“Very cool gallery! There’s a great slogan painted on the facade: “the whole world + the work = the whole world.” I know this sounds corny, but every time I see it I feel inspired.”
—From Brian D.’s five-star review of Gavin Brown’s enterprise on 4/28/2012.
Brian Droitcour, Selfie in New Museum restroom 2013. Photograph. Courtesy the artist
In January 2012, the writer and art critic Brian Droitcour started writing Yelp reviews under a pseudonym that conforms to the site’s typical naming conventions: “Brian D.” His first review of a show at Murray Guy gallery put forth a distinct voice, one that differed from his critical writings in Artforum, on Rhizome, and elsewhere—one that was more resonant with the first-person style of social media. On a work by Corey McCorkle, Droitcour wrote:
Corey McCorkle’s video was a meditative study of another park, this one in France. Many other artists had been there in the past. It was autumn when he shot it and it looked like a calm place. During one long shot of a pile of wet red leaves a big water snake stuck its head out of the leaves and flicked its tongue at the camera for a while. I was really not expecting to see a snake in that video! A cool surprise like that is what brings a gallery experience out of four star territory and into the five star zone.
The “five star zone” is not the discursive space where critics or curators tend to place art; stars are reflective of the popularity systems of social media: liking, favorite-ing, voting—hierarchies that may seem crass or dispassionate to some but are legible to all, hence the popularity of a site like Yelp. Sixty reviews later (to date), all of which are focused on art spaces primarily in New York City, Brian D. has been elevated to a Yelp “Elite User” and his writings have coalesced into a larger exploration of how the boundaries or forms of language and art criticism might expand within a new commons of information, where user-generated forums like Yelp dominate. In contemporary literature, the colloquial, first-person novels of Tao Lin and Sheila Heti, which reference the casual, personal, and often vulnerable communications of chat, email, and social media, offer a point of comparison. Rather than suggest that professional criticism is outmoded however, Droitcour’s utilization of the Yelp forum serves to undermine the semantic conventions of brands and institutions, and opens up space to rethink their entrenched protocols and expectations.
Commissioned by First Look, “Fifteen Stars” features five New Museum reviews by Yelpers (not Brian D.), each with a star from 1–5 (totaling fifteen). Through highly personal accounts, the reviewers describe the Museum’s visitor services, exhibition program, and brand identity, offering idiosyncratic interpretations of the show and building, as well as espousing critiques that may have been articulated, albeit in different terms, by professional critics. Together, they bring the chatter and feedback inherent to the web into a museum program. Each review is illustrated by an artist—Jeff Baij, Stephanie Davidson, Mike Francis, Mary Rachel Kostreva, Michael Manning, Douglas Schatz, and Andrej Ujhazy—all of whom Droitcour chose based on their pre-existing participation in social media communities (like Tumblr and Dump.fm). Describing the net-retro interface, Droitcour credits the influence of the artist Olia Lialina’s writings, particularly her research into the “vernacular web” and the work of self-taught web designers of the 1990s. Droitcour writes: “Lialina has often written that the vernacular web has disappeared, displaced by mass-produced interfaces of social media sites; I think there are still vernaculars online, but they’re in language rather than design.”
Humor is an essential part of Brian D.’s Yelp reviews and the “Fifteen Stars” project. Brian D.’s assumed naïveté and the off-the-cuff impressions of the Yelpers serve as a pinprick to the serious tones in which art is usually discussed. But his ardent dedication to the Yelp platform also reflects Droitcour’s sincere desire to explore emergent critical avenues that consider art’s resonance outside of a specialist community. In an essay that accompanies the new commission, he writes that the reviews offer: “...a glimpse at the truth of the social life of art that doesn’t depend on the serious accounts of institutions, or histories or any of the apparatuses that claim control of art—instead what we have is a story of art and the people who see it. Counting off stars to quantify an encounter with art is odd, I know, but the arbitrariness and weirdness of that system, and the fact that the people who actually use it do so without any systematicity at all, only emphasizes how personal it is, how infinite the universal diversity of embodied experiences with art and the memories of them.”
1 Jonathan Franzen, “Liking is For Cowards. Go For What Hurts,” New York Times, May 28, 2011.
2 Olia Lialina, “A Vernacular Web: The Indigenous and The Barbarians,” http://art.teleportacia.org/observation/vernacular/ (accessed September 30, 2013).
3 Email exchange with Droitour.