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Arts & Performance

In digital era, zine publishers haven’t stopped expressing themselves by hand

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Matt Peiken | BPR News
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Illustrator and Asheville native Eric Knisley (far left) shows the length of one of his exquisite corpses during the Asheville Zine Fest.

It’s the first Saturday in June, and as you walk through the RAMP Studios, in Asheville’s River Arts District, it seems like stepping back a couple decades.

People behind folding tables are lining the main hallway and galleries, showing off poetry, memoir, fiction, cartoons and a lot more. They’re here under the banner of the Asheville Zine Fest.

“I have collaborations with artists, writers and musicians,” said Erik Pedersen, running down the items on his tables. “We have artist books, photo books, some experimental music tapes, some flip books and poetry broadsides.”

Among 30 publishers here, Pedersen is an Asheville printmaker with an independent publishing operation called Drum Machine Editions.

Zines are the shortened name for fan magazines. The format came of age in the 1930s and hasn’t changed much since. Writing or drawing on paper, hand-stapling or twine-binding and short-run copies are still at the heart of the practice. Some here blur the lines with art books, which can take on a boundless variety of content and physical form.

“There’s not a lot of people day to day you can nerd out about with talking paper and binding techniques,” Pedersen said. “Part of it is just being craftspeople of a very specific stripe.”

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Matt Peiken | BPR News
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Jade Young (left) and Jordan Gray pitched their cookbook zines at the Asheville Zine Fest.

Another vendor here is Jade Young, who is working toward a Master of Fine Art degree in illustration. Her artistry is on display here in the form of two cookbooks, one with the tagline “sensual casseroles for the modern domestic” and the other titled “Eat the Rich: Comfort Food for After the Collapse.” Both are printed on 8x11 sheets folded in half and stapled.

“With things being digital, there’s just definitely something more human about physically holding art that someone else has made,” Young said. “The new kind of generation is really into this idea of kind of analog sharing of information. So there’s definitely a much younger crowd, which I think is really awesome and kind of what zines need.”

Eric Knisley is an illustrator specializing in a medium that can’t be easily shown on a screen. He and several collaborators animate what are called exquisite corpses. Single sheets of cardstock run 16 feet long, and each illustrator takes turns creating elaborate ink drawings on foot-wide stretches of it.

“And then at the end, about a year and a half later, you have this 16-foot unscrolling exquisite corpse,” unfolding the length of one printing.

The price tag on each edition is $50. When suggested to Knisley that the audience for such a creation is perhaps a small niche, he readily agreed.

“People who want this will pay for it and they’re not overly concerned about the price,” he said. “People who don’t want it, I couldn’t give it to them.”

Many zine publishers take advantage of risograph printing. It’s a fairly affordable format that feeds paper under a rotating ink drum and making an impression through a stencil. This gives the printed paper a textured, hand-made feel that doesn’t come through simple photocopies.

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Matt Peiken | BPR News
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Mel Mandle titled her autobiographical zine "Growing Down."

That’s how Mel Mandle of Asheville printed her autobiographical, illustrated zine, titled “Growing Down.” She created it for her senior thesis at the UNC School of the Arts.

“If one person picked up my zine and read it and resonated with it, I think that would be satisfaction for me,” Mandle said. “It’s not important that I sell 50 copies or 100 copies. I want people to make that connection.”

Jessica White and her husband founded this festival in 2016 and moved it around each year to different venues before finding the RAMP studios. White said she expects the festival to remain at the RAMP studios and draw zine publishers from throughout the Southeast in 2023. Proceeds from vendor fees this year went to the contemporary art center Revolve.

White and others talk about the communal nature of the festival. And in the age of tell-all digital lives, White said younger people are drawn into the medium for its relative anonymity.

“I feel like making a zine is more of a safe space than making a website or a blog,” White said. “Here, you have a book and you can be selective about where it goes and it becomes very much of a safe zone where people can be a little bit more vulnerable. You will probably hear stories that people would not feel comfortable putting out on the Internet.”