Punk Archives Statement
This is a multimedia project including (1) my personal collection of pen pal books, or "friendship books"; (2) an installation of letters and ephemera sent to me between 1987-1991, along with an accompanying sound piece; (3) an essay about my collection in the book Public Collectors, edited by Marc Fischer; and (4) a panel I organized at the Brooklyn Museum: "I Will Resist With Every Inch and Every Breath: Punk and the Art of Feminism" (featuring Lydia Lunch, Narcissister, Johanna Fateman, Astria Suparak, and Osa Atoe) that took place on March 12, 2015.
While many recent exhibitions and publications have focused on punk, there's been less attention given to the friendships and epistolary traditions that were at the heart of the scene. My work centers on these (coded feminine) aspects of punk in the form of confessional letters, girly doodles, and embarrassing expressions of fandom. In the age of Facebook and Instagram, this exhibition asks what it means to be a friend. One version of this project was installed in 2015 at MASS Gallery in Austin, TX and was a "critics' pick" in Artforum. An expanded version of it will appear at New York University's Fales Gallery in 2017.
Here's my essay about the friendship books:
I started collecting pen pal books, called “FBs” or “friendship books,” when I was in high school, living in a smallish town in Washington state in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I was part of a circle of punk and gothic music fans who that traded fanzines and mix-tapes through the mail. Every time I got a zine in my mailbox, there were usually one or two FBs tossed in with it. These little handmade books— about the size of a 3 x 5 in. notecard, and stapled together— were a way to connect with other punks, especially since at the time only a few local friends shared my tastes and I couldn’t go to shows or record stores with any regularity. FBs were collaborative books where each contributor decorated a blank page, usually with ball-point pen or watercolor, but also with glitter, lace, candle wax, tin foil, ribbons, candy wrappers, whatever was on hand. It was customary to list one’s interests, usually bands, but also other passions (Yoko Ono, comic books, or, in one FB, “bedhead”). Some people used their pages to ask for copies of rare records or advocate for political causes. Some offered up nothing more than a few lines of poetry or lyrics from a song. But most included a name— usually a fake punk one— and a mailing address. The back page of the FB was a free zone, scrawled with doodles and notes between pen pals. You could start an FB for yourself, or someone could start one for you. Once you decorated your own page, you sent it through the mail to the next contributor. The person who filled in the last empty page was supposed to return it to the originator, whose name was on the front. At that point, a nifty piece of collective art arrived in the mail, introducing a whole new group of potential friends to each other along the way.
While there has been much interest in punk flyers, zines, and other ephemera, FBs like the ones in my collection are virtually forgotten. Because their history is so undocumented, it’s difficult to trace the origins of FBs with any certainty, but they likely have roots in earlier mail art, and possibly even in the centuries-old German and Dutch friendship book traditions of the album amicorum (book of friends) or Stammbuch (friendship book). FBs introduced alienated punk teenagers not only to each other but also to underground bands and ideas during a time when such information was difficult to access. In this sense, FBs were an analog form of social networking, allowing teens to share interests and build communities long before the arrival of Internet-based forms of social media. Like online communities now, FB aficionados shared musical discoveries, developed visual vocabularies, and embedded themselves in networks ranging far beyond their schools and neighborhoods. The relationships and artistic styles they cultivated also constitute a neglected part of punk/fanzine history.
Publishing and exhibiting FBs has presented an ethical dilemma: although these books were not strictly private, they were originally meant to circulate only in a small community. My effort to track down FB creators to get their permission to reproduce them hasn’t been successful, both because so much time has passed and because participants often used pseudonyms. To protect the privacy of the artists here, I’ve digitally manipulated the images to conceal identities and locations. I’ve changed or erased parts of any name that isn’t an obvious pseudonym, and I’ve subtly altered the numbers or names of towns and street addresses. I’ve tried to retain the aesthetic integrity of each page by making the changes as invisible as possible. Despite my hesitation about publicizing them, FBs are historically important, not to mention great-looking, and they deserve to wind their way through the world again.