Found  /  Museum Review

American Counterculture, Glimpsed Through Zines

Zine-making is a tradition shared by the young and alienated, people enamored with the fringes of culture. Can a museum exhibit capture its essence?

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was participating in a long tradition shared by the young and alienated, people who were enamored with the fringes of culture. It would be impossible to imagine a comprehensive history of zines, since it would be made up of so many small, forgotten moments like this one. Countless publications have started and then never made it past one or two issues. What mattered was that you tried at all. And what’s drawn people to trying is less a clear lineage than a shared feeling.

Many believe that zines date back to the nineteen-thirties and forties, when science-fiction enthusiasts eager to dissect their favorite stories (or publish their own) began making “fan magazines,” or fanzines. These early examples, some of which involved teen-agers running amok with typewriters and school ditto machines, were an expression of devotion—self-published, amateurish, and unconcerned with the bottom line. They were also a defense against loneliness. Starting your own publication always suggests a desire for connection and community, casting about for fellow-oddballs, willing a readership into existence. Throughout the twentieth century, zines were as much about what people loved as fans—comic books, horror films, rock music—as what they rejected. In the nineteen-seventies, with the popularization of xerographic copiers, the form became closely associated with the punk subculture and its do-it-yourself ethos. In the decades that followed, zines became an important forum for the discussion of radical feminism and identity, avant-garde poetry and art, the chosen platform for the thoughtful and angst-ridden. Pigeons of New York, weird Wikipedia entries, graffiti, Chinese food, dumpster diving, anarchist politics: there’s probably a zine for any niche interest that you can imagine.

“Copy Machine Manifestos,” an ambitious exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, curated by the art historians Branden W. Joseph and Drew Sawyer, documents a sliver of this world. It focusses largely on artists’ zines, loosely defined as those published by people with some relationship to the art world. The Canadian artist and pioneering zine-maker A. A. Bronson has characterized such works as “format-oriented,” as artists, disenchanted with the snooty circuits of galleries and critics, explored the possibilities of do-it-yourself publishing.