Art fairs rank high among the rather awkward rituals of the contemporary art world. Rarely do stilted power relations come to the fore as clearly as they do on these occasions. Turin’s Artissima numbers among the more engaging events within the minor league—less pressure, local flair, more time for talks, and more attention to art. The plan of the galleries this year includes two parallel sections—“Present Future” (showcasing emerging artists selected by a curatorial board) and “Back to the Future” (devoted to “rediscovery” of practices from the 1960s–1980s)—which are presented alongside the backbone of booths in the main section. This year’s press and collectors’ preview kicked off with a relatively relaxed atmosphere in line with Artissima’s reputation.

Some say that Artissima’s best days are over. During their respective tenures as its artistic director, Andrea Bellini (starting in 2007) and Francesco Manacorda (subsequently in 2010) both made Turin’s fair the most important in Italy and also reinvigorated it as a recognized brand worldwide. This was accomplished not only due to their curatorial knowledge, but also as a result of their genuine intellectual aspirations; both have a reputable publishing history and experience in curating at public institutions, and this expertise was easy to spot in the kinds of side events and lecture series they developed. Sadly, little of this ambition is left today. The new director, Sarah Cosulich Canarutto, who has been running the show since 2012, made her career mostly with the support of Francesco Bonami, with whom she worked as an assistant curator at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003. In the interim, ties to a gallery project purportedly linked to the daughter of Silvio Berlusconi has done little to beef up her intellectual credentials.

When it comes to relations of power, smaller fairs certainly do not fare better than the big ones; the gallerists all know each other and the collectors well, and have an eye on who’s touring the streets; no one dares to leave their booth for fear of a missed opportunity. Perhaps all these elements are indicative of the tensions and anxiety one usually senses in today’s art fairs, but the air of foreboding seems particularly heavy at Artissima. Perhaps it’s because the days are long gone when artists functioned with at least a veneer of autonomy (although we know that was always partly an illusion even then); by contrast, the contemporary artist’s role in the art system inches closer and closer to one of the humble servant of capital, lest be consigned to oblivion. Having time for conversations, selling on the last day rather than the first, and giving art its proper due sounds nice, but does not bode well for significant financial payouts. As a result, there is a global village feeling in Turin; and yet, the atmosphere is actually not as cozy as it might first appear.

The image of art as sovereign might even be an imaginary idea driven by nostalgic desire and a childish belief in a myth. But there is one section of the fair that could almost support this wishful thinking: “Back to the Future,” which assembles twenty-five galleries showcasing historical, and often less recognized work. Air de Paris exhibits a range of figurative and abstract paintings by Dorothy Iannone, as well as part of her comic strip “An Icelandic Saga”; Berlin’s Aanant & Zoo features conceptual collages and drawings from the early 1970s by the artist-intellectual Luis Camnitzer, alongside the first realization of his sculptural work Paisaje [Landscape], which the artist first conceived in 1985; and MOT International (Brussels/London) offers up a series of early black-and-white photographs by the seminal performance artist Ulay. The Milan gallery Camera16 features the work of Italian photographer Ugo Mulas, who is still very much a star in Italy but is virtually unknown abroad; the presentation includes a selection of his photographs from the 1968 Venice Biennial, when students rioted against the art world in support of workers’ rights. The show is carefully mounted, with faded catalogs of the late 1960s placed on furniture by the prolific late architect and designer Giò Ponti. Without a doubt, this entire section is the highlight of the fair, its entries carefully chosen by a curatorial team that includes Kasper König, Hou Hanrou, and Eva Fabbris, whose knowledge and expertise is widely praised.

From the twenty-five young positions featured in the “Present Future” section, Cara Tolmie at London’s Rowing and Josh Faught at New York’s Lisa Cooley are the standout presentations. The latter has four collaged textiles on view that refer, with slogans brandished across them, to political issues and queer activism. Tolmie, in turn, offers up a video, which combines performative elements with intricately staged interviews.

Of course, the market conditions also have their influence here at Artissima. Some of the booths simply extend the secondary market. This model has proven to be a big success—the recently initiated Frieze Masters is a case in point. Yet, the venture capital mode of investing in newcomers (hot, young talent) seems to be on the retreat. Why risk money on a younger position, when the work of an established star can be had for a little less than double the price? The tension underlying the artist’s delivery of content to supply the collector’s demand, however, is not necessarily visible in the individual works that fill the fair’s booths in Turin.

In the middle ground, where neither upstart youngsters nor established oldsters rule the game, galleries face the conditions of the buyer’s advantage most unfettered. One wonders what might be amiss in these markets, and how these aberrations might reveal themselves in the artists’ works? Surprisingly, a few artists at the fair have ventured to comment directly on the state of the global economy; those that do include Danilo Correale at Berlin’s Supportico Lopez, who presents five different tartans woven according to the colors of leading banks from five different zones of the world. With some irony, British artist Matthew Darbyshire picks up on contemporary consumer culture at the booth of London-based Herald St, with his miniaturized objects like a car, a screw driver, or a beer mug made of glass, resin, and plastic. Similarly, the Venezuelan artist Sol Calero—represented by Berlin’s Krome Gallery—assembles vases as if they were simply unpacked out onto a table and transformed into artifacts ready for archaeological investigation into our daily conditions. One of the most interesting re-discoveries of the fair is the suite of utopian collages by the architectural collective Superstudio, which date back to 1972, at Genoa’s Galleria Pinksummer.

It is difficult to tell how much the market conditions influence the overall mood in Turin this weekend, let alone the general state of contemporary artistic practice. Usually, one can count the number of private jets flying in by the hour and the collectors have to compete with each other, but at the smaller fairs like Artissima, the big buyers are few. This leads to what economists would call a buyer’s market, where the power shifts over to the collector. Neither the artists, nor the gallerists, nor even the collectors are responsible for these unfair terms of trade. A fair being a fair, the ownership of each and every work on display at Artissima will ideally change hands, but therein lies the paradox. The intellectual ownership of the work forever remains in the hands of the artist. Thus, what is on sale is a mere shadow of an idea, be it material, intellectual, or conceptual. But given the current conditions, one has to be afraid that even ideas succumb to the economic laws of power and materialize in objects that may not go beyond their market relations. In that respect, the art world simply mirrors the conditions of this global shift. Artists should find ways to shatter its reflection.