An essay on the political and radical potential of zines. By Rakel Stammer.
Lately I’ve been wondering; What is happening to the underground of zines? The political, radical, unprofessional documents of our time.
Coming from a background of political engagement, my first experience in the world of self-publication, was not centered around money or fame, but rather an urgency to address certain subjects, that have been, and still are, being surpassed by the mainstream media.
Simply put; if the landscape of mainstream media was gonna insist on bad representation of women, queers, POC’s and trans-people, we just made our own media. The shape of the publication itself was not of great importance, we focused on the content. We created, not for personal benefit or mainstream popularity, but to empower our communities. So later, when becoming involved in the Swedish scene of fanzines, comics and self-publications, I was surprised by its expression.
When I first moved to Sweden I was ecstatic, as the border between established and unestablished artists seemed blurred. Allowing for the world of Swedish comics to be more open, as there was no specific gatekeepers. Here anyone could do a fanzine and anyone could call themselves a comics artist, writer or illustrator. It seemed wider and more colourful, than the one I had left in Denmark. A notion I still to this day agree with, but as always there is complexity and murky waters, to what at first glance may have appeared as a wonderland, for a lonely Danish comics artist.
The second thing that struck me was the level of professionalism, with the amount of business cards, websites and sales strategies floating around on zine fairs. Frases like “you need an online presence, otherwise you don’t exist” and “I don’t trade” seemed to be quite common. The community seemed stripped of political consciousness, or at least without any awareness of class and capitalism, consumerism and professionalism.
This pattern seemed strangely familiar, it seemed to be repeating itself within the whole spectrum of political activism. The belief in professionalism as a way to be heard, as a way to claim respectability, in the hopes of distorting the respectable.
Lately my thoughts have been venturing in other directions, or circling, going back and forth. I want people to see, and I want art to be about participation, about community. I want for more marginalised voices to be heard, without having to assimilate in order to realize this. I do not believe in professionalism to be the way forward, and I do not wish for art to be motivated by capital, and for this to be the way to measure its value, if I even want to apply the term of value.
During the spring, I started wondering if this, the commercialisation of zines, was also the case in other places. And what one could learn, if one was to travel to these places. If zines are nothing more than a way to get published, and if the depoliticisation of zines was primarily a Swedish tendency. So frustrated, curious and confused I decided to take a closer look. I packed my bag, a recorder and camera and went around the European visual underground in the hopes of learning, what happens when the identity of the underground becomes currency? What form it takes, when DIY culture is capitalized? And how making zines is a revolutionary act?
I hoped that somehow, this would allow me to explore, not only what is happening to the culture of fanzines, but what is happening to all of the underground. What is happening to feminism, queer and the radical left in general, now that political awareness is once again is a buzzword? And how can we try and not be swallowed and watered down and toothless when becoming commercial. Is there a way to subvert and annex capitalism when exchanging goods?
But to be honest, I hadn’t given much thought to the nature of a fanzine in itself. How does one realize that one is reading a fanzine? According to Stephen Duncombe’s definition from his book Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture from 1997, zines are “non-commercial, non-professional, small-circulation magazines which their creators produce, publish, and distribute by themselves”.
To me this definition might be broad enough to actually contain the many shapes that zines can take. It seems it is not concerned with limiting the expressions of zines, but rather to explore the reason to why zines are made. It emphasises that zines are tied to community and anti-capitalist praxis, or put boldly, zines are anti-capitalist because they are concerned with community, creativity and amateurism, things unable to circulate freely in a capitalist system.
In a system concerned with gaining profit on everything, it becomes a question of controlling the circulation of resources. This control is exercised by establishing points of access to things that previously were free, by introducing the term of “value” as an objective truth, and the idea that everything is based on an equal exchange of this ”value”. To gain what you want, you now need to pay, even if that may be things you can create yourself.
MOVEMENT AND CIRKULATION
Continuing in the trail of circulation and movement, zines are a way to redirect the flow of resources. Zines can be a vehicle for a movement, for example as with the dadaists and situationists. Perhaps they are always vehicles of movements, and so we, the creators, become participants in movements. They can even be a way to subvert capitalism by fueling our movement, both as a community and as individuals, through a capitalist act.
To sell zines is to direct the flow of resources to benefit radical praxis. It is to create value, where none existed, by owning our own means to produce and to distribute. We enable ourselves to move, by going to festivals, selling self-produced goods, creating a sustainable chain for exchange. By relying on the community to provide us with the basic necessities, food, shelter and, even at times, a space to work, we are able to create the opportunity to travel and to meet, even if we do not possess economic capital.
We enable for our knowledge to circulate, through fanzine libraries, anthologies, small distros, co-op bookstore, fairs, web pages and other places that will house these documents of ours. To draw from each others knowledge and to be inspired.
It is often seen that friends will bring each others fanzines, and sell them at festivals. An example could be my own involvement in a loosely defined collective Lines of Enquiry, where we bring each others zines and publications when we travel somewhere, purely because we like each other’s work. Or as in Belgrade, at Novo Doba, where I met a Romanian zine maker, who didn’t sell anything, only brought zines, that she and others had made, for people to see. In these instances, the circulation exists not for economic profit, but because the participating parties enjoy it. In fact “enjoyment” seems to be at the core of these acts.
I find that circulation and movement is vital in relation to zines. The community seems based on movement and enabling movement for one another. Through the creation of festivals, anthologies and exhibitions, we ensure the circulation of art and knowledge. Allowing us to travel, to learn and to collaborate across borders. It is a desire based in what I described earlier as: enjoyment.
There needs to be places for the movement to be possible. We need somewhere to go to, somewhere to meet. These places are needed for the underground culture to unfold, to be housed.
Place can be understood in a broad definition, but to me the physical place is of importance. It can be more than just a platform, it can contain life, it can be a home. It holds importance as a container for a life that can not be lived in other places and shape us in the ways it allows us to move, and think and experience. As mentioned, when visiting zine festivals, it is often that the most basic necessities are provided, allowing for the participants to spend their time on creating instead of earning.
When I was visiting CRACK! this summer, a huge underground comics festival taking place in Forte Prenestino (a 30 year old squat in Rome) I saw what happens when art can unfold, without being made solely for earning. When one is not charged in order to exhibit, when the space is free and when it becomes a question of participation, instead of currency.
Many of the artists come to meet one and another.There is a focus on collaboration, and many use the screenprinting studio, creating at night and distributing it the next day at the market. They are visiting each others’ tables in the moist corridors, drawing together, exchanging zines and informations about festivals, zine libraries and offering to host each other. My experience was that it was not a space centered on competition or sales. There seemed to reside a strong political awareness of the importance of self-publishing and the possibility for non-commercial distribution.
It was here, at CRACK!, that I began to wonder, how zines are not only an artistic expression, but a political act. An act of anarchism and activism, of direct action. For I may not have been aware of this when I first started making zines, but narrating and distributing my own experiences in the shape of visuals or text, challenges the narrative of the status quo.
Of course I had done this before, using the internet as my vehicle, but this time I experienced the importance spaces can have. CRACK! allowed for me to meet other zine makers dealing within the spectrum of radical thought. It allowed for me to not only read what they had written or to see what they had drawn, but for me to engage them in dialogue. It allowed for me to connect with other activists, not with focus on achievement, but instead through friendship.
Feelings of alienation is silencing, engaging with others, building bonds through art and making art, can challenge and allow one to broaden one’s views.To experience a community made of strangers, who quickly becomes familiars, can open for the possibility of alternate visions, other ways of interaction. In places we can pick up on a certain mood, energy or feeling, and so we can leave changed.
To me, being able to take space, to be heard and to hear others, to discuss my experience and how I chose to let these take form, had tremendous impact. It made me think in other patterns, and to for a brief moment, focus on how to inhabit places when I no longer had to struggle for recognition.
PROFESSIONALISM IN RELATION TO CLASS
When the requirement of professionalism is raised, it installs points of access and creates a system of capital. Introducing the idea of professionalism within the world of zines is to smother it. If we start to deal in capital, if zines become ways to create a profession, what might seem like an open opportunity for everyone, becomes a exclusive club for the few. The danger of professionalism, is that it is concerned with certain expressions, reinforcing an idea of the “right” expression. Professionalism is not a question of effort, it is a question of class.
Class seeps into everything, and takes shape as professionalized (exclusive) spaces. To be professional is to signal wealth and to possess the aesthetics of privilege. It becomes a catch 22; in order to gain capital, you already need to have capital, and so the structure of class is reinforced.
To me professionalism is to acquire “the language of privilege”. For instance, that a drawing is “skillful”. It is obvious that the creator has practiced drawing, which means that they had time to draw. Or that the choice of material is expensive, time consuming ect, which is only accessible for those who already own capital (economical, social or culturally). The same is reinforced in the group that can afford professionalised goods. Once you go professional, you are working for the upper classes. The reason why I chose comics and zines was to escape the realm of professionalism.
In the underground I met an interest in my visuals, no matter how lacking in skill they might seem. I was not met with a requirement to for a “refined” expression.
Amateurism is the language of the underground, and the language of those without fortune.
PRODUCTION AND DISTRIBUTION
Through the possibility of production and distribution, through an underground build on loosely defined networks, creators are enabled to publish the stories and experiences that are perceived as “other”. The stories, that merely by being are defying the narrative in power. Instead of being surpassed because of being too “radical”, “unimportant”, “cliché”, “extreme” or simply too “difficult”, these stories are insisting on visibility, without asking for permission.
Instead of assimilating to what already exists, I can explore interests and thoughts I am not expected to have. Writing to an unknown other as a call – waiting for response. By not doing this in secret, I create possibility for others to have these interests as well. It becomes a way to write new narratives. Calling my otherness into a centered position by not comparing myself to oppressive stories that tell me how wrong I am, but instead insisting on the right to be the way I am.
To produce knowledge that is not made to fuel capitalism, but instead explore radical thought and living, one can call upon others. Or call for action. Creating is action, as it is communication. Zines are radical, in the fact that they cannot be directed, and that they are a way to direct.
STORYTELLING AND POWER
As a storyteller, the world can seem as a construction of stories. As something we can tell as we see fit, and mold by our telling. Stories are powerful, and as storytellers we bear a responsibility.
According to the late Harold Pinter “’There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: ”What is true? What is false?””
As Pinter writes; what we may allow as artists, we cannot allow as citizens. And as citizens and artists alike, we must understand that the power of stories, is that they can become reality.
When appropriation of radical imagery and knowledge happens, it is through the distortion of the stories connected to the art pieces or documents in question. Maybe the objects in themselves cannot be changed, but the way they are read certainly can. The stories, and thereby the way the objects are understood, can be reformulated and stripped of meaning – the viewer left unable to decode what is being communicated.
Examples of this is using the shape of the underground, but serving a conservative purpose. When radical art is being hung in museums, they are disconnected from the story that allows the viewer to understands it’s message. It is being turned from a contemporary document of change, into a novelty, telling stories of what has passed. By creating the illusion that something has passed, we are led to believe that there no longer is a need to address these issues, for instance fascism and class war. Just because anti-capitalist imagery becomes nostalgia – doesn’t mean that capitalism has been dismantled.
When I discover that zines are being used as “the next thing”, as I have seen when MØ and Microsoft made a zine “together” with MØ’s fans, it is appropriation of the shape of the underground. It is emulating a concept that serves the purpose of being “out of control” and decentralizing, in order to control and centralize culture. Microsoft is interested in getting users and content, and in order to control the flow of this conten. By using only the shape of DIY, and not the connected story, they simply pretend to be against the status quo.
This is the reality of appropriation – there is no middle ground, only mainstream (capitalism) or underground (anti-capitalism). If we are to use zines as a political tool, we need to understand them as such. We have to narrate them as free agents. As contemporary, as urgent, as mass produced and therefore worthless. Not as unique, as collectors items or as protected by laws of copyright.
ZINES AND REVOLT
To me the world of zines has become a way to rethink culture. It has become a way to turn from the mainstream, understanding, that it is about more than acquiring capital. In some ways, I see the question of the underground as being a question of class. I believe that by turning towards places where we can exist as creators, no matter the level of skill, is a radical act and an act of defiance.
I realize that I am placed in a capitalist system, and that I can work to dismantle the centralization of this system, by placing myself in the underground, questioning the need for professionalism and value. Instead of buying into the belief that we need to professionalize in order to “make a living”, we should understand that we are the ones losing place, if we allow for access points and professionalism to be installed.
We will not be the ones making a living – we will be the ones without a living, if we hand over the right to define what constitutes “real” art and “real” culture.
Zines are not here to be refined, they are here to undermine believes based on hierarchies.
They are here as documents proving the existence of the “other”, not asking for permission to exist. The power of art is that it allows you to create. Art allows you to create something from nothing. It enables everyone to become participants and center their experiences narrated in their own language. Art does not ask you to please, and through art you can transgress borders, such as class. What is important in the zine community is that it does not exist to please a public, and it is this that draws me to it.
I am not asked to become more likable or marketable.
In The Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed writes “In imagining what is possible, in imagining what does not yet exist, we say yes to the future. In this yes, the future is not given content: It is not that the future is imagined as the overcoming of misery; nor is the future imagined as being happy. The future is what is being kept open as the possibility of things not staying as they are, or being as they stay. Revolutionaries must dream if their imaginations dwell on the injustice of how things stay, they do not simply dwell in what stays”
Revolutionaries dream, for they have to dream. The shape of the world is unbearable, and so in order to refuse it, we must dream of other worlds we wish to bear.
In order to become revolutionaries, to create revolutionary dreams, we must dream, not of what is, but of what could be. Imagination is at the core of revolutions, and revolutionaries are defined by dream.
Revolt is not a promise of happiness, and so if we allow zines, as well as revolt, to be packaged as such, pretty little bundles of promised happiness, in order to sell them, they will no longer be vehicles of revolutionary dreams. In fact they will no longer be our dreams, and we will allow these dreams of others to make us the vehicles of their unbearable truths.
This is how art is always political. It is a question of whether we choose to uphold the narrative of the mainstream or to go against it. If we slip into the dreams of revolutionaries, if we expect these to provide us happiness, we fail to understand the economics of emotion. If we impose the values of the norm into alternative spaces, we close off these spaces from the potential they bear witness too.
Perhaps this is the problem of Sweden and it’s fanzines; we no longer dream and so we are transformed to art workers instead of revolutionaries. We must bear the dreams of worlds that could be, in order for them to be. Here people do not dream of revolutions. Here radical imagery and political consciousness is nothing more than lifestyle choices. The choice of whether one wants to share in the unbearableness of the world, and thereby the choice of whether one will dream of other worlds.
For those who do not share in these choices, there are no other place than the underground.
As long as we can create places of access, the underground will exist, and there we will create dreams and open the future to change.
- Amy Spencer, DIY: the rise of lo-fi culture, Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd, 2005
- Sara Ahmed, The promise of happiness, Duke University Press, 2010, Harold pinter, Nobel
- Liz Misterio, Interview at CRACK 2016 – podcast in the makings
- Stephen Duncombe, Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture, Microcosm Publishing, 1997
Special thanx to Liz for her kindness and wisdom! ❤
She holds lectures on the intersection of art and activism, the power of storytelling and sustainable activism.