Event GIF documentation of Jamaican-Canadian dub poet, educator and spoken word performer Lillian Allen performing in front of a Yoshi Sodeoka GIF projection from “Sheroes #10: Grace Jones” (May 2012) (courtesy Lorna Mills)

Editor’s Note: Rea McNamara is the Journalism Fellow of Curators at Hyperallergic, a position funded by the Emily H. Tremaine Foundation. Designed to demystify the curatorial field, the position encourages professional curators to engage with the public and discuss ideas important for their own practice while writing critically about the field as a whole.

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For almost 20 years, I’ve had this headcanon — a deeply-attached and idiosyncratic obsessive fan understanding — of pop star Justin Timberlake as a serial killer. 

I blame Kel and Lise’s flesh mechanic: not an AU.. Otherwise known as “The Justin Timberlake serial killer fic,” it’s a subversive example of an often celebrity-obsessed form of fanfiction called Real Person Fiction (RPF). Set in a post-Y2K future where *NSYNC have broken up due to Timberlake’s death cult spiral, the self-published 2002 HTML hypertext narrative is an eerie, crime fiction interpretation of the boy band’s then-hiatus.

In the taxonomy of art work, I consider flesh mechanic a vernacular web descendant of Olia Lialina’s My Boyfriend Came Back from the War, an early net.language narrative recounting a couple’s fraught post-war reunion. This, and other work emerging from the early aughts internet, is formative to my understanding and participation in online culture. Bush II-era celebrity culture consisted of paparazzi upskirt shots of Brazilian waxed-young female celebrities torn to shreds by body-shaming user comments. That same culture churned clicks for American Apparel banner ads shot by the now disgraced Terry Richardson and Richard Kern. Feminist blogs like Jezebel didn’t yet exist, so fandom provided this necessary third space to critically express gender identity and digital selfhood.

It comes as no surprise then that after an almost 15-year long hiatus where I convinced myself I had serious cultural tastes, my boy band obsession swooped back in as a late-2010s and beyond coping mechanism. One Direction got me through Trump’s inauguration, and now my dependence on BTS and other emotional support K-pop boys are getting me through this pandemic. 

Like so many of us, I struggle. I miss stadium concerts, underground nightclubs, packed theatres, travelling; I miss being with people, getting lost in a crowd. Prior to the pandemic, I made the choice to no longer work in an institutional space. I intended to establish a consultancy that would steer experiential change within cultural organizations and institutions through public project design and delivery. The pandemic has shifted this work online, but it’s hard, because my curatorial practice operates at this intersection of online culture and live performance. So my boy band fandom isn’t just a quarantine coping mechanism, but a reprocessing of remaining participatory modes of imagination.

Event GIF documentation of storyteller and artist Bahia Watson performing in front of an Esteban Ottaso GIF projection at “Sheroes #12: Nina Simone” (July 2012) (courtesy Lorna Mills)

As a writer, curator, and public programmer, I often use media fandom’s collaborative processes as a curatorial approach. An early project, Sheroes (2011-2012), was staged simultaneously at a Toronto queer bar (The Beaver, co-founded by the dearly-departed artist, club promoter and cultural activist Will Munro, who was responsible for the groundbreaking 2000s queer club party Vazaleen) and a “Fuck Yeah” Tumblr. The limited-run art party series intentionally bridged the on/offline divide to convene artists, performers, and musicians to explore the iconography and cultures of fandom surrounding female musicians and artists like Yoko Ono, Dolly Parton, and Erykah Badu. Every month, an icon was finally given her flowers and inaugurated into the “League of Legendary Ladies,” a femme patheon for queens who pushed boundaries and persevered with goddess-like strength. (We were deliberate in our usage of seemingly dated second-wave feminist language.) The project wrapped with a July 2012 all-day and night art and music festival, Virtual Season, for the artist-run center Whippersnapper Gallery

A blonde woman, lit by orange and blue light in a darkened club, turns knob on an analog synthesizer mid-performance.
Experimental pop artist/musician U.S. Girls (Meghan Remy) performs at “Sheroes #8: Marianne Faithfull” (March 2012) (courtesy Tony Halmos)

The series was significant for its presentation of group GIF art projections co-curated by artist and key Sheroes collaborator Lorna Mills, which increased the visibility of artists like Anthony Antonellis, Jeremy Bailey, Jennifer Chan, Alex McLeod, Eva Papamargariti, and Yoshi Sodeoka, among many others. Less known is how those works were presented simultaneously alongside commissioned performances and site-specific installations; headliners included Polaris Prize-winning artists/musicians like Lido Pimienta and U.S. Girls, as well as the legendary Juno Award-winning dub poet Lillian Allen. I wore many hats for Sheroes: live art curator, club promoter, party hostess, DJ and performer; other key collaborators included art director Tony Halmos, the brains behind our branding and a contributing artist, and filmmaker/sound artist Alvaro Girón, AKA Sheroes’ resident DJ Noloves. “It wasn’t relentlessly white,” says Mills of Sheroes, which informed the later intergenerational assembly-line curatorial approach of her remake-as-critique Ways of Something project. “It was wickedly and irreverently feminist. It merged club culture with internet culture.”  

As a grassroots DIY project, Sheroes embodied community formation strategies drawn from media fandom. I always felt its form was similar to a fest, basically a large-scale community-driven online fandom event challenging fan-creators to produce different forms of fanworks, like fanfiction, GIF sets, and even fanart within often thirsting parameters. Participation was in line with fandom’s sharing economy values; at its heart, there was a barrier-free invitational rhetoric. We were a free Thursday night monthly event. All the on- and offline organizers, artists, and performers donated their time; we wanted to be fair and accountable. In exchange, you got to produce work with complete anarchic freedom in response to a very loose but discerning thematic within an uninhibited countercultural space (a queer bar). Further, we would mythologize the shit out of your work.  

Sheroes #10: Lillian Allen & House of Monroe from Sheroes on Vimeo.

To walk into the bar, then, for a Sheroes party was to commit to cross-cultural solidarity via immersive and experiential art-making. Party favors included a limited edition trading card, a pay-what-you-can thematic nail art bar, or a jewelry pop-up. Our “Sheroes #10: Grace Jones” party (May 2012) is a favourite. Headliner Lillian Allen freestyled riddims over a looped “Warm Leatherette” sample, also on the bill was vogueing crew House of Monroe and Lavish Bat (AKA Nigerian-Canadian artist Oluseye) looming largely in matching black veil and vinyl platform boots. As DJs Todd Rod Skimmins and Noloves kept the bodies moving, we were lit by the frenetic flashes of the two-channel GIF projections. In this setting, I operated within the party curatorial tradition of Susan Barsch and LadyFag as the cosplaying hostess reeraw: I worked the room in my angular wig and neon bristol paper dress, knocking back gin and tonics and making sure attendees felt welcomed, or enough drink tickets were circulated amongst talent. We wanted attendees to feel close to Jones, to connect with style and performance as a defiant political gesture. Our philosophy aligned with artist-scholar and DJ madison moore’s own work around fabulousness as an expression not of wealth or status but of self from a marginalized position, and a party night being a space for collective and creative resistance.  

Lavish Bat (Oluseye) and reeraw (Rea McNamara) from “Sheroes #10: Grace Jones” (courtesy Tony Halmos)

The real-time documentation and found materials distributed via our “Fuck Yeah” Tumblr shaped a critical discourse for our participating artists; hell, we even ran a “Sheroes Stan Residency” programme. For a July 2012 conversation published on Emilio Gomariz’s Triangulation Blog, LA-based artist and Sheroes regular Andrew Benson reflected on how the projected fannish behaviors encouraged performative-based research alongside communal dialogues around practice and art-making: 

“I work really hard on Sheroes things (partially because I’m procrastinating on other big scary projects and I’m a workaholic), but it’s really cool that you can sense there are all these different levels of intensity that people treat Sheroes with, and it all has a place. The conversation around Youtube videos, process shots, and later on the Stan contributions really took it deeper for me. I like that it felt like the conversation got started on G+ but then moved around to different online spaces (Tumblr, Facebook) and how the different spaces created different conversations.”

These public gestures aligned with mutual aid: monthly brunches and rehearsals sometimes involving Google Meetups, mail art packages, thank you notes, emails and DMs with encouragement and support. I learnt so much about curatorial care, but also exhaustion: the project was largely self-funded with significant financial support from Halmos, who is also my life partner. Like many grassroots DIY projects, Sheroes legacy is at risk. Those involved in the project do not have the resources to do the necessary preservation work. But Sheroes lives on as a network of artists, musicians, DJs, dancers, drag queens, stylists, makers and performers who continue to thrive and even collaborate with each other.  

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Event GIF documentation of Canadian punk-house queercore band Kids on TV performing at Virtual Season (July 2012), an all-day and night art and music festival for artist-run centre Whippersnapper Gallery (courtesy Whippersnapper Gallery)

It’s strange to look back on a sweaty party night that happened almost ten years ago and watch footage of bodies pushing close up against each other without fear of transmission. After almost 15 years of operation, The Beaver closed for good this summer — yet another pandemic loss. When I went to see the BTS concert film, Break the Silence, last month in an actual cinema, I was sad seeing these wide panning shots of millions of purple light bombs sparkling a stadium, cut to closeups of happy, shining faces. 

I think so many curators and public programmers struggle right now in understanding how networked publics can gather together, how we can sustain meaningful connections between unlikely communities. Cultural spaces are so important because of the ways it can provide a platform for constituents to openly debate art, culture and politics. How do we cultivate that same spatial imaginary right now online?

This is why I find value in media fandom. My ongoing immersion in its digital feminist subculture sustains a radical optimism. When I went ARMY — the name for BTS’s loyal fandom; coined by the band themselves, the acronym standing for “Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth”, which, yeah, I know — it was a return to that third space, to that place where my serial-killer-Justin headcanon still exists.

Fanfiction thrives in collaborative worldbuilding. Within fandom, we call this “fanon”. Whereas headcanon is a more individualistic interpretation of materials, fanon refers to the meme-like elements emerging from fanfiction narratives — a fan-held “canon”. Think all the Avengers living happily ever after in Stark Tower, or even a Black Hermione Granger. Through this re-writing process, subversive genre narratives emerge, enabling a centering of feminist, queer, and trans-cultural authorship. 

Granted, media fandom can be toxic, with its tinhatters, truthers, and other conspiracy theorists. While there was much celebration about the political force of K-pop fandom’s fancams during the Black Lives Matter protests, as well as BTS’s own $1 million donation to BLM, largely absent from these conversations have been an assessment of the doxxing that targets at a higher proportion Black K-pop fans who dare to openly critique on social platforms like Twitter industry incidents of anti-Blackness and cultural appropriation. Simultaneously, in light of author JK Rowling’s ongoing commitment to TERF-esque transphobia, fans within the Harry Potter fandom have had to wrestle with either moving on, or disowning the author and her franchise which has famously profited off the fandom’s community and transformative works.

Event GIF documentation of a GIF work by artist Gaby Cepeda at Virtual Season (July 2012) (courtesy Lorna Mills)

Nonetheless, fannish activities are increasingly informing the art and research of artists, writers, curators, and performers like Maya Ben David, Jo Hauge, Georges Jacotey, Owen G Parry, and Daniella Sanader. (I featured some of these artists in Obsessive Pop Tendencies, a 2019 curator-led interactive art and media fandom crossover viewing party for the media arts presenter Pleasure Dome.) In the 2019 Goldsmith Press anthology Fandom as Methodology, editors Catherine Grant and Kate Random Love examine how modes of fan production can be “a way to open up a conversation about what it means to be an artist or a scholar within an university and art world context that increasingly wants rationalised, monetised outputs.” This is evident in Emily Allan and Leah Hennessey’s Slash, a play reprised earlier this year as a limited-run DIS.art video series. By restaging real and imagined catfights between famous academics like Camille Paglia and Susan Sontag or Andrea Dworkin and Allen Ginsberg, the artists’ hot-headed, but also excessively attached re-enactments of these uber niche conflicts, based upon lost Youtube video interviews or tell-alls, countering academia’s cool, critical remove in recounting intimate histories and politics.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has reenergized digital environments, we’re seeing gaps in its networked support. As the new Emily H. Tremaine Journalism Fellow for Curators, I’m interested in the generative possibilities of digital feminisms and utopias, and how accessible on- and offline worldbuilding can impact online curatorial work but also extend therapeutic care and pleasure. 

What does the curator’s stewardship look like in archiving these online communal spaces? As mentioned, Sheroes has a “Fuck Yeah” Tumblr blog riddled with disappearing online artifacts. Given the increasing awareness for time-based media art preservation, how do we archive and even document these projects embedded within platforms owned by impervious Big Tech companies? As more curators immerse their work within internet subculture community practices, how will institutions sustain this work and research? 

These are big questions. For the next six months, my goal will be this: investigating how reimagining networked culture from feminist perspectives can lead to better online exhibition-making practices. And given Hyperallergic’s own roots as a blogazine, expect some listicles, memes, GIFs and even fancams along the way.

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Rea McNamara

Rea McNamara is a writer, curator, and public programmer based in Toronto. She has written extensively on art, culture and the internet for frieze, Art in America, The Globe and Mail, VICE, Art F City,...