4. feb. 2015

A personal history of the Slovene zine scene

The Croatian website Vox Feminae published my essay on the Slovene - and international - zine scene of the late 1990's. It would have never been written without Jane Graham's invitation. Jane, the author of amazing zines Shag Stamp, Hickey and Floozy, edited an anthology on grrrls' zines and our involvement in the punk scene. Unfortunately, the book never came out. Maybe some day it will. In the meantime, here's my ...     

...personal history of the Slovene zine scene

I became aware of the existence of zines around 1993, when one of the Slovenian local music zines, Rock Vibe managed to get regular distribution. It was sold in every kiosk, or newsstand, right next to Bravo. Bravo was a music biweekly from Germany that included stickers and posters of New Kids on the Block, Roxette, 2 Unlimited, Guns’n’Roses, and other teen idols.
Until we got our hands on Rock Vibe, my best friend and I considered ourselves lucky if we managed to catch a glimpse of any "alternative" band in Bravo and would then try to convince the schoolmate who bought it to rip out that quarter of a page for us. It didn’t matter that we couldn't understand a word of German – the pictures were far more stimulating anyway. So, until Rock Vibe suggested new escape routes, I fled the dull reality of my tiny village by pretending Eddie Vedder was my brother, indulging in Second World War novels, and keeping sighing diary notes about my endless crushes. In the meantime, my more progressive friend fled her misery by listening to heavy metal, writing poetry, and holding séances with picture book Native Americans.

I didn't spend much time quizzing over what the word zine might possibly mean. The fact it represented something obscure was enough to get me interested. I ordered the first zine listed in Rock Vibe's review section through the mail and received 13. Brat along with an illegible letter and a bunch of flyers advertising other zines. Those flyers, and 13. brat's review section sealed my fate, so to speak, for many years to come. Both zines came from Nova Gorica, a border town between Slovenia and Italy where, lucky me, my dearest blood relatives lived as well. As a kid, I had spent many summer holidays at their place. They lived on the ninth floor of a 14-storey block of flats and I remember being fascinated by the balcony view. One of the things you could see if you leaned over the balcony was, of course, the downstairs neighbours' balcony. There was a white chalk drawing of a circled A sign on one of the dark red walls. To me, it looked like a promise of a different world, one that lurked just beneath my feet. Imagine my surprise when I first checked 13. brat and realized that one of the zinesters lived in that block. It didn’t take me long to figure out he actually lived – downstairs.

I want to be your friend, too

And so, my family grew. At the time, Nova Gorica had a pretty active hardcore and punk scene. Concerts were the meeting place and since I got to know zines together with hardcore music, I accepted the whole package. In effect, I wrote with and hung out with guys only. Not that it bothered me; I considered myself a boy anyway and couldn’t have cared less about girls. It took me years to start wondering why I didn't have any girl friends, why there were so few girls around, why I knew only one or two girl zinesters, and why I choose to identify with boys in the first place. At the time, I was more preoccupied with fitting into the boys' club. It seemed the only logical thing to do. Needless to say, the irony of the zine’s title escaped me completely – in English, 13. Brat translates as The 13th Brother.

In my view, I had encountered a wonderful community that encouraged my sense of belonging to a chosen, rather than given system of values and ideas. My identification with the scene was further encouraged by the fact that zines were such a well-kept secret that practically nobody outside the scene knew what they were. Zines were available from their authors or from small distributions only. You could order them through mail, buy them at concerts, exchange them in squats and youth clubs, borrow them from friends or the anarchist library in Ljubljana – and that was it. It was certainly fine with me. Zines were my secret place and I wasn't prepared to let in just anybody, most definitely not some random postman.

Once, when I received yet another badly wrapped package of zines from this or that country, I noticed a tiny handwritten note in the corner of the parcel. In Slovene it said: "I want to be your friend, too." It infuriated me: not because I thought I was being stalked, but because whoever had written that had trespassed upon my secret.

Fanzini: komunikacijski medij subkultur, Petra Kolmančič, Subkulturni azil, Ceršak, 2001

It was only inevitable I would eventually start writing my own zine. I released the first issue of Pssst… in 1997. The timing was excellent, since those were the most prolific years of the local zine scene. Petra Kolmančič documented the Slovenian scene of the 1990s in her study Fanzini (2001) and claimed that between 1995 and 1997, up to twenty zines came out at least once per year. They were mostly preoccupied with punk and anarchism, so art zines like Petra's Sirota Jerica were a most precious exception. My own work fitted the category of personal zines, or "perzines" rather well since it consisted of obnoxious rants that viewed – and judged – all issues from my limited perspective.

I was 17 then and excited about moving to the capital. In Ljubljana, I would study literature and sociology; I would finally be able to meet other zinesters in person and get the chance to participate in the scene. The most exciting part of it all was that I was going to live on my own and become financially independent. As unlikely as it sounds, I became financially less dependent on my parents because of zines. That is, I received a scholarship for "artistically talented pupils" once it dawned on me that zines could be viewed and "sold" as proof of my creativity. When I eventually submitted a thick envelope of zines and flyers to the scholarship commission, I was grinning from ear to ear. In my mind, this was pure subversion. Was it really possible to disguise my attacks on the educational system as "creative writing"? Was it possible that the very system I was criticizing was going to encourage me to continue doing the same?

It was: after all, this was capitalism. Of course, those texts look pretty harmless today, even if they must have been a real nuisance to read. Moralistic and affected, they were the scribbles of a teenage mutant who believed the Earth was dominated by hypocrisy - whereas she, naturally, came from an ethically superior planet. I thought the rule of moral majority was best represented by a drawing published in my Belgian pen friends' zine Tilt. It showed a million smiling Nazis standing under a banner, proclaiming: "A MILLION HAPPY PEOPLE CAN'T BE WRONG". I am no longer sure if the people on that image were really defined ideologically. I probably turned them into Nazis myself in order to simplify the point. Either way, integration was not an option and I attacked "hypocrisy" with a passionate and destructive frankness. I was one big exclamation mark yet I must have sensed that I would have to radically compromise my "honesty" as soon as I took other people's opinions into account, for I stubbornly avoided doing it.

Social experiments

Instead, I preferred to describe specific people in abstract ways and frequently discovered universal truths in highly volatile bodies. It was about shyness, too. For instance, when I wanted to try out something new, I couldn’t do it unless I disguised it as a "social experiment". Eventually, in order to test my "patience", I tried to see whether I could learn to listen to other people’s rants as well. I went to the local old folks’ home and, strictly in the name of science, asked a nurse whether there was someone there who didn’t receive any visits but wouldn’t mind chatting with a total stranger. She told me to go see an eighty-year-old lady called Marija. "She's interesting to talk to," she said, "although she is quite forgetful, and complains of her age problems a lot." I was pleased. If the lady kept telling the same story, that meant I would have to be really attentive or I would miss all the variations.

I visited Marija regularly for the next two months and learned that the variations were… slight. Time stood still in that room. Every time I came, she was laying on her bed, resting. She always wore the same navy blue dress with large brown flower prints. She complained about her rheumatism and her snoring roommate but preferred to talk about her family, especially about her beautiful young grand-daughter. My visits must have been a painful reminder of her absence. They were embarrassing too, since Marija remembered neither my name neither "whose I was", as she put it when she wanted to know who my family was. I talked about my kid brother, my parents, my grandparents. At the same time, I thought about my other family, the zine community, since those were the siblings who would soon read about the findings of my experiment.

Pssst... #2, Sp. Idrija, cca. 1999

In the second issue of Pssst..., they could learn that my listening abilities were very poor, largely because I was "too selfish" and "too bored" with the old lady. I never went to see her again and continued to conduct my research among my peers. Funnily enough, it never occurred to me that I was already practicing the art of dialogue by reading, writing, and exchanging zines. They were the perfect medium for articulating ideas and learning to respond to other people's writing because they took time to make, took time to reach about one or two hundred people through "snail mail" and people took time to respond. In theory, and contrary to the possibility of instant publishing today, they encouraged reflective, rather than affective writing.

Not that I practiced reflective writing. At 17, the prevailing feeling was that of emergency, combined with my complete identification with the scene. I was part of a transnational community that connected me to hundreds of local scenes. In my euphoric moments, I believed I was participating in a revolutionary movement, and the fact that it recognised writing and self-publishing as legitimate forms of resistance was almost too good to be true. So I plunged…

I wrote most of my "public diaries" in English because I wanted my foreign pen friends to be able to read them. I managed to photocopy the first fifty copies for free in my school. A hundred copies of the following issue were sponsored equally by the local students' organisation and my mum. When the number of copies increased to two hundred, I had to start using every free or cheap copying possibility I could find. I made several covers by hand and got high on spray paint in my mum's cellar when I stencilled a hundred covers for Pssst… no. 2.

I cut my increasing postage costs by using the old zinester trick: I coated the stamps with paper glue or soap and asked the addressee to send them back. Nearly everybody did it. It was both a gesture of solidarity and a guarantee that sooner or later new zines would come my way together with my fading stamps. I ended up corresponding with people from all over former Yugoslavia, Western Europe, parts of Eastern Europe and North America, even Chile, Argentina, the Philippines and Malaysia. The evidence – boxes of zines, books, letters, photos, post cards, even teabags and toys – is still gathering dust in my grandmother's attic.

Almost too good to be true

In the beginning, my international zine exchange was limited to Western Europe and North America. I wondered why it was much harder to find zines from post-socialist countries and other capitalist peripheries yet, at the time, I figured there were either no zine scenes there or they were nationally bounded, so zines were probably written in languages I couldn't understand. It did not occur to me that the accessibility of Western zines had more to do with Western economic and cultural domination; that, as in other fields of culture, one had to make an effort to reach non-Western scenes. Since the latter should have felt closer to my world in all respects, I often wondered why I wasn’t motivated to make that effort. I think that, like so many other people, I idealized Western European and North American communities: I saw them as more creative, more radical, and more exciting.

My first trip to Western Europe turned out to be a very sobering experience. Yes, that world was richer and more varied, but it was also moving at a frenzied paste and obsessed with purchasable identities, making human contact a somewhat less heartfelt and more instrumental experience. It was indeed sobering to realize that the zine scene was part of it. When I came home, I felt like I had seen our future. Since the fall of socialism in the East and the fall of social states in the West raised neo-liberal capitalism from the dead, it had to happen, there was no choice: soon enough, Slovenia – and perhaps the whole post-socialist region – would look and feel exactly the same. In fact, with the loss of social security and solidarity that was thrown away along with socialism, the situation ended up being even worse for most people.

Still, I never experienced Western cultural influences as an ideological intrusion upon my world. I grew up with them. Moreover, the local zine scene of the mid 1990s was strong and creative enough that it did not have to accept everything that came from the West. Actually, I don’t think there were any significant differences between Eastern and Western scenes. In the case of Slovenia, the only difference might have been that older zinesters maintained their connections with their colleagues from former Yugoslavia. For them, that was the most important frame of reference, both before and after the war. For me, it became important much later. In 1991, when it looked like the war was going to break out in Slovenia, I was 11 years old and too young to grasp the full meaning of the forthcoming tragedy. School was off for the summer and I have just gotten my first brand new mountain bike. All I could feel was anger; I knew I wouldn’t be able to ride my bike once the war started for real. It didn’t, at least not for me. Instead, in 1992, it moved to Croatia and then on to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where there were a lot of kids who couldn’t ride their bikes.

Sirota Jerica #2, Petra Kolmančič, Ormož, 1997

In 1997, I went to the second zine gathering in Maribor. The organizers wanted to bring together zinesters from all Yugoslav successor states, but in the end only about six of us showed up, all locals. People from Croatia, not to mention those coming from other states, had neither the money nor the necessary papers to join us. I was disappointed because I was hoping to meet zinesters from Croatia and Serbia who had just recently become my pen pals.

Only when NATO started bombing Serbia in 1999, I realized that our friendships and zine collaborations were political per se: they were a protest against nationalism, against wars. During the bombing, a friend from Belgrade phoned me almost every evening. He said he needed to talk to somebody who had nothing to do with this madness. So we cracked jokes, gossiped, talked about all the exciting things we wanted to try, all the cool places we wanted to visit.

When I hung up, I looked at the sky and thought of NATO airplanes that rose from the American air base in Aviano. They crossed Slovenia on their way to Belgrade and I realized I was very much involved in the madness. The maddening part was that our friendships couldn’t stop it.

I moved to Ljubljana for my studies in 1998 and started volunteering for the anarchist library and the women’s festival. I also started working as a journalist for Radio Študent, wrote for other independent media, and joined the editorial team of a satirical monthly. Suddenly, I was making friends in real time and space, and learned to appreciate their vicinity. Distant friendships became painful to maintain and I stopped writing those long, pondering letters, especially after I started using e-mail, got the chance to travel and met some of my best pen friends in person. I fell in love in all sorts of places, too. By the time I realized I missed the charm of handwriting as well as the contemplative nature of old-fashioned letters, I was already too busy doing other things and lost my interest in zines.

Hickey, Jane Shag Stamp, Sheffield, 1996

After reading, making, exchanging and distributing zines for four years, I became disturbed by the scene’s limitations. The zine culture I knew was obsessed with a predictable array of topics, namely music, comics, anarchism, squatting, drugs, tattooing, sex, feminism, self-sustainability, and animal rights. Since most of us recycled the same pro et contra arguments, the discussions became boring. Also, I was disturbed by the increasing number of straight edge and other similar zinesters who propagated their lifestyles in very arrogant ways. I remember receiving a sticker that said ‘x I AM BETTER THAN YOU x’ and tossing it where it belonged – into the trash.

On the other hand, many zines corresponded with my growing interest in fiction, feminisms and queer politics. They were a subculture within a subculture, one that helped me accept my body, my sexuality, and my changing identities. Most of the people whom I still meet at various festivals and conferences belonged to that scene. It is inspiring to see that they found other media to suit their needs, and that many former zine-makers, to different degrees, still aspire to the principles of doing-it-yourself.

Whether it is individual acts of resistance or collectively organized protests, whether it is art projects or self-managed communities, whether it is raising children or dreaming through days and nights, all of these things are, in my view, re-envisioning and transforming society – and us. This is one of the most precious lessons I learned in the zine scene. For that, I am thankful to all the zine-makers who brought me up, and grew up with me.

A Small Shimmer of Things, Kara Sievewright, Maker of Nets Press, Vancouver, 2003
Tea Hvala (1980) is a writer, translator and journalist from Cerkno, Slovenia. She published her first zine in 1997 and has been writing and (self)publishing ever since. She co-organized the Ljubljana-based feminist and queer festival Rdeče zore (Red Dawns) between 2001 and 2013, and ran a series of workshops on collaborative writing of feminist-queer science fiction In Other Wor(l)ds between 2007 and 2013. She co-authored and edited two anthologies: Rdečke razsajajo (KUD Mreža, 2010) and Svetovi drugih (KUD Anarhiv, 2011). Currently, she is the co-author of Sektor Ž, the only feminist radio show in Slovenia.

Pssst… #1-4 (1997 – 2000)
Potopis kože (2001)
Slastičarna (2002)
The Curved (2004)
In Other Wor(l)ds (2008)
Togi nasmehi / Stiff Smiles (2013)

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