Write or wrong
Anne Elizabeth Moore brings Cambodian women's zines to ThreeWalls.
We’re lounging on Thai pillows with former Punk Planet publisher Anne Elizabeth Moore, who’s in the middle of installing “Holle Cambodia” at the West Loop gallery ThreeWalls before the exhibition’s February 20 opening. The pyramid-shaped pillows lie on a low platform, where Moore intends visitors to sit as they listen to the show’s audiobooks. An idyllic landscape painting covers part of the opposite wall, above a shelf that holds photos Moore took in Cambodia and zines made by her students there.
The Chicago-based writer and activist, whose most recent book is Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing and the Erosion of Integrity (The New Press, 2007), visited Cambodia from November 2007 to February 2008. She taught self-publishing to 32 17- and 18-year-old girls studying in Phnom Penh—just a few months after Punk Planet, an indie fave for 13 years, went out of business. The magazine “shut down because of accidental government censorship,” Moore says. “We have this free-market system [that allows competition], but the things that end up winning are the things that are the most corporate and have the most money behind them. Punk Planet, in valuing independent culture, couldn’t survive in that environment. So I started looking at other examples in the world of accidental censorship. And Cambodia came up.”
Cambodia has not yet recovered from its Khmer Rouge regime, which killed at least 1.7 million people between 1975 and 1979. According to Moore, the Cambodian educational system wasn’t rebuilt until the mid-1990s—and it promotes rote memorization rather than the critical-thinking skills Americans take for granted. She spent the first two weeks of her workshop explaining what zines are and convincing her students that people would care if they expressed themselves. The landscape painting in “Holle Cambodia” reproduces one of her students’ works: It was the first art the young woman had made since the age of three, when she was ordered to give up such “frivolous” activities.
Moore, 38, who grew up in South Dakota and Minnesota, says she was a “politically engaged kid” who eagerly watched The Killing Fields, a film about the Khmer Rouge, when it came out in 1984. Most of her students, however, knew nothing about the genocide because Cambodians are discouraged from asking questions about the past, Moore tells us. The young women decided to make their first zines guides to topics of local interest, such as the history of Phnom Penh, the Khmer New Year and rice cultivation. When the class distributed them at bookstores and cafés, they were snapped up immediately, Moore recalls. They’re awesome: Written in English (rather than Khmer—to avoid attracting too much attention from would-be censors), the zines contain drawings and descriptions of everyday life that demonstrate their authors quickly figured out how to tell concise, compelling stories in distinctive voices.
After a few weeks, some students asked Moore to take them to the Killing Fields, where many of the Khmer Rouge’s executions and mass burials took place. Then they questioned the Chbab Srey, a centuries-old document that “lays out the mandates of girl culture,” Moore says, quoting: “You must not rustle your skirt when you move. You must not look boys in the eye.” The students wrote their own set of rules, New Girl Law. Examples include: “Girls should be allowed to choose marriage partners by themselves, in consultation with their parents.”
When Moore returned to the U.S., she learned how to letterpress and hand-bind at Providence, Rhode Island’s AS220 print shop so she could produce New Girl Law as a beautiful artist’s book. One copy is on view at ThreeWalls; another’s been sent to its authors. Visitors to the show can listen to a recording of the students receiving it. “They’re like, ‘It’s from America! It’s from Sister Anne! Is it candy?’?” Moore says with a laugh. “And then they open it up and they’re like, [Shrieks] ‘It is our book that we made together!’ They start retelling the whole story of how the book came about. [On the recording,] you not only get the gist of what these girls want out of the future, but hear them arguing about, ‘Oh, no no no no. We do not need to know how to be strong. We are girls.’ ‘But what if a tiger attacks?’ ‘Oh. If a tiger attacks, it might be helpful.’?”
“Holle Cambodia” runs through March 27 at ThreeWalls.