By Christian Viveros-Fauné
By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Tom Sellar
By Tom Sellar
By Jessica Dawson
By Tom Sellar
By R. C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
"It's up to artists to make the art world they want." ¶ On the Acela Express from Penn Station to Providence, Rhode Island, with two members of The Bruce High Quality Foundation, it suddenly feels like the sealed windows are thrown open and a gust of cold air rushes into the rolling train. The effect of these words, spoken mid-interview, is like a sharp slap in the face. In a year that has seen wealth and power consolidate ever more—bigger galleries, the transformation of art into financial instruments, concentrated global wealth, the unmasking of Big Data—there is, apparently, at least one group of artists in New York determined to raise whirlwinds by imagining that the world can be different. ¶ Created, according to its insistently puckish literature, "to foster an alternative to everything," The Bruce High Quality Foundation has taken the art world by storm since its founding in 2004. An artist collective that revels in anonymity
—they've hidden their faces behind everything from their trademark cigarette-dangling Kabuki masks to copies of the Village Voice—the Bruces have rewritten a number of cultural scripts, among them the rules of art celebrity.
"It isn't that we think biological information is the end-all," one member says over watery Dunkin' Donuts coffee before boarding. "It's just that we think it's totally irrelevant to how we want our work to be understood." Think of them as the Bruce Waynes of the art world.
Though they avoid Daft Punk's robot helmets and the brightly colored balaclavas of Russian art activists Pussy Riot, the Bruces have nonetheless shunned the art world's star system by creating a fantastical, even absurd image for themselves. A shifting cast of young characters that rotate around a pair of late-twentysomethings, the artists claim to represent "the estate of Bruce High Quality," a fictional "late social sculptor" who died tragically in 2001 in the World Trade Center disaster. Anonymity, the Bruces figured out early, means control.
The Bruces' Batmanning of celebrity consequently frees them to be actual working artists rather than superstar wannabes. Few ideas prove more revolutionary in a culture capsized by Warholian cliché, YouTube banality, and Deadliest Catch reality TV.
"Basically, we remain anonymous not because we don't trust celebrity, which turns out to be super useful," one member confesses, "but because we don't trust biography, which really isn't." This stance has scotched several magazine profiles (among them, one with New York magazine, which chose not to respect the Bruces' request to remain nameless). Their public face proves less a strategy than a sort of free-form experimental ethic.
The choice has guided the Bruces through crazy-like-a-fox stunts, such as their 2002 full-dress restaging of Cats in Bushwick (it revived the musty Andrew Lloyd Webber vehicle as a morality tale about gentrification), to their anxiously awaited "retrospective" at the Brooklyn Museum, which opens this week.
A show cheekily billed as a display "of less than 17,000 works," "The Bruce High Quality Foundation: Ode to Joy, 2001–2013" reprises the Bruces' many highlights—a significant number of which, incredibly, remain underexposed to uptown's Ferragamo loafers set—while also engaging in what might be contemporary art's ultimate Sisyphean enterprise: the reconstruction of scale versions of every object inside the Greek and Roman collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art—from kouroi to battle helmets—in Play-Doh.
"Art's most radical quality is that it's useless," says a scruffy Bruce ringleader. "People have used art for lots of purposes throughout history, but artists have to protect its uselessness—it serves as a shield against corruption." Making things with zero utility—and emphasizing that trait—is certainly one way to keep paintings, sculptures, and other objects from turning into the creative equivalent of pork bellies.
The Bruces' ideal fuses fact, fiction, history, and humor to open up art to bigger audiences and more democratic possibilities. Or, as they put it, they aim to "invest the experience of public space with wonder, to resurrect art history from the bowels of despair, and to impregnate the institutions of art with the joy of man's desiring."
The Bruces employ virtually every kind of media. Their objects, actions, installations, and slideshows, however, take a backseat to larger, impossible-seeming ventures the group pulls off despite stupidly long odds. Among these are Teach 4 Amerika, an 11-city national tour of art schools the artists undertook in 2011 to protest student debt and the professionalization of arts education; the Brucennial, a populist art biennial the group runs opposite the Whitney Biennial; and BHQFU, a four-year-old "unaccredited, free, collaborative" university the Bruces created on Avenue A on the Lower East Side as "a learning experiment."
Combined, these efforts cost the Bruces upward of $350,000 a year, a chunk of change they might easily transform into a raft of Patek Philippe wristwatches, a pair of Mercedes SL convertibles, or a down payment on a Damien Hirst dot painting. But success for the Bruces—which after some effort has arrived in bucketfuls—clearly has little to do with dollars and cents. Instead, they use the fame and money they increasingly leverage to promote genuinely radical ends—namely, to create a savvy, irreverent, but ultimately idealistic parallel universe where artists can thrive and grow.