Union protestors were pushed as far away as possible from the Frieze art fair (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

When I first heard about the New York City debut of the Frieze Art Fair happening on Randall’s Island a few months ago, I was immediately intrigued. I heard about the magazine but this was the first time the show would open in New York City. As for the location, I’d never been to the little sliver of land, a mere square mile and a half, situated in the East River in Manhattan. Rumor had it that it wasn’t THAT hard to get to the Island, and that was confirmed as Friday afternoon, I boarded the M35 bus at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue and arrived at the entrance to Frieze 10 minutes later. I was immediately assaulted by the vision of a giant rat and an assortment of union men standing around protesting the fact that Frieze wasn’t using union labor. In fact, I was told that by a staff member that Frieze specifically chose Randall’s Island so they wouldn’t have to hire union employees.

One of the entrances to Frieze

Going back on Sunday, I was greeted by a group of Occupy Wall Street protesters who’d built a make-shift “Un-frieze Cage” composed of slogans pasted on the playpen-like structure and a couple of dudes standing inside playing the drums and a horn. There was a trio of protestors who were handing out handbills. While I was interviewing them, they were approached by a female police officer who told them rather politely that they couldn’t stand there. They had a long discussion with her debating the possibilities, but it still didn’t seem clear where they would be permitted to stand and pass out literature.

Meanwhile, Frieze had spared no expense on building a lovely pavilion constructed for $1.5 million, 280,000-square-foot temporary structure full of high-priced contemporary art. “Tail” by Nicholas Hlobo at Stevenson gallery was selling officially for $350,000, basically a lot of yarn hung up on the wall.

Randall’s Island itself was originally called Minnahanonck by native Americans who sold the island in 1637 to a Dutchman and was later bought by a British engineer. The British evacuated the city in 1783 and it was then purchased by Jonathan Randal in 1784. Randall’s heirs sold it to the city in 1835 for $60,000. The Island has a rather grim history and has always been inhabited by the impoverished and destitute — it houses Manhattan Psychiatric Center and a homeless men’s shelter, and formerly featured a poorhouse; a reformatory for juvenile delinquents; and a hospital for “Idiots and Children.” It was also the site of a potter’s field where the poor were often buried anonymously.

Various snapshots of the “Freedom Cage” and union and other protestors. (click to enlarge)

On my second trip, I took a taxi and the cab driver was confused about how to get there, I got out my iPhone and discovered it was right off the RFK-Triborough Bridge, meaning you have to pay the $6.50 toll in addition to the cab fare. Another irony is that after traversing almost the entire 285,000 feet of the building, I arrived to hear a talk that was completely out of touch with the actual protestors.

Occupy Art Fair

Members of Occupy Museums, including Imani Brown (center) and Noah Fischer (right).

That day, Occupy Museums was soliciting visitors to the fair to stop by and “un-Frieze” their “Free Art for Fair Exchange” in which art is valued not as an asset but as a method to improve the world. Their mission declares:

“For one weekend, public parkland on Randall’s Island, surrounded by the poorest districts in the US, has been privatized so that the world’s wealthiest may speculate on tangible assets (formerly known as art).”

A union protestor and members of Occupy Museums talking to a police officer in front of Frieze (click to enlarge)

Only about 10 people were standing around when I arrived. The Un-Frieze Art Fair map depicts East Harlem to the west, where the median household income is less than $35,000 and the South Bronx to the north, where median household income is less than $25,000 (i.e. the poorest district in the US).

One of the protestors at the entrance, Imani Brown, handed me a flyer and proceeded to condemn the Frieze Art Fair because they’re using public land and charging New York City residents $40. She called the pricing “gross” and few people in the neighborhood could afford it. Even to buy a ticket you needed to have access to a computer to go online purchase it. I understood her point as despite my exhortations none of my own friends were able to attend due to the cost. Of course the VIPs pay nothing because they are art collectors.

On my way out, just as the show was closing for the day, I stopped by John Ahearn’s South Bronx Hall of Fame and took a photo of his portrait of Rigiberto Torres, his long-time collaborator. “That’s the guy sitting right there.” I replied, “Really?  He doesn’t have green skin.”  Ahearn said, “Yeah, but you have pink hair.” Touche. “Can you do one of me?” I asked the artist. “No, I’m all booked up.” I was skeptical but he held his ground. Ahearn had reconstructed his 1979 exhibition South Bronx Hall of Fame, which was originally presented in the South Bronx, where he used people from the neighborhood, mostly black and Hispanic, and cast their portraits.

John Ahearn & Rigoberto Torres working in the Frieze Project space (click to enlarge)

There was lots of enjoyable art at Frieze, even though there wasn’t a chance in the world I could afford any of it. I had my eye on one of the Cindy Shermans or the Opium piece by Lothar Hempel, or even Nicole Eisenman’s “Saggy Titties.” Sitting outside in the sun and drinking beer on tap and having two bratwursts put me back $18, but it was a pleasant way to spend the afternoon. Of course, when I inquired about the fancy VIP room, I was told that it was for VIPs only and of course, I am not a VIP. It was pleasant to hang outside on the lawn among the sculptures. This was an all day art experience that was a lot more fun than rushing around the crowded Armory Show. I ran into my friend, photographer Slava Mogutin, who was enthusiastic about spending his day at Frieze but who wasn’t in the show this time around.

Occupy Wall Street, colonization and land use all seemed to be big issues at the fair. Dave Willis, a student completing his MA at the School of Visual Arts, was working the fair for $12 per hour. He was having a great time but he reflected on the talks that he attended.

In the “Expanding Museums” talk, the directors of the Whitney, MoMA and the former director of the Tate, all blew a lot of hot air about the architecture of their buildings creating a continuum from the street to the museum that is inviting and open to the public. A young woman in the audience asked the director of the Whitney, Adam D. Weinberg, if he intended to respond to the Occupy Wall Street protests of the Whitney Biennial and Sotheby’s for shutting out union staff and accepting donations from financial institutions such as Deutsche Bank (an accusation which has been leveled against Frieze as well). At first he acted as if he hadn’t heard the question, but when pressed on the issue, he tried to play it off like the Whitney embraced such criticism, saying he thought it was interesting how the Whitney had become a soap box for all sorts of social issues. (To his credit, Andrea’s Frazer’s piece commissioned for the Whitney Biennial, an essay titled “There’s No Place Like Home” leveled similar critiques against the institution from the inside.) When pushed on the topic again, Weinberg flatly stated that he didn’t intend to respond directly to the protests.

The panelists at the “Occupying Land” talk at Frieze.

On Sunday afternoon, I slipped into one of the talks called “Occupying Land.” The description of the talk alludes to the Occupy Wall Street movement as a metaphor and starting point, artists and writers discussed recent episodes of land occupation and ways to re-imagine borders and geographies.” The only problem is they were deadly dull. Saskia Sassen, professor of sociology at Columbia University, artist Andrea Geyer and Mitch Cope, a Detroit artist and activist, and then the chair of the panel, Joseph Grima, the editor-in-chief of Domus magazine, spent more than an hour avoiding the practical concerns of Occupy Wall Street and holding the audience captive while they orated in a typically academic discussion. They addressed the concept of occupying space as art, but did not really explore the critiques which  OWS’s act of occupation was intended to highlight — i.e. the financializaton of the art world. Cope, however, has some really innovative projects going on in Detroit. His Design 99 design firm, located in a storefront in an immigrant neighborhood, offers design services for the affordable fee of $99. And his Power House Productions is actively using art to prevent a neighborhood in Detroit from slipping into dis-occupation.

Resisting the narrative of Detroit as a place of lack, he considers it a place of excess, and uses the excess houses and materials within them to make new spaces for community interaction, such as an artist in residency house and a sculpture/skate park. They also create funky sculptures from found materials which are used to block the entrances to abandoned buildings, thereby discouraging druggies and vandals from moving in.

The author exploring Randall’s Island.

Artist Allan Sekula was supposed to present a short film titled “Art isn’t Fair: Collecting for the 99%”, which might have addressed the financialization of the art world, but he cancelled the day before. Many disappointed fans noted the irony and some even questioned whether the entire thing was intended as a stunt, (since Sekula has a reputation as a Marxist critic of globalization) however, Sekula’s cancellation was most likely due to illness.

Frieze Art Fair has a lot to offer New York City and the art world in general. The buzz is that it will supplant the Armory Show and be like New York City’s Art Basel. I’m looking forward to returning, but next year they should definitely get involved with the community more and they should offer more ways to get reduced admission. There’s a lot of potential and given some of the criticism they garnered this year, they will no doubt be soliciting more participation from lesser known or unrepresented artists, and hopefully feature more interesting programming. Maybe next year I’ll be back and do my own installation: How to sneak into Frieze on Randall’s Island.

The 2012 New York Frieze Art Fair is taking place from May 4–7 at Randall’s Island Park in Manhattan. Admission is $40 before 1pm and $25 after. For more photos from Frieze New York, please visit the Hyperallergic Facebook page.

Gerry Visco is fabulous. Illegally blonde and at large on the Upper East Side of New York City, she’s living the fun life in the fast lane as a performer, writer and photographer who also has a day job...

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