Thursday, December 31, 2009

On nostalgia, the new year, and zine technologies

As we come to the end of another year and round out a decade, Daniel Gilbert writes of nostalgia in the New York Times, playing right into everything I find depressing about both ushering in a New Year and the General Direction of Things. He states: “But maybe we’ve reached nostalgia’s end. ‘Nostalgia’ — made up of the Greek roots for ‘suffering’ and ‘return’ — is literally a longing for the places of one’s past. And lately, it has become harder and harder to find things to miss about America’s places.” Gilbert then goes on to discuss the chain culture of America and blurring of the lines that distinguish one place from the next.

I went to the movies on Christmas Day. Being subjected to 45 minutes of commercials and previews, including a cinematic advertisement for the National Guard, makes me want to drop out of society.

I always prided myself on embracing change. As a teenager in the nineties I decried listening to one’s parents’ music, which many of my peers did, instead embracing the new, grunge/alt/indie/triphiphop. I delved into the cyberpunk culture of Mondo2000 and fantasized about hacking despite my lack of programming-level computing skills.

As an adult at the turn of 2010, I have embraced social media and taken my calendar and my music digital. Then again, I find myself attached to older technologies as a printmaker, letterpress printer, and maker of artist books, paper, and zines. Someone remarked to me the other day: “I thought ‘zines were over.” Now certainly media focus on, well, media, concentrates on computer and networking technologies, but this does not necessarily mean the death of other older technologies. Try telling the dozens who tabled the Philadelphia Zine Fest with me this fall that zines are dead. Zines – their creators and audience – can fill West Philadelphia’s Rotunda, as well as other zine and small press events around the country. It hardly looks like a cemetery. Indeed one might surmise that the direction technology has taken has helped rather than hindered zine culture.

As virtual aspects to our lives have increased, a simultaneous interest in the handmade has arisen. Witness the uptick in knitting, the resurgence of letterpress printing, the success of the handcraft website Etsy, the interest in homebrewing beer. While the photocopier itself may be a speedy technology, these are still self-published and self-bound items. Meanwhile, the flourishing of blogs and social media sites has acclimatized a large population to creating content, which was once upon a time the gaping empty hole of the web. Imagine. Additionally, the internet has aided the distribution of zines and supports the networking of zine makers. Witness the ability to track down zine distros online, the weblinking amongst metazine publications such as Broken Pencil and Zine World. The social networking site Ning has a Zinemakers community, and email groups also support connections amongst zinesters.

One benchmark of the health of the zine community might be the size and might of the Zine Yearbook over the past 13 years. I quote from Zine Wiki on the 2008 Zine Yearbook #9: “at 240 pages #9 is the largest Yearbook yet and proof that zines are not dead."

Is nostalgia tied exclusively to place, or is it applied to the tangible? Can we be nostalgic for the handheld? If so, maybe there is hope yet for nostalgia and a world that remembers its past, documented in the pages of something that can be picked up, held in the hand, and passed around.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

War Memorial

Today marks the anniversary of the Vietnam War Memorial’s completion – the memorial that was so controversial for its stark remembrance of the fallen. I have been struggling over past weeks to articulate what it is that has made vets issues one high on my list of concerns – as evidenced by links posted to Facebook and top organizations I donate to. By even raising the question, I reveal myself to be non-military. Still, the more I think about it, I wonder how I could be preoccupied with anything else. How could I not be preoccupied with the too-often overlooked human evidence of two unending wars gone awry? A history of focus on the homeless is tied so clearly to Veterans affairs as we bring home more troops without providing for them. Bush is out of office, and yet we still, as a nation, have our head stuck firmly in the sand.

I come home at night to messages about family drama. My sister tries to make a family with an Iraq War vet, now home two years. I come home the next night to the news that Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire at the Fort Hood Soldier Readiness Processing Center, killing 13 and wounding 30. We ask: is it a terrorist attack, this killing spree by a man of Muslim beliefs? We ask: is this the state to which military service is bringing our soldiers? Do we ask how these questions are linked, whether they are two edges of the exact same sword? The Vets must try to help themselves; there are not psychiatrists, healthcare, or sensitive diagnoses to go around. Do they suffer for serving our country? Why did we send them over there? Are the rest of us going to suffer for it? We are all culpable.

This post is not a guilt trip. This is about the interconnectedness of all things. Lucy Lippard states that if the artist would rather spend his/her time at parties and bars, that is their choice, but given the fate of artists in totalitarian societies, one might think they would spend some of their time elsewhere. Does this mean each artist must soak their art in political content? No, but it means that artists, as all other citizens, better start seeing themselves as actors/enactors/and/enablers when it comes to their participation in day to day life, the global society, the body politic. Each creation of art is a political act. Art, like life, is about attention – increasingly hard to come by in an ADD culture. This is our future. There are no casualties. We coexist with the dead as with the living. I refuse to believe that violence is necessary, or even inevitable, and I will resist it in every way that I can, in acts both large and small.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Arts Funding Increases

At last there is a small bit of good news at a time when non-profits are making cuts across the board -- to programming, staffing, open hours, etc. The House and Senate have just passed increases of $12.5 million each to the NEA and NEH, raising their budgets to the highest levels in 16 years.

April 12-13, 2010 will be Arts Advocacy days in Washington, DC. Visit Arts Action Fund for more information, and add it to your calendar.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Paper Nerds and the Future

I've just returned from the Friends of Dard Hunter Annual Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia feeling enthusiastic about the future of hand papermaking and its potential impact on the art world. Let me take a moment to clarify what I mean by art world in this context. I'm not thinking about the world of commercial galleries and museums, which have a questionable future and a questionable impact in my book. I'm thinking about how creativity functions in the social sphere.

On the themes of art, sustainability, and social change:

  • Combat Paper Project shared updates on their recent tours, as well as holding a demonstration featuring a bicycle-powered portable beater built by Lee Scott McDonald.
  • I presented the Book Bombs public paper and print project by Michelle Wilson and myself, within the context of other projects engaging multiple approaches to sustainability.
  • Also on my panel, Patterson Clark discussed his full-cycle approach to sustainable practices of making paper, prints, and inks from invasive plants.
  • Students from University of Alabama, alongside ring-leader Steve Miller, lead conference participants in making banana fiber paper, educating about methods for making paper from these cultivated plants, skills that are necessary if we are to transition into utilizing local plant fibers.
Most encouraging was the enthusiasm with which the sustainability question was embraced. Amy Richards, a papermaker who works for the Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants in Florida was on hand to offer the resources of her Center.

While many of us traveled from afar to be at this meeting, my hope is that by sharing this energy, our information, and the generous community that papermakers foster, the future impact on how we all exist and create in the world will be worth the environmental impact of our travel, of the book arts jet set mentality. I made a call for Slow Papermaking, and I stand by it, but slowing down and making change takes time. There may be some lofty idealism here in this hope...but why not?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

What is democracy?

Last week I was at the opening for a fab book show, Reading in Installments: Book Art Meets Installation, curated by Elysa Voshell and on display here in Philly through April 20 at the Center for Emerging Visual Artists. (Check it out!) Someone mentioned the uncanny knack that some book artists who have been long devoted to the democratic multiple have developed for strictly defining what does and does not count as book art. That is, those who have championed publishing books cheaply and distributing them widely, ostensibly as a democratizing practice, seem strangely resistant to embracing a plurality of practices within the book arts field.

The Book Arts List administered by Peter Verheyen through the Philobiblon website periodically displays a similar intolerance (through no fault of Peter's, I might add). A thread of the past few days demonstrates perfectly the behavior that causes me to unsubscribe from the list in disgust approxmately once a year. Someone submitted an inquiry to the list seeking resources connecting queer theory and the artist book. There were some thoughtful and supportive responses, but unfortunately these were counterbalanced by a cavalcade of those ready to set this individual straight, as it were.

Many lambasted the researcher for making assumptions about the marginalization of artist books, as well as about their connections to queer theory. However, these individuals made a swath of assumptions about the person posting the question -- first, that as a student this was an inexperienced researcher and scholar, and second, that there was something offensive about this conclusion or connection. As it turns out, the individual is a writer with multiple Master's degrees. And as John Cutrone succinctly put it in a post to the list, it seems quite clear that both artist books and the LGBT community are marginalized and are linked, at the very least, in this. See eco-feminism and social justice for more on the idea that all oppressions are connected. (Not that I'm claiming the word "oppression" for application to artist books, as many are able to practice in such a field precisely because they inhabit a position of privilege.)

I know that the Book Arts List is comprised of many different people, vocal and not, and I feel a strong sense of community with some of these people. But I find myself hard pressed at present to feel that this List as a whole is a community, or at least one I would be other-than-embarrassed to be a part of. There are few individuals out there writing about the artist book. I would think the book arts community would want to support such writing, even if it focuses on a part of the field to which they do not feel connected. I can only think that there is a deep sense of homophobia at play here, even if expressed in the guise of promoting proper scholarly methods. Otherwise, why not let the research process take care of itself. If there's not information to support the idea, there won't be a paper to be written. I suspect that there's a good deal to investigate here - hence the backlash on the list.

And all this within a week of the legalization of same-sex marriage in two states. Change comes, but it doesn't come easily. This week I am proud to be a former Vermonter, at least.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Art is Not Work

Well, there's good news and there's bad news for arts funding as it relates to the freshly passed economic stimulus bill.
Good news: The bill passed with $50 million in additional funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
Bad news: That amount was almost axed from the bill.
Good news: Arts workers and organizations mobilized to speak up for themselves and contact their representatives to preserve this funding.
Bad news: Many of our elected representatives, as well as our citizens, fail to recognize work in the arts as, well, work. The Senate wanted to rule out using stimulus money for museums, arts centers and theaters. Is it not self-evident that these institutions, besides supporting artists, provide actual concrete jobs to artists and non-artists alike? Might I also point out that, as these jobs provide relatively low wages, dedicating $1 million to museum jobs would likely employ more individuals than if we send that $1 million to even shovel-ready infrastructure projects? I'm not suggesting axing infrastructure investment; goodness knows we're grossly overdue for some. Neither am I suggesting that anything is right with poorly paying workers in the arts and culture. But I am wondering where people think arts and culture spending is so frivolously going if not towards creating and supporting jobs. P.S. Art is work, too!

For a little more on your legislators and this funding issue:

Friday, January 23, 2009

The New Economy

I'd like to clip a comment from Paul Krugman, in the Op-Ed section of the NYTimes yesterday, that characterizes a moment in Obama's Inaugural Address that had me scratching my head as well:

"Thus, in his speech Mr. Obama attributed the economic crisis in part to 'our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age' — but I have no idea what he meant. This is, first and foremost, a crisis brought on by a runaway financial industry. And if we failed to rein in that industry, it wasn’t because Americans “collectively” refused to make hard choices; the American public had no idea what was going on, and the people who did know what was going on mostly thought deregulation was a great idea."

I second that. This was meant to be the People's why blame the economic meltdown on its victims?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Work of the Coming Change

In Monday's New York Times, Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. contributed a great piece on Dr. Martin Luther King's last birthday, which he spent working, never stopping the work of social justice and change. Jackson holds this as a model for our observation of Obama's inauguration, and this sentiment was threaded through Obama's inaugural address as well.

What are you going to do to push for change in the coming year?

As artists, how can we advocate for ourselves in tough economic times? Moreover, how do we ensure that our work is relevant to these times?

Quincy Jones has started a petition for the Obama administration to appoint a Secretary of the Arts. You can find it here: The Book Arts List (archives at has been home to some lively debate about whether or not this is a good idea.

On a related note, the recently formed Impractical Labor is now offering subscription-memberships. While it is still unclear exactly what forms this project will take, I applaud them for reviving the union idea. Their Research Institute " summarizes, analyzes, and interprets previously published works on similar topics (industrial history, technologies and handcraft, economics, art as service, sociology of work, & so on) and publishes these reviews as the ILSSA Reference Collection." This quote is from their website, where you can find out more: