i heart my chains

"Chain Letter" installation shot

“Chain Letter” installation. Photo by Tanya Ragir.

Earlier this month, I wrote a post about the “Chain Letter” show at Shoshana Wayne Gallery, which I criticized on a number of grounds related to the exploitation of artists. The gallery has just circulated an email with links to reviews of the show, and my anti-puff-piece was naturally not included in the list. So I thought I’d follow up with a review of the reviews, since I still think the larger subject is important.

None of the reviews I read had much to say about the art beyond the obvious—there was work in many styles and most media, especially 3D assemblages, and a good deal of it used found materials. It was almost as though the writers felt that the “pseudo-democratic” structure of the show constrained them from passing judgment on the quality of the work. The aggregate effect of the reviews is of politeness trumping honesty; there is just no visible enthusiasm for the work in the show as art.

Several writers took the position that the show was a success as a community event: artists hanging out together on installation day, helping each other place their work, partying at the opening. For one writer, Carol Cheh, “this huge instant community of artists was probably the closest I’ve come to experiencing some kind of utopia.” Really? Elsewhere in her piece there is an image of “a gallery literally bulging with art, kind of like the fat, overstuffed man in the Monty Python sketch who eats one last ‘wafer-thin mint’ and ends up exploding.” Christopher Knight in the L.A. Times online edition called the show a “Brobdingnagian found-object assemblage scavenged from endless Internet highways.” On the Huffington Post, Lisa Adams wrote: “What impacted me most was the amount of time, energy and/or money the vast majority of artists put into the pieces they submitted. I interpreted this to indicate that many artists saw Chain Letter as perhaps the one opportunity to have their work seen in an ‘A’ list gallery by someone of substance, meaning someone in the art world who has the power to do something about their work. It made me sad.” Utopia, anyone?

Cheh also remarks that that if every artist had said ‘yes’ to their invitation, “the power of that would be infinite, world-changing.” This is hyperbole pure and simple, and wishful thinking as well. And in any case, where would all that art have gone? Cheh herself notes that Shoshana Wayne stopped accepting artworks by the end of installation day, capping the show at around 1600 pieces. In other words, the gallery didn’t even live up to the contract implicit in its initial invitation. (I imagine those artists turned away might have a legal case, but that’s not my bailiwick.) Although I think the show was ridiculous from the get-go, I also think the gallery should not have capped entries; rather, it should have kept going until the last artist in line was signed in and the last piece of art wedged in with the others. Something aesthetically interesting might actually have happened at that point. Stopping short betrayed the initial idea, that extreme premise that captivated all those artists, and it allowed the gallery to preserve, barely, the illusion that this entire event had anything at all to do with seeing art.

installation day of “Chain Letter” show. Photo by Carol Cheh.

It’s not as if the math was hard to do or the end hard to foresee, once you started the logorithmic scale-up of invitations from 1 to 10 to 100 and so on. An artist I know ran the calculations out and determined that (barring duplications, of which there were in fact a lot) 11 billion people would have been invited by day 11, in a world with a population of 7 billion. In what possible way is the world changed by inviting potentially everyone on the planet to think of themselves as an artist admired by some other artist so that they can cram their artwork into a small set of warehouse spaces in southern California? As a visible manifestation of the ‘six degrees of separation’ principle, fine. As a moment of involuntary Dada, excellent. As anything else, a monumental waste of time.

"Chain Letter" tee-shirts

“Chain Letter” tee-shirts by Carleton Christy, as worn by artists Gordon Winiemko (left) and Jeff Foye (right). Photo by Daniel Hawkins.

It is noteworthy that the participants themselves started referring to the event as “Artmaggedon”—inspired no doubt by the almost simultaneous naming of the 405 freeway closure as “Carmaggedon,” a similarly hyperbolic title for a near-nonevent. Certainly a tongue-in-cheek name, but one that points nonetheless to the underlying idea of catastrophe. Indeed, the reviews of this show take the tone and structure of a favorite American storyline: the goodwill and optimism of plucky individuals in the face of disaster (“a we’re-all-in-this-together spirit“). In this case, however, they can’t admit the disaster so they focus on the good parts: hanging out and helping one another; what another writer termed “friendly chaos.” (Worker solidarity: nonunion labor at the factory.) But did anyone really doubt that artists have tons of mutual respect and a sense of being bound together as underdogs in a culture that largely despises them?

Another tack taken by reviewers—and carefully promoted by the gallery’s initial positioning of the show—is that “Chain Letter” is somehow a shining testimony to the power and promise of social media. In one sense it is, in that it’s become enormously easier to generate mass events, whether flash mobs or political campaigns or 1600-person shows, or the corresponding traffic jam outside Bergamot Station over which several of the show’s reviewers dwell. SigAlert equals success because, yes, bigger is always better. And with the rise of social media it’s become easier to capture the creative energy of other people to fuel one’s own career—a process that’s been going on since the earliest days of the web and that has become glamorized as crowd-sourcing. As one web commentator noted: “Here, at Bergamot Station, in the summer of 2011, we all became one big installation piece by Harvey and Cummings.” (Don’t just follow the money: follow the power.) As I see it, almost the only people who stand to gain anything more from this show than some ‘hanging out with friendly strangers’ time are its curators—or ‘instigators’, as they prefer to be called—whose names are all over the reviews and who will undoubtedly harvest enough street cred from this event that they can undertake their next SigAlert-generating spectacle.

Meanwhile, participants have been reminded that if they don’t pick up their pieces by 2 pm on the day they’ve been assigned, their work will be “discarded.” No exceptions! And don’t let the door slam you in the ass on the way out.

6 thoughts on “i heart my chains

  1. M

    I understand your point. From a critics reactional perspective, its easy to superimpose ones own criteria as if it were some sort of truth in order to speak authoritatively about something you were not involved in (as if there were criteria in art to begin with). From an artists transactional perspective however, involvement is a creative affair. We co-author the rules with every every decision we make. Most have romanticized their isolation at some point in their lives because (as you point out) they’ve given far more to their practice than they receive as feedback from the world. These days, as you seem aware, this no longer need be the case. Artists can self-represent, self-curate, self-publish, and connect with other artists and patrons without having to be invited to the right parties, the right galleries, by the right persons. We don’t need a big empty room and a flashy CV to make our work visible, nor do I believe ones art is only as good as their CV. Now (ironically) we perpetrate the same romantic ideas of exclusivity precisely because we are not isolated. We are increasingly more connected! Further, there are more artists today than there have ever been! I do not personally believe this old idea is useful for my generation. Chain Letter was far more Woodstock than Altamont. Had you been at install or the opening, this much would have been clear. It was an enjoyable/memorable summer group show that generated much discussion among my piers. I’ve never experienced this much from a summer group show. Everyone involved was respectful. The show was based on mutual respect. Those who didn’t want to participate opted out, to each their own. Chain letter was a co-authored happening. As such it was wonderfully strange.

    I agree that every submission should have made it in, absolutely! The snarky language in your writing however, such as “misleading at best and disingenuous at worst” is misleading at best and disingenuous at worst. I doubt the highest intention of the venue was to mislead. Nor do I think the venue had disingenuous intentions. They participated in a show that many venues around the globe participated in. Every show and venue did it in their own way: http://chainletterart.blogspot.com/
    This is a critique less of your perspective (though I clearly do not agree with it) and more of your appropriation of gossip-journalism rhetoric, judgements made based on incomplete information and portrayed as observational fact, often used to bypass the readers own critical apparatus.

    Your comment about “working conditions and the chance to make money”, for me, miss the point completely. I’m curious how you justify to your students their MFA degrees. Most will not pay their student loans from the spoils from their art. I hope some will, but most wont. If being an artist is the same kind of career choice as being a dentist, then artist may be a bad choice. For some however, art is more calling than career. Open to the idea of market reward, but not necessary for validation. A token economy model of the art world gives the market too much power. Also, for most artists, dollars aren’t the only or most relevant currency.

    1. antoinette Post author


      You make some valid points. I agree that we “co-author the rules with every decision we make,” and I often wish people understood better how true this was, in every aspect of their lives. And also that artists tend to romanticize their isolation, in part as a protective strategy. Part of the reason I started this blog is to champion other artists who are trying new ways to find each other and work together, using the internet as their main forum (as I have been doing since the mid 1990s) and as a route to connecting with other artists, to further the conversation about self-publishing, self-representing, getting out of the white box, and all the rest of it.

      Where I depart from your analysis of the chain letter show is in seeing it as a productive move towards inclusivity and against the exclusivity and strictly vertical hierarchy of the art world. Or perhaps I should say, if it was unquestionably inclusive (up to the limits of the social networks and the physical plant), to what end? You seem to imply that the main thing this show offered was a way for artists to meet each other. There are so many other ways this can happen, without the pretense of a show being involved. And maybe one outcome of this event might be artists figuring out better ways to get at what they valued of the communitarian spirit you mentioned. It seems to me, for example, that pecha kucha nights are doing more for artists along these lines, and doing it outside of the distorting field of the big-name gallery.

      By the way, I was at the gallery for both the install and de-install days, though I was not able to make it to the opening. I wouldn’t critique an event like this without firsthand knowledge.

      The question of how artists justify the cost of their MFA degrees when many, if not most, will not make money in the field is a tough one. So is the question of whether the MFA degree is necessary in all, or even most, cases. It’s part of a longer discussion about how badly certain ‘callings’ fit the socioeconomics of capitalism in the United States, about how people take different kinds of risks with their lives, about how what is gathered under the term ‘art’ remains in flux. There are no simple answers to any of this.

  2. Axel Forrester

    Yes, if you open a gallery, they will come. A chance to come stand in line with every other artist who thinks the art world should see their work, hopes to be discovered, and settles for the kind of human bonding that comes from being in a disaster with someone. It should be called, ‘The Young and the Desperate.’ What chance is there that anything like art will happen here? Ice Cream Day at Ben and Jerry’s has more artistic potential than this idea. This is a raw exploitation of people who sees themselves as artists who admires other artists who admires other artists to the 11 millionth power. Thanks for yet another demonstration that everything is art and everyone is an artist. This is about the worst way of fostering real creativity- hold an art democracy!

    1. M

      In response to Axel, Most artists in the show were not young artists. Perhaps you view other artists, younger artists, older artist (yourself excluded obviously) as desperate. Yours is a comment however about the negative biases you carry around in your brain and project onto the world, not about the world you presume to understand.
      “But did anyone really doubt that artists have tons of mutual respect and a sense of being bound together as underdogs in a culture that largely despises them?”
      Axel’s response seems to question LaFarge’s mutual respect hypothesis. This particular human being looks down upon other artists simply for participating in the wrong show. Quite a violent operation, to dismiss 1600 people/artists simply because you did not find the show’s premise suitable for you. I’m sure if they were i a show you participated in, they would shake their desperation in your eyes and be promoted to the high position in which you place yourself.

  3. M

    Anonymous LA Times writer is Christopher Knight not Anon. Good or Bad aren’t testable or measurable by any tool or method. Your are very superstitious about your own judgements. The cap on submissions according to the gallery had to do with fire codes and making enough space to allow for wheelchairs. I suspect, had those few at the end not been turned away, your criticism would have retained its same cynical outlook. You seem to believe that with 25 more persons (the total turned away) “something aesthetically interesting might actually have happened at that point”. Very unconvincing statement coming from you, unless you believe something aesthetically interesting actually did actually happen. Yes some people had a bad experience and some the opposite, like anything else. A waste of time for you maybe. Why should anyone care what you think about how they should spend their time.”did anyone really doubt that artists have tons of mutual respect and a sense of being bound together as underdogs in a culture that largely despises them?” Your elitism is the very cliche that gives rise to those doubts. You are the despiser not the underdog. You are the critic who comments without participating, not a representative for artists (a roll you seem to have volunteered for, however pathetically). You kill to dissect without experiencing the living organism. So what. There are a million like you. You are a critic who pretends to be an artist. Chain Letter was an all artist curated show. The gallery had no idea who would participate or what would happen. the show was about “taking a chance. You don’t need a critic, a curator, or a gallery holding your hand.” B.T.W. Love how your manifesto instructs people how to buy art. Classy.

    1. antoinette Post author


      Thank you for pointing out that I overlooked Christopher Knight’s byline in that review. I’ve corrected this in the post.

      As for some of your other comments: if the gallery knew ahead of time (as it reasonably should have) that it might have to cap entries for reasons of public safety, then it was misleading at best and disingenuous at worst to bill the show as an ‘all invitees get to participate’ kind of affair.

      I’m also not sure why you feel it’s a problem that I’m encouraging people to buy art over the internet. My criticism of this show is not in any way aimed at artists, whether they participated or not. My basic point is that I feel artists deserve more respect and better working conditions than this, not least so that they can have a viable chance to make money from their enormous and often lifelong commitments of time, energy, and imagination.