Despite the zine having a rich heritage spanning from beginnings in political pamphleteering to today’s eclectic ‘Design-as-Art’ pieces, Behind the Zines is not a history book. Instead, a large publisher here celebrates the broad potential of small-scale publishing — through a selection of contemporary small-run magazine projects, ranging from simple archives of personal artworks to humourous diatribes, political manifestoes to scientific theses.
This book does not channel the energy of its subject into its own graphic design, but rather adheres to the standard “white cube” format of most design picture books. The book navigates the free-range potential of zines by splitting its case studies into five loose thematic sections: Gallery, Archive, Laboratory, Kiosk, and Theater. This classification structure demonstrates the fluid nature of the topic, as many of the featured projects could belong to several categories. While some brief background is provided, interviews with zine creators add context to what is often enjoyably obscure work. From this informed standpoint we are then free to inspect the real focus of the proceedings — spreads from the publications themselves.
On this evidence the zine is a place where creative minds are free to run riot, boundaries limited only by the personalities of the individuals involved: artists, designers, photographers, poets, researchers and scientists, all united by a wish to disseminate information with a distinctly personal voice. Image-making, editing, layout, typography, production and distribution is taken on by these authors in an attempt to remain free from editorial restraints commonly imposed by advertisers and investors in mainstream publishing. In fact, limited distribution seems a key criteria for success. Print runs are kept small for economic reasons, although their experimental editorial nature tends to self-govern the size of their readership. This raises an interesting point: despite a disparate array of creators, the book exposes a surprisingly similar aesthetic. Being mainly low budget affairs means production values are restricted, photocopying or obscure cheap printing processes are commonplace, and the graphic style seems almost pre-determined. This reveals a vernacular freely adopted by this book’s format (exposed perfect binding and rough canvas finish), suggesting an attitude of zine-style rawness.
In an age dominated by the blogosphere, Behind the Zines could seem to be an anachronism. Would a book on Wordpress themes perhaps be more relevant? In fact, this is a timely publication demonstrating that print design actually benefits from the Internet. In the same way as digital music has had a positive effect on live music ticket sales, this book can be taken as evidence of a renaissance in 'tangible' design. The fringes of the design industry, as pictured here, seem dedicated to the importance of physical artefacts that have an ability to stimulate our senses. Of course, the range and quality of zines published worldwide varies enormously. This book nonetheless makes an excellent case for what alternative, printed media can and should be.
Behind the Zines: Self-Publishing Culture is edited by Robert Klanten, Adeline Mollard, M. Hübner and published by Gestalten, 2011.