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​Black Market Proved Art Fairs Can Turn Up

The Black Market art fair celebrated young artist of color who are inspired by hip-hop culture. It was also a wild, sweaty, and enthralling party that had me retweeting shit with my mouth.

Yung Jake performing at Black Market (all photos by Andrea Arrubla)

It was the Ides of May and it occurred to me that I was officially Ira Glass drunk. In the middle of an obscenely sweaty crowd, I screamed, "Unthinking! Unethical! And Dull!" over and over again at the top of my lungs. It's what internet arts organization Rhizome called Ryder Ripps's ART WHORE project at the Ace Hotel last fall, which was totally unrelated in any way to where I was; yelling that made zero sense. I was crying from laughing so hard while artist and rapper Yung Jake tore through the crowd performing a certifiably out of control set. He said something about the internet between songs, which prompted Jayson Musson to began screaming, "Rhizome!" which inexplicably led to me screaming the aforementioned chant. Again, this made absolutely no sense whatsoever. But it didn't matter; everyone was turnt and I was actually having a fuckton of fun at an art fair.

I was at Black Market, an alternative program during New York's week of art fairs like Frieze and NADA, conceived by artist James Allister Sprang, who raps under the name GAZR, and DIS Magazine's Marvin Jordan. In their own words, Black Market "focuses on deconstructing and reinventing current themes central to hip hop—such as finance, determination, and celebration—in the context of contemporary art."

Back in January, I interviewed Sprang for VICE in the interest of highlighting his unparalleled work ethic and admirable hustle, so it seems fitting that just four months later he'd be behind one of the coolest events I've attended in recent memory. Every May, New Yorkers bemoan the constantly expanded art fair offerings while the city's art blogs and news sites rush to churn out listicle after listicle in an attempt to find new, smarmy angles to jab at the state of contemporary art. Admittedly, some of these review pieces are entertaining, but the rapid-pace demand for the development of online content means that the authors, plainly, need to be reactive instead of generative.

And I considered all of this as I bounced excitedly between bodies throughout the large, venue-like hall inside Bitcoin Center NYC (yes, that actually exists) off Wall Street in Lower Manhattan, the site of Black Market. In the art world, which is a bullshit and nonsensical phrase that we all use without any actual thought, it's exceptionally easy to casually react to things that we think suck. Fire off a tweet. Write a shitty comment on a Facebook post. Start wildly popular, shots-fired-themed Instagram account. I'm guilty myself of authoring those types of responses as much as the next person, and as a cultural consumer, I do think a lot of those reactions are quite hilarious. But they're also, more often than not, vacant and lacking any actual nuance. What's actually powerful is when individuals work together to produce a generative response, something that actually demonstrates the potential of future culture instead of wallowing in whatever shitty event disappointed them. Black Market is that type of response; an optimistic program highlighting the practices of mostly under-recognized, young artists of color.

Several Artists of Black Market, L-R: Awol Erizku, James Allister Sprang, Devin KKenny, Marvin Jordan, Nandi Loaf, and Vyle, participate in a pre-performance panel discussion and podcast recording

I'd arrived a bit unfashionably early, following a day of working for the New Art Dealers Alliance New York over at Basketball City on Pier 36. As the crowd began to trickle in, JX Cannon played an extremely solid mix of hip-hop while attendees checked out the booths set up by the individual artists. Unlike traditional art fair booths, these were much more directly, albeit highly conceptually, merch tables. For sale at reasonable prices were prints, mixtapes, and other products that an audience of a younger art generation could not only afford, but saw as practical things to purchase. Nobody buying items seemed to be debating the potential for future accrual of value. These were objects made by people that they recognized, that they respected, and that they trusted. Most of the artists handled the transactions themselves, resulting in a wholly different environment than at any of the concurrent fairs across the city. The clear booth standout was by New York's inimitable Nandi Loaf, whose massive production output includes myriad objects that openly claim that she is not only "your favorite artist," but also the "best artist of the twenty-first century."

Nandi Loaf's booth, handled by her manager, or her intern, I'm unclear who gentleman working it was because at one point she just pointed at both of them and said, "That's my manager and my intern."

While the crowd thickened, Sprang and Jordan took to the stage at the front of the space to engage in a discussion with artist (and frequent VICE contributor) Awol Erizku, a fantastic interviewer whose Raw Dawg Radio podcast manages to be informative and provocative, while simultaneously making a listener feel as if they're comfortably sitting in a room with their friends shooting the shit about art and culture. Their conversation about the motivations behind Black Market was straightforward and humble, with plenty of comedic relief. I'm paraphrasing here, but when Erizku asked where the idea for Black Market came from, Jordan beamingly replied, "We're just trying to make an art fair turn up!" Sprang went on to emphasize the importance of situating the event in proximity to the New York Stock Exchange, "where value is established daily." The artists they'd selected all take considerable cues from hip-hop, a cultural movement that's always, in the work of its strongest practitioners, challenged socially-constructed perceptions of cultural, artistic, and economic values.

Over the next half hour, the panel grew to include several of the other participating artists, all of whom offered context around their practices and the conceptual motivations driving their recent work. New York's Devin KKenny talked about his mixtape projects, and a drawing called "Pimp the System" on commercial office tile, a reference to Dead Prez's "Hell Yeah." KKenny asserted that he supports "embezzlement towards the revolution." When asked by Jordan about the relationship between her work and the concept of "Black Self Love," Nandi Loaf responded, "Boy, I ain't Black. I'm Jewish. And I say that as a Jewish woman with a lot of money." The crowd, appropriately, lost its shit and exploded in laughter and applause. One note: Loaf was the only woman included in Black Market, something that definitely needs addressing if they're going to stage this fair again. Next, rapper and producer Vyle talked about growing up on Chicago's South Side and seeing Common and No I.D., and how 80s and 90s kids have witnessed the explosion of the internet during their formative years, pushing them to avoid stagnancy through constant innovation. Prada Mane and Yung Jake didn't arrive in time for the discussion, but Canada's Young Braised, the only visibly white artist invited to participate in Black Market, did. He maintained a good sense of humor when asked if he ever had any "weird experiences" being a white rapper. It's diminutive, he said, to be called a white rapper, because it makes him sound like a novelty act. While he admitted to employing a lot of jokes, he wants to be taken seriously and seen as a human because, he adds, all rappers are just humans making culture.

Devin KKenny performs at Black Market

The discussion wrapped and the performances began.Young Braised kicked off the night with an art-influenced set using a pedestal as a mic stand. Nandi Loaf screened a series of hilariously confrontational videos that said that other, specifically-named mainstream artists suck. Devin KKenny, one of the smartest and most insightful people I've ever seen perform, offered a critical and thoroughly entertaining look at hip-hop and technology. Vyle got everyone moving with a highly danceable set. And Yung Jake, recalling H.R. from Bad Brains, dove directly into the audience and the place erupted into the wild scene I described earlier, complete with me manually retweeting shit with my mouth.

And I don't care how flowery or utopian this sounds, it was fucking beautiful. I'm reminded of my salad days, booking VFW halls in high school to stage punk shows by putting up all of the money I'd saved from bussing tables in the hopes of creating the culture that I wanted to see in boring-ass Northern Michigan. That drive came from an honest place. In the context of the grossly unregulated contemporary art market fair spectacles and the staggering lack of representation of persons of color, I was profoundly moved by the generosity and honesty of Black Market's performers and its audience. People were going fucking wild, letting loose together and tossing aside so many of the imposed social frictions between them because a handful of kids got together and threw an important, critical, art-driven party for the archive.


Marvin Jordan, who produces beats for GAZR under the name Venir Here


GAZR working the crowd

As Sprang morphed into GAZR and took the stage near the end of the night for his performance, there was a very real, emotional moment as he looked out over the crowd and the booths featuring works by all of the artists he and Jordan had invited. It was, in all seriousness, an inspiring thing to see somebody's tireless work for something they believed so strongly in come to fruition. Everyone was sweaty and smiling as Venir Here dropped the opening bars to GAZR's "Meme," Like the community celebrating aspect of Black Market itself, "Meme" is a recent track with production from Ghouls, in which GAZR goes to great lengths to shout out all of his friends whose work ethics he admires, plus that unforgettable hook, "My fleet? ON FLEEK." GAZR, following Jake's earlier collapsing of performer and audience, leapt off of the stage and went straight into the rowdy crowd. The night was rounded out with a performance by Prada Mane, then we all exited Bitcoin Center and spilled out onto Broad Street wondering when this would happen again.

The event demonstrated that despite all of the obstacles imposed, be they cultural, social, artistic, or economic, there's a raw and formidable power in permitting oneself to feel a sense of agency and then to act upon it. And that sense of agency becomes infectious. I never thought I'd say this, but with the right minds behind it, an art fair can not only be a hell of a lot of fun, but it can effectively contribute to the progression of art making and the development of discourse.

Sean J Patrick Carney is a concrete comedian, visual artist, and writer based in Brooklyn. He is the founder and director of Social Malpractice Publishing and, since 2012, has been a member of GWC Investigators, a collaborative paranormal research team. Carney has taught at Pacific Northwest College of Art, the Virginia Commonwealth University, and New York University. He is currently full-time faculty at Bruce High Quality Foundation University. Follow him on Twitter.