Fanzines in Vitrines
When graduate students in curatorial studies at California College of the Arts solicited the eighth issue of NOMAG from San Francisco fanzine dealer Matt Wobensmith, he encountered a catalog conundrum. The publishers of NOMAG — an old Los Angeles tabloid with a particularly scatological understanding of punk — kept an inconsistent numbering scheme. He wondered if the cover of issue #8 featured the grotesque, totem-like bodysuit with a protruding phallic tongue, or if it was actually the one adorned by a stark portrait and the teaser words: “POP TRASH NOISE MUSIC NANCY REAGAN.”
Wobensmith wanted to do right by the student curators, who were plotting Void California, a show focused on fanzines and other such “punk-inflected media” produced between 1975 and 1989. The uncertainty led him to Circulation Zero, where Texas collector Ryan Richardson stows digitized full-runs of old punk fanzines. Issue #8, the indexed scans revealed, was the one with the bodysuit.
Void California, which opened in March at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, pointed to a moment of democratized technology and social crisis. The works on display emphasized how affordable film, video, tape, and especially offset printing enticed artists to document their subcultural surroundings. When the selections didn’t explicitly reference catastrophic austerity politics, they felt haunted by the era’s macabre headlines: White Night, Jonestown, and, that insidious misnomer, “Urban Renewal.” In a catalog essay, the curators described the “not-so-secret subject” of Ruby Ray, photographer for the San Francisco fanzine Search & Destroy, as “perpetual urban demolition.”
Void California reflected museums’ and university libraries’ increasing interest in the early punk press, recognizing scrappy Bay Area and Los Angeles publications as both visually ravishing objects and essential primary source material. And yet, it’s often noted that publications activated through circulation tend to wither when sequestered and still. Further, the veneer of institutional authority cloaks a circuitous network of fanzine collectors, peddlers, and publishers whose values and quarrels determine access to crucial historical moments.
Do vitrines elevate or negate fanzines? Is digitization a viable alternative for preservation, one that sidesteps institutional hegemony? As scholarly interest mounts, the quibbles and convictions swirling around the punk rags of yore significantly impact how narratives form or collapse — and who does the spinning. Who should we listen to? Are the punks who were there estranged from the significance of their own scene, or are they our only reliable sources?
Some of this tension emerged during the Void California panel. Professors examined the show through the prisms of their respective disciplines. A debate erupted in the audience between an academic and an exhibited artist about intentionality. “When I approached one of my professors at [San Francisco Arts Institute] about doing a project about punk, he scoffed,” remembered Wobensmith, the only non-academic panelist. “The fact that we’re having this show now is almost an indictment of the way these places work. Maybe we should be looking for the things that professors are telling people not to study right now.”
Wobensmith, 45, arrived in San Francisco in 1989. Between 1992 and 1997, he published Outpunk and ran a record label of the same name, chronicling the queercore scene that emerged alongside riot grrrl. In 2009, he opened Goteblüd, a perusable, appointment-only fanzine emporium in the Mission District that does most of its business with university libraries; three years later, he donated his personal papers to the Riot Grrrl Collection at NYU’s Fales Library & Special Collections.
Wobensmith has a nuanced, somewhat conflicted view of preservation. “Zines present a challenge to both the art world and to the internet,” he said. “The art world wants them behind glass. The internet wants them digitized and shared. Neither honors the radicality of the objects themselves.”
Wobensmith believes that institutions often present the material in a precious and rarefied way that’s at best misguided and at worst damaging. As a rejoinder to the neutralizing conventions of fanzine exhibitions, in 2009 he curated You Are Her, a traveling riot grrrl zine show installed lastly at the New York Art Book Fair. He included a photocopier and encouraged attendees to use it. “I felt I was striking the sweet spot with the photocopier,” he said. “As far as accessibility, I think I broke down the wall.”
To those who consider the internet the commons, this tempered vision of accessibility can seem exclusive; in the age of the reverse digital divide, analog retrenchment looks ever more elite. Wobensmith acknowledged that part of what fostered bold content in fanzines was an expectation that they’d travel — but only so far; no publisher anticipated the way incendiary content tethers itself to one’s name in perpetuity online. As Wobensmith said, “There was this idea that if you printed something inflammatory in a zine when you were 18, your boss wasn’t going to see it however many years later.”
Once uploaded, a fanzine splinters and selectively sprawls across the web (à la Tumblr); for Wobensmith and others, this fragmentation illustrates a dangerous misunderstanding of sharing, especially for publications whose true nature lies in their unwieldy aggregate. The internet filters and expels granular detail while retaining coarseness like a sieve; online, explicit photographs outlast contextualizing editorials. (And that’s when content doesn’t disappear altogether; a 2009 San Francisco Bay Guardian article about Goteblüd, for example, appears neither on the defunct alt-weekly’s website nor the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.)
Wobensmith feels safest with his personal papers stashed in the Riot Grrrl Collection. When fans contact him about posting Outpunk online, he dissuades them. “If all of my zines were digitized, I’d want space to annotate — space for my rebuttal,” he said. Still, Wobensmith called Richardson’s Circulation Zero “the closest thing to the right thing.”
Not all of the publishers whose materials appear on Circulation Zero agree. “I’m not pissed off that it’s out there,” said Ewa Wojciak, who ran NOMAG alongside the late Bruce Kalberg. “I’m pissed off that he didn’t ask permission.” Wojciak, a professor of art and design at University of Southern California, said that she had a pleasant business relationship with Richardson, who’d purchased back-issues from her. But when friends alerted her to their sudden appearance online, “I felt betrayed.”
Wojciak, 63, said that she might have permitted the upload if Richardson had asked — provided he direct people towards her for more information or hard-copy sales. “It felt like a convenient way to exclude part of the history of the magazine, you know — the people who made it,” she said, noting that the site’s accompanying descriptive blurb was “way left-field.”
“[Kalberg and I had] talked about trying to preserve the magazine in terms of making a bridge to the future, rather than collectible value,” she said, adding that though Richardson doesn’t profit from Circulation Zero, it nonetheless boosts his profile as a dealer. “I thought about contacting Ryan, but the genie is out of the bottle.”
A 43 year-old resident of Austin, Texas, Richardson is the sort of record collector who, once he acquires a label’s catalog, seeks out its stationery. Last year he launched Circulation Zero with all 29 issues of Slash, which ran between 1977 and 1980 and foreran the eponymous Los Angeles punk label, followed by NOMAG.
Richardson did not ask permission to upload either publication, and he doesn’t seek money for access, instead asking individuals who download the materials to donate to one of a few suggested charities. As Circulation Zero’s homepage states: “My hope is that the original creators will not only enjoy seeing their work resuscitated but will also appreciate the fact that their work is helping generate donations to worthy causes.”
Earlier this year, he added and then removed a note announcing that, since over 8,000 downloads had yielded a “disheartening” amount of donations, visitors should “consider further uploads on hold for now.” The hiatus was also the result of faltering talks with the publishers of Flipside (which ran from 1977 to 2000), who he did notify about his digitization plans.
Asked why he sought to clear Flipside but not NOMAG, Richardson responded, “the fact that Flipside isn’t on Circulation Zero should answer your question.”
Richardson received what he called an “unequivocal no” from one of the cofounding editors, Pat DiPuccio, whom he said seemed worried that the upload would undermine sales of a future Flipside book. (Reached by phone, DiPuccio confirmed, emphasizing that he spoke only for himself.) “Of course, the release of Slash scans actually induced a long-planned book to finally get underway,” Richardson wrote in an email. “But that’s neither a point I feel like arguing nor a result I could guarantee.”
(J.C. Gabel and Brian Roettinger, who worked with Slash staffers to publish the retrospective book, vigorously dispute Richardson’s statement, which Gabel, over email, called “toxic nonsense” by an “internet fantasist.”)
In Richardson’s view, uploading Flipside would’ve completed the Los Angeles punk fanzine trifecta. Of all the regional publications founded in the 1970s, none tracked the spread of punk into the suburbs like Flipside. Richardson considers it a significant loss: Such voluminous evidence of punk’s trajectory in one online resource would encourage a more holistic view of the era, he suggested, since accounts tend to reflect a first-wave punk bias against the ensuing proliferation of hardcore. (He eventually uploaded the Bay Area fanzine Damage instead.)
The notion that online accessibility undercuts speculative value is a perspective hesitantly shared by San Francisco writer and publisher V. Vale, who edited the fanzines Search & Destroy and Research in the late-1970s and 1980s and today runs RE/Search Publications. “With limited optimism, I like the idea of everything being available online,” he said. Told of Circulation Zero, however, Vale responded firmly: “He better not do that with my stuff!”
But if Vale has policed the availability of Research and Search & Destroy online, it’s largely because, unlike most publishers, he’s kept those flagship titles largely in-print and for sale. And this in-house preference helps account for his wariness of institutional archives. “I’m a fan of historical preservation of countercultural material,” he said. “Though I realize it’s being done by the enemy. I come from the days when if there was ever any mainstream interest in punk or industrial or modern primitive, it came with agenda; but it was an opportunity to try to sneak my ideas into mass media in a way where they’d somehow not get too damaged.
“When I chose ‘Research’ as a nom de plume to operate behind, I was thinking of the verb, not the noun,” he reflected. “I just want to keep going. That’s all.”
Other fanzine publishers view analog and digital preservation as complementary rather than opposed. San Francisco’s Maximum Rocknroll — the longest continuously published punk fanzine of its kind — recently launched a campaign to digitize and share back issues and unique items from its archives. William Davenport — who helmed San Francisco’s Unsound, spiritual heir to Research, through ten issues between 1983 and 1987 — said that he printed full-runs of the fanzine specifically to plant in archives. Recently he uploaded them online himself.
Davenport, 56, invoked the publication’s original anti-economic mandate to explain his profit-ambivalence today. “Unsound stopped because we were tired of being so poor and I had to make a choice. Did I want to make the magazine more commercial, to put bands on the cover? Not really,” he said. “I’m not worried about a book, no, and my feeling about copyright is really open.” Referring to the sample-savvy musicians and fair-use activists, he continued, “I mean, I’m working on a film about Negativland.”
In the introduction to The Riot Grrrl Collection, a 2013 book containing reproductions from the NYU archive, editor and collection founder Lisa Darms notes that though the collection composes less than one percent of Fales’ holdings, it accounts for fifteen percent of the use. Darms writes that while studying to become an archivist at NYU, “I realized that ‘historical importance’ is partially a result of what’s saved and preserved by institutions.”
Darms said that the Riot Grrrl Collection (open to students and “qualified researchers and scholars,” a category that Darms has said is interpreted broadly) doesn’t prioritize digitization for many of the same reasons cited by Wobensmith. “The content of these zines often deals with sexual abuse, incest, and coming-out stories,” said Darms, a coauthor of the Zine Librarians Code of Ethics. “The assumption was that they’d be shared, but among your peers. Making them publicly available isn’t always consistent with the original intention.”
She also complicated the supposedly egalitarian model of a public fanzine library. “The 1970s zine on a shelf near where someone drinks a latte — that’s accessibility, but accessibility also means thinking about the future,” she said. “Will we able to read it in twenty years, when we may need it more?”
The market is the archivist’s menacing shadow, according to Darms, who recently left Fales to work independently as an art appraiser and consultant. In some cases, individuals won’t donate because their possessions have “a market value that you yourself [as an archivist] contributed to creating,” she explained. The incentive for private collectors to sell their holdings piecemeal, she added, only exacerbates the problem.
In The Archival Turn in Feminism — which surveys the Riot Grrrl Collection, the Barnard Zine Library, and the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History & Culture at Duke University — author Kate Eichhorn argues that if riot grrrl zines “have not only survived but also gained legitimacy as works of literature, art, and knowledge, it is to the extent that these works […] rapidly migrated to archives and special collections.”
Seen along this trajectory, riot grrrl zines were meaningfully and deliberately injected into the academic ecosystem (which encouraged curators to exhibit the same materials). For many of the riot grrrl publishers and participants who became key donors, their zines’ institutional afterlives actually furthered their original aims. The process is certainly not without particular controversies of its own, but Eichhorn casts “the archival turn” as a necessary intervention in feminist history that upsets received narratives of generational difference. Since riot grrrl zines often appropriated earlier feminist texts, for example, their entry into feminist collections amplifies extant conversations across time.
Riot grrrl zines differ significantly from the fanzines that proliferated a decade or more earlier within punk and punk-adjacent subcultures, not least in terms of relative commercialism and format: 1970s and 1980s fanzines more often featured advertisements, mastheads, and traditional journalistic reportage.
And perhaps that’s why they’ve trod a craggier path to institutions; the reluctance of some fanzine producers (and their subjects) to relinquish control reflects not only perceived financial incentive but also an urge, as Vale suggested, to continue personally re-reporting and reckoning with their experience.
Unlike many of Eichhorn’s subjects, early punk fanzine publishers often consider the institutional archive an obligatory insurance policy rather than a site of productive transformation. Though these fanzines’ value as historical evidence is becoming increasingly pronounced, it isn’t clear that institutions empower them, as Eichhorn writes of riot grrrl zines, “to remain social agents outside their designated time.” And especially not when their writers and subjects still yearn for autonomous value systems and networks.
Indeed, Maximum Rocknroll founder Tim Yohannan, who died in 1998, once expressed a certain disinterest in cultural mobility, aligning the fanzine’s physical format — in particular, the way it signals disposable ephemerality — with its ethical integrity. “It’s an aesthetic decision that this should always be a fanzine,” he said in a 1985 Unsound interview. “Most of the other ones that have been around for a while have gone to glossy covers, better paper stock or whatever. I just felt like, let’s not do that, let’s keep it trash.”