50 / Printed Matter

Radical Access and Obscurity: San Francisco’s Zine Culture

By Keturah Cummings January 18, 2012

Image: The Bookmobile, exterior view; Projet Mobilivre-Bookmobile Project, 2000-2005. Courtesy of the Bookmobile Collective and Courtney Dailey.

The San Francisco Bay Area has a long history of self-publishing that goes beyond its roots in counterculture and DIY ideologies. In the 1850s, California’s geographical remoteness prevented a large publishing industry from taking root, making self-publication the dominant model of disseminating texts.1 More recently though, the Bay Area has had a complex relationship with the tech industry—an impactful influence on the Bay Area’s seemingly holistic embracement of digital culture. Despite this attitude and developments in technology that one might consider to have outmoded its paper format, the zine has survived by adapting to the changing environment and enduring as an effective mode of communication. As digital models of communication continually threaten print formats with obsolescence, many Bay Area individuals, businesses, and organizations remain committed to the creation, collection, and consumption of zines new and old.

Since its early development, the presence or absence of different types of publishing technology have directly correlated with regional ideas about self-expression, and in the book Queer Zines (2008), AA Bronson ties one’s ability to create and disseminate written self-expression to the publishing technology at hand.2 On a historical trajectory, the pamphlet, the sixteenth century’s explosively popular form of mass media, is indebted to the invention of the printing machine, and it was the evolution of such printing technology in the mid–twentieth century that paved the way for what we now call the zine.3 In the mid-1960s, the development of web offset printing allowed for a more prolific underground and counterculture publication environment. It was during this period that  The Whole Earth Catalog (1968), which functioned like a modern-day Internet search on paper for the back-to-the-land movement, was published. A decade later, the paper copier became widely accessible, enabling the existence of the iconic cut-and-paste, photocopied punk rock zine. Computers and desktop publishing subsequently offered wider aesthetic choices to the discerning zinester and ushered in what might be considered the "Golden Age of Zines” in the 1980s and ’90s.4


Installation view of Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981, the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles,  October 1, 2011-February 13, 2012. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Photo: Brian Forrest.

Currently the second—though perhaps largely nostalgic—golden age of the zine is apparent. It’s evident within disparate groups, ranging from the DIY and punk communities to the library community and the art world, as each rushes to include zines in archives or exhibitions. For example, in 2011 zines were displayed in the exhibits Under The Big Black Sun: California Art 1974–1981 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), and Loud Flash: British Punk on Paper at Honor Fraser Gallery, in Los Angeles, as well as in two exhibitions in New York featuring CRASS fanzines—Boo-Hooray’s In All Our Decadence People Die (and their upcoming Artists’ Book Not Artists’ Book exhibit) and CRASS: Selections from The Mott Collection at Andrew Roth. As these exhibits of 1970s and ’80s punk rock ephemera illustrate, zines are usually the DIY print component of a movement that falls outside of the mainstream and is primarily defined by its music. Bikini Kill, for example, is probably one of the best-known Riot Grrrl bands, but prior to forming the band, its members penned the zine Bikini Kill (1991), which helped shape the growing Riot Grrrl movement and community.


CRASS 1977-1984. New York: PPP Editions, 2011; Large folio; 73 black-and-white and color illustrations on newsprint; Edition of 1,000. Courtesy: Andrew Roth Inc, in association with PPP Editions, New York.

Although they are often made with messy and subversive collage techniques reminiscent of work by the Dadaists, historically zines have been more concerned with music, politics, identity, and challenging the status quo than with what’s traditionally considered the art world. Even the 1970s noise band Destroy All Monsters—whose members (Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Niagara, and Carey Loren) are now part of the art historical narrative—utilized their zine, Destroy All Monsters (1976–79), as both an extension of musical identity and an expression of a “dystopian view of media and social values.”5 Similarly Gee Vaucher, Penny Rimbaud, and Dave King met in art school and left careers in design and the visual arts to pursue more politically explicit endeavors, including publishing zines as members of CRASS, a multidisciplinary collective most commonly defined as an anarcho-punk band.


Dave King. Symbol, 2011-2012; installation view, Goteblüd, San Francisco. Courtesy of the Artist and Goteblüd.

Dave King’s early sketches and “remixes” of the CRASS logo are currently on display in the exhibit Symbol at Goteblüd, a vintage zine shop in San Francisco founded by Matt Wobensmith in 2009.6 Since the shop’s inception, Wobensmith has utilized Goteblüd to curate and display exhibitions of zines and paper ephemera, aiming for a hands-on, interactive approach that not only keeps the content of the zines accessible but also mirrors the risks that zines take. He shows the radical ways in which zines can challenge the reader or viewer beyond the safe environment of the art world, where pieces of work are often placed behind glass. At Goteblüd, Wobensmith maintains that it would be a disservice to the zines if they were put in such vitrines. “They would be like meat wrapped in cellophane at the supermarket,” he says, “completely divorced from their own grittiness.”7 Of the zines in his space, Wobensmith thinks that foremost the authors took chances; therefore, he  should also take chances in how he presents the materials. Wobensmith says, “The zines have been so challenging to the format of paper that when I put them in a room, I feel that they should challenge the dynamics of the room and of the art show.” The zines are displayed so that people can touch them, bend the corners, put their fingerprints on them—and perhaps compromise their physical condition in the process. 

The question of a zine’s accessibility is also important to Courtney Dailey, a member of the Bookmobile Collective and an instrumental force in the Projet Mobilivre–Bookmobile Project. Accessibility and dissemination are prominent features of display within the Bookmobile, a vintage Airstream trailer that traveled across North America from 2000 to 2005 with an annual collection of three hundred publications. The Bookmobile Collective felt it was important as part of their mission of bringing a wide range of books directly to people to expand audiences for zines or artists’ books. Though many artists’ books are created in the same spirit as zines, many reside in storage in libraries and are inaccessible for the public. According to Dailey, part of the Bookmobile Project’s aim was to negate the quality of preciousness associated with artists’ books by emphasizing the “radical potential of [these] books that [is] about distribution and a sort of flattening and an anti-market or alternative marketplace.”8 Displaying artists’ books next to zines aimed to break down the classist divisions erected between the two forms. The Bookmobile Collective highlights the similarities of these two DIY outlets for the shared human impulse of self-expression, maintaining that both are made by hand and are therefore of equal value.

Despite the fact that immediate self-expression may now be the territory of Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media tools, many individuals still choosing to self-publish



1. Steven Schwartz, “History of Zines,” in Zines! Volume 1, ed. V. Vale (San Francisco: V. Vale, 1996), 157.

2. Introduction to Queer Zines, eds. Phillip Aarons and A. A. Bronson (New York: Printed Matter, 2008). Accessed at http://www.printedmatter.org/researchroom/essays/queerzines.cfm.

3. Ibid.

4. http://wemakezines.ning.com/forum/topics/steve-jobs-made-desktop-publishing-open-to-all-which-led-to-the?page=1&commentId=2288844%3AComment%3A291523&x=1#2288844Comment291523 and comment by “adamgreenfield” at http://www.metafilter.com/37338/The-Golden-Age-of-Zines.

5. “Super Destructive: Destroy All Monsters,” VMAN (May 12, 2011), http://www.vman.com/blog/super-destructive-destroy-all-monsters/.

6. Symbol by Dave King, http://goteblud.livejournal.com/16535.html.

7. All Matt Wobensmith quotes from an interview with Matt Wobensmith conducted by Keturah Cummings, San Francisco, November 2011.8.

8. All Courtney Dailey quotes from an interview with Courtney Dailey conducted by Keturah Cummings, San Francisco, November 2011.

zines are using more time-intensive methods, like letterpress or offset-printed covers, further bridging the gap between artists’ books and zines. This trend is evident in the proliferation of artist-made zines, which—though they may take inspiration from punk and street culture—are largely made and championed by individuals already participating within the art world. Examples include the serial, curated collection Darin Klein & Friends Present: Box of Books and the publishing of Austin McManus’s San Francisco zine company, The Flop Box. Both collectives promote a collaborative approach to zine-making, in which the final product depends on inclusiveness within a large and nebulous community of artists.

Darin Klein & Friends Present: Box of Books, Vol. IV

Darin Klein & Friends Present: Box of Books, Vol. IV, Fall 2011.

The main attraction of the artist-made zine, however, seems to be the form itself—an object made more desirable by its limited numbers and collectability. The impulse to collect ultimately runs counter to the notion of accessibility, often pushing the publications into relative obscurity. San Francisco–based artist Jessica Miller points out that zines “aren’t meant for mass consumption, but potentially that’s the point. Zine-making is an act of communication to fellow community members, whatever that community might be.”9 Would it be better, wonders San Francisco– and Brooklyn-based artist Sean Monaghan, if zines were made available to all? Monaghan speculates that perhaps most important is the dissemination of ideas, not the objects, beyond the community.10 Ultimately, the zine is simply a vehicle for expressing ideas; in some cases the form and content of the zine have a stronger, more artistic object-driven relationship, but most often the zine is a cheap and effective way to transmit content, while allowing the creator to remain in control of production. In the absence of a publisher or advertisers, the creator must shoulder the costs of printing, which often necessitates a small print run but offers freedom from external censorship. At the same time, the zine’s very affordability limits its access to a larger audience. This total, uncompromising freedom of expression allows access to content that corporate mass media cannot. In the succinctly titled post “Zines Are Not Blogs” on the Barnard Zine Library’s website, Jenna Freedman asserts that “part of what makes zines what they are and what makes them so great is the total freedom not afforded to, but taken by the zinester.”11

Wobensmith, too, sees radical potential in both the physical zine and the purposeful obscurity of the zine community. The paper format allows for semi-anonymity and a gestation period in which alternate perspectives evolve into socially advantageous ideas that can affect society in a positive way. The privacy that this method affords is crucial to the development and subsequent proliferation of the types of “good ideas” Monaghan references.12 The development and proliferation of radical ideas seems to be an inherent characteristic of print media, beginning with the pamphlets of the Reformation. Historically, small-scale publishing and community-based exchanges of print media have enabled the timely communication of dissident ideas. There is a direct comparison between the historical function of pamphlets and the current use of social media; for example, many observers are quick to attribute the revolutions of the Arab Spring to the Internet. While social media certainly aided in coordinating and increasing the visibility of the protests, thanks to the profoundly moving images uploaded by citizen bloggers and reporters, the medium itself is not above the influence of a government and its agencies. During the protests in Egypt, that government shut down the Internet for five days; in the Bay Area, BART used a similar tactic in August 2011, when cell-phone service was interrupted to hinder the organization of protests.

Perhaps the greatest limitation of social media as a medium for disseminating radical thought and generating dialogue and action, however, is a type of participatory censorship driven by algorithms and memes. With an emphasis on trending, re-blogging, “liking,” and sharing content, online discussions are determined by what’s popular, which can change by the minute. Although Egypt’s ongoing parliamentary elections began in November and are beset with turmoil, these events have been largely absent from social media; without shockingly violent images of protestors clashing with soldiers and police, it seems that there is little to hold the collective interest and therefore little possibility of instigating a deeper discussion through social media. This is one reason why, for Wobensmith, the site of meaningful discussion is specific to paper zines and cannot exist online, where there is an increasing absence of personal privacy, coupled with the pre-scripted interactions imposed by the formats of social media: Twitter’s one hundred forty characters or Facebook’s Like button don’t allow for much expression or beyond what people want to hear. Online social media makes it difficult to express opinions that are potentially radical; as Wobensmith points out, the ultimate consequence of this restriction will be cultural torpidity.

The concern that the erosion of online privacy will ultimately lead to the stagnation of cultural evolution is echoed by the many critics of the Protect IP Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), both of which, at the time of this writing, are awaiting hearings in Congress. If passed, the enforcement of these anti-copyright-infringement acts would depend on monitoring personal web traffic, undoubtedly creating a second digital divide, in which savvy Internet users would utilize darknets or browser add-ons while those who are less technically proficient would be subject to increasing surveillance.13 The acts would also give copyright holders the ability to shut down and censor any site they accuse of copyright infringement, thus allowing major corporations to determine what information is accessible online.14 This is particularly concerning given that SoundCloud and Vimeo, which function as platforms for musicians and filmmakers, respectively, to publish and promote original works, are considered by the entertainment industry to constitute “sites dedicated to infringement."15

Equally troublesome is the potential aftermath for those artists whose works depend on fair-use laws, which allow the use of copyrighted material “for ‘transformative’ purposes including commentary, criticism, or parody.”16 Works that involve appropriation could be censored under these acts, severely limiting an artist’s ability to disseminate her own work over the web, as well as potentially affecting art blogs, online publications, and gallery and museum websites to the extent of limiting or even eliminating the online art discourse. In light of the ever-expanding reach of corporate power in the digital realm, Wobensmith sees zines and paper now as extremely radical, saying, “There isn’t any concept of DRM [digital rights management] in a zine. You actually have a physical object; it’s yours. You can photocopy it, you can lend it to friends, and that concept is becoming more and more radical all the time.” Wobensmith enacted this concept with Goteblüd’s Riot Grrrl show, You Are Her: Riot Grrrl and Underground Female Zines of the 1990s: a photocopier was available onsite so that viewers could copy any of the roughly seven hundred zines composing the show, which provided free access to extremely rare publications.


You Are Her: Riot Grrrl and Underground Female Zines of the 1990s, 2011; installation view, Goteblüd, San Francisco. Courtesy of Goteblüd.

While the current Internet model moves toward greater restrictions, the development of print-on-demand devices and companies offers new avenues for self-publishing. As on-demand publishing becomes more accessible and affordable, it will potentially become “the photocopier of the future.”17 Though some might argue that the zine evolved from a former golden age into what we now regard as the commonplace blog, local spaces like Rock Paper Scissors, Needles and Pens, and The Long Haul as well as events like the San Francisco Zine Fest prove that, despite new digital technologies, zines aren’t dead, and particularly not in the Bay Area. As such spaces continue to fuse advanced printing technology with DIY capabilities, we could lay the groundwork for a third golden age in the radical trajectory of zines, one that seems more pertinent now than ever before.


NOTES (cont.):

9. Email interview with Jessica Miller conducted by Keturah Cummings, November 2011.

10. Email interview with Sean Monaghan conducted by Keturah Cummings, November 2011.

11. Jenna Freedmand, “Zines Are Not Blogs: A Not Unbiased Analysis,” http://zines.barnard.edu/about/notblogs.

12. Email interview with Sean Monaghan conducted by Keturah Cummings, November 2011.

13. James Losey and Sascha Meinrath, “The Internet’s Intolerable Acts,” Slate, December 8, 2011.

14. Gary Shapiro, “Save The Internet: Take Action Against SOPA,” http://www.forbes.com/sites/garyshapiro/2011/12/07/save-the-internet-take-action-against-sopa/.

15. Mike Masnick, “The Definitive Post on Why SOPA And Protect IP Are Bad, Bad Ideas,” http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20111122/04254316872/definitive-post-why-sopa-protect-ip-are-bad-bad-ideas.shtml.

16. Alicia Eler, “How SOPA Would Kill Art & Creativity Online,” Red Write Web (December 27, 2011), http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/how_sopa_would_kill_art_creativity_online.php.

17. Clive Thompson, “A New Hope for Books,” Wired (December 2011), 62.

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