‘YOU BETTER WATCH YOUR BACK. You irresponsible, man-oppressor.’ With comments such as these, it’s no wonder that people, particularly young women, are seeking an alternative to online media platforms. The above comment is not a genuine comment received online, rather, one of the more palatable insults generated by the Random Rape Threat Generator (http://rapeglish.com/RRTG.html). This website takes real-life insults received by women and cuts them together to form new, random, insults. It exists to bring attention to the abuse hurled at women – particularly feminists – when they attempt to express themselves online. The fact that this website needs to exist indicates that cyber hate has become a serious, wide-spread problem. “It’s really an intense time to be a feminist. Online’s not a safe space for people.” Says Monica Syrette, curator of Self-Made: Zines and Artist Books. “Sometimes people want to work out how they feel about something in a way that won’t make them feel stupid, or be scared of putting a foot wrong.” For those seeking a safer alternative to the digital media all too prevalent in our society, they need only to turn their attention to self-publishing and the underground zine scene, which did not die out with the invention of blogging.
For the uninitiated, Self-Made is an eye-opening exhibition, while the educated can happily peruse rarely-displayed works. On show are early sci-fi zines such as Le Zombie (1941) and Ultra (1940), drawing attention to the little-known origin of the medium, as well as notable modern artist books from early pioneers such as Robert Jacks and Sol LeWitt. Syrette’s curatorial approach is quite didactic in nature. The works are divided into three themes – ‘Bypass the Gatekeepers, ‘Making a Scene’ and, ‘Where Do You Stand?’ – each adding more to the story of self-publishing. ‘Bypass the Gatekeepers’ emphasises self-publishing as a ‘democratic and anti-elitist’ art form, ‘Making a Scene’ explores the social element to zines and zine-making, while ‘Where do you stand?’ seems to offer a challenge to the audience, while displaying self-published works with a revolutionary edge.
The physical space within the gallery is designed to evoke that of a zine fair. Specially-designed glass cabinets resemble trestle tables, with their rectangular design and crossed legs. Particularly aesthetic works are framed and hung on the walls, conjuring an image of advertising posters. Video screens are scattered throughout the works, on which interviews with artists and zine makers play. One has the impression that she is standing in front of the zine sellers being told information about their publication. Despite the deliberate resemblance to a zine fair, Syrette is careful to design a space that is respectful of the institution in which it is housed. In this way, Syrette toes the line between the chaotic world of zine selling and the dignified nature of the State Library.
The most exciting aspect of Self-Made is the inclusion of the reading area. Two wooden stands hold 104 handpicked and individually numbered zines are available for the audience to browse, along with labels painstakingly written by Syrette to give context to each zine. A long table and stools sit in the middle of the open space. This gives the gallery the potential to become a burgeoning area for ideas and creativity to flow as gallery visitors sit down to read their favourite zine.
It is fitting that this exhibition appears now in Melbourne. Not only is the zine scene experiencing a boom, but Self-Made also compliments two other local exhibitions focusing on artist books. Looped: Artist Books in the Round is an installation displaying works by contemporary artists Louise Jennison and Gracia Haby, (also exhibited in Self-Made), at La Trobe Reading Room, State Library of Victoria from 4 August to 26 November, 2017. Art on the Page is a fascinating exhibition displaying livre d’artistes from Melbourne University’s Rare Book Collection, on exhibition at the Noel Shaw Gallery, University of Melbourne, from 1 August 2017 until 14 Jan 2018. When one examines these exhibitions, the uniqueness of Syrette’s Self-Made becomes apparent. There is a rebellious edge to the show not expected in its prestigious location in the Blue Rotunda Gallery, State Library of Victoria. Syrette ignores fine-quality, limited edition, books and chooses to focus on modern artist books pioneered by conceptual artists of the 1960s. These books were created in an attempt to make art accessible to everyone, so that anyone could be a collector. This is the point where artist books converge with zines. Both show a spirit of the underground, rebellion against the mainstream art world, and society in general, something that Syrette attempts to capture in Self-Made. The irony of these anti-establishment works being exhibited in an authoritarian cultural institution such as the State Library of Victoria is not lost on Syrette: “I do really like that it’s odd to see something like Sniffin’ Glue in a case that’s beautifully presented. Or you know the photocopied Bananarama zine in a beautifully made cradle. I love that.”
The accessible nature of the exhibition, and works displayed in Self-Made, has the potential to leave the audience with a burning desire to create their own works. This was no accident. “I really wanted people to leave feeling inspired and wanting to actually go out and publish their own zines,” explains Syrette. The aspiring zine maker can follow the link on the exhibition’s webpage to program partner Sticky Institute: a store that not only sells zines, but offers resources to makers. The quite literally underground store, located in the Degraves Subway, offers a space and materials for zine makers, along with extremely reasonably priced photocopies to members.
Self-Made: Zines and Artist Books offers rare insight into a subculture with which many people are unfamiliar. Through this exhibition, the State Library of Victoria brings attention to a unique aspect of its collection – the largest collection of zines in the country. The exhibition offers a tactile experience to the visitor, who physically take and read the zines, not just look at them through glass casings. The viewer leaves the exhibition not only knowing more about the history of zines and artist books, but with the desire to buy, or for the creatively minded, publish their own.
Self-Made: Zines and Artist Books The State Library of Victoria, August 11 to November 12, 2017