By: Camila Álvarez
The gentrification of Wynwood already feels like an old tale. We are familiar with the way the developer-led scheme significantly sped up the process of the manufacturing of the internationally renown hipster hub, but what many still don’t know, or maybe discarded from their memory, is who were the catalysts behind this phenomena—the artistic minds that made the whole thing possible. The same minds whose vision was practically stolen by the real estate moguls, who, thanks to their financial power and its influence on the city, were able to do what they’re good at: sucking the blood of creative minds and using it as a tool for their utilitarian, commercial purposes.
The bad-asses who first envisioned an outdoor street art museum, or “the world’s largest, multi-site, street-level mural installation,” as they called it, on the streets of Miami were Books Bischof, Typoe, and Cristina González—a group of local artists, who, after discovering the potential of the downtrodden areas of the Design District and Wynwood back in 2005, when they used to drive around in Book’s mom’s van, decided to become Primary Flight, a contemporary curatorial collective that would use the streets of Miami as their playground.
In 2007, they invited 35 artists to paint on strategically located walls around those areas. In 2009, the number of invited artists had increased to 150. They were the ones who opened the doors of the city to artists such as Shepard Fairey, El Mac, Retna, Roa, and How and Nosm. The dopest murals Miami has had have been PF murals.
While the members of PF were spending all their time and sweat, not only mastering their curatorial practice, but also the craft of stretching shoestring budgets in mythical ways, some others were already realizing the ingeniousness of their vision and fabricating a plan with a coincidentally similar one (Wynwood Walls might ring a bell). A plan that became a sort of cold war that many would probably consider PF lost due to the economic advantage of their opponents, but which they take as an experience from which they learned a lot of what they didn’t like and didn’t want for their lives.
Books says they grew up.
I met Books back in 2010 at Primary Projects, the gallery they opened up in the Design District when they were beginning their street art exodus. He was one of the first interesting minds I met in Miami. A tall, Irish-looking guy who would almost always wear button up shirts and Dickies pants, and who owned a chihuahua named Elephant. Books was the dad of the crew; that solid presence who somehow made you feel everything was going to be alright, even if he didn’t believe it himself.
Books is a tough guy who speaks with a raw honesty that I’m sure many would fear. He has the soul of an artist, but the mind of a businessman. He is rebellious, stubborn, but also pragmatic. Not only does he constantly question everything and everyone, but he also questions and revises his own vision and goals to make sure he is on the right track. He is obsessed with the concept of trust. Besides curating art shows, he is also big on curating the circle of people that surround him. His sweet side is reserved strictly for this tight group. He knows he has what it takes to achieve his lifetime goal— to have the dopest gallery, but most importantly, to be surrounded by the artists and the people he loves and works with: his family.
We chatted with him about the transition from Primary Flight to Primary Projects, the collision of business and family, and the International Friendship Exhibition, their Art Basel group show, which opens today at their downtown gallery…
CD: What was Primary Flight?
Books: Primary Flight was a project born from necessity. It was under represented artists seizing the opportunity to be seen during a time of year in Miami where the contemporary art world is in our back yard and luckily, we have the home court advantage. In the first two years, Primary Flight was at its purest (2007 – 2008). There was a group of us doing the only thing we knew how to do, before anyone knew what we had in in the palm of our hands. It was an experiment, a petri dish.
As the project progressed, we learned what we disliked a lot quicker than learning what we loved. From the jump, we realized two extremely important things; first, that we were super capable of handling massive scale installations and second, we learned how to execute these installations on the back of hard work and a lacking budget. Over those 5 years, we realized that the culture defining who we were was something we needed to remove ourselves from as quickly as possible.
What was that culture?
Graffiti and street art by nature are extremely territorial and we have no interest in changing that, our greatest interest was in changing ourselves. Over time, working with certain groups and being surrounded by such an insane, aggressive energy was unnecessary and we noticed it was bringing us down. Not to say that many industries, including the contemporary art world, aren’t aggressive, but we came to realize there was a baggage that came with this genre of art and we wanted something more, we wanted more freedom, we wanted to define ourselves in our time, so we began to pursue this avenue.
Can you give me an example?
This is arguable, but I believe we grew too fast. There were a lot of folks who had been doing it for a long time and they weren’t willing to help cultivate our momentum at the rate we were growing, so they participated in stunting its growth. In our hearts, we believed we were surrounding ourselves with family and over time we realized what we were doing was surrounding ourselves with a lot of people who were only there as long as they were provided with opportunity. It quickly became about them and not about the community we were trying to build. We were investing our blood, sweat, tears and the little money we had into making these projects/murals happen and more times than we prefer, we weren’t shown appreciation for that investment, it was personal to us and in turn became heartbreaking. We quickly learned that we had to hold onto the strongest relationships we developed from those early years and our mission moving forward was to surround ourselves with intelligent, whole- hearted people if we wanted to find success. In that moment of realization, we felt necessary to shift gears, tighten up our family, and transform.
Why did you decide to open the gallery, Primary Projects?
It was something we wanted, it was a natural next step. It was a way for us to regain control and redefine. Primary Flight reached a point where it was forced to be injected with unnecessary sponsorship hormones to compete with programs in the city that were copying on our concept. This basically killed the organic growth of Primary Flight as a public arts program, the path we took, in an effort to survive, set the project backwards in one sense and forward in another. A blessing in disguise you could say. The Wynwood Arts District had begun to appropriate our culture for it’s identity, everyone fighting over walls, It wasn’t what we had envisioned for that district so we decided to evolve and focus on our greater passion, contemporary art.
What did you learn from that experience?
We learned everything from that experience. We learned back bone. We learned who our family and friends were. We learned how to hustle. We learned about the nature of building community, building investments, the development of real estate, and we learned about our city. We learned that with investments like Primary Flight, patience is a virtue, and with that project in particular, we are now seeing an exponential return.
And then you opened Primary. What changed?
Primary is our newest chapter, a funneling of ideas and identities into one solid foundation. Our family grew again and with this growth we realize there will always be a process of weeding out, continuously perfecting, embracing change, forever. What helped this process along is that we implemented a strict “no asshole” policy. For us, in this game, it does not matter how talented you are, what matters is that you have a strong work ethic and an attitude backed with nothing but positivity. If you don’t fit this basic description, please stay the fuck away.
How did the idea of the International Friendship Exhibition come along?
It started with a general conversation between myself and my business partner Cristina Gonzalez. Cristina is from Venezuela and the political climate there keeps getting more intense. We never realized it before, but the gallery has assembled a healthy amount of projects that embrace political undertones. Questioning and addressing certain things through a back door instead of coming out guns blazing is a lot more our style, so we decided to approach the project with the state of the world in mind.
At the same time we were reading about how the curatorial voice shifted a lot since the close of the cold war and those conversations bled into conversations with the artists we represent, more specifically with our artist Asif Farooq. If you know Asif, you know he is the living Encyclopedia Britannica, the guy is a genius. Through a series of conversations, Asif asked if we had ever heard of the “International Friendship Exhibition Hall”, a large museum complex located just west of Pyongyang in North Korea, which houses gifts presented to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il from various foreign dignitaries. One of the first things we read about this museum complex described it as “an exercise in contradiction” and from that moment, we fell in love.
This past summer, the three of us [Cristina Gonzalez, Typoe Gran] went on retreat in Maine and spent our time learning about the vast subject of contradiction.
What did you learn about contradiction?
It’s interesting, contradiction was a major philosophical debate, it is described in mathematic equations, it is a rather vast topic. It sounds cheesy, but we just wanted to learn. We created small type based graphics that zeroed in on specific ideas that inspired us and these graphics were sent to many of the artists involved in the exhibit to help create a foundation and inspire dialog. It was wonderful to see how the artists ran with the ideas, some developed more literal works, others more abstract, and in some cases we chose work that helped us develop the exhibitions voice.
The entire exhibit is a learning process, no curatorial statement would be written prior, just a series of questions. At a point I did become concerned about the works we were assembling making sense in the overall context, but then I was reminded of a graphic we created about “Money & Power” and noticed the ongoing train of thought in Primary’s history, its reference to the contemporary art world, and its comparison to North Korea’s International Friendship Exhibition Hall.
The object is placed on a conceptual pedestal, either in a museum, a gallery, an auction house, or the art fair, it is curated into a space, given a level of importance, given a market value, and on some level, becomes an object of power. These objects say, look at us, look at who we are, we are important, and they become symbols of status.
To us, that brought everything full circle.
Why is it valuable?
Because we say so [laughs], right?. I mean, there are multiple sides to it all, maybe the artist went to a prestigious school, is collected by top tear collectors, has won awards and grants, or maybe stayed at a residency program that helps command the market value of their work. On occasions, there is a group behind the magic curtain that is helping the value of the work rise outside of these coveted sources of value.
My mom once said “Mickey Mantle’s rookie card is only worth as much as what someone is willing to pay for it”, and that’s true. At the end of the day, we have to stand by our voice and by our commitment, and in our opinion the dedication we have to our program, and the dedication our artists have to their practice is what makes all of this valuable.
You can’t replace who we are in Miami. We have no crystal ball, so we might not be here someday, and that would be sad, but it wouldn’t just be sad for us, it would be a loss to our city. There are really solid galleries in Miami, they do what they do and that’s great, but the way we run our program over here is unique, and we are consistently getting stronger.
Talk to me about Primary’s general aesthetic, seems to focus on going back to basics…
We are all a work in progress, here at Primary we are about simplifying. We currently represent an amazing group of artists and there’s no telling if we’re going to work with these people forever, but the goal is to tighten up in search of simplicity. We know that the three partners here make a really dense core and we are in the process of building another layer around us. It must be approached from the aspect of family, maybe a slightly dysfunctional family, but a family nonetheless.
Let me paint you a picture, I want to be old in awesome red suspenders, rocking an amazing ZZ Top beard with endless children running around our massive family. Subject of the morning is who won dominoes the night before while Spanish music from the 1950’s plays in the distant background. That’s what I want and that’s what we are going to have.
So, who gives a shit about how rich we get or about how many articles are written, or how many documentaries there are, or how many murals are painted, if at the end of it all we are standing alone with nobody to celebrate life with? Building that family is hard, no one said it was going to be easy, maybe it is a dream. It’s hard to trust people that aren’t your blood, but the only real foundation I have to stand on is the love I have for my partners Cristina and Typoe, and that’s a start.
Have you always been so interested in the concept of family?
Growing up, it was me, my two sisters, my mom and dad. Bigger family than some, but smaller than others. My sister married into a huge Italian family when i was a young boy. I married into a large spanish family, the spanish have the life, which is really rad. I love huge family dinners, I love trust. So yeah, family is important.
And how is it to mix family and business?
That is a struggle. It’s something we are trying to perfect. Might not be possible but we will try. Primary is what we make it, together. We are made up of a group of really solid artists, a misfit family of creatives who are all trying to achieve the same thing, working together in search for a pot of gold.
Yeah, I feel you’re constantly challenging these notions of everything. The way to run a gallery, the concepts and motives you have behind it. Having a family with the artists you represent, while you do business with them. Everything is very rebellious. You’re just doing things your own way, which is what I really admire.
There’s no “How to Run an Art Gallery for Dummies,” book [laughs].
Yeah, I’m sure you guys have learned a lot…
Yeah, for sure.
Talk to me about your curatorial process? What are your criteria to select these people that might become part of your family?
There are no traditional criteria. We don’t review portfolios. It’s all about vouching for someone you know. There is only ever a degree of separation between us and them. This helps keep things sane, it helps me to sleep at night knowing that the people that I’m investing in are down to earth, ready to work, and coming from the people we trust the most.
Where is Primary headed next?
It’s all a balancing act. Every step pushes us to develop our business different in comparison to the old gallery model. I think that there’s a lot more value to the artists we represent than just creating objects or works of art. Take Autumn Casey for example, she isn’t just an artist that makes sculptures, paintings, or videos. She is beautiful, she is in an amazing punk band in Miami called Snakehole, she directed a video for Snoop Dog and Boys Noize, there is no question in my mind that she is capable of approaching any creative project professionally with a fresh outlook. We believe she holds extra value as a creative in various mediums than solely as an artist by the traditional definition. So why not challenge the market and challenge her to be something more? And if that means that she ends up on the cover of Vogue one day then we would be flattered to help her reach that level. Maybe that’s who she was always meant to be.
I believe change is in the air. There are new opportunities for young galleries in today’s art market, what it is to be a gallerist is definitely different today then what it was 10 years ago. We are interested in artist management, we are not gallerists. The question is, what can we do different?
International Friendship Exhibition | Opening Reception – Wednesday, December 3, 2014 |
*This interview was originally published on Culture Designers