Wednesday, August 15, 2007

"Zines" covered in the Nashville Scene

Transcending the Internet
Local zine artists and librarians work to keep underground publishing alive

by Maria Browning

“They’re dickscapes...landscapes made out of dicks.” That’s local artist and zinemaker Kate “Kuss” Csillagi describing one of the recurring motifs in her graphic zine Romance. It’s hard to pin down a definition of “zine,” a catchall word used for any low-budget, self-produced magazine, but the idea of a “dickscape”—whimsical, provocative, completely idiosyncratic—is the perfect embodiment of the zine aesthetic.
The content of a zine can be almost anything—political rants, music and movie reviews, literary navel-gazing, comics, you name it—but it’s generally rooted in a skeptical attitude toward mainstream culture. A zine can’t be a product of the commercial media, no matter how hip or niche. Some “zinesters” like to play with unusual forms, such as imaginary letters folded into envelopes or grab bags of hand-painted postcards, but the final product, according to zine purists, must be on paper.

The zine had its heyday beginning in the late ’70s, emerging from the punk scene and then rippling out into the wider underground culture. Zinemaking thrived for the next 20 years, until the Internet happened. The teenagers and young adults who made most zines got hooked on blogging and MySpace. “Ezines” replaced their hard-copy forebears. Paper became passé. At the same time, market pressures forced many of the independent book and record stores that sold zines to close their doors. Nashville artist and musician Angela Messina, former proprietor of the defunct Halcyon Books and herself a zinemaker and collector of zines, says, “It is definitely a dying thing.”

But Jerianne Thompson, a Murfreesboro librarian and the publisher of Zine World: A Reader’s Guide to the Underground Press, disagrees. She feels that the Internet has simply “cut out some of the crappier zines. A lot of the people who are doing zines now are more dedicated to it.” Thompson is among a handful of devoted zine lovers in the Nashville area who are doing their best to nurture the form. At the Linebaugh Public Library, she has established a circulating collection of approximately 125 zine titles from around the country. She taught a workshop on zinemaking for kids in June, and more workshops are planned at the library this fall, including one for “artsy moms.”

Thompson’s Zine World, which is published roughly three times a year, promotes the genre with thumbnail critiques of dozens of titles, along with short news reports and columns about trends in zinemaking and the decline of free speech. Zine World is well written and carefully put together—no surprise, given the profession of its publisher—but it’s got more than a touch of the classic zinester attitude. “If you are not fully satisfied with Zine World, tough shit,” is a typical line on the subscription page. It’s clear that Thompson is a participant in the zine culture as much as a preservationist of the form.

Another local librarian with a passion for zines is Virginia Allison of Watkins College of Art & Design. The library at Watkins is in the process of developing its own zine collection, and Allison has produced a resource guide for libraries and others interested in collecting zines. Along with Thompson, she has guest-lectured on the subject for Watkins courses, and runs workshops on zinemaking for students.

Allison sees a resurgence of interest in zines that is, at least in part, a reaction to the forces that initially siphoned interest away—the consolidation of media and the dominance of digital communication. She considers zine culture an indirect descendant of the Dadaist movement, with its rejection of bourgeois values and conformity. On an aesthetic level, zinemaking appeals to people who want to communicate via a medium that isn’t straitjacketed by a template and screen. “There’s something about putting things on paper that is nostalgic and beautiful,” she says.

There are a number of well-known Tennessee-based zines, including the venerable anarchist publication Fifth Estate, which is co-produced by the Pumpkin Hollow community outside Liberty, and RR, authored by “D. Striker,” the alter ego of musician Jeff Meltesen. RR is published every Friday the 13th in conjunction with a performance/party that has become a local institution. Uprise, a comparatively slick zine with a sizable circulation, is devoted to Christian heavy metal music and skateboarding. Its creator, Belmont student Dave Darr, admits to having some commercial aspirations for his publication that are not entirely in keeping with zine tradition, but like most zinesters he’s primarily interested in expressing his particular view of the world. He gives away 90 percent of the 5,000 copies per issue, saying, “Basically, I just want to serve God. I don’t care about being a millionaire.”

But most local zinesters operate well under the radar, pretty much unknown outside their small cohort of friends and fans. Jerry Smith of Morristown creates two zine comics, Southern Fried and Rattletrap, which chronicle his youth and his small-town Southern life. Kuss Csillagi has been producing Romance since 2003. A onetime tagger who decided she really didn’t approve of marking up other people’s property, Csillagi takes pleasure in comparing early issues of her zine to “a coloring book for a perverted 12-year-old.” She sees her work as a personal expression that she’s more interested in sharing than selling. She is currently experimenting with the use of video, but is committed to continuing the paper zine.

Even as they’ve become scarcer over the past decade, zines have gained a certain artistic legitimacy, and have been swept up on the growing enthusiasm for the book as an abstract form. Cheekwood plans to include zines in a large book-art exhibit scheduled for April 2008. But for the people who make them, and the readers who take the trouble to hunt them down, they remain a way of communicating, as Angela Messina says, “on a human scale. The appeal is the simplicity. You feel a connection with someone somewhere else.”

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