The zine concept was popularised in the 1930s by science fiction fandoms. The name was taken from fanzine, which is short for fan magazine. Making and distributing zines allowed people to create networks, collaborating on writing and artworks around similar passions. Since then, zines have spread to cover nearly every topic, and remain a form of alternative, underground publishing.
Originally a passion project, it makes perfect sense that the zine would expand to cover topics related to activism and social change. Engaging those eager about changing the world, zines can materialise voices and hopes.
What makes zines so exciting is their endless potential. They are not limited by form, texture, style, or method. A zine can be a collection of music notes, revolutionary recipes, or photos of the mundane.
A zine tends to be different from other publications like magazines or newspapers, as they are not widely circulated. Zines are often not for profit or sold as limited. This means that they frequently cover a very specific or current theme, which fits into their emphasis on drawing attention to a problem that creators hope can be solved.
For example, Refugium is a zine documenting the different experiences of immigrants living in the USA. Self-published by Brazilian filmmaker and designer Ares Maia, she spoke to five people about their experiences, after asking people to share their stories on Instagram. Maia hoped to bring attention to attitudes that need to change, such as judging immigrants based on names, issues of low pay, and discrimination based on background. Rather than being voyeuristic and speaking for others’ experiences, the zine gave pen and paper to the individuals themselves.
Zines emphasise a DIY culture of making and distributing as a community experience. Zine-making is a great way to deconstruct what is accepted as normal, turning newspaper words or left-over magazine images into messages about discrimination towards LGBTQ+ groups or racist policies. This can help activism become a creative process. For example, craftivism (using practices of craft as activism) has become very popular and allows people with different interests and talents to participate in social movements.
Of course, there is always a risk of romanticising the ‘true potential’ of a zine, to glamorise the idea of something made by hand. In fact, zines that have blossomed digitally like Polyester zine interrogate the problems as well as the benefits attached to online space. The zine aims to “bridge the gap of URL cyberfeminism with the IRL world”. Publications like this can give opportunities to creatives who do a lot of their work online, such as graphic designers, photographers, and writers.
The practice of zine-making creates a supportive space, where critical discussion and subversive ideas can thrive. Ioana Simion, the founder of Artizine, hosts collaborative, non-hierarchical zine-making workshops which have continued online over lockdown. “I believe zines can showcase unheard voices and narratives which are in desperate need of attention but most of all care and nurture.” In her zine-making workshops, Ioana says that “we always explore and link our work to sustainability and the effort to reduce or repurpose materials.”
Ioana explains, “Zines are also incredibly accessible which makes them the perfect tool in activism – if anyone can make a zine then anyone can take part in changing and educating other people.” So, zines may be compact and infrequent, but their scope for social change is endless and far-reaching.
Have you seen our latest Assemblage zine? We worked collaboratively to produce a multidisciplinary zine on the theme of reconnection…You can check it out here:
The internet is a wondrous thing. When I’m writing an article and trying to steer clear of labelling something as ‘interesting’ – a term that teachers incessantly asked us to avoid – I may sift through the abundant world of the online thesaurus. I tend to struggle to find something appropriate for the sentiment I am aiming to express, because of all the choices available.
But on the other side of these digital choices and endless resources lies another issue: what are you really choosing from? In November, Google announced a ‘human-AI collaboration for writing poetry’ called Verse by Verse, which allows you to choose poet inspirations and make your own poem with a mixture of human input and artificial intelligence.
So I had a go at making my own Google poem. I was presented with twenty-two poets, three to choose as inspirations. Thirteen of these poets were white men (shock horror), eight of these were women and four of them were Black poets (one man and three women). I was asked to write my own title and first line, and given suggestions for further lines, style, and content. Putting aside the fact that it’s impossible to summarise a wealth of varied poets in twenty-two bite-size case studies, the race and gender breakdown is also an uncanny mirror to real-life hierarchies. A Creative Industries Federation report shows how much work the creative market needs to do to improve gendered and racialized discriminations.
However, another problem is precisely the inclusion of a tokenistic diversity where race and gender are made visible through AI technology. In this way, recognition becomes a tool for categorising groups according to identity. Researchers Clementine Collett and Sara Dillon put forward strategies for mediating AI discrimination with the University of Cambridge Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence. They articulate that the notion of classifying faces using AI technology reinforces socially constructed categories through repetitive processes, stating that “The concept of ‘classification’ and ‘recognition’ in general ought to be questioned as a legitimate and acceptable exercise.” In fact, a Harvard study emphasized that AI techniques employed by law enforcement for identifying potential ‘suspects’ echoed the techniques used historically to segregate and separate Black people from white people in the United States. Enforcing practices of recognition risks grouping identity with criminality.
I am a huge fan of digital landscapes as spaces for creativity and really dislike the rhetoric that implies technology is ‘killing creativity’. In fact, digital art can provide us with different modes of creativity, like graphic design or digital publication (or like me writing this article on Google Docs right now!). However, the specific insertion of AI technology into the production of poetry means that rather than the individual freely cutting up and piecing together digital space, the ‘answers’ are easily generated and ready. They don’t even really make any sense: I typed in ‘four corners’ and instantly was given some numerically themed lines based on my chosen poets – not exactly a liberal interpretation. Whilst the poem was fun to make and provided suggestions that sparked my imagination, the AI generator replaced a space for critical discussion and research with an existing world full of bias that you must mould yourself into.
Google is one of the giants that make up the term ‘Big Tech’, a phrase often repeated to the point of redundancy. Google owns and controls much of our digital creative and educational space, and it is really talented at distracting you from the bigger picture that it lives in. As journalist and theorist Rebecca Solnit writes in my well worn favourite essay of hers, ‘The Garden of Merging Paths’, Silicon Valley is a symbolic maze: “And the maze’s image is echoed in the circuit boards and silicon chips […] of centerless towns that melt into each other”, the landscape is “wholly interior” and works at “eliminating the world”. Verse by Verse stands as one path to this maze, where limited choice and outlined fun obstructs the inequalities of privatized and mass-produced education.
On the one hand, I think that there is much to be gained from understanding our identities as made up of digital and physical qualities. As esteemed theorist Donna Haraway argues in her ‘Cyborg Manifesto’, we should be wary of separating the notion of human from machine or animal for fear of implying anthropocentric authority or instating a kind of ‘human knows best’ rule. In fact, the mixture of human and AI technology in Verse by Verse could be a perfect instance of Haraway’s characterisation of human and machine intertwining.
Yet the Google generator is not an instance of merging, but a direct result of humans inserting preconceived notions of poetry and creativity into technology. Sure, Google can create some jovial lines and teach me about different poetic structures and styles, which can make up for the lack of creative access in lockdown. Yet, doesn’t it truly deny the essence of a poem, which is often based on the confusion of experience or imagination, not on the flow of superficially matching lines? It seems to encourage enforcing rules instead of breaking new ground.
In the end, it comes down to how we approach teaching and learning. As Feminist theorist Carolyn M Shewsbury states in her classic essay ‘What is feminist pedagogy?’, one of the foundations of learning horizontally and avoiding power imbalances is creating community, merging the listener and the talker. When I construct my Google poem, I am met with no response, no workshopping, no challenges. Creating genuine rather than tokenistic equality in creative or educational spaces is about creating communities that support and challenge each other. Otherwise, instead of collective creation, we are just one individual led around a garden maze.
It’s lockdown 3.0 and whilst I’m sure you are probably wary of the repeated call to read more over this time, our Assemblage writers have carefully selected just a few texts to ward off lockdown restlessness. These recommendations are not intended to fulfill a reading list but instead represent our collective stream of consciousness, our discussions around what’s been distracting us, and awakening our senses.
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (2019) recommended by Amy
Shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, Doshi’s debut novel set in the city of Pune in West India examines a mother-daughter relationship fraught with pain and absence. It focuses on Antara, a girl abandoned by her mother Tara, and later burdened with questioning how or whether to take care of her mother three decades on. As Amy states, ‘Doshi probes the thin line between independence and selfishness without making her characters unsympathetic and thinks deeply about our responsibilities to one another’. Read Doshi’s novel for a gentle examination of the themes of motherhood, responsibility, and the fading and changing of identity.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969) recommended by Josie
Why do books become classics? Perhaps because they have an enduring poignancy that can be revisited in times of trouble. This is certainly the case with the first of seven volumes of Angelou’s autobiography, where she focuses on her early years, exploring trauma, racial and gendered prejudice, family, and ultimately a love for books. Its pioneering prose and revolutionary message make it a necessary text to reacquaint ourselves with, particularly in a contemporary context fraught with turbulence. This collection is as Anita Sethi states ‘a paean to the powers of storytelling to build bridges across divides, and heal what has been damaged.’ Angelou’s life story exhibits a kind of tender urgency, and never ceases to remain a call to always strive for social change no matter how difficult it may seem.
The Undying by Anne Boyer (2019) recommended by Anita
Little could have been more prescient than this autobiographical account of ‘cancer under capitalism’. Winner of the 2020 Pulitzer prize in general nonfiction, Boyer’s analysis of her experiences of having breast cancer as a single mother in an academic job expands outwards to an interrogation of illness in society. This book joins a line of unique writers such as Susan Sontag and Audre Lorde, who examine their relationship to illness along the lines of collective experience. Poet and essayist Anne Boyer moves fluidly between categories such as Ancient Roman history, illustration, scientific research, life story, and sociological analysis. As Nellie Herman states, ‘Boyer strives to explore breast cancer […] as a disease, as a historical entity, as a means of exposing the precarity of the individual inside larger capitalist systems’. It is a manifesto more than a purely personal account, its mixture of categories emphasizing how we are made up of more than individualized experiences, and paving the way for an intense interrogation of how health is seen.
Strangeland by Tracey Emin (2006) recommended by Tascha
If you’ve dipped into the world of art in the last decade or so, you will have heard of Tracey Emin, or more likely have been visually exposed to her works. Emin’s memoir is a rare written version of her art and strangely doesn’t focus too much on her journey with her visual endeavors. Whilst her writing style is often incoherent and inconsistent, the work itself acts as a form of her art, Alev Adil emphasizes that ‘Her writing wants to be art rather than literature. Readability and complexity are not Emin’s goals. She’s after an unmediated immediacy’. She explores painful childhood experiences, her Turkish Cypriot heritage, her relationship with her father, and her romantic relationships. This strangely put together autobiography is worth reading both to get a better grip on Emin’s understanding of herself, and how her art has moved and shaped itself.
Past Lives, Future Bodies by K-Ming Chang (2018) recommended by Karen
At a mere 22 years of age, Chang’s poetic achievements so far are mesmerizing. She stands as 31st Annual Lambda Literary Award finalist with this collection of poetry centered largely on her relationship to her gender and sexuality. Each line of her prose is uniquely memorable, combining serenity with pain. A kind of peaceful dread runs through her lines and I am left feeling completely exhilarated by how layered her work is, and how far her understanding of herself goes. I struggle to express properly how reading just a line of Chang’s impressive body of work ignites my senses and throws me into a different world without leaving my desk. In between the lines of Chang’s poems there exist multiple opportunities for taking your thoughts in different directions. She deals with themes of love, generational shifts, immigration, family, and sexuality. Her debut novel Bestiary (2020) was longlisted for the Centre for Fiction First Novel Prize and focuses on three generations of Taiwanese American women and the theme of myth. Chang’s work is an absolute treat to read both as comfort and challenge.
Disobedience by Naomi Alderman (2006) recommended by Emma
Now a major film starring Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz, the story of a hidden relationship between two women in an orthodox Jewish community in London started as a book by Naomi Alderman. Set in Hendon, Ronit, the daughter of a recently deceased Rabbi returns from her life in New York and becomes entangled in her past romantic connection with Esti, who is now married to her cousin Dovid. It centers on the layers of obligation in a larger world. Whilst Dina Rabinovitch laments that characters are ‘two-dimensional’, nevertheless, the tense intertwining of responsibility and independence carves out space for a necessary understanding of community dynamics. Assemblage’s Emma discusses how the book lines the juxtaposing tensions of security versus freedom, as the two women explore ‘the comfort they find both in escaping and living within their community’. An important read if you’re seeking to learn more about close-knit communities in urban environments.
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman (2019) recommended by Jess
This strange, quirky novel is teeming with a jovial confusion that succeeds in drawing us into its ponderous rhythms, all without breaking a sweat with a full stop. No paragraphs mark the ramblings of a middle-aged Ohio woman’s string of thoughts, each section starting with the phrase ‘the fact that’, which comments playfully on the notion of fact in relation to thought. Katy Waldman remarks on the accumulative style of the book, ‘a vein of fear runs through Lucy Ellmann’s collector’s lust—that, even if one puts the world in a book, the story might remain incomplete.’ Indeed, Ellmann’s work makes you aware of the endlessness of thought, and the fickle line between what is said and what is felt. Well worth a read to see what can be achieved in a state of exhilarating stylistic abandon and a determination to thread through a day in the life of a person’s brain.
The moment just before I fade into sleep is when I tend to have my best ideas. In the small window of opportunity between getting into bed and my mind running to catch up with the dream of the night, I am jolted awake by an idea for a sentence, title, pitch, and frantically stumble around for my phone to make a note.
This has happened much more frequently over periods of lockdown, where my mind has wandered into spaces of unproductivity. Whilst I do the actual work in busy cafes or libraries, the initial ideas arrive in moments of absentmindedness, when I drift into the subconscious. This is perhaps because ideas are not the part of the creative process grounded in material reality, but are the initial steps that exist in imaginary space, eventually becoming concrete.
A resolution on the other hand is a conscious, confident decision to do something. A resolution is a firm commitment, a determination to complete a task or take up something new, with the inevitable juxtaposition of a failed task, a broken self-promise.
I definitely understand the desire to see off this awful year and hope for better things in the near future. Goals in themselves can be extremely helpful, setting targets for yourself can be a useful motivational tool, and can help you narrow down what is important to you. However, using January as an arbitrary measure for instantaneous change- especially now when time is framed by a discourse of indecisiveness in public policy- carves out an artificial goal that will likely be unfilled in the coming months. And so, this year I (ironically) resolve to move away from resolutions, and let things be a little all over the place for a while.
The first lockdown was full of so much reflection, of bettering ourselves, and in itself this emphasis on looking inwards whilst sometimes helpful, was quietly exhausting. So, for Christmas this year I asked for books not that I thought I should read, but ones I really wanted to. Instead of trudging through the murky narratives of books by famous authors that made me feel like I was trekking through gum, I chose books that I couldn’t turn away from.
Periods of retreat into restricted spaces create locations for ‘rediscovery’. As we are limited to repeated surroundings, people, and objects, we try to try again, to re-discover things that already exist. A quick google search results in an overwhelming number of ‘rediscover’ themed articles, showing how we have tried to imagine our relationships to creativity differently, have re-learned a love for walking. Focusing on things previously thought of as discarded certainly brings attention to hobbies and activities eclipsed by frantic work schedules and busy commutes.
However, since we have engaged in so much reflective and re-discover discourse, I would now like to just exist as we enter this new year, to mould to the things that ease this difficult period. I want to move away from the idea of renewing what is lost: trying that meal plan that never worked again, hoping that that same form of exercise will suddenly excite me, wishing that if I just plug my ears and centre my eyes that the book with the woody style will suddenly inspire me. Katie da Cunha Lewin argues that ‘forgotten’ female artists have been relegated to the space of ‘rediscovery’ in the present day, through marketing techniques that situate the figure of the neglected woman artist as contemporarily empowering. As she states, ‘the language in which rediscovery is couched is often about reorienting the individual artist, assimilating her into the canon of greatness, rather than actually dismantling the structures of power’. In a similar mode, the posturing of certain activities as forgotten, neglected, and ultimately ‘re-discovered’, such as baking, playing music, being in nature, or reading, positions them as idyllic, and ultimately implies a kind of anthropocentric dominion over these projects.
I don’t want to engage in new year’s resolutions that are framed by these narratives of loss, because it is hard and hopeless work. Eloise Hendy discusses the trend of burnout fiction, that encourages readers to bemoan modern labour, but ultimately ‘replicate the sensations of apathy, exhaustion and futility they seek to describe’. These books tend to situate focusing on things you don’t like as an accepted state of the contemporary human condition. Through this lens, resolutions that focus on doing things that are hard and uncomfortable can feel like jobs that you fail at. For me, February tends to produce the familiar feeling of defeat when I realise again that I truly dislike going for runs, and I should just pick a sport or activity I like.
The online world is awash with new year ‘challenges’ that challenge you to work on yourself. To get rid of things from your home, to leave negativity in the past, to be less this and less that, essentially to be less than. Especially in a time like now, I think it is okay to just exist in spaces of confusion and vulnerability, and maybe in this way ideas may be born out of rest.
So, I suppose I’m not really doing away with resolutions, but I’m trying not to feel the yearly pressure placed on us to lose certain characteristics, or to gain new skills, or to ‘re-discover’ old pastimes. Instead, I want to allow myself to just ‘be’ in the new year.
Last year, I had one of those unremarkable days. It was neither good nor bad, just unexceptionally dull. Back from university for a break and deflated after a rush of deadlines, I could not bring myself to occupy my time in any meaningful way at home. So, I ventured out to an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection. It was called ‘Play Well’, and it explored how the concept of play impacted our daily lives and how it had shifted over time.
Wandering around the exhibition’s various stops; life-size soft toys, miniatures, digital games, I was exhilarated. I left inflated with ideas, the exhibition had added playfulness to my day, and had lifted me out of the static slump I was in.
Thinking back to that exhibition, it got me wondering how the notion of play could clear the haze that has set in since restrictions began. It made me question, are we ever too old to act like children? I don’t think so, because I think aspects of being a child are lessons in critical thinking. Children are very good at imagining different worlds, making elaborate career plans to be clowns or astronauts, conquering climbing frames, building coin-sized villages.
As you grow older imagining worlds becomes more about living and surviving in this one. And with tightened restrictions, being confined to domestic or localised spaces means getting through the day. As many of us stay in our childhood homes, the domestic space becomes uncanny, only partly familiar. The steam that used to escape hot milk and the blanket forts that acted as forests are exchanged for hot coffee steam and burrowing under duvets to work not play.
Now we are limited to spaces of nostalgia, and I think it has confused what kinds of things we reclaim from childhood. Being young is associated with protection, ease, comfort. Yet, being a child is also mud-lined adventures, questioning how objects and spaces are organised, inventions made from unusual resources. Advice for the first lockdown was full of statements like ‘disconnect’, ‘slow down’, ‘relax’, to the point where I felt I entered a kind of zombified, protective stoop. Yet, this time around as we move through the wintery expanse, I want to take note of the playfulness with which children approach the world.
In The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam exchanges typical associations of the child with innocence and traditionality, for notions of silliness, childishness, and playfulness. Approaching the world through embracing irregularity can help us notice flaws in our current systems. So, whilst we can’t be free in our usual ways right now, how can we engage in the playfulness of youth? Perhaps we can embrace muddy or rainy weather rather than shying away from it. Maybe we can take less pedestrian paths and look for unconventional routes instead of being isolated to benches and pavements. We can allow ourselves to feel all the kinds of emotions, good or bad, that come out of this time. Rather than feeling the pressure to ‘unplug’ altogether from technology, we can use it inventively, finding pages that spark creativity, organising online collaborations.
As with everything, reclaiming playfulness is easier in theory than in practice. The other day when I took a walk in the park, a dog ran over and barked at a couple of kids that had built a twig-fort under a rain-soaked tree on the side of the concrete path. The owner approached the fort and apologised for her dog’s presence but explained in an accusatory that she didn’t expect anyone to be there. Defying expectation is something that children do really well, they shift how we see and use space.
The above example is muted compared to two instances where teenagers were berated for experimenting with idle time. In the first lockdown a teenager was shouted at by a passer-by for using a scooter on a pavement, and just this week a teenager on a bicycle was stopped and surrounded by policemen because of an alleged minor cycling violation. I can only describe both of these instances as racially motivated. Policing young people’s movement calls into question where we expect them to occupy space and how.
The racialised aspect of these occurrences calls further into question the intersectional nature of race and age, and how young people who seem like they have nothing to do are always framed as a nuisance, and ultimately criminalised. As writer, activist, and model Hélène Selam Kleih argues, “To be black, to be any ethnic minority, and to add to that, young, leads to suspicion”. The “false inclusiveness” of bustling city life implies there is a space for everyone, but is this really the case?
With space more and more privatised, it has become less acceptable to simply ‘be’ in open spaces. Now in the context of heightened restrictions, space has become even more private as we are limited to domestic, familial zones. We need to rethink how we negotiate space through the framing of childhood wandering. This could be a step towards imagining spaces that expand physical and mental possibilities, instead of labelling young people as ‘out of place’.
Approaching this stagnant time through a lens of childlike irregularity can help us break the polarisation of youthful ‘immaturity’ and adult ‘seriousness’. As I stand looking at the mist-covered rows of trees in my local park, I think of how ‘Play Well’ lifted my fog that day, and I start to look at the dusted trees differently.
The old cliché of a writer produces a visual of beauty and torment, or beautiful torment, a tormented genius, writing as the source of all fulfillment. Anyone who writes today knows that the reality is a little less idyllic, and a lot more of meeting deadlines, refilling coffees and half-baked thoughts.
Perhaps this is one key reason why I’d steer clear of an all-encompassing defence of writing for free. It concocts this image of writing as something one simply has to do, strokes of genius rather than scraps of neo-teenage angst written as half-formed moon metaphors (trust me I know, I’ve written my fair share). Writing as fuel in and of itself makes it seem removed from practical constraints, and from writing as a self-critical process.
So where does this leave writing for free? Should we all just stop writing unless we can find a paid publication? No, of course not. Precisely because the industries are hard to access, and labour so exploited, we need to carve out spaces that support and allow writers to express opinions that are silenced, rejected, or undervalued. Writing for unpaid publications helps you practice writing regularly, build confidence, and form your own style.
Sidelined groups can use unpaid publications as communities, spaces that work as forms of resistance. The Black Lives Matter protests this year showed how discrimination leaks into every industry, at every level, and when voices are silenced, often the only solution is to write louder. Publications that promote the voices of people marginalised on the basis of gender, race, class, or disability bring groups out from the margins, and into the centre.
If in exchange for writing, the publications promote the authors extensively, give them a space of support and recognition, and help them in their careers, then they are shifting existing power structures that divide. These publications can let writers dabble in different genres, develop digital and graphic design skills, and form content not limited to baring souls for profit, or occupying an incubated space of a newspaper. As Black journalist Niellah Arboine argues, Black people can’t just be presented with performative diversity schemes, but need to be given positions of leadership. Unpaid magazines can be spaces that provide this power shift, with the strength of support, you can more easily tackle the bigger industry problems. It’s not an end in itself, but a way towards creating more hopeful spaces.
Furthermore, writing for profit can have a big impact on mental health. Whilst the phrase goes ‘there is nothing new under the sun’, spending five minutes in the writing world shows how fraught it is with the tension of being the first to come up with new terms, new trends, new angles. This notion of linear progression makes it hard to keep up, and makes me question if I want to, rather than stopping to think about what I am actually writing and what it means.
In lockdown-stricken times, time seemed endless and yet oddly characterized by the need too create, produce, better yourself. The pressure to perform in quieter spaces is deafening, endless options present a continuous stream of thought not mediated by quotidian tasks. As Zadie Smith stresses in Intimations, periods of lockdown make us interrogate our reason for writing as ‘something to do’ as we divide our time. The lack of pretense in this statement helps us to admit that writing is a comforting and enjoyable way to pass the time. Writing for hierarchical industries, rather than for yourself or for supportive publications, dissolves the satisfaction in less formalized writing forms, torn diary pages, five minute poems, articles born out of thoughts trying to escape idleness.
Whilst I want to stray away from any gleaming platitudes about writers, writing for free can be a happy middle that tethers the tremendous gap between those in power and those without a voice. Writing is perhaps the greatest form of a voice, and from my own experience, I know that writing for yourself is a cathartic stepping stone to writing for others.