Know Wave’s Aaron Bondaroff and Al Moran meet Tremaine Emory and Acyde of No Vacancy Inn to reflect on infiltrating the art world, using t-shirts as picket signs and making it up as they go along
Miami Beach is completely artificial: an early twentieth-century invention designed to lure the wealthy south for the winter to bask in the sun on its imported sand. With a reputation chequered by hurricanes, drug wars and the ever-present threat that it will disappear underwater, the area’s fortunes have come and gone like the tides. But since 2002, a new crowd has flocked there every December – drawn by Art Basel (or by the parties, pop-ups and poolside Instagram opportunities the fair provides). Anybody, it seems, who is anybody, will be geotagging themselves in South Beach when the first week of December rolls around. Yawn.
“It’s been so predictable out here for a long time,” sighs gallerist Al Moran. Art Basel 2016 is in full swing, and he’s seated at the Moran Bondaroff booth at the NADA fair, surrounded by the work of contemporary artists including Lucien Smith and Terence Koh. Founded as OHWOW by Moran, his brother Mills and Aaron (‘A-Ron’) Bondaroff, the gallery began showing at Basel back in 2008 with IT AIN’T FAIR, and now represents the likes of Daniel Arsham, Koh and the Estate of Robert Mapplethorpe. Around the table is Bondaroff, the downtown New York streetwear fixture who is also behind the gallery’s radio station offshoot Know Wave, and Tremaine Emory and Acyde of No Vacancy Inn, the ‘virtual Chelsea Hotel’ which on any given day could be DJing for Ambush in Japan or interviewing the likes of Dev Hynes or Luka Sabbat. With backgrounds between their founders spanning brands including Supreme, Nike and Marc Jacobs, both Know Wave and No Vacancy also make clothing, with t-shirts that are stocked in – and quickly sell out from – Dover Street Market.
This year, mindful of the limitations of Miami hedonism (and the timing, with Basel taking place just a few weeks after a cataclysmic US election), the two entities came together to create the Communiversity, renting a house amongst the sprawling gated villas of Pine Tree Drive – but not for the usual week of partying. Drop by over the course of the week and you could find a young saxophonist from New York jazz group Onyx Collective practising while perched on the edge of a hot tub, get lured in by the hypnotic chants of feminist LA duo ODWALLA88, dance to a DJ set by Virgil Abloh, sit down for dinner with the A$AP Mob, or hear artist Jacolby Satterwhite detail the way his mother’s mental illness has shaped his creative practice. With interviews of guests and performers broadcast on Know Wave (and filmed for an upcoming No Vacancy YouTube channel) it was a coming together of worlds, an attempt to expand minds and perspectives authentically in a place that’s become increasingly superficial, to create moments with the potential to make an impact that will last long after the fair’s galleries and pleasure-seekers have packed up and shipped out.
Here, the four discuss their longstanding friendships, overcoming art world bureaucracy, the culture of making t-shirts, and coming together for Communiversity. Class in session...
So, let’s start at the beginning. Why did Know Wave and No Vacancy come together this year?
Aaron Bondaroff: We’re all friends here. I think we’ve all been in conversation, directly or indirectly, for more than a decade. For years me and Acyde have just been bumping heads, talking about the state of things – whether in popular culture or the underground...
Acyde: It’s like a ten year long conversation, basically, what’s happening right now. Coming to Miami, I’m always like – this is so boring and wack. It’s so dead end, but then there are also cool parties and art people, and so the idea was just to crash them together into one space.
Aaron Bondaroff: I think having a venue is everything. When these guys hit us up and were like ‘Hey, let’s do something out in Miami,’ it was an opportunity. Right now out here we’re doing art. That’s our main focus. We didn’t have a platform for Know Wave on this trip, so it was the perfect timing to team up. I wanted the artists that we work with to meet these guys and their scene. I think it’s very important for that conversation to go a bit wider than what happens normally.
Why do you guys like each other?
Acyde: I don’t know if we like each other…
Aaron Bondaroff: We’re forced into this shit! (laughs)
Tremaine Emory: Aaron and Al, Acyde too, they’re really good at interjecting things where they shouldn’t be. I think that’s one of Aaron’s best capabilities especially, he’s always trying to make the situation uncomfortable, not boring. The artist Brian Belott did a performance at the house, and it was one of the best things I’ve seen all year. We would never have seen it if we just did No Vacancy. I think that’s the main thing – partnering up with people that are going to push you in directions that you wouldn’t normally go.
Aaron Bondaroff: That’s it, it opens up a dialogue.
“We’re less committed to the traditional gallery model... we’re having this interview right now and people are looking at us like we’re crazy. We’re supposed to be selling art!” – Al Moran
Al Moran: I think what we saw was the ability to juxtapose what No Vacancy does with what we do on the art side. That juxtaposition creates uncomfortable situations. And that’s good – that stimulates conversation. After that performance there was 15 minutes of uncomfortable silence, the whole house just did not know what to do with themselves. We had to recalibrate our brains to learn how to think again!
Tremaine Emory: I’ll tell you what is new, you guys having a gallery that has top tier artists but that’s in tune with the streets. I don’t know if that’s ever existed. That’s dope. That Bari (A$AP Mob member and VLONE designer), or kids that wanna be like Bari, want to wear a Moran Bondaroff hat, you know? And if they do a little research, they’ll see something by Terence Koh… It’s like crumbs, Hansel and Gretel shit.
Aaron Bondaroff: That’s the thing – art has been a system that’s been unapproachable for so long, it’s been such a closed door thing. You had to have an in to get into a fucking gallery and be able to understand it. For us, it should be approachable. When Virgil puts our logo on a t-shirt, it opens up a door to a whole world that might not necessarily know about what we’re doing. I like that. No Vacancy can open up a new world to what we’re doing on this gallery level, too.
Al Moran: That was a big reason why we wanted to do this project. There were people at that house that saw that Brian Belott performance and had never seen anything like that. They’re gonna tell somebody, and people will be more open to things like that instead of just staying within the confines of what they know.
So there’s something very deliberate about the way you guys are approaching this space, it’s not happening off the cuff.
Acyde: Well, everything I know about the past seems amazing, because I wasn’t there. People package up this idea of, say, downtown New York 1983 with Basquiat and The Mudd Club, and Madonna working as a waitress, but that’s not really what happened. You look back at the past and you think that happened naturally. But no it didn’t. There’s no such thing as natural occurrence. What really happened is what’s happening now, people went out of their way to curate a gallery, make a record. I’ve realised you have to be deliberate and say, ‘Yo homies, let’s do something amazing’. We’re ideas people. We just put great ideas together and occasionally it works. Sometimes it’s a fucking nightmare. (laughs)
Aaron Bondaroff: It’s about telling a story and it’s about promoting the past tense and it’s about instant archival, because we have the tools to do that. So the story could be kind of accurate 20 years down the road.
Can you discuss radio as a medium for archiving culture? This time around you’re also filming the interviews.
Aaron Bondaroff: What’s interesting about the fact we all do radio is that it’s an old format. When you’re listening you’ve got to paint a picture, you’re not really seeing things. Now, with this project, it’s adding another arm of access to what is going on.
Al Moran: I’m curious to see it. We’ve been talking about this for a long time, and we’ve been on the fence about it, if it’s going to enhance the experience or if we’ll completely just reveal too much of it. So I’m curious.
Acyde: I grew up in that magazine culture – information is always available, but only a certain person can convince you that it’s the truth, or that it’s a good idea, which is what magazines used to do. At this point, that’s all we’re doing.
Al Moran: They’re voices of authority.
Acyde: It’s not an ego thing, who else is actually gonna do it? We’re of the right age, we’ve got the right information, we know the right people and we’re all still very curious. That’s something we have in common. We’re all interested in figuring it out. What’s next, what’s happening right now. Why was stuff before better – was it better?
Aaron Bondaroff: It’s the unknown – none of us really know what the fuck is going on. We’re just throwing shit in the air to see if it sticks. And if it does we’re like ‘Yo, that was me, that was my idea.’ And if it doesn’t we’re like ‘Okay, it fell off’! I think that’s the beauty of where we’re at. That will be the mentality ‘til the day we die. We’ll always be trying to push ourselves to new things. Be an intern for life. It’s also about being storytellers and inspiring the next wave of kids and letting people know they have the power to create a radio station, they have the power to create a video channel.
Al Moran: Because we have these platforms, it’s important to do something with them. The gallery, what No Vacancy do, what we do. It’s all about platforms and giving people opportunities to see what they can create from it.
I want to talk about the clothing element. How far do you see t-shirts as a way for you to fund the other things that you do? Is it frustrating if people think you’re just a clothing label and that there’s nothing else behind it?
Al Moran: For us, it’s been another platform. It’s a white wall, basically. All of the clothing that we put out stems from the shows that we have. We’ll give it to the artists, so they’ll make the graphics, they’ll make the content. Sure, the byproduct of that is that money comes in and it funds the station, but it’s really another platform.
“The more weird or important information you can push through clothing the better. You can talk at kids all day, they don’t really listen. But they’ll buy a t-shirt” – Acyde
Tremaine Emory: For me, the t-shirt game is a sport… Coming up with the next witty or purposeful thing. You know it’s interesting too, because one of the first times I met A-Ron he was on a t-shirt. It was this brand called Acapulco Gold that said. ‘A-Ron the Downtown Don put me on’. So it’s weird to see that and then…
Aaron Bondaroff: See it happen in real life! But t-shirts are one of the easiest ways to get the attention of people. It’s affordable. People know what they’re getting. And once you get into their brains, then you can hit them with the next shit. That’s the entry level. To gather the eyes and minds and the attention. For a long time, I was like, I don’t want to touch a fucking t-shirt. I want to get away from the culture of that. We did it, I’m over it, I want to stay over here, I can grow old doing art. Put a suit on, I don’t have to compete with the next fly kid with the fucking dope Jordans, it’s just too much work to try to be dope, you know what I’m saying? (all laugh) But then we create this thing, and it takes its course, and people are pushing us because they want to be a part of it. And then all of a sudden it pulls us right back into t-shirts because it’s what we know. But now it’s okay. I think every decade the t-shirt hustle, the fashion hustle changes. Now with social, you have to have something in front of you that’s telling your story. And only a handful of people can really do that. No one else can really do a lot of things that we do, and vice versa.
Al Moran: I guess from the experiences with the gallery, the t-shirts took on a whole new level of importance. There was more considered thought to everything. We’re applying the same consideration to the art we’re showing to the clothing that we’re doing.
So the clothing is just another medium.
Acyde: I’m a big fan of innuendo – the more weird or important information you can push through clothing the better. You can talk at kids all day, they don’t really listen. But they’ll buy a t-shirt. And the thing about buying a t-shirt is that they don’t know what they’re actually buying. They just think it’s cool. And one day they’ll look at that and think ‘Oh, that’s information’.
Tremaine Emory: Obviously you guys are tuned into that with Know Wave. The Knowledge Wave t-shirt was something you did first with Virgil, right? So with kids, it was a coveted item. You guys release a new one and you put a James Baldwin quote on it. So the kid might not give a fuck, but if he wants to wear that shirt, then he’s going to have that quote on his back. I feel like that’s the win.
He’s at least going to Google James Baldwin.
Acyde: Someone’s gonna see it and be like – what is that? We’re basically infiltrating people’s minds by making t-shirts!
Al Moran: Like a Trojan horse.
Al and Aaron – how much did you have to learn the rules of the art world? How did you navigate that?
Al Moran: We’re still learning them! I mean, it took a couple of years, and we’re still in this process of figuring out who we are and how we fit into this thing and how we don’t fit into it and how that’s okay. I feel like we’re less committed to the traditional gallery model, and it shows with what we’re doing. Like we’re having this interview right now and people are looking at us like we’re crazy. We’re supposed to be selling art!
Tremaine Emory: No Vacancy and Know Wave are similar in that sense because they’re in the art realm, and they’re doing something different to what other people are doing. When me and Acyde started doing nightlife, not just DJ sets but having me on the mic – no one does that. It’s old school as hell. People are like, ‘You guys are weird’, but somehow it got some traction. Same thing with you guys.
Acyde: Whatever we do, it’s not that self-important, but it feels important to people because they’re like, ‘Shit – these guys don’t know what they’re doing, but they’re making it work’.
Tremaine Emory: The good thing about Acdye and Aaron is that they don’t rest on their laurels, because they both have a starred past – they’ve done Supreme, Nike, this, that. A-Ron probably goes months without saying the word Supreme, it’s about taking it to the next thing. I remember when that New York Times article came out about you, and you stepped off that. Most people wouldn’t. They would grind that into the ground.
Can you talk about that Aaron?
Aaron Bondaroff: ‘The Brand Underground’... For me, there was just an opportunity to disappear after that. It was a long, long time ago, when I was 25 or something. The thing is, that article put too much pressure on what I was doing – it was an art project, it wasn’t trying to be a brand. They were putting me in a group of people I didn’t wanna be around. So I wanted to go in the other direction. That’s not always the best business model…
“Some people hit the streets and revolt, they create noise. I think we’ve already hit the streets in so many ways that we have to use what we’ve created as our picket signs” – Aaron Bondaroff
But there’s more longevity in that.
Aaron Bondaroff: That gets me here. Stories are always going to be told. I hit the pavement so many fucking times and just dusted myself off and that’s where we’re at.
I wanted to go back to the James Baldwin quote, and how far you all feel the culture that you create has the power to influence people or society – either on a personal or a political level. Are you optimistic about that?
Aaron Bondaroff: We have to use our voices. You want to be able to put your head down and go to sleep and know that you’ve contributed in some way. Some people hit the streets and revolt, they create noise. I think we’ve already hit the streets in so many ways that we have to use what we’ve created as our picket signs. I think now it’s even more important than ever to open up new doors and let people know it’s okay to make a decision or hold a belief, whatever side. But say something – don’t just be comfortable.
Tremaine Emory: For real, I was gonna say it was emotional the day Trump won, and we were all going off on the group chat. Part of what we did here came from that group chat. Bari felt so bad because he was like, ‘I didn’t vote...’ And instead of berating him, Brendan Fowler was like, don’t worry, next time we’re going to make sure you do.
Acyde: What I’m realising the past couple of years, through Brexit, through Trump, through life in general, is that apathy is the only truly evil thing. Not caring, not getting involved, You’re just giving up your chance to be a part of the world, and letting anyone make a decision on your life. But actually if you stand on the wrong side or the right side of the line it doesn’t matter, at least you’re picking a side. The middle ground – that’s the one thing I can’t stand. Someone who doesn’t agree with me, cool. Let me understand why you think like that.
Tremaine Emory: I think that goes back to the house, because the house isn’t apathetic. We’ll come together: are we gonna do animal house? Or are we gonna do a house that has talks and radio. We’ll open with a nice dinner, and we’ll have an ending party, and a party on the Saturday where Benji B is going to DJ, Virgil’s going to DJ, the Mob’s going to perform. But in between that we’re gonna have stuff that has some weight to it. In Art Basel before this house, the parties we were doing were quite apathetic. It was like a festival.
It’s just seen as this time of total hedonism...
Tremaine Emory: And that’s fun, I like to hang out. But you gotta do something else. Or at least try.
Watch a video from the party with Stüssy at the Communiversity house below, directed by Antosh: