Chicken John is a wild showman artist who has pushed the limit in the most limit-pushing scenes in the US. To be clear, this guy doesn’t put art in a museum. He builds a catapult and then invites artists to bring art so they can fling it into a museum. Far out. The bulk of his work is documented hardly at all and what you’ll find online about him will just make him seem crazy, when, in fact, he is prolific, committed, connected, and doing what most us only dream of.
I read this book because my roommate put it in my hands, hoping I would read it for him, and we both wanted to know what this artist had to say about the world.
Chicken John’s chatty writing style conveys a personable character, a carnie, a charlatan, a working class mischief that is quite nice to bask in. It’s definitely rough around the edges, and this book has huge gaping holes around gender equality and any social issues of politesse. So there are male generics and uncouth sweeping generalizations laying all around.
This book is the sequel to his Book of the Is. Where the former concerns chaos and organismic art production (“community, fun and forgiveness”), this one is about institutions and social forces that support all that tasty chaotic art or ruin it (“the power of control”).
This book is an opportunity for a long time member of an art scene to trash all the projects he thinks have gone south, and his section on this is great.
Actually, his slander is as good as his boasting, but all chapters do attempt to carry along a thesis, and that requires some theory and evidence that do not hold together well at all.
Clearly the best part of the whole book, the final chapter recounts a specific performance art piece, and the piece that inspired it. And it is awesome. This chapter illustrates (show not tell) the spirit of “duende” or “tada” that is regarded as the highest value in these amiable rantings. The spirit is strong, and I was blown away by the incredible artistic achievement described here, just as I was shocked to see a seal pop out of the ocean and throw a live octopus in the face of a kayaker. It was incredible. But also the chapter depends on your expectations being fairly low, and so does well at the end of the book when you expect him to simply carry on about what he has pieced together from Wikipedia and a particularly interesting vacation he went on.
Overall, Chicken John deserves to include more boasting and it would help motivate the reader to want to believe that the theories are worth listening to. To use the Aristotelian vocabulary on rhetoric, this book lacks logos, and struggles with pathos, but makes up for it with the ethos or Mr. Chicken himself. If someone has been involved in arts organizations doing badass shit for 30 years, their opinion is worth hearing out, even though it may not make much sense or be that helpful as a systematic account of blah blah blah.
Anyhow, he’s pulled together fleets of junk ships to cruise rivers of the Earth and has thrown weirder events with cooler art than almost anyone, challenging Burning Man at its own event and so on.
It turns out that the best lessons Chicken John has learned are about how arts organizations fail. (There might be better lessons, but not in this book.) In particular, he includes two very ill lists, one of organizations that did or didn’t fail and why — the other list is of archetypes of characters you’ll meet at organizations like this.
Hella Good Lists
Here are his organizations that failed:
- KUSF community radio. Failed because they got popular but were counting on a university to pay for their spot on the airwaves; once it was worth money the school sold it. Issue: no equity.
- Krump dance. Underwent a schism but really didn’t fail. Clown dance also came out of this. I don’t really see the problem.
- Craigslist. Underwent a split but the other guy’s website failed. He might as well mention the 2 lines of sequels to Night of the Living Dead. Both did well.
- National Geographic. Nothing went wrong here, they were legit and went commercial. Good work. Chicken just wants to tell a story about someone getting more credit than she deserved. The link is that she ended up owning a credit that then made her money later, even though other people really did all the work.
- Academy of Art, a school to train graphic artists. This organization is somewhere between shady and straight up evil, taking on students they know won’t finish just to suck down their federally funded scholarships. US taxpayers are all funding this organization which tends to overproduce artists, despite low graduation rate, saturating the market and hurting all active commercial artists. Chicken’s take: it’s a real estate same. The people who own it abuse it for profit and the original purpose is betrayed.
- Swimming Cities of the Switchback Sea floated the junkboats down the rivers. This got big but is fine, really. Author’s beef: they took the name and kept doing the event after he stopped being involved. I guess this is somehow a “scam” also.
- Burning Man. Sold out by becoming an educational institution / tourist destination. Chicken wants it to be a member-led organization with dues and rights and a constitution. His beef is just that it could have been cooler. He admits it’s doing pretty well.
- CELL Space was a classic art warehouse. I was in one like this. You think it’s shared but really it’s not, and then there’s drama and many people leave and it all collapses and you lose your awesome spot. Sucks. I asked someone at the warehouse I saw do this why we were called a “collective” when only one person really owned it all. They thought a “collective” just means different people come and go across time. Oh! Ok!
- Bill Tallen (aka Reverend Billy) built a successful theater in SF, then got voted out and had no equity so had to leave. Another example of “no equity” only here the impact was just “ so you’re back to square one” which sounds like many men’s divorce story.
- MRR is a punk magazine that never sold out so Chicken John likes them. Other friends tell me it’s “more backbiting white dudes arguing about cassette tapes.” What is success?
- REI of course sells you camping gear and shit, but Chicken John probably included them because they do distribute equity and the organization is doing well. Not sure why they’re an art group.
The book’s second awesome list is characters you’ll encounter in art groups. Gold.
I think this is probably just common to any scene or volunteer organization or group of friends, but the book has to have a thesis, right?
Chicken John’s contention is that there are “mechanistic systems” in society, which are characterized by “control.” This would include structured organizations, administrative policy and process, the highway system, and robots that make coffee. Maybe we could refer to this generically as “technocracy.”
He points out that these systems have been really great at reducing infant mortality and the cost of a cheeseburger and building massive, scalable infrastructures for human existence. In fact, this author, more than anyone I’ve read lately except Vaclav Smil, seems to think humanity has done a bang up job of making solid progress over the last few centuries.
But, Chicken John laments, our mechanistic control system don’t help build free and equitable communities full of magical moments. To fight this, we need to make our quirky little art movements (stitch ‘n bitch, burning man, capoeira — whatever) strong. We can do this by preventing the decline of these institutions by implementing robust governance structures, which need a constitution and rights to work. It’s not really clear how this would solve the problem. Maybe, art groups could recover from rocky patches by voting? Maybe this would address the equity problem by letting them struggle for equity within political structures designed to allow for that? Maybe it’s just a step up from de facto despotism?
This fetishization of democratic process also seems like a way for a member of an art group to be able to say “I told you so” without much risk of being tested. Is an art group ever going to try this?
The usual approach of art groups is a “do-ocracy” or “consensus decision-making.” Do-ocracy means “dictatorship by those who can get things done,” which is actually how everything works in my experience. Consensus means “oligarchy by opinion brokers and shapers,” which tends to mean the people who are best at the opinion game (and best at being thorough and never making enemies) get to decide things. But this system also amounts to the same as do-ocracy, once you have to rely on someone to actually implement the “consensus” ideas.
Distributing voting rights and respecting them typically fails in these groups because people hanging around on a voluntary basis (no wage etc) just don’t vote. They don’t even follow the conversation that would drive voting. They’re just not that engaged or interested in engaging in that way. When they do vote, it’s often just as a joke, and it was in this way that we almost named our burning man camp “Tripping Hazard” one year, because enough people thought it was a good drug pun.
Constitutional protections of rights are also interesting and never used, probably because they require institutions to adjudicate on specific cases of violation, which is hard and requires an infraction occur first. A constitution is also a second layer on the rules, increasing administrative overhead. The way arts groups actually work, as I’m sure the author knows, is that they make rules of thumb and try to follow them. The rule is supposed to minimize certain kinds of problems, though usually it’s fairly clear that they’ll create other kinds. For example, taking payments by Venmo and Paypal only, or requiring that people sign up for something by a certain date. Then the rule is fudged as much as needed to keep things going well, and this requires kind and sensible enforcement which is generally the easy part that volunteers are good at. There are indeed no rights involved in the (technocratic) formulation of these rules, or in their usual application. I see how it might be cool to add this deeper layer, but this book still does not outline what that might look like or how those rights and duties relate to specific rules.
Overall, the theory in this book is weak not so much due to the evidence (which is of course anecdotal, but fun to accept so whatever) or the theory (which doesn’t define terms and is the opposite of rigorous but hey).
The real problem is the warrants linking evidence to claims. Does the evidence warrant the claim? Does REI prove that equity matters? Does the chapter on Iceland demonstrate that constitutions are important? Does the chapter on constitutions give us reason to believe that they are a necessary or sufficient aspect of sustainable government? Do any of the proposed solutions actually prevent the scalding beautiful bitter sincere ghost spirit attacks he adroitly drops over so many of the art groups he knows best?
At the level of theory, we might also question the distinction between technocratic systems and political/democratic ones. Corporations, for example, include various layers of rules, mission statements, and governance structures, yet tend to output largely technocratic goods like cheaper burgers. Machines involve a great deal of decision making to be designed, built, refined, deployed, maintained, put to use, and decommissioned.
Even if we accept the distinction, my impression is that most of the Earth’s population would kill for reliable “mechanistic systems” to elevate their standard of living to the point that they were criticizing their multi-million dollar parties for not being creative enough. But I’d also point out that most people in the comfy first world don’t like the parties nearly as much as the television. Yet this television is produced in a very systematic way. So, while I’d like to join the quest for “more duende and magic” it’s definitely of secondary importance, to me.
One might even argue that the quest for duende is going swimmingly! Is Chicken John really going to complain that he doesn’t have enough cool shit to get involved with? There’s plenty around us because pushing the envelope is not really that hard, if you are nice to each other and have some money to burn. (Having those is less universal, but has more to do with the equitable distribution of the “mechanistic systems.”)
One’s taste inevitably grows and matures and I’m not surprised Chicken John is bored of burning man, anyone who’s gone 10 times really should be. So If he wants to complain about that, go for it.
I expect that many people have heard there is a chapter on movements in this book and want to know if they are in one. This book provides no real criteria, but does suggest that the scale has to be large enough that you don’t know everyone in it and you embrace that the shit you are up to is like the shit that others are up to, even though your shit may be a bit different. The standard here suggests that your average weirdo art hipster in SF is in about 14.
Life Cycle of an Arts Group
I would like to imagine that the developmentalist “life cycle of art groups” schematic given on pages 45 and 46 is instructive, but let’s review it. The steps are:
- Get together based on an idea for something rad
- Project way harder than expected
- Something works and you find a path to revenue or attention
- Some mission statement appears and “control” rears its ugly head (no definition)
- Disputes over mission
- The organization begins deriving incomes from rent and members fight over how to allocate it (contestation of limited resources is called “politics”)
- A split occurs (party formation?)
- One side wins and shuts out the other
- Defeated members walk away, organization suffers as a whole
- Organization’s art becomes staid and boring
- Stalin Syndrome begins with leads not interested in new voices; obsessed with control (perhaps to chase old dreams?)
- Organization turns into “real estate scam,” or we might say, Chicken John sees no interesting creative output only business functions remain with single goal of capital accumulation.
Is this a good developmentalist schema for any organization as it finds it governance structure? It’s not bad, but it would be nice to see someone plot the phases for a number of specific organizations and then compare them to try to build up something synthetic, rather than arrive with the answer ready to go. On the other hand, this is a self-published book with no table of contents or proofing of the footnotes, so what do you expect? This life cycle schematic is, like the rest, still pretty interesting.
This is a fantastic book on a very important topic and everyone should read it. I don’t think it has much of a theoretical contribution to the topic of subculture or community or art management, which is what it really addresses, but if it’s relevant to your world and you want to know more after reading this little nugget of vitriol, get that real book and read read read!