Sunday, December 12, 2010
Zines in Canada interview for Broken Pencil
I did the following interview last month with Liz Worth for an article on Zines in Canada in the 70s, 80s, 90s and today for the next issue of Broken Pencil. Only snippits of this interview will likely make it into the article, but I enjoyed doing the interview enough that I thought it would be worth posting here in its entirety. Lots of stuff is included about zine culture in the 90s and my own introduction to the world of zines. The picture above is of me when I was 17...I'm the one on the left, and it was taken in 1999 at Who's Emma, 69 1/2 Nassau Street.
It seems that a lot of people have the impression that no one makes zines anymore, that we have the internet now and blogs and websites are the new zines. But we know that's not true, because people still make zines. Why do you still make zines, and why do you think other people still do, too?
I make zines because I always have made them...I never questioned whether I should stop making them. I suspect zine-making was part of the youth culture of a certain time, or a fad for many people, but for me zines have always held a great deal of importance. I made my first zine when I was 12-- after drawing, zine-making was the first creative practice I ever engaged in, and definitely the first creative practice I took seriously enough to work at and put the product of out into the world. In some ways, I think zine-making really paved the way for my art practice as an adult. I still make zines today-- when I was a teenager, I had a zine that went on to do thirteen issues, but now I generally make one-off zines a few times a year, on a variety of topics. I make little recipe zines on Japanese paper, zines of sketchbook excerpts, and I recently made a limited-edition zine on creative practice within the context of the punk community. My zines now feel tied to my art practice, as opposed to when I was a teenager, they were more tied to punk rock and feeling my way through radical politics.
A huge reason I still make zines is my relationship to the physical act of making them. Making them can be a very long, persnickety process of cutting, pasting, measuring margins by hand, adjusting contrast until you get it just right...it's a very tactile process and the result is very personal. There's a level of intimacy and personalization in making a printed zine that you just can't achieve with blogs. This sort of thing applies to reading and the reception of zines, too....there's an intimacy and tactility in experiencing a zine physically that is not common within internet-oriented contemporary culture. I know that the tactile and tangible quality of zines and the yearning for something physical is what draws a lot of people to them.
What did you see as the zine's role in the '90s? What do you think that role has become in the '00s?
In the mid-90s, the internet wasn't nearly as widespread as it is today, so the role of print media in general was one of greater importance then than it is now. Zines were definitely an alternative voice in print at that time. I remember as a teenager, it seemed like a revelation that you could make your own little books and for twenty bucks you could make 15 of them and put them in two or three shops on consignment, or trade them with your friends, or trade ad space with another zine and sell your zines through the mail that way. The zine community was very much an in-person and through-the-mail phenomenon back then. People were actively forging relationships and community this way, and in retrospect, while it took a lot of time and effort, I never thought of that part of it. It just felt like I was part of something bigger than myself and my suburban, teenage life...it was exciting!
Of course, the internet has really changed this sort of thing. What constitutes as an alternative voice in this day and age? Everyone has a voice on the internet...the internet has made it incredibly easy for people to self-publish at the push of a button, and people do. They talk and talk...about their cute cat and their breakfast and their favourite bands and clothing labels and their night at the bar or their day at the park and it never ends. The cacophany of voices on the internet is insane...how do we navigate through it all? What does it all mean? Is it meaningless? I struggle with these questions a lot.
Perhaps the role of the zines today is exactly the same as what it used to be-- maybe zines are still an alternative voice, or more of an alternative voice than they ever were. In an incredibly fast-paced world where we are inundated with facts, pseudo-facts, images, and useless information transmitted digitally, zines are something refreshing and different.
In the past 10 years, have you noticed any key moments or changes within the zine community that show how the culture has changed compared to what was happening in the '90s?
Definitely. The one key thing that I've noticed about zine cuture in the past 10 years is that a certain amount of focus and energy has come off of the production of zines and more focus has been put on the preservation of the zines and zine "history" through archival pursuits such as zine libraries, websites, larger distros and the publication of books that are collections of particular zine titles-- some examples of this include Cometbus, Scam, Doris and Absolutely Zippo. This is not to say that there aren't still people making zines, because of course there are many. In a way, zine culture is healthier than ever because there are individuals out there working hard to ensure that zines stand the test of time and are firmly imbedded in our cultural history. In the 90's, I'm not sure that these sorts of things were thought about nearly as much...I think at that time, people really embraced the ephemeral nature of zines, to the point that many of them from that time haven't survived. The archivist in me is so happy that there are a few hardcore zine collectors in every city that have ensured that their zines from the 70s, 80s and 90s have stood the test of time, tidily sealed in boxes and Ziploc bags in cool, dark rooms!
Over the past few years, more and more zine libraries have popped up, which is really great. In the GTA, we have three, and I'm pretty sure the Toronto Zine Library at this point has the largest public collection of zines in Canada, numbering in at about 5000 pieces. The Anchor Archive Zine Library is a library in Halifax run out of a house. The house-- Roberts Street Social Centre-- is home to other fantastic programming such as a screen-printing collective, a books beyond bars program, a seasonal artists residency program and a slew of skillshares, workshops and events. On the other hand, public collections of zines and related ephemera are starting to find their way into large public and university libraries. An well-known example of this is Kathleen Hanna's zine and letter collection, which she recently donated to NYU's Fales Library for their new Riot Grrrl Collection.
In a similar vein, collections of zines in book format have allowed more people access to the work of zine makers, which is essentially a good thing. Though they are very different in feel from the more intimate zine format, they allow the work of zine makers to have a wider reach. Zines that no longer exist are often collected in book format, which is great for people who would have otherwise missed the boat.
In the '90s, I remember buying zines at Chapters and Tower Records. They never actually seemed to enter mainstream culture, but they were available through mainstream outlets, but as the '00s crept along that distribution all fell away, and zines have gone back to the underground. Do you see this as an evolution, devolution, or anything at all? I guess I'm wondering with this last question is: are zines meant to be something of a secret underground? Are they where they should be right now?
I don't know that I see that shift that you're describing as an evolution or de-evolution. I started buying zines like Cometbus, MRR and Rollerderby at Tower Records in the mid-90s too, and I feel like retailers like Tower Records carrying zines at that time was most likely a hold-over from the just-dead grunge and riot grrrl movements of the early 90s. It makes sense that Tower jumped on the bandwagon of those movements a little late, and quickly dropped the idea of stocking zines as the mainstream completely lost interest in such things. Hilariously, I used to put my zines on consignment at Tower Records in '95 or '96...in retrospect it strikes me as rather surprising that a multi-national corporation would go through the pains of keeping paper files for consignment not unlike small punk record shops and anarchist infoshops!
I am divided as to whether or not I think zines are meant to be underground. If it weren't for punk and zine-making becoming mainstream phenomena in the 90s, I probably wouldn't be a zine-maker of 15 years right now. Punk and zine culture reached kids at high schools in Scarborough in the 90s, and I'm grateful for that. In the years that zines were making the news, I think youth outside of urban centres realized that they could become media producers and form their own creative communities that encompassed not just music-making, but the production of related art and written output.
Regardless, I kind of like where zines are right now...they're not nearly as huge as they were at the apex of their fame in the 90s, the zine community that exists now (both locally and internationally) seems very healthy to me. Now (as opposed to the 90s), everyone can use the internet to it's fullest capacity as a tool to promote and distribute zines, which is really great. Zine fairs happen every year, and attendance is always incredible. I have a friend who travels across Canada and the US with her zine distro...it's amazing! It goes to show that there is still an interest and enthusiasm for zines which perhaps transcends notions of "underground" and "mainstream." Maybe this is indicative of the fact that zines have reached a point where they are imbedded in our culture for good, for the ages. I hope so!