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Quentin Batalillon

General News 2024

A SCHOLARLY LOOK AT ZINE CULTURE’S IMPACT ON SKATEBOARDING


Before there were committed skate nerds with YouTube channels and shit talking forums, skateboarding relied on print media to document and distribute the good, bad and the ugly. And if you didn’t have $30,000 to start your own magazine, your best bet was to hit your local library and create your own fan-made magazine, commonly referred to as zines.

Zines serve a diverse set of purposes, ranging from an easy, cheap way to yell into the void to documenting history, critiquing culture, and disseminating anything from scribbles to world class art. They are an important part of skateboarding, and because of legendary skaters like Mark Gonzales, Ed Templeton and Todd Swank making zines, they have a cult following to some degree.

Copy Machine Manifesto’s: Artists Who Make Zines brought zines back to the forefront of the conversation with a gallery exhibit highlighting their enduring importance. Organized by Branden W. Joseph, Columbia University professor, and Drew Sawyer, photography curator at the Whitney Museum, the exhibit discusses subcultures like punk, queercore, graffiti and skateboarding.

Intrigued by the section highlighting skate zines, I tracked down the two scholarly organizers to pick their brains about street culture, the intersection of skateboarding and fine art, and their thoughts on the future of print. I hope you enjoy reading along as I try to keep up in conversation with a professor double my age and a heavily seasoned New York art curator.

Oh yeah, almost forgot. Catch the exhibit currently showing at the Vancouver Art Gallery, it’s well worth it.

There’s this idea in skateboarding that some people subscribe to, the idea that all skateboarders are artists just by skateboarding. This makes me wonder, are all zine makers artists?
Branden (B): That was one of the questions we had at the beginning, like “Ok, we’re going to do artists that make zines, but is everybody who makes a zine an artist?” Maybe, but I would argue not necessarily. I would argue that some people who make zines think of themselves as journalists and that’s why they make them, like a classic punk zine where they report on the scene. But of course there is something inherently artistic about zines. I think that question of what is art and what isn’t, what was valorized as art and what wasn’t, is something that runs throughout the entire exhibition.

“The question of what is art and what isn’t is something that runs throughout the entire exhibition.”

Drew (D): We wanted to hint at the fringes of what is considered art. Some artists included could be identified as performers, people like drag performer Linda Simpson, but we wanted to not make clear distinctions. However, we knew we had to limit ourselves in some way. We couldn’t include every single skateboarder, so you have to select individuals that stand in for much larger practices and movements. Mark (Gonzales) was one way we could do that, markedly because of his intersection with Alleged Gallery, Susan Cianciolo, and Aaron Rose, the founder of Alleged. And during that time Mark collaborated with other figures involved with skateboarding, filmmaking, photography, graffiti, etc.

Alleged Gallery NYC

Regarding things like graffiti and street culture, do you think there’s an aspect of illegality that makes them “cool” or attractive to the art world?
D: I’m not sure about the illegality, but of course artist curators and critics are always looking at expanding the boundaries of what art is. In those moments in the early 00s and late 90s, graffiti and skate culture really allowed some people to bring in subcultural creative energy that was happening outside of creative institutions both to expand it and change it.

B: Zines, in a way, are public, but they’re not as public as a magazine. They aren’t for everybody. They circulate amongst subcultures or small groups, so there’s something secretive about them sometimes. Whether that itself borders on illegality, that’s something that associates zines with say graffiti or skate culture. You have to do these things in places and moments where the rules are not being enforced or the law isn’t looking at you. Around graffiti culture, we included IGTimes by photographer David Schmidlapp and graffiti writer Phase2 as an earlier example of graffiti zines. What’s interesting about that particular zine, in part, is that it was made to fold out as a full color poster, so in other words the form made a claim that graffiti is art. It’s not a crime, like the old “Skateboarding is not a crime” sticker.

“Zines, in a way, are public, but they’re not as public as a magazine. They circulate amongst subcultures or small groups, so there’s something secretive about them sometimes.”

There is definitely, in the zine practice, an attempt at legitimation, to say, “Hey, this is not crime, this is culture.” That’s sort of the intermediary step before something gets picked up in the art world at large. Alleged had a certain energy that was bubbling up from people engaged in street culture, but that was not the official art world at that point. It engaged with it, and there are interesting overlaps, one of them being Mark Gonzales. Mark was doing some zines with Alleged, but he was also doing zines with Andrea Rosen Gallery, which became a quite well known gallery. There’s a lot of back and forth being forged, but it’s often being forged by the protagonist themselves. It’s not that there’s this wild culture and then a gallerist comes in and poaches it. It’s actually going back and forth in all sorts of different manors by the people involved in the culture themselves.

IGTimes by David Schmidlapp and Phase2

Once cultures and activities get picked up by a legitimate art gallery, can they still be considered a subculture or does the popularity kill the subculture?
B: The exhibition charts how subcultures themselves transform and change. If we take one of the main subcultures we dealt with, punk, you can see how punk will change over the course of time. We document earlier punk and how diverse that was. We document contemporary punk in Los Angeles and how diverse it is, with groups like Nervous Gender. The show documents punk as hardcore, then queercore and then Riot Grrrl and various strains of POC punk. We show that transformation.

“Zines are often oppositional. They are engines of discontent.”

Also, one of the things we found is that zines are often oppositional. They often are vectored against something that they don’t like. They are engines of discontent. Sometimes that’s mainstream culture, but often it’s aspects of the subculture it’s a part of. It’s like, “Oh, I joined this subculture because I wanted to be different from the mainstream and I encountered sexism or certain elements of racism so therefore I need to make my voice known.”

Within skateboarding, Ramdasha Bikceem and her zine Gunk, which starts right around the same time as Mark Gonzales zines, is a great example. She’s making her zine because she wants to be a black, female, punk skateboarder, and she doesn’t find that Thrasher has a space for her. She actually wrote a letter to Thrasher that gets published where she calls them out, and she makes her own zine that we featured in the exhibition that makes a space for her and puts her voice out there. There she’s pushing against the limitation she sees in the subculture, which is an important aspect of zines.

After walking the show, I had this feeling that skateboarding doesn’t hold the same weight as some other subcultures discussed. It made skateboarding seem small considering the weight of some of the other zine topics. I’m wondering if skateboarding will be remembered in the same light as some of the other cultures you’ve included in the show?
D: One of the micro arguments that we make in the show is the importance of skate zines to the more widely made photo zine format. Early 80s skate zines and their documentation of specific skaters and various tricks are all predominately photographs. Todd Swank and his Swank Zines are a perfect example of this. Now, if you go to the Printed Matter Book Fair, you’d see hundreds if not thousands of photo zines. We made that connection of skate zines to someone like Ari Marcopoulos in the early 90s. That can then be connected to someone like Ryan McGinley who started making photo zines in the late 90s as a way to distribute his photographs. That was then how he got his solo show at the Whitney (Museum) in the early 00s, and he’s the youngest person to have a solo show at that museum. There’s different ways in which zines and subcultures have impacted broader zine making practices, and those are the various genealogies that we tried to hint at through the show. That’s one way you could show the impact of skateboarding subculture.

“One of the things that was particularly important for skate culture was that it brought the metal kids, punk kids, and hip hop kids all together.”

B: One of the things that skate culture does, and I’m going to shout out Geng PTP aka King Vision Ultra who made this point, is it brings different types of people together. It brought the metal kids, punk kids, and hip hop kids all together. It allowed people to understand, receive, and come to appreciate different types of music. In the larger way of thinking, culture, and politics, it’s very important to consider the culture part, like what happens that creates communities. Then, when those communities become activated or encounter the law, those moments of preparation and world building and identity formation are key, and can really transform someone’s way within the world that leads to political engagement.

Swank Zine by Todd Swank

How difficult was it to get a collection of zines by Mark Gonzales?
B: In general, his zines are pretty difficult to come by. They were often done in very small runs, and sometimes runs that he didn’t even keep a number on. He followed the ethos of zine culture, and he often sold them for very very little or gave them away. It’s not like Mark had a collection of his own zines that we could go to and look at, so being able to see so many in the exhibition at one time was pretty special.

D: Out of the roughly 1,400 objects in the show, Mark Gonzales’s ended up being about 20%. Phil and Shelly have a lot of his zines, but there were so many stories we wanted to tell and expand out. The skateboarding part Phil has pretty deep holdings, not just of Mark but of other early 1980s skate zines as well.

Pages from Non Stop Poetry: The Zines of Mark Gonzales

What would you say to people that try to invalidate Gonz’s art on claims that it is unsophisticated or childlike?
B: I mean, his art is ‘willfully’ childlike, but you can also see sophistication. In the catalog, there’s Gonz’ writings that have to do with race and discrimination against being Mexican American. Drew selected this spread in which he takes on the voice of this sort of right wing, white supremacist, saying, “Go back to Mexico…” and Mark Gonzales is half Mexican half Irish, so there’s that. I think there’s a subtlety in his playful work that comes through particularly in his zines because you can get the sequences of images, one after the other. There’s also a lot of playful humor, and he certainly wouldn’t be the only artist to adopt those characteristics in his work.

I said from the beginning that because Gonz had made so many zines he sort of became this central figure that we thought of for the show, but with all the central figures we went back through and really judged whether we wanted them in or not, and I definitely came to more of an appreciation while having the opportunity to go through many of his zines, whether in the catalog of Nonstop Poetry or the actual works themselves and seeing what he did artistically.

We talk about this a lot at Jenkem, and I feel you’re the perfect people to ask this question. Is print dead?
B: Zines are not wild culture, they’ve been written about in academia since the 90s, and writers like Alison Piepmeier have talked about this. If she introduces her students to zines by passing them around and having them read them, they become zine makers. If she has them read articles on zines or has them read reprints, they don’t. There’s something about the physical intimacy, the tactility of it, the way that zines seem to go from the artist directly to you even though there’s the copier right in between there, which is a bit of a paradox, but it creates a sort of affective response. It creates a feeling that one has with it. That’s something that is true and palpable.

Drew’s curated much more than I have, but I’ve curated a couple other projects, and I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a subject where people’s feelings about the material being shown were as alive as they were for zines. People really felt passionate and caring about these physical objects that they were lending or showing or seeing for the first time. We got good reviews across the board, but also if you look around and see the responses of younger people on Instagram to the show, they are like “It was so amazing to see these things,” and they are inspired even though the zines are under plexiglass. I think that’s why people take their time to make them. It’s not like going to the university bookstore for your course books.