The words “Rent Strike” spill across two spiral-bound pages, in blazing red letters that recall brush strokes on a wall. Another booklet bears the symbol of a bird with outstretched wings and a figure with a raised fist. Around the insignia, there’s a call to arms: “Everyone calls themselves an ally until it is time to do some real ally shit.”
Many alternative-press publications and zines—self-published mini-magazines—exist at the intersection of art and activism. Their history stretches back to the birth of the mimeograph and Xerox machines, which spurred a burst in the 1950s and 1960s; the 1990s saw another groundswell. More recently, sites like Tumblr, with its digital-patchwork quality, have elevated the socio-cultural scrapbooks into the digital age. Protests in Print, a new exhibition at the New York Public Library, brings together 16 recent acquisitions under the banner of social justice.
“It’s a niche collection, but it’s extremely important,” says Karen Gisonny, the periodicals and journals librarian who curated the show. Part of that value stems from the way in which the materials preserve and amplify voices that might exist outside of the more mainstream items in the library’s collection.
The zines span the spectrum of social justice issues—ecology, tenants’ rights, queer health care, disability activism—across vast geographies. “Ancestral Pride,” out of British Columbia, examines what it means to be an ally for indigenous people. “The Blue Collar Review” compiles poetry about workers’ rights; “Tenacious” assembles creative work by women incarcerated in Oregon. “The Point,” published in 1999, was a project of the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center, and described the safe use of needles for intravenous drug users. Gisonny aims to collect materials produced in New York; examples are on display from the Occupy Movement and the Interference Archives.
At one time, the NYPL maintained a roster of 12,000 print subscriptions, says Gisonny. That number has dipped as many have migrated online and the library has pushed to digitize its collections.
But the hard-copy zines and alternative-press materials haven’t dwindled. Over the past two decades, Gisonny says she’s seen a spike in scholarship that takes zines seriously as primary-source documents capturing a snapshot of marginalized communities at a particular moment in time. And she’s noticed a resurgence of print that she attributes to a pushback against “digital overload.”
Historically, many people collected zines by trading, swapping one of their pamphlets for someone else’s, especially from other areas of the country or world. Gisonny attends zine festivals to stock up, and relies on friends and colleagues to send her ones they find. Curating the collection can pose a challenge: While some publications stick to regular printing schedules, others are more sporadic. Many are just “a flash, publishing one or two issues, then it’s gone,” Gisonny says. “Some are a one-shot deal.”
Deciding to splay the zines out in vitrines wasn’t an easy choice, Gisonny says. They’re intended to be handled and paged through, and she didn’t want to skew towards preciousness. Outside of the context of the exhibition, the materials can be summoned using the main library catalog—they’re not part of rare books collection, even if they’re part of a limited-edition run. This type of object—often collaged and collated by hand—has an indelibly tactile quality, Gisonny adds: “It’s visual, it’s ephemeral—people want to hold it.”
Protests in Print is on view at the New York Public Library (Stephen A. Schwarzman Building) through January 18, 2017.