Whenever I explain my relationship with zines, I find myself re-telling the story of how I came to discover them. I evoke the shy girl in boots and tie-dyed slip — it was the early 1990s, after all — who felt a great frustration at the apparent conformity of everyone around her. It is a familiar suburban coming-of-age story: of sensing that there must be different ways to think and live out there, but not knowing how to reach them. I look back on that time as a struggle to find the key to open the door to what I suspected might just be another life.
I first came across zines in the music stores I’d visit every weekend: Waterfront, Phantom, Half a Cow, Red Eye. I had an interest in music through being an avid community radio listener. The presenters, predisposed to the kind of long pauses, rants, and tangents that were scoured from the mainstream stations, had voices with which I felt a kinship.
Zines also had this sense of idiosyncrasy — and much else. At that time many zines were about music, but there were plenty more that were just about people’s experiences and obsessions. They were different from anything I’d encountered before in the way that they spoke to me. Here, people were writing their own versions of their lives, in all their petty, strange glory. This was the key I had been looking for.
I now live in a very different kind of media environment, one in which it is easy to feel there is a surfeit, rather than a lack, of information: the world has been thoroughly blogged. A cursory look at the situation and you might think that zines had been superseded. When blogs became widespread it did seem that zines might not survive, but they did, and they have re-emerged as an even more popular form.
Their endurance comes down to the qualities that risk becoming outmoded: their physicality, their handmade, limited nature. While a blog can potentially have millions of readers, a zine will only have as many readers as there are copies printed.
In the introduction to my most recent edition of I am a Camera, the zine I have been making since 1999, I ponder how zines might fit into wider culture:
"If the world of writing is one couch cushion and the world of art is another couch cushion, I feel like zines could exist in the crack in between, with the paperclips and Ventti packets and hairbands. Sometimes it’s nice to come up to the surface for a while before going back down into the dark, where I stretch out my roots and carry on secret conversations."
I wrote this when I was putting together a collection of all 123 of my zines for an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art called "avoiding myth & message: Australian Artists and the Literary World".
I was surprised to have been asked to be part of this show and wondered how my zines would be interpreted in such a big and established institution. I thought carefully about including them: these zines were made in limited numbers and distributed mostly among a small community and suddenly, they would be exposed to thousands. I was proud of my work, and was curious to see how they would fit in — or not — and what I could learn from the experience. I had other worries too: that my motivations in making them would be lost; that they would be subsumed by the two big fish, visual arts and literature.
I attempted to combat this by including a postbox and postcards alongside the table of zines and inviting people to write to me, "about zines, about your day, about your favourite things, about anything". I hoped that this would convey a sense of the exchange aspect of zines; that it would encourage people to get involved rather than just beholding.
A review of the exhibition by another long-time zine-maker, Sandy, drew attention to another problem:
"I’m sceptical about the institutionalisation of zines as art objects; the sense of tokenism and co-optation that goes with that. And while I love Vanessa’s zines and am really glad she’s gaining this kind of prominence … I think it would have been better in almost every way if they’d devoted the same space to 120 different people’s zines, even if (inevitably) this meant the zines weren’t as good as a whole. But that would go against the gallery’s obvious tendency/desire to see/present art in terms of the singular expression of the creative individual."
It is crucial to understand that zines exist as part of a community. An individual zine might be a reflection of one person’s obsessions and preoccupations, but it is essentially a communicative object. People make zines to start, or to continue, conversations with others in the community. In some ways, I feel like each zine I make is another step in a long conversation that began the first time I left one of my handwritten, messy zines in the doorway of Waterfront records.
I don’t mean to suggest that zines have no place in other contexts. It is inevitable, especially with greater exposure, that they are viewed in new environments and institutions. These intersections can reveal the particularities of zines, and can prompt a questioning of media and creative activity. But zines are always misfits, their core elements — that they are personal, handmade, non-profit, amateur, limited and ephemeral — never allow them to rest completely comfortably in these new environments.
This is why when zines encounter institutions, the meeting can bring friction and anxiety.
To give two examples: at a zine fair earlier this year, a couple of representatives from the National Library went around the tables. They reminded zine makers of the importance of Legal Deposit, under which all Australian publications have an obligation to send their works to the National Library. I tried to explain to them why zinemakers might not want their work collected for the ages, and might regard the idea that they had to send a copy off-putting. After all, zines are a subculture, a place where people feel free to experiment and share aspects of their lives. The knowledge that their readership will be limited and sympathetic shapes how people craft their zines.
And in 2007, a collection of my stories was published as the book Strawberry Hills Forever, by Local Consumption Publications. Like the MCA exhibition, the book felt like a test: how would these stories work outside of the zines in which they were first published?
What is it about zines that makes their transition to another context so fraught? Is it the exposure so far beyond my original intentions? By stepping outside of the original context I had envisaged for my zines, I was able to better reflect on the space they inhabit: a place to comment on life and culture from the underground, in a fragile and fleeting way.
In a world in which culture is increasingly categorised and ever more accessible, it is difficult to claim that anything is "underground" — but I believe that zines still are. When I read them I feel the possibilities that lie within us to exchange and communicate and to build the kinds of spaces in which we feel free from all that holds us down.
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