The Social Nature of Zines (No, Seriously)

by Mary Tasillo

Because I host a zine library in my living room, I find myself in discussions about zines with non-zinesters on a regular basis.
“I thought zines were dead.”
“I thought that was a thing of the nineties.”
“What is a zine?”
“Zines are irrelevant in the age of the blog.”

You can see why it seemed like a good sign when my date showed up with a stapler for The Soapbox last week.

I am constantly explaining to people that zines are alive and well, that there is a large community of people making, exchanging, and reading zines who would be interested to be informed of its death. That I surmise the spread of the blog has changed the look of the zine a little bit – that someone making a zine is likely concerned with its tactility, beyond the distribution of information, and thus we may be seeing more zines with handprinted covers and strange packaging. This is really the same argument we make about books with the growth of the eReader. A long accordion of Anne Carson’s poetry would not likely have been published 10 years ago in that format.

I’m interested in the social interaction that comes along with the production of zines and related ephemera, whether creators are handing out broadsides on the street, constructing social reading spaces to house a zine collection, or trading and talking shop at zinefest. An ethics of barter in this community tends to lead to other types of exchange and I witness friends and communities grown as an outgrowth on a regular basis.

I’m blessed by the enthusiastic community members who have contributed to The Soapbox: Independent Publishing Center, a zine library and print studio that Charlene Kwon and I run out of our West Philadelphia house. Charlene & I were motivated by our interest in community-accessible letterpress printing to open The Soapbox, but the library was the easiest piece of the puzzle to get off the ground as two shoeboxes of zines (zinefest trades) rapidly expanded, thanks to donations, into an estimated 800 titles. The archive exists partially to support the printing & binding studios, providing reference points for the creative process, particularly as zine structures and materials can diverge quite a bit from the traditional half-letter-sized fold-and-staple. The Soapbox has benefited from volunteers cataloging the collection and organizing events, the conversations that occur as people work together in the studio, and the community partnerships that have formed in planning readings, participating in neighborhood open studio tours, and in hosting other types of interactive art events. Charlene and I put a lot of our blood, sweat, and tears into the project, but it still would not be what it is without a community of support.

As both a zine maker and book artist, zines give me the opportunity to loosen up and to solicit feedback from others. I learned a lot about my book art community when Katie Baldwin and I solicited lists from our fellow MFA Book Arts Grads: Top Ten Things You’ll Do if this Book Arts Thing Doesn’t Work Out. Everyone’s “back ups” were equally impractical. As Katie and I hashed out layout and set type for the covers while trying to keep the project casual and fun, we kept repeating the mantra: “it’s only a zine.” When Johanna Marshall and I introduced the first issue of our manifesto on communication in dating, “How Not to Flirt,” we solicited questions and feedback from many friends. We learned so much about the average number of underwear owned by our community, as well as our shared anxieties about communication. And we continued the conversation with others through zine readings and by soliciting advice column questions and comics for future issues at our Zine Fest table.

I overheard a man at Philly Zine Fest one year, arms loaded down with publications, saying, “I like to know what people are thinking.” Zines function as not just a vehicle for making one’s own voice heard, a soapbox if you will, but also as a way to learn about each other.

Mary Tasillo is a Philadelphia-based art maker, cake baker, and trouble maker. She is also a teacher, writer, and independent scholar. Mary makes zines, artist books, and other types of (usually paper-based) art. As part of the Book Bombs collaboration, she brings zine, print, and interactive papermaking to the streets. She also exhibits her work nationally and internationally and her books and zines can be found in libraries around the country.

As co-founder of The Soapbox: Independent Publishing Center, Mary runs a zine library and DIY print studio out of her West Philly rowhouse, collaborating with individuals and organizations around Philadelphia. She also works with and writes for Hand Papermaking. She has written about zines for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Zine World. She really likes the pamphlet stitch.


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