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Bastian Fox Phelan. Image: © Simone De Peak and Newcastle Herald

The annual MCA Zine Fair showcases over 100 creators of zines, small presses and comics from across the country. The festival also includes a stellar line-up of talks and creative workshop for all ages. In advance of this year’s fair, KYD spoke to MCA Zine Fair Advisor and Creative Collaborator Bastian Fox Phelan about zine culture, its link with politics and the intimacy of the medium.

KYD: How did you first get involved with zines and DIY culture?

Bastian Fox Phelan: I first came across zines when I was a teenager: in 2003 at Belladonna, a DIY punk festival held in Wollongong. Someone gave me a copy of their zine for free, and I took it home and deconstructed it. I was amazed that people could put out their own publications, just by photocopying paper! The next year I had my own table at the Zine Fair and was selling a fanzine about cats. By getting involved in the Zine Fair I also made more friends at the festival: people who were anarchists, feminists, vegans. These folks had a big impact on my personal politics, and I started going to punk shows in Sydney and meeting more people who were into DIY.

I went on to organise the Zine Fair for This Is Not Art festival in 2005, when I was in my first year of a Creative Writing degree. That was the biggest zine fair I’d ever seen! After that I was hooked on zines. I made a lot of friends through travelling interstate to attend zine fairs like Format Festival, and started selling my zines at Sticky Institute in Melbourne. Growing up in a small regional city with very little going on, I understood that if you wanted something to happen, you had to do it yourself. I applied this ethos to both zinemaking and organising zine events. With the help of my friends, I started zine fairs at Wollongong City Gallery and Sydney Writers’ Festival. SWF Zine Fair became MCA Zine Fair the following year.

‘Growing up in a small regional city with very little going on, I understood that if you wanted something to happen, you had to do it yourself.’

At a certain point I shifted from making cute, fun zines to sharing more of my personal life in zines. My breakout hit was Ladybeard in 2010: a perzine about how, as a female-assigned person, I decided to start growing out my beard. The response to this zine was massive! I had no idea that a little quarter-sized zine made with a typewriter, a Sharpie and some grainy photocopied images could mean so much to people. It inspired me to keep going, and after this I started my ‘How to be Alone’ series, which I’ve been writing since 2012.

What is it that you love about zine culture?

I love that when you pick up a zine you never know what you’re going to get. A zine can move me to tears in a few short pages, or make me laugh, or be a comfort, or inspire an idea for a zine that I want to make. I love that at every zine fair I go to, I see people that have been involved in zines for as long as I have – or even longer – as well as people who have been making zines for a year or two and those who are totally new to zinemaking. I love that I’ve been around for long enough that I can now use my experience to create more opportunities for younger or less experienced zinemakers. Supporting younger zinemakers makes me happy, because I know how important those older zinemakers and DIY organisers were to me when I was just starting out. DIY culture is about raising each other up.

What do you enjoy most about the MCA Zine Fair? How would you describe the fair to someone who’s never been before?

One of the things I’m most excited about for the MCA Zine Fair is the Zine Symposium which I initiated in 2018. It’s a free program that runs alongside the Zine Fair, with panels and a workshop by zine makers who are tabling at the zine fair. I was inspired to create this program after attending Portland Zine Symposium, which program events and workshops alongside their two-day zine fair. I wanted to create a platform for zinemakers to talk about their work. We’re rarely included on panels of professional artists talking about their work, and most zinemaking workshops are Zine 101 workshops, so I wanted to create a program that would nurture zinemakers as well as giving the public a deeper look into the world of zines.

‘I love that when you pick up a zine you never know what you’re going to get. A zine can move me to tears, or make me laugh, or be a comfort, or inspire an idea.’

The MCA Zine Fair is one of the biggest in Australia, so I love that it can accommodate a lot of zinesters, and also introduce a broader audience to zines. Zine fairs are usually community-organised events; Festival of the Photocopier in Melbourne or Other Worlds in Sydney are wonderful examples of zine fairs that come from within the zine community and are very much led by DIY zine values. When the MCA started running a zine fair, some zinemakers (myself included) objected to the idea of a zine fair organised by an arts institution. But over the past two years I have been working with the Public Engagement Team to create more opportunities for zine makers to contribute to and lead the zine fair. For example, we now host a Zinemaking Night where people can use the MCA’s resources to make zines and socialise with other zinemakers pre-zine fair.

For first-timers at the MCA Zine Fair, I would recommend checking out the Zine Symposium so you can learn more about why and how people make zines. Bring lots of change to the zine fair, and don’t be afraid to touch the zines and read them. You’re not going to hurt someone’s feelings if you don’t buy their zine. But also, buy their zine. You won’t regret it.

Image: MCA Zine Fair 2018, © Anna Kucera

Can you tell us a little about the link between zine culture and politics?

Zines, by definition, are small-circulation, self-published, non-professional, and usually produced on a shoestring budget. I always say that zines don’t have to be political, but all zines are political. They’re the antithesis of mass media, which is impersonal, broadcast to a large audience, includes advertising, and can be highly profitable. Over the years, zine have been used by political groups and individuals to get their message out when voices like theirs would be marginalised in mainstream media. Making a zine is kind of a middle finger to mainstream media as a whole. ‘You won’t represent us? Fine. We’ll make our own media. We don’t need you.’

Zines are DIY, meaning that people don’t usually print them professionally. They might use artistic ways of printing or binding, such as Risograph printing, but anything that is commercially published is not a zine, in my opinion. There is this idea that if profit and professionalism are not the focus of the production of art, then the politics won’t be compromised, which makes them a suitable format for people who want to communicate political ideas. Zines have this long history: from 1930s sci-fi fans to 1970s punks to 1990s riot grrrl. Some people trace zines back even further. I think that for as long as the means of printing things have been accessible to ordinary people, people have been producing zines. Being able to make and distribute printed material has always been connected to power. So for people to be able to hop on a photocopier and crank out 100 copies of their thoughts on whatever topic they like, I think that’s powerful, and it’s also meaningful. It takes time to make a zine, and the love and care that goes into zinemaking is not lost on the readers of zines. Despite an ebb and flow of interest from the mainstream, zines continue to be somewhat underground. They aren’t recognised as a legitimate form of artmaking or publishing, which is probably for the best. It’s because there are no gatekeepers that there is such freedom in zinemaking.

‘Making a zine is kind of a middle finger to mainstream media: You won’t represent us? Fine. We’ll make our own media. We don’t need you.’

What do you think the value of zines is in a digital-driven culture?

Intimacy. The zine is a very intimate medium, almost like getting a letter from a friend, so I think they have something very personal and beautiful to offer that you don’t find anywhere else. If I spend an hour scrolling through Instagram or Facebook, I tend to feel pretty bad afterwards. I’m not sure if it’s FOMO or negatively comparing myself to others that gets me down, or just the gross physical feeling of staring at a screen while my thumb endlessly scrolls. I know I can only enjoy social media in small doses, and I’ve taken long breaks from it at different times.

Reading a pile of zines feels more wholesome, and I feel more whole after reading a zine. You can get to know people better after reading their zines. It’s a window into their private world. You could argue that Instagram is a window into people’s worlds, but most people use Instagram in an outward-facing way, so the experience is one of looking at people’s social mask rather than looking deeper into their hearts and minds. You have to work harder on Instagram to invite people in – Patti Smith’s Instagram is a good example of this! With a zine you don’t have to try so hard to let people in because they are non-homogenous by nature. Each zine is unique, and everyone approaches zinemaking in a slightly different way.

People have been going on about zines vs. blogs since blogs were invented. Obviously, blogs have not killed zines. To me, it’s such a funny binary. Like, do you like red or pink? Maybe you can like both. Maybe you can wear both at the same time! You don’t have to choose. Some people even make digital zines, or design zines on PowerPoint and print them out. If I were to compare zines to any digital medium, I’d say that podcasts are the zines of digital culture. They have a lot in common: easy to produce and distribute, lo-fi and charming, made by individuals or small groups of friends, mainly focusing on a singular topic, and most people probably think of the name before they start making the content. I definitely have lists for both future zine titles and future podcast titles.

What advice would you give someone thinking about making their first zine?

Find a zine – any zine will do. Pull it apart, see how it works. Back-to-back photocopying can be confusing at first, but just remember the golden rule: your pages need to be a multiple of four. Don’t put text too close to the border. And whatever you put into your zines is up to you! Don’t hold back, do whatever you dream of, no matter how silly or insignificant or boring you think it might seem to others. If you’re excited about it, that will show in your zine, and people will like it. Sign up for a table at a zine fair, and then you’ll have a deadline to make your zine. Don’t leave your photocopying until the last minute! Also remember that even a hardened zinemaker like myself makes literally every single mistake I just listed here. But the mistakes are what make zines beautiful.

‘You don’t have to try so hard to let people in, because zines are non-homogenous by nature. Each zine is unique, and everyone approaches zinemaking in a slightly different way.’

Who are some of the creators we should look out for at the MCA Zine Fair?

I’m not sure if I agree with the idea of highlighting zinesters to look out for, because everyone’s taste in zines is so different, and I like the non-hierarchical nature of zines. There is this idea that art has to be excellent, and when it comes to zines I disagree. Zines don’t have to be excellent to be effective. A badly produced zine with spelling mistakes can be just as loveable as one that looks slick – even more so. Instead of telling you who to look out for, I want to tell you this:

  • Talk to people. Ask them what their zine is about. Ask them why they make zines.
  • Buy lots of cheap zines instead of one expensive zine.
  • Read a few pages. Ask yourself, would I give this to a friend after reading it? If yes, buy the zine.
  • Don’t buy the zine that looks the most professional. Buy the zine that means something to you.
  • If you make zines, bring some copies to the zine fair and ask people if they want to trade. You’ll be able to collect a lot more zines that way.
  • After the zine fair, write to the people whose zines you’ve collected. Tell them what you think. Most zinemakers never hear from the people who read their zines, and fanmail is always appreciated.

The MCA Zine Fair 2019 runs from 10:30am – 4:30pm on 5 May 2019 at Foundation Hall, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney.