Saturday, August 2, 2008

It's not art and it isn't fair!


A few weeks ago, Ann Arbor was mobbed by over 500,000 slavering tourists, armed with fanny packs, silly hats, and extraordinarily bad taste. Their target? Art Fair. When you combine the four composite art fairs into one giant franken-art-fair, it is the largest fair in the country. And boy does it feel like it when you live here.

Ann Arbor residents divide into two camps regarding Art Fair--those who tolerate it, and those who hate it with the passion of a thousand fiery suns. Ross and I fall into the tolerance group, not because we're extraordinarily tolerant people (Ross? tolerant? Ha!), but rather because we've chosen to take it as a challenge. Over the past four years, we've developed an arsenal of techniques that make Art Fair bearable...or even (dare I say it?) enjoyable.

Number 1: treasure hunt
Although it can be easy to forget, there are some worthwhile artists at art fair. Every year, Ross and I set a budget for Art Fair, and every year we find enough to make us curse our graduate student salaries. We tend to use the brute force method--walking through every bit of the fair looking for the occasional gem in a sea of turned wood bowls and 80s cokehead glass. However, there are ways to reduce the bad art:good art ratio. The key is to understand how the four Art Fairs differ.

Like some kind of large-scale Improv Everywhere event, the four art fairs that comprise (capital A) Art Fair all feign ignorance of the others' existence--as if they all just randomly decided to have a giant art fair on the exact same day (don't you hate it when that happens?). This creates a vast spectrum of art fair quality, which can help narrow down the search. But bear in mind that the variance is often just as important as the mean. As a true geek, I find this easier to illustrate using a diagram:

These hills represent the number of artists of a particular quality at each art fair. The North University art fair is the oldest (so old that it's website is actually www.artfair.org) and easily the best, on average. When the other art fairs joined in, it appended "The Original" to its name, much as "The Original Ghostbusters" did when that cartoon with the big purple ape showed up and sullied the brand. The South University fair is the second best. The basic stuff at State street is just as good as the North University, though North U seems to have the cream of the crop. The State/Liberty fair is generally pretty bad, but there are some surprising bright spots, which are the source of the long right tail on that distribution. Bringing up the (extreme) rear is the Main Street (summer) Art Fair, which is generally so poor that Ross and I don't even go.

This year, our budget was limited because we've already bought a metric ton of artwork. We bought an ink drawing from a guy in the "emerging artists" section of the South University fair, a photograph from a guy in the North University fair, and a pair of miniature leather-bound books at the State street fair. We considered, but did not buy a set of woodcuts from a guy we've bought from before, a photograph of a crumbling building, a three-dimensional paper sculpture made of woodcuts, a tiny painting on wood, and a print from a guy who does amazing work with negative-alteration.

Anyway, if you live in Ann Arbor, and haven't at least tried to find good art at Art Fair, I think that you're missing out. It's like a huge treasure hunt...a really easy one...where the pirates want you to find the treasure.


Number 2: drinking games.
The fact of the matter is, most of the art at Art Fair is really bad. In fact, that seems to be the factor that causes otherwise normal residents to froth at the mouth come the end of July.

They turned our town into a county fair...for THIS? they say.
(Editorial note: it isn't even a GOOD county fair--sure, there are funnel cakes, but there are no farm animals, lumberjack competitions, or busts of the governor sculpted out of cheddar cheese. Lame)

I, on the other hand, find it difficult to take the quality of the artwork personally. After all, someone must want this crap--otherwise it wouldn't show up again year after year--and if I went around taking ugly house decorations as a personal affront, I couldn't continue living in my current neighborhood (GO BLUE?)

Besides, there is one thing that makes bad art better--gin and tonics. With that in mind, we have developed a drinking game based on both the art fair itself and the art fair attendees. Unfortunately, that means walking the streets with an open container, which makes concealment the first order of business. There are three general strategies for concealing a fine alcoholic beverage (note: none of them involve a paper bag).
  1. Mystery liquid in a Nalgene--This year, Ross and I just carried our Margaritas around a gray Nalgene bottle. On the one hand, it's damn easy. On the other hand, it's so easy that you get no style points.
  2. "No officer, it's just gatorade"--you could just pour some rum into your diet coke, but the real superstars devise a drink that simply matches what should be in the bottle. My favorite? Mike's hard lemonade masquerading as Vitamin Water. Bonus points if you can convince someone that you're drinking it for the vitamins.
  3. The trogan horse--last year, several people were bold enough to spike the iced lemonade they bought AT ART FAIR ITSELF. Ballsy. Real ballsy.
Then, you need a list of rules. This year, Ross set up a doodle page for rules. This is the list we used at this (second annual) event:
  • Art on a stick (1 drink)
  • Super-saturated photograph (1 drink)
  • Art lady jacket for sale (1 drink)
  • Art lady jacket in use (2 drinks)
  • Physicist selling magic wands* (3 drinks)
  • Romance-novel style painting of brother and sister** (2 drinks)
  • Manufactured product being passed off as art (1 drink)
  • Artist producing art next to a booth (1 drink)
  • Hat made of balloons (1 drink)
  • Fanny pack (1 drink)
  • Kid on a leash (1 drink)
  • Dog in a stroller (2 drinks)
  • Nude--not so tasteful (1 drink)
*He makes Harry Potter wands, and even had a booth at the theater for the opening of one of the movies. He was at Art Fair in years past, but nobody spotted him this year
**This one is really creepy. Last year there was a guy who would paint a portrait in a style that could only be described as "romance novel dream blur". Last year, there was a portrait of a brother (age 11) and sister (age 9) looking into each others' eyes. The little boy's shirt was unbuttoned to the navel. I shudder just thinking about it.

Last year, we saw super-saturated photographs everywhere we turned. This year, it was the art lady jackets that drove our race to the bottom. Outside of Ross's building, we found three booths in a row selling art lady jackets. Brutal. When you're finished, you can head into a local bar (usually inexplicably empty) and chortle knowingly at the folks walking by with their art on a stick.

Doesn't that sound better than locking yourself in your room for a week?

2 comments:

paisana said...

I think you should have a digital camera scavenger hunt.

sonetka said...

Our art fair isn't on quite the same scale but Andrew and I will sometimes do the same thing - wander through and see if there's anything that stands out from the swirling eddy of hand-dyed scarves, homemade jewelry, and things made of wood. Not that most of these are *bad*, precisely - they're better than anything I could do, being completely untalented with my hands - but they all tend to just blend in with each other; five minutes later you can't remember what you saw. This year there was an exception - a couple from California who are glass blowers and had some of the most gorgeous vases, cups, and knickknacks I had ever seen. I was dying to buy something, but it was much more than I could even pretend to justify on Andrew's stipend. I got their business card, though, so maybe in a year or two ... :)

I hope you're enjoying Czech-fest 2008! Drink lots of good alcohol for me.