“I’VE READ MORE BOOKS THAN TRUMP,” claimed a silk screen at Karl LaRocca’s Kayrock Screenprinting booth at the Los Angeles Art Book Fair this weekend. “Not hard!” asserted an Angelino in a crop top amid the bustling throngs of bibliophiles. Tallies, texts, and the possibilities and pitfalls of democracy were clearly legible throughout the fifth annual LA iteration of Printed Matter’s Art Book Fair, exemplified by Mike Mills and Experimental Jetset’s mural-size poster towering over the crowd, reading “2,864,974”: an amplification of the margin of Hillary’s popular vote lead as of January 2017. The election and its discontents loomed large.
Print culture as democratic form gave a palpable sense of urgency at this year’s LAABF, held in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary. Striking messages adorned zines, periodicals, posters, tote bags, pamphlets: “If you read something, say something”; “Educate Agitate Organize”; “Global warming is not fake news”; “Archive and survive”; “Keep your laws off my body”; “In support of books”; “No human being is illegal”; “Self-publish be happy.” Timelier, responsive formats had the advantage here.
Printed Matter board president Philip Aarons stressed the organization’s commitment to providing a platform for artists to be unabridged, uncensored, and as political as they may be: “We learn more by what is printed than on canvas.” Zine guru and General Idea’s surviving steward AA Bronson returned to the fair he was instrumental in founding for the first time since its LA premiere—fittingly, also the first time he’s been back in the United States in years. “I’m impressed,” Bronson said. “It feels like every other booth has anti-Trump materials for sale or takeaway.” For his keynote presentation, “My Life in Books,” a highlight, Bronson reveled in publications that have acted as his guides. (Naturally, Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture made the list.)
The LAABF’s Antiquarian section, with its retrospective consideration, provided an engaging genealogy of protest in print. Adam Davis from Portland, Oregon–based Division Leap sold perhaps the first book to be designed as a weapon: Uwe Wandrey’s 1968 Kampfreime, a collection of protest chants from the German Student Movement bound in aluminum with sharp protruding edges for use as a baton or dagger. A text with teeth. Arthur Fournier at Fournier Fine & Rare displayed 1970s Young Lords posters alongside a 1971 “Free Angela” poster from the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa & Latin America, among other gems. Fournier spoke to the importance of putting oneself on paper as a means to access citizenship and self-representation and praised the LAABF’s fresh mix of old and new materials. “The activity of print is alive and an ever-changing conversation. You can be in dialogue with people who died a long time ago as long as you have the underground zine or poster they published.”
The standout display was the exhibition dedicated to California zinester and urban legend Teen Angel, curated by David De Baca. Teen Angels was a zine published and distributed by artist Teen Angel (whose real name and identity was largely unknown) throughout the 1980s into the 1990s, focusing on Chicano youth, graffiti, lowriders, and lifestyle in the varrios of the Southwest United States. Teen Angels is exemplary of the enormous impact of zines and their ability to create community through representation. (“Zines saved my life,” noted one exhibitor.) Spreads by the self-described “people-oriented” Teen Angel educated the community on “how to dress like a pachucho,” how to wear “chola bands,” “cruising into the past” lowrider history lessons, and more. An intergenerational crowd packed the faux-terra-cotta shingled room, ranging from old-timer contributors to the original Teen Angels to Chicanos too young to have read the zine during its original run but no less enamored with the drawings, style, and Cali vibes. The display centered on cultural heritage and influence from our southern border, one of many constituencies so wrongly vilified by the current #notmypresident.
The fair pulsed with resistance, dynamic visitors looking for action. Bronson mentioned that Los Angeles has a particularly strong zinester community, comprising nearly one-third of the LAABF exhibitors, while Printed Matter executive director Max Schumann argued that the LAABF provides a “space for community, collaboration, exchange, and tactility.” Estimated attendance neared forty thousand. Multiple exhibitors stated emphatically that, in this technological day and age, a flyer on a lamppost or other wheatpasted agitprop has greater potential to reach those from other walks of life than a post into our internet bubbles. Queer zines, feminist presses, antiracist working groups, etc., offer visual resistance.
New York City denizen Kembra Pfahler had a California homecoming with multiple LAABF gigs, including an opening night set with her band, the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, a Dirty Looks screening at Human Resources, and a display of butt prints and drawings at London gallery Emalin’s booth. Pfahler’s steadfast commitment to performance interventions and antics dates to the 1980s Reagan era and before, and there is much to be learned from her undersung influence and “availabilism” mantra to make do with what is available. “Harsh times require a harsh voice,” Pfahler noted matter-of-factly, when asked about all the love she received in LA. “We need new Wigstocks, Woodstocks, and feminisms.” (The only time the audience didn’t break into overwhelming applause at Pfahler’s commentary was when she profusely thanked ex-MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch during the LAABF opening.)
The activist-oriented Friendly Fires section supported some of the most powerful booths invested in liberation politics (at the LAABF, that is; the nearby Nah Fair featured “49 ungovernable projects & hustles . . . mostly p.o.c. and entirely anti-authoritarian”). In Friendly Fires, Kimi Hanauer from Baltimore’s Press Press advocated for multilingual modes of address and nonhierarchical forms of publishing as a response to both the English language and books as symbols of power. Allison Conner from LA’s Women’s Center for Creative Work highlighted their intersectionalidad publication and other gatherings of publics fostered by the center, including groups on parenting as protest and the Moozis, “a collective of Muslims folks interested in learning through internal exchange.”
The Women’s Center for Creative Arts’ Making Art During Fascism workshop, facilitated by artist consultant Beth Pickens, provided “pro tips on being active and engaged while maintaining your practice and wellbeing” and answered “FAQs for artists in the trumpocalypse,” a response to what Pickens called “the disastrous hate crime that was the 2016 election.” Pickens cited Jonathan Swift as an example of the effectiveness of satire and pamphlets dating back to the eighteenth century and responses to the AIDS crisis by Gran Fury as productive models of artistic activism. She also provided useful tactics for sustained creative strategies and self-care: www.holyfucktheelection.com, 5calls.org, and the Indivisible Guide are worth looking into online. Beseeching artists to continue to come back to their vision, Pickens asked self-inventory questions: “What can I offer? (Time, money, specific skills, equipment, previous experience, space, etc.)”; “In what ways do I want my practice to be integrated into and separated from my activism?”; “Are there opportunities for coalition building?”; “What do I need to be well 1) physically, 2) mentally, 3) emotionally, 4) financially, 5) spiritually?” We have a long way to go, but the programs, political horizons, and pleasures of the text at the LAABF left me heartened amid the insanity. As Pickens said: “Justice, like an art career, is a marathon.”