Why zines have always been vital textbooks for counterculture
From i-D to BOMB, The Art Institute of Chicago is bringing together alt-zines from the 70s, 80s and 90s that celebrate the underground.
Cover of i-D, The All Star Issue, no. 14, 1983. Cover of Thing: She Knows Who She Is magazine, Spring 1991 (no. 4). The Art Institute of Chicago, Ryerson and Burnham Libraries Special Collections, purchased with funds provided by Eric Ceputis and David Williams. © THING Magazine.
Before SEO was an editor title, before the corporate mechanisms of media mimicked financial institutions and before “aesthetic” was something recycled between millions of social media feeds, there were zines. No, not the makeshift booklets strewn about the New York launch party wherein the influencer-founder claims to bring their guests “back to the physical”. I’m talking actual zines — birthed from a chunky Xerox machine, void of hierarchical editorial mastheads and filled with eulogies from the AIDS epidemic. These magazines weren’t marketing, they were movements — ones that shifted the subconscious and impacted how we, even now, perceive fashion, culture, activism and design.
In the Art Institute of Chicago’s latest exhibit — Subscribe: Artists and Alternative Magazines, 1970-1995 — upwards of 130 zine issues are on display: from the first 10 issues of this very magazine, published 1980-1981, to the debut issue of the Village Voice’s short-lived, offshoot fashion magazine, known as View or Vue. The exhibition coincides with the Art Institute’s acquisition of rare zine issues, also featuring After Dark, Ben is Dead, Blitz, BOMB, Culture Hero, Deluxe, Details, East Village Other, The Face, Interview, IT, Newspaper, Rags, Out/Look, Thing/Think Ink and Vibe — many of which will be accessible to the public through the Ryerson Library Special Collections starting December 11.
These zines were (and are) more than just captures of House clubs and punk spaces. They’re monumental documents of counterculture communities, which prioritise artist profiles (like Andy Warhol’s Interview) and value the realism of emerging talent over whitewashed social capital. “These magazines fostered networks that were vitally important for rising artists at the time,” shares co-curator Michal Raz-Russo. “By underscoring a collaborative approach, they were among the most innovative and groundbreaking spaces for discussions about art, culture and politics.”
For Michal and co-curator Solveig Nelson, this compilation of US and UK zines comes out of years of research. “[Subscribe] is a result of our long-term investment… in the capacity of fashion stories to produce alternative histories,” says Michal of the premise behind the exhibition. Because while mainstream publications stole the curves and colour from their fashion subjects, publications featured in Subscribe were determined to tell the stories of their communities. Michal shares that the alternative magazines on display are case studies from the 70s, 80s and 90s. They record what we now deem period popular culture but, at the time, their purpose was to create space for the identity politics and artist experimentation left out of more well-known glossies.
Consequently, these zines are textbooks for queer and Black culture, unafraid of corporate politesse or persistent bigotry. “No mainstream publication could ignore Black, queer or women’s issues, but the alternative press was built on them,” shares historian and zine collector Vince Aletti, who also contributed to the collection on display at the Art Institute. “Their voices generated much of the fervour and fury of the time.” And that fervour went on to revolutionise print media.
But what exactly constitutes a zine of this archival caliber? It’s not just bold graphics, cartoon-esque collages and punchy headlines. There’s both an in-depth history and a web of names that contribute to the Art Institute’s collection. These zines covered the likes of the drag festival Wigstock and Joan Jett Black’s run for president in ‘92 — the roster of creative minds and subject matter is certainly complex and diverse. “The post-Civil Rights counterculture of the 1970s and 80s was confrontational and articulate,” Vince shares of how these zines challenged the status quo, “and the relatively low cost of putting out magazines on newsprint encouraged a let’s-put-on-a-show spirit”.
At the centre of this spirit was (and is) artist Vaginal Davis, the doyenne of Queercore: the mid-80s punk genre and movement that revelled in rejection of the heteronormative. When asked about the impact of alt zines, she need only open her mouth to paint a beautiful picture of the essence of fringe content (titles she casually mentions include “my mentor Uncle Trash,” “the Magazine for Licking and Sucking Bigger and Better Feet” and “Culture vultures of danger capitalism”). Vaginal Davis created a movement that spotlighted “The Black and femme of colour point of view” with a collaborative approach that is perhaps most fundamental to the alternative zine zeitgeist — and echoed by many other creatives of the time.
For Vue’s graphic designer Yolanda Cuomo, working within the world of alt-magazines was “an emotional, expressive think tank… a visual piazza where photographers, writers and artists would stop by to discuss, to make and break and remake”. She says Vue’s creation was less of a publication and more of an “offering [of] freedom and pages to experiment. And in the case of Chicago-based Thing — the zine dedicated to Black queer life published out of founder Robert Ford’s apartment — collaboration came in the form of brainstorms amongst Robert and his co-founders Trenton Adkins and Lawrence (Larry) Warren at local queer hangouts like Wholesome Roc gallery. The gallery, started by partners Simone Bouyer and Stephanie Coleman, was a hub intentionally built for making ideas accessible; and it would become a space for brainstorming Thing issues — with Simone as graphic designer and Stephanie as accountant. Alongside this clan was Ken Hare, who describes his role as “purely I&G: Inspiration and Guidance.” These were the names and influences of an 80s Chicago subculture, what Ken calls the “Black gay underground.” For the hairdresser, who also appeared on multiple covers of Thing magazine, this zine “cemented stories that Black people [had] always [been] telling each other in print — we were crafting the world we wanted to live in”.
Because this world didn’t prioritise ad space or click bait data, the brains behind zine content held “editorial autonomy”, according to former i-D photographer Jason Evans (known under the pseudonym Travis). For Jason, this was photography that packaged the gravity of identity politics within a medium easily absorbed by the masses: fashion. He is best known for his 1991 work “Strictly”, a series that, in its simplicity (portraits of suburban Black men dressed in the likes of Chanel), was entirely subversive at the time. “These magazines were a trojan horse [for] alternative ideas,” Jason says of how he and other contributors intended to communicate via photography, “[and] everything was inherently political.”
Felix Petty, i-D’s Executive Editor, discusses 80s issues defined by “punks and new romantics, Boy George and Leigh Bowery,” a 1992 issue dedicated to the AIDS crisis and, today, issues that build upon the “curiosity and openness” that originated from the alternative zine. For us, “the newsstand is infinite now, [with] images containing progressive ideas that germinate much wider and find more interesting places to blossom.”
Other creatives are now embracing a sort of tactile nostalgia that centres zines. We’re seeing modern versions of Thing and Out/Look in publications like WMN (a contemporary poetry zine “For all the Dykes”) and Citizen (a “collective portfolio documenting Black nuance), which build on the anti-hierarchical, experimental magazine concepts that encourage photographers to write or writers to design. In an age where abolition has made its way into the mainstream and our aunts understand that gender is a construct, a revived commitment to print is unsurprising. “It’s an understanding that print’s permanence eschews the self-vaporising immediacy of online communications,” shares collector and exhibition contributor Paul Gorman. “It’s an act of rejection of the glibness of expression in the digital age.”
The Art Institute’s print exhibit is incredibly poignant at a time where our modes of protesting and idea-sharing have been relegated to phone screens. The exhibit demonstrates the power of print and, perhaps, will remind viewers of the progression that stems from in-person organising.