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Add Zines to the growing list of interesting things on the Fourth Floor of The Public Library. On May 10, the library hosts Zine Fest to premiere its brand-new special collection of zines.
Long before DIY was a thing with an acronym and magazines about it, little self-published magazines seemed to be everywhere in the ’80s and ’90s, often punky and rough-edged things that were “printed” on a copier. They go back further than that, at least to science fiction and comic book fanzines in the ’60s.
You could call Aggie Toppins, an assistant professor of art and graphic design at UTC, a professional fan of zines. She worked for 10 years as a graphic designer before going to grad school and becoming a professor. Zines are a major focus of her studio practice and research, and she curated the library’s new collection.
“Independent publishing is particularly compelling to me,” she says. “When there are fewer rules it’s interesting to see what people do. And I’m also just interested in how design is part of everyday life, how design is part of culture. Zines bring those two interests together.”
She loves not only the professional tools of design—typography, images, page layout—but also sharing that world with people who venture into it as nonprofessionals.
“It’s interesting to me, as someone who has two degrees and a career ahead of me still, to see how a trained professional can make something and then see how someone who doesn’t have that training make something that can be just as beautiful and just as exciting,” she says.
The zine collection she has been creating for the library includes a wide range of topics, from underground punk zines of the ’80s to recent self-published magazines on a variety of topics to zines by designers like her, that come from a contemporary art sensibility.
“I think the word ‘zine’ puts an image in your mind of some pathetic photocopier, really cheap,” she says. “Some of the books we’re acquiring for the Chattanooga Zine Library are less like that and more like niche publications, printed on high-quality paper, but they don’t cost that much and they’re not produced by some massive publication company. They’re produced by three or four people.”
Toppins makes zines herself in a series she calls Octagon that explores her artist interests. She is heavily influenced by semiotic theory and French critical theorist Jean Baudrillard’s concept of “hyper reality,” the idea that instead of simply living life, we are living images of real life, which he called the “simulacrum.”
Her zines might include images whose meaning is not immediately apparent, like a page filled with type that can be read but can’t easily be interpreted.
“I tend to play with what I like to call ‘the open work,’ which is a semiotic term,” she says. “This idea that I’m going to put something on paper and I’m going to put it into the world. I have my own motivations for making that, and maybe you’ll start to see what I have to say, but the rest of that communication effort comes from the reader. I really believe in this exchange between author and reader, between artist and viewer. It’s about having a conversation about something and making you think about something. It isn’t necessary about delivering a closed message.”
Her curation of the library’s new zine collection and Zine Fest somehow grew out of lunch.
“I don’t totally remember how it happened,” Toppins confesses. “It seems like we were all eating fajitas and said the word ‘zines’ all at the same time, this magical moment. I don’t think it really happened that way, that’s just the way I choose to remember it.”
H’mm. Maybe it’s a hyper reality? However it happened in the mundane reality, she and the librarians started talking about a zine collection late last year. She was asked to guide its creation, a budget was developed, and she spent a few months working with librarians to decide what zines to purchase. But then an interesting thing started happening. As word about the project began to get out, people started asking to donate their old zine collections.
“People have these things in their closets and want them to have a life, but that life isn’t in their closet,” says Toppins, who opened dusty boxes to find vintage zines she had read about as a researcher but never thought she would see. “I was thrilled to be acquiring significant punk zines from the ’80s and ’90s, and all of a sudden we had a special collection on our hands.”
That special collection will open to the public at Zine Fest, although these unexpected donations mean it has grown so large that the collection is still being catalogued.
Zine Fest, Saturday, May 10, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on the 4th floor of the Chattanooga Public Library downtown.