I’m Your Biggest Fan
An interview with Stacia Yeapanis on the blurry lines between television fandom and fine art in her video and fiber work.
Stacia Yeapanis is a Chicago-based artist whose work has spanned across genres and mediums — from creating intricate, colorful sculptures from collected objects and collage to screen-capping images from The Sims computer game. She got her MFA in Fiber at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) in 2006, and now teaches at the school. During grad school and throughout the aughts, Yeapanis fell down the rabbit hole of fandom, and became preoccupied with gathering moments from television. She created painstaking cross-stitched images of TV characters crying and curated clips of characters in existential crisis. An intense fan of television myself (and of Yeapanis’ work) we recently met to talk emotions, fanaticism, and finding the meaning of life in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Brontë Mansfield: Have you always loved television?
Stacia Yeapanis: I’ve been a lifelong TV and media fan, but in my undergrad, I was still in that phase of “TV bad, literature good” — which I do not agree with anymore. My work from 2004–2012 was focused on TV fandom and media participation. TV played a really big part in my childhood. Some may look down on that and call me a latch-key kid, but there is something deeper going on for those of us who grew up on TV.
BM: TV gets such a bad rap, but to me, it’s always been a glorious thing. I have to say Buffy the Vampire Slayer probably saved my life — first when I was in high school, and again now that I’m in grad school.
SY: Me too. I discovered Buffy in grad school, and at that time it was still on the air. I started investigating the fandom itself: what became interesting to me is that other people love Buffy too, as much as I did and sometimes in different ways. I am interested in this experience or idea that we can all be united by a text, and that that’s no different that literature. That Catcher in the Rye is a seminal coming-of-age text is no different than something on television.
BM: And then you fell down the rabbit hole that is Internet fandom. Could you talk about how and why that happened?
SY: I would define fandom as different than casual viewing. Fandom is a creative, fully-engaged practice, and it means that you are engaged with a text — a TV show, a book, a work of art, a sports team — not just intellectually, but you develop emotional and psychological connections to it as well. Fandom is also a communal practice, although sometimes it begins in isolation. I watched TV alone as a kid, so to find out in my late 20s that other people were watching it too is great. When I was looking at the fandom online it was exciting to see how many people were interested in different characters and how they were interested. It was a really vibrant online creative subculture.
BM: What are some examples of fan creations?
SY: One examples is fanvids — videos made of clips edited together — which is a way to have a conversation with the text, to have a conversation with other fans, to participate actively with media, and not just consume passively. There are conventions, dressing up in costumes, games, writing fan fiction, and fan art like drawing and digital collages — it’s not all good, by any means. But what I am interested in is this creative practice that’s not concerned with the idea of being unique or new, but actually concerned more with connecting.
BM: How did you start making work in the same aesthetic as fan art?
YP: I was really interested in collection. I think of collection as an existential gesture, which I also think fandom is. Especially online, where people had made these really crappy sites that probably took a lot of effort and no one visited — but I saw that exertion as existential: “I exist and I like Buffy, and I’m just putting it out in the world.”
Part of what I started collecting were images of characters crying. Quite a bit of fan art is about favorite couples, and reinforcing the excitement around celebrity and beauty — and I am utterly uninterested in that. I am very interested in fictional characters. When I saw that other people’s fan art was about romance and love, I thought “what do I love about it? I love it when I cry.” It is an emotional release, it gives me a sense of not being alone, it helps me process my own experience. I was always aware that people thought “TV is manipulative, it makes us cry” — but only if we consent. No one’s really making fanart of people crying, so it does look different that other examples of fan art — it’s not just shiny lights and pretty hair and look at my favorite character.
BM: This lead to your body of work called Everybody Hurts, a cross-stitch series you did from 2004 to 2012. How long did it take you to do those?
SY: It depends. A small 8x10 would take a month. I would do those in the evening while watching TV, after spending the day in the studio working on other things. I tend to work on a lot of things at once. The biggest Buffy one took six months.
BM: That one is titled “It seems like the birds shouldn’t be singing anymore, but they are” (2007). I was wondering about that piece in particular. Buffy fans will immediately recognize that red shirt from when Buffy’s mom dies in the fifth season episode “The Body.” It is one of the hardest things I have ever watched, so seeing that piece brings a flood of emotions back to me. Is that what you hope for with these pieces? Or do want these pieces to speak to a shared human suffering or reach a place of empathy even for those who haven’t seen the show?
SY: Both. I want them to work on many levels. When I was creating this piece, I was thinking about how there might be some universal experiences: we suffer. We don’t all suffer in the same ways. We all suffer but how we encounter is different, so I’m sure that there can be a universal work of art that speaks to everyone from every class, race, demographic, country — we just all have different experiences. But everybody cries, everybody hurts, and everybody knows what that looks like. So everyone can relate to that image of suffering, even if they don’t know that these are TV characters. People who don’t recognize where these embroideries are coming from can still recognize the emotion, and still respond to the hand-made quality, the playful contemplation through stitch. People that recognize the characters tend to think I’m being snide or ironic, smart and clever. That’s okay, but in reality, it’s supremely personal and sincere for me. I think that’s what makes this a successful body of work, that it operates on all these levels.
It Means Whatever You Want It to Mean
In this remix video of appropriated clips from 23 television shows, the characters carry on a conversation about the…
BM: Let’s talk about your piece “It Means Whatever You Want It to Mean” (2010). Here’s my unabashed fangirl moment: this is one of my favorite pieces of all time. Whenever people ask me why I love TV so much, I send that video to them and say “because people can do this.” It pulled a lot things I was thinking about together.
SY: Me too! I think of it as a culmination of the fan work. It was the thing I was trying to get towards the whole time. I’m interested in some kind of existential, philosophical narrative that I see in these shows, and was looking for a way to connect them. I also think of television as a space to ask bigger questions; it doesn’t have to just be entertainment. It never has been for me.
BM: How long did that take you all together?
SY: Two years. I would be cross-stitching and watching TV, then whenever anyone said something interesting in a show, I would write it down, mark the timecode, and clip it right away.
BM: There is something you say in your artist statement: that you are “looking for evidence of a shared human condition in whatever surrounds you” — I felt like that was full encapsulated within this one video. There are these giant, human questions that we ask — what does any of this mean? It’s crammed into this video with all my favorite shows. Now I’m gushing!
SY: No, it feels good! It’s my favorite piece that I’ve ever made, but I don’t think art people have really seen it. I think it is something that can speak outside of fandom, and I designed it that way. With fan vids, if you don’t know the text, you can’t understand the editing. To artists, it looks like crappy film making, because they don’t know the rules. But I did want to make something that would be legible in both spheres.
BM: That is difficult: realizing that other people are not as into TV and fandom as you are.
SY: But that’s how you find your people! I think one of the most important things about watching TV and finding other people who like TV through my work was realizing that actually what I’d always been looking for was belonging. And I think that is the human thing that connects us all. We all look in different places, and not everyone is going to find a sense of belonging in my video — but we are all trying to find it somewhere.
Some people look at my art and say “it’s about fandom,” and I say “well, it’s using fandom to talk about being a human.”