Our Troubled Youth Statement
"Our Troubled Youth" is a multimedia project including photography, video, writings, curated items from my own and other archival collections, and programmed events.
Portions of this project have appeared at MASS Gallery in Austin, TX; Tracey-Barry Gallery at New York University's Fales Library; and the Brooklyn Museum. The Mass Gallery exhibition was a "critics' pick" in Artforum.
Here's my artist's statement from the exhibition at NYU: In an age of Facebook, Instagram, and other forms of online networking, and at a moment when definitions of “friendship” are undergoing rapid change, “Our Troubled Youth” traces a complicated history of friendship before social media -- through DeVun’s personal archive of 1980s and 90s punk ephemera, through items from the Fales Library collection, and through an installation of original photographs and collaborative video. 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. This show centers on these (coded feminine) aspects of punk in the form of confessional letters, mail art, and embarrassing expressions of fandom. The exhibition also keeps in focus how the word “friendship” has long operated as a euphemism for queer bonds. Queer friendships were also at the heart of New York’s punk arts and nightlife communities, a history of social networks that is encapsulated in the Fales Library. Through these multiple conduits, “Our Troubled Youth” pictures an underground narrative of friendship, while also considering how archives function to create both personal and official histories.
Here's an essay I wrote about friendship books, which make up part of the project, published in the book Public Collectors, edited by Marc Fischer, along with a few images from it:
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.