Surviving Art Basel — Miami’s Fancy Dystopian Nightmare

It’s midnight in Miami and everything is fucked. This is a city known as a tropical paradise, and the weather is frigid. This is Art Basel, the pinnacle of style and sophistication, and I’m wearing socks with sandals.

I’ve just been turned away from a dinner for not being on the list and as I shuffle away, embracing the very particular shame of “denied-at-the-door,” I step in a puddle. I feel my socks (thrown on in an attempt to warm up my beachy outfit) absorb the liquid and I look down to see the puddle is actually a stream of raw sewage, oozing from the entrails of a super lux hotel.

Guess it makes sense. When people have asked how my Art Basel is going, I’ve been replying with two words: shit show.

The disillusionment I felt at Art Basel is surely my fault. That’s how disillusionment works. I had expectations, and they weren’t met. I was enchanted by Art Basel before I ever even arrived. An annual contemporary art fair held in Basel, Switzerland, Miami Beach and Hong Kong, it had been described to me like a Sofia Coppola wet dream. Art world glitterati by day, swanky soirees by night, champagne with painters, yacht parties with sheiks, discussing contemporary art with Important People who live Important Lives.

Instead, my Art Basel was pretty blah-sel — a gilded spring break for vainglorious millennials and hashtag-y PR people. It was endless peacocking at brand “activations” disguised as parties, made worse by the fact that I knew there were edgy, intriguing art experiences nearby… if only I could find them. Instead, I was trapped in the bourgeoisie apocalypse.

In short: “I Went To Art Basel And Didn’t See Any Of The Cool Stuff.”

This is a story of high expectations being the death of authentic experience. And the feeling of attending an event where stimulating, fresh art is being shared but you keep missing it because you’re stuck wading through a garbage heap of swag. A tale of realizing that the cool kids are somewhere else and you’re stuck with self-styled marketing gurus and Snapchat whiz kids.

Maybe it’s the story of me discovering that flashy events like Art Basel don’t actually appeal to me anymore, but my FOMO-dominated ego hasn’t caught up with my spiritually evolving soul. Even re-reading how I come across in the opening paragraph of this piece makes me cringe. My big problem in life is not getting into a famous party and wearing the wrong thing? How am I any better than the people I’m mocking? To be honest, I think I would’ve had a better time in Miami writing about how the city is sinking into the sea and the erosion of good beach sand has reached such critical levels that the county is making a deal to ship it in from the Bahamas. But that story doesn’t pay the bills.

Perhaps this story is actually a rumination on what it means to be part of the “art world” or the “in crowd.” I’m reminded of the land in Gulliver’s Travels where children play ball with rubies and toilets are made out of gold because precious gems hold no worth. If value is subjective, how do you put a price tag on a good time, on an artistic expression – especially when you’re outside, looking in?

To be fair, maybe it’s way simpler: This story may just be a cautionary tale about not judging a city or subculture based on one weekend.

Whatever the angle, the truth is, other than boasting pre-Basel that I was going to Basel (back when I thought it would be glamorous and exciting), stepping in the puddle of shit was the most compelling thing that happened to me all weekend.


“What The Fuck Is The Art World?! (part 1 of a lot)” by William Powhida
(an art piece I saw on the last day, that I’ll be referencing throughout)

A demarcated, hierarchical social space to pursue art.
A metaphorical condition of being ‘apart.’
The distillation of Western humanist values + class structure.

My flight lands at 4:45pm but I don’t leave the airport until 7:30pm because two Ubers cancel on me and the hotel shuttle never shows up. When I ask an airport security guard for advice, he throws up his hands in that charming Cuban way and says “It’s Art Basel, good luck.” I don’t know what this means, but I do remember something from before we had smart phones: taxi cabs. I flag one down and within minutes am on my way.

The journey from the airport to South Beach takes an extra hour and a half than what I’m told is normal. The taxi driver keeps laying on his horn and muttering “Art Basel comemierda!” This makes me nervous so I put on make-up, something I do when I’m not sure what else to do.

I check-in, quickly change and hurry to the first event I’m excited about, StoryBooked — a short-form documentary series featuring different artists traveling the world for inspiration. But after the traffic madness I’ve missed the short films, so I just roam around trying not to let the wind knock me over. The wind is so strong that I Google “Hurricane season Miami.”

I usually love going to big experiences alone, but I’m relieved when I hear from my friend Ian, who’s also in town. We make a plan to meet at the 1 Hotel for a rooftop party. I arrive first and the line is of Six Flags proportions, so I use my usual cut-the-line trick:

Go up to someone near the front of the line, give them a hug and say “Hello! I can’t believe I’m seeing you again! We met at (insert somewhere hip that they’d want to be at and makes you look cool that you were there – in this case I used ‘Sundance’) with (insert two names, an exotic name and a name everyone knows – in this case I used ‘Whitefox’ and ‘Jonathan’).”

While they’re trying to remember you, compliment something they’re wearing and ask where they got it. At this point you’ve infiltrated the line in position with them. I know, I know, this technique is insufferable. But it wasn’t the buffet line or the movies. When all you’re trying to get into is a party, all bets are off.

This new “old friend” was a gallery owner from New York, and when I told him it was my first Art Basel and I was there to write about it, he told me this verbatim:

“You should’ve come before the market crashed. The parties were unbelievable, you’d walk in and there’s Iggy Pop performing, you wouldn’t leave until the next morning, smelling like mojitos. Now it’s some Brooklyn DJ and art dealers with 22 year-old girlfriends. I don’t pay to watch C-list celebrities standing around a pool. And I go to these parties and am shocked by the plastic surgery. I keep thinking I’m looking at burn victims, then I realize it’s elective surgery. But, Miami is cool because there’s a bit of the Vegas sin but with natural ocean beauty.”

I don’t really know how to respond. Luckily, Ian arrives so I don’t have to. Before long we’re at the rooftop party. And it’s just people looking at C-list celebrities around a pool so we leave after 20 minutes to walk along the beach to a dome in the distance where another “great” party is happening.