A Conversation with Tamsin Walker
Tamsin Walker is an artist and illustrator and is the PhD student on our project. Jill Anderson talks to her about her PhD.
Can you tell me a bit about your creative work.I’ve always drawn stuff. That’s how I understand stuff, how I make sense of things and express things. So that’s always been there throughout everything. And the different things that I’ve made that I’ve shared, have always had a political purpose. I would say that they’ve always been motivated by a desire to, kind of, change some things or at the very least make people aware, or change understanding, of something. I’ve made lots of things: I’ve made films, I’ve made cartoons, I’ve done these illustrated books, I’ve done illustrated stuff on my website. I’ve done zines. I’ve done my book, which was more like a zine in the way that it was produced. Eclectic is the word that people use, isn’t it?
So, how did you come to be doing a PhD on Zines. What led you to that?
I really wanted to do something where I could bring together loads of things that I’m interested in.
My background is quite mixed, I don’t have like an academic home of any kind. But I had all these different strands – my mental health survivor campaigning, mental health work and counselling type work, as well as my creative artwork, and the broader personal, political stuff – and I wanted to find a way to bring them all together.
So, why zines? What was it about that, as a topic, that attracted you?
Well, I’ve always been into picture writing, that’s how I think and express myself, and zines are a type of picture writing – well often they are picture writing – that people have complete control over. So not just the making of it, but the printing and distributing as well. That sits well with the idea of empowerment and campaigning. It feels like people can say what they want to, in that form, instead of having to say what they think they should be saying, or to fit it into some publisher’s idea of what needs to be said.
Can you tell us more about some zines you’ve made yourself?
I came across zines at feminist conferences and I kind of liked them, but it never occurred to me that I might make a zine because I thought what would be the point? No-one’s going to want to read anything I’ve got to say, and what would I put in a zine anyway? But then, after I had had some of other stuff published, and had some positive feedback on it, I thought maybe I’ve got the ability to articulate myself with pictures and words, in a way that is useful.The first zine I made was about survivors’ voices. I was giving a talk at a rape crisis conference, and it was about putting survivors at the centre and I also was talking about the process of making and publishing Not my Shame. Given that was picture writing I wanted people to have something to take away with them, because you don’t really remember a lot of stuff when you just sit there listening. So I made a zine about survivors’ voices, because that was the main message that I wanted them to take away from the talk. Services only listen to survivors if they conform to a particular language, or they get interpreted into a particular format, like a report. Wouldn’t it be great if they could listen in the way that people actually communicate, using poetry, pictures, music or whatever? So that was that zine. I made another zine about High Royd (an old Victorian asylum psychiatric hospital in West Yorkshire). There was a project to kind of preserve memories of it because it was being knocked down. I was there, for a little bit, when I was 15 and I wanted to be involved in that but they wanted people who weren’t going to be anonymous, and I didn’t feel comfortable with that, partly because I was working as a mental health worker. It just felt complicated. . . So I made a zine which was my own way of memorialising it, although I didn’t really share it.
So do you see yourself as part of the zine world?
No, I feel a bit like a fraud really! I’m not an artist. I’m not an illustrator. I’m not a zine maker. I mean, I’ve made zines, but I don’t feel like I’m part of that scene. Because I feel like that’s like people who are younger and more cool than me! I don’t know, I feel like it’s part of a particular alternative scene that I don’t necessarily associate myself with. But, you know, maybe I’m wrong.
Talking of alternatives. . . our idea of MadZines is they might challenge established ways of thinking about mental health. What things do you think need challenging in the area of mental health?I feel like when you know the context of people’s lives, their madness or distress, or whatever they call it, makes sense. I think that’s something that lots of people don’t really get. It’s like they kind of ‘other’ people. They think you kind of go along with your life and then you just go mad and then you go back. And it’s like no, it’s all in context and, in that context, it completely makes sense. Even the things that might seem off the wall, in the context you can go yes, I can see where that’s come from. I wish more people understood that or could see it in that way.
There’s also an assumption that once you finally get to see a psychiatrist, there’s going to be this kind of miracle cure, whether its medication, or whatever. I’m not saying that those things don’t sometimes have their uses, because sometimes they do. But I just think we’re being mis-sold it. I even think this about therapy. Yes, it can be really, really, useful, but I it would also be good to think about community and society responses around mental health. We’re not islands and it shouldn’t all be put into like little medical rooms or little therapy rooms because you go into those rooms and then you come out and everything is the same.
We’ve spoken a bit about the content of zines. I’m wondering whether there is anything to say about how the process of creating, and sharing, zines can support people who may have been pathologized or stigmatised?
I like to imagine that making zines has got the potential for connecting people and giving people a sense of community so they can feel heard and hear each other and recognise each other’s shared experiences. I hope this might create a sense of solidarity. I know for myself when I’ve made stuff and then shared it, I’ve felt more sort of connected with the people around me, that I had a voice in the world, and that that was really positive.
Do you have any favourite graphic artists, comic artists, zines or zinesters that you particularly like or could recommend?
I love Jackie Fleming‘s cartoons and I think I grew up aspiring to be her. I just loved the way she kind of got everything into one image. And I just kind of really connected with a lot of her stuff. So they have always stayed really important to me.
Una’s book Becoming Unbecoming which is kind of about Peter Sutcliffe, and sexual violence, and her own experience, and she puts this into a political context. I love how she draws and how that’s sort of gone out into the world.
And then zines. . . I feel like I’m only starting to get my head round zines. But I really like the ones that take an official message or whatever and then subvert it. I think that there’s something about zines where you can do that. You can either you know get the way that an organisation writes something and then you can put something in the organisation’s style, which is great. Or you can physically get an idea from an organisation or an ideology or something and then stick it on a bit of paper and then you can annotate it with your thoughts, so it kind of really lends itself to criticism. Showing the original thing, but with a different, challenging perspective on it. Stuff that’s subverting the regular messages that we get. Rachel Rowan-Olive’s Screaming Awareness Week is a good example of effectively making use of a mainstream organisation’s house style.
I like a good title. Like, I just found this zine called Shit’s Fucked: A positivity guide by Gina Sarti. That’s a great title! If you’re going to have a self-care zine, it should be called ‘Shit happens’ or something like that. It’s usually all nice stuff – have a hot bath or a cup of tea or whatever – but it’s good to have some like reality in there.
There’s something as well about the compactness of a zine too, isn’t there? Academia can be full of words, and everything’s so long. Zines are somehow at the other end of that spectrum – these little tiny, condensed things that get a big idea into something that looks so throw away. Some of them just do that so fantastically well.
Yeah. Don’t you think – in academia and medicine – that there’s this kind of pedestal that we put certain texts on, and then when you make a zine you’re kind of taking them off the pedestal and just putting them next to all the other stories. . .
Find out more about Tamsin’s research.