THREE WALLS GALLERY, CHICAGO
Why does so much public art seem like an imposition of ‘good taste’ upon ‘the public’? The byzantine process from proposal to committee to commission that ultimately produces Chicago’s civic art (see Picasso; Calder; Kapoor) has recently been criticized by several camps, initiated by local dealer Paul Klein, and culminating in a rally at Daley Plaza. The stated complaint is that the Department of Cultural Affairs, by passing a new ordinance, is intentionally limiting future opportunities for artists by eliminating public meetings and hiding behind a veil of bureaucratic elitism. If Klein is correct, the rare and difficult process that deems art worthy of public attention will become even more rarefied, a process lost to artists who exist outside of the Department’s kiss list.
It may be such that what an art dealer decries as the tragedy of public art commissions may not even register to a public that is increasingly uninterested in public art commissions. If the likes of Cows on Parade does not move us nor speak for us, if Picasso suggests an inappropriate or misguided representation of our culture, then it is up to our artists to continually redefine what exactly public art is and what they want it to do for the public. The future of relevant monumental public art may suffer in the hands of the aristocracy, but the platform for public art still exists.
Enter Packard Jennings, an artist for the masses who answers to neither council nor committee. Jennings’ art operates within the public sphere yet outside of official sanctions, showing us that public art can be vital and communicative without playing parlance to so-called ‘good taste’ delivered from above.
Jennings’ art often comes packaged in the format of the everyday – newspaper headlines, lottery tickets, marketing jingles, informational pamphlets and warning stickers – in direct contrast to the bronze and steel things that adorn and enhance our lobbies and plazas. Civic statues and murals tend to merely edify or present an idea of bottled culture that we already know. For Jennings, these objects inadequately express the issues of contemporary living.
In order to reconsider the idea of public art, Jennings has turned toward the available methods of information dissemination, injecting a dose of subversive viral media into the existing distribution systems such as the postal service and newspaper stands. Already broadcast through these systems of circulation are our collective and private desires, hopes, nightmares and loves in condensed, easily graspable blurbs quick fixes and slogans. These are the mass forms of communication through which Jennings hopes to provide an antidote to the deadening viral marketing that today pervades and constitutes so much of our consciousness.
On his website, Jennings provides a downloadable template that mimics the USA Today front page. Users can appropriate the top story section, create their own headline and lede (Jennings hopes users will find such topics as peace and corporate corruption fitting, although he leaves it completely open to the user), and then print it out and insert it into the newspaper’s stand.
For the Business Reply Pamphlet project, Jennings has created a visual narrative, like a comic book, which users can place in the ubiquitous business reply envelopes that accompany credit card offers and magazine subscriptions. The intended receiver of the pamphlet is the mailroom clerk, who Jennings assumes to be depersonalized by their work and susceptible to the shock of revolutionary propaganda. The pamphlet relates a narrative that begins in the second-person tense; it shows you, the office clerk, receiving the mail and opening the envelope, and then provides instructions that encourage a hostile takeover of the corporation. Activities such as tipping over one’s desk and smashing the copy machine eventually lead to a utopic commune in the old office space, replete with community gardens in the urinals and free love among co-workers. If the worker in the mailroom who receives the pamphlet is not tempted to revolt, hopefully they will be simply lifted out of their doldrums momentarily.
Previously Jennings has created other pamphlets for specific occasions such as the WTO in Geneva and the suburban shopping mall. Although Jennings notes that he rarely, if ever, hears feedback about the efficacy of his pamphlets, he admits that he was kicked out of the mall for dispersing them over the mall’s railings. (His punishment was that he was not allowed to shop there for a full 24 hours). Pamphlets streaming over a railing from the height of a second story, fluttering down from the sky on passerby below unexpected, is a tactic of information dissemination and exposure familiar mostly to citizens of invaded countries. It is, however, misguided to think that propagandistic pamphlets can cause real change or prompt people into instantaneous acts of revolt. They do not create a possibility for destruction nor are they exactly persuasive. Instead, they propose an area of imagination and fantasy for a section of life that seems out of control. In this, a kernel of hope for real change exists.
Published in Newcity (June 16, 2007)