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March 29th, 2006
Wed, Mar. 29th, 2006 05:33 am

One of the best comments on yesterday's thread Want to think? Get a mask came from someone speaking from behind a mask named Madge Pastiche.

"Perhaps the need for masks comes from a culture that seems to be increasingly afraid of seeming to judge in person," Pastiche wrote. "We might all be taking our negative and controversial sides underground, or behind masks and avatars (and into our art) because the culture as a whole is getting less tolerant of controversy." Oddly enough, when I checked back today the comment had gone, leaving just a swirl of dust and a faint after-echo of laughter.

Pastiche's point is beautifully illustrated by the strange case of Toni Burlap. Toni Burlap is my boss. Toni Burlap has a blog. Yet Toni Burlap does not exist.

Let me clarify. There are two curators of this year's Whitney Biennial, Philippe Vergne and Chrissie Iles. Interviewed last November for Artforum magazine, Iles and Vergne announced that, in the spirit of Dadaist cabaret and Marcel Duchamp's tranny alter-ego Rrose Sélavy, they had created a fictional curator, Toni Burlap.

VERGNE: When two people curate a show, they give birth to a third person. Her responsibility is to channel our illusion.
ARTFORUM: Is this an actual person or someone who exists on paper?
VERGNE: An actual person who exists on paper.

Toni Burlap is an avatar, a mask, a cock-and-a-bull, a lie that tells the truth, a cabaret turn, a "person" of whom some facts are known, and all are invented:

* She's from the Courtauld Institute, though she's currently a guest lecturer at the University of Iceland in Reykjayik.
* Burlap is doing her Ph.D. on La Derniêre Mode, the fashion magazine Mallarmé founded in 1874 and edited for the two years it was published. He also wrote most of the articles -- under pseudonyms like "Madame de Ponty" and "Miss Satin."
* She's 39.
* Her astrological sign is Gemini.
* Her zodiac year is Horse.
* Her stated interests are "pre-enlightenment art made in the 00s, art between pre- and post-modernist paramenters, any kind of collaboration, the sumptuous look of a day for night film scene, glacier trekking, and helping others shine".
* Her favorite movies are Francois Truffaut's "La Nuit Americaine" and Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining".

It is, in fact, from "The Shining" that Toni Burlap was born; in the movie, a character of the same name is supposed to live in Danny's stomach. But shining and allowing others to shine is not the only function of Burlap, as the curators explained to Artforum:

ILES: For artists, using another persona -- whether anonymous, fictitious, or both -- is a way of creating a space outside the market: a space where things can't be pinned down so easily and exchanged. Of course, this creative model might also relate to the underlying context of cyberspace -- where everybody creates anonymous personae -- and a broader cultural shift into a kind of irrational space.

VERGNE: Another aspect is the idea of play. Was it Johan Huizinga who wrote "Homo Ludens", saying that the human being is completed only at the moment he begins to play? There is something so bleak about the world right now that taking pleasure in the game is important... I think it's a spectacle that may raise questions in
the tradition of cabaret -- when such entertainment was a popular, if not a populist, form of spectacle. The cabaret was a critical forum. It was not the opera or the theater. It was about caricature and the grotesque, commenting on the present.

ILES: Perhaps it's in the coming together of two impulses that interest in this show lies: the cabaret as critical arena, and the space created through the obfuscation of direct, easily assimilable identities and definitions.

In her blog, Burlap never refers to "The Whitney Museum". Instead it's "The Overlook Hotel" -- which brings us even closer to yesterday's entry; unlike the Park Avenue hotel where I was forced to brainstorm, this Madison Avenue "hotel" is one where guests really can "think by means of the mask". Not only am I doing it as "The Unreliable Tour Guide" and the curators doing it as "Toni Burlap", there are fictional artists in the show, like Reena Spaulings, a gallery whose works are made by a shifting group of collaborators, or Bernadette Corporation, a fictional (and fiction-writing) polymath corporation (they actually "wrote" Reena Spaulings).

The happiest result of all this role playing might be a splendid cabaret, but the unhappiest result could be a sort of freakshow where nobody is ever speaking seriously, nobody ever takes responsibility for anything, and everything is out of control. The Ensor-like plethora of masks might lead to precisely the sort of schizoid suspension of integrated moral, ethical and political perspectives that I was decrying in brainstorming.

This is a real risk. Artnet, covering the Burlap phenomenon, reported that "this creation quickly turned into a Frankenstein Monster, as unknown pranksters launched a Toni Burlap blog at www.toniburlap.com, which proceeded to develop a life all its own, and one not altogether favorably disposed towards the biennial or its organizers. One post, for instance, promised to include in the Whitney show a sculpture made of Cheez Whiz to commemorate layoffs at Kraft Foods (a corporate cousin of Altria, the tobacco company that is sponsoring the biennial) -- prompting a quick disavowal from Iles (or someone pretending to be Iles)."

Tobacco smoke and cabarets have of course always gone together; think of Berlin's famous Schall und Rauch cabaret, the Sound and Smoke I sing about in my song Morality Is Vanity. But is all this maskplay, in the end, just pomo smoke and mirrors?

If you're free on Saturday, April 1st (no joke, this is for real, honest, please believe me, oh shit, now I'm the boy who cried "Wolf!"), please come along to the panel discussion we're holding at 6pm at the Whitney (945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street). "On April 1," runs the blurb, "we will have an evening of Biennial artists discussing key themes in the show, organized as a roundtable conversation. Entitled “Fugitives: Objects, Practices, Communities,” this event will engage three different but overlapping currents that run throughout the exhibition: fugitive objects; transitory art practices or modes of creation; and communities on the move."

My panel is Fugitive Objects (since that's what I am). The other panelists for Fugitive Objects are Gedi Sibony and Jordan Wolfson, two of the youngest and most interesting artists in the Biennial. The panel is moderated by Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne. Or should I say Toni Burlap?

Oh, and speaking of cabarets, Toog, Fashion Flesh and Momus will perform one at Tonic, Norfolk Street, New York on Saturday May 20th at 8pm. Tickets $12.

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