Self-published, cheaply-made, and disseminated after running through copy machines, zines — short for “fanzine” — have existed as simple and cost-effective creative soapboxes. Zines+ and the World of ABC No Rio, a current exhibition at the Center for Book Arts, presents publications from the archives of ABC No Rio, the art and activism collective founded on the Lower East Side in 1980. With content covering political essays, personal narratives, comics, standalone illustrations, and more, the zines on view reflect the diverse use of the medium from a variety of communities and include decades-old to recent publications, speaking to the unwavering presence of the DIY-aesthetic.
The exhibition seems small, occupying just the one, central room of the Center for Book Arts, but the material is extensive, spanning years of history. Introducing the show is Mike Estabrook’s wall-length Accretion Scroll (2009–2010), which underscores the artistry of zines beyond their function as idea-spreaders. As its title implies, the work isn’t a zine but rather an intricate India ink drawing on paper of a continuous, oddball tangle of people, monsters, and animals from the pools of Estabrook’s imagination; free-flowing with sexual and violent imagery, the illustration captures the without-bounds spirit of the surrounding zines, themselves exploding with resolute, equally uncensored voices.
Two glass cases in the center of the room show mostly the covers of zines, with some lying open. The collection offers revealing glances into different social and political spheres: mixing humor with anarchic tones, the cover of “Daybreak News #5” shows a mutant creature with wings fleeing an area surrounded by a barbed wire fence, captioned, “Batboy Escapes Camp X-Ray … And Takes Revenge!” A black-and-white comic brings up issues of gentrification and direct action, vividly chronicling the 1980 Real Estate Show and its aftermath. At the end, there is a call for donations so ABC No Rio could maintain its status as a community center for the arts.
One of the most riveting documents on view is queer punk zine “J.D.s.” (which stood for Juvenile Delinquents), flipped open to pages collaged with letters from readers — an intimate snapshot of the gay community in the ’80s. One man recounts feeling anger and fear at a Black Flag show after Henry Rollins attacked homosexuals; another writes a raw recollection of a chance sexual encounter on the streets of San Diego in broad daylight, ending with a call to “Fuck in the streets and be happy.”
Others are less politically charged, aimed to bring together individuals from specific communities who need something like a zine to spark some initial connection. “Tenacious,” for example, publishes art and writing from women in prison, revealing broken voices or sharing personal stories from mothers separated from their children. Then there’s “The Future Generation” and “Fertile Ground,” zines written by parents for parents on parenting. Some of those encased zines seem so intriguing that a preview of their contents fails to satisfy. My only true quibble, though, concerns the accompanying exhibition labels, which are minimal and list only titles; although some zines have information on their covers, it would have been helpful and insightful if the labels also stated any known print dates, volume numbers, and print sites.
The exhibition does allow for further investigation of some zines, however; along the back wall of the room a shelf invites viewers to peruse a sample of zines with care. There’s also a bean bag chair available, meaning one could easily spend hours reading feminist writings (as in “Grrlz on the Road”), flipping through pages of bewitching illustrations, or revisiting the history of ABC No Rio through individual accounts of Matthew Courtney’s anything-goes “Wide-Open Cabaret,” for example.
Accompanying the exhibition are also 10 portraits of members of the ABC No Rio collective, illustrated by Fly as part of her PEOPS series. The portraits are surrounded by diaristic narratives by each individual, with some recounting growing up in squats or struggling with drug usage before discovering ABC No Rio as an outlet for creativity. A moving supplement to the zines, their accounts give faces to the communities of voices shouting from those oft-thumbed pages.
Zines+ and the World of ABC No Rio continues at The Center for Book Arts (28 West 27th Street, West Side, Manhattan) through September 27.