Reclaiming Craft, Companionship and Connection – a guest blog by Alex Dunedin
Alex Dunedin only relatively recently became aware of zines. Through the Madzines project he discovered that, quite by accident, he had been involved in creating what could be understood by some as zines. As he learnt more about zine culture, he says he felt a part of his life restored. In this blog post he explains why.
Through the Madzines project I got the opportunity to see a zine fair and take part in two different zine workshops. The Edinburgh Zine Fair took place in a large, darkened room which was an extension of the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. It was bubbling with a fine array of zines and, although I did not have money to buy any, I was fixated by the idea of producing your own publications independently of publishers, editors or expensive printing means.
Central to what a zine is, is that anyone can make one and that there are no distinct rules. That flies delightfully in the face of the impenetrable world of publishing houses and literary fashions in the kind of way that makes me feel like I have accidentally stepped out into the wilds, by meandering down a hidden vennel in a city. The place of zines and zine making is a wilderness separate from the aesthetics of print marketers or the prissy editorial cults of establishment imprints; zines are still raw, naked, and, for many, undefined/undefinable by the categorical hand.
In the first workshop I was told I couldn’t record the talk. I understand that now as entirely in keeping with what I have seen of the spirit of zines; they strike me in some ways as semi-private public spaces that are holding their own boundaries within societal spaces which can often be colonising, controlled, edified, censured, speciously mainstream.
Building on a blistering history of zine culture that has expanded and resisted any pigeon holing, this feels like a fresh expanse for people to live in. A world of woven subcultures which are deliberately so for a number of reasons. Zine-making can result from efforts to counter xenophobias like racism or homophobia, but that is not always the case. Zine making can also result from an individual’s desire to express things uniquely in their own way, without having to defend, justify or negotiate the currents and turbulences of the everyday.
Zines are a crafting tool to shape alternative universes in which people can live. They are living spaces that can hold qualities of connection and companionship; accessible to all, from the isolated thinker and feeler to the gregarious social explorer who sets out to discover others who share their thoughts and dreams, philosophies and crafts.
The heart of zine culture, as it was explained to me, is that the individual produces a miniature book or pamphlet through cutting and folding paper to produce various incarnations of a many-leaved (or not-so-many leaved) manuscript. Rather as in the days of antiquity when the process of creating paper was developed, people create in the zine medium some expression of thought and/or feeling to share or exchange, to leave in some place without the person being seen, or to keep with them as a moment in their life.
Through skill and arrangement – outside of the domain of permissions and overseers, gatekeepers and marketers, financiers and corporate vacuums – a little world is extended, complete and perfect in its imperfection as it is. Through the zine’s manifestation, a sort of territory is created through which the creator and their thoughts are allowed to exist. It is sovereign and personal, a fortress of the soul in which the creator retains whatever they decided to express.
Access to a means of production is essential in this age where the resources of the world have become saturated with business interests and the opportunity to utilise resources (when they are available) has become restricted by economies of gatekeepers. The result is that, whilst paper is in abundance, the publishing industry is by-and-large enclosed by the trappings of industry. This narrows the range and form of what gets published, confining it largely to those things which fit the interests and sensibilities of those who get into editorial and administrative positions.
The financialisation of people’s lives has resulted in the commercialisation of things which were previously not monetised at all. This force of consumerism subtly changes the values and meanings of what were previously intimately creative acts; the consumer impulse subtly depersonalises and fetishizes personal connection or companionship. Just as people may sing in the shower or make art that they do not expose to the public glare, I sense that cultures of zine making try to preserve the impulse to create and express, keeping them away from overly public arenas. It suggests to me that zine making preserves the pre-financialised life in the face of the market compulsion to scale up, commodify and essentialise cultural outputs.
The creation of works that sit in protected enclaves, so that non-homogenous expressions may simply exist, is a vital aspect of resisting an appropriative economy and an alienated society. The press and media have become particularly pathological in their courting of the contestation of extreme difference, thriving on divisiveness rather than edifying and educating. The mainstream media continues to make money from sensationalism, generating controversy, often where none existed before. I see zine-making as a cultural act which reclaims the interpersonal terrain as generative, safer, diverse, and representative – everything which the corporate structures of our modern post-industrial societies struggle with or outright abhor.
This means of manifesting agency intersects with Mad Studies, critical psychiatry and the psychiatric survivor’s movement. The same forces which have acted on the crafts of human beings have also acted on our psychology and well-being; they are inextricably linked, as profoundly as one electron is quantum entangled with another. These movements, these impulses of people to question the pathologisation of aspects of human existence, have matured over a long time and grown. As our lives are increasingly lived in the context of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon vision, forged in the face of institutionalisation and surveillance via the technologies unleashed on us, we need privacy and spaces of individual agency that feel safe. This is especially so for groups of people who have contested identities and whose thoughts challenge the lazy, and sometimes violent, structures of society. For example, we need spaces where the identities we are forced to take up do not have the power given by those who assign them to us.
The land of zines has certainly inspired me. It is an important world, between the wave and the shore, which people can make their own. It makes me think of how medieval manuscripts were made; the velum was folded in such a way that eight pages were formed, and it was called a choir. Books were made of multiple choirs stitched together, usually created by multiple different scribes. Reading one of these old and rare books, you can see the calligraphy change throughout. Zine cultures speak to the human craft of word making and the forging of meaning in a different age, where humans are starting to question the giving over of everything to mass production, high technology and commodification. They speak of many hopeful things but, if we want to hear them, we must be close; we must be present with our own self.
Alex Dunedin, one of the founders of Ragged University, is currently studying Mad Studies at Queen Margaret University. He has successfully fought and challenged two Section orders, on the basis that the medications he was prescribed were causing dangerous problems and the psychiatric labels used were tautologies that did no meaningful work.