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Biz Mister: Francois Vigneault Talks about Zines and Small Publishing July 6, 2009

This August 22nd and 23rd marks the ninth anniversary of one of the Bay Area’s most anticipated gatherings of small publishers and authors, the SF Zine Fest.  I particularly like the Zine Fest because it’s more laid-back and intimate than something like Comic-Con or A.P.E., and it really celebrates the connection between Zines and other crafts.  I wanted to share some info about this event with you, and about the world of small publishing in general, so I went straight to the source and asked Francois Vigneault, the organizer of the Zine Fest for the past four years.

For those of us who are unfamiliar with the event, what is the SF Zine Fest?

The Zine Fest is a free annual festival celebrating zines (i.e. small-press magazines and other publications covering almost every imaginable subject and format) and other creative works coming out of the DIY ethos. The SFZF has been in existence since 2001, when Jenn Starfiend founded it; I have been involved with the Fest for the last four years.

This year the Fest is on August 22 &23, at the San Francisco County Fair Building (the same spot the Holiday Bazaar Bizarre SF happens in), which is this adorable 70s-style building right in the middle of Golden Gate Park, it’s really beautiful!

Every year we have hundreds of creators and small-press publishers selling, trading, and otherwise sharing their work with the public. Additionally, we always run a pretty expansive slate of workshops and panels on everything from screenprinting to nature journaling, hopefully inspiring the attendees to try their hands at making their own zines, mini-comics, or other DIY creations.

Who might be interested in attending SFZF?

Well, the short answer is anybody! We’ve been growing every year, and now we bring together over one hundred zinesters, cartoonists, poets, crafters, printmakers, and other artists with an audience of well over 1000 attendees. Of course, anyone who’s ever been a fan of a zine or indy comic should definitely come; with our mix of zine stalwarts like John Marr (Murder Can Be Fun), new stars like Esther Pearl Watson (Unloveable), and totally unknown (but totally awesome) first-time creators, you’re sure to come across something that will rekindle your love of DIY expression. But it’s also a great show for anyone who’s just interested in checking out what’s going on artistically outside the purview of the mainstream.

What are some highlights we can expect at this year’s Zine Fest?

As the Zine Fest gets a bit bigger, one of the benefits is that more and more out-of-towners are coming to the show… This year we have a major contingent of creators and publishers from Portland, Oregon, coming in for the show: Theo Ellsworth, Sarah Oleksyk, Sparkplug Comics, Tugboat Press and others… I guess it’s a great excuse to visit San Francisco!

Another new thing for us this year is that our posters will be extra-fancy: Aaron Cohick of New Lights Press and Hello! Lucky will be letterpress printing our Special Guest Andy Hartzell’s awesome zine love-in design! We will be selling them at the Fest and online to help raise money for the show; they are going to be really, really nice.

Oh, and it looks like we will finally get our act together and have an official Zine Fest party this year! We’re still working out the details, but as soon as we’ve got it set in stone, we’ll announce it on our blog.

Where do you see the small publishing/zine movement in the Bay Area going today?  What has it been like historically?

It’s funny, I realized the other day that the Zine Fest started well after what’s considered the height of the zine trend of the nineties, and yet we still grow every year! So I definitely think that any rumors of self-publishing’s demise are greatly exaggerated. I find that in the Bay Area there is a robust artistic community at large, and there will always be new folks making little publications to express themselves. If you just walk into a zine-oriented shop like Needles & Pens or Rock Paper Scissors you’ll be faced with dozens of titles, from the autobiographical to the political.

San Francisco has a tremendous history of small-press publishing. Robert Crumb, Spain, and other underground cartoonists are almost as symbolic of the City in the 60s as bands like the Grateful Dead, and of course there are the Beats: Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s New Lights Press publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in the 1950s, there were only 1000 copies in that first edition! Of course, there is so much more; the San Francisco Public Library has an amazing Little Maga/Zine Collection with over a thousand titles. Andrea Grimes, who runs the collection, participated in a roundtable discussion at the Zine Fest a few years ago; I’m hoping to have her give a talk on the history of zines at this year’s Fest.

What is the role of craft at the Zine Fest?

A definite trend that I have seen at the Zine Fest is the increasing level of handicraft which folks are putting into their zines, mini-comics, and other projects. It’s become much more common to see zines with screen-printed covers, elaborate bindings, and other embellishments. I think part of the trend can be tied into the rise of the blogosphere; now that there are so many venues to share one’s writing and artwork online, I see a proportional  emphasis in the DIY publishing world on the tangible nature of the zine as object, something which the creator has invested time and love in so that it could exist as a real thing rather than just clicking “publish” and it is instantly on the internet. Of course, some of our creators really take this to the extreme, and their art is in large part about the craft that goes into it; for instance, every year I am just blown away by what Tom Biby and Jonathan Fetter-Vrom of Two Fine Chaps come out with, like hand-cut pop-up diorama books!

We also always have a healthy showing from the broader craft community, from quilts to needle-felted monsters! Although our emphasis will always be on zines and self-publishing, we love to see creative types from other disciplines at the Fest, there is so much overlap between all these different crafty interests.

What advice can you give to people who would like to start small-/self-publishing?

The great thing is that it is a really easy field to try out! There are really no rules in regards to a zine’s content, format, theme, or even quality; everyone can and should make a least one in their lifetime. I personally feel it’s hard to go wrong if you just try and document some aspect of life which you find interesting, even if it seems silly at first. For instance, I’m a bird watcher, and I have a zine I’m bringing out for the Fest that’s called Bird Brain, it’s all the notes and sketches I make while I’m out doing that. It’s not like I’m going to necessarily have anything new to say about the barn swallows and great horned owls I’ve seen, but I think there will be some interest for people in just seeing my point of view on something I care about.

What are your hopes for the Zine Fest and small publishing in the future?

It’s funny, but I think the economic downturn will be good for the world of self-publishing and small press in some ways. During the recent boom, lots of great creators from the small-press world were (deservedly) getting publishing deals for their work in the mainstream press. Now that the economy is in rough shape, a lot of those folks are having their series canceled, unfortunately. But these creators still want to make their art, happily, so I foresee a return to self-publishing for them. It’s a really welcoming place!

As far as the Zine Fest, I basically just want to connect as many creators with the largest public that I can, and hopefully facilitate the development of new artists, too. I’d like to run more workshops; I love to see folks realize that they can express themselves through art and craft, from screen printing and bookbinding to illustration and writing. Everyone’s got a story to tell!

Photos: 1. SFZF 2009 Poster – Art by Andy Hartzell 2. Nicole Bennet from Family Style Jamboree zine.  3. Some of the many titles which have been featured in years past.  4. John Isaacson teaching a Zine Fest 2008
attendee about silk screening.  5.  L-R, Renée French (Micrographica) and Trevor Alixopulos
(Hot Breath of War).

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