by Cody Gieselman
When I think very long about zines, I get bogged down in what that term means or what I think it’s supposed to mean. For several years I made cheap little books every month that I considered zines, or more specifically, mini-comics. My comics were a simple journal based on my observations and intended to share the experiences of my life, as it oscillated between simple and complicated. Occasionally, I would make other zines that were more instructional, always involving something going on within my immediate community. The appeal in making and sharing zines was consistently about the ability to proliferate information on a local scale. Instead of taking to the Internet, the fact of holding a book had a satisfaction that has always felt more congruous with my content. As in Awkwardly Put #14 the tactile nature of making walnut ink was echoed in the physical book, a tangibility lost in digital form.
The book form has been directly or indirectly the foundation of most of my work for the better part of the last decade. Even in my time-based, interactive installations I see an intertwining relationship to the codex: the engagement required of the viewer, the realization of moving through a space, the pacing of time, and how the viewer completes the work by being involved in it. The bicycle-powered Planetarium Ad Infinitum demanded a high level of dynamic involvement from the audience and provided haptic feedback reminiscent of a reader’s relationship with a book.
This undeniable attraction to book objects led me to the University of Iowa Center for the Book MFA program, where I am in my second of three years. I have cranked out more artwork in the past two years than I ever thought myself capable. I am in the process of developing new skills and refining my craft. My experience at the UICB has been nothing short of amazing, but like most makers of things I continually struggle with why I’m doing what I’m doing. As my abilities have grown and my conceptualization of the book expanded, I have also experienced a blur in seeing what I do now as related to the zines I used to make. Since toeing my way into the world of book arts, I tend to think more in terms of artists’ books.
The objects themselves don’t seem all that different. What has changed for me as a maker is the context in which I’m showing the work, the audience viewing it, and the more formal critical analysis I’ve received. The intent behind the work has been part of the continuous transformation. Up the River is an eight-fold, single-sheet book, laser printed on ersatz vellum, diagrammatically representing the prison system in terms of the water cycle. Similarly, Indefinite is a pamphlet bluntly telling the story of Adnan Latif, the ninth person to die in Guantánamo Bay prison. It is inkjet printed on tympan and Mohawk Superfine. Even while simple, cheap, and easily reproducible, both of these books were made in an artists’ books class and have been a part of the UICB Open House as well as a local gallery walk event.
When I was making books that I strictly regarded as zines, I was primarily sharing anecdotes with only some concern for craft. As my focus on content shifted to social and political issues, craft became a more important component, not because I strive to be a gallery artist or a fine press printer, but because making an object worthy of the often dire story within became requisite. This refreshed attention to craft involved an improvement in materials and development of production skills, which is probably most evident in my version of Art Bears’ The World as It Is Today. This slotted tape, letterpress printed work is probably as far from zines as my books have gotten in the past few years. Nonetheless, it could be argued this book still falls within a definition of zine, even if more suitably described as an artists’ book.
In some ways my experience with zines has translated smoothly into the artists’ books I currently make. In other ways I never shifted away from zines at all, my approach to making has simply deepened in form and content. This definitive non-definition speaks to what most artists contend with regularly: the struggle to be true to the work, to know where it fits, and to do all this without cheapening its meaning through the hollow severity of a commodity system. There is a healthy, growing overlap between zines and artists’ books. The boundaries are ever shifting, and when I can remember to relax within uncertainty, it’s perfect.
Cody Gieselman can't stop messing around with books and bicycles and obsessing about doom. She lives in Iowa City, IA.