Are ’90s Zines Going Through A Revival In Singapore?

They tackle obscure topics, are a little rough around the edges, and can read like an incensed manifesto. So why are so many in Singapore taking to this counterculture craft? Keng Yang Shuen talks to the folks making zines great again.

In an age when we’re inundated with creators and storytellers uploading endless realms of digital content driving #metoo, #notme, #heforshe, #timesup awareness, it seems quaint that an ubiquitous part of ’80s and ’90s DIY culture has made a comeback, with even Kanye catching on (see his lookbooks for Yeezy). Hand-drawn, often photocopied, and stapled or laminated together, the art of the self-published zine has, of late, been on the rise.

Just last month, the folks behind Queer Zinefest put on a zine-making workshop for a group of aspiring zinesters. This was on the back of its inaugural festival held at Camp Kilo Charcoal Club in July — a platform for creators to share their self-published printed works. Around the same time, the fifth edition of the Singapore Art Book Fair included a brand-new feature: a room specially dedicated to zines curated by local collective Squelch Zines that aimed to broaden the already rising scene here. And for its swansong exhibition last November, conceptual art space I_S_L_A_N_D_S collaborated with publishing outfit Knuckles & Notch for an array of art and zines from 28 artists. All works featured were created using risograph, an increasingly (re)popular ’80s printing technique often favoured by creative types,  small institutions and, yes, zine makers for its affordability and lo-fi aesthetic marked by vivid, uneven hues (think silk-screen prints).

Captured here: a scene from Singapore’s first Queer Zinefest last July.

Gabbi Wenyi Ayane Virk, co-organiser of the Queer Zinefest, says zines represent a non-discriminatory way of expressing yourself or to get a message across.

THE PEOPLE’S PUBLICATION

But what’s a zine really? There are no hard and fast rules, but here’s the general gist: they’re typically self-published, self-funded, handbound (stapled, embroidered, laminated) works with small circulations — from a single copy to a few hundred. They cover any number of topics ranging from politics, art, music and social causes to the super niche — such as the aspirations of everyday folks (see Portraits of People by independent publisher Your Local Newsstand), or cast-off furniture in the neighbourhood of Sengkang by SNGKNG (get it?) aka designer Tisya Wong. (Her eight-pager is a laugh-out-loud, tongue-in-cheek take on an Ikea catalogue.) The most pertinent aspect though is the heavily DIY, anything-goes spirit that tends to permeate each one.

As Gabbi Wenyi Ayane Virk, co-organiser of the Queer Zinefest puts it: “(With zines), you are your own editor so you really shouldn’t worry about what other people find appealing. It’s entirely up to you and what you want to do with your work.” In short, it’s a completely democratic medium, be it in style or content.

One of the earliest homegrown zines would have to be BigO, with its distinct punk aesthetic. Started in 1985 by brothers Philip and Michael Cheah as a black-and-white photocopied publication (it went full colour only seven years later), it extensively chronicled Singapore’s indie music scene, and featured names such as Chris Ho, The Oddfellows and The Padres. (The latter two went on to be featured on BBC’s Multitrack 3 programme.) While BigO ceased print publication after a 17-year run, it still exists online with a global (if esoteric) following, and recently enjoyed renewed exposure thanks to filmmaker Sandi Tan’s acclaimed documentary, Shirkers, in which Philip Cheah was
a commentator.

Possibly the most conceptual zine here: Rubbish Famzine, the award-winning experimental art book created by Holycrap — the collective that celebrated graphic designer Pann Lim formed with his family — that’s as good as a piece of multimedia art. Take issue #3 that touched on the topic of time and came in a “time capsule” (a traditional biscuit container) containing ephemera such as scavenged twigs and a cassette tape of Lim’s kids singing, all put together by hand. Each edition has become a sought-after collectible since its debut in 2013 and, at press time, the clan was getting ready to launch the ’80s-themed eighth issue.

Here, a small selection of zines, culled from the library of local collective Squelch Zines, represent the typically freewheeling aesthetic and topics that zines address.

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THE ANALOGUE IG

Naturally then, for much of the scene’s long history (the first zine in the world is often said to be The Comet, a fans-for-fans work published in 1930 in Chicago that focused on the then-burgeoning genre of science fiction), zines have had a strong counterculture association — from the ’70s punk movement to ’90s feminists. Says Queer Zinefest’s Virk: “People have a lot to say, and zines are a way to get their voice out there without worrying so much about censorship.”

Zines have long had a counterculture association, thanks to their ground-up approach and anything-goes mentality.

Today, its resurgence can in part be seen as a bulwark against the world’s 24/7 stream of digital content — and not simply because you can start one armed with just paper, a pair of scissors, staplers and found images. Photographer Christopher Sim, 24, said he started creating his own after repeatedly hearing his subjects ask for the pictures that don’t appear on his Instagram feed @zalindrome.

“You get to curate what goes into your zine, which saves the audience the trouble of sifting through the gallons and gallons of visual vomit spewing out of their screens for something worth looking at,” he says. “It’s a nice little record of our lives that won’t get lost in the iCloud.” (For the record, his zine Wah Jialat, How Now? — showcasing youth culture as he and his friends see it — was part of the line-up in the Zine Room at last year’s Singapore Art Book Fair. All 30 copies sold out on the first day of the event.)

Squelch Zines, a local collective comprising of (from left) Alif Seah, Janice Chua, Nicholas Loke and Hafiz Syukuri, has more than 300 zines in its collection.

Zines — an analogue alternative to the so-called all-inclusive and empowering space that is social media? The fact that Gen Y and Z zine-makers have splintered beyond the cliche of the art and design crowd is a positive indication. “The great thing about zines is their accessibility, and while there are certain groups of people who are more clued in to the existence of zine culture, there is no mascot — it’s anybody who wants to make one,” says Virk. Nicholas Loke, co-founder of the four-member Squelch Zines collective, which has more than 300 titles in its library and counting, holds a similar opinion. “The misconception is that one has to be creative in order to make a zine, yet we’ve met many makers who are not designers or artists by training who still create wonderful works.”

This story first appeared in Female's January 2019 issue.

This article is originally published on Female Singapore.

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