ICA Student Forum in Conversation with Phil Aarons

Seth Pimlott

10 Feb 2012
In Numbers: Serial Publications by Artists Since 1955 is an exhibition that draws from Phil Aaron’s extraordinary collection of zines.

In Numbers: Serial Publications by Artists Since 1955 is an exhibition that draws from Phil Aaron’s extraordinary collection of zines and independent publications created by artists and produced internationally since 1955. The experience of these very ephemeral, intentionally transient fragments from particular moments and groups transformed into revered cult objects is odd, but remarkable. It feels like an intrusion into the private space of the communities that these publications bound together.

Photo statting, roneoing, xeroxing - words from some science fiction future that have completely bypassed my generation - were technologies that made it possible for marginal individuals and collectives to produce their own material cheaply. Those publications exhibited in In Numbers are physically different from the lavish pre-second world war publications from avant-garde art movements like the Surrealists, such as Minotaure and VVV. Perfectly chic, these magazines could be described in the same way that J.G. Ballard summed up the beauty of the surrealist women, ‘Nymphs from another planet’. By contrast, In Numbers shows publications - works of art in themselves - equally dense with ideas and ingeniously creative, but imbued with a D.I.Y. ethic. These works don’t talk down to a passive audience, but rather assume that readers are part of their community. The thought of receiving Just Another Asshole, Barbara Ess’s post-punk zine or the laugh-out-loud Landslide through the post is enough to make you get out your scalpel, and slap your own zine together. And yet the form also produced the haunting delicacy of Zerokkusu Shashinco’s Photocopy books.

Phil Aarons, the collector and co-editor of the catalogue In Numbers: Serial Publications by Artists Since 1955, has recognised that beyond the polemic or beauty of any individual publication, as a whole they represented a new way of making work and a new kind of work. Phil Aarons spoke to us (ICA Student Forum members) about the social and political role that these zines played for the artists producing them and the communities they were produced for, and how the genre remains relevant and continues to develop.

Seth Pimlott (ICA Student Forum): Tell us where the material comes from, and how it ended up as an exhibition?

Phil Aarons: I have been assembling the material for about 20 odd years, and the impetus for putting it all together was that we wanted to write a book that would be about the history of this phenomenon of artist’s publications.

The first form of the exhibition was shown when the book was published in New York, but this is a different iteration. There are some new things, there are different choices, and there are different parts of it that are being presented, and different parts of the magazines. So this is a unique presentation here at the ICA.

SP: Can you remember your first encounter with one of these publications?

PA: I’m sure I had seen many of these without thinking about them. A lot of them are very ephemeral in the sense that you don’t come across them and think ‘Oh, this is a major work of art!’ But I do think about them as works of art. The one that made the biggest impression earliest was the Wallace Berman, Semina. He was a very interesting artist from the West Coast, a little bit earlier than Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari and others. He was sort of off the radar from a global perspective. He produced very interesting work, in fact he was actually arrested and put in jail for one night because of a work of art he showed in a gallery that was considered to be pornographic. And so he became a kind of hero of mine! There are 7 or 9 issues of Semina, which he hand collated with illustrations of some of his work -all original works- and mailed them to his friends. They were never for sale, never produced to be on a news stand, it was just a very personal and individual publication.

Jane Scarth (ICA Student Forum): I am interested in the way in which these zines can create a community. Another project of yours has been producing the book, Queer Zines. Could you talk a bit about how you see the importance zines hold in those types of communities?

PA: I’m glad you asked that. To me the distribution of this material was as much about the creation of communities of like-minded people and of like- minded interests as it was a presentation of individual artistic production. So the fact that there was a community of people who were interested in getting and passing along the material was part of its real fascination for me. What I was most interested in with Queer Zines is that they were publications that were designed to create a sense of community in the world, for people who were marginalised.

JS: The academic practice of Queer Theory emerged mainly in the 1990’s, with figures such as Judith Butler observing the realities of ‘non-normative’ people and transforming it into something applicable to all kinds of cultural theory. Do you think it would be possible to say that the production of queer zines in the time just before that, during the 80’s, had a significant impact at all?

PA: I’m not an academic expert, but I would have you look at one of the publications in the exhibition by Scott Treleaven -This is the Salvation Army- which is a queer zine coming out of Toronto and done with a punk aesthetic. He’s a very talented queer artist and a good friend of ours.

I think that whole movement going on in Toronto, where there were other zines, other people self-identifying as queer artists, generated the interest of queer historians who said ‘OK. These are people who are not simply trying to be in the mainstream of hetero normalcy, they want to identify with a political culture that’s different’. I found that extremely fascinating. I agree that this self-identification allowed academics to look back and say ‘This is an interesting phenomenon, we ought to understand what it is and what it means’.

SP: That’s what’s really exciting about looking through the show; the exhibit gives you a snapshot of the way people are relating to each other and their work at a very particular moment. They also show moments where music and art come together; it’s a good format for combining those two forms. For instance Just Another Asshole, which has a record with it, and lots of musicians getting involved as well, people like Kim Gordon and Rhys Chatham. I believe you were around New York during the 70’s and 80’s, were you involved in that post-punk scene?

PA: Yes, but truthfully not as an active participant. I’m not nostalgic; I’m excited about re-discovering it. AA Bronson who was a member of General Idea and produced FILE, he was a part of it but I was never was. I’ve always been outside of it looking back. As a consequence it gives me the ability to appreciate it because it’s different.

JS: I would like to talk a bit about the political aspect because I think a lot of people associate these types of publications with times of change, or people trying to change things in a radical way. I am wondering; have you ever come across a zine that is apolitical?

PA: On that topic there is a zine series in the show done by Tom Sachs who is quite a radical artist. On the whole, I think that artists who take the time to be publishing zines are expressing a personal, political, and artistic viewpoint that is not of the mainstream. You don’t just put in the trouble, the time, and the expense of putting out a zine if you have nothing to say, if you are happy sitting at home watching sitcoms. It’s not what people are doing. These are definitely direct -and sometimes indirect- political statements by artists about how they view their lives, and how they view the social order generally. Frequently, if not exclusively, coming from marginalised part of society, women and queer artists for instance who are looking for a larger voice and a larger role.

JS: I’ve noticed that many of the artists who publish these are to a large extent experimentally multi-disciplinary in the rest of their practice – Dieter Roth, General Idea, and Daniel Spoerri to name but a few. Have you come across an artist creating serial publications for whom it is their sole output?

PA: There are some artists whose work is only zines, or serial publications, whatever you want to call them. All the artists I know and admire maintain their primary focus in the zine and publication world, but if asked by someone ‘Can you do a work, I’ll sell it in my gallery’, it’s a rare individual of any kind who will say no! The truth is I really don’t know, but I do know many artists for whom a great deal of their work remains the publications. I admire them, and I also admire artists who do both consistently.

We have an artist who you might not think of as radical in many ways, Pablo Bronstein. He’s a tremendous book artist as well as doing museum shows; he had a solo show at the ICA last year in fact. He also does amazing performance work, among other things, yet still he’s definitely an artist for whom publications remain an important part of his work.

SP: The zines in the show are often responding to the places that they exist in. Do you find there are particular ties and concerns of people living in certain cities?

PA: I think in the days before the Internet, the days when the mail was taking material from one place to another, there was more of that kind of regional network and separation. But now, in a completely global world, I don’t see the same. I see less regionalisation. There may have been some amazing publications in the Middle East in the Arab Spring, or things like that, but none that I have been able to track down or look at. It may be there and I’m missing it, but I don’t know for sure.

JS: On that subject of the Internet, I wanted to ask what that means for the future of zines? For me there are two strands; firstly issues to do with how everyone can now be a blogger, everyone has access to this open, democratic forum in which to air their views. Secondly in relation to the types of people who continue to produce them. In my experience it is almost primarily a pursuit by illustration students who take on the form as part of a ‘retro’ aesthetic.

PA: I don’t think I would call it retro. I do think that the Internet provides another avenue for expression of a certain kind, but it won’t in any sense permanently replace the physicality of having an object that you produce with your own hands, or on your own zerox, or whatever you use. As you point out, there is something about the visual, the picture, that looks and feels different on the computer screen than holding it in your hand. I think this will continue and I don’t see it as being replaced entirely by the Internet.

SP: It seems that for people who are putting out zines now, it ties in with a broader cultural trend of re-living moments.

PA: I think that there is a nostalgia, and what my wife calls a fetishisation of the book and the object. I think that’s true, and for good reason!

JS: In terms of the book and the object, what are the problems in curating a show like this? For one thing there is surely the same problem that exhibitions at the British Library always have in that someone must pick a page. Furthermore these are very tactile objects, how do you feel that translates into the exhibition?

PA: We have put a screen in the gallery with multiple images running across which sort of reinforces the fact these are fragile things and you can’t necessarily touch them. But at the same time you can get a real sense of their tactile quality by seeing them. What’s more, people are still producing zines, the ICA gift shop has zines you can buy for a pound or less and so the tradition continues.

That kind of connection is more immediate than the illuminated manuscript today. It’s easier to maintain in your own mind what these things are going to look or feel like because you connect with the same things being produced by younger people.

SP: In the text accompanying the exhibition there is the suggestion that zines are social things, which is quite schismatic. The people producing them break off in different directions after having formed one publication. Nevertheless, do you find that people are trying to talk to each other, or perhaps talk to other publications?

PA: Yes there is a sort of web. Take for instance FILE, from General Idea, and then there was another related one I showed in the exhibition, VILE, and then there is another one I didn’t show, BILE, and a million others! They are speaking to one another, trying to engage a response. Any kind of art is about response. Now that could be ‘Hey this is great!’ or it could be a whole other periodical.

That kind of dialogue among the publications themselves is fascinating because it’s a real level of engagement you don’t normally get to see. You don’t just go to a gallery, then go home and forget about it. Well you might, but say for instance you go home and create a work in response to something you’ve seen, you don’t get to send it to the gallery to put it up next to it. This kind of back and forth is a very important part of many people participating, and its adjunct to the notion of community.

JS: One last question, we now know a lot about your role as a collector of serial artist publications, but do you collect anything else?

PA: We collect contemporary art in a major way. Larger works, videos, works on paper, paintings, almost everything! Supporting young artists is a big part of what we do. As we’ve just been here in England we went to St. Ives for Simon Fujiwara’s exhibition at the Tate. It’s a brilliant show and he’s a favourite young artist of ours. A lot of the artists in the exhibition such as Terence Koh, Scott Treleaven, and others are artists we also support in their museum and gallery shows. So yes, this is just one of many crazy, crazy obsessions!

This article is posted in: Exhibitions, Student Forum

Tagged with: exhibition, InNumbers, interview, phil aarons, zines