Arlington Central Library sits across the street from Arlington Funeral Home, and on a weekday afternoon the average decibel levels of both buildings are probably about the same. As you approach the library’s D.C. Punk exhibit—which is culled from the collection of an unnamed library employee who, according to spokesman Peter Golkin, “wants to keep a low profile”—the irony of the whole thing feels pretty obvious. The cut-and-paste posters, bold LP covers, and frenetic photographs on display are full of aesthetic screams, but the only thing you hear while perusing them on the library’s hushed second floor is the insistent hum of a Xerox machine.
These artifacts provide a sweeping glance across the past few decades of D.C. punk: There are photos from an early Void performance, flyers from Positive Force benefit shows, and framed LPs from bands like The Make-Up, Dag Nasty, and The Evens. It’s a small exhibit—I walked right past it at first—and on first glance, one that’s slight enough to prompt some I-rode-the-Metro-to-Ballston-for-this? disappointment. About a quarter of the items are LP covers, at least half of which anyone who makes the pilgrimage to the exhibit probably could have appraised from the comfort of her own bedroom. On one of show’s carpet-textured, cat-vomit-grey display panels, all five different colored versions of the first Minor Threat EP are displayed side by side; it conjures both Andy Warhol and your middle school’s for-the-parents art show.
But a closer look reveals a more interesting narrative. The most worthwhile part of the exhibit is its collection of flyers, which cover like wallpaper a large rectangular pillar at the center of the floor. This display evokes the kind of posting board where, on the street, the originals were probably tacked up askew and routinely ripped down. Here they’re arranged with a careful order: They give off an odd, not-entirely-punk sense that they are sanctioned to be there. Most of the flyers advertise house shows and benefits and packed bills at now-defunct venues like dc space or the old 9:30 Club, but look closely among them and you can also trace an implicit, secondary story. A flyer for a local premiere of the classic 1982 punk doc Another State of Mind (“D.C., what does ‘punk’ mean to you?” it asks in a handwritten scribble) hangs alongside one advertising the 1988 photo book Banned in D.C. Local punk in particular has always understood the importance of self-documentation. The more time you spend in the exhibit, the more the genre’s librarification feels like an inevitability.
Boosters might wish to see the contents of this exhibit in a proper museum; others might say they belong nowhere but Tumblr. But there’s a peculiar charm to seeing this stuff in a spot as commonplace as the Arlington Central Library. The sheer volume of flyers is a testament to the everyday banalities of living a scene, of printing out zines, flyers, and quarter-sheets to stuff into hands as a show lets out. Maybe the music of the Xerox machine is an apt soundtrack after all.