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Beyond Prints: A Confrontation at L.A. Art Book Fair

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OP-Art: Opinions and editorials about art, institutions, and the relationship between them.

Printed Matter's Los Angeles Art Book Fair opened recently on a minor chord. The preview promised the usual menu of food, alcohol, alternative culture. Woven into the program, however, was Erin Christovale and Amir George's Black Radical Imagination Mixtape, a program of short films exploring anti-racist experimental practices by artists making work not about, but for black people--and, in particular, for a community experimenting with the idea of black cinema and black audience. There were perhaps 35 people in the room -- as a demographic hovering between counterculture and gentrification enjoyed the pleasurable fair, a small group of mostly people of color absorbed cinematic meditations on modes of communicating and communing.

Tickets to the preview took the form of an "edition" -- a print by the artist Edie Fake. That print is an emblem of sorts: the letters "BLM" embedded, framed by an ornamental design that recalls a threshold, codex, or illuminated manuscript. Originally, the ticket, the "edition," and Printed Matter had no relation to Black Lives Matter, the social media platform and network of activist organizations. Using Facebook, artists, art-workers and scholars from L.A. asked Printed Matter if they were working with Black Lives Matter. At first there was no reply. After a few days, the growing critical conversation staged on Facebook was shut down as Printed Matter put a lock on public engagement with their posts about the fair. The artist issued a heart-felt apology for not reaching out to the L.A. chapter of Black Lives Matter; Printed Matter followed with its own statement -- part apology, and part explanation. Christovale and George invited the key parties to the table to talk with each other after their screening.

The program was a fine way to create a space for a real conversation between Max Schumann (interim director of LAABF), Edie Fake, and Damon Turner and Tayna Bernard (representing the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter). Fake, Turner and Bernard were ultra-present to one another, and to the situation. Turner and Bernard were there to educate people: this was hardly the first time people has assumed that Black Lives Matter was nothing more than a hashtag. Edie Fake seemed eager to understand how their work was received, even if that reception was negative. The artist's humble apology was a reminder: if you've got some access to racialized forms of entitlement and cultural capital, you aren't really doing much anti-racist work if you've never found yourself confronted by your complicity in inferential racism (the subtle economy of thought and action that shapes the white imagination into a liberal mask, into the classy façade of the benevolent imperialist). For the anti-racist subject, being called out and catching sight of one's own racism produces a specific form of shame -- and the more one tries to shed that shame, the more that shame risks being turned into its own weapon, a defense: Shame, guilt, anger, resentment. It is the recoil of the injurious effects of one's own racism.

Schumann seemed to be in the middle of that struggle; Fake, whose moral center as an artist is queer and feminist, was plainly more familiar with the difficult work of consciousness-raising. Where Fake accepted responsibility, and spent most of the discussion listening, Schumann returned again and again to using Printed Matter's (economic) struggle as an explanatory context for its thoughtlessness. He could not resist asserting the non-profit, benefit-like structure of the fair in defense of Printed Matter's use of Fake's BLM emblem with no awareness of the fact that Black Lives Matter is a network of actually existing organizations of actually existing people engaged in a life-and-death struggle.

The thing is, the economic struggle of any arts organization, especially one resisting the constant pressure of the wealth gap and the luxury economy on the world we build around art, is a real struggle. Small arts organizations stare at the annual operating expense six-figure threshold (a threshold to eligibility for major funding) and ask themselves: do we try to get that big? Most grants, furthermore, operate off a percentage of the organization's budget -- the bigger the budget the more money is awarded. Thus, more questions: Do we grow the size of our audience? And this is often shadowed by: Do we look for a richer crowd? Non-profit arts organizations looking to stay small have to actively resist the pressure to scale up. Schumann's replies were that of a white arts administrator haunted by the determining power of the economic. Every answer to every question was modulated, for him, by the economic realities of the "Art World."

Few have questioned Printed Matter's use of an artist's work to move tickets -- but perhaps we should. The "edition" was produced in order to raise money to cover the cost of producing LAABF inside a contemporary art museum. In its apology, the non-profit explained: "Printed Matter publishes several artists' editions to support the production of both the NY and LA Art Book Fairs. In this instance, we invited Edie to produce an artist's edition to be exchanged for a $10 entry fee to the opening night of this year's LAABF. We decided on this new system (of ticketing the opening, which we have not done before) to help us recoup the added expenses we are incurring for this year's fair -- building all the interior walls at a substantial cost."

White walls are nice, but sometimes one should ask if they are worth it.

When pressured about the disconnect between Printed Matter and Black Lives Matter, Schumann explained that the mostly white "Art World" needs to learn about Black Lives Matter -- that Edie's emblem was a good thing in the overwhelmingly white context of the Art World, because it raised awareness. Immediately people in the room complicated that narrative. A black woman identified herself as a gallery owner and as a dealer: is she not a member of that world? The artists in the room -- are they not members of the art world? The black and brown members of the audience, who don't make art, but need art -- are they also not part of this Art World that needs its awareness raised? The creative community in Los Angeles cannot be represented as white -- that is a racist presumption. It is a projection of a commitment to a racist idea, and system. The pursuit of Capital. Much of what happens at the museum/foundation/Big Institution level channels the direction of desire in this direction, away from the communities it purports to serve and toward a system that absorbs the energy and ideas of those communities into its economic flows, as merch.

A woman reached into her purse and drew out her ticket, one of this "edition" of 2000 -- a "gift" to everyone who paid $10 to get into event (it was a usual MOCA set up, lots of security folks and lists to give the public a clear message, that there is no free entry). She asked how anyone could know the meaning of the letters at the core of Fake's emblem. There was nothing on the ticket which explained that BLM was a reference to Black Lives Matter -- there was no website address on the back of the ticket, no context, no information. The edition was presented to the public as a lure -- for a mere $10, you get art that you can take home. If it's art, then it doesn't need an explanation. It can stand on its own.

BLM, in the original context of Fake's design, is memorialized: the letters appear not as content but only as form -- removed from the world, they become dead letters. It was not only that Printed Matter was not actively engaged with the local chapter of Black Lives Matter -- the problem is that the entire subject of Black resistance was treated as a design element. BLM, entombed.

Printed Matter did not profit from the ticket, but they did benefit from it. That ticket subsidized, made possible, the placement of the art book fair inside the Art Museum, which lent the whole enterprise of the book fair the shine of luxury. Even the $3 poster, the punk 'zine, the tote bag and t-shirt looks like art, if it's pinned to one of those nice walls. This appropriation of black labor lies at the root of capital itself.

Black Radical Imagination Mixtape, a collection of black-authored experimental films organized for a black public (in the most generous and generative senses of blackness), was programmed into the reading room at the Geffen Contemporary. It is a small room. The exact same program -- Christovale, George, Black Lives Matter organizers, Printed Matter leadership and Edie Fake would be a blockbuster event at anything other than the Los Angeles Art Book Fair at MOCA.

The amount of capital (economic, cultural) that it takes to "belong" in a museum is prohibitive. We feel it in our bodies and on the skin, that sense of not-quite ever-really belonging. It is not surprising that funding the building of walls would create all sorts of problems -- unintentionally, Edie Fake produced an object that forced this problem out -- forcing out the grisly relationship between racism and capital -- and they did so in a city in which there have been a series of powerful conversations (in groups small and large, all over the city) about how artists and art-workers might resist such structures of exclusion, and instead create or invent practices of inclusion. Arts organizations and institutions not identified with communities of color are at risk of doing things like what Printed Matter did. They (we, I write, as a member of the board at Human Resources, L.A.) are at risk of thinking that making work "about" racism is synonymous with an anti-racist intervention. The (often white) art-world liberal is at risk of thinking that "raising awareness," smuggling good intention into the consciousness by way of a limited edition print, is a good-enough aim in and of itself. Thankfully, Black Lives Matter organizers, and the crowd of folks who pushed back -- gave Printed Matter, the artist, and the participating publishers etc a chance to do better, to do more. Printed Matter gave Black Lives Matter a table at the L.A. fair, and at the fair in New York this fall. But, the audience, explained, while this is a good start, it is not enough. It is, in fact, the classic gesture white administrators make to the person of color who challenges the racist structures of the organization -- you fix it! The answer is not simply inclusion: it is also collaboration, and more.

It was, in the end, a very good conversation. It was one of the most honest exchanges between arts administrators, artists and activists that I've witnessed. And Printed Matter's politics are such that although Schumann might have been visibly uncomfortable, he was also clearly committed. His own presence in at least the moment of that conversation was far more than we are used to. No representative from MOCA participated in that conversation, for example, and it isn't clear if anyone from MOCA felt that they had any responsibility to be present the issue.

The weekend became, however, at least for a few, a real platform through which we explored the possibility of linking our desires for a better world to art and to action -- in conversation, rather than in commerce.

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