its significance at the institutional level,” Rhizome Executive Director Heather Corcoran told Hyperallergic yesterday. “The direct terms of this piece circled debates on which we have taken strong positions, like sexism and precarious work. Coming just weeks after our Prix Net Art shortlist, and in the context of the discussion this new work initiated, we were compelled to make a timely statement on the piece.”
Rhizome Editor and Curator Michael Connor penned an extensive explanation for their institutional position, comparing “ARTWHORE” to artist Andrea Fraser’s body of work and explaining how it fell short. Connor is very precise in his criticisms, and he even considers the possibility that this is all part of the work:
If the project was intended as an elaborate troll, which is the most generous possible interpretation, then it was still not interesting. A more nuanced troll would have forced us to confront contradictions in our own position, making it difficult to make any statement at all. The lines drawn by Ripps’ project are just a little too clear; we have little doubt about our own position, and binary opposition seems like the only possible result.
Most people I spoke to are still very uncomfortable with Ripps project, often citing its shallow investigation into a serious issue, while conflating the potential dangers of sex trade work with the life of an artist. Many also thought the reaction was overblown, as the relatively minor project didn’t warrant the backlash. After Rhizome gave the topic legitimacy, Gawker chose to be shrill about the work, and they blared “Artists’s Scummy Escort Exploitation Turns Art World Against Him,” while Dazed, Complex, and others chimed in. One Vice writer, Michelle Lhooq, chose to defend Ripps.
It has been five days since Ripps completed the hotel residency, but the strange vibe that radiated from the project hasn’t dissipated. For Ripps the performance didn’t seem to end in the hotel room and on social media he came across as defensive, flip, egotistical, and tried to dodge the ethical questions by asking people to focus on the art works produced by the two “sex trade workers.” That last point seems borrowed from the tactics of another more famous case of problematic art world ethics. Artist Joe Scanlan — who is a white Ivy League art professor — regularly hires African-American women as actors for his “Donelle Woolford” project. Many people have been critical of his project, particularly when it was in this year’s Whitney Biennial at the invitation of curator Michelle Grabner. When Scanlan is interrogated about the work, he often deflects questions to the actors. The two projects demonstrate a clear affinity, as they both contract out one of the primary roles of the artist who is expected to fulfill an art audience’s need for objects and related explanations.
Watching the documentation, it’s clear that there are weaknesses in Ripps’s project. The drawings, which he celebrates, are not all that interesting, and his fascination with them comes across as professorial or even parental. “They captured an essence,” he tells the male masseuse named Jay about his drawings. At one point he even tells Jay he should stop working on the drawing, like he was about to ruin the work. With both proxy artists Ripps shares his favorite culinary metaphor about ruining an art work by overcooking it — it comes across as him giving them permission to be whimsical.
At the 01:45:30 mark in the “ARTWHORE” video, Ripps admits to Jay that “I didn’t do much planning for this,” when referring to his hotel residency. With Ripps it’s often hard to distinguish truth from verbal posturing. Unlike Scanlan, even Prince, he doesn’t come across as cold and calculated, preferring a more colorful engagement with commenters, often spiced with non sequiturs and questionable jokes. Even with Brooke and Jay, the two people he hires for “ARTWHORE,” he sounds interested in engaging them in banter, though it’s unclear if it is genuine or staged for the webcam.
If his interaction with Brooke is dry and largely uninteresting, there is a flirting air in his back and forth with Jay, who openly identifies as bisexual. Ripps flatly says he’s straight in the video but that doesn’t stop him from talking about his interest in sexual choking. “I’m pretty forward about that with people,” he tells Jay. He also explains he had a cocaine addiction before the age of 21, and the two even talk about the state of fetishes in the gay and straight communities, lingering on the topic of glory holes. Jay, who turns out to be an artist himself, seems interested in Ripps and his motivations, even if he sounds a little unsure about the setup.
One of the biggest critiques of “ARTWHORE” focuses on the issue of identity, and who the artist chose to make his art. Between the departure of Brooke and the arrival of Jay, Ripps speaks directly to his webcam and explains that he was sure to select one man and one woman, but never mentions a sensitivity towards other factors in his selection process, like race or ethnicity. Both of the people he hired appear to be black, though Ripps says he didn’t know Brooke’s cultural background until she arrived to his room.
In Connor’s criticism of “ARTWHORE,” he cites the issue of diversity online and accuses the artist of “playing down the role of race.” Speaking to him two days after his post, Connor explained to Hyperallergic that he sees a role for Rhizome in contributing to a more inclusive and egalitarian online art sphere. “In the years after it was founded in 1996, Rhizome embraced ideals of openness and horizontality as a reaction against a very hierarchical art world,” he said. “Today, it’s much more apparent that power is wielded equally unevenly on the internet, and that ‘openness’ means allowing power to be wielded unchecked. So in order to promote egalitarianism, we are increasingly put in the position of having to take firm stances.”
Connors is aware that engaging with Ripps’s work, even when it is offensive, is a form of “signal boosting” but he felt it was necessary to address the piece given the circumstance. “It’s important to be able to narrate your experience when you feel the need, to say what you want, and art criticism is one form this may take,” he explains. “That said, a writer or critic speaking from an institutional position does not have this luxury. Institutions have to take responsibility for the effects their statements have in the world, including the attention it brings.”
A few days after her original post, I asked Kimball at AFC if she has any second thoughts about her critique. “I have not changed my mind, especially after the outpouring of comments on social media (I wrote a round-up based on those) and Michael Connor’s thoughtful response on Rhizome,” she told Hyperallergic. “I think the piece makes thoughtless use of other people’s identities to air a totally privileged complaint. And it’s no surprise to me that the loudest proponents of this work tend to offer zero constructive defense of the project or useful criticism of my argument. For this reason, lots of women have commented privately that they’re staying out of the conversation in order to not ‘feed the trolls.’”
Yesterday, after a brief back and forth with Ripps on Twitter, which even included a statement of regret, I thought he was starting to become introspective. I responded with a request to interview him about his evolving thoughts. He was coming across in 140 characters as someone unable to be self-critical, which I didn’t believe to be true, so we decided on an email interview. I later discovered he deleted the tweet that expressed his second thoughts about the project. It made me wonder if I was being manipulated or if he was afraid to show vulnerability.
In the midst of my email interview with Ripps, I started to wonder what it might take for Rhizome to retract their tweet, not because I sided with one party or the other, but because it sounded like the organization had given the whole matter a lot of thought and probably had an answer. I asked Connor under what circumstances Rhizome could potentially change their mind about Ripps and his project. “He can be more mindful of the use of other people as props in his work, and more willing to let public discussion of his work play out, even when it makes his own Facebook threads uncomfortable,” he told Hyperallergic. “But Rhizome has some reflection to do of our own, now. We all have some reckoning to do, and we will all move on.”
Today, Rhizome’s Executive Director Heather Corcoran issued a two-point apology in the comments section of Connor’s original post. “We initially criticized his artwork in a tweet without defining our terms properly,” she said and followed with: “The contextless tweet escalated a public controversy that has brought him a great deal of distress.” It wasn’t a full apology, but it did address the institution’s responsibility.
The following is the text of my interview with Ripps.
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Hrag Vartanian: I know this is a broad and loaded question, but ‘what went wrong’ in your opinion?
Ryder Ripps: Hello, I have a few regrets about the project — What I regret mostly is my own knee-jerk reaction to being accused of exploiting another person.
Saying the Ace Hotel was exploiting me was careless and untrue. I don’t believe I was exploited, nor do I believe I exploited anyone. But I do believe that in today’s attention economy artists are expected to work for free or very little — almost forced to if they want to stay relevant. This is especially true for artists whose work is harder to commodify (like internet art, performance art, conceptual art). I wanted to bring attention to this while showing drawings from unlikely people which I feel are far better and more relevant than anything I could have drawn myself.
I also regret ever having labeled anyone a “sex worker” or a “hooker,” this is a huge overstep on my part. I should have referred to Brooke and Jay as people who I met on the Craigslist casual encounters section who were soliciting erotic massage for pay.
Brooke and Jay were both happy with the outcome, both do not want to be more publicly involved though for reasons that should be clear to any sensitive person. Jay and I have had several email correspondences where he says he thinks the project is cool, but feels the work is worth more than $80. I told him that I agree and that if it sells he can have 100% of the money. I hope people take time to look at the documentation and the work of Brooke and Jay.
I believe what consenting adults do within a healthy society is not exploitation — whether it’s a hotel hiring an artist for $50 or someone getting paid $80 to draw for 40 minutes. I think speaking for others, as in, claiming they are exploited is dangerous and isn’t dissimilar than someone saying that being gay is immoral.
HV: You seem to be conscious of the potential sexism of the project, which you even mention in the video between the two sessions, but there’s also the glaring issue of race. Both of the people you hired were people of color. How do you think that factored into this? I would assume it augmented the perception of exploitation. Michael Connor of Rhizome mentions in his response to your project that you downplay the role of race.
RR: Their race is completely chance. If you look at my documentation you will see that Brooke’s Craigslist post didnt include a picture, I had no idea what race she was until she arrived. Like I said in my documentation, I emailed about 60 people, the only thing I was looking for in posts were people who do “outcalls,” meaning they had to come to me. I feel reductive, binary views of people as “white men” or “black sex workers” perpetuates stereotypes and should be avoided.
I was conscious of the sex of the people I hired because I believe that gender is biological, but race isn’t. I believe men and women are biologically different from each other, but I don’t believe that black women and white women are. I believe the experiences of a woman soliciting sexual services on craigslist are probably different than those of a man.
Also, I didn’t set out to make an ethnography of the craigslist casual encounters section, this wasn’t a poll or a sociological study.
HV: How much of this project, which is provocatively titled “ARTWHORE,” was about the reaction to the work rather than the work itself? I’ve noticed in the past your work is designed to go viral, often made specifically for sharing platforms, and its impact is often as big a part as the work itself.
RR: Why are you trying to vilify me for choosing both a man and a woman? Would you rather I just picked one? I don’t understand your point?
The title ARTWHORE is sensationalist and a reaction to the attention economy aspect I brought up earlier.
HV: Not sure what I should be responding to. Can you clarify?
RR: Sorry, I don’t find the fact that I chose a man and a woman and not a member of every race and creed on earth to be relevant or productive. It should be obvious why I didn’t include every demographic of human on earth.
HV: Ok, but my other question was in terms of how you plan your projects and how much of the reaction is part of it. I’m also curious how you capture it for posterity (or do you?), since it is such an integral part of the question.
RR: I make art that I think is relevant and meaningful. That’s all I want to do. There is no grand scheme.
HV: A number of people have brought up the fact that even discussing your project, which many people find offensive, is a form of “signal boosting” and a way to give prominence to the project in an attention economy. I’m curious how would you suggest people react to art they do not like or consider unsuccessful?
RR: Honestly, I don’t know. That’s one of those classical paradoxes I’m not sure there is a clear answer to. People should be free to have an opinion about art and artists should be free to make art without the fear of being publicly vilified by not-for-profit organizations
HV: You mentioned Jay would get 100% of any revenue raised by the sale of his art. Are there any plans to sell or exhibit the work in a gallery?
RR: More than happy to exhibit [it] if someone asks me to … who will put care into the presentation into the work. The gallery would also have to agree to not take a cut of the sales. Not because I think galleries taking a cut is wrong or anything, just because I promised Jay 100%.
HV: I’m curious about the role of power dynamics in your work. We once believed that the internet was a more egalitarian space, but now it is hard to argue for that point considering so many things that prove it to be otherwise, like #gamergate. As someone who works almost exclusively online, I’m guessing you have a lot of thoughts on the matter.
RR: I like that the internet switches up power dynamics in art. Some projects I have done such as Internet Archaeology and dump.fm bring people together through technology — bringing value to internet experience and the practice of image making in a non-corporate way by taking it upon ourselves to create our own platforms online. Projects like “Howl 2,” “Val Kilmer Art,” and “Internet Therapy” are expressions of internet experience.
I am a huge advocate of freedom on the internet and have been an active member of the creative community online since I was 10 years old. Using it as my primary outlet for expression because I find it empowering and I enjoy connecting with cool humans from all over the world. I believe technology has changed the world for the better and has empowered people in great ways. For this to be a healthy system everyone should have the agency to create and express themselves online and not be censored by corporations — for instance I think its empowering to know HTML so you can make your own website outside of Facebook and I commend Obama for his net neutrality efforts.
As far as #gamergate goes, I think the people who attacked Zoe Quinn (and others victimized) are a bunch of assholes and idiots.
HV: Because of the nature of your project, I wanted to ask if you have any personal experience with sex trade work either through someone you know, hired, were hired by, or dated?
RR: I have – but I feel this is a personal and inappropriate question to discuss publicly under my exposed identity. Remember — Brooke and Jay are only acknowledged by their given first names and their likeness is obstructed by the low quality video, which they agreed to be in.
HV: Do you feel like you understand why so many people are offended by and angry at your project?
RR: I don’t think people are actually that angry — I think they are bored and eager to hate me or in the case of some blogs, profit within the attention economy from sensationalist slander. If they were actually angry they would channel their energy into doing something more productive and lasting than a blog post or a tweet.
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The following is the full video of Ripps’s “ARTWHORE” project: