Sunday, February 27, 2005

NEW! Review of Chain

Chain #11: Public Forms, edited by Jena Osman and Juliana Spahr. $12.

Reviewed by Francis Raven

The editors of Chain #11: Public Forms, Jena Osman and Juliana Spahr, took great care to include examples of all that 'public forms' might mean. This is the primary advantage of a topical journal like Chain: it has the room to outline the aesthetic grammar of a concept such as public forms. That is, it can explore the idea of public forms in public art, planting, traveling, taking up space, politics, surveillance, community theater, mail art, street art, and surveys. In so doing, Chain #11 truly illuminates public forms.

Although Chain is topically bounded, it does not offer a theoretical framework for its topic. It presents a laundry list of public forms, but does not tie them together with a philosophical framework. This is actually beneficial since a weighty philosophical framework might unnecessarily interfere with the integrity of the individual pieces. That said, a meatier introduction might have served this purpose better without interfering with the variety of included pieces. However, I am sure that the question of how robust the editorial and curatorial framework should be is a recurring theme at Chain and one that must be resolved differently from issue to issue.

While most of the authors investigated what public form means, a few investigated its oppositional concept: private form. One such piece is Jane Dalrymple-Hollo and Eleni Sikelianos's “[I had a private thought I thought],” a collection of six captioned line drawings investigating the concepts of public art, war, and ownership.

Elke Lehmann describes her piece “Portraits” as follows: “Simulated surveillance cameras were installed throughout the World Financial Center in lower Manhattan in 2002. Non-functional and playfully constructed from a variety of materials, each of these sculptures was a unique 'portrait' of a standard surveillance camera commonly found in public space.” Five photographs of these fake surveillance cameras (made out of newspapers, cardboard, handbags, etc.) are the evidence of this project in Chain #11. It would have been interesting to complement the portraits with a piece on Bill Brown's walking tour of surveillance cameras in New York City. “By taking a walking tour you'll learn how to spot surveillance cameras, the different types of cameras used, and the general ubiquitousness of the cameras.” (See

In Lauren Gudath's “Awe Shucks: A Survey and a Poem,” a private form, poetry, is transformed into a public form. The piece consists of a survey (with questions both about poetry and Iraq) Gudath administered to 50 people in November 2003 and the poem created from answers given. As such, one of the main questions asks the participant to “Read the following statements about the current situation in Iraq and the events leading up to it. Please indicate, on a scale of one to five where one means strongly disagree and five means strongly agree, whether you disagree or agree with the statements.” The statements included most of the suspected political and media controversies. Gudath then generated a poem by using the responses survey participants gave her.

In an afternote to the poem, Gudath writes that she did the piece because she was “[i]nterested in exploring the process by which survey results can be turned into public discourse.” Surveys normally influence public life when they are acting as polls. In that case, they often determine politicians' stances on a variety of issues. But they do not normally determine the form that the media uses to present these polling results. Gudath's piece takes the potential of surveys a step further by having participants shape the form of the poem (the media of presenting the survey results).

Jules Boykoff and Kaia Sand's report on the Southern Maryland Sign Project outlines a traditional project of activist art: placing poetic and political signs in public locations. They write, “We are interested in the social mark signs can make. Placing a sign into the public is an act of submission: one releases art into the social commons.” These signs range from: “WHERE IS THE DEAD/END OF OUR IMPERIALIST FIASCO” to “NO MORE YELLOW CAKE IN THE SKY.”

David Buuck's “Reports from B.A.R.G.E. (Bay Area Research Group in Enviro-Aesthetics)” uses a similarly traditional oppositional aesthetic approach: a post-Situationist tour through Oakland recorded in the journal. As Buuck writes, “Public art in this case becomes less a body of fixed monuments and works but a mobile, ongoing retelling and literal renavigation of history's in both time and place . . . To (de)tour through Oakland by the logics of historical counter-narrative and local sites of resistance too fraught and fragile have become museumified by the state, is to radically undo what the Situationists used to call the psychogeography of everyday life.”

In their introduction, the editors quote David Antin's “Nobody knows who the public is or what it wants or needs.” That may be true, but Chain #11 gives readers a better sense of what forms public life can take.

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