Zine me up daddy!
Zines remind me of scrapbooking and piczo websites and political leaflets and publications my parents left lying around the house. I remember making one for an art foundation show - photocopying a collaged set of pages and then realising I could only afford to make 5, which was ok because that's what looked good enough stacked on a wobbly MDF plinth. When I got to London i felt out of place amidst the zine fair crowd, a reluctance to get involved with the purposefully DIY vibe because of it feeling a bit like cosplaying the 80s, or riot grrl battle re-enactment. The aesthetic felt performative to me, the child of two Trotskyist newspaper sellers who'd grown up around handmade leaflets with increasingly poor graphic design in Essex, the land of cheap glamour.
I understood the form as a cheap-ish-but-not-really way to make a book that no-one would publish, either due to incendiary political content or just being a bit fucking wierd/boring/niche. I shuffled along to a couple of zine fairs and pretended to be interested, with the hope of making new queer friends. I didn't make any new queer friends, but I found a few small zines run by wierdos that were super cute and I found a lot of other zines with slick photoshoots, heavy branding and careerism hiding behind a pseudo-radical vocabulary and aesthetic. These were zines positing themselves as woman's (womxn's) mags for the new age. 'when's the last time you saw someone who looked like you in a magazine?' shouted thin cis white girls with pink hair, proudly showing off their new glossy inclusive photoshoot. ('when's the last time you read a magazine?', says hava).
What makes zines powerful is how they can articulate a queer thing like queerness, how they can confirm your youness in a world that refuses it. Low circulation makes sense in this context, not as a fetish of the limited object but as something where there is as much as is needed and can be made to the maker’s ability. The zines which pioneered the methods and aesthetic of zines today were part of a 'community', a specific fandom or interest or activist group, a way to document and organise and express. They were made in the way things were made in their time, which gave rise to a certain aesthetic (this underground stuff is still going on in some parts of course, but a lot of these things migrated to the internet before we were old enough to be aware of them). But now some are all glossy. But still *DIY*. Zine-glossy.
Is the aim of these glossy zines to make your own space where you get to be a celebrity in a magazine and be important? I get that. I wanna feel hot enough to be printed out too, and it’s refreshing to see people outside of white cisnormative patriarchal standards of beauty given the A-list treatment, and it's nice to have something that looks nice! but the slickness of the method seems a strange cognitive dissonance - more about showing that u can do aesthetic well and parlaying an antithetical zine 'expertise' in to roles in industry (in real magazines, in fashion, in contemporary art) than in carving out the spaces that we need.
Many (like me) will interact with these more upscale zines through social media, rather than buying the £6-10 product, so we see a glamorous presentation of process and success and a professionalising of DIY which becomes code for self-made, start-up, #girlboss. We see founders doing workshops for Facebook and imagine they’ve reached some kind of secure status, when really these people are probably still struggling in the endless hellscape of freelancing. Meanwhile the institutions happily profit, leaving us reeling and confused. And here is the little trick that no one wants to pick at. The institution-made zine upsells subculture the same way iD, Dazed et al do, but makes it look nicer
It makes sense that institutions are commissioning/platforming zines now. It feeds a flock of birds with one scone (we got told not to use speciesist language) - a vague sense of radicality which is often aesthetic and ahistorical, a patrician voice-of-the-people schtick if ppl are quoted in it, a floaty sense of collaboration, all of which go towards the institutions getting some woke points and deflecting criticism from their continued lack of change. It’s cheap too, for a funding body. The artist-producer (who is probably yt) has been taught not to expect much. Contributors can get paid next to nothing. U can hold workshops for local ppl and pay them an actual nothing (hey, but ur getting published!). A limited print run creates a desirable commodity which can sell for nice, and nets the institutions some sweet relevance too. this whole system, seemingly new but drawn along the old lines of exploitation as always, rests on the big secret that nothing about the zine is inherently radical.
zines are another form of showing information, and some of us like it and some of us don't and some don't care. If everyone admits that then everything is fine, except that zine makers are called in to make a 'radical' product and then it becomes about complicity. the complicity of claiming radical potential which isn’t there, and in doing so taking away space from projects with an actual radical aim. It's a bit weird when making a zine is the aim of a collaborative project supposedly working with people, because it's a prescriptive, limiting aim. marketability is not the same as inclusivity - everything doesn’t have to be for everyone, and it can’t be. but for the institution it has to be, so funding is given to generic projects with the correct socially engaged aesthetic.
Claiming to speak to/for an entire ‘community’ ends up straightening out specificity til once again it’s the most privileged acting as spokesperson, who is generally the curator of the zine. And when given the choice to fund a project which has a specific aim or a zine with an aesthetic rendering of activism, institutions will go for the lesser threat. what would be more radical would be to refuse this language, but this would threaten your spot at the table and someone else would just pop up to do it, and we're not here to judge (except for the implicit judgement in this leading statement).
We think Shy Bairns asked us to write this cuz they feel this vibe. They just wanna make good-looking stuff with risographs, but are feeling the pressure to project a radical accessible approach which even they see as insincere in order to give the institutions what they want/need for their arts council application/tax exemption etc etc. and SB like working with institutions cuz u can get paid and cover your costs and cuz it’s like look mum no hands !! And hey we like it too, hava has a thing she made in a book and she proudly shows it off to visitors. Maz makes films that are sometimes shown in places other than secret underground bunkers. & we both wanted £75 quid to write something for this zine cus we been writing for free on the internet anyhow. It beats picking up an extra shift. If u like working with institutions cuz it allows you more budget and time to do ur work, and u wanna have a career and be recognised then literally that’s fine - but let's not offer validity on a plate to institutions who don't care about us at the cost of selling each other out. let's do something else and get weird. idk maybe let's make a zine?