What is a zine?

What is a zine?

Lately, we talk a lot about zines. After last years series of articles „How to make a zine” and starting up a series of workshops under the same name, one question keeps popping up:
What is a zine anyway?
Exactly, how to define this form of publication? How is it characterized, how is it made, what story lies behind it and who makes them anyway?

I will start with a definition that I came up with for the sake of this article. I tried to put it as simply as I could:

Zine is a small, independent form of publication, often created and published independently by an author, or group of authors.

Using this definition as a base canvas I’ll try to talk through the details of what zine actually is.

Where does a term “zine” come from?

The origin comes from an English word ‘magazine’. It was popularised by the terms fanzine or artzine, being abbreviations from fan magazine and art magazine.

Fanzines are publications created by fans of a certain thing, for people sharing those interests. On the other hand, artzines are created to distribute ones artistic attempts in literature or visual arts. As the time went by a name of zine started being used more often, as they did not fit within traditional genres of publications.

xero - rewolucja w tworzeniu zinówPopularisation of the xero copier was a revolution in a zine-making world.

“… a small, independent form of publication….”

History of zines is tied to technological revolution of the second half of XXth century, thanks to which nearly every member of society had access to affordable print. Availability of xero optical copiers or risographs made it possible for amateurs to duplicate any form of content, without being technologically fluent, and not requiring high expenses. All we need is to make a mock-up on a piece of paper – hand write it or make a collage out of newspapers scraps – we copy it, put it together and voila! We have a zine!

Thanks to this, zines became a mean of popularising ideas that for some reason could not make it in the mainstream, or were not meant for it in the first place. All kinds of minorities, excluded groups or outsiders gained a tool no one controlled, and which they could use as a mean of expression or a weapon in a fight for their rights.

Today zine is an icon of independent culture – synonymous with a publishing house in which all of the content comes from the author and apart from them no one controls or censors it.

Co to jest zine?“How to make a zine” workshops – sessions of collective attempts of creating independent publications

“…often created and published independently…”

Of course, independence has it’s good and bad sides. A good one is there is no one to censor the author, but the bad one is that there is no one to support them either. Because of that zines usually don’t take intricate forms – they are created by the means of the author, constricted by their financial means and manual skills. In my opinion, the self-reliability is also a reason why zines are so diverse and can be very surprising.

Limited release numbers, the controversial quality coming from amateur execution and hermetical content were all reasons why large-scale distribution was out of a question. Lacking a professional publishing house structure, art communities started organizing new means of zine distribution – using postal services, personal exchanges, meetups at community parties. Along the way expos and festivals dedicated to zines came to be – so called zinefests.

ABZ zine fest - co to jest zine?Aarhus Zine Fest – read my coverage! (only available in polish)

Zine culture created a discourse saying there are no criteria due to which one can judge what is a good or a bad zine. Zine creations are fully democratic everyone is their own publisher, editor and ‘supervising officer’ ? No one can dictate if you need to give your zine away, throw it around in random places or… sell.

The last part happens to be controversial – a lot of people want to define zines in a context of anticapitalism, where selling of those publications is contradictory to its idea of free, not commercialized creativity.

In my opinion, this kind of fundamentalism is not necessary, and even restricting – I think that the beauty of this form lies within the idea that it’s universal and can contain all different kinds of artistic strategies and worldviews.

Co to jest zine?Collection of zines created during our workshops

“…by an author, or group of authors.”

On one hand, zines can be very personal, intimate and destined for a very limited target audience. A zine can be created as a gift, by a boy in love with his girlfriend, as a unique copy.

On the other hand, zines can be a powerful tool in the hands of people with a similar worldview, that want to share their ideas and postulates with the world. There are political, social, sports and traveling zines… There are known examples like “BUST” – when self-copied feminist zine grew to be a colored, international magazine.

Co to jest zine?Early cover of Bust

Co to jest zine?Current cover of Bust

For me, a very interesting topic is keeping the authorship private. Anonymous publications put all of the weight on its content – artistic or propaganda. Every single situation is it’s own – I love collecting them and wonder, what’s behind this publisher?

Zines in the age of the internet

Popularisation of the internet changed the world of zines dramatically and belittled its influence on the independent thought. In the 90s there was a movement of e-zines in the form of websites, early blogs or data storage devices, such as CDs and computer disks. Today the term ‘zine’ is mainly used to refer to paper publications.

Propaganda discourse being moved to the internet made it possible to unleash artistic possibilities within zines. That doesn’t mean there are no ideological publications anymore – in contrary, there is lot’s of them – but the internet makes it much easier to get through to the audience with information and ideas, in which artistic means don’t play a big role.

‘Dog people’ zine, created during workshops in Wrocław.

In the era of digital media formal side became more important. Creating a paper zine is a choice, not a necessity, and its form is an important tool in artistic expression. Type of print, paper, binding – in the last few years all of those elements started being more and more vital.

In this context a very important thing is the function of a zine – it became a collectible item. I collect zines myself, I have my own little library – some of them were bought, some were exchanged, others were gifted to me or found.

I’m very excited about this diversity – it’s really amazing that modern zine can take all of those different forms and work in so many different ways, containing endless content. So – make zines, not war!

Feel free to comment! Share your experience with zines! What was the last zine you saw?

Michał Chojecki

Michał Chojecki

Founder of Oficyna Peryferie. Visual artist, author of art books and projects. Adjunct professor on Graphic Design Faculty in Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. In 2015 he defended his PhD dissertation on art books