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They Look Good on Paper
As young generations of artists continue to lend shape to a cultural landscape that is increasingly occupied by a metastasizing corporate America, zine-making remains a valid and authentic form of distribution for their work. The do-it-yourself ethos of the 70s and 80s—which spawned all types of zines, from punk zines, to music zines, to skate zines, to queer zines, to fetish zines—gives artists and writers the freedom to engage in zine-making as an effective way of sharing their output with cherished networks of friends, colleagues and collaborators. With the help of the postal service, artists and writers overcome geographic breaches and disseminate their ideas, artworks and collaged graphics to expanding networks of attentive individuals and communities. It makes sense, therefore, that the zine format itself has become a platform upon which collaborations become manifest, and emanate an alluring magnetic force around which creative communities assemble.
Editors of zines act like curators, compiling the works and writings of people whose output excites them, and showcasing them within the pages of their publications. Since the organizers of these zines not only hang out with artists, but with other creative types whose works, ideas and life philosophies inspire them, the zine format allows its makers to introduce material from other disciplines into the mix. Musicians, performers, filmmakers, writers, poets, designers, skaters all contribute to different zines, working collaboratively to create a truly interdisciplinary context for the display of their ideas and their work. Because the contributors of these zines have, in most cases, full control of the presentation of their works on the page, the context of the zine offers a more immediate and unmediated presentation of their thoughts and intentions than may be found in more mass marketed media formats such as art or fashion magazines.
In the case of ephemeral artistic practices such as performance or more idea-based projects, printed publications can also act as documentation of fleeting events and specific cultural moments witnessed by only a small group of people at a given moment. For example, consider an early predecessor to today’’s artists’ zines, a phenomenal journal that had the balls to call itself a “megazine”, that emerged out of the mail art movement of the late 1960s and early 70s (1). FILE Megazine was published by the Toronto-based artist collective General Idea from 1972 to 1989. FILE was born in an era that preceded and influenced my generation. Punk, and the ensuing New Wave sensibilities of the 70s and early 80s, left their mark on the next generation of kids who were hungry for rebellion, but the heyday of these movements was coming to an end just as my peers reached young adulthood. (I was born one year after FILE’’s first issue went to print, and graduated from high school the year of its demise). Happening upon early issues of FILE years later shed insight into the thought patterns of the people who initiated the sensibilities, trends and subcultures that, however prescient at first, were starting to get dull at the edges and hitting the mainstream by the time I was old enough to clue in.
I wonder if the makers of today’s zines are aware that they are creating fascinating little time capsules that will offer future generations material evidence of the cultural and artistic trends they have witnessed. These zines, as a whole, come across as little treasure troves chock full of worthy goods made by artists and other creative minds who are at the forefront of contemporary cultural expression. They not only showcase a slew of projects by different contributors within their pages (kind of like a fantastic group show in a gallery that you can fold up, tuck into your knapsack and take with you on the bus), but they can be viewed as complete art objects in and of themselves, often accompanied by bonus keepsakes such as posters, stickers, compilation CDs and DVDs commissioned from artists
Three zines that have been on my radar are Scott Hug’s K48, based in Brooklyn and Queens, Trinie Dalton’s Werewolf Express, from Los Angeles, and Chris Duncan and Griffin McPartland’s Hot & Cold published out of Oakland (2). These zines not only look good and read well, with unique organizing principles and impressive contributors’’ lists, but they can also be viewed as truly successful models of collaborative activity. The editors are each positioned at the nucleus of talented networks of individuals from different disciplines who work together on projects specially commissioned for the page, and some interesting associations come across as a result. Yet each of the zines has a distinct aesthetic and sensibility: the unique look and read of each zine was formulated by the vision of their editors, but also by the shared sensibilities of their networks. I offer a brief description of these zines below, along with words shared by their editors. Since these accounts can’’t come close to the actual experience of flipping through these zines, I encourage readers to access back issues for a first-hand read.
Scott Hug, who was trained as a graphic designer, organizes each issue of K48 as a nicely assembled whole, with an overarching theme that’’s reflected in each of the contributions, and echoed in every detail of the layout and design. Although he has a solo art career, Scott states that the process of collaboration was the real incentive for him to undertake the K48 project. The social aspect of bringing people together motivates him, and Hug regularly schedules events, gallery exhibitions and parties that bring the people in his network together. When I ask him to what extent K48 is an expression of his artistic community, Scott shares the following thoughts:
“Around 1999 I decided to merge my various interests in art and design and started K48. My aim was to bridge the gap between different disciplines from art to music, to fashion and design, both high and low. I wanted to open it up and have fun-I thought the NY art world was very cold and stiff-it needed a good kick in the butt! I wanted to bring back the fun! There was an explosion of creative energy happening. So much was changing so fast and I felt that it was important to try to document it and create a context to think about art and how it related to culture at large. Dispersing K48 outside the narrow confines of the art world was important to me-interacting with other artists, sharing ideas and not living in an ivory tower. K48 acts as a kind of mediator between communities, a catalyst for bringing people and ideas together. It’’s about teamwork and together we rock!”
Influenced by the philosophies of the Situationist International, and tactics of appropriation and detournement described by theorists such as Guy Debord, K48’’s content can be highly subversive and campy, even though the zine has a slick, well-designed look to it. For example, Issue #3, also called “The Teenage Rebel” issue, has the words “Fudge Packers” scribbled in handwriting over a printed font that reads: “K48 wants you to stop worrying and join our band” (the back cover reveals that the cover is actually a vandalized postcard sent out by Hug, soliciting for members of a boy band.) The same issue opens with a manifesto by artist Rachel Howe debunking the art world as a dishonest domesticated experience and suggesting the No. 2 pencil as the most immediately accessible medium to the teenage artist.
I asked Scott how he chooses the themes for each issue and whether the contributions inform one another or express a shared sensibility or aesthetic that’’s “of the moment”:
“Each issue has been different in theme and even though I have worked with some of the same artists in each issue, I think the aesthetic changes each time. I try to mix things up and show different styles and view points. We are artists with different backgrounds and beliefs coming together to express ourselves, but I don’’t think K48 has nurtured any right ways of conducting itself. It’’s more like a kind of social study but not at all meant to reflect any kind of system of governing or influencing people-not like corporate lifestyle propaganda marketing in the media!
“K48 is anarchist to a certain degree but I don’’t want to judge either…we are having fun with all the disasters, entropy, contradictions and hypocrisies in our society of the spectacle.”
My favorite K48 is Issue #4, (also titled The Kult 48 issue) with cover text encouraging readers to find “strength and encouragement in your walk with K48.” Inside, there’’s a cornucopia of illustrated essays and reproductions of works that treat religion and spirituality with absurdist humor. Gilles Miller’’s essay “Book of Jim,” recounts the artist’’s upbringing in a three way marriage between his parents and a self appointed spiritual guru named Jim who dresses like Jesus and walks around barefoot in the snow. Miller’’s text is accompanied by a photo-collage of family photographs. Off to the side, delegated to a lowly corner near the cats like some sort of fallen leader, we see a picture of Jim, a grin on his face and a blue headband strapped around his long Jesus hair. Other choice contributions in this issue include “Groping for God,” the narration of one young man’’s first homosexual encounter, experienced in a car while on a road trip to a Christian rock concert; a tongue in cheek review of a paperback mystery novel for preteen girls titled “A Nun in the Closet,” and a satirical review of John Denver’’s album “Spirit,” written by a supposed Sunday school teacher who chastises Denver’’s racy lyrics. By tackling the sensitive topics of spirituality and religion with deadpan humor, this issue of K48 critiques a world in which the rising radicalism of the major religions threatens to spin us out of control.3
Trinie Dalton has published many zines to date, with fetching titles such as The Unicorn Institute, Strawberry Shortcake Meets the Aztec Gods, or Beck Dream Journal. Trinie makes a living as a writer, so her zines tend to be more text-heavy, with contributions by poets and writers. She states that she dislikes the look of computer-designed zines and adheres closely to the roots of the cut-and-paste zine aesthetic of the 70s and 80s. To her, it’’s a reminder that zines are pure, imaginary fun, and that they shouldn’’t be taken too seriously. Her creativity is made manifest in the way she edits the various elements together with imagery sent in by contributors, and in the trippy collages that she makes to illustrate the headers and sidebars for contributed articles and poems. My favorite collage in her latest zine Werewolf Express, shows an illustration of long-maned ladies from the 70s that looks kind of like an ad for Charlie’’s Angels. Yet Trinie has, transformed these beautiful ladies into horrific, dog-faced mutants!
Trinie mentions Dennis Cooper and his literary zine Little Caesar (1990s) as a major inspiration for her publishing efforts. Other influences she lists are underground comics, graphic novels, the Destroy All Monsters zines produced by Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw, and art school magazines such as Snowflake, edited by Benjamin Weissman, which paired LA artists with prose writers. Trinie explains how the crossover between the art, music and writing scenes happening in LA in the 80s and early 90s was also a formative experience for her, and she expresses her appreciation for exhibition catalogs such as Helter Skelter: LA Art from the 1990s (MOCA, 1992), that document the output of the various members of this scene, and merge visual art with poetry and literature.
When I ask Trinie how she chooses contributors for her zines and her motivation for bringing such a diverse range of contributors together, she explains:
“I don’t want my books to be cliquish, but at the same time I don’’t see them as communal free-for-alls. Of course, many people I invite to participate are my friends, and are friends with each other, but I deliberately include not only established artists and writers but also young people who are relatively unknown in their field. The idea of introducing and contextualizing artists by hanging their art on the same wall is a fundamental one in the art world. To me, my zines are literary/art/music history anthologies, following the group-show or salon style. They’’re like parties on paper, and I want to be an exquisite host.
Werewolf Express examines the lengthy mythic history of the werewolf. It catalogs historic tales and fake scientific knowledge and marries them with art made about werewolves, past and present. An exploration of this theme delves into the darker, wilder aspects of our human nature that we are taught and trained to suppress, and I think Trinie likes the thought of our animalistic, cave-dwelling past coming back to haunt us. Contributions to Werewolf Express include werewolf lore, murder confessions by contemporary werewolves, as well as artworks exploring werewolf symbolism. Sculptor David Altmejd writes about his fascination with crystals and decomposing werewolf heads. Writer Amy Gerstler offers instructions on how to kiss a wolf. Painters Matt Greene and John Kleckner offer visions of maidens in forests cavorting with Berzerkers and hairy beasts. Casey McKinney sends a letter to sci-fi author Sir Isaac Asimov in the great beyond, challenging him as to why he never mentions that women’’s menstrual cycles are tied to the moon in his essay, “Moonshine,” which talks about the moon’’s effect on the human psyche.
Hot & Cold
Chris Duncan and Griffin McPartland also host parties on paper a little further up the West Coast. They started the zine Hot & Cold, in 2002 in Oakland, with issue #10, and have been counting backwards ever since. The zine’s run will be complete when issue #1 is released. Hot & Cold’’s editors don’’t impose a theme or idea upon each issue, but solicit pages from artists in their community whose works they admire. The pages come preprinted and ready to assemble. Chris and Griffin then package everything into lovingly hand sewn arrangements with hand printed covers, tucking in lots of extra tidbits such as buttons, CDs and DVDs. One issue even came with a hand made wallet.
Although the Hot & Cold network started off fairly small, it has since ballooned to include over fifty artists. The zine’s growing girth and variety of contents reflects the growth of its community. Many of the contributors are people Chris and Griffin met while spending time in their local hangouts such as Adobe Books, Needles and Pens, the (now defunct) Mimi Barr store and gallery, and Juice Design (all located in San Francisco’’s Mission district). Other artists in more distant locales-such as the folks from the collective Space 1026 in Philadelphia who run the Bookmobile Project -they meet and befriend over the mail and the Internet. I asked Chris how the contents of Hot & Cold reflect the make-up of his broad-reaching community:
“Hot & Cold is able to exist because of the communities that I/we are a part of. Therefore, it’’s a pretty pure and raw expression of what is being thought about and worked through in the contributors’ lives. We have become finite gatherers and assemblers of the moments that occur during the project’s lifetime. By no means is it a definitive overview of the Bay Area art scene, or any scene for that matter. It is, however, a small piece in that puzzle.”
Chris and Griffin actively promote the works of the people in their circle who contribute to their zine by regularly assembling group shows of the contributors’’ works. They further disseminate their works by throwing huge launch parties for each issue of Hot & Cold. I found out about Hot & Cold when I went to look at Chris’s work installed in the Mimi Barr gallery. He took this opportunity to talk to me about his own work, show me Hot & Cold’s latest issue, and introduce me to the other artists he had included in the zine. When he registered my interest, he took me across the street to another studio space where a group show of Hot & Cold contributors’’ was on view. Chris clearly believes in strength in numbers. And as his comments suggest, he thinks what’’s good for the individual is good for the group:
“For a lot of the folks whom we are lucky to have worked with, coming to terms with the art world is about how they/we can change it. Making a zine not only documents and contributes to a sentiment of community, but it also expresses a communal growth and achievement.”
A recent communal achievement for Chris, Griffin, and the rest of the Hot & Cold crew was entering the collection of the MoMA in New York. The MoMA accessioned the full set of back issues of Hot & Cold for their works on paper collection. By entering this collection, Hot & Cold has not only gained value as a collector’s item, but also ensured that its contents will be documented for posterity. Not to mention the fact that the contributors of the zine are now on the radar of the MoMA’s curators. Chris and Griffin’s next goal is to publish an anthology of all of the Hot & Cold issues, and to curate a comprehensive group show of everyone who has ever contributed to their zine, to coincide with the launch of the anthology.
As the growing success and notoriety of each of these zines demonstrate, zine making is not only a trusted way of promoting an artist’s work, it also helps spread the word about friends and collaborators. Although artists mainly make zines to share their work with one another, curators look at zines too, as a form of field research. Curator Aaron Rose, who ran the Alleged Gallery in New York in the 90s, and has since assembled many of the works by artists he worked with at Alleged into a group show titled Beautiful Losers, tells me that he has always looked at zines as a type of field guide, to gauge new artistic output and to see who is coming up on the scene. It makes sense, therefore, that the exhibition catalog for Beautiful Losers is itself an impressive document, with specially commissioned artists’ pages. Curator Kathy Grayson, who put together the book “Live Through This” with Jeffrey Deitch, and who has assembled several group shows with the artists whose works she included in this book, writes about how the artists she works with inform her about their friends’’ work by giving her copies of their zines.
I view zines as not only documents, but as maps that chart networks within creative communities. They showcase some phenomenal collaborations between artists and other individuals who spark one another’s ideas, encourage one another, and give each other support. Looking back a little further and drawing parallels with the present, I am happy to see the ideological seeds that first sprouted in zines of the 70s and 80s continue to be nurtured by younger generations of artists so as to bloom like perennials in repurposed and reappropriated ways. I have a notion that the kids of tomorrow will one day look back upon the zines of today and get an unabridged picture of how artists worked, and will see how they tended the cultural landscape that defines our era.
Berin Golonu is Assistant Curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. A past curatorial project titled The Zine UnBound: Kults, Werewolves and Sarcastic Hippies, included works by artists affiliated with the three contemporary zines discussed in this essay, and was on view to the public from October through December 2005.
(1) FILE initially had a diaristic intent, chronicling General Idea’s conceptual projects, vignettes, and staged performances within the pages of the zine. Its title usurped and scrambled the logo of LIFE, the very mainstream American lifestyle magazine which folded in 1972, the same year that FILE hit the presses. It used a pop vocabulary borrowed from mass culture, which it then subverted and recoded with the artists own political agendas. FILE was LIFE turned on its head, inverted and recast to meet the needs of General Idea’’s notion of “common man,” a subculture of artists, punks and performers constituting Toronto’’s creative community. The Fall 1977 issue titled “Punk Till You Puke,” featured Deborah Harry on the cover. The inside pages were covered with interviews, photo spreads and artfully collaged rock operas featuring the punk and art bands that were infecting the Toronto, London and New York art and music scenes with their frenetic energy and their “fuck all” attitude. The artistic triad who constituted General Idea were the self appointed ring leaders of this community, regularly staging performances and events at various alternative artists spaces around town, and doing what seemed like a decent job of recreating the excessive party atmosphere of Andy Warhol’s factory in the much more subdued and quiet creative enclaves of Toronto. Many of the cast of characters who showed up at these performances, parties and rock shows seem to have found their way, some in full costume, into the spoof “society pages” located towards the back of early issues of FILE Megazine, offering lasting documentation of this community and its various goings on.
When General Idea later moved to New York, their zine started to display a closer involvement with the New York art world, with contributions by some of the key players of the time, including Andy Warhol, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and Sherrie Levine, to name a few. These later issues of FILE document the critical dialogues, conversations and exchanges that were taking place between General Idea and their circle of friends and collaborators within the New York art scene. The art projects and writings chronicled in these pages touch on a variety of prescient topics, such as the excessive trends of the 80s art market, its over inflated prices and its emphasis on the commodifiable art object, not to mention social issues that were eclipsed by the greedy “me” decade of Reaganomics, such as the rising homelessness population of New York, or the need to raise awareness around the spreading AIDS epidemic that was then claiming the lives of many in the city’’s creative community, including two of the members of General Idea. Over the course of its seventeen year run, FILE acted as not only a chronicle of the many conceptual projects that General Idea and their circle of collaborators staged and documented over the course of their careers, but the publication itself could be considered to be one of the greatest and most ambitious conceptual projects that General Idea ever produced.
(2) I should mention that I worked with these editors when co-curating an exhibition at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts titled The Zine UnBound: Kults, Werewolves and Sarcastic Hippies, which opened in October 2005. Each of the editors brought in the work of some of the artists featured in their zine and curated this work together in the context of the gallery. This was one of the most inclusive curatorial exercises that I have ever been a part of. There were contributions by over 70 artists included, both established and emerging, and the end result was an impressive show.
(3) The theme of “Prisons” will be explored in K48 issue #6.