“Copy Machine Manifestos” dives into zine culture

At first blush, it seems like a contradiction in terms. Zines—small, self-published booklets made with little more than paper and a photocopier—are a decidedly grassroots form of art. Galleries, meanwhile, have the weight of institutional curation behind them—they decide what does and does not count as art, in a way that zines are both aware of and firmly in opposition to. You can’t be counter-culture, after all, unless you know what culture you’re opposing.

But Copy Machine Manifestos, which opens May 12 at the Vancouver Art Gallery, makes the case that zines’ role in modern art history is worth investigating on an institutional scale.

“The show is, I think, incredibly important,” says Eva Respini, deputy director and director of curatorial programs at Vancouver Art Gallery, on a video call from Venice, where she’s attending the Biennale. “It breaks ground; it tells a story and a history that hasn’t really been told yet.”

Robert Ford with Trent Adkins and Lawrence Warren, Thing, no. 4 Spring 1994, offset zine, Collection Steve Lafreniere, Courtesy Arthur Fournier.
Photo by Evan McKnight, Brooklyn Museum

Vancouver is the second—and so far only—stop for the mammoth exhibition, which premiered at the Brooklyn Museum last fall. It’s the first major show dedicated to cataloguing this slice of underground art history.

Containing over a thousand works by more than 100 artists, the exhibition is ambitious in scope and scale: encompassing countries, decades, and a wealth of topics in its quest to present a (relatively) comprehensive overview of the North American zine scene from the 1970s to the present day.

Divided into six chapters, Copy Machine Manifestos provides a roughly chronological history of not just zines, but also the artists who created them. From punk anarchists to queer theorists and avant-garde creators, what binds zines is less their form and more their dissemination.

Joey Terrill, Homeboy Beautiful, no. 1, 1978, photocopy zine, ONE Archives at the USC Libraries.
copywright and courtesy Joey Terrill and Ortuzar Projects, New York

“The show is essentially about networks—the modes of distribution that have traditionally sat outside of the hierarchies of fine arts—and it’s about communities that have used this distribution system,” Respini explains. “A zine can be so many things: it can be a manifesto, politically oriented; it can be humorous; it can be about the personal act of drawing; or the act of creating multiples and having those spread throughout a city. That real range of individual expression is shown in the exhibition, but is also at the heart of the medium itself.”

Although the exhibition was originally curated by New Yorkers, BC and Canadian artists were naturally included as part of the collection. After all, zines were as important here as they were in other parts of the world.

Bud Lee, AA Bronson, John Jack Baylin, John Dowd, Felix Partz and Zeke Smolinksy during Decca-Dance, 1974, colour transparency, Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia, Morris/Trasoc Archive.
Copywright Bud Lee Picture Maker Inc.

“The emergence of zine culture coincides with a really rich moment in Vancouver’s artistic community: the emergence of Western Front, and the community of artists [and artist-run spaces] in the ’70s,” Respini explains. “These artists were very much in correspondence—in the old-school sense of the word—with their peers across the globe.”

Besides physical booklets, Copy Machine Manifestos also explores the adjacent works created by influential artists in the scene. BC’s own Anna Banana, for example, worked with zines, but also produced mail art, stamp-sized collections, and performance art; LTTR, a feminist genderqueer art collective and publication founded in 2001, similarly used its zine as part of a wider practice including screenings, exhibitions, performances, and workshops.

LTTR (Ginger Brooks Takahashi, K8 Hardy, Every Ocean Hughs and Ulrike Muller), LTTR no. 2, Listen Translate Translate Record, August 2003, offset zine (with booklet, screenprinted band, altered tampon and compact disc), Collection Philip Aarons and Shelley Fox Aarons.
photo by David Vu

The publications themselves became springboards, creating communities in cultures that were often kept out of mainstream acceptance. Women, people of colour, LGBTQ2S+ communities, and political rebels could all find homes within art they made themselves, inspiring more people to get involved and forming their own networks of creation and distribution.

That interactivity extends to the exhibition. Alongside the gallery, Vancouver’s mounting of Copy Machine Manifestos includes hands-on engagement. There will be zine-making workshops, as well as a reading room—decorated with wheatpaste prints from Marlene Yuen—complete with a Vancouver-sourced zine library.

“We have, at this point, hundreds of zines by local markers,” Respini says, “and we’re hoping that people will also drop off theirs.”

If you’ve ever wanted to be displayed at the VAG—now’s your chance. Technology may rise and fall, but the allure of zines will never truly die. 

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