On December 1st, I joined a crowd of hundreds of artists, activists, writers, and technologists (and people who identify as all four) at the School for Poetic Computation for the New York Tech Zine Fair. It was a day-long event and the first of its kind.
Entering the classroom nearest to my right, I came across the BubbleSort Zines table. The zine series, created by Amy Wibowo, includes sunny and informative guides with titles like “How Does the Internet” and “Hip Hip Array!” Each issue breaks down a technical subject with welcoming but thorough descriptions and playful illustrations. Wibowo, who had just stepped away to host one of the sold out workshops at the event (“Zines as a Friendly Introduction to Complex Concepts”), was one of the forty-two vendors with tables at the fair.
If you’re not sure what a “tech zine” is, well, that’s part of the reason this event came together. The opportunity to survey the tech zine-making landscape was a motivating spark for the organizers. In June of last year, artist Mimi Onuoha approached Taeyoon Choi with the idea. She had recently published the zine, “Inform/Transform,” with writer and researcher Zara Rahman. In the process of developing it, she noticed a surprising number of contemporaries who were also making zines about internet and technology. Some tech zines were educational like Wibowo’s BubbleSort, other zines imparted DIY skills, promoted tech-activist concerns, or took a more essayistic approach with material reflecting on how identity is impacted by technology. “Tech zine” is “not really defined,” Choi, an artist and co-founder of SFPC told me, and event like this one expands the category while revealing its conceptual and thematic through lines. The work available spanned genres (comic, pop-up book, educational text, fiction). Zines varied in design and distribution — limited or unlimited editions, online or only in print — not to mention, a rage of types of paper and printing methods.
Self-publishing and zine-making has a long history in tech culture, with examples like Radical Software, the Whole Earth Catalog, and Why the Lucky Stiff’s “(Poignant) Guide to Ruby”. But something about the work published recently, as it was exhibited at the fair, felt distinctive from these historic examples. Onuoha believes this wave of tech zine-making aligns with growing public skepticism and distrust of the centralization of power and monopolization of tech companies. “This classic format of zines,” she told me, is decentralized. Zines align with the “original vision of the internet,” she elaborated. “It’s very DIY: everyone is a producer, put yourself out there.”
Onuoha, Choi, and the other NYTZF organizers prioritized diversity of practice when they selected vendors, following an open call earlier this year. There were 120 applicants. “Much more than we thought,” said Choi. Interest in the event could gauged just by looking around. The cozy West Village headquarters for SFPC, an artist-run education program, was an ideal venue in spirit, but, Choi said, if they plan another zine fair, they will need a larger venue. I arrived an hour after doors opened and it was already difficult to enter the classrooms where vendors were stationed. It was an enthusiastic crowd too. I noticed a number of tote bags stuffed with various paper purchases. After I left briefly at lunchtime, I returned to find a queue of about eighty people had lined up by the door as the event had reached capacity.
I was curious about the importance of bringing this material to print, rather than distributing it as a PDF online. The work “exists in a unique way in print,” said American Artist, an instructor at School for Poetic Computation told me. He pointed out that even choices in methods of print — “risograph or Xerox copier” — impacts how the work is distributed and received. American Artist had three works available at the Tech Zine Fair including “Dark Matters,” a zine he assembled with his students at SFPC, and the most recent issue of Unbag, an arts and politics publication he co-founded. The third publication, “A Wild Ass Beyond: ApocalypseRN” created in collaboration with Caitlin Cherry, Nora N. Khan and Sondra Perry, was developed in conjunction with an exhibition at Performance Space New York imagining post-doomsday life for people of color and communities already living in the margins.
For some, the decision to publish work on paper, rather than only online, is a pragmatic choice. Diana Nucera, who makes music as Mother Cyborg, and is the director of the Detroit Community Technology Project, made her zine available online as a PDF, but it was envisioned as a print publication first. The zine, a collaboration with Onuoha called, “A People’s Guide to Artificial Intelligence”, is a resource, and without the print edition, certain audiences would miss out. “Forty per cent of my city has no internet at all,” Nucera explained, but “artificial intelligence and data still affects them.”