Chicago Zinefest Reportbacks

31 Mar

Pt. I: Keep it Secret, Keep it Safe

The Chicago Zinefest this year was by far the largest zinefest I have ever attended, consisting of a hundred tables split between the first floor and the eighth floor of Columbia College’s Conaway Center. The organizers deserve a lot of credit for the amount of work and organization that clearly went into putting this beast together.

In addition to zines, it featured well-known writers and artists such as Jeffrey Brown, whose one-hour long workshop featured the opportunity to give him suggestions while he drew his trademark autobiographical comics. I guess it’s hard to get away from being that self-involved.

This is one of the funniest signs I have ever seen.

Tabling at the Zinefest this year, I felt strangely isolated and anxious, lonely even though the fest was packed and I could tell that many of my zine friends were having a great time. Very few people stopped at my table and those that did seemed to be window shopping–interested in browsing wares rather than meeting zinesters or talking about content. Many people asked me if I had any comics (versus asking what the zines were actually about), which I think had to do with the art school setting and the emphasis on comics by the zinefest organizers. I got very few requests for trades and didn’t have a chance to leave my table to explore or visit.

I am not saying these things to be a downer. I know that people (pretty much all of whom I know and like) worked really hard on the zinefest and that a lot of zinesters had a great time and that is awesome. However I also believe that negative feeling opens up important critical space, and I don’t think it’s useful to back away from those feelings or to question the things that we do, particularly because I am also in the throes of organizing the DC Zinefest.

A comment on selling out from my favorite movie villain, Borgia Ginz.

For the first time at a zinefest, I felt like I was trying to sell something; my zines became a product, rather than gifts that I was giving. There has always been some economic exchange involved with my zines–I am not always clever enough to get the free copies or well-off enough to not ask for something–but it has never before felt like sales. For the first time, I felt like I was in competition with the other zinesters tabling, like I wasn’t good enough in some zine hierarchy of zine selling that I created in my zinefest-addled mind.

My Table with Your Secretary, Lake Effect, Truckface, and more.

This discomfort points to a tension that I have written about and continue to feel really conflicted about, between the desire to branch out and expand, and to keep things secret, small, and “safe”. On one hand, having a really big zinefest ensured that many more people were included. By intensely advertising, by inviting “special guests” like Al Burian and his books, or comic book writer Jeffrey Brown, by having sponsors and emphasizing comics and allowing non-zines to table, the Chicago Zinefest made themselves more accessible to individuals outside of the insular zine “community”. Because of this, maybe more people know about zines, maybe the zine “community” has grown in positive ways. Also, I know that the feeling of safety I often experience when doing zine-related activities and generally in subcultural (particularly queer) spaces is largely false, and maybe I needed this familiar sense of anxiety to remind myself that there is no such thing as safe space.

On the other hand, what I value most about zine culture is the desire to be “underground,” to be outside the mainstream, to be more interested in affection than accumulation, community over celebrity. This year at the Chicago Zinefest, I didn’t get that sense of desire–I sort of got the opposite–and it makes me wonder: Is it possible for that to exist if we go too big? How do we grow our democratic desire for a cultural production that literally anyone can make, while also protecting the ideals of that production as being outside of capitalist and consumerist structures? How do I reconcile my anxiety about keeping zine culture “safe” from assimilation into the imagined mainstream, “safe” from commercialization, with the desire for zine culture to be more diverse, accessible and expansive?

Am I just pissing in the wind here?

Chicago Zinefest Display in the window of Quimby's

Pt. II: Vomit

To lay the rumors to rest (for anyone who wasn’t in our workshop, where Jami Sailor announced this), the puke in the elevator was mine. To the people who watched me puke and then left me on the fifth floor, still puking, disoriented and stumbling—you are giant douchebags. I hope I puked on your douchebag shoes.

❤ jb

p.s. I may transcribe and post the audio from our workshop. We will see. In the meantime, Jami Sailor blogs zinefest here (picture of our table by yours truly), and Archiving the Underground #1 is available here.

p.p.s. Other zinesters, especially zinefest organizers and Chicago folks: What do you think about this?


9 Responses to “Chicago Zinefest Reportbacks”

  1. Betsy March 31, 2011 at 4:17 pm #

    Thanks for writing this – there’s lots for me to ponder in this post. I am a relative zine newcomer (reading for six-ish years but just now published my first this year), don’t have friends that write / read zines, and question whether I have a place in zine culture, whatever that means. I attended the Portland Zine Symposium in 2006 and 2010 and am sure that people read me as somebody browsing wares. In reality, I was feeling very shy and awkward and wished I could start conversations but quite literally couldn’t think of a thing to say. I’ll have at least one zine to offer as a trade at the next one and hope that my social anxiety does not get in the way of me having a different experience.

    • sassyfrasscircus March 31, 2011 at 4:21 pm #

      Thanks for responding! I don’t want to imply that it is compulsory that people talk, it was sort of the quick once-over and move-on that I was responding to, rather than the silent pondering. I get the social anxiety thing, believe me. Also, although it’s also not compulsory, it’s always exciting to trade and it’s great that you made a zine! Are you psyched about it? What’s it called/about?

      • titlegoesherezine March 31, 2011 at 8:35 pm #

        Yes, I’m totally psyched about my zine! I’d been planning to do one for years…don’t know what took me so long. My zine is stories about things I did for the first time in 2010: served on a jury, adopted a dog, visited Nevada, and watched my grandma’s house burn down.

        I didn’t mean to imply that conversation is compulsory, it was more me reflecting on my own frustration and trying to move beyond consumer only and failing.

      • Betsy April 4, 2011 at 1:58 pm #

        P.S. Thanks for posting the Archiving the Underground audio! I laughed at the bit at the end where you and Jami were figuring out how to turn off the machine.

  2. titlegoesherezine March 31, 2011 at 8:37 pm #

    Whoops. Didn’t quite type what I meant in that second paragraph. Ah well.

  3. jen April 4, 2011 at 10:38 am #

    hey jb! (not speaking for any other organizers in the following btw) i really appreciated reading this thoughtful feedback. a few things i wanted to say, could you elaborate more on the “comics focus” thing? it’s just that i dont really understand where that came from and we definitely did not intentionally have a comics focus, although we did include them. over half of us organizers don’t draw at all and arent really “comics people”, so i just want to figure out how we communicated that! also, it’s possible that people have seen your awesome illustrations around the internet and called them comics — i have a friend who knows nothing about zines and sent me one of your panels she saw somewhere, saying I LOVE THIS!!!

    i hear ya on the overwhelming nature of having so many folks, but what you mentioned about inclusivity trumps that for me personally. i know there’s no perfect world but in having many discussions about this topic it seemed like it would be better to give as many people as possible an opportunity to be heard, and that includes people who maybe dont know about the awesomeness of trades (so we gotta show em!). i didnt get as many trades as i wanted either and i wish id had time to stop at most every table so that i could have asked. i’ve never been to portland zine symposium and since they have even more tablers im really curious about how that experience works too.

    i hope none of this reads as me trying to invalidate your criticisms or feelings! i’m really not at all and like i said i feel its really important to hear stuff like this from you guys and talk about it. id love to discuss more, i have to run at the moment, but lets talk.

    • sassyfrasscircus April 4, 2011 at 12:06 pm #

      Hi Jen! I appreciate you responding and I definitely want to have these conversations–I wish I had been able to go to the ZOE meetings partially for this reason. I think maybe the comics impression maybe is a combination of some comics based workshops, the comics event going on at the same time…but in general maybe it’s a sense of a prevalence of mini-comics in the zine world in general? Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Also I think from where I was sitting, the view was: a table mostly selling buttons, a bunch of comics, some art prints, and a table giving away free milk. And I understand there is only so much zinefest organizers about that!

      And I feel you on the inclusiveness thing. I don’t know if it necessarily trumps my investment in the ideals of D.I.Y. culture for me, but it also isn’t something I am generally willing to sacrifice. Which is why it is awesome to be having this conversation.


      • jen April 5, 2011 at 11:58 am #

        free milk? whaaaat? that’s a new one i hadnt heard of, haha. majority-zines tables are super important at the fest so i wish i had caught that (especially the mostly-buttons thing) in my frantic whirlwind.

        sometimes i think about – how do we communicate the ideals of DIY (somewhat insular) culture to people who are not already included or are included enough in our other subcultures that they can easily learn about it? i want inclusivity to also include that type of knowledge/skill sharing, so that perhaps people who think the only option is some sales pitch scramble can see there is another way. it’s hard to think of a way to communicate that stuff if someone isn’t interested, doesn’t know or doesnt care though (like, wouldn’t care enough to come to a workshop or something). plus we could also throw in a whole separate can of worms about art and privilege and what not that i’m sure you have thought about before already! sorry if this is a little rambly, but word.

        maybe there could be a ZOE or other type workshop at DCZF (if there’s time) for more roundtable discussion about this stuff!

  4. jbee April 5, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

    Jen! Want to propose that workshop? You know you want tooooooo. ❤

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