VAN September/October 2010: Time of the Zines

Sarah Bracken Reports on the Sixth Annual London Zine Symposium

On 29 May, on a rainy London Saturday, artists, environmentalists, punk rockers, vegetarians, vegans, bike lovers, misfits, a lot of tattooed ladies and just about every other kind of person you can think of descended upon The Rag Factory on Heneage Street. The Rag Factory is a non profit organisation supporting the creative community in London, it provides spaces to rehearse, audition, film, work, think, create or just to meet. Today it was the home of the sixth annual London Zine Symposium.

So what are zines? A zine is any independently produced publication, usually made by hand or through DIY means and with little budget. Who makes zines? People from all walks of life, some people write about their own lives (per-zines), others talk about issues that are important to them, some people make them as works of art, some to teach new skills and share ideas.

Edd Baldry, one of the founders of the London Zine Symposium described how before the symposium zine makers didn’t have a designated time or place to trade, sell, or buy zines. Even more importantly they didn’t have a place to meet other zine creators. Inspired by the Portland Zine Symposium in Oregon, Edd, Natalie and their friends decided to set up the first London Zine Symposium in 2005. Edd was part of a collective squatting in an old university building and decided that this would be the perfect venue for the event. The symposium began there on Gower Street, and moved from place to place each year until finding its current home in the Rag Factory in 2008.

Many of the exhibitors – zine makers and distributors – have been there from the very beginning, and they talk fondly of the thrill of being in a squat and feeling like rebels! More and more zinesters have joined the symposium every year, some even travelling from America and a few of us Irish zine makers popping over for the event too.

2010 was my second time selling at the symposium. I had one of the 64 stalls jam packed with every type of zine imaginable. Besides the stalls there was also a number of workshops, this year’s included, a discussion: ‘Create your own culture’, an exercise in: ‘Collaborate writing of feminist-queer sci-fi’, zine readings and a kid’s comic workshop. Along with all of the exhibitor’s stalls there was a table for individual zines, which anyone could sell from on the day, a great place to get your zine making career started. There was also vegan food to nibble on and best of all there was no rent on the stalls. A donation bucket was passed around for you to contribute what you could afford. Another way to show your support was to purchase symposium t-shirts, programmes, books and badges, I bought them all and went home on the plane looking like a walking billboard for zines.

Demand for stall slots has gotten greater every year; Edd received hundreds of stall applications months before the event was due to take place. To accommodate as many people as possible many of the stalls were divided between three different distributors. This was great fun because it caused us all to mingle a lot more, to share change and to give each other breaks to go to stretch our legs and check out the workshops.

When most people think of zines nowadays they think of black and white photocopied pages stapled together, containing information about punk bands, rants or writings about political issues. Zines like this are still a prominent feature of any zine event but over the last few years, probably due to events like the symposium, zine makers have been pushing the boundaries and experimenting with content, binding, papers, layouts and shapes. Organisers of the symposium have noticed a decline in the classic photocopy style and a rise in art zines made with great skill and attention to detail. The term zine might be relatively modern but DIY publications have been around for a long time.

Two 20th century artistic and cultural movements pioneered DIY press, long before punk zines and have influenced the production of zines today. The artists of Dadaism regularly made and distributed underground publications using a cut and paste collage style, to make bold statements such as “we demand the right to piss in different colours”. The Dada magazines: Cabaret Voltaire, Dada, 291, 391, and New York Dada, also demonstrate techniques that would become future characteristics of zines: rants and detournement.

The Beat Generation were also notable for their DIY attitude. Allen Ginsburg in particular used independent press to get his work and the work of his friends out there. The Beats made small publications, and pamphlets to distribute and promote their work, giving them out at poetry readings, gigs and everywhere else they went. They experimented and collaborated, causing their work to cross over into many different genres. Like zine makers today the Beats were not just artists, they were jacks of all trades: writers, musicians, poets, speakers, publishers, activists etc.

The most recent high profile collaboration between zines and the art world was Sarah Pierce’s Irish contribution to the Venice Biennale 2005. A library of Irish zines was displayed at the event in ‘The Monk’s Garden’. The zines can now be found in Seomra Spraoi’s ‘Forgotten Zine Library’ in Dublin and new zines are being added to the collection all the time. Anyone and everyone are free to go and spend as much time as they like rooting around and absorbing these little hidden treasures.

Three years ago my friend Andrea Byrne and I started a contributor based zine of art, poetry and stories called Baby BEEF. We were both fine art students and found the zine a great way to get our work out there, and we had a great time meeting and networking with other artists. Being part of the zine scene presents lots of fun opportunities to us and has caused us to make lots of new friends. Besides London zine making has brought us to Belfast’s ‘Out to Lunch’ Arts Festival where we sold zines, and to Cork where a contributor of ours organised a gig to fund the printing of our next issue. Baby BEEF has since evolved in the name of our independent publishing company. We have moved away from the black and white photocopy format to create limited edition handmade artist books and zines that we sell at markets and soon on our website. At the moment the zine scene in Ireland is relatively small but hopefully this will change with new zine / comic / artist book fairs such as ‘Summer Edition’ and ‘Independents Day’ – both Dublin based – that have both held their second annual events this year. These events have both been influenced by the London symposium and have the same ethos of building a DIY community and inspiring people to get involved.

I arrived to the symposium early and found a stall with a Baby BEEF sign on it. I set up my zines, along with some other zines, made by Irish zinesters that couldn’t make it over. Sat next to me was Dan Tyler who had been up all night finishing his new zine and putting messages into glass bottles. Dan was great company for the day, we traded zines and he told me that he worked in the rehabilitation of with people with brain injuries and hoped to open a business some day that would provide jobs for people adjusting to life in society after serious accidents. Dan’s black and white photocopied zine The Ship of Fools is romantic, angry and poetic. His stories about South London contain what he calls “a dark bubbling laughter throughout”.

Girl photographer by Eleanor Jane was one of my favourites of 2009 and I was delighted to pick up the new issue #5 this year. Eleanor lives and works as a freelance photographer in Newport in Wales. The zine is packed with full colour photos from Eleanor’s everyday life and her travels in America and Dubai. The photos are accompanied with stories, diary extracts, mixed CD lists, photography tips, resolutions and even writings in Welsh. It is a visual feast.

Another highlight for me cost a mere £2, an absolute bargain for an inspirational zine packed with ideas, Sugar Paper: 20 Things to Make and Do made by Seleena from Manchester and Kandy from Derbyshire. It came with all the ingredients for a felt purse, just one of the fun things inside its pages. The zine also teaches dance moves, knitting, the blanket stitch, recipes and lots more fun crafts and past times. Both of the zines creators sell handmade and knitted goods on the internet.

It was hard to pick which zines to mention out of my huge bundle that I brought home with me. But I think the ones I talked about give an overview of different types of zines and different types of zine makers. That’s what I love about zines, the stories of the people that make them. People that come from so many different backgrounds and occupations, but all of them take the time to get out theirs scissors, and long-armed stapler to share something of themselves with other people. Zines capture the thoughts and opinions of people from a certain time, they talk about problems, politics, the environment, and they teach people new skills and open their eyes to new ways of doing things. They provide a space to wonder. They give a voice to the little people, those ignored by the mass media and alienated by society. Events like the zine symposium provide a venue for this community to grow. In the age of technology were everything seems so impersonal and distant, zines give back a bit of humanity, something you can touch and hold, knowing someone else made it with love, hope and passion and sent it out into the world for you to find.

Sarah Bracken

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