Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Victoria Baths Zine Fair 2013

So yesterday I went to another zine fair, this time with Katie for company. Much closer to home this time - the Victoria Baths in Vicky Park is a bit over two miles walk from my home, so no exciting railway adventure to a strange city, just a toddle up the road, to the middle of a street that holds memories of a different ex at each end!

The last time I walked past Victoria Baths would be about 12 years ago, though, and I think it's been done up a lot in that time. It's a very different building from the one where the Sheffield zine fair was held, but just as fascinating and quirky: a former public bath house from when they were all the rage for keeping the Great Unwashed, well, washed. With a class hierarchy of the clean water going to the higher-paying men, their dirty water then being pumped to the general men's washing area, and then when they were done with it, it was piped to the women's bathing room.

Being somewhere A Bit Strange has definitely added to the flavour of my two zine-land outings.

As well as the main zine stall areas and tours of the building, there were two promising looking workshoppy sessions: an interesting talk by Karren Ablaze, and a film screening about HelpYourselfManchester. There was also acapella singing, which I'm sure was rewarding if you like that kind of thing but I kept well clear.

Those two workshoppy bits first:

Karren's talk was grand, a reading from her book The City is Ablaze!: The Story of a Post-Punk Popzine, 1984-1994. This was a rollercoaster ride of anecdotage going through how her zinestering developed from tiny nervous beginnings over ten years (in musical terms, that's from The Smiths to The Happy Mondays) into a 5000-copy-selling chunky music magazine, but the loop of raising money and hard sell of zines meaning it would almost inevitably end up imploding under its own weight. Though my area of zine & small-press writing and publishing is different, there were a lot of interesting overlaps, challenges and moral questions, and of course someone who was around the Manchester music scene a lot just before I came to the city is bound to have the right venue- and artist- namedrops to keep me listening.

One of the key memories I took away was a reminder of that way that in the 80s and 90s, when so few of us had email, contact was so much more precious. Both with others "like me" in whatever way, and with the creators of music or zines who today you might follow on twitter and swap blog comments with, but then you'd be writing to, wondering if they'd reply, watching the doormat when the postie came in the hope they might have written back to you. A great divide has been narrowed, but some magic has gone away in the process.

There were only half a dozen or so of us in the talk but I think we all got a lot out of it. And I was pleased I managed to ask a meaningful question for once!

The film about gigs listing site HelpYourselfManchester and the people who were a part of its bubble was also interestingly educational, though not only in the way its makers seemed to intend. Mostly this is made up of interviews with people who were putting on "house gigs" by largely punky bands, mostly around Levenshulme and in particular at the Klondyke Club and 69 Albert Road, something like 2002 - 2004. It's a scene I was never quite a part of, but I loitered nearby. There is a lot of interesting creative culture here, around cheaply assembled DIY culture, creating spaces, and the making of eyecatching and distinctive flyers for gigs, some of which are still on my office wall a decade later.

I love that this kind of very narrow, local social history can be recorded for posterity. I felt there were two critical elements missing however. There's no attempt to set the scene presented into a wider historical context - we're given the impression of a unique moment in Manchester history, yet I remember similar happenings before the loose network presented came into being, and continuing after the period the film covers. This was part of an ongoing subculture in the city rather than something new of itself, a subculture which I get the impression depends on the turnover of students in the city to keep renewing its verve and energy. And what we see reflects a kind of creative alternative cheap DIY culture that is underpinned by a lot of resources and privilege that goes unmentioned - something I have talked about before around alternative Prides.

The film also left unanswered how the residents of 71 Albert Road felt about a long stream of raucous gigs being put on just a Victorian terraced house wall away from their own front room!

Let's step back out of the fringe and into the main zine fair now though...

How to remind yourself you laptop keyboard isn't that noisy
The main hall had comics, zines and small-press art on two floors, with the upper floor a balcony running all around the lower floor giving a lovely bright airy space. I probably missed some gems but - as I'm less excited with art and craft and more with queer / bi / feminist expression and communication - I didn't pick up any zines for me (I did get some stuff for other people, but as they will be presents along the way I don't want to say more about those!). Among other things Katie picked up an issue of crafty zine "Sugar Paper: 20 things to make and do", which was good to peer at over her shoulder, and I nearly braved the stairs again to get one of the other issues but started counting how much money I had left by then and decided against.

Even moreso than in Sheffield there was a great spread of subjects and styles; a lot of artsy stalls and I think fewer of the ink-and-paper-and-passionate-outpourings that I think of as the core of zine culture. Just as Sheffield ZineFest had its fabulous wall displays of posters and the interactive story of 1913 running along one wall, there were things for the nervous newbie to do here with typewriters to experiment on, spirographs to make pretty patterns with and lino-cutting print.  And there was a small-children's play area with colouring in and dressing up things. I do love seeing how people work to make their events accessible to people in ways like that.

So... a lovely day out, a stimulating place to hold it, and the top tip that yes - zine fairs are more fun with someone else so you get to wander round them in company. But go anyway.

(if you like your writeups more picturey, there's a great photo roundup of the day here on the Shrieking Violet's blog)

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