Capital Week: ‘Instituting Change: the MCA Zine Fair and DIY Zine Culture’, by Bastian Fox Phelan


Image by Mcld. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

To celebrate the release of TLB32: the Capital Issue, we at TLB’s website are running a ‘Capital'–themed week, featuring original content especially commissioned for the website. Our last piece: Bastian Fox Phelan on institutions and change from below.

The MCA Zine Fair is one of the most prominent zine fairs in Australia, but many people don’t know the story of its origin. This is a personal story, like the zines I have made for over ten years.

Zines teach us something special: a few sheets of photocopied paper can be powerful. When I wrote ‘Ladybeard’ in 2010, I never thought that it would have such an impact. All I had done was tell the story of how—as a female-assigned person—I let my beard hairs grow. Countless people have told me how much this story meant to them.

Publishing a zine is a courageous action. Zines show us how to believe in the validity of our voices, and how to take interest in the voices of the people around us. They teach us about not waiting to be lifted up into the canon of rarefied culture in order to say something; they let us share our message now. The ability to care about each other, to do something now, is what we need to access, urgently.

I first came across zines in 2003 at Belladonna DIY Festival in my hometown of Wollongong. I was still in high school, and had no idea that you could get together with your friends and start a festival, or put on a workshop about bike maintenance or DIY reproductive health, or print your own publications. When someone at the zine fair gave me my first zine, I took it home, pulled it apart, and started making my own.

Since that day, I’ve been embedded in zine culture: I’ve organised zine fairs, tabled at zine fairs, travelled to the other side of the world for zine fairs. ‘Ladybeard’ is held in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, the National Library of Australia, and zine libraries around the world: Halifax, Wellington, Toronto, New York. It’s been quoted in theses. Something I wrote one afternoon and put together with scissors and glue.

Zines are a creative outlet for personal expression, a manifestation of the idea that anyone can make art. That is what’s radical about zines. They carry seeds of independent, unmoderated thought.

In 2007 I had the opportunity to meet with Wendy Were, the then-Director of the Sydney Writers Festival. I thought that SWF was badly in need of some alternative culture, so I suggested organising a zine fair. The director agreed to cover table hire costs if I would organise and promote it, as a volunteer. I accepted this, and started contacting people in the zine community. The Zine Fair was held on a sunny day in June on the piers at Dawes Point. Tables were free of charge. It was a small but auspicious start for a new zine fair. I was keen to see how it would grow.

Wendy contacted me in early 2008 to tell me that the Museum of Contemporary Art were interested in the zine fair. They wanted to partner with them on the next event. She asked if I wanted to be involved. I thought it was a great idea to move it to the MCA: a bigger venue with a roof, in case it rained. Wendy passed on my details.

I never heard from the MCA. I found out several months later that the SWF Zine Fair would be rebranded as the MCA Zine Fair and organised by employees of the MCA. I emailed the MCA to book a table. In my email I criticised their decision to charge people for tables, when my zine fair had been free. I also questioned why I hadn’t been involved in the organising process. This was my idea, the zine fair I had started. I still offered to share my contacts and distribute flyers.

The Senior Manager of Education & Access wrote back to me, saying I’d raised some valid points. She didn’t acknowledge what had happened. She said someone would be in touch to discuss how I could be involved. Nobody followed up.

On the day of the first MCA Zine Fair, I couldn’t shake the feeling of disappointment. I’d been cut out. It was worse than someone photocopying your zine without permission. Worse than seeing your friends throw out a zine you’d made. These guys were breaking the rules of zine culture – rules that protected people who poured their hearts into their work, that allowed us to keep on sharing ourselves. People who aren’t involved in the zine community might not understand the level of respect that zine makers have for zines. To others, they are throwaway bits of paper, something ephemeral. To zinesters, they are like love letters. You keep them forever: in a desk drawer, in old suitcases. Zine fairs are the only time that zinemakers get together, so for us, these gatherings are holy.

The MCA Zine Fair was massive. It has continued to expand every year. It now stretches over two days – those days bring in more members of the public at one time than any other event at the MCA. The Zine Fair continues to provide opportunities for hundreds of zinesters to show and distribute their work, as well as introducing tens of thousands of people to the direct, personal and free-spirited medium of the zine.

I’m amazed that the little seed I nurtured grew into something much bigger than I anticipated. But it’s different from the feeling I have about how ‘Ladybeard’ has gone on to have a life of its own. When you make a zine, you have some say in where it goes, or how big its circulation will be. I’ve personally folded and stapled most of the zines in those libraries around the world. Zines can’t go viral; they must be shared directly, from the creator to the reader.

Among zinesters there’s an unspoken agreement that you won’t make copies of people’s zines without permission. That would be appropriation. I wasn’t given a choice about where the Zine Fair went, or how it changed. An event created by a community member was co-opted by an institution, and that goes against the DIY ethos that is so integral to the authenticity of zines.

The sense of disconnection intensified for me when the MCA’s link to Transfield was exposed during the 19th Biennale of Sydney in 2014. It was an obvious choice for me to boycott the MCA Zine Fair and table at Other Worlds, the zine fair that emerged following the example set by the Biennale artists who pulled out. At this new zine fair I found like-minded zine makers. I felt that sense of connection that initially attracted me to making zines: the familiar faces returning year after year, crafting beautiful, intimate, funny, provocative art and writing, shared at a low cost, traded or given away – the zines that made you cry and the zines that changed your life.

Every year when the MCA Zine Fair rolls around, people ask if I’m going. I tell them I’ll be at Other Worlds. Even though the MCA has cut their Transfield connections, I have a lingering sense of discomfort about the ethics of the institution. There’s Transfield, and there’s my personal experiences.

This year I had an idea: I wrote to the MCA and asked them if I could write a story about the history of the Zine Fair. I met with Yael Filipovic, Public Engagement Manager, and Vivian Cooper, Public Engagement Assistant. I introduced myself as the person who had originated the zine fair that became their beloved MCA Zine Fair, and they congratulated me. The interview was almost over before I had the courage to tell them my real reason for coming: that I didn’t have a say in the MCA’s takeover. Neither of them knew about that history, but they acknowledged that it wasn’t right. I left feeling happy that we could connect on what we had in common: the love of zines.

It used to be easy for me to label the MCA as an evil, faceless institution. Now I see that things are a little more complex. The MCA is made up of incredibly passionate, dedicated, art-loving people. They don’t profit financially from the Zine Fair, they do it as a service to the community, and they benefit by attracting people to the exhibitions: places where we can learn, expand, and imagine possible futures. It’s wonderful for zine-makers to be able to show their work in a contemporary art gallery. It means something that the MCA values art made by people who aren’t professional, established career artists.

But the MCA is still an institution. Can any institution do service to a community, and a medium, that evolved outside of institutions, often in opposition to institutions? Zine fairs, like zines themselves, are a form of counter-culture. Independently and collectively organised, many zine fairs are explicitly anarchist, queer, or otherwise anti-establishment. The organisers are zine-makers. We understand the values behind zine making. It’s not just about self-publishing. It’s about self-publishing together.

When control of the organising process goes into the hands of people who must represent their employer’s interests as well as doing service to the zine community, accountability is compromised. I can understand the enthusiasm of the MCA, wanting to support zine-making with their resources, space, the exposure that their Circular Quay location brings. Sometimes you need to balance enthusiasm with patience: take the time to do something right. Zines come from a specific culture with strong values. If you remove them from that, their meaning and power begins to be erased.

When people use their sphere of influence within institutions to hold space for independent creators, it’s encouraging. Public platforms allow individuals to share their vision for a different kind of world – one that truly values every member. The question is how to create dialogue between cultural institutions and independent creators. Meeting the needs of different communities means involving community members in every step of the process, transferring the power back to their hands, for their benefit.

If we want institutional change, if we want to encourage powerful institutions to be accountable, to change their community engagement practices, their ways of receiving funding, we need to keep trying to start conversations. An effective way to get institutions to listen is to boycott. The Biennale artists didn’t shut down Manus Island or Nauru. Other Worlds hasn’t replaced the MCA Zine Fair. But they opened up public debate about the ethics of the institution, and the institution was given an opportunity to respond.

Boycotting is one tool among many. For me, going to meet the current organisers of the MCA Zine Fair helped to resolve my ongoing sense of alienation from the Zine Fair. Someone in the sandstone tower finally heard me. Our conversation didn’t change what happened, or my critical position, but it helped me connect with them. From there, you can share ideas and work on shifting things together.

Zines touched my life deeply because of their ability to connect me to others. Something that had always set me apart—my beard—was calling people in, through the stories I told. That zine was a container for my personal thoughts and experiences, tentatively shared with the world, and as it opened it created a ripple of transformative change.

Bastian Fox Phelan is a genderfluid writer and zinemaker living in Sydney. They are working on a memoir about facial hair, gender and relationships. They also sing in the dream pop duo Moonsign.