Are we rebels? Zine-making, dissent and identity
- Published: 14 August 2010
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With its DIY ethic and long association with political subcultures of dissent, is zine-making by nature an anti-commercial activity? Sarah Langston spoke to zinesters across the globe – and found some often polarised views.
In March this year, a zine-making workshop was held by Bird in the Hand Zine Shop at a small Sydney magazine store. The store was one of a chain, and the choice of venue sparked a ripple of discussion in the zine-making community.
Some called it discord, while others approached it as discourse. The blogosphere saw more than one musing of the issue, the most notable being Sydney zinester Emma D's thoughtful commentary on their Flying Machine blog. The highly circulated Sticky Institute's newsletter featured both a defence and a heavy critique of the workshop. A whole array of viewpoints clashed and mingled.
But why did a simple choice of a workspace stimulate such a heated debate?
The key questions being asked by those who found the choice of workshop space problematic revolved around whether zine-making practice was an inherently anti-commercial activity. This, many of them said, was due to its “do it yourself (DIY)” ethic and long association with political subcultures of dissent – the punk scene, for instance.
Some posited that this concept of rebellion from the dominant capitalist paradigm was so internal to zine-making practice and culture that the choice of hosting a zine workshop in a magazine chain store was thoroughly inappropriate. It was, as Emma D mused on her blog, “like having a coffee appreciation day at Starbucks”.
Others disagreed, staunchly touting zine-making as an apolitical, creative practice that anyone may interpret as they wished. For them, zine-making was something to do with personal expression, and had no ideological alliance or meaning in form or content beyond the individual.
It seemed that the workshop had become one of many watershed moments that occur in artistic communities; it was a point at which people became intensely aware of how they thought about their craft and the politics of it. It distinctly underscored how political (or ostensibly apolitical) identity becomes intertwined in art-making practice.
More than anything, it crystallised for many that their politics were divergent from those around them; and for some this created great discomfort and even anger. It brought into stark focus the idea that a coherent political agenda may not exist within the zine-making community, and asked the question: should it?
With these questions in mind, I contacted zinesters through a range of forums, online communities and my personal network, to work out whether practitioners from across the globe thought there was, or should be, a solidified identity around zine-making that was anti-commercial in nature.
The responses I received ranged from the apathetic to the passionate. Some felt, strongly, that zine-making was inherently about rebellion and dissent. However, the overwhelming response I received was squarely in the centre and the key message being reiterated was that zinesters, more than anything, were wary of being told what zine-making “should be” about.
“Everyone has different ideas of what zines mean to them and where they want that to go,” said Luke You of the long-running zine YOU. Each weekly issue of YOU is hand-written and usually enclosed within a paper bag.
With a haze of anonymity around the true identity of the author, YOU is widely distributed and a cult favourite. It is a direct letter to the reader that muses upon topics as divergent as music, uncontrollable laughter in the theatre, witnessing childbirth and having your car broken into.
“I think you're doomed if you try to define what zines are for other people. The common ground is independence,” Luke said.
Luke was eager, however, to stipulate that this independence in one sense was a definition of identity; and that “if you're not engaging in zines in an independent way, it probably isn't a zine.” Luke regaled his amusement in seeing one of his zines having been fashioned into paper-doll-esque penises in a local punk store. That too, he said, is what zine-making can be about – willful, often cheeky, re-appropriation.
Both of these threads were supported by Sydney and Newcastle zinesters Bastian Phelan and Susy Pow. Bastian is the author of the highly regarded zine Ladybeard,which offers an exploration of gender, sexuality, identity and the journey to embracing facial hair. Susy is the owner of independent zine store and distro Bird in the Hand Zine Shop, based in Newcastle.
Susy said she strongly believes that zines exist for the individual and were up to personal interpretation, and there could be no singular 'identity' furnished in any argument.
“I don't believe that the main driving force behind zinemaking is to be anti-commercial or to be anti-establishment, though one of the strongest reasons people seem to make zines is to share ideas. Zines seem to be aligned with the personal more so than the political,” Susy said.
“It does bother me to think that any one 'representing' the zine community can so steadfastly share their singular opinions as if indicative of everyone's opinions,” she said.
Bastian, however, mused that zine-making identity can fluctuate with different times and spaces, and was not something firm that one could rally around.
“I think that zine communities fluctuate over the years, and from my limited knowledge of zine history there have been times when zines were more anti-commercial and probably times when they were less anti-commercial.
“I read in Amy Spencer's book DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture that zines are non-commercial by nature, but I think there's a difference between being non-commercial and anti-commercial. Both exist in the zine community,” Bastian said.
Taryn Tyleris a zinester from California, who makes the zine Taliesin. Each zine contains original prose, and they also maintain a blog about their continuing journey as a creative writer. They said they thought zine-making was in part a rejection of capitalist agendas, but that this was more a latent aspect of zine-making rather than an overriding principle in people's practice.
“I think for the most part anyone willing to do something so time consuming and financially unrewarding as publishing a zine has something else in mind besides commercialism. Whether just as a way to express themselves or promote a certain idea or method of thought, commercialism is at the very most irrelevant to the making of a zine if not quite the antithesis of the whole idea,” Taliesin said.
Most curious of all was the viewpoint of Cate Law, a zine-maker and artist from Montreal. Cate makes a range of zines including Counting Crows (One to Forty), which she describes as “a perfect little gift for those who love Edward Gorey, big black sarcastic birds, and appreciate the silly things in life.”
Cate said she actively embraced commerce rather than rejecting it. For her, zine-making was about escaping the control of distributors, editors and others who might seek to take a 'cut' of the artist's earning. For her, making zines was about making money, and retaining creative control and a fidelity to her own vision.
“Getting published/getting your art out there is more difficult than ever. Supporting yourself as an artist is wildly difficult. So creating an inexpensive method for distributing your art (especially one that cuts out the ‘middlemen') puts commerce back into the hands of the creators,” she said.
When asked what she thought of those that look dimly on an alliance between zine practice and commercial interest, Cate was strident. Zine-making, for her, was an extension of her art practice and one she should be fairly compensated for.
“It’s never fair to make a sweeping statement for everyone in a group – not everyone makes zines for the same reason.
“My friends and I make zines as pieces of art, but also because it’s low cost for people to acquire the art we make. This is a commercial venture for us. Mixing art and economics is not a dirty thing; artists should be paid for their work, and inexpensive zines provide us a forum for supporting ourselves as artists,” she said.
On balance, it seems that the zine-making is a practice celebrated by a community with disparate politics. No one principle or approach to commercial interests, spaces and interactions seems to override – though there is a strong premium placed on self-reliance and self-determination by all.
Perhaps the most important positive consequence of the hotly debated March workshop was that it generated the airing of views.
Though viewpoints were often expressed heatedly, and the atmosphere became emotionally charged for some, it may be heartening to reflect that it is only in a vibrant community that people will choose to actively engage like this. Many spoke passionately, and were heard respectfully, even if they disliked what others were saying.
This, if anything, is at the heart of the zine community – a commitment to sharing ideas without censorship, above all else.
Sarah Langston is associate editor at The Scavenger