The Enigma of Zines12 February 2016
Pictures of paper crowd onto my laptop screen in a disordered mess. I am trying to explain zines to my ten-year-old sister. After a short and unsuccessful attempt to use nouns and adjectives, I have resorted to Google Images. This is a zine, I tell her, clicking on an image at random and waiting for it to enlarge. When it turns out that the image I’ve chosen is, in fact, a photocopied picture of two elephants rooting with some subversive text superimposed stylistically, I close the tab. They’re kind of like mini magazines, I say, dropping the subject. The fact that I have volunteered to write this article, despite not being able to define its central topic to myself – let alone break it down to a year fiver – hasn’t passed me.
On 14 February, Sticky Institute will host a huge zine fair at the Melbourne Town Hall, in the culmination of the four-day Festival of the Photocopier. But what are zines? Hard to describe and almost impossible to define, zines sit in modern culture with connections to almost everything and anything. With no rules or instructions, the zine is almost biblical in its foggy origins. No one – not even the faceless authority of Wikipedia – seems absolutely certain of where zines came from or who created them. While today we might recognise the small, inexpensive artist’s books best from their strong association with niche and underground cultures, the truth is that as long as self-publishing has existed, so too have zines been on the scene in some form.
With folded pieces of paper cut, rearranged and pasted to portray the inner workings of an artist’s mind, zines have come to inhabit the artistic, literary and music world in order to fill a cultural void. Ranging from crisp to crude and beyond, these creations use their diverse formats to contrast with the clean-cut publishing industry and to produce something raw and in the moment. It’s no wonder they have linked historically with activism. Whether these ideas are churned under the photocopier to take part in taller movements, or simply to exist as fleeting thoughts, zines work as snapshots of a time and place.
Take, for example, the Riot Grrrl movement. As a defining facet of feminism in the early nineties, Riot Grrrl was seen in the North American punk scene as a way for women to convey their true selves in the face of a predetermined fantasy of womanhood – or as the Riot Grrrl Manifesto puts it, “the bullshit christian capitalist way of doing things”. Running hand-in-hand with feminist punk music – most notably Kathleen Hanna and her band, Bikini Kill – zines were an integral part in the connection of like-minded feminists across the globe. Showing the world and its sexism as it really was at that time, the DIY element to paper zines only made the sentiment of the movement feel more visceral and genuine. While ordinary print would have inadvertently narrowed the feminist movement to a few individual perspectives, zines allowed any woman to publish their own feminist experience. Instead of one soapbox for all to share, zines – with the help of the photocopier – enabled the production of thousands of soapboxes.
Now in the age of Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, self-publishing seems to have lost its flare. With just a few taps, the attention of some hundred ‘friends’ doesn’t seem like such a hard or revolutionary task. So why are zines still here? Much like their origins, it’s not something that can be placed easily. Technically paper should be dead, right? And still, it’s here. Somehow we’ve opened our eyes and discovered that print hasn’t met its untimely end at the hands of the internet. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the two platforms can coexist. While the traditional zine in its pure paper form offers something concrete and special, few can argue with the internet’s ability to reach readers and secure the community that zines are famous for creating. ¿Por qué no los dos?
Regardless of whether zines are copied or scanned, the sheer creativity behind their production has kept them relevant after all this time. Allowing artists to circulate their creations as products of love, rather than for esteem or profit, zines have always been able to turn paper into empowerment. As a trend, they’ve never had a chance to expire. If anything, the community surrounding the artworks is growing as the cultural parameters of the zine continue to blur and disappear. Their future is as mysterious as their past.