How zines are capturing social history
An enormous archive of self-published magazines is helping researchers catalogue and explore social history here at the University of Portsmouth.
In this episode, Dr Jac Batey explains how her passion for zines has escalated into a valuable library of material for researchers, historians and fans alike.
What is a Zine?
Zines are mini publications that capture personal experiences on a wealth of subjects. From fan communities to social commentary, these illustrated and creative works give an unparalleled insight into thought and opinion beyond the mainstream media, something that is invaluable to social historians:
The nature of production, often cheap and quick, means these Art-Zines reflect the thoughts and hopes of the day (quite literally).
Dr Jackie Batey is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Art, Design and Performance at the University of Portsmouth. She explained how zines are an important expressive medium for illustrators and creators such as herself:
There seems to be something quite liberating for the maker. You're in control of the narrative rather than always being swept along by circumstances or organisations or institutions.
Zineopolis is born
Jac had the idea to create Zineopolis in 2007. This collection of more than 300 art-zines sees people exploring issues as diverse as veganism, animal rights, technology, politics and mental health, offering a visual language and communication where other mediums might fail.
She began to build the collection by working with a network of fellow enthusiasts, archives and libraries such as the Wellcome Trust Glasgow and Barnard Zine Library.
Illustrators with a message
Many illustrators use zines as a way of communicating ideas and narratives on issues that exist on the fringe of mainstream media but nevertheless have communities interested in engaging in conversation and even activism.
Jac first started making her own zines on long rail commutes before and during the 2008 economic downturn. She began to sketch on the train, incorporating her responses to personal conversations she overheard. Before long, she realised that this way of connecting with and interpreting other people’s experiences was uniquely informing her work:
The more I associated with people, the more I found I was getting a better connection and more feedback than I ever had as a commercial illustrator to change the direction of my work in a radical way. I look back now if it was like a little 20-year potted history
Realising the value of these ‘potted histories’ of personal experience was the big motivator to collaborate on compiling Zineopolis. She also thinks that zines can capture a diversity of experiences and provide a valuable tool for personal development due to their existence in the cracks of mainstream representation and media.
The Zineopolis collection can be accessed physically by visitors to the University of Portsmouth, but if you’re curious to learn more and explore a few of the digitised artworks, you can find them on the Zineopolis website.
Anna Rose: Welcome to Life Solved. In this podcast, we look at the University of Portsmouth research that's changing our world. Today we're finding out how an arts archive is capturing personal experiences so that future generations can understand our times through human stories. We'll also hear how illustration is an important tool in managing mental health, communicating ideas, expressing diversity and sharing experiences.
Jac Batey: It felt like I was able to have a space where I could do exactly what I wanted to and publish or not publish it myself. And it's like with me being in control of your own distribution and your own marketing.
Anna Rose: If you've never heard of a zine, you're about to find out exactly why these mini publications are offering invaluable insight into human and personal experiences beyond the mainstream media. Portsmouth researcher Dr Jac Batey is behind an enormous archive of material. Let's find out more. A zine is a printed booklet that's often self-published by the creator. Zines can feature original artwork from illustrators or borrowed images and writing. They're created by fans, groups and collectives of people who want to share in a conversation or express something using a visual format. They're usually not for profit. One such thing creator is illustrator Jac Batey, and Jac's passion for making these small, often beautiful publications hasn't stopped there. She's created Zineopolis, a collection of art zines including graphic novels, pamphlets and other publications. She told us more.
Jac Batey: Zineopolis started around about 2007 because I had a vast collection of zines and comics, self-published material by students, staff and other practitioners in the field, and I really had nowhere to put it or catalogue it or store it, and it felt like lots of disparate elements. I set up Zineopolis as an art zine collection that we could house at Portsmouth. I wanted to capture that material and kind of keep it for future researchers. Keep it so that I could use it in teaching and learning. And I also was making zines as part of my own research as an illustrator, as a visual practitioner.
Anna Rose: You might be wondering what sort of research can be done using zines as the source material. Jac explained the cultural, personal and social insight these creations give us into a time and place.
Jac Batey: It's like a snapshot of, you know, thoughts and feelings. I have generally focussed on art zines and design. I work in illustration. I run MA Illustration as well. So I'm tending to look for zines that have high visual content. So generally, the visuals will be of a larger proportion than the text. Some will be visual only, so they may include comics and narrative sequences, cartoons, artworks, occasionally illustrated poetry, but generally, it's much more sort of visual communicators. I mean, many of these items are quite ephemeral in nature. So many of them are kind of would be made and gifted to a friend and maybe kept or maybe lost. So it's kind of quite fleeting and quite a lot of stories are quite personal. It's funny looking back because we've got zines that talk about things like Brexit, but they're also talking about key issues in the UK like the credit crunch. Particular historical, well, now historical issues, because they're so contemporary and people make them and can publish them within days essentially, you can make them very quick. Unlike academic publishing, you can get a real feeling of mood and the flavour of the time from them. And I know some museums are collecting things like protest banners for the same reason that, you know, normally they would be thrown away, but actually, it's a good measure of mood. So I think the zines in the same way, a kind of showing that kind of development. Generally, you go straight to the voice of the creator, so you know, their moods, their journey and their sort of experiences can go directly into your hands. And the lovely thing about zines, many of them are printed. We have mostly sort of print versions, so they really do feel like quite a special moment and a connection with someone else. It's an artefact that can be carried, it can be shared. Some of them are actually meant to be sort of shared and swapped or given away as gifts, so they're not made to make money. They're generally a way of just connecting. That's quite important with zines, and some are really, you know, incredibly honest and you feel very privileged that they're allowing you to view their personal story. But there seems to be something quite liberating for the makers in that in that maybe it is about putting control back into that personal story. That is your story to share, and it's your story to illustrate and you're in control of the narrative rather than always being swept along by circumstances or organisations or institutions.
Anna Rose: Understanding the human experience through art and culture is not only a historian's work. Jac says the current scenes are exploring young people's perspectives, as well as issues such as health and mental health. So not only do zines give a snapshot of this moment, they provide a real-time human to human communication and connection, something that's been ever more important during the isolation of the pandemic. Jac says zines also create a language where words sometimes fail and can even bring light to difficult situations.
Jac Batey: I've also been fascinated with the way we can use humour to explain sort of emotion and so especially things to do with mental well-being again when we're looking at things like such as stress or burnout. Using kind of elements of humour to take the alarm out of the situation, but to give people a different coping mechanism. A consumer can be a very effective coping mechanism and used carefully, it can make people feel a bit more in control again of their situation. I think that's the important thing with zines is that they are made to share. So although it might be that you're sharing with a very small group of people, or it might be just your friends, or maybe just your family that you're trying to share something with, quite often people share much more broadly than that, so they might share through things like Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, etc. But really, it's that idea of sort of connecting to a group of people that also understand or may feel they need help?
Anna Rose: Since the dawn of print, small scale guerilla publication has been a way in which people can communicate ideas and build solidarity upon current issues. And it's no different with zines today, which cover everything from veganism to general politics, sexuality and alternative perspectives on mainstream media issues. The evolution of technology has only powered more and more creation.
Jac Batey: One of the problems with the mainstream media is there tends to be the same sort of narratives come through. And again, it would depend on what's on-trend, I suppose, and what people are paid to write, essentially. But with zines, you don't have that because it's not funded by anyone. So people are just writing about what they're interested in. Recently, I mean, we've had a lot of zines looking at environmental issues. So the climate change, you know, these are sort of key topics that you would expect to be coming through. And indeed, they are, which the spinoffs from that means we're looking at a lot of animal welfare zines. There is quite a lot about sort of veganism or factory farming, meat production. There's a really lovely one called the foul egg that's about battery chicken farming. And basically, the person who did that did have experience of a battery farm is a classical work. The sequence is an illustrated narrative from the point of view of the chicken. And so it's a really lovely, almost like a children's story, but with a very dark theme running through it. And you really do live the life of the chicken through this kind of illustrated zine, which is great for making people change their opinions. Zine's really started to become really popular with the invention of the photocopier. So basically, somebody had a photocopier at work, and it suddenly means that you can now be a printer, whereas before that you had to pay for printing. So photocopy was essentially liberated people in terms of making publications. Then you add to that to the desktop publishing that you've got software that means that people can lay out and they can digitise, you know, which is wonderful, actually does mean that it becomes so much easier for people to be able to reproduce things and essentially put it into sequence and print it. So then we've kind of go into more sort of social media where the actual sharing of this now becomes possible in a much wider sense. So rather than sharing amongst a sort of niche group, and quite often things like sort of feminist zines or funk zines or music zines, they might have been shared within a group of fans or group of friends. Suddenly with Facebook, etc. you can now share with the whole world. So it's quite a different kind of feeling. There's still quite a lot of collections that are wholly based on print. So I have got some PDF things and there has been more of that especially in the pandemic year, as you can imagine. It seems like people still prefer a tangible artefact that you can hold in your hands.
Anna Rose: It's great to have more and more creative opportunities through tech, but sometimes there's nothing like the experience of holding something beautiful in your hands. The smell of fresh print. Mmm. The collection at Zineopolis is enormous and diverse. Jac collaborated with libraries and other collections, building a network of fellow enthusiasts to grow the collection here in Portsmouth.
Jac Batey: Once the Dean Collection had started, we rapidly got up to three or four hundred artefacts, which are all limited edition, some of them editions of 50 or editions of 10, and in some cases, just one-off. So that's a remarkable collection that grew very quickly. And a network with other collections. So I joined the Dean Librarians collective because I'm not a librarian, I'm an illustrator and practitioner. It was really good to get some information from things like the Bernard Seed Library, the Wellcome Trust, Glasgow seeing library and people are very generous in this particular field. So a lot of that information is shared and there's a very sort of strong network of people looking to support zines and storing zines, working with them as researchers, but also as practitioners and actually making and sharing these as well. So it's really delightful community to be part of.
Anna Rose: Jac's own experience of creating zines came from long rail commutes back in 2006 and throughout the credit crunch period. She found this way of interpreting the world through illustration fed her work in a really positive way. In addition to creating a more personal record.
Jac Batey: So getting a bit bored with reading on the train. So I was kind of drawing on the train rather than reading and taking a sketchbook and felt pens. And it was lovely. I found I was just sort of drawing what was happening around at the time. So the content is the world. It's the world you're in and so I was drawing overheard phone conversations. You're on the train, draw other people on the train, and just the everyday things that happen. The free newspaper, which is quite terrible in the UK again, the stories and headlines from that which are generally inspired to wind people up. So, again, how are they turned into something kind of amusing? And it is strange because the more I shared it with people, the more I found I was getting a better connection and more feedback than I ever had as a commercial illustrator. So it's changed the direction of my work in quite a radical way. And it's funny looking back now because I am on issue number twenty one, but I have got zines about the credit crunch and quantitative easing and the royal wedding, the royal baby. And it's all the things that happened in Britain looking back and I look back now, and if it was like a little twenty-year potted history.
Anna Rose: Jac says that by collecting zines in all their diversity and minutiae, she's adding more permanence and posterity to otherwise fleeting human experiences. She thinks drawing and zine creation for expression can provide really helpful personal strategies for managing change in mental health. Here's an example of how one person's experience became useful to many.
Jac Batey: Student leaders theme called panic, and this one is about post-traumatic stress disorder. And the zine is really beautifully illustrated with little incidents that no one tells you. So, for example, one of the illustrations is about smartphones. If you are undergoing a panic attack, it's really difficult to make a smartphone work because you can't get the touch button to work or your hands are too sweaty to get it to work. Or you can't see clear enough to put the code in. So actually, as an emergency phone, it's really quite bad in some scenarios. Well, incidents like that you would not get in a public information leaflet. The nice thing with that is he did share his work online and was actually very generous in sharing this very personal experience, but with a wider audience for the point of trying to help other people. It's again, it comes from a very generous, positive space. But this was also picked up by Mental Health England, and they interviewed the student and then promoted the work on their website. So it went out to more of their catchments that they were looking to... So strangely, something that started personal as a zine, became something that was much more widely published and circulated.
Anna Rose: Students at Portsmouth are able to visit and lose themselves in the Zineopolis collection in person. But if you'd like to take a look yourself, you can go to zineopolis.blogspot.com. You can also find out about submitting your own work to Zineopolis there. Thanks for joining us for Life Solved. If you want to find out more about research at the University of Portsmouth, go to the website port.ac.uk. We'll be back next Thursday with another story of how work that's happening here is changing all of our lives for good. Catch you then.