Zine culture: The magic of the ephemeral

Ben Hunter


A world of zines by the people for the people. Photograph by szcel used under Creative Commons licence.


A handmade treasure with a personal touch of beauty and style. Photograph by Andrea used under Creative Commons licence

“What is a zine?” says John from The Newport Dolls in an ironic, painfully arty voice. Without missing a beat, the dozen people in the gallery burst into laughter, delighted by sarcasm then flock to the corner of the room to drink tea and eat watermelon.

The Newport Dolls is an ambient/spoken word/avant-garde music collective that incorporates zines into its super-weird music. Following a loose round of talks, the group is gearing up to perform an interactive live set on a Saturday afternoon as part of a zine-centred exhibit, Second Circulation at the Verge Gallery.

John’s question has a simple answer. A zine (pronounced as you would maga-zine) is an independently published and distributed periodical on any subject, most commonly art and music. Zines are compiled by hand and usually photocopied by their producers in small batches to be sold and traded with other enthusiasts as well as through zine fairs and distributors or ‘distros’.

Perhaps the reason the question is laughable to everyone is that the zine-making community, while whole-heartedly inclusive, is critical of outsiders trying to dissect it as culture. Zines are all about subverted expectations. Their makers are wrapt in the ephemeral world of loose pages and hiding work and ideas behind dorky pseudonyms.

“We’re weirdos,” says Miss Helen, an institution in the Sydney zine scene. Producing zines since high school, she’s now a professional artist and graphic designer known for zines such as Little Rituals and Lollyweeds. “I get this perverse joy when people are really excited to see what I do and then I show them and they just stick their noses up at it. I think, ‘Take that, The Man!’ ”

Zines, originally referred to as ‘fanzines’, were a huge part of punk and queer subcultures in United Sttes during the 70s and 80s. At the end of the 90s, the Internet provided a more practical way of networking and sharing ideas and the zinesters went underground. If they were ever above ground.

But for artists and writers today, the idea that their work can be shared affordably without being surrendered to the cold permanence of the digital sphere seems to be an enormous draw.

Yaël Filipovic, of the Museum of Contemporary Art, says this year’s MCA Zine Fair has had more store-holder applications than ever before. “Zinesters are coming from all over Australia coming and even some from abroad. There’s also an amazing series of workshops and talks to accompany the Zine Fair which we are equally excited about.“

Someone sure to be there will be Akisiew (pronounced I-kiss-you). She was relatively new to zines when she put together SHE – A Collective Of Female Artists Destroying The Joint to coincide with International Women’s Day in March this year.  The short exhibition in its trendy Marrickville studio space showcased more than a dozen artists and championed an all-girl zine library.

Akisiew is a young artist who does mural work and street art. Her practice is all about inclusiveness and storytelling. 
She seems perfectly suited to what she calls “the zine community”.

Having read and collected zines since high school, she only started printing her own last year. “You can tell more of a cohesive story,” she says. “It’s like a sketch book.”

For Akisiew, the small hand-bound parcels of creativity are a means to share work with a young audience that doesn’t necessarily go around to galleries buying artworks. Many of the patrons coming through the show had their first encounter with the medium. “It’s nice to introduce people to zines.”

It seems that zines compete with one another to be ever more personalised and unique, often catering to niches that may or may not exist. One zine titled What I Ate This Week by Adi Firth is just 14 pages of cartoon drawings of every article of food the maker had consumed in a week. Another favourite is called Wipe. It’s produced by a group in Geelong who source artworks from willing participants across the globe and print them on to mix-matched squares of toilet paper.

No matter how strange these publications become, more and more people are seeking them out and buying them. Chris Loutfy of Sydney indie book and zine shop, Press, thinks the medium isn’t necessarily ballooning all of a sudden; zine makers are just getting more connected and excited about their work.

“As zines are by the people for the people, they will continue to be ever changing in style, content, and technique. Especially now that the print medium is becoming less prevalent in our lives, zines represent an endurance and hunger for the hand-made, personal, and honest aesthetic,” says Yael Filipovic.