John Stevens, 2017.
John Stevens photocopying zines, 2009.
Expurgatory, All should have access to the void, 2015.
My name is John Stevens. I work at State Library Victoria in the Arts team. I also work with the Rare Printed Zine collection here.
I am also the chair of Sticky Institute, a Melbourne artist-run space and zine store, and I have been making zines for roughly about 16 years.Next up: What's your definition of a zine?
What's your definition of a zine?
The way I tend to describe zines is they're independent publications. They're typically made not-for-profit. They're typically made rather for passion and to communicate thoughts and ideas and creativity. They're typically made by one person, and not only made, but they're also reproduced and distributed by one person. So, where the agency is entirely with the creator, it's unmediated.
They're often made of fairly low cost materials, often photocopied, often stapled. So they're not made in a way that is typically meant to last as such, but as such, they're often considered quite precious objects I would say.Next up: How did you get into zines?
How did you get into zines?
I made my first zine as a part of a desktop publishing subject in a TAFE course. I didn't even know I was making a zine at that time, but then when I discovered Sticky soon after then, around about 2002, I quickly became enraptured with it. I realised I'd been making zines from when I was very, very, very young but just didn't have a name for them.
And then from 2003 until roughly 2006, through most of my university days, I was a volunteer in the store, sort of in its early stages, and then I continued my interactions with Sticky after I started here at the Library in 2007. And I am now the Chair of the Sticky Institute, which is now a full not-for-profit organisation, and have been since the last couple of years.Next up: How would you describe the zine community?
How would you describe the zine community?
In terms of how I would describe the zine community, it's an interesting kind of space. It tends to be populated largely by a lot of people who are quite introverted, so when there are gatherings of zine makers – which typically are around zine fairs, that's the place where you'll see the most zine makers in one space, at one time – it can be a bit of a peculiar thing, because there's a lot of people who spend a lot of time in their bedrooms cutting and stapling and folding and gluing, and then when we're all in one space, it's amazing, it's exciting and it's really overwhelming, and we often have to factor in a lot of aftercare afterwards.
So, in terms of as a maker, the zine community is what I find is a big part of the inspiration of doing it, because a lot of the time it's a very solitary act and then sharing your ideas with people and engaging in a way that often doesn't take money into account. So, when I go to zine fairs, I often don't bring a lot of cash with me but I'll bring a pile of zines. I'll trade a zine for somebody else's zine and then I'll leave also with a pile of zines but a bunch of different things. So it's really about communicating ideas and very personal things. There's an intimacy to it, which I think also goes into it being a very personal thing. It can seem like a very solitary thing but that also means that when zine makers do meet each other and when you engage, it is very intimate.
Zine makers still regularly communicate via post. I still love my annual zine I get from my friend in New York who is also a zine librarian, and it's always via post. It's always a very physical, tactile object. It's something that you can feel and touch, and something that someone has put in a lot of their own personal energy into. And having a group of people who want to share those ideas with you, it's a very warm, very supportive environment.
It's very non-competitive as well, because it also works well with certain aspects of the history of Outsider Art and so forth, and untrained artists. So my first encounter with the art community was through zines. So, often engaging with the kind of hierarchy you get within the fine art world, it seems to jar with me, it doesn't work for me, whereas the kind of smaller areas where you can engage directly with artists without the sense that you're talking up to them, or on the other side of it, talking down to people who approach you, is really liberating.Next up: How do you think the internet has changed fanzines and independent publishing?
How do you think the internet has changed fanzines and independent publishing?
The earlier zines we've got here are from the '40s and the '50s, when there was sci-fi fandom and so forth, and they were very specific and tailored around those communities. I guess you could draw parallels between that and the zine community nowadays but I think though that they were using a particular form, where they were identifying fanzines as amateur publications. Just I guess sort of flagging a sort of – not really caring too much about the lack of professionalism. Sometimes they would amplify that. Some of the illustrations in them would just be hand-drawn, kind of quite light-hearted.
But then when you got a few decades later, when people were discovering the photocopier and discovering how amazing it was as an artistic tool, and so you get a lot of that kind of Situationism, like '60s Situationism, of creating ephemeral objects in a very serious and a very intentional way and not making them to last, and that being a very important part of it. Like early zine makers don't understand libraries hanging onto them, because why would you hang onto something that's not going to last?
And in terms of changes related to topics, often the big one is that people used to make zines as a quick way of sharing information with people. That's not necessarily the case anymore. The quick way of sharing information with people these days is via the internet. That is the way that the internet has taken over. People thought that the internet would take away from zines entirely and that hasn't happened – it's just a different level of appreciation of what zines are and what they bring to a mode of expression.
So, for example, people won't necessarily make a zine saying, 'I saw these amazing bands last week at this gig and I really want to let you know about them.' It will more so nowadays be, 'Here are these bands that you're probably already aware of' or 'Here is this type of artistic practice that you're probably aware of – here is my particular take on it, here is what it means to me and here is this personal aspect that I'm choosing to share now.' It's not about getting it out in a certain amount of time. It's about sharing something that's unique to you.Next up: Do you think zines should be collected by cultural institutions?
Do you think zines should be collected by cultural institutions?
There are a plethora of issues relating to zines residing within cultural institutions. I'm perfectly fine saying that, both as a professional working in such a cultural institution and being invested in the collection that we have, and feeling that it is important that collections like us do collect it, but again, pluralism is a thing. And I think knowing about the other types of collections that are out there and the varying different ways people can engage with zines, I think it's perfectly fine to have these different types of collections.
I often like quoting a friend of mine who I met through her engaging with this collection as a researcher. And she was looking into different kinds of zine collections, ranging from shoe boxes under beds to collections like ours, and one of the first things that she said – I don't know whether it was what she said or what a friend commented on one of her photos that she took of the stacks area, where all the zines are kept and preserved in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room, where they're all in archival boxes, they're all in Mylar slips within the boxes, everything's labelled and such. And she made the observation: 'This is where zines go to die.'Next up: How are zines added to the Library's collection?
How are zines added to the Library's collection?
The way that zines find their way into our collection here, it has changed over time. Initially around the late '90s, when the collection started, it was primarily via Polyester Books, which is an independent bookstore that's no longer around, unfortunately. At the time, that was one of the only bookstores that had a dedicated space for zines. A few years later, when Sticky got involved and zines were being sourced from there, pretty much any zine that we weren't getting from Polyester, we would get from them.
And nowadays, most of the zines we get are from Sticky. And the way it works is every zine that comes in there, it gets set aside in a box for us and once the box gets filled, it takes anywhere from three to six months, and then it's sent up here. Once it arrives here, we then go through the box. We would put it into other boxes, into archival-quality boxes, so they're acid-free boxes, and some of them we'll put into Mylar slips, just in case the paper is particularly fragile or if there's just an aspect of them – like if there was hand-drawing on there and you didn't want that to come off on something around it.Next up: Can you search for zines on the Library's cataloguing system?
Can you search for zines on the Library's cataloguing system?
Once they're catalogued – because they're catalogued by volunteers, they're actually catalogued on spreadsheets – once enough have been done, it's usually around about 500 that have been done, then they get sent off to our cataloguing department and they get ingested into our cataloguing system, at which stage they can be findable on the catalogue.Next up: How do you access zines in the Library's collection?
How do you access zines in the Library's collection?
When people want to request them, they just come up to a reference desk, speak to a librarian and say, 'I wish to request this particular zine,' and it's requested like any other rare book in the Library. So we still have a manual requesting system for that. And then they're viewed in our Heritage Collections Reading Room, so it can be termed a 'white gloves room' but for the zines we don't require that per se, generally speaking not. And then they can access them for as long as they like in there.Next up: Do zines belong in a commercial environment?
Do zines belong in a commercial environment?
I feel there are definitely ways that zine makers can consciously avoid having zines co-opted by larger institutions, by commercial entities and so forth. But on top of that, the nature of zines often will mean that whereas there might be some interest from those groups, especially when you're talking about in a commercial sense, and there definitely have been situations when – like fashion labels have decided to show trendy people reading zines, and it hasn't ended well – there has been at least one cease and desist from a zine maker that I know of, which worked, which was great.
The fact that with any level of advertising or trying to sell things to people, there's generally an opposition to that. Even when you're dealing with people within the zine community who aren't necessarily fixed to a particular ideology, such as anarchism or socialism, there is still a pervading kind of belief that advertising and things like that don't really work within zines or don't really work within the zine community. And because of that, and because zines themselves are made in quite a small number and they're often not made for much money, there's not much money to be made off them really.Next up: How would you describe the Library's role in working with the zine community?
How would you describe the Library's role in working with the zine community?
I guess one way that we can work to continue to be a positive force within the zine community here, speaking as a representative of the State Library, is through recognising the role that we're doing. Essentially we are archiving the history. We are able to provide that for makers and for those interested in zines. And in terms of being able to engage with the community, as time goes on, as awareness of the collection builds, to be able to facilitate interaction between zine makers and zine enthusiasts and the collection.Next speaker: Janet Austin