Zine Culture

As the popularity of the zine copies its way through the art community, Neil Cooper pastes together a selective history 

When Liverpool was named European Capital of Culture 2008, alongside all the usual property-boom responses, one group of artists and scene-makers responded with Mercy, a scrappy, photocopied, at times barely coherent A5 publication. Left to fend for itself in all the fly-by-night cafés and bars at the boho end of town, Mercy (Mersey, geddit?) looked as disposable and vital as the club-flyers it hung out with, and with which—somehow, some way, perish the thought and pass the spray mount —it may even share an exhibition space with. 

This is the essential paradox of what we now know as zine culture, that lovingly DIY alternative to coffee-table trivia that took a lo-fi punk aesthetic, ripped it to shreds, then refashioned it in its own cheap and cheerful image. On the one hand, as consumables, zines are so instantly take-away and so familiar that you can’t wait to get your hands on them. Stroke them. Play with them. Devour them.

 It doesn’t matter if they get left behind, passed around the city like the dirty postcards they often are. They’re living for the moment, for the Here and Now of it, and soon they’ll be history. Past their sell-by date. So don’t panic. There’ll be a brand new Next Big Thing along any second. 

On the other hand, when everyone seems to be curators  these days; when everything’s collected and archived long after the fact, zines enjoy the rarefied glory of any other limited edition, hand-crafted work of art. They’re a readily contextualised, historically inclined riot. Collectors’ items, made by the people, for the people.

 Earlier this year, when Gateshead’s Baltic Centre hosted History of Disappearance—a retrospective of Live Art documentation from New York’s Franklin Furnace centre—half a room was given over to artists’ books. ‘Artists’ Books’: some phrase, that. No more validation required. 

Around the same time, in Burnley, at a retrospective of Jeff Nuttall—British painter, poet, author of Bomb Culture and sometime cosmonaut of inner space from the brown ale end of the 1960s counter-culture—copies of My Own Mag, inspired by his meeting with sound poet Bob Cobbing and arguably the UK’s first artzine, sat tantalisingly displayed in airless cabinets. Even better, papers and letters exchanged between participants in Project Sigma—Scottish beat novelist Alexander Trocchi’s utopian meeting of addled minds—were framed and hung alongside each other, full of ideas and enthusiasm and naiveté and belief. 

Whether Sigma was a zine or not is a moot point. It was certainly a project. In an ideal world it could have been a way  of life, imaginary or otherwise. Ah, but is it art? Now there’s a question.

 Half a century on, Mercy’s cheap and cheerful, seemingly thrown-together style may look like a piss-take, but beneath the snickering and the two fingered salutes, beneath the smudgy, wilfully remedial scrawled cartoons and the blurred, shakily laid-out images, is a critique of mainstream culture’s impending modern art makeover. ‘Why wait till 2008, eh la?’ it seems to gob. ‘It’s already Happening. Has been all along.’

 Mercy leaves lots of space on its pages. It was and is about that much overused word, access. Anyone can do it, and these days, if they haven’t done so already, they probably will now. Unlike the glass cases at the Baltic, it’s dead easy to get into. In this way, Mercy sums up another paradox of zine culture – that between individual expression and community spirit. It’s all about networking. 

A broad history of the phenomenon can be found in Amy Spencer’s book DIY: The Rise Of Lo-Fi Culture, but zine culture is now more readily associated with punk: Mark Perry’s Sniffing Glue, the Angry Brigade-obsessed Vague and others of their ilk. As Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming pointed out, this was a very British take on situationism, Guy  Debord’s post-1968 idea of art as action on the streets. 

In the early 1970s, future Sex Pistols record-sleeve designer Jamie Reid had produced his own Suburban Press, and worked on the King Mob Echo, the rough-and-ready organ of proto-situationist groupescule, King Mob. The nom de plume was derived from 18th century riots and later plundered by Grant Morrison for his comic-book series The Invisibles, based around a group of occultist terrorists. Around the same time, the Mail Art phenomenon occurred, whereby a network of underground artists would send each other lovingly crafted one-off artefacts. It wasn’t without its hazards, as Genesis P Orridge of Throbbing Gristle found when he was prosecuted by the GPO for sending ‘obscene’ artefacts through the post. 

All such activities can be rewound directly to Dada—specifically to Tristan Tzara plucking random words out of a hat to create a poem, thus inspiring Brion Gyson and William Burroughs to pursue cut-up literature, which would eventually lead to Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch

The curators of DIY Revolution, a recent exhibition of 1980s and 1990s Zine culture at the University of Philadelphia’s Design Centre, are prepared to stick their necks out even further. They state zines are ‘a revolution 550 years in the making’. Dating it back to Johanes Guttenberg’s invention of the printing press in the 1450s, they cite Martin Luther’s self-published tracts, which incited the Reformation, and American Revolutionary Benjamin Franklin’s propagandist broadsheets for keeping Brits at bay.

 Such archival insight is confirmed in an essay by Nico Ordway in Zines Vol 1, a bumper series of interviews with zine-makers published by V Vale in 1996. Ordway also cites both the English and French Revolutions as early reference points, and claims the visionary English poet William Blake—who produced and distributed hand-coloured copies of The Songs Of Innocence and The Songs Of Experience—as ‘the patron saint of self-publishing’. 

Over the past two decades, zine production has been on the rise—largely as a result of affordable desktop-publishing technology. So while the scissors-and-glue approach is still favoured by purists, information is in the hands—and mouse—of the beholder. 

With the decline of the orthodox music press, rock and pop zines—always the bedrock of the subculture—have raised their game. While in this country both Chica and the magnificently named Beard have picked up awards, so Plan B and Artrocker may look professional, but each effortlessly retains its day-glo/monochrome cool. Most importantly, they get to gush at length and on their own terms over acts  spunky and punky and so brand-new—who, without hits, tits or both, the market-led mainstream won’t ever touch.

 Let’s not forget that sometime style bible ID began life as a photocopied gossip-sheet celebrating the movers, shakers and attention-seekers who mingled with the party animals and beautiful losers of the 1980s London club scene. More often than not, however, a clear demarcation between zines and the more commercial world stays in place. 

The Riot Grrrl movement of the early 1990s was one such model: a fiercely independent coming-together of rad-fem philosophy and ramshackle squat-punk, celebrated in zines such as Heavy Flow and Charity Shopper, which instinctively understood the value of defiance. 

Mistresses of an entire career based on a DIY aesthetic are Chicks On Speed, whose shtick centres on a homespun wish-fulfilment pastiche of consumer culture. In between making music and merchandise, these exiled Berlin art scene divas produced a hyper-collectible—not to say ultraexpensive—bumper book of post-Riot Grrrl musings and activities. They named their firstborn It’s A Project. And like Sigma, It’s A Project is all ideas. Old ones and one-liner ones, but ideas nevertheless.

 More than a decade on from Riot Grrrl, the fashion is for retro again. The punk aesthetic is revived every Saturday night and Sunday morning on post-pub and hangover TV by skinny-tie-wearing pretty boys. 

This may have something to do with this ongoing zinemania. The ‘punk rock revival’—a kind of permanent revolution in reverse—has so much to answer for. Just as an nth-generation photocopy loses definition until it’s just a blur of its former self, so this is a pale shadow of mimicry.

 The art world, meanwhile, has responded with one-off, wilfully off-radar publications. Only Shoreditch Twat, the piss-taking-but-in-on-it-really 1990s zine dedicated to the regeneration of London’s East End, broke its cover. 

Since then, an egalitarian wave of grassroots glasnost has emerged, indisputably linked with the ongoing rise of independent, artist-led collectives in found or ad hoc spaces. Last summer, Guestroom publications launched their fifth issue, Static Commotion, in an empty shop space in Hackney. Live soundscapes soundtracked a speakeasy vibe, and the only thing to look at was inside Static Commotion itself, compendium of sight and sound. Guestroom, is an example of exhibition as publication and vice versa. It’s glossy, eminently tactile and looks richer than it is. In terms of coopting the means of production, it’s perfect. 

The One O’Clock Gun, an Edinburgh-based and at times impenetrably archaic broadsheet of line-drawings and quasi- historical prose is produced by a variety of well-known artists who prefer the cloak of anonymity. Then there’s Flower Press, an extended scrapbook of idea and image produced by artist and former Beta Band member, John McLean.

 Zug, meanwhile, is produced by purveyors of peripatetic porta-art, EmergeD: a zine ‘about boredom, made by bored people, for others who are bored. A conglomeration of doodles, word games, poetry, cartoons and collage show what happens when artists are sidetracked from the serious game of art by booze, fags and playing …’ The manifesto is umbilically linked to Tzara’s poetry, Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and Jamie Reid’s cover for the Sex Pistols’ ‘Pretty Vacant’ single. 

With all this ongoing activity, it should come as no surprise that Edinburgh-based Cell 77 hosted a fanzine workshop presented by Guestroom. Of course.

 A more recent initiative has been founded by Analogue, the Edinburgh-based wonderland of design-based ephemera so hot off the press you can smell it. They’ve recently founded Running Amok, a zine showcasing the work of one artist per issue to tie in with an exhibition in their backroom galleryette. Produced in a limited run of 200, Running Amok has so far produced issues by Simon Shiel and Matt Sewell. 

Analogue is a virtual treasure trove for ground-level print junkies, in which art school graduates can ply their wares in a low-risk environment. These include such lateral grotesques as Tooth Formation, Ali Hodgson’s freeform illustrated dissection of oral hygiene in all its constituent parts. Part 2, Explorations Of Disease, comes with a lucky-bag of flickbooks, stickers, badges and other trick-or-treat accessories. 

Also on show—and a possible inspiration for Running Amok—are a series of publications from the Swiss-based Nieves Books. Specialising in handsome editions from artists such as David Shrigley, Nieves have recently branched out into glossier but no less collectable zine-based wares. 

Chronicles Vol 1, by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, is essentially a series of verité pictures of the bass-player at work and play. If this blurs the issue of what a zine’s production values should be, it comes with Something for the girl with everything, a more rough-and-ready micro-tome by Gordon’s guitar-playing husband and bandmate Thurston Moore.

There’s something happening here, then. What it is may not be exactly clear, but then, if form dictates content, in the global village of zinemania, the medium really is the message. It’s about staying true to your obsessions. As a design for life, such a maxim is the bedrock of all great art.

Like a cut-up by Burroughs, like records by The Fall, the best zines are a glorious mess, plundering the primitive to make something brand new. At their most thrilling, they’re a portable town-crier. On a practical level, zines are a way of artists getting out there, of bypassing curators, committees and cliques.

Which brings us back to where we came in. To Mercy. Because without Mercy, and without every other zinester who’s ever picked up a sheet of letraset, whatever would we do for a project?

Neil Cooper is an arts writer