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.

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