Bad Fan Museum Lecture

This lecture was originally given as part of the exhibition Bad Fan Museum, hosted by the Mechademia Tokyo 2016 conference on Asian popular culture studies at Aoyama Gakuin University. 

Bad Fan: Reassessing My Relationship To Takashi Murakami and Fandom

  In the olden-days of the year 2000 it might now seem quaint that Takashi Murakami could have declared in a manifesto, “The world of the future might be like Japan is today — superflat.” This theory essentially suggested that graphic flatness was a core attribute of all Japanese culture, and was glibly dubious at best, and perhaps self-excoticising at worst. Whatever one might think of the veracity of “superflatness” as some mythical quintessential aspect of Japanese culture, it remains the idea that launched Murakami’s rise to global prominence. But the methodology of the claim, presented in the form of a proper manifesto at the front of the exhibition catalog, clearly suggests a broader subtext to Murakami’s assertions. The manifesto is most associated with early 20th century modernist art, which is now the mainstay of the art historical canon, museum collections, and global auction houses. Indeed, the manifesto is a form that is studied more as a historical curiosity these days than earnestly used by current artists. Leaving aside the content, merely by presenting his claim as a manifesto, Murakami is clearly trying to conjoin all of these Superflat artists in the context of the most canonical art which has been reified by almost every major institution in the Western art world. What is particularly radical and slyly subversive, is that formal qualities aside, all of the artists associated with the Superflat show were most connected to each other through their deep relationship to fandom. Viewed from this angle, “superflat” is less a core value of Murakami and his cohorts, than cipher for what I think is Murakami’s accidental, but much bigger, deeper, and more fraught question. A question that is extremely relevant in relationship to the theme of this conference, “Conflicts of Interest in Anime, Manga, and Gaming,” and also one of the driving forces for my work as an artist.

    Though I could almost perceive this echoing question from the initial Superflat group show and its manifesto-fronted catalog, fragments of this “big question” are presented like a detective story in his book Little Boy, published a few years after Superflat. It is a massive tome in which Murakami chronicles his innumerable influences, both fan-related and fan-connected through music, film, anime, manga, games, fashion, and pop culture. Somewhere in all of the haze of sleep deprivation, furtive page flipping, and shocking newness, I had for years convinced myself that in one of these texts, Murakami recounted that as a youth, he wasn’t even clear which path he was on, that he doesn’t think he made a conscious decision to be a fine artist. That indeed, many of his friends, became otaku. I thought that he spoke at length about his core animating question, which was: why is it that he became an artist rather than an otaku?

    To step aside for a moment, like any good psychological thriller story, it turns out this was pretty much made up. He never exactly blurted out some deep, dark secret. You see, for many years I only had my memory of reading that supposed interview furtively in a museum gift shop. The book, like so many of Murakami’s “pop art” goods was luxuriously expensive, especially to a young artist. But once I got a copy, it turns out that like so many of those nebulous moments in the growth of an artist (or thinker), my misunderstanding was actually a really intuitive deep reading. Though it took me the better part of a decade to realize it, my formulation of this question was one of those fortuitous mutations that takes the logical continuation of one idea (Murakami’s blurring of on art and fandom) and fuses it with new obsession which gives it some unexpected new line for growth. 

    If you are wondering, the truth is more complicated. Though I made up the existence of a direct quote, I think that this framing of Murakami’s grand question actually does exist, albeit in a subtle way. To elaborate, after an encyclopedic look at his fandom inspirations, buried in the large text chunk at the back he mentions in an interview that everything else aside, he is a “derailed otaku,” and then again a few pages later that he is a “failed otaku,” all the while interjecting observations about the awkward but close relationship of the art world and fandom vis a vis otaku. So, he never outright said this was his big question, but stepping back and looking at the whole of these two books and the show, it is actually incredibly clear that whatever Murakami’s intention, the question remains present and potent. 

    My own art practice came to consciousness though misunderstanding: Through seeing some mirage ofMurakami as a failed fan. But with this positioning came with it the novel understanding that Murakami was not claiming to know what defines either art or fandom, nor that one is intrinsically better than the other. That both of these cultural spaces can teach us more in dynamic relationship with each other than in isolation. Going back to read that interview in preparation for this talk, it is intensely clear that I was picking up on a very real subtext. The tone of the conversation still implies he feels slightly chagrined that he didn’t become a fan, and he constantly voices a deep ambivalence about the art world. So from this context, his underlying question blossoms outward with a multitude of other related questions: What are art and fandom each capable of? What makes them different? How do they both relate to society? How do fans of each relate to their canon? Are people who like contemporary art fans too? What are their driving impulses? How do we know which is which? Who gets to make decisions about what gets publicly shown? How do they make money? How do they both relate to art history? What are the failures of each? 

    There are innumerable related questions about fandom and art that spawn from Murakami’s initial observation that the pathway of his life forked at a choice between being either an otaku or an artist. But for me, the most fascinating lesson that can be gleaned is that by looking at the totality of this choice, that the road of life has a juncture between otaku and artist, necessarily implies that these two places, so often seen as at vast odds in popular culture, are in fact in close proximity and in close relationship with each other. Not only are they intimately related but their complexly productive and antagonistic relationship, seems to imply that they related that they have a special relationship which, to use the philosophical term, would be called “convenientia.” For those not familiar with the rather obtuse jargon [and I really hate using jargon except in a case like this where it provides a word for something that really needs a word] I’m borrowing Foucalt’s super-useful word which means roughly, cultural places that are conveniently adjacent, thus capable of intermingling their passions and influences and also that are necessarily in juxtaposition with each other, despite not having any overt similarities.

    Teasing out these often hidden interconnections, both in their similarities and tensions, is a core part of what animates so many of us academics and artists, and very much lies at the heart of how I put together this Bad Fan Museum. In this case, my misreading of Murakami questioning what differentiates art and fandom was perhaps even more confusing but perceptive in its day than it seems now. This is because the question was asked a time of profound change in global fandom. For some historical context, and many of you will know this so please bear with me, Murakami’s rise happened just after Evangelion (with it’s incredibly contentious assault on fandom) aired in Japan, which was the first mainstreaming of otaku culture there/here in many years. In the United States, our first exposure to Superflat was the same year that Miyazaki (he of the ever-funny meme “Japanese culture is doomed”) got nominated for an Academy Award for Princess Mononoke. This unexpected public success in the United States (despite being a relative commercial failure) resulted in having screenings of his other movies at various American art museums the year before Superflat toured. People from my college anime club were so excited that they cried during the Art Institute of Chicago’s screening of Nausicaa that year, sitting alongside perplexed older white folks in expensive black pea coats who make up the core of the season ticket holders. 

    It is critical to understand that Murakami’s manifesto, written in the late 90s, and more importantly this deeply personal and uncertain question about the relationship between fandom and art, was made at a crossroads that no one yet knew were a crossroads. A crossroads which held the beginnings of digitally fueled cultural globalization. Anime fandom might have been boiling over in a way even the most diehard fans could never have anticipated (I mean, my Dad started regularly watching anime on TV a only a few short years later) but from the inside we hardcore fans were plugging along as usual, just with bigger convention hotels and some bad Geocities websites with midi tunes screeching and animated gifs winking to speed up our tape trading. Live Journal, let alone the rapid churn of Tumblr’s memes that defines the scene today, were the organizational infrastructure of cosplay. The Superflat manifesto was a product of this era that had yet to embrace nerds, geeks, fans, and otaku, as the most highly-sought-after, highly differentiated, super-consumer demographic that now rules the media roost, often with a whiny iron fist, in 2016. In this light, it can hardly been seen as anything but prescient that the Superflat museum catalog has at its end a bright red advertisement for the commercial gallery that represents Murakami in NYC. 

    The reason I wanted to talk about Murakami, an artist who I never particularly liked (to me Takashi Homma’s wall of photographs of banal life in suburban Tokyo stole the show) is because the Superflat show, through my deep question about the relationship of fandom and art, was the bell-strike that clarified, and indeed gave me license, to utilize this inherent tension of the convenientia borderlands of “fan” and “artist,” to explore the forces that drive the culture that swirls around us. Forces which we almost never directly notice. These two forces became the materials that I would often smash together in my artistic supercollider to study and theorize about what high energy cultural particles flew out. 

    But to explain how my micro-museum got its name, it is critical to tell the other half of the story of fandom circa 2000. Throughout this talk I’ve been discussing primarily the part of my story after taking the imaginary fork in the road toward artist. But my experience as a fan is deeply intertwined in why I was so eager and so receptive to this contextualizing question. The year I saw the Superflat show was the same year that the anime club I started and helmed, kicked me out at the behest of the lone local comic shop. This was because, being the loudmouth I am, I at some point publicly stated that buying their $30 bootleg tapes of licensed shows was bullshit and unethical. This made the store owners put me on their Nixon-style enemies list, which in the days before coordinated Twitter harassment campaigns and doxing, meant only that I was banned from the store and that they pressured anyone who wanted to buy from their store to boot me from being in charge of the club. That moment, as small as it seems in light of the crap that happens today, was a really nasty introduction to the vast scope of forces from the world outside of idealized fandom that I had never noticed swirling around and modulating our desires, despite the loud claims from us as fans that our inward-facing fervor was autonomous from the rest of culture. 

    One of the main reasons I wanted to make this project, with all of its fragments, ambiguities, awkward remembrances, and incompleteness, was because I realized that for some reason, and unbeknownst to me, I seem to no longer be an anime fan. But like a patron wandering around a new museum, I didn’t understand what forces had categorized me in this manner. I don’t even know when exactly my fan status was revoked (or if it was abandoned). It could be when I was kicked out of the club. It could be when I started making art about fandom. But this notion that I was no longer included in the ranks of fandom came to a head couple years ago when I was out drinking with a bunch of friends who work for major fan companies, and who still watch tons of anime and who cosplay regularly. During the conversation one of the people there rather pointedly contradicted my opinions with the statement “Yeah, but that is because you’re not a real fan!” Her accusation really stung me, because I had started 5 anime clubs, a convention, had a zine that Yuu Watase was a fan of, and was in the middle of my third major art project about anime fandom. But I could also see that it was also true - I mean, in the crassest criteria I think the last anime I watched might have been almost ancient in the eyes of modern fans, Planetes, or Welcome to the NHK.

    Just a few months later, I was in Minneapolis where I was showing that body of work (the Neo-Japonisme Project) when an undergrad student, and apparently big anime fan, called me a “just a bad fan” while talking to me about my show. Now this is despite the fact that student goes to the anime club I started at the college! Fuming over beers afterward, I realized that I couldn’t even figure out what a “real fan” or “bad fan” was, and in fact, I can’t remember when in the past I really cared if I was counted amongst the legion of anime fans in America. But this also got me thinking back to if I ever really knew what a “real fan” was - and the more I went through my archives, the more I rearranged the documents and art going back to 1998, the more I realized just how fluid and contracted the idea of fan was. I also realized the innumerable times I had been called a “bad fan,” or “not a real fan”, or been told my fandom was lacking legitimacy or authenticity. As many of you here might have experienced first hand (very likely more than me, given that I’m white and male), this constant other-ing—this dismissal of difference—this belligerent policing of some imagined authenticity—remains one of the most used and most painful attacks in all of fandom’s battles. Is it any wonder I was so receptive to any cultural space that could provide a way to deal with the fact that one of my earliest strong memories of being a fan was sitting at the Anime Expo artist alley table for my manga-style zine and being spit on by a passing older fan-man because we were “desecrating a noble Japanese art form”?

    But these experiences, though painful, can prompt metacritical questions that reframe and broaden the scope of our vision. What does it mean, what does it take, to no longer be a fan? What does it say about fandom that it is so obsessed with inclusion and exclusion? Are my experiences then fake if I’m a fake fan? What happens when, as Murakami discusses, you become a “derailed otaku”? How can we integrate and move forward with those intense and formative experiences, now marked as “failed”? What scars, what insights, what predilections do those times leave with us? As I’ve gotten older, and spent more time making art about my fan experiences, I have come to realize these are questions fandom can not, by it’s very definition, answer from within. But, as I have hopefully demonstrated by taking great pains to point out that I have had an elaborate, constructive, multi-decade relationship with art that really don’t like and which I only found valuable through a deep misunderstanding, fandom’s adjacent neighbor, art, thrives on these sorts of questions. In this way, the “Bad Fan Museum” is a way to construct a social space which can hold those things which have influenced me so deeply, but which the highly commercialized media landscape (and the often equally rigid art institutions) finds too slippery or uncomfortable to approach: contradiction, ambiguity, and painful incompleteness. That, to put it simply, commercially oriented fandom can’t do anything useful with the idea of a “bad” or “fake” fan, but in the underground art world such ideas are the perfect fertilizer to nourish and enrich the soil for creative production.  

    All throughout contemporary art, you can see representations and recombinations of these fraught fragments of ephemera and inglorious cultural histories being utilized. Whether it is Astri Swendsrud & Quinn’s Gomez’s mining of the lost history of Los Angeles’s alternative religious organizations in “Semi-Tropic Spiritualists”; or Tarrah Krajnak’s utilization of faded vintage Peruvian pornographic magazines with their coded political implications in her “1979” project; Leiko Sheiga’s “Rasen Kaigan” is making some of the most interesting photographic works in the world by delving the depths of fading rural mythologies and modern ecological disasters here in Japan; while French artist Stephen Dean is plumbing the spectacle of the mass crowds of sports fans for installation projects like “Volta.” So many artists are embracing the idea that, as childhood development researcher and David Hume scholar Alison Gopnik states, “…our selves are something we construct, not something we discover.”

    But why frame this whole murky expedition as a “museum,” you might ask? One of the things that avant garde art, including Murakami in his own glib way, has regularly explored in the past century is the idea that any idea of a museum is an argument. It is inherently a public argument about what we assign as valuable, what we propose is worth thinking about, what we think the social role of art should be, and what kinds of systems and structures, what kind of approach to knowledge, we want to propagate. Perhaps most infamously, Michael Asher, who was a teacher of mine and recently passed away, performed his “George Washington” project which highlights these institutional questions. In this project Asher moved a public statue to the “wrong” wing of the Art Institute of Chicago (into the French section from its place in storage for the American wing), but the actual core show is the elaborate documentation of the move, of the history of the statue, the awkward photos of it being moved, all of the archive materials down to insurance cards, that the museum has produced around the rather bland sculpture. In this way, he completely inverts the view of the museum, making into art the vast forces which govern what we see in a museum, that typically go unseen.

    The Bad Fan Museum is an attempt to make those interconnections and their highly mutable permutations, palpable, and as as such able to be talked about. This show was an attempt to take a few steps back to be able to see as much of the undulating borderlands between fandom and fine art. Critically, the metaphor of the museum is a direct way to create a show that contained within it my art work, but also the broader cultural concerns around it, the room, the place, Tokyo, Japan more broadly, and even the process of selecting, thinking, traveling. In this way, the Bad Fan Museum was the best way to highlight the painful and often failed past experiences in my life as a fan of Japanese cultural products, with my misunderstanding of Murakami, and with my relationship to the knotted up core of fandom in 2000. 

    After all, beyond my own story, contained within those millennial years so filled with giddy, apocalyptic feelings and the first glimmers of the internet, is the dense cultural matter that made up the explosion of global fandom that we now know. Both the unexpectedly positive, and the shockingly negative were intensely seeded from this explosion; but neither of those particles were easy to see for what they were at the time. After all, we had other things to worry about: almost every marriage and relationship started during this time in my sprawling group of fan friends has ended painfully as the 2000s have come to a close. All we have now are fragments of the past and the complex relationship of fandom and media entangled within and without it. Highly incomplete fragments, at that: A smattering of photographs, torn out ephemera, hazy stories, discarded flip phones with cute anime nicknames for friends, archived halves of email conversations, tapes lingering in a landfill, milage on cars no-longer owned from driving to Little Tokyo to buy Japanese magazines we couldn’t read and eat crappy ramen, and 404-Not-Found addresses that loaded slowly on dial up modems and only exist as archive screenshots uploaded amongst the trillions of images that are made every year in the era of HD video streaming on our phones. These tangible, tactile, bits define the feel of that liminal era hovering between physical and digital. 

    In making this work, it really hit home how far we’ve seemingly passed beyond the analog epoch (at least in our shared public metaphor and our ability to find materials that predate the digital explosion). It is critical to understand that many of these shards of past fandom, and even many of Murakami’s points of contention, might be poorly suited for easy transferral within the current hyper-kinetic social media systems that are the lifeblood of fandom in 2016. An era, where, as photography theorist Judi Dean says:

“Communicative capitalism’s circulating images are images without viewers. It’s not that images are unseen (although many go unshared, culled, deleted like so many thoughts unsaid). It’s that they are not seen as separate images; they flow into our life montage, becoming the visual common through which we converse, the archive or inchoate lexicon of our expression. Digital images don’t present themselves as objects for scrutiny and analysis but for repetition and imitation. The less unique, the better. We don’t have time to look at them – just a quick glance and then we’ll share and scroll down. “

    But if you know where to look, there are tiny few fragments left from that colossal explosion which spread these tiny battles about fandom’s meaning, borders, and future, seem to continue to rage all across the vast global nova of the media landscape we now inhabit.  With the Bad Fan Museum, I wanted to sift through the ambiguous relationship of all of these fragments, to deliberately embrace their awkward and outmoded fit to the current systems of imagistic distribution, much the same way that in this talk I wanted to re-examine the fictitious but useful story I developed from the fragments of Murakami’s project. What new questions can we find by picking up, turning about, rearranging, flipping-over, and even misunderstanding these relics and by-products of the explosion of global fandom? This might be a museum of broken promises, “bad fans,” “fake fans,” false starts, failed relationships, incomplete understanding, hokey ideas of the future, trivial details, contradictory assertions, deep misunderstandings, playful propositions, and obsolete ideas— but all of which combine to make rich the seedbeds that grow the unexpected future.