Better on Paper: Victoria Baths Fanzine Fair
The upcoming Victoria Baths Fanzine Fair is just one of an ever-increasing number of events in the Northwest celebrating and encouraging self-publishing. We speak to some of its participants about the apparent resurgence of independent media
Self-publishing is well represented in the Northwest’s cultural calendar: this year we’ve already been treated to a Manchester Art Gallery Zine Fair in January, Liverpool's Inprint Fair in March, and the fifth Manchester Print Fair, held at 2022NQ just last month. Next up is the Victoria Baths Fanzine Fair, taking place on 5 May in Manchester's water palace, a gorgeous but crumbling Edwardian bathhouse, which is in the process of restoration after winning funding in 2003.
As well as numerous stalls proffering zines (for the uninitiated: essentially non-professionally published magazines, more often than not hinging on a specific or niche cultural subject matter, hence the ‘fan’), the fair will also host a programme of films, temporary exhibitions, workshops and tours taking place throughout the day. These participatory extras have been an integral part of the fair since its inception, three years ago, as an in-house answer to FutureEverything festival’s use of the Baths as a venue. The fair’s founder, Natalie Bradbury, affirms the fundamental role of interactivity, explaining that “the more exciting zine events are those that place just as much emphasis on sharing, collaborating and networking, and have opportunities for everyone to get involved, even if they haven’t come across zines before.”
Poignantly, during the campaign to win restoration funding, members of Pool Arts – a collective of artists with a studio at the Baths – made zines as part of various efforts to save the building. Their zine, The Vicky, was created ‘on the spot’ at each open day held to drum up local support, and featured funny stories about the Baths along with collaged images. The Vicky continues to pop up in one form or another at each fair, and this year Pool Arts will be delivering a zine-making workshop exploring the possibility of reintroducing public bath houses. Alison Kershaw of Pool Arts revealed the inspiration behind their theme: “We are thinking about the current economic situation, the bedroom tax, benefit cuts, homelessness... and thinking perhaps we need to bring back public baths. When Victoria Baths first opened it was for taking a wash, not only swimming.”
One of the highlights of the fair will be a screening of Helpyourself Manchester, a documentary by the Castles Built in Sand collective (castlesbuiltinsand.wordpress.com). The film consists of interviews, original footage and illustrations exploring Manchester's community of DIY music promoters in the mid 00s. “As one of the people in our film says, ‘Cutting out that middle man’ is part of the way things are done,” says collective member Huw Wahl. He explains that, for him, “the essence of DIY is simply that you maintain control over the production of an object – that is to say you are not alienated at any stage of the process.”
“You rarely get a dickhead at a zine fair” – Young Explorer
This radical vein running through the Victoria Baths Zine Fair is intriguing, and invokes a rich history of nonconformist self-publishing. The idea that zines embody a way for people to share information and opinions with each other, unmediated by the mainstream, is exemplified in John Mather's Greater Manchester's Public Swimming Pools: A Pictorial Guide. Mather set out with the straightforward intention of creating a guide for other swimmers, but through his research soon became aware of Manchester and the Northwest's extraordinary swimming heritage, which he felt he had to share. He recounts how he would visit local libraries to ask for information on pools and swimmers, and “invariably the librarian would return from a dusty storeroom with a buff folder of faded press cuttings, old pamphlets and photographs. Some would even proffer some of their own memories of distant school days.” Mather will be giving an illustrated talk explaining his project at the fair, as well as exhibiting a small collection of his artworks and mementoes from swimming expeditions, and of course selling copies of Greater Manchester's Public Swimming Pools.
In my conversations with stallholders and organisers, we discuss possible reasons for the region's apparent boom in self-publishing – and the way in which, at fairs and events, customers engage with the maker, craftsperson or artist directly (and vice versa) emerges as an important incentive. This personal connection is particularly meaningful for Steve Carlton and Liz Murray Jones, makers of Young Explorer zine (youngexplorerzine.blogspot.co.uk), who eloquently state: “You rarely get a dickhead at a zine fair.” It's important too for Preston’s Within Six art and photography collective (within-six.blogspot.co.uk), who describe zine fairs as a way to network and see what other creatives are up to. The communities formed among the stallholders at fairs and markets is also a central motivation for Alessandra Mostyn, organiser of the Manchester Print Fair (manchesterprintfair.co.uk), the sixth instalment of which will take place this summer: “My real aim is to make a legacy of ideas and friendship,” she says.
Another recurring motive for engagement with self-publishing, whether as a maker or a buyer, is the way in which a physical publication is fixed and unchanging, where online media is in constant flux. Carlton explains:“Unlike a blog post, you can't go back and edit a zine once someone’s bought it and has it on their bookshelf. It’s a static, unchanging thing that people can enjoy referring to, looking at or holding in their hands forever – or at least until they lose it or throw it away.” The material properties of a publication are integral to how it is experienced, and the kind of beautifully printed, hand-finished books and zines that will be on sale at Victoria Baths provide something that mass-produced glossy magazines and digital content cannot. Michael Butterworth of Northwest arts journal Corridor8 (corridor8.co.uk) explains that in order for the publication to maintain a “zine sensibility” while distributing nationally and internationally, “the format undergoes a radical change each issue, and our designers see this as a creative challenge into which they put a great deal of effort and thought, introducing hand-finished elements.” A limited run of the latest Corridor8 comes in four parts, which the reader can buy separately, or all together and then bind into a specially created cardboard folder with coloured elastic bands.
While it feels imperative to defend and nourish the DIY trade in physical handmade objects, we don't just buy zines and artists’ books on moral grounds. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about zine fairs – from both a fan and a buyer’s perspective – is that they are one of the only really affordable ways to own artwork. As Tommy Eugene Higson, a stall-holder at Victoria Baths, explains, “It makes art more accessible to everyone.”
Zine fairs, especially those that encourage participation, are temporary sites where art, activism and community intersect. Being around creativity – and being creative – is invigorating, particularly when, as Wahl puts it, “We are drowned in music on the radio and magazines that perpetuate a certain way of life.” Another quote from Helpyourself Manchester sums it up rather well: “People have a right to organise their own culture.” And we do.
Victoria Baths Fanzine Fair, Manchester, 5 May, 12pm-4pm, £2.50 adults, £3 Gift Aid, free for under 16s and Friends of Victoria Bathshttp://www.victoriabaths.org.uk