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At the LA Art Book Fair, a Missed Opportunity to Address Race

    Edie Fake, "Passageway (Black Lives Matter)" (2015) at the LA Art Book Fair (all photos by the author unless otherwise noted)
Edie Fake, “Passageway (Black Lives Matter)” (2015) at the LA Art Book Fair (all photos by the author unless otherwise noted)

LOS ANGELES — In the days leading up to the LA Art Book Fair (LAABF), and during Thursday’s preview, members of the LA arts community criticized the organizers for their use of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) meme and for deleting critical comments from the event’s Facebook page.

As part of a fundraising effort to help cover its operating expenses the fair’s organizer, Printed Matter, commissioned artist Edie Fake to produce a set of “ticket edition” prints to be given to the first 2,000 attendees of Thursday’s preview, during which, unlike subsequent days of the fair, visitors were charged admission. The print, titled “Passageway (Black Lives Matter),” contained a reference to BLM, leading many to believe BLM organizers were participating in the LAABF. Fake was given a booth at the fair in exchange for creating the print.

On Thursday night, curators Erin Christovale and Amir George of the Black Radical Imagination film program invited BLM organizers Damon Turner, Tanya Bernard, and Darryl E. King, along with Edie Fake and Printed Matter’s acting director Max Schumann, to a post-screening discussion about the events leading up to the fair.

“I went on to Printed Matter’s event page, and some people had already started to ask, ‘Are you guys giving any of your proceeds to Black Lives Matter or anyone who’s participating in that movement?’” Christovale said. “Their answer was no. That became really problematic for me, seeing that not only was this term being co-opted, but they were making money off of this term.”

Christovale then reached out to Patrisse Cullors, artist and co-founder of Black Lives Matter. Cullors and members of the LA chapter of the organization were not aware of the use of the BLM meme at the art book fair.

“I won’t speak for everyone, but it’s not so much about the piece, but more about the context of invisibility and understanding what that means,” Turner said in a phone interview. “To say black lives matter, it’s imperative that you understand it’s not just heteronormative black men. It’s for all of us. It’s for trans women. It’s for the young child. It’s for the otherly abled, the incarcerated. The design is cool, but it lacks the context around why black art is not valuable in a space like the MOCA.”

Advance tickets to the preview night, along with a promotion to the “ticket edition” print, were being sold on the Printed Matter website with no disclosure about its relationship (or lack thereof) to the BLM movement or links to support the organization. Without context, the print seemed to memorialize BLM as a moment in history rather than an ongoing movement. It also trivialized the concept of BLM, turning it into a badge to be worn as a form of radical chic to advertise one’s alliance with black lives without risk or effort.

After Printed Matter announced on Facebook that it would not be donating any of the proceeds from the “ticket edition” to BLM, many commenters, like Christovale, expressed their displeasure with the organization’s use of the meme. Among the critical voices was artist and community organizer Raquel Gutiérrez, who described in an email the eventual deletion of comments from the LAABF’s event page: “I went on vacation for a week and saw on Saturday a bunch of comments and questions and critiques all for the most part anchored in curiosity and desiring more accountability. There wasn’t anything unfairly posed or even antagonistic but there was plenty of silence [from Printed Matter], and then the sudden deleting of comments and then deleting of any mention of Edie Fake’s poster work.”

Flier image created by Karen Tongson in response to Printed Matter
Flyer image created by Raquel Gutierrez in response to Printed Matter (click to enlarge)

The silencing of the criticisms inspired Karen Tongson, a professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, to respond by encouraging LAABF participants to speak out against the organizers. Her comments were among many others that were deleted from the Printed Matter event page.

“I feel it is important for those of us who are participants in the broader arts community, but not necessarily in and of these art organizations and institutions, [to] continue to hold these institutions accountable for their actions, especially when it comes to perpetuating privilege,” Tongson wrote in an email. “Is it the same people who are shown all the time? whose voices are being broadcast and represented? What experiences are attributed ‘value’ on the art market, and what experiences are tokenized or marginalized in ‘group show’ settings reserved with identitarian or ‘ethnic’ themes?”

What followed the criticisms was a concerted effort by Fake to reach out to BLM organizers and respond to the comments circulating on social media. He also offered to sell 200 of his proofs of the “ticket edition” and donate the proceeds to the BLM movement.

“In this moment, I have reached out and I think what is key right now is to build support and participation during the Fair for Black Lives Matter, pooling resources and information and organizing around the hard work of dismantling oppression,” Edie wrote in an email. “We are living in a overwhelming crisis of police violence supported by deeply racist infrastructures. That needs to be a central conversation in the art world as much as the world at large.”

“I take my hat off and salute Edie Fake for the email [to BLM organizers] that they sent out and the deep and sincere apology about what it caused,” Turner said. “I love that people are creating in this moment. The deep apology and accountability, Edie took that on full-fledged. I think their actions showed that level of accountability.”

Artist Edie Fake, curator Erin Christovale, curator Amir George, and Black Lives Matter member Damon Turner at the LA Art Book Fair
From left to right: Artist Edie Fake, curator Erin Christovale, curator Amir George, and Black Lives Matter organizer Damon Turner at the LA Art Book Fair

On the eve of the Fair, Printed Matter’s acting director Max Schumann broke the organization’s silence by issuing a statement on the event’s Facebook page apologizing for the controversy. The statement included an offer of a table at the LAABF for BLM organizers.

During Thursday’s post-screening forum, Turner invited Schumann to embark on a deeper collaboration with the movement that goes beyond financial and material support. “The way that Black Radical Imagination collaborates with artists to get conversations generated, this is a prime opportunity for all of us who are appreciators of art, who are movers of culture, to really have these hard conversations and not find the easy way out,” Turner said. “The easy way out is, ‘Let me give you a free table.’”

In his defense, Schumann cited Printed Matter’s history of supporting artists and radical practices as evidence of the organization’s good intentions. He also expressed regret that the segment of the art world he deals with most is predominantly European and white.

“A lot of our audience is educated, white, middle-class, and above,” Schumann said. “Although our mission is to circumvent the established institutions and marketplace of mainstream art production, we’re also complicit in that.”

What was not clearly stated, however, was Schumann’s commitment to changing the dynamics of whiteness and privilege through education and workshops within his organization, as suggested by BLM’s Tanya Bernard.

“It’s hard to lead people, it’s hard to organize, it’s hard to fight for the lives of other people,” Bernard told Schumann. “I would urge you in this moment to not respond with what is difficult and just sit with it and think about the power that you have, think about the steps you might be able to take to create change and move from there.”

The earnest yet fraught attempts by Printed Matter to support BLM belie a cultural and structural issue within the organization that seems to render it unable to hear critical voices and recognize imbalances of power. When Schumann described in his Facebook statement the notion that Printed Matter might be exploiting the BLM movement as “misplaced,” it was another way of saying that the oppression or suffering of a group is not real, that the injury inflicted is less severe because it was not intended maliciously.

The work of programs like Black Radical Imagination, which affirm black dreams and futures through film, and groups like BLM, which educate others through compassion, may help us see the radical alternatives to the present condition of black lives. But it is up to those who claim to be allies to decide whether or not they will help build those alternatives, both in the art world and beyond.

The 2015 LA Art Book Fair, of which Hyperallergic is a media sponsor, takes place at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (152 North Central Avenue, Downtown, Los Angeles) through Sunday, February 1.

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