Tell me about your first exposure to zines.
Like all super young fanzine kids, I thought I invented making my own books through the discovery of my earlier invention, folding multiple pieces of paper together. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s and making or had already made the first AnneZine that I ever saw a zine anyone else had made. It was this weird feeling of half-betrayal, half-total recognition: Oh my god, that thing I invented was also simultaneously invented by someone else, and I both love it and hate it! But it was sort of a secret thing I did for a while. I remember I was working at the Progressive magazine in the mid-1990s, and they were talking about or did run an article on fanzine culture, and they got a bunch of stuff wrong. This was right when, like, Warner Brothers and Urban Outfitters were getting into making zines, and there’d been major newspaper pieces about them and the fake Dishwasher Pete was going on Letterman and stuff. And I didn’t say anything because I was like, fuck. Real zinesters aren’t gonna care they’ve been misrepresented. They got their own media to run corrections in. A little while later when it did come out at work that I did this zine, It became this huge thing, as if, I was this secretly famous person who was all into democracy and stuff, right in their very midst! It was weird, because this was the Progressive, you know? A slightly larger independent publishing project with about the same number of contributors as the average AnneZine. But paid.
How long have you been writing and creating zines?
There are probably 100 interviews with me out there where I say that I started when I was 15, but just a couple months ago I got a box of some of my old stuff sent to me–early journals and scrapooks and stuff–and my very first zine was in it, and I totally made it when I was 11. It was a comic about a fly who had a catchphrase that was “darn!”, and it was very Garfieldesque in terms of it not being funny in the way it’s intended to be funny, and also because it was about an animal filled with pathos. I had lunch with Lynda Barry the other day and we were talking about our very first zines or little books–she mentions hers in Picture This!–and she made me tell her all about it. It was called something awesome like Buzzing Around! or Flyin’ High! or Buggin’ Out!. I can’t remember and it fell off my desk so maybe it’s lost now forever, but it was really incredibly dumb. I also had a comedy sketch that went with it, a whole routine that I tried to get people to listen to during lunch break at school, have a little comedy club? But I couldn’t get the other girls to do comedy with me. And no way was I going to hang out with boys, because of the cooties. Anyway, Lynda laughed really hard, which I am grateful for. Later, she threatened to go back in time and kick the ass of my ex-boyfriend. So, what was the question? Why is Lynda Barry the best human on earth?
A lot of readers will be familiar with your name from Punk Planet, but would you give us a quick overview of some of the other titles you have masterminded or contributed to over the years?
Well, if the Punk Planet readers out there–or any independent culture fans, really–haven’t read Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity (New Press), then there is a problem. I mean, even Pamela Anderson’s read that. But the Best American Comics series that I started was pretty popular, and I wrote a youth media literacy book called Hey Kidz Buy This Book: A Radical Primer on Corporate and Governmental Propaganda and Artistic Activism for Short People, and edited several comics anthologies for Fantagraphics. I’ve also contributed to The Onion, Bitch, and about every independent magazine that popped up between 1994 and 2007. I founded Matte magazine, which was a very good magazine, although square. We ran an article entirely in shorthand once. Zinesters will recognize my fanzines Pie, long-running series AnneZine, Operation Pocket Full of Wishes, Detective Stories, or the Manifesti of Radical Literature. But the thing most people don’t know I edited was the fake New York Times of September, 2008 that the Yes Men falsely claim credit for. There’s other stuff, too. Stuff you’ve seen or read or heard about. I’m pretty prolific.
How did you end up getting the opportunity to teach and mentor in Cambodia?
Shortly after we stopped publishing Punk Planet in 2007, and once Unmarketable came out, I started looking into accidental systems of oppression: situations in which, despite claims of freedom of expression and democracy, some participants do not have access to the tools they need to communicate with each other and better their lives.
So I became fascinated with Cambodia, where “democracy” is defined as the freedom to say positive things about the government, and journalists are regularly beaten up or worse for, you know, printing verified facts, and where one of the biggest papers in the country was sold in 2008 to a conglomerate based in Myanmar. Burma. An actual military dictatorship. Eventually, I was invited to come live in a dormitory in Phnom Penh for 32 young women students who were just entering school for the first time because they’d sort of been forgotten about when the educational system was rebuilt in the 1990s. When I was offered the residency, I thought: Oh-ho! This thing that I’ve devoted most of my time to since I was 11, promoting media access via print self-publishing, that isn’t working right now in the States due to what I’d call economic censorship–corporate forces pushing out non-corporate media, particularly that which speaks against corporate forces–I’m gonna see how that flies with the cute and the Cambodian.
The concept of self-publishing is not new in Cambodia : the lack of publishers often makes it the only publishing option. But because of the rampant self-censorship and very real government supression, and because visual artists are discouraged from drawing from a very early age, few examples of self-publishing actually exist. Yet as a group of 33, the dorm residents and I created close to 50 zines on topics as diverse as rice production and agriculture in contemporary society, women’s issues, spirituality, health care in the countryside, and Cambodia’s unique and disturbing genocidal history.
I couldn’t believe how well it went over. For a country where there are only three literary publishers, where freedom of expression is regularly oppressed, where we had to invent the very notion of distribution, and where the average monthly income is $60 per month–well, I thought it would be a harder sell than it was. I thought explaining why this was useful and worth spending time and a few pennies on for photocopies would be difficult. But in fact, most of the girls had just been waiting for the chance to express their opinions about the economic hardship of their country, highlight its beauty, outline their hopes for its future. So we found a way to do it safely–in English, through small social networks we invented ourselves–and wrote and drew to our hearts’ content. Perhaps the strangest part was, there was no malice in our work. It was all pure, hopeful, and enthusiastic. It is a country without irony.
What kind of work went into creating and printing Cambodian Grrrl?
Oh, like regular book publishing work. I’ve done all levels of production, from self-publishing on-the-fly to working with fancypants publishers to running a press, so when I want something to look pro, I make it look pro. When I want it to look scrappy, I make it look scrappy. And obviously, when I want it to look like the New York Times . . .
I wanted this to be comprehensible in both places. I wanted it to be clearly American and referencing that underground culture I came up in, but also acceptable in Cambodia, where if I had photocopied it and really given it that riot grrrl edge, I would have run the risk of insulting the people I was writing about, I mean, they don’t have any reference point for underground culture. Giving something that scrappy look there just means you weren’t trying very hard and don’t care. In Cambodia it’s important to care.
I thought it was interesting that you included parts of the Riot Grrrl manifesto at the end of Cambodian Grrrl. What gave you the inspiration to do that?
Well, that’s sort of my background. That was a document I stumbled across when zinemaking was a major part of my social life, and I worked on a radio show in the mid-1990s called Girl Germs and traded fanzines with–well, all those people. So that’s a living breathing document that has real, functional value in my life, like the International Declaration of Human Rights does for young Khmer women.
One of the things that we did–and Cambodian Grrrl is part of a series of books I’ll be doing from this work, one of them addresses this project specifically– was collaborate on a revision of the traditional Khmer text known as Girl Law, which circumscribes proper roles for women in Cambodian culture. It has all sorts of provisions on not making noise when you move, never looking boys in the eye, and accepting the beating your husband gives you. So our version, New Girl Law, is a letter-pressed, hand-bound book that calls for basic human rights, gender equity, the eradication of corruption, and funding for cultural production. It is a re-envisioning of a potential future for the country. It was co-written by all 33 of us in Phnom Penh, and then printed at AS220’s Community Print Shop in Providence, Rhode Island. For a while I was touring with it, using it to foster international discussions of women’s position in human rights and social justice frameworks, including among groups of economically disadvantaged creative young women in Providence and San Antonio, TX.
This work’s been shown in Chicago exhibitions Holle Cambodia (at ThreeWalls gallery), Dismantling the Corporate State and Other Amusements (at Columbia College Center for Book and Paper Arts), and for Women’s History month at the Chicago Public Library, as well as in Time Out Chicago, Make/Shift, and Print. It appeared on GritTV with Laura Flanders and Worldview with Jerome McDonnell. I’ve also lectured on this work at the University of Chicago; Women, Action, and Media 2008; and in venues and workshop spaces across the United States. Just in case, like, it sounds familiar.
Anyway, you know, the girls in the dorm I was living with in January 2008 asked me to make them a mix CD before I left, and I’d spent a lot of time talking to them about hand-forging your own culture, and making it be about things that interested you. We talked a lot about Britney Spears, and how she sings songs about boys, and how we end up singing those songs in Cambodia, even if we work in rice fields and don’t really know what a Western-style “date” is. So I essentially made them an all-grrrl post-punk and riot grrrl dance CD, which is still one of my favorite CD mixes ever. They listen to CDs while they hula hoop–most of the old punk crew would be appalled.
So the thing is, that Girl Law exists in the US, too. It’s just comes through in our advertising messages, our TV shows, and, yes, our boy-centric music culture. Which still exists today. And for sure, I felt as severely protective of/ambivalent about/frustrated by the ’90s punk/indie music scene as they do about Girl Law. And what did my peers do in the US? We rewrote the rules. I wanted the young women of Cambodia to realize that, you know, this is a strategy women have used, over and over, to recreate, fix, better, and make their own damn culture. Not to mention that, let’s be honest, there are plenty of young women, trans people, queers, and generally lost folk here in the US who forget that one response to oppression is fucking smashing it.
You edited the Best American Comics anthology in 2006 with Harvey Pekar. Would you talk a little about your experience with that? What work went into it? How was collaborating with Pekar?
I did. I miss Harvey. The book was so much about he and I finding this massive point of convergence on the politics of comics publishing and then just having fun with the results. God, I still remember how impressed I was that he was so willing to be so bold with that book. I loved him. We went on tour together for a week, too, and, like I had had nightmares when I was young about being this perky thing and being forced to spend time with some old codgery coot. But it was the best thing in the world.
Grit TV asked me to do a eulogy on him here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsEbaLZcBlc
Tell me about the Unlympic Games zine, it was hilarious.
From January to February 2009, I held a series of sporting events in Chicago called the Winter Unlympic Games. They were a series of competitive events that engaged Chicago residents in active dialogue about Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid. At the time, the city had entered a hundred-million-dollar bid for host-city status, despite polls indicating an overwhelming lack of support for hosting the 2016 Games. The purpose of the Unlympic Games was to look at highly organized, internationally recognized, massively marketed, thoroughly branded, and extremely expensive sporting events not from a pro or con standpoint, but from a questioning standpoint. The Unlympics included real sports, fake sports, and things that should be sports but aren’t yet, including Class-Conscious Kickball, Fashion, Karaoke, Live Action Role Play Family Dinner, The Solitary Isolation Game, and Spelling. Indoor and outdoor games were held throughout the city and open to the public. These events were sponsored by organizations with a stake in the 2016 Olympic bid. The Solitary Isolation Game, for example, held during a series of events on February 14 called the Emotional Games, was sponsored by Tamms Year Ten, an organization working to reform a supermax prison in southern Illinois that regularly uses solitary isolation. While participants competed to wear the hoods for the longest duration, former prisoners shared their experiences in the Tamms Supermax facility, and spoke of torture under police detective John Burge (currently awaiting sentencing in Chicago), and the history of torture, detainment, and gentrification that often comes to Olympic host cities in advance of the Games. Karaoke followed. After the enthusiastic participation of over 500 vocal citizens across the entire expanse of the city, Chicago lost the bid in the October vote of the International Olympic Committee.
A documentary on this project has been screened on CAN-TV and Free Speech TV. This project was featured on the radio programs Outside the Loop Radio, Vocalo, Chicago Public Radio WBEZ’s 848, and WGN. Features appeared in the online and print publications the Chi-Town Daily News, Chicago Weekly, Chicagoist, and the New York Times. However, by far the most exciting glowing write-up was on some LARP blog, which basically confused all the facts and thought we’d held a LARP game as an actual part of the Olympics. If I go down in history for anything at all, I deinitely want it to be “made Live Action Role Play an Olympic event.” There’s more information and a video at http://unlympics.wordpress.com.
You are quite busy online as well as in the print realm. Do you ever think you’ll focus all of your creative energies online or do you think the print medium is still essential for zines?
I’d like to say that as soon as every human alive has free web and computer access and total control over their own digital content, I’ll consider moving all production online, but I don’t actually think I will ever do that. For one thing, most of my zinemaking is done now in Cambodia, where cheap copiers are much easier to come by than a computer terminal. But more importantly, zines are just accessible in a way that I like. I do have a few online projects, that I use to communicate with the kinds of people who read blogs and the internet, but to do the kind of intervention work I think is necessary to achieve social change, you still need to be handy with meatspace. I know that sounds dirty.
What sort of feedback and reactions do you get from your audience and peers?
I can’t deny that I’m very well loved. It’s funny though when moving between the zine world and the “book publishing world” (pretending for a moment they’re totally different): The same things matter to me in each. So, like, an Unmarketable fan sent me a super cute note, and I wrote back, of course, and then in return I got this song that now goes on every mix CD I make. And that’s the sort of stuff that really sustains me. Because I also work in a radical, smart, art-making community in Chicago that, to be honest, isn’t all that supportive. And the work I do in Cambodia, for example, can be very very difficult. I’ve had guns pointed at me on more than one occasion (although, OK, one of them turned out to be fake) and I don’t have many peers to consort with, so “hey I really think you’re / what you’re doing is cool and here’s a blog post / song / zine I wrote about you / wanted you to have” really goes a long way.
What zines are you enjoying right now?
I’m the world’s biggest fan of Geneva 13 out of Geneva New York, which is a zine about varying aspects of this town where, like, zine culture wouldn’t seem natural. And yet, people love this thing and it’s become a really central part of public life there, and it’s really exciting. And Mickey Zacchilli is making these amazing comics I can’t get enough of. But I don’t really distinguish between zines or books or magazines or comics. I just have a massive pile of things to read on the coffee table and whatever’s up next, that’s what I’m into.
What are some of the projects you have coming up soon?
I was just given a Fulbright to return to Cambodia for the winter and work with young people studying global and independent media. It’s pretty incredible, that the US State Department is sponsoring this, and it allows me to make all sort of jokes about the percentage of money the US State Department spends on zines vs. everything else. It’s important to keep in mind that this is work that has been funded and supported by, essentially, the zine community and DIY culture for three years. I kinda miss it, but the Fulbright’s nice too. If you wanna keep up with that, I write about it at http://www.cambolgdia.blogspot.com. I’ve also signed a deal to turn that writing and some of the essays in Cambodian Grrrl into a four-book series with Cantankerous Titles, so those will start coming out soon, too.