When and why did you get involved in zines and DIY culture?
I began making zines in graduate school, but it was after I moved to Chattanooga to take up my post as a professor of graphic design that I began to make a lot of zines. When I was new in Chattanooga, I didn’t have any clients, no new projects to work on, and I was still decompressing after the intensity of grad school. I wanted to be active in my studio, so I began making zines to experiment with form and process ideas. I was attracted to the medium because it was “risk free,” relatively quick and cheap to produce, and sort of unprecious. Eventually, zines and other experimental publications became an integral part of my practice.
What are some of your favourite zine titles?
I love a lot of zines coming out of the UK. I see so many great artist zines at Good Press Gallery in Glasgow and through their work with Museums Press. I like, an artful zine about women’s lives and I love No. Zine. I also enjoy the stuff coming out of Nieves in Switzerland. I like Little Otsu’s Living Things series from Portland, Oregon; Underscore Quarterly, out of New York; Issue Press from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Half Letter Press from Chicago. And, I like a lot of cooking and food culture zines like Put A Egg on It and Short Stack Editions, which are both produced in America.
Can you walk us briefly through the founding of the Chattanooga Zine Fest?
The librarians who run the Chattanooga Public Library and I were having lunch one day and we talked about dream projects. I vocalized my interest in zines and in building a zine library. This interest was shared by librarians Nate Hill and Meg Backus who eventually invited me to curate a collection of zines, chapbooks, and independent publications for the 4th floor of the library (a nationally recognized maker space). We also agreed that if there was to be a new collection, that there should also be a public event to draw people to the collection. So we planned Chattanooga Zine Fest. I was given a budget and a green light to use my expertise. It was my first zine fest and definitely the first one in Chattanooga. We had 35 table vendors from around the United States and Canada, zine readings and workshops, and of course we unveiled the Chattanooga Zine Library. Hundreds of people came, which is a lot for a town of fewer than 200K people. I was very pleased with the event.
How has the local artist/DIY culture and media assisted in publicizing your festival? Or have they?
The event was well-publicized. It began with a poster which I designed and put up around town in every coffee shop, burrito joint, bar, and book store I could find. The printing of the posters was donated by a local printer, Wonderpress. Then, I spoke publicly about Zine Fest whenever I could. Our city participates in Pecha Kucha nights, as do many cities around the world. I gave a Pecha Kucha about zines and zine culture. From there, I was interviewed by a newspaper and asked to give zine workshops with two different local organizations. A gallery in Nashville was excited about the event and helped to promote it. I sent emails and PDFs of the posters to all the English and Art programs at area colleges.The Chattanooga chapter of AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) posted about Zine Fest online and included it in their e-newsletter. The library used their networks too. I got my students at UTC involved and their student-run zine club, The Society of Ink and Paper, helped promote the event online. One of my collaborators at the library, Mary Barnett, put out a press release that got us two more interviews in major local newspapers and a spot on our local public radio. All of this helped to build excitement with audiences who didn’t know what zines were. To get the local DIY enthusiasts involved, I wrote emails to them and invited them to participate. I gave them posters and they helped spread the word too. I started a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, and a Tumblr too.
Do you have any advice for someone who wanted to establish their own small press fair?
I think it’s important to talk with people about it early. I went out for coffees with many people who I thought might be interested in participating, just to ask them what they’d like to see in their zine library and at Zine Fest. I did this probably 6 months before it happened. I reached out to people who I knew made zines, librarians at different libraries, and artists to start. Then I started meeting people who I normally wouldn’t know—science fiction enthusiasts and poets. I learned a lot about what people like to read and write, and I met a lot of great people in my community. I think it’s important to shape the event based on what people in the community want. And, I think it’s important to advocate for zines publicly in order to introduce zine making to a world of people who have never heard of zines before.
It seems there are zine fests popping up everywhere, I can’t recall ever seeing such a proliferation of them, even in the 90s. Do you think this trend will continue? Where do you see fanzines and the art form evolving in the next decade or so?
I have been asked numerous times if I think we’re experiencing a zine renaissance. It’s hard to tell because zines have always been countercultural and “below the radar” so to speak. But because DIY culture is now more mainstream—the Internet has made consumers into producers—it’s quite possible that more people are attracted to making zines than in ages past. We are also in an age of unprecedented information and communication through digital networking. We may just know about more zines than we used to. I also think we are in a period where the book itself is changing and people are responding to that. Digital technology, while it has led to blogs and e-books which in some ways threaten print, has also made print cheaper to produce, and maybe even more desirable. We also see a mistrust of digital media with the rise of privacy issues (such as the “big brother” side of Google), and it is obvious that digital technology, since it changes so rapidly, is less stable than print. People could be returning to print because the limits of digital technology are coming to head. If there is a zine trend, yes, I hope it continues.
Where are zines going? Well, I notice more and more artists and designers making zines. I see the publication as a timely and relevant site for cultural critique. Political activism has always been part of zine culture, but now I see professionals using the medium for such purposes, where as in the past it would have been amateurs. Printed books of the future, zines included, will take advantage of the material qualities of print. Zines will have interesting papers, bindings, folds, and ink colors. People will be more experimental with the material because it is so much cheaper to produce than before. The possibilities of formal innovation with a printed book also attracts artists to zines.
Lastly, print brings people together in ways that digital publications do not. Digital books are targeted to a single user while printed books are shared, passed back and forth, borrowed, and discussed at public events. Zine Fests and zine exhibitions at galleries are testaments to that. I hope to see more of this in the future.
Aggie Toppins is a graphic designer and educator living in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is principal of The Official Studio, a design practice that focuses on print, identity, exhibition, and interactive projects for small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Aggie also founded The Unofficial Press to contextualize her independent studio activity in which she explores conceptually driven artist books and other projects that use design to engage in cultural discourse. Aggie is a professor of graphic design at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.