The Monroe County History Center is made up of one visually demanding exhibit after another. From a teddy bear named Monroe to vehicles documenting local transportation history, it’s easy to get swept up in the sights.
But in the smaller Hill Gallery, which has historically displayed works of art, museum visitors can explore a niche community of artists and the subculture surrounding their work. “Zines: A Culture in Focus,” which opened June 28 and will run through October 22, features a number of locally made zines that offer insight into the personal lives of Monroe County residents.
Zines do not share a formal set of characteristics. The exhibit synopsis opens with bolded “ZINES HAVE NO RULES” and encourages viewers to create their own zines on any topic they can think of.
Hilary Fleck, the curator of the exhibition, underlined the lack of boundaries of this art form. She said the link to magazines can be misleading because “magazine” connotes large-scale publication and a specific medium, whereas a zine is self-published and not tied to a specific mode of presentation.
“I’ve seen zines that are literally trash that’s been set on fire with words printed on them,” Fleck said. “It can literally be anything and it’s really hard to define something that can be anything.”
Although the definition of a zine is not concrete, they are generally self-published short magazine-like works. The museum has received some of the zines from a given collection, and some are on loan, and Fleck said the zines on display make up just under half of the museum’s total number due to space considerations.
Fleck said zines began as a form of amateur journalism written mostly by members of marginalized bands as a way to get their voices heard, and were particularly important in the punk music scene. They were important for disseminating information among these groups, but the topic and severity of that information could vary wildly, from news to movie reviews.
A number of zines on display at the History Center simply tell personal stories of the region. One documents a summer bicycle trip. Another, a series about the author’s boyfriends, good and bad. Fleck described these zines as important documentation of the lives and stories of their creators.
“It’s traces of those communities that are tangible,” Fleck said. “Not all cultures have tangible artifacts that represent this community, and I consider zines to be a tangible remnant of that that we can share.”
Since they can be anything and anyone can create them, zines don’t preclude any particular perspective from being shown, which makes the field of zines incredibly diverse in subject matter. Their counterculture and locality history means they are among the most significant relics we have to show the intimacies of life in a particular community at a specific time, Fleck said.
“I want people to come to the History Center and feel seen in some way,” Fleck said. “I hope it shows that these people are people like you and me, and that’s how they choose to express themselves, and I hope everyone kind of sees themselves somewhere.”