WHEN IT DIES?
Whenever I come across a new indie or underground publication, I immediately feel ten times cooler than I actually am. Reading, let alone making, an underground publication (or at least one that feels like it) is a narcissistic, elitist experience. When I read a good zine, I snort in contempt at the mainstream. When I read a good zine, I believe for a slight second that I am so much more of a badass than I truly am. My indie preference is not just about boosting my ego. These experiences have shaped my personality, my aesthetic taste, my cultural identity, and my creative process as a designer.
It was in 2002 when I first read BUTT, an “International Faggot Magazine For Interesting Homosexuals And The Men Who Love Them,” as it said on its pink cover. It was in one of the “Cinema Paradildo” meetings, Tel-Aviv's queer-culture nights. I knew it was fresh, sexy and exciting. I definitely wasn't as talented or sexy as these guys in BUTT, but in my early twenties I identified with them more than with any other image of a gay man that mainstream media offered. The contributors – artists such as Terry Richardson, Wolfgang Tillmans, Terance Koh, Juergen Teller, Helmut Lang and A.A Bronson – were smart, fun, creative, and unapologetic. They couldn't be farther away from any Will and Grace actor or Dawson's Creek's Jack McPhee. You could not be in the closet and hold its pink pages in public. BUTT offered interviews, photographs, articles and stories about, for and by gay men. The editorial voice was ironic and honest. The layout design, as well as the black print on pink paper, was simple enough to feel sophisticated and considered, but effortless at the same time. The typography – exposed grid, bold and long titles, slab-serif body copy – were innovative but simple, classic and filthy. More than anything it was a well-edited and a well-designed magazine, created by some very talented men.
BUTT presented me with a new image of the gay man: one that does not want to assimilate, does not want to adopt babies and hates gay marriage. Not because he is homophobic, god forbid, but because he hates institutions. The models in BUTT celebrated their sexuality no matter how effeminate, fat or hairy they were. The nude pictures offered a different object of desire. For me, it was a very liberating and empowering experience, contrary to the depressing mainstream gay scene that was ruled by the muscular and the shaved. BUTT filled a hole in the gay scene simply by not offering only one proper way of being a homosexual man. In seven years of activity, BUTT brought together the non-conformists, fetishists and freaks, and helped blur the lines between sex, porn, art and lifestyle. These pink pages made me believe in myself. Being an avid reader of BUTT, or a “Butthead,” gave me the strength I needed to pursue my creative passions, and to find my own creative voice.
BUTT was definitely off-mainstream, but not an underground publication. Jop Van Bennekom and Gert Jonkers, the founders, were professional editors and designers. They started small, but published and distributed the magazine professionally. At its highest point, BUTT’s circulation was 24,000 copies. The magazine was sold in American Apparel branches around the world. BUTT wasn't underground, but it shared many of the underground characteristics.
In his article The Underground Mainstream, Steven Heller describes the relationship between underground and mainstream as “theft of intellectual property.” He argues that the only way for mainstream to be lively is by stealing from the underground. Unlike Heller, I believe that this is the beauty, the dynamics, and organic nature of the evolvement of culture. Heller is mourning the loss of the Avant-Garde, but what is a contemporary Avant-Garde anyway? Culture is a living thing. It grows, travels and matures. What was once underground will make its way into the mainstream. It will continue to grow there, or die, or reincarnate back in the underground decades later. We cannot follow today such modernist ideas as the Communist Internationale's “Of the past let us make a clean slate.” This relationship is a two-way economy. Appropriating content in the mainstream is not theft, but part of symbiotic relationship where these parallel, or intersecting, worlds are feeding off each other.
Since the days of the Impressionist’s Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Refused), the cultural underground was the most fertile ground for new ideas, techniques and styles to grow. Far from the scrutinizing eye of PR people, and free from the need to be commercial or popular, the underground allowed more room to experiment and more time to think without filling sales reports. As in academic discussions or laboratory conditions, it allows new ideas to be conceived and new images to be shown. As professional designers and creative people in general, we can learn from underground and indie publications practices and methods and use them to create more thoughtful, interesting and innovative work.
The history of fanzines and self-publishing extends all the way back to the “indie” publications of the French Revolution. The zines of the era meant to communicate the new liberal ideology of the French Revolution under the radar of the monarchy. Over time, indie publications were influenced by art movements such as Dada and Fluxus and by the political and counter-culture ideas and activities of the Sixties, such as Situationism, Existentialism, and the 1969 students' uprising in Paris. Only in the twentieth-century do we begin to recognize the form and the visual language of what we today know as zines.
The hand-made graphic language of cut-and-paste and hand-rendered type started to take shape in the music-themed fanzines of the 1960s, as a visual representation of Rock music. This graphic style represented the personal, individual tone of Rock music and its induand electronic sound. This style reached its peak in the mid-seventies with punk culture. Punk's “Do It Yourself” attitude and resistance to authority are clearly visualized in the style of the zines ―small, stapled, pocket-size, grid-breaking page layouts, and ransom-note-like typography. The limited means of production helped create a recognizable visual language but, at the same time, helped each zine to maintain an individual approach and voice. These means of production have also helped shaping an organic, more fluid, design process. In such an environment, where decisions are often made in debates of non-hierarchical groups, everything is always open for change. The idea of a cohesive brand is neglected in favor of continuous iteration, evolvement and discussion. The first spread does not have to look like the last one, and the second issue of a publication does not have to look like the first one.
Content-wise, indie publications played an important role in the evolution of many marginal groups as a tool to formulate political identity. In the late 1980's new fields of study―such as queer theory, women’s studies, and post-colonialism―emerged. Alongside the identity politics' discourse, Queer zines or Fagzines and Riot Grrrls zines became a “safe space” for new ideas to be discussed and different voices to be heard. The zines became a space of cultural “resistance.” These zines were published independently in small circulations without the need for middlemen and free from censorship. They became a free, or a very affordable, accessible area in which people could share and develop ideas free from commercial considerations, and to build communities.
Creating, or contribute, to an indie publication must be a labor of love (because you won't see money out of it.) The level of commitment and enthusiasm greatly influenced the dialogue in fields such as punk, comics, DIY and radical politics.
In the introduction to BUTT Book (a compilation of the first seventeen issues, celebrating its five-year anniversary), Bruce Labruce, the Canadian filmmaker and one of BUTT's contributors, writes “[BUTT was]...creating a network of homos who might never have otherwise connected. It's not a gay mafia, exactly, because mafias are bad and boring. More like a gay trade union, in which everyone has really paid their dues.” The nature of the collaborative work on a zine, the level of commitment, and the exchange of ideas create a dialogue between the contributors and themselves and between the contributors and the readers. Over time, the ideas and the special dynamics of the group start to develop. The zine itself is the documentation of these dynamics, of a debate. This is a non-hierarchal system, unlike the authoritarian voice of mainstream publication. There is no Anna Wintour to tell you what or what not to wear. In that sense, the ability of an indie publication to make the reader feel like it was costume made to size, to fit the exact his or her needs and interests, is one of its greatest strengths. Being part of a community, even a virtual one, is an empowering experience.
Today one can find any bit of information without leaving home. There is no much reason to go underground, unless you are working with the Feds. In our era of transparency and free information, the Internet has actually become the main tool for many “underground” artists, publishers and political activists to promote their work without a middleman and to reach a large number of readers. The Internet is the most effective way to distribute and communicate ideas―from live updates from the uprisings in the Arab world to a new indie band’s album release. As such, the Internet is also the ultimate tool to build a community, to reach a large number of fans, and to explore the most arcane subjects.
The origin for the use of the word underground refers to the secrecy needed in different resistance movements under the most violent regimes of human history. In the decades since the term was first coined, the word underground has been overused and abused. Underground is underground, because it is far from the public eye. Frank Zappa said, “The mainstream comes to you, but you have to go to the underground.” When information is so accessible, the romantic myths surrounding the underground and indie publications are irrelevant. After stripping down the underground from its romantic myths and sexy scruffiness, and giving it a much-needed shower, all that is left is its core values. For me, these values are a source of inspiration. Taking from the underground does not necessarily mean robbing from it. I respect underground culture and have been greatly influenced by it since I was a teenager. As a designer, I still borrow these methods and values as tools for exploration and for development of different aesthetics, content and work processes.