ABOVE: My life with dogs (2017), Photograph courtesy Claire Krueger.
︎ Anna Blake
The Radical Self-Reliance of Zines
As museums and galleries remain closed in Kentucky and the rest of the country and we are left without physical art encounters, feelings of detachment can be hard to fend off. Personally, I’ve turned to my collection of zines that is quickly growing beyond its shoebox home. These small, handheld galleries have kept me connected to the art and the people that I care about. Cheap or even free, the independently published book objects follow in the tradition of the anarchist punk zines of the 1970s (though some have argued they go as far back as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense) as an alternative press that rejects the red tape that surrounds commercial publishing. Zines have always been made in the spirit of self-reliance, but as the world’s consumer industries shut down, they feel particularly relevant. As the dominant capitalist culture urges us to return to “normal,” the pedagogy of self-reliance that zines demonstrate cannot be disregarded as we push for a radical, progressive future.
Several weeks ago, an article appeared on Medium titled Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting by Julio Vincent Gambuto, a writer and director based in New York City and Los Angeles. Gambuto predicted that as states begin to re-open, the dominant capitalist culture will try its best to make us think that we should go back to normal: the type of “normal” that funnels wealth into the top one percent, that exploits natural resources, and that runs on the exploited labor of the bottom percentiles. The onslaught of commercials have already started—companies trying to remind us that we can still consume, that all of our problems will be solved by their products that will now be conveniently delivered with no contact. Despite all of this, it seems that many of us are taking comfort in being self-reliant. Gardening and bread-baking have taken over the lives of those of us fortunate enough to have a home to quarantine in. These trends point to a different yearning: not of being dependent on capitalism, but on ourselves.
Cue the zine. Zines challenge what bell hooks calls “dominator culture”—a mindset that includes the assumption that all of our problems will be solved by a product that we can buy. Instead, zines remind us that we can craft our own lives as alternatives to the profoundly cynical dominator culture that tries to tell us otherwise. Zines offer us a framework for a radical alternative in which we rely on ourselves and each other, instead of a corporation.
Louisville-based artist and educator Claire Krueger creates zines that are whimsical, humorous, and often deeply personal. In defiance with capitalist standards, they don’t appeal to marketing groups but instead emphasize the individual maker and reader. The zine is uniquely positioned to embody these values. In Krueger’s own words: “They are easy to make/understand, easy to trade, cheap to make (or if you want to make it slick, there are a lot of options for sprucing things up), and they breed connection over ideas and passions… Zines are also a great place to experiment with ideas—they are low-pressure enough that it doesn’t hurt to try and fail or follow a tangent somewhere new.” As we move forward in the aftermath of what some are calling “The Great Pause,” the radical pedagogy of self-reliance that zines provide will become increasingly vital. In an attempt to catch up in work, we may feel the need to over-compensate for the time spent idle. At its core, the zine reminds us that our worth is not tied to our productivity and that just being is enough.
Krueger’s zines like My life with dogs (2017) and Now ‘N Then (2014) speak to the importance of the individual that is underscored in the practice of self-reliance. In My life with dogs, Krueger muses about the dogs she’s had in a style reminiscent of children’s picture books. Now ‘N Then represents a nostalgic yearning for a space lost in time. Key West, Florida is imbued with a sense of timelessness in Krueger’s photographs of the built environment and illustrations of memories. These zines, while specific to Krueger’s personal experiences, trigger memories in us, the readers, and grant us permission to exist not as profit-making workers but as individuals, valid in our existence as nothing more.
In a conversation I had with Emily Prentice, an artist based in Appalachia and the editor of the zine SEA LION, I asked why zines matter to her. Her answer reflected similar sentiments: “They are accessible and experimental: it’s easy to share art this way! It’s easy to be an artist this way! The art world has a lot of work to do in terms of removing barriers to access. Zines break down many of them; they give permission for folks to create something and say what they need to say. Zines matter because they give anyone who wants on a platform and a voice. It’s something no mainstream media or algorithm has ever done for us.”
Prentice’s essay at the beginning of SEA LION 1.10 sends a message that no mainstream source has and that resonates deeply during the COVID-19 pandemic: “it’s okay to feel this way. it’s okay to pause & go outside.” The zine, filled with illustrations, haikus, essays on activism, and guides on making your own art, reflects the essence of radical self-reliance. Not only is its content unfiltered, but it encourages us to create our own culture and to advocate for a future that we want to see.
Indeed, in the post-pandemic era, our society will see long-lasting change. Let the change be progressive, moving forward, not backward. Let us live more connected than ever to our inherent humanity, as individuals worth celebrating. Let us take back control in our daily consumption as we become radically self-reliant and let us use zines as the model for which to do so. In this once-in-a-lifetime chance to re-evaluate the structures in which communities are built upon, the pedagogy of self-reliance from zines can facilitate the interdependence among individuals rather than capitalist structures.
Zines by Claire Krueger can be found here.
Zines by Emily Prentice can be found here. SEA LION 2.4 is available digitally here.
- hooks, bell.
Contributor to Ruckus
Personal collection of the author.
Now ‘N Then (2014), Photograph courtesy Claire Krueger.
Page from SEA LION 2.4, Courtesy Emily Prentice.