The Packing House Zine Fest 2023
By Jordan Maxwell Ridgway, Laura Ingate and Frankie Harnett
On 22 April, artists and storytellers gathered at the Arts & Bodega store in Claremont, California for The Packing House Zine Fest, an all-day event arranged by Curious Publishing, a non-profit organisation. The free event included artist exhibitors whose work emphasises the art of print in formats such as zines, art books, risograph, screen printing and block printing. This was the first in-person event in nearly two years due to lockdowns and the COVID-19 pandemic. Rebecca Ustrell, founder and editor-in-chief of Curious Publishing, wanted the event to be a “place students consider an extension of their campus,” giving them the opportunity to learn about different print methods, “bounce ideas” around and understand how self-publishing works.
“Zine” is short for “magazine,” and typically involves self-published print media, usually pamphlet style, with a small circulation and therefore readership. The goal in zine making isn’t profit; it’s sharing interesting, experimental and innovative writing and artwork for a small and potentially niche audience. It can be an outlet for news, expressing an opinion, or an opportunity to share unique stories and perspectives. Zines can cover a wide variety of topics and mediums such as politics, poetry, journals, obsessions and so on. For example, some of the most highly circulated zines were centred on Star Trek. As a result of the opportunity for free expression granted by the smaller number of copies produced, many zine publications have been an excellent platform for marginalised groups.
Zine making and distribution stand out in a world that is becoming increasingly focused on digital publishing or the technical aspects of the industry. With the rise of ChatGPT, eBooks, the Kindle app and writing for online forums, zine publishing stands out by focusing on creating something tangible.
This is not to say that the digital world and zines can’t overlap at all. One example exhibited at The Packing House included the work of Tania Chaidez Ibarra, co-founder of Errant Press, which publishes bilingual works by Latin American creatives. Ibarra was creating small passports where people could choose their name, photo and sexuality as well as including QR codes that allowed readers to digitally explore sixteen countries.
Some of the other forms of media visitors got to explore included carved block printing, stitch binding and cyanotype (a camera-less technique that creates prints by laying objects such as leaves and flowers on paper covered in iron salts solution and then exposing them to UV light, creating white and blue photographic looking images).
The handmade quality of zines and their minimal quantities can make them rare finds and keepsakes. In a world where mass production reigns, zines can be seen as heartfelt devotions by the artists and writers that create them. Though the definition of a zine requires there to be less than 1,000 copies printed, most zine publications produce under one hundred copies.
At the heart of The Packing House Zine Fest is community engagement. Comments from key coordinator Rachel Ustrell invariably note the ways the event can aid the local artistic community. Primarily, Zine Fest acts as a social and supportive space for the local zine and print artists to share their work, which receives mainstream attention and provides an environment in which artists' unique skills can be taught and shared. Local artist Norman Bentley attended to investigate the younger art scene and applauded the artists' show of “rethinking all the tools that they have, and their art and their marketing, in many different ways.” However, Zine Fest was also designed to aid local artists on a more practical level, by allowing them to network with Curious Publishing, which receives grants that can be used to support local artists that may receive little income from conventional markets.
However, The Packing House Zine Fest not only focuses on the active artistic community but also the student community. Ustrell described the event as a vital opportunity to draw students into the Arts & Bodega store, where she hoped they might learn more about zines and print mediums from local artists than they did in their studies. She emphasises the industry networking this provided for students: “I want them to be able to come and collaborate and bounce ideas off of people, getting some real advice and experience with people that are actually working in self-publishing.” She hopes to bring an “awareness of the many cultures that are right here in this region” to students who may be unfamiliar with the artistic community in the area.
The advent of the digital age could easily have spelt the end of the zine making tradition; however, the personalised and tangible nature of zines has instead led to a resurgence. This resurgence has seen local zine events popping up across the world. In a world where events and communities have moved online, Zine Fests have endured and continue to be cultural hubs of learning, support and connection.