Soft Populism & Pop Democracy in the Age of Crowd Sourcing:
Investigating Hierarchy in Horizontally-Structured Megaexhibitions

by Sofia Leiby

Crowds outside the opening for Hennessy Youngman's Itsa Small Small World. Photo courtesy of Family Business.

Three recent exhibitions that included more than 400 artists and embraced an “open invitation” model -- Chain Letter at Shoshana Wayne gallery in LA in 2011, the fourth annual Brucennial in March of this year, and Hennessy Youngman’s Itsa small, small world at Family Business in April -- represent a shift in curatorial posturing for both artists and institutions, a first step towards initiating a destabilizing of both value systems and hierarchy in the art world. Each organizer used utopic, idealistic diction, populist rhetoric, paid lip service to Occupy Wall Street and social media, and most often denied their roles as “curator”, preferring “instigator” or “organizer.”

In his article “Club Kids: The Social Life of Artists on Facebook,” for DIS magazine, Brad Troemel remarks on the consumerist value relationships attributed to artists’ work that is exhibited in group shows with intangibly numerous artists: the exhibitions irreparably suture the artists’ identity to his or her name, work, and community, both AFK and on the internet -- further objectifying the artist into a brand. “Group exhibitions are the punctuation to an ongoing social media conversation […] promotions materialize into their names being shown side by side one another, categorized by a curator and legitimated by a gallery.”1 Troemel’s verbiage - “materialize” – nods to physical exhibitions, but also to language. “Both are ways of making literal otherwise loose social ties exemplified through text’s silent populism. The image –both of gallery installations and social life– operates in a liminal space between projected conception and firmly believed reality. While artists have always consorted in packs, the process of distinguishing and joining such groupings has never been so formalized as it is today through Facebook.” These massive, “open-invitation” exhibitions can be seen as a literalization of this “liminal space” created via social networks.

An important aspect of the “democratic” rhetoric of the Brucennial manifested in its annual Brooklyn Rail cover, which laid out the names of almost all 400+ artists in the exhibition on the page in print, in addition to its online list. Both lists alphabetically eclipsed the gap between the miscellaneous grad student and powerhouses like Damien Hirst, flattened by the “silent populism of text.” The online list presents itself as a permanent cloud, peppered with key words, and is not unlike artist Devin Kenny’s analysis of Lil B’s success2, in which the rapper inserts powerful meta tags in his songs that “[give] multiple, equally-powerful labels to an object, increasing the number of people that may want to ‘grab’ it.” This tantalizing combination of equalizing, legitimizing mechanisms, both online and physical -- one part institutional backing, one part exhibitor network – drew artists to exhibit their work at the Brucennial. In its most utopic form, while simultaneously pumping up the younger artists, it began to water down the more established ones.

A friend who exhibited in this year’s Brucennial wrote,

“The show fed some people's (including my own) egos, showing beside artists that have been admired for decades. While there was a hierarchy present, it gave some illusion that there may not be a hierarchy. If I can show with Warhol and Sherman, then either I am as good as them, and/or we are all nothing outside the commodities game (I liked that little mind trip).”

Yet while the exhibition may have seemed democratized, the utopic platform was quickly undressed and hierarchies were quickly made transparent, especially during the opening. Another friend noted:

“I remember one indecent that happened while I was attending the opening party of the Brucennial that reminded me of how quickly value (by value I mean monetary and social capital) can surface in an atmosphere that seemed so relaxed and open. After hearing a loud bang, I migrated through the crowd to see what had happened. When I got there, I saw that two sculptures were knocked over and broken in an irreparable way. [...] [One of the Bruce High Quality guys] looked at the faulted drunken man, brushed his hand over his face, and said to him: "this is bad [pointing at one sculpture], but this is really really bad [pointing at the other sculpture]." What had happened was that one of the sculptures that were knocked over was made by some famous artist and was worth a lot of money and the other sculpture was not.”

Additionally, certain works by established artists were hung higher on the wall (possibly for liability reasons, but creating physical hierarchies within the space) and made some works available for sale but not others (with ambiguity surrounding how the sales were made).3

Photo by the author

In his open-invitation exhibition sourced from responders to an open call put on YouTube – “I don’t care where you live, if you can get it to Family Business, it’s in the show” -- Hennessy Youngman still seemed reluctant to remain entirely non-curated, even when ironically hyberbolizing the role of the superstar curator. A press release from Family Business stated that Youngman “personally invited” Family Business artist Tim Eads to participate. “Also on display may be some work by some other folks, but really that’s not the point. The point is that Eads-mania has now reached Chelsea and with this unprecedented invite from an art god to a relative-unknown we expect Eads will soon be the superstar he has always been in his own mind.”4 Here he humorously jabs at the “famous artists” in the Brucennial yet simultaneously disqualifies his own exhibition as populist, etc, by including Eads, even if the role of a market-driven curator he assumes is insincere.

One writer for KCRW described Shoshana Wayne Gallery’s 2011 exhibition, Chain Letter, as “cattle call,” likening artists to hopefuls who line up at auditions for reality TV shows like Work of Art.5 Artists had to wait up to three hours in the blazing heat with no food or water to install their work, revealing just how much competition and desperation, how many bodies, exist in the art community. With around 1600 participants, critics touted it as an “all-inclusive, nonjudgmental, pseudo-democratic approach.”6

Some of the artists that I spoke to felt slighted by the exhibition, while others celebrated. In Downcast Eyes, a one-night, open-invitation exhibition of gifs, hundreds of teenagers packed into the Puck Café the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, to celebrate the visibility and institutional prestige they perceived the event to afford them. “__yote” on flickr writes of Youngman’s exhibition at Family Business: “So honored to participate. It's the first show I have ever been a part of,”7 as if Cattelan himself had invited him to show there.

Photo by __yote

Another artist, Nicholas Cueva, noted of the Brucennial: “While there was hierarchy, there also was equality. I know that some famous art figures tried to enter the show, only to be told to ‘get in line and wait with everyone else,’ and that gave me some pleasure too. There was no VIP, there was nothing special for anyone, and that whole thing is pretty special.”

The relevance of this kind of visibility to artists beyond a networking opportunity remains to be seen. Blogger Antoinette LaFarge points out that social networking and crowdsourcing, rather than being a “democratizing” force, makes it easy to capitalize on the successes of friends, “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.” Social media is best utilized here not as a democratizion mechanism, but as a way to “generate mass events, whether flash mobs or political campaigns or 1600-person shows, or the corresponding traffic jam outside Bergamot Station.”8

Artists wait to install their work outside Shosana Wayne. Photo by Tanya Ragir

Despite assertions by organizers that the exhibitions are not curated, they oscillated between becoming total works of art by a singular author and a curatorial soapbox that attempts to capture an arc of contemporary art. One commenter remarked of Chain Letter that he felt “we all became one big installation piece by Harvey and Cummings.”9 Similarly, a friend who exhibited in the Brucennial felt that his work “was reduced to the status of a prop, a prop for a BHQF performance piece[…] all the work in the exhibition into a background decor to a really hip party in which they hosted as a "fuck you" to legitimate institution like the Whitney (an institution where they have the privilege of exhibiting in).” The press release for Chain Letter stated, “It is the hope of the curators that the response will be vast and that the artists represented will be an exponential representation of all artists that are currently working and admired by their peers.”10 In essense, Harvey and Cummings claimed to represent all art being being made ever.

Despite critics declaring these exhibitions as wildly democratic, “radically inclusive,”11 and open-invitational, the non-curators were focused on making sure that the exhibitors were artists and so were unlike their relational aesthetic precedents, artists like Harrell Fletcher and Liam Gillick. Instead the binary between exhibition organizer/curator and artist/non-artist remained rigidly maintained.

Installation view of Chain Letter at Shoshana Wayne

Additionally, selective promotion secured the hierarchical relationship between the artists and organizers. To avoid total and complete anarchy, to “curate” without curating but insure a critical, quality exhibition, each submission process came with a caveat. The BHQF told the New York Times that the artists included in 2010’s Brucennial were “ones that the Bruce High Quality Foundation think are important” yet declared that unlike the Whitney Biennial, “it is organized by the artists themselves. It’s not a top-down operation.”12 A Phaidon critic asked one curator of Chain Letter: “But how do you curate an exhibition when you don't know what shape the art work will take or even how many pieces of artwork there will be? "The curatorial principle is anarchy," says Cummings, "logistically it could hardly be otherwise."13

The BHQF relied on a readily available network to gather artworks for the Brucennial, only promoting the exhibition by word of mouth. Established artists were supplemented by artists from the Bruces’ circles, mostly Cooper graduates. Similarly, Downcast Eyes gave advance notice to forty artists and then extended the invitation to the public via Facebook, the public release only in the language on the MCA website shortly before the event took place.

In Chain Letter, each invited artist invited ten artists they admired, and so on. The most evident curatorial framework there, then, was one about access: an exhibition of artists who have access to the Internet, are connected to the organizers and their community, live in a major city (or can afford to ship their work) and make objects. (The shows mentioned do not easily accommodate ephemeral or time-based works: somehow, it seems they work to reaffirm the physical.) The artists also must be able to afford losing their work, in the case of Chain Letter. Does this make for an interesting curatorial platform? Careful to avoid the structuring of a truly open-invitation exhibition, neither Hennessy nor the BHQF made an attempt to diversify the exhibitors. Both shows would have been much more interesting if they had.

Itsa small, small world, the Brucennials, Chain Letter, The Berlin Biennial, and many exhibitions to come feel like neoliberalist solutions to the branded politics of “Occupy.” Yet none of these exhibitions would have taken place without the financial embrace of a fairly established institution or persona. The Brucennial’s anti-Whitney Salon des Refusés ends up emulating the Whitney anyway. The curator, and/or institution, becomes watered down as its walls sag with too much art. The artwork becomes a muted grey. In the words of a friend who participated in the Brucennial,

“In general, I was glad I put a painting in the Brucennial. I see the Brucennial as this avalanche of a happening. It starts to build up weeks before the show with people walking in and out, works being brought in, and workers pacing faster and faster to meet the deadline. And when the show finally happens, all the art works, the pieces and parts that make the entirety of the show, shatter and become parts again. Although after the avalanche has crashed, one cannot see each individual piece as it was intended. Pieces of the avalanche have shifted into other pieces and are all covered in snow. I liked seeing my own work fragmented in this unexpected way and covered in snow.”

Downcast Eyes at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, March 20, 2012

In its ideal form, the horizontally structured exhibition has the capacity to redefine the way artists define success: no longer tied to an institution, the artist is successful through who they choose to exhibit with, increasing the credence of the group show as a vehicle for valuable exposure. The individual works are transformed by their context yet can somehow function within the exhibition as micro interventions.

Recently the curators of the Berlin Biennial, responding to the backlash about the “Occupy” section of the Biennial, which positioned protestors as aesthetic objects, announced that they will discontinue the “hierarchical” setup of the Biennial and opt for an Occupy-style “General Assembly” model.14 Mid-exhibition, this feels like a farce, a trendy move rather than a sincere attempt to dismantle the hierarchy of the exhibition.

If institutions and curators continue to lean towards the horizontal model, what are the repercussions? The MCA embraced Downcast Eyes, in a landmark move that might be the first open-invitation exhibition to be embraced by a major museum, but only half-heartedly. Originally slated to be a presentation of a film by artists Jason Lazarus and Eric Fleischauer (twohundredfiftysixcolors), the two decided to collaborate with Jake Myers and Chris Smith, aka TAGTEAM, and stage an event similar to one they had done previously where they invited the public to display GIFs on their computers until the batteries died. Over 300 artists contributed. Due to its being an “event” rather than an “exhibition” none of the artists’ names were on the books.

Massive open-invitation exhibitions provide a unique opportunity for an artist to harness the power of an institution when they otherwise could not. Thousands of artists now have exhibitions at Anna Kustera/Family Business, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Brucennial on their CVs – a smoke-and-mirrors loophole. The question remains how a “horizontally structured” exhibition can succeed while artists continue to clamber to validate their artwork within a vertically structured art market.


1 Brad Troemel, Artie Vierkant, Ben Vickers, Club Kids: The Social Life of Artists on Facebook 2012

2 Devin Kenny, …’Cause I look like a Cloud, Pool, July 2011

3 An exhibitor noted: “After talking to a couple friends I discover only a few of us were emailed by BHQF inquiring about a pricing our work or about a possible sale. I was emailed about this, they asked for a percentage of the total cost (which was up to me) but no sale was finalized.”

4 Family Business, press release, March 22

5 Edward Goldman, The Road to Art Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions, KCRW, August 2, 2011

6 ibid.


8 Antoinette LaFarge, i heart my chains, blog post, August 8, 2011

9 Lily Simonson, Curators Gone Viral: Chain Letter at Shoshana Wayne, Art21 blog, July 28, 2011

10 Press release, Chain Letter, Shoshana Wayne Gallery, July 23- August 25, 2011

11 Ken Johnson, Art in Review: Brucennial 2012, the New York Times online edition, March 1, 2011

12 Carol Vogel, Inside Art, the New York Times online edition , February 18, 2010

13 Sally Ashley-Cloud, A 'Chain Letter' exhibition. What were they thinking?!, July 23, 2011

14 Whitney Kimball, Berlin Biennale May Adopt OWS’s Horizontal Power Structure, Art Fag City, June 18, 2012