In a couple of weeks, hordes will descend upon Miami again. It seems people are always mobbing Miami — for international art fairs, for Martin Luther King Jr.weekend, for sporting events, and of course, for those famed beaches, which always seem overwhelmed with bronzed bodies in tiny swimwear.
But this crowd — as many as 200,000 over three days — will come wielding glow-sticks, furry boots, designer drugs and paraphernalia promoting their favorite superstar DJs as they descend on the Ultra Music Festival, the largest electronic music festival in the United States. The event begins March 23 and is a much more popular bacchanal than the Maryland festival dedicated to the same genre, Starscape.
Much as the Cannes Film Festival previews the year's best in film, Ultra is a primer on what's coming up in electronic music. It's where last year I first saw the Australian dance band Empire of the Sun, which later played the Virgin Mobile FreeFest in Columbia. This year, the hugely popular DJ Avicii is a headliner months before he'll be the marquee performer at Maryland's Sweetlife Music Festival.
"It's a good excuse to get away and go drinking and just be a dance music community," says the Baltimore house diva Ultra Nate, who has been going to Miami since 1989 and will be a performer at the Winter Music Conference, the professional confab that precedes Ultra.
The festival is just another reason to get to Miami, a city that is at its best, really, when it's overflowing with people. On those rare weekends when nothing's happening, it almost feels like it's nursing a major hangover, just biding time until the next bender.
I visited Miami in December for Art Basel, another one of its signature events and the biggest art fair in the country. Miami is always shrouded in hyperbole — the most hyped basketball team, the dirtiest politicians, the biggest hauls of confiscated cocaine. And the city wears it as a badge of honor. Its nickname as the Magic City is fitting, because despite all the seediness associated with it, Miami seems to have been blessed, as if sprinkled with fairy dust, with a patina of star quality.
"It is not somewhere I think I could live in full-time, but it is one of my favorite places to visit," says 24-year-old Baltimore artist Michael Farley. "I love Bauhaus, international style, art deco and mid-century modernism, so walking around South Beach is amazing."
There's plenty to hate about Miami — it's a city where class inequality is on almost gaudy display, where homeless people are begging for change just steps away from expensive clubs. But it's also charmingly oblivious to social issues. It's a place where you get to forget, at least temporarily, about political squabbling, culture wars and global warming, and just go dancing with only cheap margaritas as sustenance.
"I think part of what is so relaxing to me about being in Miami is the ability to not care so much about the socio-political issues that I care so much about in Baltimore and most cities," says Farley. "In general, most people don't want to have a 'deep' conversation at your typical Miami club."
During Art Basel, collectors, celebrities and celebrity art dealers had overrun the already atomized Miami Beach and turned it into an even zanier zoo of flashbulbs, velvet ropes and liquor company-sponsored parties. Endless conga lines of people waited to get inside parties and clubs.
On Saturday night, my last night in town, the Shelborne Hotel on Collins Avenue was a perfect snapshot of all the insanity. The hotel was not hosting the most exclusive party that night — the Delano Hotel had the pop-up club Le Baron and a Brazilian-themed, poolside party for the solemnly serious art-mag Visionaire. But the Shelborne was easier to sneak into, which meant that the only celebrities there were those in life-size portraits on the walls of the hotel's mausoleum-like lobby. Not to be deterred by celebrities' absence, attendees instead posed with the pictures, snapping up photographs of photographs.
It was a great moment to witness because it captured the two sides of Miami's personality — wealthy and aspirational, shallow and earnest, always unapologetically tasteless.
I had arrived two days before, when the official fair was already in full swing. Though it is commonplace to describe Miami as a nightlife capital, the day is the time to explore the hodgepodge of excellent galleries and cheap restaurants — there's the Rubell Family Collection, in Wynwood, a former Drug Enforcement Agency warehouse that used to be filled with property seized during the city's drug wars in the '80s and is now a temple of Andy Warhols, Richard Princes, and Keith Harings. Until the summer, it's showing an exhibit of mostly new work by young artists called American Exuberance.
And nearby, in another converted warehouse, you'll find mainly contemporary photography, video and installations of some bold-faced names (the sculptor Olafur Eliasson, the conceptual artist John Baldessari) at the Margulies Collection.
The neighborhood, near Ultra's base at Bayfront Park, puts you within minutes of some of the best cheap Cuban grub outside of Little Havana: a plate of black bean-drenched white rice and fried-chicken steaks, with a mango smoothie, at Enriqueta's Cafeteria is under $15. And at the Latin Cafe, a greasy, chunky chorizo sandwich on Cuban bread is just $9. For classier dinner digs, go to Gigi, in Midtown, an Asian-inspired, noodles-and-beer restaurant by chef Amir Ben-Zion that serves food in small portions. Three plates — a mouthwatering pork belly BLT ($12), roasted pork buns ($7), and crumbly cornbread ($4) — plus beer was less than $40. It's best to go with friends so you can dip into what they're having.
I also went to Anthony Spinello's gallery, Spinello Projects, which for Art Basel had temporarily redecorated an abandoned parochial school in the Design District with paintings and drawings that would have made Sunday school teachers blush. The artist Typoe used the gymnasium for "Black Sea," a striking installation of a prop skeleton vomiting spray paint bottle caps, sneakers and discarded junk that seemed primed to be shared on social media.
In Miami Beach, the hotels are as useful for their open bars as for shelter. One night around 10 p.m. I made my way to the Mondrian, a boutique hotel on South Beach's west side that was hosting a party for Harmony Korine, a filmmaker. But by the time I got there the bar was already charging full price for drinks — $16 for a margarita. Despite the Mondrian's best asset - a pool with a spectacular view of Miami's skyline - I did not stay.
The Lords South Beach Hotel, Miami's new gay hotel, was a more affordable option — cocktails at its bar/restaurant, the Cha Cha Rooster, start at $9. Located in the heart of South Beach, on Collins Avenue, Lords was hosting an invite-only party DJ'ed by Jake Shears, the front-man of the pop band Scissor Sisters. Among the guests scattered around the azure-colored pool was Farley, the Baltimore artist, who, as he often does when he's in Miami, had sneaked in.
"If you know your way around open bars, you can get away with going out practically for free," says Farley, who's been traveling to Miami on the cheap for the past four years. "I have only ever had to pay cover once in all my years of visiting Miami."
He's glued to cheap airfare websites, and, when in town, books his parents' mid-beach condo and only goes out to open bars and cover-less parties, or those with lax bouncers. His visits underscore how in Miami the 99-percenters and the 1-percenters all occupy the same decadent fantasy-land. Without an invitation, there he was at Lords, grabbing cocktails alongside minor gay celebrities like the young designer Joseph Altuzurra and Lorenzo Martone, the ex-boyfriend of designer Marc Jacobs.
Free admission all depends on the venues, of course. On the first night of Ultra, an all-night ticket to Club Space, the big kahuna of downtown Miami clubs, is $95. Meanwhile, the Clevelander Hotel, in the heart of Ocean Drive, has a rooftop bar that rarely charges admission. Near Lincoln Road, the main commercial promenade in South Beach, you'll find Haven, a futuristic-looking lounge illuminated by black light and 360-degree video projections. At both Haven and the Clevelander drinks are under $15.
On the cheap
On the last Saturday night of Basel, I went to a guerrilla art exhibit Farley had installed at his parents' condo featuring Baltimore artists Mieke Gentis, Gary Kachadourian, and Gaia. It was an antidote to the overblown art fair at the Miami Beach Convention Center. There were no endless lines. There were no celebrities. There was no bottle service inside; instead, big carafes of wine had two labels: "Red" and "White."
Again, Miami's contradictions were on display. Farley painted some of the thousands of real estate listings that have gone unsold since the housing bubble burst, each piece priced according to the square footage it depicted: $150 for 1,500 square feet. While logically two identical plots would cost the same, in Miami, "even in the same tiny neighborhood, the price per square foot can vary wildly based on a subjective understanding of quality or worth," Farley says.