Zine vs. Art

As artist books morph into art zines, our hero the zine gets a new aesthetic and higher sticker price to match. Is there room in the zine world for both the low-price, cut-and-paste zine and these glossy new commodities?

On a warm November night in London, Ontario, art lovers gathered at the Michael Gibson Gallery to fete the city’s own group of seven: Marc Bell, Billy Bert Young, Jason McLean, Peter Thompson, Jamie Q., James Kirkpatrick and Amy Lockhart. The self-deprecatingly titled show Not Bad for London exhibited collaborative as well as individual work in painting, sculpture, video and, well, zine. In one room hung 15 illustrated pages, the originals from the art zine Uncle Pork Chop, their sides frayed from where they were ripped from a notebook. The price tag: $1,500. Nearby hung original single-page illustrations taken from other zines and priced at between $350 and $400 apiece. The whole room sold.
For those who couldn’t get the original, the stapled-together reproduced versions were set out on coffee tables around the gallery, mixed in with other self-published books. The show’s curator Jennie Kraehling described these zines as essentially serving the same function for the show as the traditional “exhibition catalogue.” In other words, the zines were ersatz copies; low level artifacts produced for the perusal of those who couldn’t afford to take home the real thing.
Only two weeks prior to the London opening, Thompson and Q. tabled at Broken Pencil’s Canzine festival of independent culture in Toronto, selling the same Uncle Pork Chop zine along with others, this time from behind collapsible wooden tables. For a handful of hours, it was their low price zines that took centre stage. Or did they? Many of the zine creators at Canzine this year displayed business cards identifying themselves as illustrators or designers — not zinesters. Quality cardstock was everywhere. The long-arm stapler, once a cheap mode of binding as well as a call to arms, seemed to be edged out by delicate saddle stitching and adorable metal fasteners. The imperfect zine, it seems, is increasingly becoming a vehicle for promoting and selling art, as well as becoming the objet d’art itself.

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Back in the late ’80s illustrator Fiona Smyth was just starting to make a name for herself in the Toronto art world when she came across the mini-books of cartoonist Chester Brown. Inspired, she started making her own art zines, as much for their promotional value as for the intrinsic possibilities of the medium.
“It was a good way to promote my work beyond a show or during a show,” she says. “People might not be able to afford a $400 painting but they could afford a $1 or $2 zine. So, I could always make sales at the shows. Today, I think it’s a similar thing. It’s a way to get your gospel out there or spread your name.”
Smyth now teaches a class in “Graphic Novel Illustration” at the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD U). The class brings zine-making to a visual arts school that already houses a zine library and an annual zine fair. The implication is obvious: zines are now part of the emerging artist’s toolbox, a cheap way to showcase talent and try out ideas. With zines increasingly embedded directly into the art school curriculum, it’s no wonder that art zines are starting to show up in both high-end galleries and what were once low-end zine fairs.
“Their definition of a zine is more like a lot of pictures and prints and illustrations,” says Dave Cave of the kinds of zines that are made and shown at places like OCAD U. Cave, the creator of Everybody Moon Jump — a text-heavy zine he describes online as “written in the middle of a depression vortex” — casts a critical eye at zines he sees as relatively light on content. “I made a promise to myself to never go through life debating what art is. But at the same time, I go and see these tables [at zine fairs] and they have really amazing art prints, like it’ll be a zine printed on high-quality paper and it’s a mini-zine that’s only four pages and I look on the back and it’s $25. My only question is: who is buying them?”
Montreal artist and cartoonist Billy Mavreas is also seeing this art-inspired aesthetic emerging, but he sees it as just another step along the long road of the zine’s evolution. “Just as we’re seeing Risograph explode right now, back at early Canzines it was screen-printing,” says Mavreas, who is co-founder of Montreal’s annual Expozine fair and runs one of the best brick-and-mortar spots to buy zines in Canada, Monastiriki Boutique. “There are beautiful, beautiful objects that exist that don’t merit 40 seconds of attention. They’re just gorgeous that’s all they are. They’re fluff. Which is fine. There’s a lot of that.”
Other zinesters, though, are less laissez faire about the space being dominated by art products.
“When you advertise your event as a zine fair, you are going to attract zinesters,” wrote Maranda Elizabeth, of the zine Telegram Ma’am, on their blog a few days after Canzine. “Some of us just plain don’t care about your cupcakes and your screen-printed t-shirts. They are always overpriced anyway. A lot of us are broke, and when you charge a lot of money for your ‘art,’ you have chosen to make your creations inaccessible to many of us.”

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Two recent large format books confirm the growing divide in the zine world. Fanzines (Thames & Hudson, 2010) purports to give an historical overview of zines, dropping in mentions of the great-great granddaddies of zinesters, such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense pamphlet (1776) to the Pre-Raphaelite artists of the 1850s, passing through the sci-fi, anarcho-punk, queercore and Riot Grrrl phases right up to zinesters tabling at fairs today. The book favours the scrappily produced text-and-collage type zines that, today, probably make up only about five to 10 percent of what’s on display at your average zine fest.
Behind the Zines: Self-Publishing Culture (Gestalten, 2011) pretty much ignores the cut-and-paste zine altogether. This book focuses on work produced in the last decade and boldly calls its purview the “second wave of self-publishing.” Anyone who might come across this coffee-table book at a gallery would take “zines” to mean art displayed in glossy printed pages. If Fanzines is, indeed, the past and Behind the Zines really does represent the future, the art world, it seems, has already taken over.
Behind the Zines pinpoints many of the trends running through art zines today: dreamy photos of faded horizons, stark shots of naked women wearing animal masks, illustrations of transmogrified woodland animals, Barbara Kruger-style headlines that shout disorienting phrases like “Cats are meaningless” or “God is in the Footnotes.” Everything is laid out in blocks of gleaming white space that evoke the walls of the gallery.
“I’ve noticed what could only be called a homogeneity of style that seems to have emerged with the ubiquity of the Internet and the popularity of zine fairs themselves, “ writes Mavreas via email. “I don’t want to say ‘Death of Local,’ but there doesn’t seem to be much difference in what you find in cities across the continent.”
That shared style also surfaced on the walls of the Michael Gibson Gallery in London, where the Not Bad for London show had a certain undeniable fusion of brightly coloured blobs, playful squiggles and cartoon-like characters. It was often hard to tell the artists’ work apart. And the collaborations felt seamless.
Of course, the cut-and-paste look in Fanzines also shares a style: the mess of collage, ransom-style notes and hand-written manifestos. But the style in these zines generally takes second place to the text and the shared aesthetic of the photocopied zine evokes not the slick digital future but the urgency of the present moment. “Part of the aesthetic is that it’s thrown together,” says Yanns (who chooses not to use his last name) of his frenetically illustrated and hand-written zine Prevailing Nonsense from Vancouver. “No one’s brain is crystal clear inside so it’s like a representation of the more rawness of being human.”
Increasingly, though, the trend is running in the other direction: polished professional creators are turning to what they are calling zines in order to give their work a more spontaneous, populist feel. Behind the Zines features the work of people like Thierry Somers, former Esquire art director, now on the fourth issue of his self-described magazine-book hybrid “bookazine” project, 200%. Then there’s McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers and his mono.kulture quarterly that folds out into a poster. The rise of professionals working in zines, and the higher price of the objects that result from it, is not just restricted to art. A recent exhibit in London, UK presented Archizines: “a showcase of new architecture fanzines, journals and magazines,” while a Time magazine article covered the launch of the new zine Girlcrush, the product of the combined efforts of New York Times and Paris Review editors. The piece in Time opened with a scene of “young magazine and newspaper writers sip[ping] $15 gimlets at a hotel bar in SoHo.” The mainstream mag cast Girlcrush, along with Afterzine — a project by Vanity Fair’s digital design editor — as the resurgence of the form.
If it is a resurgence of the form, it’s a far cry from what zines have been in the past. For one thing, these “zines” are limited edition collectibles and are priced accordingly. With professional artists, writers, designers and architects adopting zines, the cost is creeping way beyond the pay-what-you-can bracket. Girlcrush and Afterzine both sell for $10. Meanwhile, some of the “Archizines” hit the $30 price point and keep going up from there.
Price of course isn’t the only difference. There’s also a notable difference in content. Popular zines from the heyday of the photocopier publishing revolution regaled readers with tales of everyday experiences, such as working-class jobs in Dishwasher Pete (1992-1998, 2007) or Guinea Pig Zero (1996-2001) an “occupational jobzine for people who are used as medical or pharmaceutical research subjects.” They also often tackle tricky, niche subjects in plain words that lack an outlet elsewhere. The “second wave” of zinesters in BTZ take on such highfalutin topics as Milan Kundera’s theories on kitsch (Kitsch Encyclopedia, Sara Cwynar) or the geometric beauty of park furniture (Hexagona, Public Library). The discourse tends to be neither personal nor political but abstract and academic.
While cataloguing her library Zine Apothecary in Minnesota, zinester Lacey Prpic Hedtke got to defining this divide in self-publishing culture, calling one strand “artist books,” the other “zines.” “Artist books are made in limited runs, with deluxe materials, and sold for a small fortune sometimes,” she explained on the art and visual culture blog-journal, Quodlibetica, while zines are “democratic, DIY, for-the-people, anonymous and after Walter Benjamin’s heart.”
At zine fairs, Dave Cave emphasizes his cheap, down and dirty style of publishing as a selling point: “I have a flyer that says ‘fuck you it’s a dollar, just buy one.’ Surprisingly, that makes a lot of sales. The people who find that funny are the people who I’d want to read it.”
And the people who frown and walk on by? Are they the ones who are going to go for something less potentially threatening? Something that looks more like “art”? Veteran self-publisher Mavreas believes that in the long run, it’s the creators who imbue their zines with substance that will gain a following. “People that are peddling content will always have an audience,” he says. “The style birds are going to have to figure out what they’re actually trying to say and what they’re doing. People who are doing these traditional zines, the people who will engage at the table, that’s going to be an incredible connection hopefully. Instead of, you know, ‘I like the bird print you made.’”
In the end, Mavreas sees the merging of the art and zine world as a positive development. “The bottom line is that we must keep everyone involved and together,” he says. “What I like about zine fairs is that the punk rocker is sitting next to the cookbook lady. It’s good that zines cross-pollinate.”

First image by Helen Yousif. Second image by Jean Smith

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  6. Anonymous says:

    This is great, though I hear that zines are ‘making a resurgence’ a lot and I wonder if the situation is better described as ‘people forget about zines for a while and then someone remembers because there’s a zine fair or the local distro remembers to update its website’. Working for a distro/zine collective we are getting zine submissions all the time, so the idea that zines disappeared and then reappeared (or became more popular) seems odd to us. Good read 🙂

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