1996 Allows Readers to Consider Key Moments from the 1990s

1996 is a book, an art object, and a 24 year old time capsule, allowing readers in 2020 and beyond a chance to consider how the world was, and how the past impacts how the world currently is. 

The publication, co-published by New York Consolidated with Inventory Press, is a project of artist Matt Keegan and contains commissioned essays, letters, archival reprints, and conversations from artists, activists and thinkers. Along with the text are a bounty of image based work from the 1990s and the present, including reproductions of zine pages, historic advertisements, personal photographs, newspaper clippings, and works of art. 

In his introduction, Keegan explains how 1996 is in conversation with his 2008 artist book AMERICAMERICA written in the lead up to the US presidential election of Barak Obama, and ideas around hope, with gestures toward how political ideology changes. This, of course, is not your Obama sticker kind of hope or change. Rather, Keegan is interested in the Democratic Party’s move towards the right that occurred in the two term presidency of Bill Clinton, and that he senses will continue with 2020 election winner Joe Biden. What this move means is central to much of the book. What is the role of social movements, how does intergenerational memory loss impact how we work towards justice, what are our collective issues, how does cross-culture activism happen? All of these questions and more come under consideration when a country grows more conservative and invested in individual rights. 

With his emphasis on party politics and elections in mind, Keegan is careful to point out, he is less interested in four and eight years cycles, and rather uses these frameworks as a way to provide a “deeper critical analysis of how we record our shared histories so that future audiences and readers may build upon them” with a focus on how ”the past gets rewritten.” His ultimate goal with the book is to explore how history is something that is not passively inherited, but “actively considered.”

This is on full display, soon out the gate. The first text in the book, after the introduction, is an email to Keegan written by Democratic leader Al From. The email provides a well informed read of the 2020 election, rich with goose metaphors. Remarkably, the date of the email is March 21, 2020. This makes clear a theme of the book: history is always close, interpretation matters. 

This is then driven home through a series of conversations that appear throughout the book between Becca Albee, Malik Gaines & Alexandro Segade, Chitra Ganesh, Pearl C. Hsiung, Jennifer Moon, Seth Price, and Elisabeth Subrin, edited by writer and oral historian Svetlana Kitto. As a group they share their experiences about living through the 90s, in a manner that pleasurably vacillates from breezy to deep and back again. At times the group discourse can feel insular, such as when experiences of higher education are discussed, but those moments are brief, and the conversation often quickly opens back up though the mention of cultural touchstones such as raves, or the O.J. Simpson trial.  

One of the best parts of the multi-part conversation are the insights on offer into how the 90s impacted this impressive groups’ work. Lineage is not always about birth, or training. It can also be traced through ideas and conversations. In a poignant, yet understated, moment Ganesh shares her experiences of wanting more analysis in the 1990s that included Black people and people of color. A reader is reminded that not only are many of our contemporary conversations not new, some people have been articulating vital points of view for a long time. With this in mind, compiling a reading list of cited books mentioned and pictured would be a wise idea, including the Re/Search publication Angry Women edited by V. Vale and Andrea Juno; and Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, edited by Toni Morrison.

In terms of tone, a welcome sense of irreverence emerges in many of the individual essays. Writers tackling topics such as HIV/AIDS, climate change, LGBTQ rights, and Palestine provide humanity, humor, and insight. It is one thing to produce something smart, it’s another thing to produce pleasure. 1996 on balance gives readers both. 

Among the most buoyant of contributions is by Debbie Nathan about her role in the 1992 campaign to write in Eileen Myles for president. It provides a view into the political imaginations beyond a two party system and the kind of brio it takes to try. Also full of intellect and verve is artist Dave McKenzie’s essay, “On ‘We Shall Overcome’”, a written adaptation of his similarly titled performance piece. A meditation on race and place, McKenzie shares documentation and background into his performance about Bill Clinton’s short lived post-presidency Harlem office. There is a welcome frankness in McKenzie’s text that illustrates how straight forward and compelling his performance must have been to the people who got to experience first hand. 

Towards the end of the book Keegen shares “Born in 1996,” his series featuring interviews and portraits by Adam Pape featuring people born in the year of the book. Hearing from the youth is welcome, not only to get a sense of their world but also as a stopgap against nostalgia. Time, after all, is a moving target. 

As 2021 draws closer, and we figure out how to put 2020 behind us, while dragging forward the lessons and our memories, 1996 provides a helpful template: talk with friends and peers, listen to people younger than you, and dive into your personal archives. Together, we make the future. And, as the book makes clear, we also make the past.

Edited by Matt Keegan, with interviews edited by Svetlana Kitto
Inventory Press
Hardcover, 9781941753361, 248 pp.
November 2020