Author Elvia Wilk describes an art world full of rival madmen. However, artist Britta Thie’s “Translantics” project proves that there’s still cause for hope.
We're ten minutes into "Pores of Perception," the first episode of Britta Thie's web series #Translantics . The main characters, Bb, Yuli, and Annie, are standing together at the edge of a crowd in a brightly lit gallery space. Close-ups on their expressions show tightly drawn mouths, anxious glances, slightly puffy eyes smeared with silvery eyeshadow. They look like they're suffocating. Clumps of people chatter loudly around them.
The room is small enough that everyone can see each other in their peripheral vision, through a hazy field of jealousies, abbreviated attractions, and visible neuroses.
Yuli clings to her little brown dog, a comforting presence reminding us that every person in this room is just another mammal, even though they appear rather amphibian in this light. The gallery-goers clutch half-empty plastic cups and smartphones, compulsively swapping between selfie mode and world-mode to take snapshots of themselves and the art: face, art; face, art.
The art is a bunch of pastel-colored bathmats stuck to the walls and floor.
"Is that the woman who didn't react to your portfolio for a year?" Yuli asks, spotting the gallerist. Bb nods and looks down. "Mhm. Embarrassing."
Bb makes the mistake of making an audible value judgment on the artworks -- shit-talking may be acceptable, but only behind one's hand -- and whispers "die kunst suckt" (the art sucks) just loud enough so that the gallerist's ears prick up across the room.
The gallerist unwinds herself from her conversation and slinks over. "Is that so?" she leers. Having not responded to Bb until now, she finally has a reason to acknowledge her existence.
After watching "Pores of Perception" on the day it came out, I left my house and went to meet a friend who was taking me to a party. The party was the launch of a new art magazine in Berlin. The scene was mostly German-speaking art people; I half-expected to see Britta there.
As we were walking up the steps to the building -- where we would be greeted by a bevy of women checking our credentials to make sure we were truly invited -- I covered my eyes and turned to my friend. "Remember that editor who never called me back?" I asked her.
"Oh god." She remembered. "That guy is here?"
Inside the party, the editor pretended not to recognize me. It became like a game for me to see how conspicuous I could make myself without him "seeing" me. I tried talking shit, but it didn't work.
When I sat down with my friend at the end of the night, swirling our half-empty Absolut Something cocktails, I told her that the editor had managed to keep me strictly unseen for the entire evening. I said I felt like I had been trapped in a room with an ex.
"Only in the art world," she said.
Over the next few days this phrase turned itself over and over in my mind.
Only in the art world.
Does this sort of thing really happen only in the art world? Is the absurdist, almost slapstick denial not only that someone stands before you, but that someone exists at all, socially acceptable in any other scene?
If only I knew anyone in another industry who I could ask.
It's fitting that episode two of Britta's series, "AwkAwards," is fully centered around a competition for visibility. In the episode, Britta's character Bb is up for an art award against two other artists: Nora (highly competitive) and Bas Jan Van Der Eyck (magnanimous and the eventual winner). While they are traveling alongside each other to the museum where the awk-award ceremony will take place, Nora refuses to make eye contact with Bb, who moans: "ugh, she doesn't even look at me."
Bb and her friends arrive at the hotel where all the contestants are staying. She's brought along the singer Dan (Bodan), who is going to perform with her at the event. Reclining on the hotel bed with a white terrycloth robe wrapped around his clothes, Dan asks whoever's listening (no one): "Is there a backstage area? Does anyone know? No. I hope there is. I don't like playing when there's not a backstage area."
The desire for a backstage room to hide in can be seen as the desire for superiority, for the elite privilege of skipping the line -- but it can also be seen as the simple need for a space of interiority. A bubble of darkness away from the bright gallery, or stage, where your life and your work are laid out, banquet-style, for everyone to chew on.
The backstage, like a clique of friends who make eye contact only with each other, is a private sphere cordoned off for insulation. The backstage wouldn't be necessary if it weren't so cutthroat out there.
But it wouldn't be so cutthroat out there if everyone wasn't trying to get backstage.
Translantics is representational, not documentary. The characters have been assigned, or have chosen, façets of themselves to caricature. Those caricatures are not unfamiliar -- we all recognize our own. They are the characters we play when we're LARPing ourselves at gallery openings.
The main goal of this whole LARP is visibility -- to have your face or your portfolio really seen. That's why un-seeing (maybe with an un-kiss) is the ultimate power move.
Social gamification, which intrinsically involves some form of competition, can be as fun as it is harrowing. We say we hate the muted giggles, haughty glances, and flurry of cheek kisses -- birds pecking at each other's faces -- but pretending to hate it is an integral part of the game. Every industry has professional awards and hierarchies, though in some spheres, like the art world, I assume success coincides more with social competence than in others. And by competence I mean savvy. And by savvy I mean elitism and dickishness. For instance, I assume that in the field of particle physics the cause-and-effect relationship between merit and accomplishment is more straightforward. Then again, maybe scientists are sleeping their way to the top too.I tell myself that, unlike scientists and politicians, at least we art people aren't pretending not to see important things like oil spills and war casualties. We're just not seeing each other.As the scholar Christopher Newfield puts it, the art world is "full of competitive maniacs. But it's also collaborative... If creativity depends on competition, it is because competition leads to some combination of adoption and exchange." That's certainly the hope. To some extent it's the hope posed by Translantics, which is itself a highly collaborative project that harnesses the talents and ideas of people in Britta's real social world, allowing them to parody competitiveness and therefore perhaps to find relief from its burn by working together.The hope is that some kind of human affinity can gestate in the dark pockets we build around ourselves, without our retreating entirely backstage. The pockets must be portable. Porous. Almost not even there.Paradoxically, learning to see each other requires first trying not to be seen in plain sight, which is much harder than it sounds.If the social life of the art world affords us the freedom and creativity to act like erratic monsters -- or caricatures of monsters, which are still monsters of a sort -- it also affords us another wild opportunity: to act like humans.
 Isabelle Bruno and Christopher Newfield, Can the Cognitariat Speak?" e-flux journal No. 14, 2010, www.e-flux.com/journal/can-the-cognitariat-speak/
Elvia Wilk is a writer and editor living in Berlin. A contributing editor to uncube magazine and to Rhizome, she also writes for publications like Frieze d/e, Art in America, Dazed, and The Architectural Review. Plus: poetry and fiction.