Mapping the Social Lives of Zines: Situated Media networks from 1985-1995

Recent articles in mainstream media publications ranging from the New York Times and BusinessWeek to the Village Voice and Wired have all featured the recent resurgence of DIY interest, paying particular attention to the political motivations of DIY practicioners.1  At the same time, the proliferation of zine libraries and archives, particularly in urban centers, have indicated a conspicuous revival of DIY values and rhetoric that extends beyond mere nostalgia.

Considering the popular interest in the subject, it is surprising  that critical scholarship examining the social role of zines in DIY communities remains relatively scant.  Even more surprisingly, case studies that clearly illustrate the successes and failures of past self-publishing initiatives that aim to incite broader cultural or political action remain virtually non-existent.

Topic Discussion
Drawing together archival research from libraries, archives, online resources, and distribution hubs, this research project aims to map the material and social lives of zines.

The objective is to both physically and theoretically map the trajectories of self-publishing channels/networks through a ten-year period, 1985 – 1995, during the heyday of zine culture in the US. The premise is that mapping the social dimensions of zine exchange — the ways in which zines were produced, appropriated, and consumed throughout their histories by different individuals, at different times — will provide valuable insights into how sub-cultural communities were formed and social ties maintained during this period. Moreover, I am interested in exploring if and how the geographic circulation routes of zines were a factor influencing political moments and alliances between movement organizations.

I chose this date range for several reasons; firstly, it represents a particularly rich era in social and political action, associated with the rise of third wave feminism, queer politics, and the formation of influential, local direct action advocacy groups such as ACT UP. Secondly, it represents a critical turning point in media studies, where the mass popularization of the Internet coincided with the rapid spread of DIY culture and zines.  The project is intended not only to map geographic shifts in media during this period, but also to map formal shifts, from tactile artifacts to digital media forms.  The hope is that the data will reveal trends and patterns that describe how older self-publishing zine networks laid the foundations for newer media networks attendant to the rise of the social internet.

The core methodology will seek to bridge key concepts in social movement theory, urban geography, and media archaeology.  Some of the questions to consider might include: Did the proliferation of small presses in NYC during the 90s coincide with a concurrent rise of independently run distribution centers?  How did these structures emerge from or, in turn help shape local queer, feminist, or activist social movements during this time?  How did the everyday spatial routines in specific production or distribution locales (distros) influence local alliance patterns or movement strategies?

The initial research phase will involve extracting data from a series of primary and secondary source collections (both online and offline). Map points will be plotted on multiple layers of mediation that can then be overlaid and/or filtered by the user:

Sites of zines production, distribution, circulation, and consumption
–        production hubs (workshops)
–        distributions centers, or “distros”: retail venues, and cultural spaces
–        libraries and archives

Sites of grassroots political action
–        Feminist venues and cultural spaces
–        Academic Centers
–        Performing and Visual arts venues
–        Queer spaces
–        Global justice centers

Information about the sites of zine exchange will be gathered in close consultation with zine publishers, distributors, librarians, and archivists. Extensive (if not comprehensive) resources are available online and at the many zine libraries and archives in NYC (see bibliography for a partial list).  Information about the sites of grassroots political action will require additional research and exploration.

Relevant archival media – scans of original zines, photos or recordings of political/cultural/social activities — will be accessible from each map point.  Emphasis will be placed on zines and other archival media that address local or grassroots political action or cultural exchange, and may therefore be situated geographically within the city limits. If time permits, I may also consider conducting video/audio interviews with community members for additional primary source documentation.

Ultimately, content should be able to be cross-referenced and annotated among a wide community of self-identified community participants and researchers. Content will be reviewed for accuracy and relevance prior to posting.

The interactive map form and functions will be designed to A) clearly illustrate networks of zine distribution, circulation, and consumption and B) provide multiple modes of entry through a series of categories and filters.  The interface should also allow users to contribute audio, video, text and photographic documentation to the database.

Project Scope, Challenges and Potential Areas for Expansion
I am aware that this project proposal in its current form may be too ambitious for the time allotted; however, due to the ephemeral nature of the source material, additional research will be required to narrow scope.

The opportunity to map these findings against broader social and cultural movements would significantly expand the scope and historicity of the research. Depending on my classmates’ research interests, I anticipate several areas of potential convergence and overlap. Shared topical interests might include print-based media networks, sites of social movements, the history of media networks in NYC, alternative media and grassroots politics.