Copy Machine Manifestos at the Vancouver Art Gallery

By Ogheneofegor Obuwoma

Originally organized by the Brooklyn Museum, Copy Machine Manifestos: Artists Who Make Zines is overwhelming in its sheer volume and depth, choosing to fluidly define the zine by connecting it to art in ways that are exciting and sometimes unexpected. Taking up the entire third floor of the Vancouver Art Gallery with archival material and installations, it is an exhibition that necessitates multiple viewings to fully absorb. After my first visit (with another one planned), I am most excited to talk about how it unfolds in a space like the VAG.

Bud Lee, AA Bronson, John Jack Baylin, John Dowd, Felix Partz and Zeke Smolinsky during Decca-Dance, 1974, colour transparency, from the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia, Morris/Trasov Archive (© Bud Lee Picture Maker Inc.)

Viewers are welcomed in the first room with familiar West Coast names. The work of artists like Anna Banana, Kate Craig, and the Bay Area Dadaist introduces us to the correspondence scene of the 1960s to the 1980s, and the outcast narrative that led to the unconventional levity-filled and beloved artworks of the period. To experience this room is to realize the expansive nature of zines across the roughly ninety years of their recognized existence, and the rebellious subcultures that define the genre. This contextualization of zine culture within a local scene sets up the rest of the show as it tackles works by artists from the North American metropolitan art havens where these subcultures often emerged.

Robert Ford with Trent Adkins and Lawrence Warren, Thing, no. 4, Spring 1991, offset zine, from the collection of Steve Lafreniere (courtesy: Arthur Fournier, photo: Evan McKnight, Brooklyn Museum)

Zines (also known as fanzines or fan-made magazines) have tackled issues of identity, sexuality, and rebellion against the oppressive nature of our milieu in myriad ways. The mediums on display include the popular folded-paper zines and magazine-style publications, but there are also surprising additions from music, photography, painting, performance, sculpture, film, and textiles. Copy Machine Manifestos concerns itself not only with the printed medium, but also with how it informs the larger practice of artists that emerge from these scenes. What is lovely to see is how artists who start with zines go on to be influenced by the medium over a lifetime or in ongoing ways in their practice.

G.B. Jones and Bruce LaBruce, series editors, J.D.s, no. 8, 1991 (issue no. 8 editor, LaBruce), published by The New Lavender Panthers, cover photograph of G.B. Jones (left) and Bruce LaBruce (right) by Jena von Brücker, photocopy, saddle stitched zine, from the collection of Philip Aarons and Shelley Fox Aarons (photo: David Vu)

Among the many fascinating rooms and spaces in this exhibition, those that stuck with me traced the evolution of zines in exciting ways. One featured the works of queer and feminist underground subcultures between 1987 and 2000, with movements like Riot Grrrl and publications like Thing Magazine, a zine that was published from 1989 to 1993 and dealt with Black LGBTQIA+  issues relevant to the time. In the next room, The Punk Explosion, dated 1975 to 1990, highlights the connections between zines and music scenes. The immense popularity of these fan-produced publications was a rebellion against traditional and institutional printing presses, and began to take shape into the easily-made medium we have today.

LTTR (Ginger Brooks Takahashi, K8 Hardy, Every Ocean Hughes and Ulrike Müller), LTTR, no. 2, Listen Translate Translate Record, August 2003, offset zine (with booklet, screenprinted band, altered tampon and compact disc), from the collection of Philip Aarons and Shelley Fox Aarons (photo: David Vu)

Titled after a term coined by art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson, the Critical Promiscuity section, dating from 2000 to 2020, highlights the efforts of Queer artists to bring zines into the world of artmaking. These works take up a small section in the back and showcase publications like LTTR, a feminist genderqueer art collective founded in 2001 that published art journals dealing with the critical artworks of radical communities. The works in the last few spaces, from 2010 to the present, tackle more recent takes on zines and their intersection with contemporary artists and art collectives. This section highlights the zine’s contributions as a political tool in disseminating information and raising awareness on various personal and collective issues. Art collective RRD, featured in this section, is interested in alternative forms of disseminating information. Their projects Copycat (2019-2022) and RedEx (2020) highlight the possibilities of alternative publication and artmaking in upholding a space of connection for communities isolated during pandemic lockdowns. At the end of the exhibition is a reading room. This highlight of the exhibition features zines by local artists and a wall covered by the work of local artist and zine maker Marlene Yuen.

Copy Machine Manifestos is an ode to resistance and rebellion as a practice, something intertwined within the work of artists in the ways they tackle a world that is often and continuously harder to live in. It is a manifesto, a declaration that we must live in better worlds. The categories used in the exhibition to define the history of zines frame what are, in essence, movements towards community building invested in a collective call for larger-scale resistance to capitalism and a rejection of the attitudes expected of bodies within it. Zines, often a low-cost and slowly disseminated medium, inherently advocate for this thinking. By the very nature of their creation, zines are already on the outskirts of respectable art making. The presence of this traveling exhibition in a gallery like the VAG alludes to the success of zine-making artists in firmly asserting the role of accessible mediums and rebellion as intrinsic to the world of art and the work of an artist.

Copy Machine Manifestos: Artists Who Make Zines continues until September 22.
Vancouver Art Gallery: https://www.vanartgallery.bc.ca/
The gallery is accessible.

Ogheneofegor Obuwoma is a Nigerian filmmaker, storyteller, and artist with a BFA in film and communications from Simon Fraser University. Her work explores “the personal” in relationship to her larger community and the cultural experience of being Nigerian. She is interested in African futurism and the ways we access the spirit.