Zines (re)Produce a New Activist Culture
Putting out a zine, any zine, is a political act. Whether it’s the high school kid who does a zine about Sloan, or the collective’s newsletter advocating environmental awareness, both are reclaiming what was essentially theirs to begin with.
You see, it was never supposed to be this way. Governments weren’t supposed to free trade away the needs of the populace, and the media weren t supposed to end up in collusion with the corporate bad-boys who wrote the mantra of consumerism in the first place. So when individuals start recognizing and seizing their place in the discussion, rather than merely consuming what s dropped on their doorstep, it s not radical, it s a restoration of the printed word as it was meant to operate. And the printed word has always been political. Doing a zine, publishing anything on an individual or collective basis, basically says, ‘ya, that’s fine, but here’s what I think, here’s what I care about.’
“Media, entertainment, all of it says ‘just sit back, we’ll do it for you’,” explains Toronto’s Carly Stasko. “I started doing my first zine [Quit Gawking] as a self-defense tactic, lots of teen magazines for girls aren t, shall we say, very productive.”
And there’s the beginning of the rift. Seventeen sells maxi pads with tips on kissing, while headlines proclaim things like “Recession over!”, “Canada rated the number one country to live in!”, “Ozone layer repairing itself!”. But it all seems hollow and absurd to the many people who, like Stasko, observe the very large gap between what they are told and what’s really happening in their lives.
Marc, who puts out the fiery Ottawa zine Human Error agrees: “It’s just that most mainstream media don t provide any real content, it’s all filler, and so I guess I’m doing my little bit to try and change that.” His little ‘bit’ produced, most recently, a sprawling article called The Game Becomes Reality (the title refers to the board-game Monopoly). The article/list provides a comprehensive guide to multinational greed – from Disney to General Electric to Time-Warner – by detailing a global economy in the hands of the few and the very rich.
In zines, institutionalized information is replaced with pure individual energy – expression and communication. The idiosyncratic format of the zine allows people speak directly to one another without the mediation of any profit making body. Even the way zines are distributed reflects a profoundly different sensibility: okay, so I’ll slave for hours and pay to make the thing myself, so that I can trade with you and find out what you ve got to say.
“If you don’t try and communicate,” says Brian from Agree to Disagree in Vancouver, “you might as well give up. Communication is the key…there is still a chance to make a difference.”
Of course, none of this has anything to do with markets or target audiences or demographics. In the end, it’s about sharing information and finding community. And that, quite naturally, is the genesis of political action.
“Instead of fighting corporate, monopolized media, you can achieve the same effect by doing it yourself, by changing the rules of the game – if you lessen their power, you increase your own,” says Mez, a Toronto-based culture jammer, who puts out the monthly activist calendar Gossamer and contributes to the Media Collective’s virulent Anarchives. “It’s all about people expressing themselves, not corporations selling us a life.” And, in the true spirit of action, he adds: “All billboards must die!”
It’s not surprising, then, that in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Vancouver very different zines articulate a similar sounding message. As the great crucible of the federal election turned, once again, into Beach Blanket Bingo, zinesters from coast to coast marked the big event with a notable silence on the subject of federal politics, and loud protests on the subject of cultural homogenization and corporate take-over (issues made famous by the influential Vancouver based mag Adbusters).
“Mainstream politics is at best an exercise in mass delusion/distraction,” explains Vince Tinguely, who does the weekly activist broadsheet Perfect Waste of Time out of Montreal. “Rather than deal with actual problems like poverty, or women s issues, or the environment, we get treated to a) the deficit, b) national unity, and c) the deficit. It’s unfortunate that corporate business has such a strangle-hold on political culture, because it has made things like the federal election pretty much beside the point.”
One election after another have come along offering up messages of salvation; first it was the global economy which got us Free Trade, then it was the ‘deficit crisis’ which brought massive government cutbacks (and of course there s always the constitutional crisis which never seems to get anyone anything). And so, after a decade of recession, deficit reduction and global corporate market planning, things aren t going so well and capital P politics have become increasingly remote. When institutions established for the common good instead claim that the province is open for business more and more citizens recognize that their needs as human beings – as opposed to consumers – are not being addressed through government.
Zines speak to what s happening in people s lives, what they see around them, what s happening to their friends, their community, their futures. And that s an important distinction, particularly in a society trained to view politics as institutional, as someone s job. By taking the discussion in other directions, zines move away from institutional politics towards communities of consensus.
Consider Lisa Rizikov zine, Discharge, which focuses on women s health issues, specifically, health issues about women s bodies. “I feel that I get some pretty cool, empowering info out there,” Lisa says. “It can be a powerful thing when someone gains some basic knowledge about their body, sexuality, etc.”
The impulse is the same for the women who do C.U.N.T, a zine that advocates for the place of women and bikes on the streets of Toronto. “C.U.N.T is an activist zine…our tone and mandate can be very charged,” say Kathy, Nancy, and Bridget. “As cyclists, we feel very vulnerable and we talk about that. At the same time, we talk about how great and strong we feel to have a lifestyle where we get around on our bikes.”
Even with the most specifically political zines, It’s still about community. Cory and Giselle who put out Punk Fiction – a suburban Toronto zine that uses rants and cut-and-paste to examine politics in punk – comment: “It’s a tool to strengthen our movement by hopefully getting people thinking again, and setting an example of things other punks can do.”
Collages that say ‘fuck capitalism’ or ‘smash the patriarchy’ further articulate the difference between mainstream society’s attempts to deal with the so-called new world order and zine culture’s approach: It’s not about tinkering here and there, It’s about a fundamental realignment of where actual people come in on the food chain. Activist zines angle for another approach, something like – live your politics, engage your world, inform anyone willing to listen that there are other ways to do things. Because, as Victoria Stanton, also of Perfect Waste of Time points out, “it will take a critical mass. A huge number of people doing subversive work, independently, who eventually connect with each other.”
Activist zines are about opting out of the internal machinations of politics (trying to change things through the system). These zines reflect the need for a direct action model where diverse groups of publishers inform and assist each other in their diverse but interconnected goals. The expression of this in practice finds the Punk Fiction people supporting and working with groups like Anti-Racist Action and Food Not Bombs, the women from C.U.N.T active in the Critical Mass Rides, Rizikov doing workshops on women s health, and Mez’s Gossamer providing a meeting ground for all these events to come together.
Hardly a zine in the country said a word about the election. This shouldn’t be mistaken for apathy or acquiescence about politics. Rather, It’s a vigorous and overtly political discussion that challenges those who decide the way we live our lives. It is nothing short of revolutionary, with a small but virulent group of the population refusing to participate in the evidently flawed system of governance we have in Canada. Imagine great social movements like the French or American revolutions had there been a copy-shop on every corner. How might they have transpired – and ended – differently? Of course the analogy is overstated, but the point is that the ebb and flow of how people responding to the exercise of power over their lives by elites always leads to resistance and eventually to change. That said, lasting change can only be achieved through a genuine educating principle that continues to asserts itself.
A multitude of activist zines all dealing with different issues in diverse ways is evidence that the massive upheaval of this waning decade has politicized several generations. As these zines so succinctly demonstrate, governments are not the primary targets for the new culture of political action in Canada. It’s as much about standing up to the monoculture as it about politics. In the glare of the photocopier’s blazing light, publications are born as testaments to the power of people to assert their individual and collective concerns. This is, perhaps, a longer but more effective process then advocating violent revolution (which few zines do), or demanding a new prime minister (which no zines do). In the end, Zines publishers might not run for office, but they might just change the world.