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Are We Still Living in 1993?

A New Museum show makes the argument that the innocuous-seeming, which-year-was-that-again? year, may, in fact, have changed absolutely everything.

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Typography by Martin Venezky  

When I moved to New York from Virginia, in the fall of 1993, to take an internship at Spy, I was far less interested in the jokey journalists I met—many of whom now work on TV—than in the office manager and the receptionist. Also just out of college (and, like me, suburbia before that), they were impeccably thrifted and retro-coiffed former roommates who seemed to hold the keys to a mythic and fully realized downtown bohemia right next to the packs of unfiltered Luckys in their vintage Bakelite purses. Compared with the careerist dorks, their world was super beguiling.

Among their friends was a good-­looking guy named Craig Wadlin, who’d gone to art school at Cooper Union and, along with six of his classmates, formed a facetiously named collective called Art Club 2000, which sought to send up consumerism and identity politics by, among other things, taking group self-portraits of its members dressed in identical outfits from the Gap. They exhibited these along with a selection of supposedly meaningful detritus from the stores’ Dumpsters—a loss-prevention handbook, two unopened letters from Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and a dirty diaper—and got flown to Europe and elsewhere as avatars of their generation, which was my generation. It was the first time (but certainly not the last) I had that New York experience: Someone I knew had achieved notoriety for something that seemed clever but maybe a little half-baked. They had become art-world famous, and while I didn’t entirely get it as conceptual art, I knew Art Club was cool.

I hadn’t thought about Craig in years when I saw the invitation to an exhibition at the New Museum, “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star,” which opens this month and is named after an album recorded that year by Sonic Youth, the postpunk Brahmins of that era. It proposes to show, through a selection of supposedly meaningful detritus from the Dumpster of 1993, that that hazily innocuous-seeming year actually changed the world.

As it turns out, twenty years on, Art Club 2000 is still cool: The New Museum invite opens to a photograph of its members, pale and thin and then young, lounging with Gap shopping bags at a Conran’s home-furnishing shop, which the museum’s head curator, Massimiliano Gioni, tells me is a parody of fashion and identity politics that also partakes of fashion and identity politics—for him a paradigmatic early-nineties two-step. The invitation also includes a somewhat comically truncated time line of lively events from that year, designed to suggest that somewhere between Bill Clinton’s inauguration and the end of Saved by the Bell, the release of “Whoomp (There It Is!)” and the bombing of the World Trade Center, AOL 2.0 and the siege at Waco—that somewhere in there a new moment began. And that’s just the beginning of the argument: Throw in Rudy Giuliani’s election, the release of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, RuPaul’s “Supermodel,” Philadelphia, and Dazed and Confused—and, let’s not forget, River Phoenix’s death—and it all adds up to an era of casual and commercial identity politics and the relentless marketing of self actually does comes into focus. That is, the era in which we’re still living today.

Nostalgia has a life cycle, and usually it runs about twenty years: If you look back at press accounts from the early nineties, for example, there was a lot of talk about the seventies revival, and today Doc Martens are back on-trend and this April’s Coachella is being headlined by Blur, Wu-Tang Clan, Dinosaur Jr, and Moby. Besides, the anointing of particular transformational years is always somewhat arbitrary, probably even more dubious when it’s a 38-year-old curator (who once did a show called “Younger Than Jesus,” with an age cutoff for artists at 33) celebrating a year he spent at university. Since I graduated that year, maybe my memories are muddled by self-mythology, too.

But flipping through the exhibition catalogue, I see their point—and it’s hard to argue with. In many ways, 1993 did give us our world: globalized and multicultural, libertarian and technocratic at once, target-marketed, relentlessly digital and relentlessly individual, without distinctions between the pursuit of culture and the pursuit of wealth. To put it another way, 1993 might have been the last year of the sellout, when the principle of resistance to the smooth and efficient running of the market began to collapse into our culture of collaboration. It was the year of the first web browser and the forging of both the European Union and NAFTA. Bill Kristol was writing, in Commentary, of how to rebrand conservatism as rebellion in the face of Clinton’s win. MTV’s cultural metabolism was probably at its most rapacious, Tony Kushner brought Angels in America to Broadway, and Toni Morrison won her Nobel. Atlantic Records invested in indie label Matador and Walt Disney bought Miramax. Pulp Fiction, Clerks, and Reality Bites were all in production. Marc Jacobs’s grunge collection was for spring ’93. Harmony Korine was writing Kids, and the former insult-comic editor of Spy had taken over Vanity Fair. In other words, niche markets were becoming mainstream propositions—and soon gave us the entire gloriously fractured culture we’re unavoidably (and more often than not wirelessly) connected to today.

Okay, breathe. First, the web. Nineteen ninety-three was the year that gave us Internet inevitability and triumphalism—not just the first web browser, Mosaic, but the magazine that would make sense of it by celebrating it and codifying an overarching (and at the time what seemed like overreaching) ideology around it, Wired. One of the magazine’s founders, Louis Rosetto, called its launch “a revolution without violence that embraces a new, nonpolitical way to improve the future based on economics beyond macro control, consensus beyond the ballot box, civics beyond government and communities beyond the confines of time and geography.’’ Is that jargon impossibly dated or impossibly contemporary? It’s hard to say, but it was the can-do opposite of the cyber-dystopias that William Gibson had been churning out about the same techno future (his book that year: Virtual Light). Within a few years, my scrubby artist friends were making far more money designing websites than I was as a journalist. And for Gioni, the New Museum curator, the infinite present of the web might be its most distinctive feature: 1993 inaugurated our archival era—“the first time from which you can sort of retrieve everything.” For a while, he says, they were thinking of calling the show Total Recall.


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