How Zines Brought Power to Those on the Margins of Culture

A new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum examines zines’ role in art history and community building

Installation view
Installation view of the Brooklyn Museum's "Copy Machine Manifestos: Artists Who Make Zines," on view through March 2024 Paula Abreu Pita / Brooklyn Museum

The history of zines—short for “fanzines” or magazines—stretches back to the 1930s, when authors produced short, usually self-made publications with mimeograph machines. Early zines were associated with science fiction fans, eventually expanding into categories like comic books and rock music.

Their popularity took off in the 1970s, when they were typically produced using copy machines. Since then, zines have connected members of various movements, becoming vital tools for artists and members of communities to express themselves and build connections.

Now, an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum is spotlighting the power of these publications. Titled “Copy Machine Manifestos: Artists Who Make Zines,” the show begins in the 1970s and continues to the present day.

“Part of the ethos of these fanzines is that they’re very open to reader feedback and participation,” says Branden Joseph, an art historian at Columbia University and one of the exhibition’s curators, to WNYC’s Alison Stewart. “They welcome correspondence. They welcome contributions. … They’re more open and collaborative with a community than your typical magazine, [which] has a gatekeeper function.”

Installation 2
A view inside the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum Paula Abreu Pita / Brooklyn Museum

With more than 800 works by artists from North America, the exhibition is an expansive study of the form. Still, it is not meant to be an exhaustive history, as exhibition co-curator and art historian Drew Sawyer tells the Guardians Veronica Esposito. “Even if we wanted to be very inclusive and seemingly comprehensive, we knew it would be impossible to claim to be comprehensive in any way,” he says. “It would be delusional to think anyone could be comprehensive on a history of zines.”

Some zine archives exist, such as New York University’s Riot Grrrl Collection—but because many zines are so rooted in particular times and locations, they can be challenging to track down. Sawyer and Joseph tell Artnet’s Min Chen that they spent years locating artists and reviewing their personal collections.

“Our archive research included me and Drew [Sawyer] literally on our knees, in storage spaces, rifling through stuff that people hadn’t looked at in a long time,” says Joseph. “There were artists who had just one copy left. The ephemeral nature of the zine is really shown in the archives.”

Zines are often associated with an anti-establishment outlook, and some artists consequently refused to allow their zines to be shown. Many others, however, saw the project as an essential work of cultural preservation.

Bruce LaBruce
A 1991 zine from Canadian artist Bruce LaBruce Bruce LaBruce / David Vu

“This exhibition will be the first to look at zines as a distinct medium within the lineage of art history,” says Joseph in a statement. “At the same time, valorizing and including zines makes the history of contemporary art look different—introducing a host of different figures, putting familiar figures into different contexts and moving marginalized figures to positions of centrality. Far from nostalgic or outmoded, the photocopied and printed zine remains a vibrant means of artistic expression.”

Over many decades, zines have waxed and waned in popularity, and “Copy Machine Manifestos” is organized into sections exploring periods of growth. “What we found were these waves of intense production that would peter off and generate other waves,” Joseph tells the Guardian. “And that’s really what the six sections of the show are: They’re more of these waves than they are, say, decades.”

Sections cover topics such as the punk movement of the 1970s and 1980s, the queer and feminist zines of the late 1980s and 1990s and zines’ continuing relevance into the 21st century.

“Hopefully people who attend this show don’t come away thinking of zines as just aesthetic objects,” says Sawyer to the Guardian. “It’s also very much about the role they have played in the construction of cultural communities.”

Girl Power
An issue of Bikini Kill by Kathleen Hanna with Billy Karren, Tobi Vail and Kathi Wilcox Philip Aarons and Shelley Fox Aarons / David Vu

Some zines are accompanied by other works of art, like the first issue of Joey Terrill’s HomeboyBeautiful zine from 1978. This text includes photo novellas and comic strips that parallel the multi-panel storytelling format in his painting Breaking Up / Breaking Down (1984–1985), which is also on display.

“We’re trying to show the central role of zine production in contemporary art by looking at zines in relation to painting, photography, filmmaking, video performance, all these other mediums that they went hand in hand with in terms of production,” Sawyer tells Artnet.

The exhibition also looks to the present day. Since 2019, a new wave of zine production has taken off, Joseph tells WNYC. He points out that zines, which are cheap to make, enable people to buy an artist’s work without necessarily being able to afford an expensive painting.

These days, zine fairs and festivals are common, and something about the format continues to resonate.

“One thing that zines have always represented is a certain type of intimacy—of distribution, of self-revelation, of reception. There’s a certain physical relationship,” Joseph tells Artnet. “I think that’s one of the things that continues now.”

Copy Machine Manifestos: Artists Who Make Zines” is on view at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City through March 31, 2024.

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