‘Bigger on the Inside?’ by Mike Nicholson
Bigger on the Inside?
What is a ‘zine’? To even attempt a concise answer is asking for trouble, when there are as many different zines as there are people making them. Head online and you can find many attempts to define the form. Along the way you might check out the notion of the ‘democratic multiple’, and read the list of libraries that host collections available on New York’s Barnard College zine site, which offers that:
‘A zine is a self-publication, motivated by a desire for self-expression, not for profit.’
So, who makes them? Well, as above, anyone with a need to say something, and who has perhaps limited means in terms of finance and technical resources, but would rather just go ahead and say it anyway. Certainly there is a widely-held notion that ‘DIY’ – ‘do it yourself’ – expresses a commonality of purpose in the world of zines. There’s a ‘let’s do the show right here’ exuberance in the writing of zine makers and enthusiasts that overcomes limitations in realization and refinement.
If you look in from the outside it can feel a little self-satisfied. A common thread stresses that anyone can make a zine about anything they damn well like. It’s democracy in action, within a very broad church. In turns, zines earnestly inform, sweatily obsess, incite, engage, subvert, berate, bellow, whisper, confuse, and misinform joyfully. They are the grubby distant cousin of officially-sanctioned, ISBN-ed publications that we are led to believe actually represent a culture as they sit on bookshop or library shelves.
They are often cheaply made, and hastily. They place a finger on the pulse of things, and then lift it off again. They care passionately or they couldn’t care less.
The form treads the back roads of the personal as political, of gender and sexual orientation, the explosive release of stifled emotion. Yet alongside startling histories of repression and expression the zine might also be driven by simple superficialities like the musical tastes and distastes of a lone individual.
There’s an element of the willful outsider about them, which is unsurprising when you consider that the simply photocopied, A5-size model – that continues to represent what many think a zine looks like – emerged from the musical and countercultural tides of the Hippy 1960s and Punk 1970s. Pick your own most peculiar personal passion and that could be what you, too, make a zine about. As soon as tomorrow.
Why am I telling you this? Well – I make zines. Or at least many people think I do. I am happy to go along with this, as we live in a culture that is comforted by compartmentalization and I am most interested that people look at what I do. Which is: modest but heartfelt narratives – less graphic novel than graphic novellas/short stories – drawn and written entirely by me. I want to tell stories, and I mostly do so in a series that is called ‘bio auto graphic’ and stems from things that happen to me; places I see, people I meet, things that happen. I reproduce them cheaply and they are A5-sized. So – you could see them as zines. If someone arrives at my table at a book fair as an enthusiast of zines I do not dissuade them from an assumption that these are what I make.
The equally hard to define and elusive world of artist’s books was where I started the confusion, exhibiting in 2000 at the then London Artist’s Book Fair. Interestingly, I think what I did – simply reproduced works originating as ink line drawings and mediated by the blunt honesty of high street copy shops, held together by the vulgarity of staples – was rather sniffed at. Not only by some visitors but also by certain fellow exhibitors. The artist’s book community, thinking itself welcoming and progressive, was not always really that at all back then. Alongside the earnest endeavours of the painter or the art photographer, the printer or letterpress expert, well – I think what I did was felt to be somewhat low rent. But times change.
As the parallel existence of the internet has altered the minds of the last generation – evidence of which I see more and more in my role as a lecturer – so older hierarchies fade and cultural boundaries melt away like bad dreams at breakfast. Illustrators and typographers exhibit in galleries, designers direct movies, celebrities write novels, novelists become celebrities. . . All bets are off, frankly. A creative individual has new ways to find an audience, and audiences want to be found. Making something is better than destroying something, after all, and there are enough people in the world already doing that. Maybe you really should make that zine tomorrow?
A key signifier that I was doing something interesting was that the work began – and continues – to be collected by libraries. Indeed, some even maintain an ongoing ‘complete’ catalogue of everything I do. My work is now held at the Tate Collection, V&A National Art Library, Manchester Metropolitan University, Smith College and Amherst College (Massachusetts), Carleton College (Minnesota), Leeds Brotherton Library and Leeds College of Art, University of West England, University for the Creative Arts and. . . Winchester School of Art, of course. This is an honour that I don’t take lightly. In our country – alongside many other locations and environments within which one could traditionally encounter and interact with the products of the human imagination (art schools, theatres, galleries) – libraries are embattled places these days, and all the more precious for it. Such vital arenas of thought and activity have their throats cut by vested interests every week.
My mother wielded her library membership card proudly all her life, and my father still does. While I love books too much not to want to keep them rather than give them back – even in the era of the internet, through which a tap of a button can bring you anything – a physical place that cheerfully facilitates access to knowledge is to be cherished.
It has been a pleasure to see the growing acceptance and interest expressed by – those good friends of book artists/zine makers everywhere – the librarians and curators. My heroes and saviours have included: Gaye Smith, Jonathan Carson, Maria White, Elizabeth James, Chris Taylor, Sarah Bodman, Rebecca Lowe, Jayne Burgess, Jane Pendlebury, Diane McCourt, Catherine Polley, Linda Newington, Martin Antonetti, Barbara Blumenthal, Michael Kasper, Tanya Piexoto, Jackie Batey. Credit where credit’s due.
Collections like that growing at Winchester offer rare gems – and I’m not just saying that because they hold much of what I’ve done. You must continue to hold that opportunity close; visit, read, return, go away again and make things. Even that zine we’ve been talking about, which you could start today – never mind tomorrow. It’s International Zine Library Day, after all.
In my edition ‘The Common Senses’ (2007), I recorded events in the Smith College Rare Book Room. For once a library was in one of my books, rather than the other way around.
Mike Nicholson, July 2015
Mike Nicholson is an artist/writer and academic. His blog is at www.ensixteeneditions.blogspot.com
You can find more information about International Zine Month here
You can find zine resources with our Artist’s Book Collection in Library 2.