“I think if you put everything online all the time it can very easily get lost in translation, or it’s not accessible to everyone.” Michelle McCormack is the creator of Qu-ines, an exhibition of zines showcasing the experiences of queer people in rural Ireland, which has now taken up a permanent home in Thurles Library.
“Not everyone has the internet: older people, or people who wouldn’t necessarily be tech savvy. There’s another way of making things accessible to everyone. It’s the same idea as reading a book on your phone, or picking up a physical book. I think it just gives a different feel.”
Michelle and I are chatting — over WhatsApp, the irony of which is not lost on us — at the end of a long year that has seen everything you can imagine be forced to move online. Zoom fatigue is widespread, we’re watching streams of concerts and sporting matches from our living rooms, and yoga, dance, and workout classes are being instructed through Instagram Live. Of course, these trends weren’t entirely original — remote working becoming more prevalent over the last few years, for example — but the acceleration due to the pandemic has been undeniable.
One implication of our cultural spaces and activities moving online is their abstraction from the contexts in which they once sat. While more people might be able to access them, the activities become more solitary, and a sense of community is lost. This is apparent across the board: the challenges facing local news organisations around the globe; a replacement of grassroots activism with keyboard-based approaches; and swathes of people reporting feeling lonely despite being more ‘connected’ than ever.
All of which makes zine culture even more interesting and relevant today, as their very nature cuts through all those trends. Zines are typically locally produced and distributed, self-published by their creators, and focused towards particular groups or interests. They’re about as lo-fias you can go: traditionally zines would be created with printouts, handwriting, glue and scissors, and then photocopied and folded into a small readable publication. While digital tools mean that not all zines are created by hand in the same way, many still carry that spirit of DIY making within their content and aesthetics.
“My BA is in printmaking so the idea of DIY was always kind of what I did anyway,” Michelle explains. “I did an MA in socially engaged art practice, which sparked the idea for the project. I’d been looking at protest and DIY culture and queer culture and how they’re all intertwined.” Michelle grew up in Thurles, where she recalls there not being much queer representation. “I wanted to create a space where anybody can go and feel some part of this idea of a queer space in the community.”
Michelle studied in Limerick, as does Niamh McNicholas, a graphic design student in her second year. Niamh published her first zine, Noir et Blanc, in November. It originated as a college photography project, but after taking the photos she decided she wanted to see them in print. “I feel like when you post things onto the internet, they’re lost after a while. You don’t really ever see or hear them again, but something printed out is solidified and it’s there, and I can show my grandkids that if I ever want to.”
When I asked both Michelle and Niamh about what sparked their interest in zines originally, both pointed to the subject matter and specificity that zines can hold. “I never had access to zines but I knew what they were. I consumed a lot more on the technical side of things because I was always very fascinated by the doing of it,” recalls Niamh. “I think that the main thing that I always really liked about zines is that they’re historically very anarchist, they were used to ‘spread the word’ about stuff. I really like that the whole point of zines is very personal.”
Michelle became more interested in them during her studies: “I made a collaborative zine with another artist while I was in college. And anytime I researched things about feminism or queer culture, or a lot of the areas I’d be interested in, zines popped up.”
Zine culture in Ireland is thriving, particularly among queer people and groups. Origins Eile and Black Pride Ireland recently created TONGUES, a collection of written and visual artwork by Queer Black folk in Ireland. ladyBUG, a zine published in Galway, contains work by and for queer women. Spread is a zine that covers music, sex, and DIY culture, with its third issue published last autumn.
The breadth of the range of publications, both thematically and geographically, gives zines a chance to reach readers who might otherwise miss out on typically urban-centric queer community spaces.
“For a lot of people who grew up in smaller towns, especially older people, they would find it kind of daunting going into certain places in cities, they’d think ‘Oh no, that’s not for me,’” explains Michelle. “But when it’s in your library downtown, it’s not as scary, it’s not as daunting. It’s just something that’s right there.”
Many zines still include handmade elements, as evidenced by Michelle’s sample zine as part of her pitch to potential contributors. “The first thing I did was create my own zine of my own experience of being a lesbian in rural Ireland. I tore a piece of paper out of a sketchbook, and I drew on it, and folded it up, so it’s really tiny and I could carry it around in my pocket. If I’m out with someone I can say, ‘this is one’, I can show them how I fold it and how I made it.”
The zine format also holds advantages for creators and artists. As well as the freedom to explore any topic they choose and create it using a selection of tools and methods, not being bound to deadlines or release schedules is also an attraction. “I was having fun taking these photos and when I look back at the photos and when I made the zine, it might have ended up accidentally being very deep or meaningful, they were very honest photos,” says Niamh. “I had people tell me they thought it was going to be a magazine: the same theme all the time and like a monthly thing even. I was like, ‘Hold on now!’”
The future seems bright for zines, with wider access to digital tools and resources that can help with easier creation and publication, and no shortage of ideas for where to go next. Michelle is keen to expand the range of exhibits and to gain a wider audience.
Niamh hopes to be able to use her zines to follow her passions in politics and social justice. “I’m very up for fun and beautiful stuff, but I’m also very active about speaking out about what’s going on in politics and everything in the world,” she tells me. “With my zines and with my personal art I feel like it’s always going to be for the queer community anyway. I feel like myself as a person, I’m not pandering for the straights, you know, I have no interest in that!”