In the increasingly monopolized world of mainstream media, it is imperative that works that challenge the status quo, affirm the lives of their creators, and problematize corporate control over the media are available to the widest audience possible. [i] Bookmobile Collective, 2001
The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel of a then and there. [ii] José Esteban Muñoz, 2012.
In the summer of 2001, after over a year of collective coordination and preparation, the BOOKMOBILE project took off on its first annual tour across North America with an exhibition of zines, artists’ books and independent publications. The BOOKMOBILE explored the process of creating and circulating independently produced printed matter and was founded by five women: Courtney Dailey, Ginger Brooks Takahashi, Onya Hogan-Finaly, Rebecca Watt and myself. All recent university graduates, we each had our own practice as zine and bookmakers, artists, writers and community activists. We had a history of collaborating with each other on various projects, and we shared an experience of having grown up in North America in the 1990’s, in scenes where political engagement meant reading zines, listening to punk girl bands, idolizing riot grrrls, making your own everything, cutting your hair off, and occasionally, attending a demonstration. The BOOKMOBILE was our very own contribution to the D.I.Y. vision that had guided our teenage years, and it became a vehicle for us to directly engage in the utopic culture we had so ravenously consumed during the second half of the previous decade. The 1990’s saw the rise and unprecedented peak of zine culture. Stephen Duncombe, in his study Notes From Underground: Zines and The Politics of Alternative Culture pointed out:
In an era marked by rapid centralization of corporate media, zines are independent and localized, coming out of cities, suburbs and small town across the USA, assembled on kitchen tables … Rejecting the corporate dream of an atomized population broken down into discrete and instrumental target markets, zine writers form networks and forge communities around diverse identities and interests.[iii]
We, along with hoards of North American alternative youth, believed sincerely that independently produced culture in all its incarnations – including music and records, printed matter and film, events and venues – allowed for the creation and dissemination of information that reaffirmed subversive social practices, and countered the hegemonic institutional, economic, cultural and historical perspectives that mainstream society perpetuated through mass media. Zine culture in particular, fundamentally predicated upon a model of practice and participation that was critical of dominating institutions and culture, held all kinds of liberatory potential for us. Long before enrolling in courses in feminist, queer, or postcolonial studies, I had grappled with race and racism, body image and patriarchy, queer genders and sexualities, and capitalism and consumption through zines that discussed personal experiences of growing up on the margins of North American society. As producers and consumers of such zines, our belief was that such forms of publications held a radically democratic ideal of what culture and society could become.
Over the next five years, the BOOKMOBILE travelled across Canada and the United States for up to five months of the year in a customized Airstream trailer that visited a variety of venues and communities. Presenting an annual collection of zines and independent book works, both through and outside their usual network of distribution, the BOOKMOBILE visited places such as public parks, community, youth drop-in, and artist-run centers, city streets, independent bookstores, academic institutes, festivals, public libraries and a women’s penitentiary. We were intent on reaching a diverse audience, broader than artist and activist crowds. We held a sincere belief that disseminating this form of media could lead to broader social and political change, particularly as we crossed the boundaries between art, literature, academia and activism.
During those same years (2001 to 2005) the ideals of a queer, punk, utopic future were also losing legitimacy. The post 9/11 era was foregrounding the problems of politics being limited to collective-living houses, and bike culture – the staples of a queer punk lifestyle.[iv]
During the 2003 tour, at the early stages of the invasion of Iraq and the peak of the anti-war protests around the world, it was shocking to find the local independent weekly paper in Olympia Washington, home of the riot grrrl movement, running cover stories about local pumpkin growing competitions. This was one among the many instances throughout those years where I felt a distinct rupture between my identity as an Iranian immigrant who had escaped war, and my subcultural allegiances to a queer punk community. With multiple imperialist wars raging in the world without respite, and the second intifada coming to an unliberated conclusion, in its last years, the BOOKMOBILE felt more like an aluminum time capsule that held my teenage utopic aspirations, and less like a genuine alternative to the dystopic reality that was unfolding on screens and streets around the world. It had become clear to me that the form of representational politics that zine culture embraced did not necessarily lead to political action, and the over-emphasis on personal politics over broader geo-political realities stunted our ability as a scene to form an effective response to widespread structural injustice.
In retrospect, the 2000’s can be articulated as a period of significant cultural and political upheaval. Aside from the wars ‘abroad’ and intensified anti-Muslim sentiment across North America and Europe, a decade after its introduction to the public sphere in 1995, the effects of the World Wide Web on communication networks were also beginning to peak. By 2005, people had started proclaiming the oncoming doom of paper, snail mail, books and a host of other obsolescent technologies. Tactile materials and experiences, which were central to the kinds of cultural products that the BOOKMOBILE was invested in, were giving way to new forms of experience and communication mediated by corporate social networking websites such as Friendster, MySpace and Facebook. And information dissemination was exploding at unprecedented levels with the proliferation of Google, Wikipedia and YouTube. Early on as a collective, we had discussed ways of incorporating digital works into our annual collection, but we didn’t have the means or technical savvy to pull it off. After five consecutive years of touring, our volunteer-run project was depleted on many levels. We no longer felt the passionate impetus that had sparked us into existence and spurred us on. We couldn’t and didn’t want to keep going.
We concluded the project in 2005 with a collective decision to terminate our annual BOOKMOBILE marathon. Many of us had moved on to new ventures, many of which had less puritan and utopic aspirations.[v] On a last retreat with the BOOKMOBILE collective, we made a decision to donate our five annual collections to Artexte in Montreal, and we articulated a desire for some form of collectively generated publication that would document the history of the project.[vi] However, we all moved away from this over the next decade with parallel and perpendicular directions without realizing this goal.
The need for a suitable closure continued to haunt us over the last decade. During the past few years, we conceptualized the possibility of an appropriate way to document the history of the BOOKMOBILE. We opted to produce a book with a non-linear narrative, multiple textures and images, designed to reflect the evolution of our punk queer aesthetic as it had been embodied in the project. In the past year, we brought our desired closing gesture into fruition. The BOOKMOBILE book, which will be released this year, includes various contributions from collective members and artists who were central to the realization of the project. The book is composed of images of the collection, of posters and ephemeral objects, as well as various personal accounts, contextualized through reflective and critical texts. It is meant to reflect on the spirit of the times and on the realization that we have a particular, and perhaps peculiar attachment to that spirit. Ultimately, print is the best container for our long-term memory, and what most tangibly connects us to our shared past.
By now, the idea of the demise of print and paper is itself outdated. Instead, newer theories of print culture examine the merging of print and digital platforms to tease out the complementary and contradictory relationship between those two formats. Zine culture also continues to evolve and mutate. For instance, during my last visit to Tehran over a year ago, I frequented an artist-run space that was beginning to develop its zine library. And back in Toronto, the annual local zine and underground culture festival, Canzine, is hosting its 20th installment this autumn. Across North America and Europe, various LGBT, feminist, social history, and other small-scale archives are developing and maintaining substantial zine collections that reflect the non-institutionalized histories of various marginal groups. A decade after the end of the BOOKMOBILE, and two decades after the emergence of the internet, both in form and content, zines still continue to matter and remain legible to a new generation of cultural producers and consumers who came of age in the digital era.
In the process of reflecting on this, and on how zines have, in some ways, outlasted other print mediums, it’s worth noting a few things. The interface of zines has always been more dynamic than other forms of print. They did not necessarily follow the classic, vertical or portrait orientation of traditional print. They often contained multiple layers of text and images on each page, giving the reader options for how to navigate multiple content. They permitted their producers the freedom to express their ideas and opinions on their own terms, for better or worse. Furthermore, long before “network” was a digital term, zine culture embraced its possibility and relied on its potential through connecting like-minded people across continents, fostering collectivity around social, political and cultural issues through content as well as through the very gestures of sharing and production, disseminating multiple forms of alternative cultural practices, in part through hybrid, non-linear uses of text and image, and so forth. In many ways, it’s easy to see how the shift from zine culture to social media and blogging, and back again to various dynamic, tactile print formats has been a smooth one.
It is a curious moment to revisit this project and the period that produced it. Growing up in the monotonous safety of cities, small towns and suburbs of North America in the 1990’s meant that we had the time and space to dream big while we took small steps to alter our own lived realities. However, while we espoused radical politics, most of us were disconnected from, and had very little real interest in what was happening in the world beyond our subcultural bubble. Today, as my Facebook newsfeed explodes with images of a new round of massacres in Gaza, I am thankful that this form of ignorance or oblivion is no longer possible or plausible for those who make claims for a radical politics.
Perhaps the 1990’s now seem far away enough to look back. Over the last couple of years, a number of books, films and exhibitions have attempted to capture the era that we witnessed, and that the BOOKMOBILE project was a product of. Yet, many have opted for nostalgia rather than critique. I’d like to think that our book is different, but for the most part, it is not. Something about the idealism of our youth still holds sway and perhaps this is not a bad thing today. In our current era of dashed political dreams, with full knowledge of a world that increasingly feels unbearable to be a part of, instead of declarations of doom and demise, perhaps what is needed is a futurity that feels impossible in the present, but was imaginable in the past.