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The Facade and the Hype Man

John Menick and Domingo Castillo

Courtesy Miami World Internet Cafe.

The following are excerpts from a discussion between Miami Rail Visiting Writer John Menick, Domingo Castillo, and moderated by Hunter Braithwaite. Stitched together from conversations taking place in Miami and via email, the following is an investigation into cultural mores unique to this city.

JOHN MENICK: I met you a couple weeks ago in Miami, and we talked over breakfast in that Honduran restaurant off Biscayne, Cafeteria Adelita. A lot was mentioned—your projects, Bitcoin, World of Warcraft—but we didn’t talk too much about Miami as a place to work culturally. Other cities such as Los Angeles or New York are often associated with “the future,” however that term is understood. Somehow Miami gave off the same oddly predicative quality, for me, in a way that other American cities do not but should. Part of it had to do, I guess, with money: the art world has always been dependent on extremely wealthy individuals, but it seemed like Miami has no buffer between that wealth and culture. It’s all right there for everyone to see. Maybe that’s because there hasn’t been enough time for a large managerial class to emerge in the arts. But I also feel like, at the same time, you and many of your peers are attempting to develop a contemporary arts culture in Miami that both speaks to what is happening there and avoids being purely parochial. Can you talk a little about your history in Miami and why you’ve chosen to work there?

DOMINGO CASTILLO: The future seems to exist differently in Miami. This place, and I’ll even say South Florida, exists in a constant state of potential. The future means the abstraction of a city from the people living here and it reflects this wealth you’re talking about. There is always investment in Miami, in whatever the hell someone can get themselves into: hotels, spas, nightclubs, restaurants, or fairs and expos. The story is usually the same. Outside money pours in and changes the story for the people living here from that point on. It happened with the land boom of the ‘20s, cocaine money building Brickell in the ‘80s, Versace and the development on the beach in the ‘90s, and current developments of in Midtown, the Design District, Wynwood, or along Biscayne Boulevard into Downtown.

There is this illusion, this facade of Miami being the next thing, but very rarely do people examine the fact that Miami is a place that exists in the perpetual idea of the next thing. There is no resolution. With this line of thinking, we can compare the city to a hype man backing up a rapper. I don’t know who or what force the rapper might be, so I’ll leave it with that. This, combined with the mythology of Miami characters is enough brain candy to keep anyone thinking and wanting to work here.

MENICK: Yes, the money seems very visible, very street-level almost. A colleague of mine, an artist, once discussed his work in terms of addressing the question of “how does one visualize wealth.” A Dutch still life would do this, for example, as did religious icons. With the emergence of—for lack of a better term—an avant-garde, this visualization is often critical. Maybe not often enough, though: one sees in contemporary art—in the work of Koons or Hirst, for example—a strong over-identification with wealth, with its excesses and inability to see culture as anything other than a commodity. Going back to Miami: how has your understanding of capital in Miami affected your work?

CASTILLO: I don’t know if I have an understanding of capital in Miami as much as I’m just able to see connections with how people choose to use this city for their own interests. I’m interested in the possibilities that exist within this city, particularly with its relationship to art and art objects. The end / SPRING BREAK (with Patricia Margarita Hernandez & Kathryn Marks) looked at the city as the project space which removed almost all kinds of overhead for the project and allowed for much more experimentation with all the artists we’ve worked with. We felt that the city was lacking something and we kind of reacted to fill in the blanks.

About a year after that, I became interested in the cultural histories that exist in Miami. It relates to what I was saying before about this perpetual growth. Since the beginning, the cultural scene reset itself just about every ten years. What I mean by that is that something happens, institutions are lost, new ones come up, groups of people come and leave the city. So there is an effect that one feels in how the cultural life of the city shifts or grows, but again this is all dictated by the agendas of the cultural institutions—which, if they are always shifting, will always favor the new and erase the past.

HUNTER BRAITHWAITE: To touch on that idea of constant state of potential, what does potential mean in this context? I suppose it exists here in a displacement of capital or time, in the rented Ferraris. The word comes from the Latin potentia, which means “power, might, or force.” Is anything taken by force here?

CASTILLO: Not to say that anything is taken by force here is in itself a little too aggressive. I think we enjoy abusing ourselves here: long commutes, no seasons, marathon all-day family beach days. Day and night here don’t seem to matter. In the summer, who wouldn’t rather stay up when it’s ten degrees cooler? Tans become leather and so on. So to give you a clear answer, nothing is taken by force.

The businesses that can take advantage of this masochistic nature are those that will become successful. I think the potential here always exists due to the few number of businesses that dominate a specific market, so there is that illusion of competition. In reality, they have strategically infected the minds of their masochistic patrons.

BRAITHWAITE: John, I’m interested in your observation that Miami has no buffer between wealth and culture, which suggests that not only are wealth and culture separate, but that are traditionally held apart by some mediating body, be that a managerial class, or something else.

MENICK: In highly networked cultural economies—music, for example—the distribution system is continuously available and cheap to access. The amount of energy that went into making a CD is enormous compared to that needed to copy an MP3. For a CD, music has to be written, recorded, mastered, printed onto thousands of discs, shipped all over the world to stores that had to be built, and then everything gets thrown out if no one buys it. Networked economies cut a great of this work, and, unlike physical economies, increase the stock every time music is bought.

That means that in most of the world one can obtain music just about anywhere, anytime—and sometimes even pay for it. The implication for the artist is that it’s not necessary to have any direct interaction at all with those people who are paying for your product. In fact, that would be impossible. Contrary to what many people think, networked economies need layers of middlemen who channel this money along, each being more or less compartmentalized from the rest. There are agents, labels, distributers, PR firms, hosting sites, etc., all of which can be used even by the smallest bands. No more trucks and wasteful flights to deliver CDs, but just as many organizations that move the bits along.

The visual arts are different. The economy has become globalized, but not very networked. There have been some half-hearted attempts at doing so, such as with the recent spectacle of Amazon selling an original Monet. The demand for goods, though, is concentrated in a few wealthy hands—unlike in music, for instance—so one doesn’t need a computer network to find buyers, but a very fickle gallerist. The dealer has all of the access, and protecting this access is what makes them powerful. But when galleries begin to expand, make more money, becoming, like Gagosian, billion-dollar enterprises, you have an expansion of a managerial class that takes place. Given enough time and money, this economy puts the collectors farther and farther from the artists, creating a disconnect, but also a buffer that shields the artist from feeling like they need to make any sort of direct pitch.

So, then, what about Miami? Part of this lack of buffer probably has to do with the fact that the scene is young. Given more money and time, you might have more distance between the artist and the patron. Part of it also has to do with Miami’s relationship to Latin American wealth. I’m sure most major Latin American collectors have some amount of storage in Miami. From living in Latin American for a while, I can say that most patronage—if it exists—is very personal, very one-to-one. But part of it also has to do with how money is spent—conspicuous consumption. There is a feeling in Miami that money is not meant to be hidden. Wealth exists to be shown and paraded, even if you have very little of it. In New York, somehow, you are supposed to hide that. The people who drive around on Friday nights in limo hummers are not the ultra-wealthy. The ultra-wealthy slip in through the back door.


Nikki Miami Beach. Courtesy Guest List Spy.

CASTILLO: It’s true everyone’s absolutely open about it here. There were two mayors a few weeks ago that got busted by the FBI because they had been taking bribes. [ed. note: While this piece was being edited, another South Florida Mayor, Steve Bateman of Homestead, was arrested on charges of corruption.] All the energy that changes this city is based on the interests of a few people and since everyone is in on it, they’ll all make money and we end up with a baseball stadium that the county paid for.

BRAITHWAITE: Domingo, you mention the facade and the hype man. I believe that not only are these viable cultural actors here, they define this city. What do those terms mean to you?

CASTILLO: The façade and the hype man go hand in hand and are players with specific functions which have to be activated by the person that wants to put them to use. It’s fucked up, because the person putting them to use isn’t interested in the hype man coming into their own. As a hype man, you’re defined as someone’s tool. In the last decade, rap producers started using that “hey” sample and other repetitive kinds of human representations in songs because there began to be a lack of hype men.

But then there’s the case of Puff Daddy, who developed the Notorious B.I.G.’s career while putting on the facade of his hype man. Right after Big dies we see Puffy exploiting everyone to leave his hype-man status and become the star. The “Mo Money Mo Problems” video is a great example of all these social dynamics at play. We’re introduced to Mase at the beginning as the new hype man for Puffy. Even the way they use Biggie after death is more about ascending Puffy and his mo-money-mo-problems dogma, which we also learn is something he got from Biggie.

Pitbull is the most realized example of a hype man from Miami. He has reached new levels of success by making a career out of it. At the start of his career his song “Culo” was essentially a hype song where he had hype-man producer Lil Jon add his magic. I think this is an important detail due to what we saw three to four years later: Pitbull as crossover hit maker. All of these songs are basically the same formula. It’s a Latin American crossover song produced in the style of the mega club song, similar to what you would hear at Club Space. At the very least we should look at Pitbull as personification of Miami’s ability to self-propel.

BRAITHWAITE: What about your mythology of Miami characters. Who do you have in mind?

CASTILLO: I’m talking about the strong archetypes of shady people that people see from anyone coming from Miami—The Real Estate Agent, Uncle Luke, Trina, Tony Montana, Griselda Blanco, Rick Ross and Pitbull. How do you think this relates to crime novels from Miami?

BRAITHWAITE: Crime novels thrive in Miami. However, I don’t know if it has to do with the criminal element, but with other qualities of cheap paperbacks. They are beach reads, you buy them in airport book stores. But perhaps the closest similarity to what you are describing is how many authors bring back characters again and again. That’s what’s so interesting about the crime genre, it’s made for reproduction. The forces at play outside of the book—its publication, distribution—are just as polished and self-contained as the plot elements going on within the narrative itself. I’m not saying that this is explicitly different from other forms of the popular novel, but genre seems aware of it.

In Adam Gopnik’s recent essay on Florida noir for The New Yorker, he says something, and I’m paraphrasing, about bad stuff in L.A. happening in the shadows, at night, and it happening in Miami in broad daylight. He even introduces the term glare. I saw this term again recently in Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7, where he’s talking about glare coming from an oversaturated visual terrain, one “in which there is a paucity of tonal differentiation out of which one can make perceptual distinctions and orient oneself to shared temporalities.” Being that Miami is over-saturated with visual representations of itself (it seems, like Venice, to collapse under the fantasies of tourists), I wonder how artists get their footing?


Courtesy Miami World Internet Cafe

MENICK: There’s also the idea of sunshine noir: “Chinatown,” “The Long Goodbye,”
etc. Noir once needed rain-slicked streets and expressionist lighting, but by the 1970s it is bathed in sunlight. The older, darker tradition continues in “Taxi Driver” and other films from the period, but the idea that nighttime and moral dissipation no longer need to be associated is meaningful. Shows like Miami Vice, of course, updated all of that, and Michael Mann himself can be seen as a major contributor to the genre.

This idea, though, of over-saturation clichés, Hunter, is interesting. A more traditional attitude might be someone like Martin Amis who declares, a little pretentiously, an open war on cliché. Overly interested in classical ideas of originality, Amis wants to avoid any wording that seems secondhand, perhaps as Flaubert was suggesting in his Dictionary of Received Ideas and Bouvard et Pécuchet. I think a more interesting approach might be to use clichés, accelerate them and turn up their volume, not unlike, say, what David Shields does in his essay “Life Story.” The essay is a catalog of slogans one might find on T-shirts, mugs, bumper stickers, etc., and when read as ordered by Shields, they constitute, more or less, the order of events in one’s life. Flaubert’s two books, as I’ve read them, are much more ambiguous about how an artist should relate to cliché, and maybe ambivalence is the most honest approach to take. If there is any stance that seems completely contemporary it is ambivalence, because, after all, we find a certain amount of comfort in any cliché.

BRAITHWAITE: Domingo, your piece “Duets” (2011) dealt with the clichés of the karaoke lounge: tone deaf performers, dim lighting, loneliness…

CASTILLO: It’s not irony but the embracement of a localized situation which poses all the options available to it. There was promotion with no information on the exhibition. The exhibition was only accessible to my friends and they could only bring one friend I didn’t know. This happened during Art Basel, and I didn’t want to give access to people that weren’t from here because I find the fairs exemplify something that happens in cruise-ship destinations, where community is performed and stereotypes are reinforced. The Miami artist then becomes a primitive, laborer, native and even sideshow [attraction] and doesn’t have the same value as those cruise-ship passengers. Sure some of us get laid, meet a collector, meet a curator, but that’s part of their Disneyesque experience. We’re supposed to be attractive, primitive people outside of the art circuit, on which the city is only a subtropical pit stop.

For me, “Duets” was making this ambiguous impermeable structure that is completely about and against community. Exclusivity was strictly based on personal bias. I was also the asshole bouncer that told people even if their friends told them about it that they couldn’t come in. I didn’t want to make new groups of ‘friends’ so I would also force my friends to just pick one friend I wasn’t privy towards anyone just because they’re also in the art biz. I could care less.

At the end of the day whatever happened inside was ours, the tears, the love, the hate, the regulars. “Duets” for me ended up being a masochistic display of ideologies, love and stupidity everyday from 5pm-3am for two months except sometimes.