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Zines: A stapled collection of radical ideas

Zines can be anything its writers desire. Accordingly, they’re a space for the marginalised to design their future.

Everyone has seen a zine: the stapled and bound photocopier fan-zines in record stores, or the scrappy reading material on bathroom floors at a gig. Zines are the unofficial mouthpiece of torrid youth with something to say.

Since their inception in the 1930s as sci-fanzines full of fan-written fictives, zines have been largely ignored by traditional media outlets such as libraries and newsagencies, and instead been circulated by hand, zine fair, and mail.

As a medium, zines are singular in their accessibility to creators and readers alike. With content ranging from coarsely drawn cartoon characters to in-depth criticism of sporadically performing bands, there are no standards or constraints for the content of a zine. Low production cost is a must for zine culture: a hundred printed copies will set you back around $8 at an office supply store. 

An instrumental stage in zine history was the riot grrl wave of the 1980s. These zines are known for the vibrantly brash and uncouth voices of grrrls who wanted to be heard. A nostalgic homage to this era is embodied in the film Moxie (2020), in which grrrls focus their anger on timeless issues: the prolific objectification of young women’s bodies, countless concerns dismissed by societal authority, and sexual assaults which plagued these youthful years. 

Indeed, zines have long been a battleground of social issues. For a time, they were an underground medium where queer individuals could untraceably communicate ideas and feelings that would otherwise lead to retaliative action in society. In an era when being publicly queer was punishable, this little liberation provided comfort. 

Yet some critics argue that the seminal ‘80s zine movement was not inclusive of queer cultural and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities. 

Mimi Thi Nguyen, American scholar and punk, has routinely criticised the community for being dominated by Anglo-Saxon white communities in articles such as ‘Race, Riot Grrrl and Revival’. 

In 2014, the MCA Zine Fair in the Sydney Biennale was also famously boycotted due to the event’s sponsorship by Transfield. Transfield, now known as Broadspectrum, had been contracted since 2012 by the Federal Government to operate offshore immigration detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru. Dissidents of the partnership created the Other Worlds Zine Fair in response, held at Marrickville Town Hall.

Transfield is no longer the operator of the detention centres or a sponsor of the Biennale, although some Zinesters still feel sceptical about the annual event. 

This has also not been an issue in recent years, with few zine events operating under COVID-19 restrictions. Both the Other Worlds Zine Fair and the MCA Zine Fair have not run since 2019, and the Festival of the Photocopier (FOTP) in Melbourne ran for the first time in three years recently. 

Online zine fairs and forums exist, but they are not an adequate substitute for the handheld chunks of poorly-yet-lovingly-stapled paper sitting stacked on a folding table in a multi-purpose hall. The rareness of zine events, even during certain times pre-pandemic, shows a need for other ways to publicly access zines, such as libraries and bookshops.

As an informal form of media, zines have often been regarded as unworthy of having a place in established media outlets, public institutions, and commercial spaces. Why stock a nineteen-year-old’s scrawled poetic feelings when the time-honoured novel reliably sells, decade after decade?

Conversely, some hold the belief that it is important to catalogue zines because they are a tangible record of the cultural zeitgeist. In Northern America, Harvard’s Schlesinger library collects zines because they “offer uncensored, frank, and creative views of (the authors’) lives”, as its curator of books and printed materials Marylène Altieri has said.

Further, in his article We Need to Talk About Zines, Daniel Vincent Wee writes about the need for zines to be catalogued with a balanced and diverse collection of authors. Discussing Australian libraries, Wee notes that of 18 surveyed libraries, only one third had a zine collection accessible to the public. There was also little consistency in the practice and methodology of cataloguing zines, somewhat due to the heterogeneity typical of zine culture – they are uncategorisable by nature. 

Further, the sporadic nature of zine creation, and diversity within a single zine, can lead to uncertainty in how to handle the curation of a cogent cataloguing system. Wee suggests that a dedicated Zine librarian may be a solution, but this is not practical for all institutions. There is not enough funding or hours in the day to service every needed area of a library, let alone a new zine section. 

Zines are a beautiful, brazen outlet to show your interests and feelings with friends or strangers. Despite the continuing fight for zine culture to be accepting of the diverse communities it grew from and ought to serve, it also must be accepted into traditional media spaces. Put them into street libraries, gift them, mail them, cherish them, radicalise them. Only then may the proliferation of zines continue the process of queering print media and its literary spaces as they did in the pre-digital era.

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