Invisible Art: Melbourne's Zine Culture
Wednesday, May 23 2012
Christina Lee looks at the wonderful world of Zines.
Sketch of the Sticky Institute Puya Aflatoun
Whatever happened to the fringe? Che Guevara’s face is on everything from t-shirts to packs of cigarettes; graffiti art is emblazoned on tampon packaging and is actually encouraged (albeit inconsistently) by the state government, while almost everyone I know joined Occupy Melbourne to shout anti-authoritarian slogans and sing “Kumbaya” with the dreadlocked vegans and the hippies.
Hip hop, once a revolutionary underground scene, has evolved into a highly marketable industry, churning out oversized neon track pants for suburban wiggas. The most underground of art scenes are not immune. Even grandma knows who guerrilla street artist Banksy is, and the Melbourne City Council has made efforts to preserve various pieces of the doggedly anonymous artist’s work.
But against this backdrop of corporate appropriation of fringe culture, independent zine publications have evolved into a vibrant and chaotic culture of outsider art.
For the unenlightened, the word ‘zine’ generally describes any original publication, usually sold at a loss and in small circulation. That definition is probably as precise as you can get. All formats and niche genres are represented—hand drawn comics, booklets of intricate inked sketches, niche interest magazines, recipe books, counter-cultural pamphlets, poetry and fiction. The self-driven nature of zine culture, where artists generally make, bind and print their zines by hand, allows for the kind of individualism and proliferation largely absent from mainstream art and media. Unlike blogs and webzines, which are similarly niche, cheap and offer the same ease of access, zines represent a cosy return to the home made.
Zines circumvent popular taste and commercial appeal—a low-cost, DIY alternative to mainstream tastes. That’s not to say that all zines are underground masterpieces. You might have to sift through stacks of lunatic political ramblings and uninspired poetry until you find something worth holding onto, but when you do find it, the effect is sometimes startling. A fleeting glimpse into someone’s inner life, like rifling through a stranger’s drawers or reading their diary, sometimes literally.
Library archives in London, Tokyo, New York and Vancouver burst with hand-stapled paper—this seems almost counter-intuitive in an art culture that is throw-away by design. Closer to home, the State Library contains one of the biggest zine collections in the world. Ferreted away within the rare books collection are boxes of handmade pamphlets sourced worldwide. The collection also contains a copy of every zine stocked at Melbourne’s ‘Sticky Institute’.
Located under Flinders Street in the Degraves St. underpass, Sticky is Melbourne’s own hub of zine culture. Entirely volunteer-run, Sticky accepts submissions from anyone and takes a small commission on all the work sold. At its core, zine culture is anti-commercial and staunchly unique. So it seems only right that the genre has found such a fitting home in Melbourne, where we’d rather sip coffee in dingy alleyways than set foot in a Starbucks.
Unlike digital art, zines are often stapled, photocopied and cheap enough to throw away. Popular zines often go out of circulation—the artist will move on from that project, or get tired of printing it. Besides, paper doesn’t last forever. The vibrancy of the zine scene exists in its constant regeneration—charting the transient nature of that elusive beast, ‘youth culture’ in its most organic form.
“It’s fucking hard work making comics. You have to be a little fucked in the head”, says Simon Hanselmann, a laureate of the school of “obsessive 100 hour stretches of sitting and staring”. His most recent work, a magazine-sized “witch erotica experiment”, Lingerie Witches, was launched last month, and he was recently involved in “Inherent Vice”, a project that saw eight Melbourne cartoonists and zine artists collaborate at the NGV Studio.
Hanselmann offers excited recommendations, DAILIES, edited by Michael Fikaris, is “top class stuff”. Katie Parrish Gandrabur’s Cautionary Comics about Bleeding Hearts is “a drugged out bad dream of a book that made me feel super nice”. This kind of praise seems typical of a close-knit art community prone to collaboration. But Hanselmann is quick to point out the pitfalls in working in a media that allows such freedom.
“Most of the promising artists at the moment are quite young and like travelling and partying … I’m getting older. I need money for food and rent and medical bills. [I’m] sick of stapling things together for zero profit”. Northcote-based artist Michael Hawkins agrees, but points out that the lack of pay-off allows the genre to stay “cheap, quick and accessible. I think it has immediacy, functionality and other virtues to serve as an end in itself”.
“If I was after fame and riches I guess I would have to use a different format!” comments Wangaratta-based Matthew Harris. “I suppose … the most appealing part [is] that basically any one can afford to have a small collection of my very own scribbles”.