At the Japantown stop, it is immediately apparent who is going to or has just left the LAABF. Spotting them is even easier than my airport game “who’s waiting for the flight back to Portland”.
A big stage and a perpendicular line of food trucks kettle the LAABF people towards the aperture of the fair. One glum dude at one door clicks a clicker when you go in. Another glum dude at another door clicks a clicker when you go out. There is more about this situation that says “hipster genocide in progress” than not.
Moments after feeling the relief of being in a big city where I know only a handful of people, I see someone from Portland. Luckily they are much cooler than me. We do not say hi.
There are lots of people inside. You could stress-test AI systems by asking them to sort the seemingly obvious people tropes. At first glance there about 25 types, but the distinctions are fluid and challenging. We do not have powerful enough technology to sort the Gwenarths. That’s what I call the tall art-fabulous women dressed like Gwyneth Paltrow was sent back to the early 90s to solve crimes and tried to blend in by wearing clothes of the time. Some of them have hats.
Taken as a whole, Gwennarths are the largest group. If you recognize the internal schisms, then that honor goes to tattooed-bearish-art-fabulous-dudes-who-look-like-they-will-rub-your-back. They insist on wearing shorts.
It is immediately overwhelming. I consider putting on my new, deal-with-normal-situations prescription sunglasses. I note that even in this crowd, there are fewer people wearing sunglasses indoors than there are people in actual costumes. The costumes are, without exception, impressively hideous.
There are more beautiful books than you can count. Cabinet is here! I love Cabinet. I do not visit their table.
Some of the booths have large prints hanging behind them. Many of them are cozily beautiful; the press colors make a sort of beautiful you could imagine curling up in for an afternoon. Some of them are a certain combination of inscrutable and mundane. Knowing average litho prices makes one start to regard them more as phenomena that spontaneously erupt from cities as wide as Los Angeles than projects done for purpose or profit.
There are many, many books of this type. Sometimes you pick up a book thinking it is an inscrutable book, but somewhere between its covers the small and strange subject makes itself clear to you, and you know something you could not have known before. I remind myself that this kind of beautiful is still, relatively, rare.
I somehow believe that the ideal, genuine reader for each of these dear objects exists somewhere and will understand them fully, but that the authors are mostly on some kind of long con. Selfish conceiver-projectors tricked into selfless, zenlike production by an obtuse schedule of anti-strategies, ringed by occasional hermetic craftspeople.
If you shop at the Gagosian booth, you get a Gagosian branded shopping bag.
Near their booth is a wall of vintage 8x10s of naked women, priced with the kind of for-sale signs you put in car windows. It failed to be ironic.
My friend Vivian arrives, reminds me of the existence of coffee, and if by magic I notice a Stumptown bar. Alaskans get a mineral rights dividend, Finns get a box, and I think Portlanders get to expect one of these to follow us around. Coffee makes the crowd bearable until I know it will make it unbearable.
In the zine room, there are so many tables, full of personally curated, scribed, and stapled objects of obsession and curiosity that it is actually difficult to find my friend Sean’s table. He misses us when he walks by, and I shout his name. Later, he shouts my name as I walk by his table, oblivious, for the second time.
In the zine room, you are surrounded by evidence of a recent agreement. It is sealed in Day-Glo triangles and coolly-awkward line art on the shirts, arms and posters of the affiants. The deal goes something like
Ok, we were raised post-post-structuralist within a decade of the last chance we had to turn off global warming, were teens around 9/11. We chambered ourselves in schools that reflected analysis and signification back on itself laser-like, and we live among the most accomplished grabbers, and they are grabbing everything as it goes. It seems possible to be aware of everything at once, and impossible to affect any of it, so let’s take mushrooms, read Žižek, and listen to Bill Callahan and Die Antwoord. We can dress like parodies of Zack Morris and Blossom and produce tumblr-friendly geometric abstractions that refer to nothing while slouching away from the self-conviction the modernists had but smoked up. Assuming art history and a conservative set of mores for art objects to be gravity, we will be weightless. We will stay very busy by mocking the frivolity that we achieve by spending all of our time mocking the frivolity that we achieve.
I say to Vivian that maybe I want an arty girlfriend. But one who wasn’t what she looked like, like us. What I looked like: a fussy bisexual design writer who brews coriander beer and strongarms all conversations back to the forgotten postwar Baltic mausoleum architects he wrote his dissertation on.
The coffee started to slide out of my veins, and I fled the crowd for that line of food trucks outside. One of the food trucks used “Portland” as an adjective on its biggest meal. The options were burgers or ice cream sandwiches. I chose the pink burger truck.
I sat down with the one book too captivating to leave behind, having done so once before. I was sliding down the bad side of a steep caffeine and hunger sensory breakdown. The spare, radiating color fields pulled me in, held me with an ease and confidence that I’ve never been able to find in the beachy-formalism of all the tumblr art. I felt good about staying in their thrall until my burger arrived to stupid me up.
Then a noise band started playing on the stage right in front of me, attracting a huge clump of people. I don’t know who the bearded twats were that had started to jack off on stage, but I sure as shit knew exactly what their set was going to sound like. Being a teenage punk in Michigan in the 90s is a good way to quickly learn the scope of noise music. I still miss the Salvation Army Marching Band and their guitars strung with screen-door springs. Have you been to a noise show performed by not-professional musicians? Then you know what this sounded like too. The more pointless their affected thrashing became, the more the crowd pressed to show that they were getting this, that they were in on it. A bunch of people listening to deafening atonal confrontation? Fine, cool, try, and try hard until you love it. That’s not what this was. This was like Boris Vian wrote 1984. Steely Dan is a noise band instead, and these guys heard a few albums and thought “yeah, let’s do that at outdoor events.” Fuck those guys.
The ladies at the burger truck were having as hard a time with the band as I was. I fled with my burger and my book to a WWII memorial behind the stage. Maybe everything that mattered was over. At the same time, I knew firsthand that there were a few kinds of beautiful in that building that were really, really hard to find anywhere else. And a lot of hilarious creepy sex cartoons. While I ate my criminally delicious burger, I watched a homeless man pushing a cart full of bottles do a slow double take at the band and its crowd.
Later I ended up at a bar that was showing Katy Perry’s halftime show, and remembered that nothing I think about ever matters at all.