Fandom as an Art Form: Artists Who Adopt Fan Behavior as Representational and Political Strategies

Fandom as an Art Form: Artists Who Adopt Fan Behavior as Representational and Political Strategies

Kirsten Fleur Olds
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1048-3.ch012
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This chapter examines the practice of fandom as an art form in and of itself, exploring the example of fan clubs and zines by artists in the international mail art scene (known as the Eternal Network) in the 1970s. Fandom as an artistic practice differs from fan art produced in admiration of celebrities. Instead, what this chapter argues is that the artists of the Eternal Network engaged in fan activities. The first part of the chapter explores the network and compares several of their practices to fan behavior, including the desire for social connectivity, cultivation of insiders, and semiotic productivity. The second part delves into fan clubs and their publications as representational devices, and considers the role of affective behavior, including humor and the power of naming, to create group identity. The last section examines fandom as a form to critique social, political, and economic systems, analyzing a publicly circulated mock presidential campaign. The chapter concludes by suggesting that artists deploy fandom as a strategy to imagine the worlds they want to inhabit.
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Within the field of fandom studies, the role fan behavior has played within the visual arts has been largely overlooked. While scholars and enthusiasts have explored fan art—that is, art produced by fans related to the object of their admiration—the practice of fandom itself as art has received scant attention. In the 20th century, fan clubs and fanzines served as creative vehicles for artists to consider the relationship between the art world and celebrity culture, to mediate their experiences of consumer society, and, perhaps most importantly, to establish alternative communities based on shared objects of appreciation. The resulting clubs and publications were framed by their organizers as artworks in their own right, and, for that reason, they differ notably from other types of fan production. Rather than making work celebrating stars, for example, as the artist Joseph Cornell did in his assembled boxes (McShine, 1980), artists in the 1970s made the fan club itself into an art form, and the fan into an artist.

To begin, we must distinguish between fan art and fandom as an art form. Fan art has a different history, means of address to its audience, and form than fandom itself as an artistic practice, which is the topic under consideration in this chapter. Fan art shows were first held in Pittsburgh in 1960, at the Worldcon, with science fiction artists, both professional and amateur, presenting (Trimble & Trimble, 1994, p. 105). This led to demand for sci-fi and fantasy art, and booths and display spaces at conventions became a popular form for artists to disseminate their fan-based work. Online platforms such as Deviant Art later became vehicles for artists to reach new audiences, and fan art blossomed into a robust sub-genre of fandom. The Hugo Awards, self-described as “science fiction’s most prestigious award,” recognize both Best Professional Artist (since 1955) and Best Fan Artist (since 1967). Fan art connects creators with other fans through the display and sale of their work, which is generally related to the shared subject of veneration, whether that is science fiction, fantasy, sports, or celebrity culture.

In contrast, the practice of fandom as an art form recognizes the creative expression and inventive performativity of fan behavior itself. What is instructive here for scholars of fandom studies is that it is the practice of fandom, not solely its products, that we understand as an artistic medium. The artists discussed in this chapter recognize fandom as a medium that can be shaped, adapted, and shared with others as an artistic form, not unlike painting, sculpture, performance, or video. The forms that this takes can be varied, ranging from the rise of the fan as a performative role to the creation of fan clubs. In the former category, we see artists assume the guise of “super fans”; they fulfill and make visible the role of fan, emphasizing its distinctive qualities. In the early 1970s, for example, this meant dressing up, writing letters, producing scrapbooks, and, of course, screaming adoration; the artists’ group Les Petites Bonbons epitomized this aspect of the performativity of fandom, in shaping their group identity by becoming super “groupies,” sending kits of press mentions to various performers, attending shows, and participating in contests (see Figure 1).

Figure 1.

Figure 1. “Boby Bonbon Sable Star Dance Team of the Era”; from Robert Lambert, Egozine 1, no. 1 (1975). © R. J. Lambert.


Another, more developed and complex aspect of fandom-as-art is understanding the various mechanisms by which fandom is made visible. Artists in this period seize on the fan club as a key enactment of fandom to appropriate and re-purpose to their own ends. In this aspect of fandom-as-art, artists created semi-fictional fan clubs as forms of artistic expression. They did so by seizing on the defining characteristics of fan clubs—meetings, minutes, publicity, and fanzines. They understood these aspects as media to inhabit, not unlike other popular forms, such as photo-journals (think LIFE and Look), beauty pageants, television shows, and political campaigns. For scholars of fandom studies, this move for artists to recognize fandom itself as a creative form, not simply the products of its expression, but the form itself, allows us to analyze its structure and its contributions to society in a way that is distinguished from what individual fans make, do, or say.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Representational Strategy: Means of making meaning of an object or concept in the world by characterizing it or adopting its qualities.

Nominative Assertion: The practice of using the naming of something to call it into existence or place it within a particular context, merely by declaring it to be so.

Semiotic Productivity: A fan practice that creates the signifying culture of fandom, as elaborated by John Fiske, whereby fans make meanings and derive enjoyment that relate to their social identities out of the products of entertainment and media culture.

Meme: A recombined, repeated message diffused throughout a participatory online community

Eternal Network: Concept developed and named by the artists Robert Filliou and George Brecht in 1968 (in French as la Fête Permanente ); it subsequently became used as a signifier to acknowledge a global, interconnected community of artists in dialogue with one another first through the postal system.

Image Bank: An artists’ group founded in 1969 by Canadians Michael Morris, Vincent Trasov, and Gary Lee-Nova. They published an International Image Exchange Director in 1972, and maintained Image Request Lists, many of which were published in FILE magazine. The Morris/Trasov archive, which contains many documents related to Image Bank, resides at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at University of British Columbia.

International Correspondence Art (Mail Art) Scene: Refers to artists who circulated artworks through the mail to one another.

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