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"Fanzines in vitrines": The politics of preserving punk culture


At Open Space, the blog of SFMoMA, music journalist Sam Lefebvre examines recent efforts by various museums, universities, and independent collectors to preserve and digitize influential punk zines from the 1980s and '90s. The process is fraught with controversy and contradiction, exposing the fundamentally conflicting values of DIY subcultures and market-oriented art institutions. Here’s an excerpt from Lefebvre’s article:

Do vitrines elevate or negate fanzines? Is digitization a viable alternative for preservation, one that sidesteps institutional hegemony? As scholarly interest mounts, the quibbles and convictions swirling around the punk rags of yore significantly impact how narratives form or collapse — and who does the spinning. Who should we listen to? Are the punks who were there estranged from the significance of their own scene, or are they our only reliable sources?

Some of this tension emerged during the Void California panel. Professors examined the show through the prisms of their respective disciplines. A debate erupted in the audience between an academic and an exhibited artist about intentionality. “When I approached one of my professors at [San Francisco Arts Institute] about doing a project about punk, he scoffed,” remembered Wobensmith, the only non-academic panelist. “The fact that we’re having this show now is almost an indictment of the way these places work. Maybe we should be looking for the things that professors are telling people not to study right now.”

Matt Wobensmith, 45, arrived in San Francisco in 1989. Between 1992 and 1997, he published Outpunk and ran a record label of the same name, chronicling the queercore scene that emerged alongside riot grrrl. In 2009, he opened Goteblüd, a perusable, appointment-only fanzine emporium in the Mission District that does most of its business with university libraries; three years later, he donated his personal papers to the Riot Grrrl Collection at NYU’s Fales Library & Special Collections.

Wobensmith has a nuanced, somewhat conflicted view of preservation. “Zines present a challenge to both the art world and to the internet,” he said. “The art world wants them behind glass. The internet wants them digitized and shared. Neither honors the radicality of the objects themselves.”

Image: The San Francisco headquarter of the punk zine Search & Destroy, 1977. Via Open Space.