While some say mainstream print media is on the decline, DIY scenes still embrace zines as unique art objects and channels for communication.
On Thursday, JB Brager introduced Binghamton University students to zines, small self-published booklets that can be created from a single sheet of paper. Brager, a comics artist who currently teaches history at Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx, visited both the Q Center and a class taught by Tina Chronopoulos, an associate professor of classical and Near Eastern studies and interim director of the Center of Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
Chronopoulos learned about Brager a few years ago while volunteering in Madison, Wisconsin for LGBT Books to Prisoners, an organization that sends books to LGBTQ-identifying people who are incarcerated.
She said she invited Brager to visit campus because the final project for her class, Classics 380C: America & Classical Antiquity, asks students to create a zine about a figure from an underrepresented group within the field of classics or ancient Mediterranean studies.
“I also wanted to invite JB [Brager] in order to put someone else at the front of the room other than me, so students can get a different perspective and meet someone whose artistic work is about empowering sex workers and trans[gender] [or] nonbinary folks, and whose activism centers around indigenous rights and police brutality,” she wrote in an email. “I think our campus isn’t quite political [and] activist enough, so I wanted my students to meet a real radical.”
Brager shared a genealogical history of zines with the class, starting with the invention of the printing press, before leading a hands-on workshop. Later in the day, they led a more informal workshop at the Q Center, where a small table of attendees learned the “one-page-fold” technique and took an hour to draw, collage or write a zine.
In addition to making zines and comics, Brager has also taught university courses, facilitated workshops and given lectures on subjects including comics, zines, social media, photography, human rights and genocide studies.
Brager said college can be a good time to explore zine-making, especially since students often have resources like printing at their disposal. They said Chronopoulos’ class was a unique forum for talking about the medium.
“I think it’s a testament to the fact that zines can be about anything,” Brager said. “They sort of activate a different part of your brain and your creativity, and you can make a zine in a physics class — it doesn’t matter. It just allows us to be creative when there’s not many opportunities to do that in college when you’re stressed out.”
While zines are often associated with historical moments like the Riot grrrl movement of the ’90s, Brager has noticed resurgences of zines within the past decade via online communities like LiveJournal, where users often create networks of pen pals.
“In some ways [zines] are making a comeback, but in some ways they never left,” Brager said. “There’s something about the materiality of a zine that has a different effect and resonance with people, getting one is more like getting a present than getting an email … It’s a more human thing.”
Zines hold value in the art economy, and according to Brager, they also serve an important role during the rise of digital surveillance.
“People are realizing that digital spaces are not secure in terms of sharing information, especially for activists, so one of the things I told the class is that right now in Hong Kong with the democracy protests, those protestors in one of the most technologically advanced places in the world are making zines,” they said.
Julian Zumbach, a junior majoring in medieval and early modern studies, sat in on Chronopoulos’ class and the Q Center’s workshop.
“I learned that anybody can make a zine and it doesn’t matter how it turns out — you can just make it for the joy of making something,” he said.
Brager said there’s freedom in both the accessibility and ephemerality of zines, which can be photocopied, distributed, destroyed or given as gifts, depending on the artist’s intent.
“It’s all these moments that you get to save in this interesting way,” they said. “They’re ephemeral enough that you can make them disappear if you decide to, but they’re maybe precious enough that you’ll want to save them.”