A banner of the exhibition using a detail of Mark Heresy's Will to Power painting. It uses the motive of the snake and the apple tree with both the snake and the apple being Spiderman-patterned. The tree's lines are not coloured, the entire image evoking a comic book's style. The background has spiderwebs. Above the detail is the name of the exhibition: Affirmation/Transformation: Fandom Created.
Mark Heresy, American, b. 1965. Will to Power (detail), 1992, Ink on paper, 28 x 22 in, 2000.11.5, Gift of Peter Norton, Collection of the Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University

Putting on an exhibition was the furthest thing from my mind when, through my PhD assistantship, I was placed at Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum of Art in the Fall of 2022. To say that I was anxious to talk authoritatively about fine art would be a dramatic understatement. Historically, my visits to art museums included confusion about what was (and wasn’t) considered “good,” and my daily experience with art centered around the fan pieces I saw posted on Tumblr and Instagram. I was, to put it bluntly, terrified.

During the same time period, I was struggling to find the focus of my dissertation. With Master’s degrees in both English and Business Administration, and with a passion for fanfiction, I knew I wanted to talk about fan compensation. I had read plenty of scholarly books and articles that were passionate about promoting fandom as valid, positive, and useful, and plenty more that broke down the unpaid labor that fans engaged in for their fan objects, but I had never seen these two concepts addressed at the same time. Texts considering fan compensation tended to view fan labor in a negative light. At best, fanworks were viewed as a gift from a fan to the fan community at large, with fans knowing they would be repaid when other fans within the community gifted their own fanworks in return. (Nevermind that I myself have a fic on AO3 that is—as of writing this—the only fic belonging to its extremely rare-pairing). At worst, fanwork was viewed as unpaid labor, utilized—often unethically—to prop up the mass-media corporations who profited from it. I wanted to consider the ways in which fans were paid that weren’t specifically monetarily based, and I wanted to address the topic from a position of honoring and respecting fanworks in all their forms. 

Even with this knowledge of what I wanted to discuss, I was struggling in my program. My experience in both of my Master’s programs had not prepared me for the fast pace at which new ideas and theories were disseminated in fan studies and through digital communities. Each time I thought I had found something new and exciting to add to the scholarship, I read a new paper—or more often watched a TikTok—which said my great idea in a better and smarter way than I had considered it. I felt discouraged and lost. I took a step back from my research, deciding to focus my time and energy on my assistantship instead. The museum was showing a portion of Marquette University’s collection of Tolkien manuscripts, and part of my duties included gathering three minute oral histories from fans for The J.R.R. Tolkien Fandom Oral History Collection. Inspired by this experience, I began to think about museums and archives, about what gets archived, about what gets displayed, and about who gets to make those decisions.

When the Haggerty Museum’s Curator for Academic Engagement approached me about an exhibition centering my own research, my first thought was to hang fan art on the walls. This, I was quickly told, was not an option for a plethora of reasons. Couldn’t I instead, it was suggested, use fine art pieces to discuss these types of fanworks? I first considered using pieces that could themselves be seen as fanworks—variations on mythology and biblical stories, new ways of considering historical moments and places, Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe… but this didn’t feel like enough. Everything is inspired by something. Is that enough to make it a fanwork?  

It was from these thoughts and musings that Affirmation/Transformation: Fandom Created was born. Fourteen fine art pieces were selected from the Haggerty’s permanent collection—each of which will be used to discuss something that fans create. I categorized fan creations broadly: alternative readings, collections, community and collaboration, emotional responses, histories, identity, meanings, new texts, parasocial relationships, play, political and social movements, rivalry and opposition, rules, and theories.. The 14 fine art  pieces will be hung in the gallery during the exhibition, but are also currently available to view online. In this ongoing project, fans are invited to create fanworks inspired by these 14 pieces, and the fanworks submitted will be displayed digitally alongside the fine art. Think of it like a Prompt Meme challenge, featuring fine art as your prompt!

My experience with fandom is as much about community as it is about the thing I’m a fan of, and this is why it was so important to me to avoid discussing fandom in a vacuum. An exhibition of just my voice explaining what fans created felt cold; it felt disconnected from and disrespectful to the very thing I was trying to celebrate. This is why my dissertation project is collaborative, featuring the voices and creations of fans everywhere. I also feel called to ensure that these fanworks are treated with the respect that they deserve. This doesn’t just apply to the ways in which I will write about them in my final dissertation text; moreso, it is vitally important to me to take advantage of the opportunity I have to archive fanworks in Marquette’s institutional repository. Archiving these fanworks not only preserves them for potential future academic research, but also marks them—and fanworks in general—as being worthy of a place within the academic archive. 
Fan submissions for Affirmation/Transformation: Fandom Created are being accepted now, and will continue to be accepted through the close of the exhibition (December 22, 2024). In order to be on display in the gallery on opening night (August 23, 2024), fanworks must be submitted by August 1st. All types of fanworks are welcome, as long as they are submitted digitally. Sound will be available to be played in the gallery (fanworks will be displayed on tablets with headphones attached).  For more information, visit https://epublications.marquette.edu/fandom/Affirmationtransformation/, or email Kate Rose at [email protected]

Affirmation/Transformation: A Fannish Autoethnography Created