Identity Materialized: Touching On Activism in Artist’s Books

Annie Abernathy


Identity Materialized: Touching On Activism in Artist’s Books

Author: Annie Abernathy

Archival Scholars Research Award Spring 2019

*A version of this blogpost was originally presented at the event Archival Scholars in Action on March 22, 2019. Below is an edited version of that presentation.

In collecting art made with an anti-institution mindset, there is often a contradiction between original meaning and current context. The collection of artist’s books and zines in the Frick Fine Arts Library is a site of this contradiction-- however, unlike many institutions, the library supports the original mission of the art: making these activist themes visible and accessible to the public. As a recipient of the Archival Scholars Research Award this semester, my project has centered around artist’s books from the 1980s and 1990s in this collection. I have been thinking about this research in relation to my library work. Specifically, how do we make decisions about what to collect? How do you collect within the fringes of what is a book and what is art and especially the grey area between the two? A lot of these questions concerning collecting depend upon materiality.

One of the artist’s books I was immediately drawn to is a booklet of posters made by Fierce Pussy, a feminist artist collective working to bring lesbian identity to the public eye. They did this through disseminating posters around New York City. The artists describe their practice as “adamantly lo-tech, fast and low-budget” as they used what they had on hand, including using the photocopiers at their day jobs to produce the work. In this way, they chose the medium of the poster because of it was cheap and fast. 

As a material, posters can be widely-disseminated and easily mass-produced. This is especially evident here as Fierce Pussy would have photocopied these designs on printer paper. Since it would have been affordable paper, more could be produced to invade the public space of New York. The medium of the poster itself reflects the dematerialization of the art object discussed by Lucy Lippard as it falls in the category of “art that can be shown inexpensively and unobtrusively in infinite locations at one time.” In this way, posters can be seen as both anti-capitalist and anti-institution because of their ephemeral nature. How exactly could a museum possibly collect an entire city block of wheatpasted posters?

The posters of Fierce Pussy are an example of an artist thinking about public activism, where the large scale and volume of art objects reflects the scale of the intended audience. Contrasting this, Adrian Piper’s My Calling (Cards) #1 and 2 are examples of personal activism. Whereas Fierce Pussy’s posters are about 13 by 18 inches, these cards are each 2 by 3 and 1/2 inches. Their stark difference in size is underscored when these works are presented side by side. Calling cards like these were a performance piece by Piper in the late 1980s. She would hand out the brown card, for example, when someone made a racist joke at a dinner party, not realizing Piper’s race. And if a man flirted with her in a bar, she would hand him one of the white cards. She chose this material because of its intimate scale. This material is also connected to other social rituals such as business cards or even ‘calling cards’ of the nineteenth century. These references further point to Piper’s personal approach to activism in one-on-one contexts. 

Similar to the Fierce Pussy posters, these cards are also anti-institution in their ephemeral materiality, but as these artists have become more well-known, their activism has been co-opted and recontextualized in an institutional setting. This can be seen as both artworks in our collection are reprints sold by major cultural entities twenty years after the work’s original conception and use. In reprinting the object, there is a disconnect from the original materiality and meaning. For example, the fierce pussy posters are on a firmer type of paper with a spiral binding, giving more ‘bookish’ qualities. At the same time, however, this reproduction allows them to be collected by multiple institutions, such as the Frick Fine Arts Library, in order for them to be more accessible to a wider audience and to be accessible for research such as mine. 

The materiality of artist’s books is integral to their meaning, so, of course, reproduction of these objects presents challenges. Similarly, artist’s books present challenges in exhibition making. In my next stages of this project, I will develop a pop-up exhibition for the Frick Fine Arts Library which will be on view April 10 from 1-3 pm. Featuring artist’s books from the 1980s and 1990s as well as contemporary zines and activist art, I hope to materialize these social issues of the past and situate them in the present social climate.

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