Sticky fingers

18 January 2010

Written by: Tom Cowie

Jutting off the station, as it does, Campbell Arcade beneath Flinders St in Melbourne is a fantastically accessible treasure trove of alternative delights.

The intimate atmosphere gives the sense that the two facing rows of retail spaces it houses are like the seams of a precious material fixed in the walls of a rather dingy subterranean corridor.

Ignoring the jarring rattle of suburban trains overhead, I survey my surroundings with wide eyes. My gaze is drawn to the golden glow of one particular indie nugget; Sticky Institute.

Describing itself as the “ardent defenders of zine culture, long armed staplers and DIY ethic”, Sticky is the only not-for-profit zine distributor in the world.

It is also, as its volunteers will tell you, a proud bastion of physical tangibility in a world of encroaching ‘web-based this’ and ‘digital that’.

Wikipedia describes the zine as: “an abbreviation of the word fanzine or magazine, zines are most commonly a small circulation publication of original or appropriated texts and images.”

“More broadly, the term encompasses any self-published work of minority interest usually reproduced via photocopier on a variety of colored paper stock.”

At Sticky, the orderly lines of booklets are pegged like washing and even with the briefest glance at the assembly, my outsider’s understanding of zines gains some depth.

The works stocked appear to be varying degrees of handmade, indeed Luke Sinclair – one of Sticky’s founders – will later direct my attention to a publication with a plastic knife sticky-taped to every copy of a particular issue.

I am charmed to see actual handwriting mixed with word processor text and some slight blurring and shadowing in places that shows the clear touch of a photocopier.

Lined up neatly like socks and underwear on a Hills Hoist, it is clear that some zine content is very personal. Indeed, I feel a similar sense of self-consciousness when reading some of these zines as I would eyeing a neighbour’s jocks out to dry.

The homely spirit I am picking up on – which is strongly influenced by the shop display – makes me feel both welcome and slightly uneasy. The private sentiments that are being shared through the piles of booklets sheltered within Sticky’s walls can be quite disconcerting.

As I learn more about this unique venture, I suspect that the creation of this contrary feeling is entirely deliberate.

Sticky was born in April 2001. Melbourne artist Simone Ewenson is credited with the original idea, based on a shop she visited in Amsterdam, though it took the involvement of Luke Sinclair as well as Platform Artists Group to bring about the iconic Sticky that exists today.

In the early years, Sticky ran for a handful of days a week out of what was then the Platform office space. It acted as an information centre about the art installations in the subway and also stocked zines and other printed materials.

Over time, the Sticky concern grew and started to take up more and more of the small space until finally, in 2007, Sticky reached its adolescence and struck out on its own.

Sinclair and others formed an incorporated association, gaining some financial support from Arts Victoria and the Australian Counsel for the Arts.

Sticky now operates six days a week with the help of a small army of dedicated volunteers, all of them passionate zine makers and readers.

While it is not an accident that Sticky has become a dedicated zine space, Sinclair assures me that Sticky’s growth and direction – including a new online distribution service – has been entirely organic.

Assisting Sticky’s growth is their proud reputation for fair operating practices in a subculture used to being ripped off.

“Every time there’s different people working here, in theory, the store should change,” Sinclair tells me.

“So if, all of a sudden, you get some volunteers who are really into graphic novels and comics, they should be sourcing that kind of work and bringing that here, and that kind of changes the shop in terms of what the store is and how it operates”

“So in theory, the people who work here should define what the store is, which they do, and that’s a good thing, I think.”

Sticky staffers Melissa and Beck tell me that you’re either a zine person or you’re not. They are most definitely zine people and are impassioned in their discussion of the merits of the medium.

“Anyone can make a zine and I love that,” enthuses Melissa with a smile.

“People come in here and they’re like; ‘What are the guidelines for making a zine? Would I be able to make one?’ I love the fact that there are no guidelines, no rules, no censorship.”

Beck agrees: “The thing about zines is that anyone can make one at any time. I mean, if you’re banned from the internet, if you’re banned from the TV, if you’re banned from your MP3 player, you’ve still got paper.”

“People always have the skills for it. You may not be the greatest writer and you may not be the greatest drawer, but you’re still able to create something on your own without any need for technology other than glue.”

Accessibility aside, both women agree that physicality is important too.

“There’s tangible thoughts in something that’s been photocopied and stapled by a person and you’d never get that from a blog, from something that’s on the internet or a computer,” Melissa says.

“There’s no love,” agrees Beck.

“You can’t hold a blog,” Melissa continues.

“The core thing of the zine is the tangibility of it. It’s a basic human need to have that thing where you can hold something and you know, keep it close to you.”

However, the tactility of a zine can also be its downfall.

“They’re fragile. I mean, if you set a zine on fire, that’s the end of it,” Beck says.

Melissa chimes in: “And if you lose it, you’ll never get it back. If you lend it to someone, they might not give it back.”

The duality of the zine – both physical and transient simultaneously – is clearly exciting and desirable to enthusiasts like Beck and Melissa.

However, like their mainstream cousins newspapers and magazines, zines are endangered by the quick, cheap, easy permanence of online publications.

Sticky, like a mirror reflecting the nature of the zines it stocks, is vulnerable, too.

“This is a paper store. If it floods, we’re fucked,” Beck bluntly puts it.

“If there’s a fire, we’d be fucked. Like, there’s money in the bank, but it wouldn’t be enough to get the store back up, so if some natural disaster happened, we’d lose everything.”

“But I don’t think we’d lose Sticky,” Melissa is quick to add.

“Yeah, even if the shop got destroyed,” Beck adds, “I don’t think it would be gone forever. It’d come back in some other form because there’s a lot of spirit and a lot of community behind the shop.”

Luke Sinclair has been making and reading zines since the early 1990s and has witnessed the scene change with time, tastes and technology.

“In the late 90s, there was just this overwhelming discussion that print was dead, everything was going to be done on the internet in just a couple of years,” he says.

“You know, we’d all be buying our shopping online, be having sex online and everything would be online. Because I didn’t quite understand, I totally believed that and it just didn’t happen.”

He tells me that instead of killing off the zine scene, the internet has actually strengthened it in a lot of ways.

“The word can get out there so much better about these zines, there’s more of a community than ever and this kind of work thrives more than it can, more than it could pre-internet.”

Melissa suggests another way the internet has been helpful to the zine scene: “Obviously, the internet’s a huge force and, you know, many people use it as their artistic medium. But actually, I think more people are making zines as a kind of rejection of that.

“It’s been a really interesting turn around.”

Des Cowley, the State Library of Victoria’s collections manager and president of Sticky’s management committee, offers an explanation for the growth of zines in the internet age.

“As they [zines] operate outside commercial mainstream, they are not part of any commercial imperative.”

He says that while in theory, zines should have gone the way of the dinosaurs in the internet age, there’s actually been a huge increase in zine making as part of the current trend for ‘raw’ literature and art.

“Clearly, the current state of zines is one in which growing numbers of zine makers are re-defining the form. In short, they are defying and going against the ‘evolutionary’ trend within print culture.”

He adds: “They [zines] are part of a range of activities that, by their very nature, go against the grain; survive against the odds.”

Luke, Des and Melissa agree that zine popularity is cyclical and while Luke won’t claim any responsibility for the recent wave that has swept Melbourne, he and Des both feel that Sticky helps give the movement momentum.

“I believe Sticky plays a critical role in providing an artist-run space around which a whole hub of activity revolves and circulates,” Cowley says.

“From school kids dropping in, to people making badges, through to ‘Festival of the Photocopier’, regular newsletters, and fostering a spirit of dialogue and debate amongst zine makers.”

Both men also recognise that this push, in turn, is being felt around the whole country. Projects similar to Sticky have opened in Adelaide as well as Newcastle, which in October hosted an arts festival called This Is Not Art – or TINA.

Along with activities based on a range of artistic mediums and subcultures, the TINA program featured a number of seminars and workshops aimed at the zine community and was run by Sticky team members and their northern associates.

Sticky will also launch its second annual Festival of the Photocopier in February of 2010 with a month of zine launches, workshops and other events designed to bring zine makers and non-zine makers together to celebrate and appreciate the medium.

Even with the precariousness of Sticky’s current situation – as underground-based purveyors of underground papers – it is hard not to see the venture’s future as as golden as the glow emanating from the shop.

However, the project needs to be given the space and time to grow; nurtured by the loyalty of its volunteers and protected from unrealistic outside expectations.

It is accepted within the community that zine making passes in an out of fashion and that the current trend will hit its nadir at some point, though there is clear confidence in the promise of zeniths to come.

“Yeah, we’re in a pretty risky position,” Melissa admits.

“But, you know, it’s zines. Zines are pretty risky as well.”

Meaghan van Loenen is a Bachelor of Arts and Graduate Diploma of Media Studies graduate of La Trobe University. She is also the fiction editor of the online literary magazine Cerulean Rain.