rattling the chains

queue for "Chain Letter" installation

Queue for "Chain Letter" installation. Photo by Calethia DeConto.

Earlier this summer I received an email from a friend inviting me to take part in an exhibition entitled “Chain Letter” curated by Christian Cummings & Doug Harvey at Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica. The invitation read in part:

“Chain Letter” is a group show wherein 10 artists have been invited to participate. Those 10 then invite 10 artists whom they admire. Those 10 invite 10 more and so on. This cycle continues for 30 days.

The result is an exponentially massive, artist-curated group show based entirely on admiration.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve been invited to take part in such ‘artist invites artist’ shows, but in most cases the invite chain has been only one or two links long. So the first thing that struck me about this show was those works “exponentially massive.” No kidding: I invite 10 people, they each invite 10 more (making 111 so far), they invite 10 more (1,111), and so on for 30 days. Multiplied by all the other people doing the same thing along other branches of the tree. Even accounting for duplicate invitations and decisions not to participate on the part of many invitees, it still seemed to me unlikely that the artworks so solicited would be likely to fit in anything much less than an airplane hangar.

Another thing that struck me about the invitation was the degree to which responsibility—by which I mean labor and costs—was shifted from the gallery to the artist. Other rules for the show included the following:

  • Artists are entirely responsible for installing their own work.
  • Artists must bring their work to the show in a single 8-hour installation window.
  • Artists must pick up their own work at the end of the show, and they risk having it “recycled, traded or discarded” if they miss the specific pickup window.
  • Artists must not email the curators or venue with questions.
Scamwatch, 2011

Scamwatch, 2011

Ok, so I’m all for a DIY approach in many instances, and I’ve certainly taken part in shows and events where a good deal of the organization, installation, and so on fell on the artists. Even down to painting the venue—every artist I know has been there, done that. And it can be exceedingly worthwhile to work with a gallery or other venue this way. But here’s an instance where all the labor and expense is being thrown on the artists—truck rental costs, shipping costs, insurance, moving time, installation and deinstallation, not to mention the cost of making the work in the first place—and for what? The chance to place one’s work in a mass exhibition where it can get lost among perhaps a few thousand other works? Where’s the upside here?

At first I thought I wouldn’t take part, but I passed on the invite to a bunch of people I admire anyway (more than the 10 specified—I figured there was no point being restrained if the numbers were going to become astronomical anyhow). Ultimately I decided to make an infographic piece expressing my reservations about these kinds of chain-invite shows, as a kind of public service. It’s styled after scam-watch websites like this one and this other one. I’ve emailed it to all the artists I invited, as well as the person who initially invited me, with a note that they are welcome to further distribute it in any way. I printed it out poster size for the show itself, and I reproduce the web version here at left. Since the text is very small at blog jpeg size, I’ve created a separate post with the main text of the piece. But here is an excerpt:

Artists are often not aware until too late that the total number of artists who can be “accepted” into a single show through this kind of chain email tree can easily reach the thousands in a short time. This logarithmic escalation effect is similar to that seen in other pyramidal set-ups, such as Ponzi schemes.

What this means is that even artists who manage to claim space for their own work during the installation window are likely to find themselves in an extremely crowded, “salon-style” show with little prospect that their work will stand out from the crowd of other objects. Artworks that are fragile, small, require sound isolation, or have other special requirements will especially suffer. Furthermore, since art critics tend to look askance on mass exhibitions, the desired reputational benefit will probably not materialize.

I went up to the gallery yesterday as instructed during the installation windowmy piece is mainly circulating virtually, but I wanted to see if the show was going to be the kind of zoo I figured it for. My initial plan was to arrive early, but because of a morning meeting I ended up arriving around 2 pm. At that point the parking lot at Bergamot Station, where Shoshana Wayne Gallery is located, was filled to capacity and the line of people waiting to check in with the gallery staff was 150 long, by my count. The word was that there had been an even bigger mob in the morning. I was really curious now and joined the line. It took a little under an hour to reach the check-in desk, at which point I was given artist number 1,227 and directed to a space in the F1 section of Bergamot Station.

"Chain Letter" show 2011, Shoshana Wayne Gallery

"Chain Letter" show 2011, Shoshana Wayne Gallery

When I got there, I found the room was already filled almost literally to overflowing with artworks large and small (mostly small).  Works were packed so closely together that there was no longer any access to the pieces in the corners, and the open floor space was shrinking steadily. Artists of all ages and many styles milled about cheerfully, wedging their works into the small patches of remaining space.

The general arrangement had gone far beyond salon style; the effect was something between an attic, a junkshop, and a dump. It felt like a place where art came to die. It was one of the saddest art environments I’ve ever been in; it hardly seemed possible that art could be made to seem less valued or more abject without actually taking it out and throwing it in the trash. And even that might read as a clean gesture; to create an inadvertent art slag heap within the confines of the gallery system just struck me as a travesty and an insult.

And I’m still wondering what the point of this show could have been. If it was to give less known artists a viewing within the name-gallery system, it wasn’t well thought out since not only is it hard to ‘see’ individual works in the chaos of these rooms but everything looks debased. If it’s to gain some revenue through sales, it might work—I’m guessing there might be some ‘friends of the artists’ type sales to be made here. That probably counts as a win for the gallery, but whether it counts as a success for the artist may depend on whether they tally all their costs. If it’s to gain some rep for the gallery and/or Bergamot Station as a publicly minded entity, it might just work. If it’s to create an event that the curators can maybe pitch as relational art, or a slow flash mob, or a power shift from gallery to artist—well, whichever way you slice it, the reality on the ground doesn’t add up. If it’s to hold the summer’s most well-attended art party, I’m guessing it may be a success—if even a fraction of the thousands of artists come with their friends to the opening tonight, it’ll be quite a blast. Ultimately it seems likely that the main thing most artists will get out of this event is a line item on their art resume.

And that’s  just wrong.

Edit, 7-27-11: It occurred to me that this might work more interestingly as a flea market, perhaps within an existing venue. Bring on the broad demographics, the open haggling, the spirit of ‘what can I do with that?’ that goes along with a flea market.

7 thoughts on “rattling the chains

  1. Lisa

    A few years ago I participated in the first “Chain Letter” exhibition. I sent a small work that was crushed and degraded because, as you so clearly point out, the exhibition space was not adequate for the number of works accepted. Sadly, I was a student and did indeed need a line on my art resume.

    It seemed like a scam at the time, as it does this time around. I chose not to participate again. Your Scamwatch.com poster is brilliant. Rock on!

    1. antoinette Post author

      Lisa: I overlooked the problem of artwork getting mangled in those situations—it’s a real one (as can theft be).

      I doubt there’s an artist alive who hasn’t done shows purely for resume building.

  2. Anon

    cynical perspective. hypocritical participation. Ironic criticism. Even the trojan horse gets a line item on her resume.

    1. antoinette Post author

      Anon: Your opinion of my character is neither here nor there. The point remains: artists deserve to be treated better than this.

  3. NJ

    I’m an artist that participated in Chain Letter in Santa Monica as well. I had the exact opposite experience! I thought the installation looked great. The walkways were placed in a way that every art piece was visible. The image you have doesn’t show what the space was really like being there. I think a show like this does a good job exposing how comfortable artist have become with white walls and lots of space and the gallery taking control of every aspect it pays for. Art is art, it doesn’t need institutional security blankets to make it meaningful. I was proud of my piece in Chain Letter and can’t wait to document it with all the great art around it.

    1. antoinette Post author

      NJ: I’m glad some artists had a good experience with this show. I chose a photo that I thought showed what it looked like— if anything, that photo makes the show look less like a flea-market than my actual experience of it.

      Nor do I have any quarrel with artists taking control; that is a good thing in general, and it’s one reason I started this blog. And I’m certain every artist in the show was rightfully proud of their work. And that’s really my point: what I take issue with is what I see as a *lack* of respect for the artist’s labor and time and for the work itself.