Broken Pencil interview

Here are the (mostly) full responses I gave to some questions Broken Pencil kindly put to us for the global zine scene report in issue #81 of their mag – thanks to Broken Pencil for interviewing us, and sorry I harped on so much. I’ve edited out some bits where I got too ranty and cut out bits that weren’t quite true/accurate.

Tell me a bit about the history of Take Care Zine Distro, and what you do today? What challenges have you had to face organizing a zine distro? 

We opened Take Care on 1 January 2010. In the mid 2000s I ran a little distro called Flying Machine – just a paper mail-order catalogue with a few listings. Take Care was sort of a way of picking up that project again. At first we stocked a fairly large number of zines – about 100 when we first opened, most from Australia. Everything we stocked was available through online mail-order, and we also tried to table at zine fairs along the east coast of Australia. 

When we first opened we accepted submissions, and we were mostly interested in stocking personal zines. We discovered there weren’t as many of those types of zines around as there were even 5 or 6 years previously, when I was doing Flying Machine. By the mid-00s, I think per-zines had acquired a set of tropes or conventions, a very specific aesthetic. My zine collection is mostly from the late 90s/early 2000s, and when you view them all together, zines from that era very strongly resemble one another. They also resemble one another in content. By the time we started Take Care those types of zines were becoming less common. This made me sad at first, but in a way there was more diversity in the new things that people were making. We ended up stocking more, for want of another word, ‘experimental’ zines, and comics, art zines and so forth.

After a few years we stopped taking submissions. We found that we got a comparatively huge number of enquiries – several a week – from people wanting to stock their zine, but very few orders. So we had this problem where clearly people knew about us and placed some value on what we were doing, but there was this weird gap. I think some people assumed that we had an audience or reach that didn’t actually exist. I partially blame social media for this: it’s easy for something to appear to be bigger than it actually is on the internet, and for people to ‘like’ the idea of something then move along and never think of it again, leaving behind the ‘like’ to give a false impression of the popularity or size of a project.

Anyway, a surprising number of people seemed to think that if they stocked their zine with us they’d instantly sell out and they – and we – would make lots of money. In reality we’d always sell a fair amount at fairs, but the mail-order has never sold much, and the percentage we take from sales – 20% – barely covers our ‘overheads’: website hosting, paypal fees, stationery etc. Don’t even mention labour. Of course, that is not why we run a distro – we love zines, we believe in zines, we firmly believe in a punk/DIY ethic, even if the stuff we stock doesn’t always look stereotypically punk. We are not in the slightest bit interested in running a business, although we do pride ourselves on being able to get stuff done, and we’re always efficient when it comes to packing orders or paying folks when we sell their zines. To me that is a punk thing, not a business thing – you don’t rip people off, you support the scene.

Some of the folks I’ve talked to have described a surge in artbooks, “designer” zines and higher priced zines. Some folks have found it hard to maintain space for traditional cut n paste and punk zines in the new zine landscape – is this something you’ve had to grapple with?

I discovered zines through the subcultural portal of music, through indie record stores and the network of riot grrrl inspired distros – like Pander and Smitten Kitten – that were around in the 90s and early 2000s. Zines for me are indelibly tied to punk and the ethics that emerged from punk. But I also spent most of my 20s in art school. Since I was young I’ve loved art, wanted to be an artist, and I identify as an artist. In my day job, I partly work as a graphic designer, at least that’s what I aspire to do as a day job. I sometimes feel like I’m a bit stuck between worlds in regards to zines/art/design. I don’t think these worlds are always mutually exclusive, but I agree that there is definitely a tendency for more people to make zines that are really slick, aiming to be professional, and often highly priced. Or rather, people make these things and call them zines, but perhaps they’re not zines. It is a thing that is hard to grapple with, and we have had to grapple with it at Take Care. In the early days we definitely turned down a lot of submissions on the grounds that they were bordering on not being zines. It raised the very frustrating question of how do you define what a zine even is, and who gets to decide?

On the one hand I’m quite puritanical in my definition: zines are photocopied, cheap, have an ephemeral quality, you don’t charge too much for them, you don’t aim to make money out of them, you make them to support or create or communicate within a scene of like-minded people. On the other hand, I’m reluctant to define anything too strictly, because I think you can risk closing yourself off to new ideas and new forms of expression – you can stop evolving. I get worried sometimes that I’m set in my ways, this jaded old zinester from the 90s who refuses to accept that things change and kids use InDesign to lay out their zines these days. I think it’s ok – good, even – for things to reflect the times that they are made in. The aesthetic I most strongly associate with zines is actually one that belongs to and describes another time. There is something a bit anachronistic in my attachment to things like typewriters and analogue media, but for my part I try to explore that in the zines I make. But what I see when I think ‘zine’ is actually more subjective than I used to admit to myself. So, that’s been one of the other big challenges, actually, with running a distro: trying not to be narrow minded about what constitutes a zine, trying not to say what a zine should look like, trying to accept things on their own terms and judge them by the quality of their ideas and their fidelity to the spirit of zines – the punk/DIY ethic – and trying not to be too nostalgic for the sort of zines that were being made when I was a teenager.

Having said all that, there is confusion out there, about what is a zine and what is an artist book and what is a chapbook and so on. I think it’s ok to try to define things to an extent. Look at, say, Printed Matter in New York – they stock an incredible range of self-published stuff, and they don’t seem to have a problem isolating zines from the rest of it. I think a lot of the confusion actually stems – in Australia at least – from institutions like art galleries getting in on the zine scene. I think that changes the way people first encounter zines – rather than finding zines firmly attached to a subculture, or as a subculture in themselves, zines are presented as this general medium of artistic self-expression. So you get people making their limited edition artist book and selling it for $50 and wondering why no one at the zine fair is buying it. Or conversely, you have the person with their photocopied zine at the zine fair at the art gallery, and no one’s interested in their zine because the event they’re at probably shouldn’t really be called a zine fair, it’s probably more like an illustrator’s fair or something. Which is fine, but all those people selling art prints (including me!) should probably start their own fair, it would be less confusing for everyone.

How are people using zines in your communities, whether locally or across Australia? Are there major trends or changes you’ve scene over the years?

The most important change that has happened in Sydney recently has been Other Worlds. For a bit of background, for several years the only very large zine fair to happen on a regular basis in Sydney was held by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), who are the premiere contemporary art museum in Sydney, located on Circular Quay right alongside big, iconic Sydney-things like the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. The MCA is big bikkies, in terms of cultural capital in this country. I won’t go too much into the origins, but when they first started putting on a zine fair, a lot of long-time zinesters in Sydney were pretty miffed. The MCA didn’t really involve or ask zinesters about putting on a fair. (Bastian Fox Phelan would be able to give you a much better run down of the origins of the MCA fair than I could). In the first year there were discussions online about zinesters boycotting it to put on their own fair or gathering instead, which didn’t end up happening in any organised way, but a lot of people didn’t initially go to the MCA fair. There was a strong feeling that such a big cultural institution should not be appropriating or representing zine culture. Anyway, it ended up being an annual event and everyone – zinesters – eventually went to it, many out of a sort of obligation to ‘represent’ zines at this event which they felt otherwise wouldn’t have any zines at it. A lot of those other publications we discussed earlier were made and sold for the MCA zine fair. You got a feeling that every graphic design student in Sydney was using the MCA zine fair to showcase their end of year portfolio. After time, as tends to happen, the MCA zine fair became normalised, a sort of ‘how I learned to stopped worrying and love the monolithic cultural institution’ scenario. You could certainly sell a lot of zines there – I once sold out of everything I had within two hours then just went and ate ice cream on the harbour for the rest of the day.

The genesis of Other Worlds requires a little more background: In 2014 the Sydney Biennale (big blockbuster art show) was boycotted by a number of the artists involved. The Biennale was founded and sponsored by a company who were then called Transfield, who through their various channels were and are involved in construction, infrastructure and provision of services. They ran garrison (cleaning and security) services in the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres, which are two offshore detention – aka prison – camps where the Australian government illegally and immorally detains refugees who are trying to get to Australia by boat from Indonesia, as part of a xenophobic ‘stop the boats’ policy. So this is what the Biennale Boycott was about – artists demanded that Transfield withdraw their contracts from Manus and Nauru, as part of a divestment campaign. I was very tangentially involved in this boycott when it started – attending some organising meetings and stuff. But it was very much focused around institutionalised artists, so it was a bit hard to figure out how I could contribute. Then it emerged that Transfield were also sponsors of the MCA. When the MCA zine fair rolled around again we casually put it out there that we would be joining Biennale artists in boycotting Transfield-linked institutions, and would not be attending the MCA zine fair. We invited other zinesters to join us, if they wished. Our friend Hon contacted us and said ‘should we put on an anti-Transfield’ zine fair?’, and so Other Worlds was born. We were expecting having maybe 10 tables and ended up having 100. This year was our fifth consecutive year running the fair.

The outcome of the Transfield boycott is quite complex – much too much to go into here. Australia still tortures refugees and asylum seekers in offshore prison camps, so in that regard you could say it did not succeed. But it cleared some ground. And almost as a by-product, the zine community regained a bit of control of their scene – we got our own zine fair, and that’s very powerful. 

A lot of people assume that I hate the MCA, but it’s not the case at all – I’m very idealistic but also very pragmatic. I feel like there’s a bit of a game of snakes and ladders going on between institutionalised art practices and the underground or subcultures, and I’m interested in how people play it, how they negotiate the different modes of living, so that they can live, so they can get by in capitalism. I’m not judgemental about how people figure out how to do that. But I’m certainly, myself, angling for more collectivity, more community, more DIY.

What advice might you give to people trying to start their own distro or activate their local zine community?

At the end of the day, I think people should do whatever the hell they like and call it whatever they like. My feeling is that the best way to deal with something you don’t like is to do something you do like, yourself, with your friends. Put on your own zine fair, start your own distro. The worst thing you can do is get caught up in endlessly trying to define things and make things fit your world-view perfectly, or worry about other people doing it WRONG. Do your thing and let others do theirs. If the space doesn’t exist, make the space exist – that’s the point of zines. I get concerned with people who basically have a lot in common getting tied up in knots over small differences – the ‘narcissism of small differences’, as it’s been called. Fight, sure, but save the fight for actual fascists, for governments who are torturing refugees. Be tactical and pragmatic, and kind.

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Some notes on sponsorship – redux

Hey folks, I’m just dragging this up (with a few changes to the wording) from the bottom of the post before last where it was first published. In conversations I had on the weekend at the Sydney Anarchist Book Fair and Canberra Zine Emporium (thank you to the organisers of both events) people were overwhelmingly supportive of the idea of boycotting the MCA zine fair over the MCA’s relationship with Transfield, but there was some confusion about precisely what that relationship is. Creating confusion is a pretty good way of obscuring facts, but anyway: this is the information I have found with my limited internet searching abilities:

In a pay-walled article on ArtsHub, the MCA called our use of the word ‘sponsorship’ to describe their relationship with Transfield a “factual inaccurancy”, stating instead that Transfield are a ‘Corporate Member’.

‘Corporate Members’ are listed on the ‘Sponsorship’ page of the MCA website.

Transfield are listed on page 60 of the most recent (2012) MCA annual report in the section for ‘Sponsorship, Donations, Marketing and Public Relations’, as a ‘Corporate Member’.

The MCA are listed on the ‘Community Involvement – Sponsorships’ page of the Transfield website: “Transfield Holdings has been a corporate sponsor of the Museum of Contemporary Art since 2004.” (accessed 24/3/14, emphasis mine. Note that the Transfield domain name and the Transfield logo at the top of the web-page do not make a distinction between ‘Transfield Holdings’, ‘Transfield Services’ or ‘Transfield Foundation’.)

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So, the word ‘sponsorship’ seems to have a slippery definition, depending on when, how and by whom it is used. Clearly Transfield consider their corporate membership to be a variety of sponsorship. The MCA, perhaps, feels differently – although their own publicly accessible information on their sponsors etc is ambiguous. Whatever the difference (or lack of) between ‘sponsorship’ and ‘corporate membership’ in this case, the MCA and Transfield have a brand relationship. As the MCA website outlines, Corporate Membership provides an opportunity to:

“[a]lign with Australia’s leading contemporary arts brand and an exciting range of collections” and[d]evelop and enhance relationships with key clients and stakeholders”.

What would a bit of amateur research be without a visit to Wikipedia? From the entry on brand equity (or as it’s sometimes known, brand value):

Brand equity is a phrase used in the marketing industry which describes the value of having a well-known brand name, based on the idea that the owner of a well-known brand name can generate more money from products with that brand name than from products with a less well known name…”

Cheers,

Emma

Why we’re not going to the MCA zine fair

You may have heard that the MCA has done the call-out for their zine fair this year at the end of May. Take Care has decided not to participate in this year’s fair, due to sponsorship connections the MCA has with a finance conglomerate called Transfield.  Transfield run the service contracts in the detention camps on Manus Island and Nauru. Some of you may be aware that there is currently a campaign underway to boycott the upcoming Sydney Biennale due to its ties with Transfield. We support this boycott and calls for organisations and individuals to disvest their financial interests with Transfield and any other company that profits from the human misery – and murder – produced by the conditions in the camps. As such, we feel that we can’t be involved with the MCA fair this year, either, unless they suddenly cease to have a relationship with Transfield. That would only happen if we make some noise about it. So we encourage others to read up on this issue, and to join us in a boycott. The Crossborder Operational Matters site has a lot of valuable information on it about Transfield’s relationship with the arts. The RISE (Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees) site has a statement on the Biennale boycott.

x Emma