April 12, 2024
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Monster Mash: Anthropology major turns research into an art zine

A scene from Annabel Fair's zine, A scene from Annabel Fair's zine,
A scene from Annabel Fair's zine, "Our Days Amongst: Monsters and their Becoming." Image Credit: Provided.

Monsters lurk in the shadows under the bed, or beyond the safe circle of the village in the woods. Fodder for horror films and Halloween costumes, they warn us to stay with the familiar, the known, the expected.

But monsters are more than just fantasy creatures. We give that name to people as well, individuals whose differences we fear or hate.

“Monsters represent a kind of other, something for us to push against,” reflected Annabel Fair, a 2020 anthropology graduate who researches the intersection of monstrosity and the queer and transgender experience.

Fair turned their research into a zine — a short, self-published art book called Our Days Amongst: Monsters and their Becoming — as part of Anthropology Associate Professor Joshua Reno’s course in graphic anthropology during their senior year at Binghamton University. In the course, class members considered ways they could present research in a visual medium, from info graphics to graphic novels.

“All the students created art projects of different kinds. Annabel went above and beyond and was one of the only students to curate the work of other artists,” said Reno, who was Fair’s advisor at Binghamton. “At the core of this zine, as I see it, is a fundamental rethinking of the idea of monsters.”

The everyday lives of monsters

During their time at Binghamton, Fair explored multiple majors, from French to music to geological sciences, and then back to French again after a three-semester break. That led to linguistics and eventually to anthropology, which proved a good fit for their diverse range of interests. Another component of their time at Harpur College was the wind symphony, which provided a needed break from the rest of school.

An avid gamer, Fair initially planned to focus their research project on tabletop games such as Dungeons and Dragons. But monsters proved fascinating enough to warrant a project of their own.

As part of their research, Fair established an online community through Discord dedicated to the topic. The community has welcomed many artists and nine agreed to participate in the project. About half of the artists involved in the project are international.

“We decided to focus on the everyday lives of monsters, both in the traditional ‘creature’ sense of monster as well as the experience of being made to feel like a monster for not conforming to social expectations and hierarchies,” Fair said.

Each vignette in the zine shows monsters in everyday situations, from a horned cyclops buying glasses to an asexual, angelic wheel of wings and eyes chatting with a human roommate about music and movies. In each short tale, the monsters clash and occasionally adapt to a world not built for them.

The project focused particularly on monstrosity, sexual orientation and gender identity. The dominant culture has traditionally regarded identities contrary to the cisgender and heterosexual norm as aberrant and monstrous: Consider the trope of the predatory gay man, for example, or the sinister shapeshifter-like transgender individual who invades private spaces.

“If it can’t fit and it can’t be categorized, it’s otherized and persecuted,” Fair said.

We think of monsters as beyond the borders of human possibility, but humans create those borders, Fair explained. And while the assimilationist narrative — that monsters are “just like us” — might be appealing, it’s also false. Difference exists, but it’s also okay.

“We’re not asking you to let us in; it’s about you letting yourself out,” Fair said. “Monsters represent in some ways things that are impossible. There’s this line that doesn’t have to be there.”

Getting the zine into print is a long-term goal. Currently, it’s available for download for a donation, with proceeds going to Black and Pink, a nonprofit focused on prison abolition and supporting LGBTQ+ and HIV-positive prisoners.

The Discord server’s online community continues to thrive and welcomes new members, but has shifted focus these days to gaming. Fair’s own research focus, which centers on queer and trans liberation, has only deepened since graduation. Now living in Kingston, N.Y., they are on a sabbatical of sorts, working their way through a lengthy reading list while considering graduate school. Like monsters themselves, Fair’s area of interest is complex and crosses disciplinary lines, which makes finding the right program a bit of an adventure.

To explain their research focus, Fair offered a term from game designer Avery Alder: impossibility models.

“We can’t design our possibility models from systems that hurt us; we need to look beyond what we consider ‘possible’. I’m trying to locate monsters as a source of liberation, opening up the experience of transformation and self-actualization,” they said.

Posted in: Arts & Culture, Harpur