Interview with zine archivist & punk historian David Ensminger

8 Oct

Today we’re doing a double dose of interview fun! For your lunchtime reading enjoyment, we visit with David Ensminger, who will be giving a presentation at ZFH from 4-5pm so make sure you go! His work deals with what many zinesters are talking and thinking about – the meeting between our traditional paper culture and the digitization that indelibly marks society today. How do we bridge the gap, how do we archive things created ostensibly for temporary distribution? Read more below to find out!

Ensminger cover

Tell us a little bit about yourself – what is your day job and where do you spend most of your time?

Throughout the week, I teach at Lee College in Baytown, TX. My specialty is folklore and creative writing, but I mostly teach composition and Humanities courses, which the college offers more plentifully. However, even within those more traditional subject areas, I tend to focus on 21st century digital citizenship by partly concentrating on convergence culture and digital literacy issues proposed by Henry Jenkins, a media theorist now teaching at the University of Southern California.  I also incorporate folklore elements into my composition course; for instance, I often encourage students to visit vernacular folk art environments like the Beer Can House and the Orange Show, or at least visit a graffiti alley, barber shop, or tattoo parlor. I think this approach enriches their perspective, shapes more compelling texts, and provides a tangible link to local communities.

How did you become interested in zines and zine/punk culture?

Well, to be honest, for me, punk rock is family values. My sister adorned the pink walls of her bedroom with David Bowie posters, listened endlessly to Patti Smith, 999, Gun Club, and any others, and went to Dream Syndicate and Blondie gigs. She is seven years older, so she guided me through the 1980s as a mentor. My brother, who left my hometown in 1980 for the Chicago Art Institute, where he focused on areas like performance art and painting, did visit me every so often and supplied an amazing assortment of fanzines, both national, like Flipside, and local, like Last Rites, out of Chicago, along with homemade cassette compilations featuring Crass and Minor Threat, singles by Joy Division, and albums by Butthole Surfers.  Soon, I was riding my bike to the local library, checking out Elvis Costello records and books about 1930’s monster movies, then picked up the drums and learned “1969” by the Stooges.  By 1987, I started No Deposit No Return, my own small batch zine, which I mailed out nationally to places like See/Hear in New York City, and stuck in local record stores.  That’s been my path ever since, more or less.

NDNReturnzine1

Where do you see zine culture headed in the next five years or so?

I see some issues percolating up. For one, in Texas, physical outlets have shrunk a bit, since both Domy stores in Houston and Austin went out of business.  Granted, many record stores exist in Austin, but not all are keen to feature fanzines of any sort that are not directly music-related (and some businesses ignore those as well!).  At the same time, mailing costs continue to rise, which makes distribution a bit pricey.  Next, digital culture has completely engulfed the community, who, traditionally speaking, fetishize paper products. So, the question becomes: how will this vital portion of print culture, as well as underground aesthetics, styles, and perspectives, be circulated, chronicled, and archived? Granted, some libraries like the University of Oregon maintain collections. In fact, I donated dozens to them, but will they make them available digitally? Also, some libraries are actually selling off portions of their zine archives. When I last visited the second hand bookstore operated by the Portland Public Library, I saw zines stuffed into a basket, sold for next to nothing, that were once circulated. Libraries don’t necessarily offer permanent refuge for zine culture. Thus, the zine community needs to address these challenges, ask some important issues too about copyright (should zines fall under Creative Commons?), digital dissemination, and the creation of community-based archives that can manage materials effectively.

Do you still make zines today?

The last zine I made in earnest was in 2007, when I printed Left of the Dial remixed. I actually took old sections of my zines, re-arranged the graphics, added new interviews and art, and distributed a small portion. Since then, I have concentrated on maintaining huge databases of punk culture, both in the form of multiple blogs focusing on cities or regional scenes (like Austin, NYC, and San Francisco) and sub-groups (like women and African Americans in punk) and apps like my Punk and Indie Compendium for BiblioLab, which presents my 1980’s fanzine No Deposit No Return in its entirety, plus huge blocks of my Left of the Dial archives from 2000-2012, including photography, sound files, ephemera, mock-ups, letters, and more.

What are some of your favorite zines?

I am still most attracted to vintage music zines, especially those like Flipside, Suburban Voice, Non-Stop Banter, Search and Destroy, No Idea, the various zines of Biscuit of the Big Boys, and Maximum RocknRoll. Luckily, I have been able to publish photos and interviews in the latter, some of which, like my piece with Vic Bondi from Articles of Faith, was collected in my book Left of the Dial: Conversations with Punk Icons, released this past spring by PM Press.  However, I also am especially fond of zines like World War III and Raw too, which married the worlds of political conscience with eye-throbbing art.

Left_of_the_dialcover2013

Can you talk a bit about your new app on BiblioLabs?  Why is it important to preserve these artifacts?

If the participants on the ground in our culture do not take the time and energy to stake their claim in history, then they might simply disappear, fall into gaps of “official culture” chronologies, or become distorted by future tellers of history. We are the 21st digital archive: we are the future now. The compendium was an experiment for me. It was a new App platform, a curated environment featuring full interviews in their original but also sometimes remixed/altered formats, that I wanted to try, just as I had self-published a book with Peter Case of the Plimsouls and The Nerves using Create Space by Amazon or used Lulu to self-publish small books of my photography.  Now, I tend to use blogs, in fact over twenty of them, because they seem transparent, easy to maintain, and versatile. In doing so, I hope that I am chronicling counterculture history from the ground up, maintaining a sense of my culture’s diverse, inclusive voices and mediums. So, to me, as a folklorist, this makes perfect sense. I pay attention to the folk art of the people, whether that art is zines or objects left on graves when grieving. To me, this is the real history of America hidden beneath normative mainstream practices.

How do you think the digital world has affected your work and research related to zines and punk culture?  Is it positive, negative or both?

First, it devastated me because I witnessed the complete collapse of the major magazine and music distribution centers, like Tower Records. One day, people readily purchased my zines from Chicago to Japan, the next minute distros, first Tower then Desert Moon, collapsed, owing me (and many, many more) thousands of dollars.  It was heartbreaking. So, I first shifted my zine to a website format but became strained by the cost and lack of flexibility. Therefore, using WordPress.com, I switched to a blog, which provides intuitive control panels and easy-to-update formats.

Research, however, has become infinitely easier on many levels. I cannot believe I wrote my first book, Visual Vitriol, about the street art of the punk and hardcore generation, before signing up for Facebook. Those social networks allow researchers wide outreach and community building. Yet, at the same time, the mountain of information provided by the web also precipitates a certain fatigue, and those same social connections can go sour. So, I aim for balance.  Zines can live in both worlds, harmoniously.

Are you working on any new projects right now?

I am juggling several projects at once including: a follow-up to Left of the Dial, an interview book that focuses on maverick Indie Rock and Americana artists; a collection of short stories; folklore fieldwork that surveys the cultural productions of American-based World War Two POW camps; and photography projects that focus on male barbershop environments, vintage game arcades, and vernacular yard art, like Swetsville Zoo, full of metallic creatures, in Colorado (the abstracts for these projects are here: visualvitriol.wordpress.com). Plus, I publish an ongoing photo blog, davidfotos.wordpress.com and a folklore blog modernfolklorists.wordpress.com, that I continually update.

Is this your first time attending Zine Fest Houston?  As a first time organizer, I am interested in knowing your thoughts on previous years if you have attended the event in the past.

Though I attended the Portland zine fest, this is my first time in Houston! I am especially psyched to see the support of The Museum of Printing History, one of the finest small museums in the county, where hands-on workshops keep the craft of printing alive and well in a city that lives for the future.

What are you looking forward to most about participating in Zine Fest Houston 2013?

To me, conversations are the glue that binds. The more the community, as an active “high context folk group” if I may use some lingo from my field, gathers to share ideas, spread their wares, and stimulate new directions, the more zine making will remain resilient and sustainable. Self-published zines, in many forms, are the backbone of underground culture. They are not mere affordable and exploratory outlets of creative expressions. They are the epicenter of democracy, self-made media, and folk art that bend and weave through technological changes.  ‘Become the media’ can only happen when people take action, in one form, mode, platform, or another.  The pulse of the counterculture nation throbs in such texts, whether as Xerox or hyperlinks.

Is there anything that you would like to let our attendees know about you and your work that hasn’t been addressed?

I will show a small personal documentary film I made, tons of zines, and a short slideshow, as well as showcasing my blogs, so I hope I may spark a series of conversations that celebrate zines and explore issues defining the future of zine making and archiving in a quickly morphing media-saturated environment.

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