(Printed Matter, Inc. and Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, 2013)
In the wake of postmodernism, the rubric and practice of history seem, if not worse for wear, then perhaps passé and definitively something to be critical of. Surely, with the availability of a whole trove of the alternative practices, it would seem as if traditional historical analysis is becoming increasingly expendable as a necessary framework for interacting with and understanding the past; that it itself, as a colloquial saying goes, might be history. But while alternatives may exist, history as a framework is far from exhausted. Indeed, postmodernism is based in the unavoidable prevalence, if not the monopoly, of concepts like history in structuring our relationship to what we know and, perhaps more importantly, what we don’t. History may be less necessary, but it is in no way inescapable. And with this stubborn persistence, a whole-hearted decampment to other practices seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater: are we really ready to fully abandon history when it refuses to abandon us? Postmodernism has never been all that interested in offering alternatives, but is it possible to imagine them? What would an attempt to tame the beast of history and restructure it into submission look like?
The two volumes of Queer Zines eagerly take up this question of the current place of history. More than a collection or an anthology, Queer Zines seems to be positioning itself as a history, and a queer one at that. At the locus of infinite possibilities, the point where queer identity and alternative publishing intersect, Queer Zines is uniquely positioned to critique and re-imagine, to use its subject as its method and present an alternative approach to crafting history.
The first volume of Queer Zines was originally released in 2008. When Hurricane Sandy destroyed much of Printed Matter’s archives in the fall of 2011, editors AA Bronson and Philip Aarons decided to revisit the project, amending and correcting the original and expanding upon it with a second volume. All in all, this new two-volume box set amasses almost 500 pages worth of countercultural publications, an immensity that cements it as a seminal resource in the genre of queer publishing. The range of these publications is, appropriately, diversely represented. Each title is given a short bibliographic entry—detailing the editors, dimensions, medium (photocopied or off-set, stapled or stitched), edition and issue numbers, location, and dates of publication—but beyond these basic facts and some short descriptions, the content of the zines themselves drives their depiction. The pages are riddled with images—drawings, photographs, collages—pulled from the primary sources, as well as full text excerpts such as “I Was On a PMS Rampage” (from Barbara’s Psychic Anus, San Francisco: Tongue-Fuck Productionz, dates unknown) and “The Drag Queen in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (an essay on My Comrade/Sister, New York: self-published, 1987 – 2006). The treatment is refreshing. In representing a genre defined by its diversity and unmitigated free expression, the volumes do not seek to define their subject but rather to illustrate it, to celebrate each zine’s idiosyncrasies and accurately depict a genre that purposely defies strict characterization.
In many ways, the zine medium and the queer subject seem to be made for each other, and their coupling is, perhaps, the most fertile ground imaginable for a challenge to the historical method. Both zine and queer cultures are fundamentally oppositional, an opposition based not in negation but, instead, on a desire to envision productive alternatives. Although resolutely not what they set themselves up against—zines are not magazines and queers are not gay—this distancing is meant to question the assumptions that structure expression in order to liberate it. Doing so allows those within zine and queer cultures to actively choose the means of their representation and being. In this way, both zines and queers occupy the position of what they seek to deconstruct in order to re-imagine and re-claim.
Considering the deliberate rejection of traditional structures inherent in its morphemes, it is clear that queer zines would be underserved by a traditional history. For just as gay identity or traditional publishing encumbers in its external determination of form and content, so too does the rubric of history prescribe in its treatment of the past. History is a process of narration that does not prioritize inclusivity, but instead insists upon its universality and veracity—oftentimes to the detriment of those on the cultural margins where queer zines practitioners would locate themselves—and Bronson and Aarons include many examples of zines that disrupt accepted histories of gay culture. Would traditional narratives of gay cultural history include a publication like Androgenarchy (Ignostic Productions, 1997), a zine that hails from Hunlock Creek, Pennsylvania and thereby disrupts the assumption that urban metropolises such as New York City or San Francisco are the country’s most productive centers of gay culture? Could a movement premised on the rejection of prejudice incorporate a publication like GSM (Gay Skinhead Movement) (San Francisco: self-published, dates unknown), whose editor, ex-Nazi Little Jones, was, “White Power at twelve, and a Nazi at fourteen”? What about the subculture of those who refuse to define their gender, and therefore could not consider themselves homosexual? Fertile La Toyah Jackson Magazine (Los Angeles: self-published, 1981 – 1991), a zine by the intersex, gender queer performance artist Vaginal Davis, is only one example of a zine that refutes a singularity that history might hope to pin down. Adopting the style of a tabloid—a medium that already tests the boundaries of truth—Davis crafts celebrity gossip so outrageous that it challenges the concept out right, a confrontation that Davis readily transposes to the concept of gender as well.
The challenge for Queer Zines is, then, to accurately represent all aspects of its subject while still situating it within some sort of framework. The truly amazing thing about this project is how it repurposes the most liberating aspects of its subject and uses them to mitigate the narrowing tendencies of history. Just as queer and zine cultures seek to activate their participants, giving them the ability to transcend assumptions that would otherwise prevent them from truthfully and freely expressing themselves, so too does Queer Zines activate its readers, allowing them to transcend their traditional relationship to the material that it houses.
A relationship to history is established from the get-go in Bronson’s introduction to the first volume, a document that is particularly insightful in how it simultaneously embraces and distances itself—and, by extension, its subject—from more codified ways of interacting with the past. The introduction reads like a series of journal entries. Broken into five parts, each with a specific time and date, the entries are fragmented: physically separated on the page and seemingly thematically individuated. “In this brief introduction, I’d like to piece together a patchwork quilt of ideas and histories that someone, sometime, should develop into a coherent history,” Bronson writes. “They are bits and pieces that have concerned us here as we have assembled this story.” Each journal entry, then, is not just a patch in this quilt but its own contained history, not necessarily fully formed but nevertheless part of Bronson’s larger “story.” In the rest of the introduction, Bronson describes—with a welcomed casual reverie—underground newspapers of the ’60s and ’70s, punk, William Burroughs, feminism, the invention of the printing press, developments in offset printing, the copy machine, and queer zines themselves. But these musings never explicitly state that any of these publications, movements, or developments caused the explosion in queer zines. As opposed to a didactic history that points to one narrative and specifies cause and effect, Bronson uses his introduction to invite rather than instruct. The introduction, therefore, absolves itself of the responsibility of offering anything that might be construed as or lead to a central truth, as Bronson refuses to acknowledge one in the first place. So while the format and language may, at first, be puzzling—a reaction that says much more about what readers are taught to expect from an authoritative introduction than anything else—ultimately it is here that we find the purpose of the Queer Zines project: not a rejection of history, but, instead, a re-imagination wherein the burden is redistributed and both editor and reader work together to explore narratives rather than restrict them.
This treatment of history is supported by a purposeful relationship to time that the volumes also establish for handling their subject. Tucked at the end of Volume One, Bronson and Aarons have included lists of international queer zine collections and retailers. Collections extend from Ghent, Belgium, to Gainesville, Florida; from Wellington, New Zealand, to Norman, Oklahoma; and never again will you be faced with the prospect of wandering Asheville, North Carolina, Fitzroy, Australia, or Hong Kong without knowing where to go pick up a new queer zine. However, these lists are not simply about the information they contain: they also represent an attitude toward queer zines’ relationship to their present and their past. According to Bronson and Aarons, “these zines are not cultural or archival artifacts of another time, but are vital and vibrant parts of today’s queer consciousness.” Chronologically demarcating the edges of a subject, historically bracketing it and suggesting a finitude, is one of the easiest ways to craft a historical subject. Bronson and Aarons refuse to do this. In fact, they ask their readers to defy it by inviting them to engage in their subject’s present: to bridge spans of time by finding and collecting more queer zines. Zines, as objects that testify to a larger culture, do not exist in a vacuum—they are not static—and Bronson and Aarons use Queer Zines to cultivate this broadening. The volumes turn the reader from a passive consumer into a participant, and this transformation is one of the great joys of interacting with them.
Queer Zines also pays homage to the means of its subject’s production in a way that similarly activates its reader. While it is natural to overlook a book’s copyright page, in Queer Zines—tucked in between ISBN numbers, font credits, and lists of institutional sponsors—there is the following radical disclaimer: “Copyright-Free: You are free to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work and to make derivative works. […] Any part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means, without the prior written permission of the publishers.” Early zines relied on the act of copying, with the copy machine being an important means of production, and rather than fight this defining aspect of its subject, Queer Zines embraces it. Situating their work thus, the editors relinquish their ownership and negate the idea that history should be contained, physically or intellectually. Queer Zines thereby liberates its content in a way that allows the reader to enact a response to it: the reader does not simply absorb the history that the volumes compile, they become part of it. Queer Zines then continues the legacy of its subject in a way that acknowledges the foundational principles that anchor it, ensuring continued practice grounded in an accurate and expanded history.
Bronson defines the intent of zines as “to create one’s own culture.” Not to inhabit, inherit, or define, but to create, an act that not only implies imagination but necessitates activity and hints at futurity. In this way, Bronson and Aarons’s attempt to place their subject on the path towards history is successful in every respect. History may still have its problems, but Queer Zines shows that with the proper subject and the proper treatment, it is possible to expand upon and re-imagine it. Queer Zines is, consequentially, a true treat: a joy to peruse, a joy to parse, and, above all, an example of possibility that the queer zine community can be proud of.