In the summer of 1972, at the Visual Studies Workshop (VSW), I thought the surprising idea of an artist's book was the best thing I had ever heard of. The combination of words, images and a three-dimensional object; the potential for narrative in a time-based medium; the notion of "the democratic multiple" that could bypass the gallery system and communicate directly with a diverse audience - all of these things, through a form that I had always loved, were appealing. There were, finally, a few problems with this construction. When those problems became limitations, book artists responded in different ways; some of us moved on to other forms. But, 25 years after that summer at VSW, I am teaching a class at the Rhode Island School of Design called "Zines: Start your own Publication," and some of my students think the surprising idea of a zine is the best thing they've ever heard of. I think this time they're right.
While book artists were either abandoning or fetishizing the form in the '80s, there was a burgeoning underground zine movement that fulfilled many of the promises made for the artist's book a decade before. By now, the zine movement has its own chronicled histories, and lists of its precursors always include Dada, sci-fi fanzines, the underground political press and small literary presses. I haven't found a single reference to artists' books in those histories. Though the stated ambitions and intentions are related, there seems to be no overlap between the two realms. Zines have succeeded with those ambitions connected to audience and communication where most artists' books have failed.
Some of the reasons that these two forms have rarely crossed paths seem clear. Artists' books, like performance art, came out of the visual arts, while zines, like samizdat, were driven by the pure necessity of creating alternative forms and avenues for communication and information exchange. The visuals were occasionally important in zines but they were rarely the motivating factor. The production values of early zines were always low - the first people to make zines produced them on a shoestring, cutting and pasting in their spare time, using copy machines at their jobs. Zines, unlike artists' books, have never tried to be a profitable commodity and this is, in part, what has kept them vital. They are usually traded or sold at cost through a vast underground network of other zine makers and zine readers. Zines review and advertise each other. Now there are zine distributors, zine stores and zine websites, but most zines still just meet production costs at best. A broad variety of isolated efforts have formed an emergent movement that continues to grow; estimates range toward 50,000 different zines with a couple million readers. A disregard of market factors provides the possibility for personal or radical content intended for a very limited audience. While some zines were created in response to group interest or spring from collaborative efforts, most zines come from a single eccentric voice. These zines find their audience after the fact, unconcerned with size or economic status - they don't conform to their audiences' desires. This makes the zine a truly unique form within the larger arena of publication arts.
Conversely, many book artists were eventually pushed by economic necessity to satisfy the desires of a particular audience. Influenced by Fluxus and Dada, they initially aspired to make ephemeral, experimental and performative work in large, inexpensive editions that could reach a diverse audience. Unfortunately, offset printing could supply large quantities, but never inexpensively. Once we left our schools or jobs, where we had access to presses, printing costs were prohibitive. In addition, there was no practical avenue for distribution, so the support of a large audience was a pipe dream. This problem led many artists to move toward fine press books and/or livres d'artistes. The categories were never distinct, and decorative book craft is often what people call artists' books these days. …