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In a Trip Through Two Zinefests, I Saw the World Changing

The grungy world of do-it-yourself printmaking surfaces interesting truths about what we hold dear.

Dorothy Woodend 5 Jun 2024The Tyee

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

For anyone who ever fell in love to the backdrop of mixtapes, punk rock and handmade publications, the Vancouver Art Gallery’s gigantic new exhibition on zines and zine culture might be just up your DIY alley. Organized by the Brooklyn Museum in New York, Copy Machine Manifestos: Artists Who Make Zines is the first of show of its kind, encompassing more than 50 years of zine culture. There are more than 1,500 works on display, including 800 zines, plus a bombastic collection of supporting materials.

Zines, short for the word “fanzines,” came out of the pulpy underground of comics, celebrity magazines and mail art. The exhibition is organized chronologically, beginning with the rotten raunchiness of the 1970s and running to the present day. Zine culture really took off in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when artists with access to the low-rent technology of the period (mimeograph machines, offset presses) began to create and share their publications, often by connecting with their fellow artists and audiences by sending artwork via the mail.

Toronto was home to one of the first established mail art communities, but other similar enclaves sprang up in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. Of the many artists who gleefully embraced the handmade, low-rent, ease-of-access zeitgeist, Anna Banana’s zine VILE was emblematic of the period. Born in Victoria, B.C., Banana moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s to work with Bay Area Dadaists. It was here that VILE got its start, blending art, photography, literary work and fake ads. VILE’s embrasure of the gleefully anarchic attitude of the time set a precedent for other artists, and away they went.

Many of the zines in the show are the only copies in existence, co-curators Drew Sawyer and Branden W. Joseph explained during the media preview. So, there is a level of care and protection in presenting them. Audiences can’t pick them up and flip through them.

Most of the work is visible behind glass, in vitrines or mounted on the wall. How they’re displayed at the VAG seems contrary to the very essence of zine culture itself — inexpensive, accessible and coming from marginalized groups.

A cover of a zine features colourful text against a black background. The top reads 'Homeboy beautiful' and the centre image features a close-up side profile of a man with a moustache.
Joey Terrill, Homeboy Beautiful, No. 1, 1978, photocopy zine. Courtesy of ONE Archives at the USC Libraries, copyright and courtesy Joey Terrill and Ortuzar Projects, New York.

When old-school provocations feel strangely normal

Like the cheaply produced, down-and-dirty zines themselves, however, provocation also has something of a limited shelf life. What was shocking to mainstream audiences in the 1960s and ’70s doesn’t pack quite the same punch in 2024. Gay sex, drag performance — even depictions of big old penises don’t seem all that shocking anymore.

If you don’t have 10 to 12 hours to wander the Vancouver Art Gallery to take in the sheer volume of work on display, take heart. There is the possibility to enjoy it in increments, though the quantity of material can make it difficult for any individual work to stand out.

I did my best watching some of the video offerings that make up the section spanning the late ’80s to the early 2000s. In Queer & Feminist Undergrounds: 1987-2000, the artists of the period often overlapped with music. There is a great deal of video work from the likes of polymath Miranda July, musician Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre and the Riot Grrrls, among many others.

The rise of camcorders and VHS made for plenty of rough-and-tumble work, some of it more interesting than others. In one extended clip from a cable television show in the ’80s, two individuals, both in drag, go on a tour of New York’s gay bars and attempt to buy poppers (amyl nitrite) in local bodegas. They snort them down near the city docks and generally just meander about, being alternately funny and kind of annoying in equal measure. It’s indicative of the overall nature of Copy Machine itself: engaging one moment, exhausting the next.

In the same section that documents queer and feminist work, another video offers two trans women talking about their sex lives and articulating their frustrations with the gay community. The content, roughly assembled, is interesting, but also very much informed by the period in which it was created. In keeping with the cheaply produced esthetic, it’s rough, raw and ragged.

This aspect often sidelines visual pleasure in favour of something harsher. Kink, porn and pulp all inform the show. And that, too, can be a little hard to swallow after a while.

In a show this packed with images and ideas, it’s a bit too easy to float along, skimming the surface. But surfaces are often all you get. I have some sympathy for the organizers, trying to devise ways to present the work so that it didn’t feel inaccessible or cordoned off.

Despite the emphasis on finding ways to explode out from the central thesis by including multimedia elements like videos and film and other media like painting and printmaking, the overall effect is strangely stifling, since so much of the work is under glass.

A reading room in the exhibition offers a welcome hit of sensory relief. It features local artists like Lisa g Nielson, Ho Tam and Cole Pauls, and attendees can flop down and take their time with the offerings.

The cover of a zine called 'Thing' features a black and white portrait of a woman with short hair and large earrings against a red background.
Robert Ford with Trent Adkins and Lawrence Warren, Thing, No. 4, spring 1991, offset zine. Collection of Steve Lafreniere. Courtesy of Arthur Fournier. Photo by Evan McKnight, Brooklyn Museum.

This is a better way to engage with the format of zines: they’re meant to be opened, read and perused at length. Not simply presented under glass as objects from the not-so-distant past.

From punk and pulp to pure fantasy

It was interesting to partake of Copy Machine the same weekend that the annual two-day Vancouver Comic Arts Festival, better known as VanCAF, was also taking place. A generational divide, or perhaps several divides, were in evidence.

Like the VAG show, VanCAF was packed to the rafters with different artists and their work. Even in the relatively large confines of the Roundhouse community centre, every square inch of the place was filled with people selling their work, seminars, artist talks and more.

One thing that struck me was the extremely different content at VanCAF. Much of the current comics, illustrations and zines scene appears to be based on the fantasy genre. A strong flavour of escapism infuses the work, along with a pronounced aspect of juvenilia.

A poster for the 2024 Vancouver Comic Arts Festival features a large crowd of colourful hand-drawn fictional characters emerging upwards from an open book at the bottom of the frame.
The 2024 poster for the Vancouver Comic Arts Festival in May. Image via VanCAF.

In examining the multitudes of elfin warriors, dragons and Pokémon-inspired creatures, I had a moment of wondering where the anarchic spirit present in much of Copy Machine went.

Activism was and is a large part of zine culture. Maybe it’s just that activism itself has moved on, taking space in other forms, in student encampments and even kooky old TikTok.

Even if it was created in the cracks and margins while reacting to mainstream culture, the bulk of the work in Copy Machine is very much engaged with the real world in all its complexities and complications, whether that was AIDS activism or women’s rights.

The work in VanCAF, by contrast, was more concerned with imagined worlds, fairies and monsters. I found I missed the rude, raunchy spirit that comes through so much of the older zines.

But before launching into grumpy old coot mode about activists in my day (shakes fist at the sky and yells at a cloud), I stopped. Kids these days are dealing with some of the direst stuff to ever face humanity.

If they need a little lightness and fantasy, reading materials to peruse and share while camped out in a tent on the lawn of their university, that’s just fine.

Who knows what kind of future materials will evolve from this moment. Zines meet elves, and hola! It’s an entire new genre where fantasy meets anarchy: “Fantarchism,” perhaps.

I can’t wait to read it.

‘Copy Machine Manifestos: Artists Who Make Zines’ runs until Sept. 22 at the Vancouver Art Gallery.  [Tyee]

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