The Zine Scene

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The Festival of the Photocopier (FOTP) Zine Fair, held in Melbourne’s Town Hall earlier this year, was mayhem.

There were hundreds of desks arranged in long rows in a vast room, each tabletop adorned with displays of zines, illustrations, independent presses and other handmade creations. It was a flurry of cash, tote bags, and fleeting glimpses of exquisite artistic pieces between hoards of people. A truly electrifying, creative energy emanated from the crowd.

The term ‘zine’ (pronounced ‘zeen’) originates from ‘fanzine’, which emerged in the 1930s to describe amateur magazines created by science-fiction aficionados to challenge official, commercialised publications. The first zine, however, can be traced back to as early as 1517, when Martin Luther published his Ninety-five Theses.

Zines have historically served as a medium for artists to present political and cultural criticisms, in an unfiltered, unrestricted and unapologetic way. They were mobilised by punk subculture in the 1970s, and feminist activists in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s through the iconic Riot Grrrl movement. Today, they’re a popular platform for diverse communities to document their experiences and freely assert their voices.     

A sentiment of institutional rejection and ‘DIY ethos’ has come to characterise zines.  Artists can bypass traditional gatekeepers, and independently create publications free from the constraints of censorship, copyright and the pursuit of profit.

“I think that they’re an accessible form of art,” said Sydney-based zine artist, Isabella Brown. “[Zines] kind of bridge the gap between the publication, which can kind of be like overwhelming art books and photo books, and make it a very small, personal thing.”

Bastian Fox Phelan, Creative Coordinator for the MCA Zine Fair 2018, Sydney’s answer to the FOTP, said: “A zine is almost like a letter from a friend. They are intimate, and the physical object is a treasured thing. You don’t throw out zines. You keep them in a shoebox and pull them out when you feel like you need to hear from your friends.”

Despite the commercial nature of many zines, they are ultimately a labour of love.  “I don’t know anyone who makes money from zines… You can break even on the costs of production but probably not on all the time you pour into it! They are made to be shared at a low cost”, said Phelan.

Sydney-based mixed media artist and former zine-maker, Tara Axford, echoed this sentiment. “[Zines are] self-publishing at its most economical and accessible best – it’s like a business card into an instant community,” she said. Axford’s zines ranged from themes of Tofu Wisdom, to iPhoneography, and included characters such as hedgehogs and faceless crayon people.

Needless to say, the content of zines is often incredibly idiosyncratic.

The queen bee of Australia’s zine scene herself, Vanessa Berry, is renowned for her imaginative and eccentric zines, which she has been creating for over

20 years. A favourite of mine is the aptly titled zine from 2000, ‘Shopping List Stories’, where she constructed narratives from shopping lists she found and collected, imagining the lives of those who wrote them.

In light of the continual advancements in digital technologies and social media, it may seem that the future of physical, print zines is dubious.  But don’t fret, because Phelan does not believe print zines will ever be replaced by digital forms. “It’s like saying… ‘will photography replace oil painting?’ They’re different things. Zines are beautiful because they are zines. If that doesn’t make sense, maybe it’s time you picked up a zine and fell in love.”

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