Broken Pencil Wonders If the “Fine Ahtwerks” of Marc Bell and His Contemporaries Have a Place at Zine Fairs
by BK Munn
The current issue of Canadian indie culture bible Broken Pencil sports a cover feature titled “Zines vs High Art” and the article, written by BP assistant editor Laura Trethewey, ponders a “growing divide in the zine world” between old-fashioned cheap photocopied zines and a new generation of more expensive artist-produced zines. Trethewey sets up several easy and not always accurate binaries, including rich/poor, professional/amateur, graphics/text, style/content, and abstract/personal, to make her case that the presence of gallery shows, academics, art books and art prints represent a sea change in the anarchic diy subculture that gave birth to the zines and zine fairs and that these trends are essentially sucking the heart and soul out of what’s left of non-corporate culture.
Using the example of the recent “Not Bad For London” show and sale at the Michael Gibson Gallery in London, Ontario (featuring art by Marc Bell, James Kirkpatrick, Amy Lockhart, Jason McLean, Peter Thompson, Jamie Q., and Billy Bert Young), Trethewey argues that zines featuring the work of these artists are essentially “low level artifacts produced for the perusal of those who couldn’t afford to take home the real thing,” meaning the zines that the art was originally presented to the public in are not really zines at all but now function as exhibit catalogs for pricey original art. As evidence of this growth in the divide between classic zine aesthetics and the values of the gallery world, Trethewey describes the spectacle of pages from the Young/McLean/Thompson jam Uncle Pork Chop Scrapes Away the Summer selling for $1500 and mentions other works priced at $350 and $400 easily selling out at the show. This in comparison to lowly punk-style zinesters like Dave Cave, also mentioned in the article, whose self-promotion at zine fairs consists of a flyer reading “fuck you it’s a dollar.” The article goes on to quote comics/zines veterans Fiona Smyth and Billy Mavreas, and refers to several recent coffee table books on the zine aesthetic in its overview of the perceived clash between traditional and what one commentator calls “second wave” zines.
Of course Trethewey’s piece, like a good Broken Pencil cover story should, cops a certain funky-punky approach and reads as if meant to be controversial, with a little bit of a rebellious edge. Her tone and language are provocative, firmly anti-intellectual and anti-corporate (she tosses around terms like “highfalutin” to describe the content of some modern zines), but the whole thing is based on such a laughable premise (the zine world is becoming more expensive, slick, trendy, and –ugh– arty) that it almost reads like some kind of postmodern joke or Situationist prank. “Artists sell art for money?! Modern zines aren’t solely the work of underemployed luddite crybabies specializing in highschool poetry, the vagaries of the mental health system, poor penmanship, anticapitalist rants, and hard-core punk rock? Quel horreur! Épater la bourgeoisie!”
Seriously? Trethewey’s earnest-seeming attempt to explore the divide between the authentic zinesters and the slumming posers reminds me of what Jello Biafra had to say about the “Fonzie punks” of the music scene, with their very firm ideas about what constituted punk music and style back in the 90s (hint: they targeted Biafra as a “sellout”). Sad to see the zine world fall victim to the sort of clubby exclusivity the article lambasts as the exclusive preserve of “the art world”. That is, it would be sad to see if I didn’t think the whole article was a put-on, finding controversy where there isn’t any, and treading in some seriously hypocritical horseshit along the way.
First off, using the London crew of doodlers as an example of the big dollar fine art world intruding into the precious alternative zine culture is the funniest part of the article. The show that Trethewey attended was a small-town celebration of a group of artists who came out of and are still part of a vital local scene of artists and zinesters dating back to the 80s. Trying to make a point about the trendy uniformity of modern high art zine production using this crowd as your example is a serious mistake. These folks, some of whom have achieved a modicum of international recognition within various tiny art ghettos, have long-ago paid their dues and have “zine cred” to burn. They are all tireless promoters of other artists, zinesters, and obscure cultural producers from their own scene and around the world, and no one of them (unfortunately, sadly, true) is getting rich for their efforts. Trethewey notes that it was “often hard to tell the artists’ work apart” at the London show. Rather than evidence of a trendy sameness germane to contemporary zine art production, couldn’t it have been her general unfamiliarity with the artists? Hell, I write a daily blog about obscure Canadian comic artists and I sometimes have trouble telling who did what in one of these zines myself (unless there’s a Lord of the Rings reference, then I know it’s Peter Thompson). Or maybe it’s the fact that the artists have all developed together and often work in a collaborative fashion characteristic of the London doodle and mail art scene, a tiny yet vital underground art movement documented in part in the Bell-edited Nog a Dod anthology, and reviewed favourably in BP I might add. The fifteen pages of the Uncle Pork Chop zine were the joint effort of three individual artists who, after a gallery commission of 50% and a 3-way split, probably ended up pocketing less than seventeen bucks a page. And I’m pretty sure they don’t have a sold-out art show every week, so that’s a hell of lot less than minimum wage, let alone the price of a limo to drive around to zine fairs in. Hardly evidence of the intrusion of the caviar-and-champagne high art world into crusty punk zineland. (Really, the prices these folks are charging are a criminal joke compared to what the guy who’s drawing Spider-Man this week gets for his original art, not to mention the elites of the New York gallery world or even weekend hobby painters who routinely sell their amateurish still-life watercolours at shopping mall co-ops for multiples of what the London crowd is getting. Art lovers of Canada! Buy more art from the Not Bad For London artists!!)
Just reading a typical issue of Broken Pencil anytime over the last decade should disabuse anyone of the notion that zines are stuck in some sort of low-tech, monochromatic time-warp. And as for punkish resentment of johnny-come-lately preppy art school grads from the ‘burbs? Forget it. The typical BP issue is chock full of reviews and interviews with zinesters representing a huge cross-section of society, from pop-culture fans to artists to cartoonists to diarists to crafters, and just as mind-bogglingly a choice of production values and formats, not to mention tons of professionally-produced books of non-fiction, poetry, and novels from small presses across the land. And the BP-sponsored Canzine festival, which Mavreas describes in the article as a utopian, non-judgemental space that keeps “everyone involved and together,” doesn’t exactly seem to be a class war battleground, littered with the corpses of silk-screen devotees who dared to charge more than a few dollars for their zine, to say the least.
And, really, glass houses, anyone? Delving even a few inches into the shadowy grey area where “independant” and “lamestream” media meet can be enlightening. Broken Pencil, like many magazines, galleries, artists, writers, and publishers in Canada, benefits from government grants (as well as corporate advertising –an ad for Steamwhistle Beer greeted me when I clicked on the BP website) and has been a stepping stone to “mainstream” publication for many contributors. The perzine patron saint Dishwasher Pete, mentioned in the article as an example of independent working class purity, is now an e-book from multinational Harper Collins and writer “Diswasher” Pete Jordan has been on Letterman and contributed to NPR’s This American Life. Trethewey herself writes articles about gourmet cheese for yuppie consumer guide Toronto Life. All a far cry from the world of photo-copied, pay-what-you-can zinester culture.
Are artists like the London gang of seven contaminating the zine world? I fucking hope so!