Behind The Zines


Behind The Zines: Self-publishing Culture
Gestalten, Berlin, 2011

This book is a big compendium of recent (in 2011) zines with lots of pictures of covers and page spreads of many and varied publications. It includes interviews, project descriptions and a preface, mostly written by Sonja Commentz.

She sees zines and imprints as playgrounds or personal stages where their creators can perform or display. One of her interviewees, Urs Lehni, refers to ‘what Michael Bracewell describes as “the process of print re-enactment (of a book)”’ where the process of publishing becomes the medium of art as much as the text itself.

For Commentz, 100% authorship can result in ‘misguided self indulgence’, but that’s still ‘interesting and intense’. There is an assumption here that an editor ‘might smooth out deliberate edges in style or execution’. I’ve always been interested in the creative role of an editor in coordinating other collaborators and putting things together. I see an editor as someone who makes things happen, rather than a restrictive or conservative influence. With the internet allowing anyone to publish their own work without mediation, the involvment of an editor can be a distinguishing factor.

Commentz relates zine publishing to William Morris’s utopian ideal of owning the means of production as a way of gaining back pleasure in work. There is significant work involved in making and selling zines, of course, but it’s not, for anyone, a way of making a living. Whether this work is serious, or worthwhile, or art, or none of these things, it’s still more like a hobby than a job.

Self-publishing allows more differentiation than mainstream publishing, but zine culture is also constrained by its own self-imposed limitations which create ‘the spirit of an exclusive club’. In a world where the internet makes almost everything freely available there is value in items that are not mass produced, that are elitist in their scarcity and collectibility. Because of their decentralised network of distribution you have to be in the know to collect zines. Collectors hunt for hidden treasures ‘available at select spots or through ever-more obscure channels’.

Zines are also shaped by their means of production. The technical restrictions of particular machines produce their own characteristic imperfections, eg the Risograph printer. Zine makers are forced to work within these limitations. Using older technologies can be a reaction against digital output, complexity and professionalism. Roughness equals authenticity. But the situation is more complex when cheap or free software and the internet make funding, design, production and promotional procedures more accessible. Creators can make informed choices among various options at different stages and produce hybrid digital/analog output.

Not everyone is invested in the culture. For others it’s just a way of getting their work into print, a way of publishing material that mainstream publishers wouldn’t touch. For Jung & Wenig ‘it is usually pure madness from a production point of view. If we handed those to a bookbinder there is no way we could afford it. But if you treat it as a voluntary craft project… it can actually be quite meditative’.

I sometimes think the photobook world should be have more of a zine attitude. Photobooks too often aspire to be like mainstream art books, whereas zines have have a very different culture from professional magazines. Here, amateurism is a virtue.

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