Get Into the Zine Zone at the Brooklyn Museum

“This exhibition contains graphic content and language. Viewer discretion is advised.” – Brooklyn Museum

Consider yourself sufficiently advised. Entering the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition, Copy Machine Manifestos: Artists Who Make Zines, is tantamount to flinging yourself headlong into one of the countless, teeming, live alternative music venues like I frequented in my 20s and early 30s. Of course, there are some obvious omissions: the smoke, the alcohol, the drugs, and the bellowing, milling, lurking, gyrating, copulating (or nearly so), crowd-surfing humans, but the show gives you sex and noise and, well, plenty of stimulation. 

A zine, short for “fanzine,” is, generally speaking, a self-published booklet almost always combining text and images. Originally prompted by fandom – of a band, a comic book character, a celebrity, and so forth – zines became vehicles for do-it-yourself, radical self-expression associated with counter-culture. 

Zines became vehicles for do-it-yourself, radical self-expression associated with counter-culture. 

Importantly, not all zine makers have identified themselves as artists. There is considerable gray area (ironically so, perhaps) in this regard. Ask a librarian, an art historian, and an art curator to define “zine.” For that matter, invite a zine maker in the 1980s and another in the 2020s to explain what a zine is and you may prompt a contentious debate. All may agree, however, that, at least early on – in the ‘70s and ‘80s – a zine could be about a million different things but it was by nature of its unrefined or even crude materiality an impudent middle finger flashed in defiance of the establishment.

Copy Machine Manifestos organizers, Branden W. Joseph and Drew Sawyer (with Marcelo Gabriel Yáñez and Imani Williford), focused specifically on artists’ zines. The exhibition features, notes the Brooklyn Museum, “over one thousand zines and artworks by over one hundred artists,” yet Joseph and Sawyer emphasize that they have uncovered only a fraction of the extant objects and ephemera. 

The objects have been grouped according to a loose chronology and categories: Section 1: The Correspondence Scene 1970–1980, Section 2: The Punk Explosion 1975–1990, Section 3: Queer & Feminist Undergrounds 1987–2000, Section 4: Subcultural Topologies 1990–2010, Section 5: Critical Promiscuity 2000–2010, and Section 6: A Continuing Legacy 2010–2023. Needless to say, the categories-as-containers are contestable: flexible, expandable, porous. 

Click image to enlarge.

FF2 Media readers will likely find the works in Section 3: Queer & Feminist Undergrounds of particular interest. 

As the introductory placard emphasizes, the late ‘80s to 2000 saw a remarkable surge in zine production. Whether queer or feminist punk zines, the movement “provided a platform for sharing personal experiences as well as information about homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism, white supremacy, ableism, HIV/AIDS activism, and classism–often with a heavy dose of satire.” Not surprisingly, the objects on display in Section 3 are demonstrative of this diversity of interests as well as of differences in production quality. 

Zines involving images or a combination of text and images are displayed without accompanying didactic texts. Instead, wall labels provide basic information about individual objects and their makers rather than short interpretive essays. Images may or may not speak for themselves and cover text may tantalize, yet it’s an itch that can’t be scratched as the zines may not (understandably) be opened for perusal. However, either in preparation for or following up on your visit to Copy Machine Manifestos, you may sample in full a limited selection of zines from each category via the exhibition sub-webpage, Zines: Read at Your Own Risk

The goal of the project was, in a way, to examine zine culture and history specific to North America since 1970.

The exhibition’s organizers do not purport to present an exhaustive survey of artists’ zines. As Sawyer explained in a recent interview, the goal of the project was, in a way, to examine zine culture and history specific to North America since 1970. In the course of their broad assessment, the team began to develop an understanding of the integral role that artists have played in zine culture. 

“This canon-expanding exhibition,” explains the brief introduction to Copy Machine Manifestoes on the museum’s website, “documents zines’ relationship to various subcultures and avant-garde practices…” Interspersed with the zines themselves are objects in other media ranging from the expected collage, craft, and drawing to sculpture, painting, photography, film, video, and performance. The results of this ambitious endeavor, of examining “zines’ intersections with other mediums, are mixed, I think. By the time one arrives at the Section 5 galleries, connections between objects in the previous galleries/sections, are not self-evident. 

Five sections in, I realized that I had reached maximum stimulation. I looked for connections to what had come before. I wondered, “Might they be found by skipping to Section 6 and working my way back?” Had I acquired a deeper understanding of zine culture, of lineages or homages, of ruptures or rebellions? Not really, no. Do we need continuums when we assess other art forms? I suppose it’s nice to know where inspiration lay, from whence influence derived when contextualizing an object but that path is one of dead ends and tangents (which is not to say it’s not worth venturing down). 

Further, perhaps I’m too close to early zine culture (having been a zine maker and collector myself) to opine objectively, but I wished in retrospect I’d avoided Sections 5 and 6 altogether. As I entered the Section 6 gallery, I noticed one of the museum security staff place a hand lightly over her forehead. “Are you okay?” I asked. “Is this all a bit much?” I gestured to the video projection to my right as I spoke over the din. She replied, “We take turns in the various galleries so it doesn’t become too much.” 

Does that spirit of unbridled, discordant sensation encompass zine culture? Or, can it be more intimate, at least in the creation and contemplation phases? There’s a quote from decades ago by the CEO of Xerox, Sol Linowitz, who was remarking on the rapidly growing, widespread use of the Xerox copy machine. By 1966, notes Smithsonian writer, Clive Thompson, Americans made a staggering “14 billion” copies. Linowitz cracked, “Have we really made a contribution by making it easier to reproduce junk and nonsense?” 

Zines are far from “junk and nonsense.”

Zines are far from “junk and nonsense.” On the contrary. The copy machine didn’t merely facilitate self-publishing, it inspired a new “high-contrast, low-fi” (as Thompson puts it) aesthetic that artists appreciated and even replicated. Aside from birthing a medium, the copier democratized the kind of self-expression that zines facilitated. As for genealogies, crucially, the production quality of an analog zine can’t be replicated digitally. Or, perhaps it can but what would the point of a counterfeit be?

Parallel rather than complimentary to the exhibition is Joseph and Sawyer’s impressive tome of the same title, published by Phaidon and touted as “a revelatory exploration of an unexamined but thriving aesthetic practice” capturing “the rich history of artists’ zines as never before, placing them in the lineage of the visual arts and exploring their vibrant growth over the past five decades.” 

In combination, the book and the exhibition or, rather, the admirable collection Sawyer and Joseph have amassed thus far, constitute the wondrous seeds of an archive of tremendous breadth, a museum of (to provide fair warning) cacophonous sonic and optical stimulation, and perhaps even an unfolding genealogy with some inevitable smudges in the toner continuum. 

Copy Machine Manifestos: Artists Who Make Zines, is on view in the Morris A. and Meyer Schapiro Wing, 4th Floor, of the Brooklyn Museum until March 31, 2024.

© Debra Thimmesch (2/12/24) – Special for FF2 Media ®


Check out the Copy Machine Manifestos: Artists Who Make Zines exhibit at Brooklyn Museum.

Read the thoughts of other museum-goers in a blog by FF2 Media’s Taylor Beckman.

Flip through digitized versions of the Zines in the virtual exhibit Zines: Read at Your Own Risk.

Buy a copy of Copy Machine Manifestos: Artists Who Make Zines through Phaidon.

Read Clive Thompson’s deep-dive into Zine culture for the Smithsonian from 2015: “How the Photocopier Changed the Way We Worked—and Played.” 


Displays from the Copy Machine Manifestos exhibit at Brooklyn Museum photographed by/courtesy of Debra Thimmesch.

Tags: Branden W. Joseph, Brooklyn Museum, Clive Thompson, Copy Machine Manifestos: Artists Who Make Zines, Debra Thimmesch, Drew Sawyer, fanzine, Imani Williford, Marcelo Gabriel Yáñez, Phaidon, Queer & Feminist Undergrounds, Sol Linowitz, Xerox, Zine

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Debra Thimmesch is an art historian and critic, activist, independent researcher and scholar, writer, editor, and visual artist. She mentors graduate students in art history and is attuned to current endeavors to radically rethink, decolonize, and reframe the study and pedagogy of art history. Her work has appeared in Art Papers, The Brooklyn Rail, and Blind Field Journal.
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