21st century education
Paul Conrad’s Chain Reaction

Paul Conrad’s Chain Reaction

Paul Conrad‘s monumental anti-war sculpture CHAIN REACTION, is slated for demolition soon. A figurative work, depicting an atomic bomb’s mushroom cloud, and made out of massive chain links, it has stood proudly in front of Santa Monica’s City Hall  for decades.

Like many, I had come to take for granted its forboding magnificance, and had stopped really even noticing it as I drove past the city’s municipal district.

Now, because of complex and sometimes confusing safety concerns, it is to be removed. Over the years the structure, made of various materials including metal and fiberglass, has become less sturdy, and civil engineers fear a calamity is highly likely.

Santa Monica is rightly proud to have one of the most generous, per capita, support of the arts in the United States, and I am very happy to be an artist working in this important art community. When I found out about the probable removal of Chain Reaction, I, like many citizens here was upset and even angry.

I sought information deeper than just what the local ( and usually hostile ) headlines were publishing. Facing the safety concerns, the Santa Monica Arts Comission, was forced to deal with a difficult and unpopular decison to remove the sculpture from being part of its permanent collection, through a process called deassencion.  

I was, much to my surprise, nominated and elected to the Santa Monica Arts Comission, but that all happened well after the deassencion debates and ultimate decisions were already made.  Therefore, unfortunately, I never did get to particpate in those debates, nor was, or will ever be, able to cast my vote, in this very controversal decsion. I do not envy my collegues on the Commission for having had to make such a difficult and unpopular decison. They genuinely seem to be as unhappy about what they were forced to do, as anyone. The responsibility given to those involved in community service, often face situations, where no viable option is attractive. I am sure that the day the Arts Commsion held the vote for deassencion, was not a happy day for any of them.

The Santa Monica Arts Commission, further in its defense, did authorize a matching grant program for Chain Reaction’s extremely expensive restoration. So far, only around $40,000 was raised by community activists dedicated to the scultpure’s preservation, Even with the additional $40,000 that the Arts Commission would provide, the total is still so far below the estimated $400,000 needed to safely retrofit and restore this work. It seems that time has run out, short of a miracle.

Although the Arts Commision removed the sculpture from being part of its permanent collection, the Santa Monica Landmark Commision, did then make the sculpture an official landmark, which does of course, further complicate the situation.

Some maintain that CHAIN REACTION is not really even a work of art, because they state, that it was  not made by an ‘important artist’. That’s a type of elitist artthink I cannot stomach. Paul Conrad was perhaps not best known for his sculptures, but was a multiple Pulizer Prize winning political cartoonist, who Richard Nixon despised and feared. That’s good enough for me. But even the notion of what it means to be ‘an important artist’, troubles me, for it seem little more than a marketing strategy, used by commercial gallerists and their allies in the museum and critical community, to further inflate the work of already properous, and dare I say, over-exposed artists.

If an artwork is important, then it seems that the artist who made it is also important. The emotional impact that this anti-war symbol has made to the citizens of Santa Monica ( and the countless tourists visiting the ocean two blocks away), surely entitles the work to be considered among the ‘important’. And surely few artists ( including major commerical artists) will ever know what it is like to have had such an enduring and profound emotional impact on so many people, as the late Paul Conrad has had with Chain Reaction.

But its overt and unabashed political overtone challanges the decisions that many in this country have made, and continue to make. Some conspiracists maintain that all the safety concerns about the artwork began soon after the Rand Corporation, a major military contractor, moved across the street from City Hall. No doubt many high- level executives there look out their office windows and face the defiant statue, that seems to give a silent but powerful critique of their career choice. And no doubt many there would be glad to see it go. But there seems to be no real evidence for this, although it is an enjoyable conspiracy to debate about over drinks.

Although the fate of the sculpture at this moment does not seem good, there are many possible scenarios in which the funds to restore the work could still happnen, for example some rich and progressive Hollywood-type coming to the rescue. But time is quickly running out, and it seems less and less likley each day, that the sculpture will continue to stand.

For me, like many others, Chain Reaction is the single most ‘important’ art work in Santa Monica. I will be sad to see it go. I hope that some other city, museum or individual may see fit to acquire it, and give it a new home, where many other citizens of the world may be affected by its somber, but brave emotional statement.  Time will tell, but it’s time in Santa Monica seems quickly coming to a close.



  1. Reminiscent of your “middle way” talks on Humanity+ that are not as all pro, or all con, as so many other talks, here too you’ve given us not just the emotional situation but also the challenges and compromises in this difficult space.

    You’ve also added a new Topic / Category to .Re/search: Conservation. We’ve all been talking about our new work, but of course there are also generations of cultural legacies to preserve for future generations.

    ScreenCap of .Re/search home page showing Michael Masucci's post about Paul Conrad's Chain Reaction next to Adelina Ong's post about youth culture creation at, for example, the site of the Taliban-destroyed giant, stone Buddhas

    And what serendipity! On the .Re/search home page, your image of Chain Reaction is right next to Adelina’s image of the Taliban-destroyed large stone Buddhas. Interestingly though, Adelina’s work is not about that tragic loss, but about the trummerflora-like youth culture that has sprouted up there and through so much other cultural rubble around the globe.

    Which reminded me that I was thinking about SnapChat yesterday. As someone who spends so much time and effort documenting work, SnapChat is a difficult concept and a bitter pill for me. But I also get it. Yes, yes, I’m sure SnapChat is used for sexting, but in a way, that’s the least interesting application of it. Even if you and I aren’t big Facebook fans, they’ve certainly worked hard to create a ubiquitous platform of global sharing. In some ways it’s almost Utopian. But of course, one person’s Utopia is pretty much always another’s dystopia.

    Facebook and other social tools have ushered in an age of what peeps like Michael Wesch and danah boyd call “Context Collapse.” This is the idea that we used to have separate audiences, separate contexts, for our communications, but that our partitions have collapsed and it’s all a giant soup now. People are pretty dismissive of Muammar Gaddafi and his unceremonious end these days, but to me, managing to hang on to power for 42 years is a feat not to be dismissive about. In speech after speech he walked a razor’s edge for longer than just about anyone I can think of: a little too far to the right? Sorry, you’re overthrown by Hamas! A little too far to the left? Sorry, you’re bombed by the United States!

    Gaddafi dealt with the context collapse of multiple ears on a single speech for decades before we had social networks to collapse our own contexts. These days we’re all Gaddafi on Facebook. So it does make sense that “Ephemeral Messaging” like SnapChat is a sort of antidote for Context Collapse like Facebook. On Facebook you have to write a status update that simultaneously Reassures your parents, Asserts your coolness to your friends, and your Professionalism to your colleagues. On SnapChat you only have to signal to one person at a time that you have some real connection to them.

    I wonder if a “Modern Artist” could have invented SnapChat, or if only the mind of a “Postmodern Artist” could get there? Modern Artists certainly manipulated the art market through limited editions and scarcity just as artists before them and since, so in that way the “scarcity” of SnapChat fits with them, but I’m not so sure about the “ephemerality.” Jasper Johns early encaustics were unintentionally ephemeral, but I think it’s in PoMo where artists have explored intentional ephemerality.

    So, do Adelina’s young producers of new culture care about Stone Buddha’s and Chain Reaction? If they don’t care now, might they care in the future? Should Rand employees have to look out their window at a mushroom cloud sculpture? Should workers have to take time out of their daily lunch break to walk around a Richard Serra sculpture?

    At the beginning of the film “Pollock” we see the title character in a stairwell screaming “Fuck Picasso!” At the beginning of the film “Basquiat” we see the title character in a museum being “anointed by Picasso.” Why “Fuck Picasso” vs “Anointed by Picasso”? Perhaps many reasons, but among them temporal distance. For an ambitious artist like Pollock, Picasso’s giant footprint may have been too close for the room he needed to create and develop his own career. A little further down the timeline Basquiat could see Picasso not as a threat but an inspiration.

    Does too much past art create too much burden against new creation? Should we all be Tony Shafrazi defacing Guernica or John Baldessari burning our past work?

    And in the age of mechanical reproduction can a work of art ever really be destroyed? I’ve looked at Courbet’s “Stone Breakers” many dozens of times. Would I have looked at it any more if it hadn’t been destroyed in a WWII bombing raid? Even if the Stone Buddhas are gone, even if Chain Reaction does go, Augmented Reality artists like John Craig Freeman or Tamiko Thiel of groups like Mainfest.AR can always put them back, just as 4Gentlemen put the “Goddess of Democracy” back in Tiananmen Square.

    So many questions.

    One thing I do know, is that I hope there is still some way to preserve Chain Reaction. Please do keep us updated on its salvation or demise.

  2. Yes, I will definately tell you about when/if the sacrifical act and/or performative demise of Chain Reaction takes place. Or if the equally dramatic reprise is given.

    You raise so many very interesting questions. They aim directly as to questions which dare to ask what value, if any, specific cultures still have at all. For just as we always only live in the present, we seem to always be reacting to the past. Even if that past is merely a moment, day, or decade old. I don’t really believe for one moment, that we ever will know the past, and one of my favorite things to say (such as the H+ talks you mentioned) is that “history is the art of forgetting”. By that I mean that we as ‘artist/scholras/whatevers’ have as a culture, forgotten so much more than what we have chosen (usually in service to some theoretical or political agenda) to remember. And I’m not disturbed by this, its just an observation. It seems to be who we are.

    The notion of Context Collapse, of course, echoes to an slightly earlier time, during the heyday of ‘web 1.0’, or the so-called ‘dot.com’ bubble. People in Finland coined the term ‘flesh meet’ to differentiate between a F2F experience, as contrasted with a mediated/virtual interaction. Neither was deemed superior, but clearly to be differentiated. They are not the same. Again, not a criticism of either manifestation of the human condition. Such discourse was being articulated even in art circles, such as the show called F2F, a group show of Finnish digital artists, staged at UCLA in the year 2000. Does it matter to anyone that such a show took place, or that discourse between artists in Helsinki and Los Angeles was taking place then? No of course no. Unless, of course, you want a more antropological interpretation of the evolution to whatever aspect of transhumanism comes to pass (at least for the privileged).

    Now in web 2.0, where more control of non-location based exerience is commonplace, techniques such as allowed by SnapChat are definately relevant. For me, SnapChat, as with many other tools, physical of code-applicative, can be used for many things- sex, political subversion, banal gossip, or yes, art (whatever that word even means anymore). It is completely in the hands of the targeted consumer ( er, end-user) that also decides whether the materials that went into making Chain Reaction will either be used for a construction site, naval appliaction, building a car, or making a political sculpture. In such ways SnapChat and fiberglass and large metals chains are both being used to ‘push’ to the ‘eyeballs’ the same thing- an experience. That has always been the role of any creative ‘medium’ – it is a toolset for interaction, communication or historification. But the role of ‘place’ as you so often have articulated correctly, is what has evolved. And also as you say, this has the most profound transformative effect on those with access to such capabilities.

    Could a Modern Artist create Snapshot, or just a Postmodernist? Great question- and speaks to the notion of taxonomy and/or morphology. It implies asking whether Baldesari is the intellectual progeny of Picasso, or a combative species designed to infiltrate Picasso’s territory, take it over, and destroy Picasso’s intellectual progeny in the process. I think as with many retorical questions, both postions are true. The seeming bifurcation of any intellectual/creative tradition actually speciates into many mutliple new species. It depends on the approach the taxonomist adheres to, as to if these will be definced as new species or extensions of existing ones. So modernism and postmodernism are intellectual contructs describing human conditions. These decriptions are always somewhat arbitrary.

    The duplication of art, as you’ve discussed makes the ‘original’ less ‘special’. Actually, this is something I’ve argued (not very effectively) for decades, in interviews and lectures I’ve given. I agree with the conventional wisdom conveyed in conceptualism, as I agree that the concept is the most essential aspect of any art. However, I am glad that we still have relatively unrestricted access to many of the world heritage sites, and site specific masterworks that form much of our common human history. I realzie that the Sphinx will someday be completely eroded away, and I am glad that such a day has not yet arrived. I think we all agree that a world with both is best than having to choose between the two. At least for the conceivable future our mediated/digital world will rest whollyb reliant on our physical world. A world where impoverished third-world workers still destroy their physical bodies to mine the rare minerals which make our virtual worlds possible. Or the immense energy consumption needed to power the world wide web.

    A duplication is usually seen as a new form of the artwork, just as an animal clone is not the original creature. I have argued way back in the ’80’s, that digital art, however, requires new definations, as we can effectively argue that (other than physical installation work, or specifc printed or otherwise physicalized work), that digital art has no original. All manifestations of the work are as much ‘originals’ as ‘copies’. Gallerists, of course, have been very resistant to this notion as it reduces the ‘collectibility’ of a specific (supposedly unique) artwork. I have stated many times that this may account for the slow adoption by traditional brick and mortal art galleries to selling easily duplicatble digital works. But such galleries may soon seem quaint, if not altogther irrelevant.

    In what theorists may ultimately coin as ‘web 3.0’, when more seemless, emersive (i.e. ‘mediated reality’) technologies become the next ‘must-have’ middle class acquistions, the reliance on consumer products, whether googler glass of whatever flavor of product platform takes hold, will further consolidate the power structure in what amounts to a type of digital colonialism. There are advantages to the end user, of course, but we must recognize what gets lost everytime something repalces the aboriginal cultures that are being replaced. Yes, both a utopia as well as dystopia is building built-out, demanding its continued use, as well as aggregating, funneleing and homoginizing a new global community. With the obvious strengths and weaknesses.

    Should the Afgan Buddas belong to the common history of humankind, and not just the locals who decide whether to bomb them or not? Should Rand execs be forced to look at Chain Reaction? Those questions aim at the very notion of colonial intervention and what, if any, rights, the indiginous still have in today’s world. Rand choose to move across the street from Chain Reaction. The Afgan question is of course, becuase so much history needs to be taken into account, is much harder to critique.

    But no matter what, both the Buddas and Chain Reaction will survive in some dusty part of cyberspace, where such non-popular cultures will reside. Able to be discovered by the curious, adventurous digital archeologist from our future, who will, no doubt, have a difficult time understanding the collapsed context behind thier creations. That’s still much better than complete oblivion, and I’m glad it’s available, no matter how flawed the results.

    You have raised so many though-provoking questions, and there is so little time to spend answering them (or reading such answers). But finally, your notion of ‘conservation’ as a new category here is very interesting. Because although we constantly react to the past, I find all things, whether created 10,000 years ago, or 10,000 seconds ago, to be of our current time. For that is when we experience them. We arbitrarily, preserve of destroy our past. Ask Kate Johson, sometime, about a piece she did in 2011, where she asked her audience to decide if something got preserved or destroyed. It may be give further relevance to this discussion.

    Thanks as always for your great reactions to my rants.

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