FRENCH FOR 'BEETLE LICKER.'
ENGLISH FOR 'THAT WEIRD ART THING THAT HAPPENS ON THE INTERNET.'
On a Monday night in June 2016, in a basement on Madison St. in the Heritage Hill area of Grand Rapids something weird happened. Steve (the husband) invited me to something he affectionately calls Beetle Licker. It was an art show, officially Briseur Coleoptere Gallery’s #BASEMENT exhibition. A one-night-only, mostly-experienced-online art show, technically open to the public, if you could find it.
The featured artists included Case Michielsen, Cory VanderZwaag, Nicholas Szymanski, and Steven Rainey; four fine-art-educated, late 20 / early 30 something white dudes from Michigan. So what was different about this show? Why did it matter? For starters, it was awesome, considering the work was installed in a basement over the course of only a few hours and was made only from found / salvaged materials, the results were both beautiful and thought provoking. Other than that, everything about it was different than the traditional gallery and museum events I typically see in Grand Rapids. Instead of promoting a white-cube style exhibition months in advance, exhibiting a body of work rooted in conceptual dogma that is also a triumph of technical achievement, or elevating the artists as genius-types the Beetle Licker guys posted the date / time of the exhibition only a few weeks out, they were intentionally vague about the content of the event, and then they plastered their Instagram and Facebook accounts with photographs, videos, time-lapses, and visual interpretations (think glitches or extreme close-up photos) of the work during a two-hour window. You could come if you knew where to find the event, but you'd better have been willing to join in the post-a-palooza.
Entering the space was like being in your friend's creepy basement to feed their cats while they're on vacation. I noticed the humid, chilly air, the ancient smells, and layers of dust over everything but I was also experiencing the space as an outsider with no restrictions on my curiosity. What's in this pile over here? Is that a street sign nailed to the wall? I felt comfortable enough to get up close and poke around. When I did I found a few really interesting pieces past the initial piles of storage boxes and the laundry machine, the artists had established a "gallery space" by clearing the natural basement-debris away and clipping lights to the rafters to illuminate each piece. About 12 artworks were nestled in corners, arranged on makeshift pedestals, or nailed to the support beams, one even hung from (and around) the HVAC ducts. The standout pieces included the HVAC installation made of thick orange and blue translucent vinyl wound around and hanging loosely from the air ducts; a wall-mounted sculpture of spray foam, safety-orange plastic, fabric (although it might have been toilet paper) and a few plaster-casted fingers; and a piece that sat directly on the concrete floor, a large copper plate topped with a pile of dirt, salt, and at one point, ice cubes, and next to the dirt pile on the copper plate was a piece of window-cut mat board and loose pieces of wood. The last one stood out to me as the most intentional arrangement in the whole space as the geometric elements where lined up with the edges of the copper and the dirt pile was contained to one half of the area.
Including the artists only eight people attended this event.
Imagine attending the most exclusively posh and conceptually challenging art opening ever, then put that idea in a small dark box, throw out the dress code, add some dirt and moth balls and shake it really hard. That’s what Briseur Coleoptere Gallery felt like—slightly disorienting, dirty, and the coolest thing I’ve seen in a long time.
I feel like the best way to really explain this experience is with a paired down transcription of that night's conversation, here we go…
Amanda Carmer Rainey: What is this thing? What is Briseur Coleoptere Gallery?
Case Michielsen: It's a resume booster.
Nick Szymanski: Suspense... dirty...
Steven Rainey: Subterranean.
CM: It's an internet-based exhibition that allows artwork to be more free--the gallery doesn't even need to be a real place. Beetle Licker is more about the event than the artwork and that way we don't have to get hung up on concept.
ACR: So why is this important? Why have a show like this?
[Collectively they all exhale and purse their lips.]
Cory VanderZwaag: Power...
CV: I never thought that.
SR: Like exercise.
CV: But practice is sub-par to perfection and this is perfection.
[At this point we all pause to recognize the awesomeness of this statement and a lot of side conversations follow. Later we come back around to the "Why?" question, why do this kind of show? Further, what is it really about if the artists / organizers are making it so hard to see in-person?]
CM: This whole thing started because Cory and me where bullshitting (also known as conversing in a spirited manner)--building off each other’s nonsense and decided to have a show in my bedroom. We put a ped(estal) on my mattress, no one was invited, we just posted photos online. We just did it. Most of the time when we talk about shit like that we don't do it.
ACR: Was that right after you’d graduated from art school? Was it in response to that experience?
CV: (Yes.) And personally, being surrounded by a clean museum environment. (Cory works as a preparator at the Broad Museum in East Lansing and has worked for the GRAM for many years.)
CM: Yeah, I guess it was a response to a formal conceptual training in art. It was sort of stupid, meant to be a joke, but we're also incredibly serious. (Case works for Icon Signs and gets to play with large, industrial art making machines for commercial purposes.)
NS: I really like the formalist element... and the happenstance quality.
SR: It’s liberating.
We discussed the basic elements of the show, the grittiness of it, the absolute DIY element, and attributed value to each of those elements. I was still curious about where the motivation to do this sort of show came from.
ACR: What other artists or events are you looking at?
CV: Fluxus. I got Fluxus in me.
CM: Other types of happenings… performance work… exhibitions in untraditional spaces. (After some research; Yves Klein's La spécialisation de la sensibilité à l'état matière première en sensibilité picturale stabilisée: Le Vide (The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility: The Void) and Robert Barry's Closed Gallery Piece. Read this for more info on the history of these types of performances.)
CM: We're also interested in social media… people use social media to make things that aren’t that interesting seem really interesting.
SR: A simulation of a good time.
CM: It’s also about doing something without waiting for a reason to do something. There is a lot of fear around starting projects.
CV: Here we just imply layers of time that are really restraints everywhere else.
CM: I mean, in the end the actual works of art are not the art, the event is the art and the rest is just process. The art itself is relatively unimportant.
We continued to talk through this idea of the ‘event as art’ and the art making, installing, and documentation as part of a process toward a finished product. The finished product then is any evidence of the event itself—social media posts, photos, video, even conversations with friends and colleagues who weren’t at the event. This was a distinguishing feature that set the event apart from my understanding of traditional gallery and museum receptions. But that wasn’t my biggest take-away, the one aspect of this event that I continue to dwell on is the fact that in response to traditional museum shows, these artists have chosen to break down and rearrange the very structure of how exhibitions are presented and accessed. They have chosen a different location for each event (previous events have been held in bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchens), they didn’t invite many people, none of the work was labeled or priced, and there was no didactic information. Only a handful of social media posts and word-of-mouth served to promote the event.
I do hope the Beetle Licker guys can refine their promotional strategy and provide an alternative structure to their events, without compromising the core of their antiestablishment goals, because the impact of this kind of show and these ideas has room to grow. In the end, I realized that I spent more time looking at the artwork at this event than I have at most traditional shows lately, even if it was on my phone.
You can still access all the posts and comments from Briseur Coleoptere Gallery’s #BASEMENT event on Facebook and Instagram but the thrill of being there is unmatched.