Hamja Ahsan discusses zines and activism on the fifth anniversary of the DIY Cultures festival in London
Print cultures are making a fierce resurgence. In the absence of a grassroots, varied and colourful media landscape, an appetite for self-publishing is taking hold. Even the ebook frenzy is dying down, with consumer sales plunging by almost a fifth last year. There seems to be no better time for ‘doing it yourself’.
As a member of the new Khidr Collective and fascinated by the rise in print ‘zines’, I was keen to find out more. So I spoke to Hamja Ahsan, one of our contributors and the co-curator of the DIY Cultures festival, an annual day festival exploring the intersections of art and activism.
The festival on 14th May will showcase more than 90 exhibitors at Rich Mix, East London. It will be accompanied by an extended exhibition, DIY Knowledge, which you can see from now until 2nd June.
Hamja is a writer, artist and human rights campaigner, and will be debuting his book Shy Radicals: Antisystemic Politics of the Militant Introvert as part of the programme this year.
How would you define a ‘zine’?
A zine is a sub-culture – independent, self-published, and usually cheaply made publication. It’s associated with photocopying. It has its own particular history. I guess a zine is something that’s not official. The antithesis of the mainstream. That’s the ethos of it.
Are zines for the marginalised?
It’s strange because zines are now bigger than ever, even though we have social media. And because production is small-scale, you never lose that face-to-face interaction. When you sell a zine you often meet your buyers at stalls, so I guess you don’t need capital, authoritisation or grants – it doesn’t have that dependency.
It’s also accessible, it doesn’t require any special abilities. You get a piece of paper, fold it in two and throw in some felt-tips. In some ways, it’s for people who don’t really want to grow up.
At DIY Cultures, there’ll be a communal table, lots of workshops, and anyone can bring their zines.
How has DIY Cultures evolved since you, Sofia and Helena started the festival five years ago?
When I was making zines 11 years ago, it seemed to be only me and Sofia. There was that white exclusivity and domination, but that’s changed.
Each year, DIY Cultures has become more and more ambitious. We now commission short films and animations. I think you can take a zine attitude to anything, whether it’s science, or architecture or interior design. This year we’ve got an architectural collective and a live TV webcast station by Clapham Film Unit playing in the background.
Instead of the same circuit of people, what I’ve tried to do in the past is feature people who aren’t necessarily in the foreground. My favourite talk I ever did in the first year was ‘Unemployment and Creativity’ and I just invited seven unemployed people to give their insights. I’m quite sick of hearing Owen Jones’ voice – that statement alone can sum up what I’m aiming for.
So have you sought to expand what it means to be ‘lefty’?
There’s lots of different routes into DIY Cultures and I’m not necessarily representative of everyone. Some may be more interested in craft-making, some infographics, and so on. Even between the organisers, not all of us are particularly ‘radical’.
I don’t personally agree with all the sub-cultures that we feature and that’s fine. I don’t particularly like what I’d call hyper-intersectionality, because I view it as very academic, very ossified, very US college campus imperialism. People use academic terms as they would use sunnah or hadeeth. I’m not interested in trigger warning culture and calling everything ‘problematic’ every two seconds, I find that just like orthodoxy.
What we do in the Other Asias collective (who feature in DIY Knowledge) is make up our own critical theory phrases, like ‘whiteous indignation’, ‘sub-alterneering’, so we try to be a bit playful with that sort of critical theory. If you take the value of doodling, play, informality, that’s what I value, that’s what I’m trying to foster.
Why did you choose ‘radical mental health’ as a theme for DIY Cultures?
The most popular event we’ve ever done was the radical mental health event last year to an audience of over 900 people. The idea just came from the pit of my stomach.
The cliché of our times is to say, “let’s talk about mental health”, and everyone from Theresa May to the latest fuzzy NGO uses that rhetoric. I’d like to turn that on its head. Before seeing a psychiatrist or medic, there is this other zone.
The reason I got into zines when I was 13 was the Manic Street Preacher zines in the early ‘90s. There was a guitarist called Richard James Edwards, who was very public in speaking about anorexia, self-harm and depression in his interviews and during his hospitalisation. I found such a level of empathy and insight within those interviews. I produced my own Manic-inspired zine called ‘Nausea’ when I was 13.
I’m interested in redefining, reclaiming and re-authoring depression. I think the relationship between a GP and a patient has its limits. Things like austerity – a doctor is not going to register that. I even find some of the anti-stigma campaigns reinforce biomedical reduction, when they push statistics like ‘1 in 4’. I’m interested in the spiritual dimension of things too.
Why did the Hillsborough campaign capture your attention?
Hillsborough is the ultimate example of what it means to be fucked over by the mainstream. There’s an amnesia towards the crimes of the British state. Even though I say DIY Cultures is about empowerment of people of colour, the way Liverpool was treated in the 1980s – and I’ll say this strongly as a statement – was akin to racism. There’s no other way of putting it.
There was the language of managed population decline used by Margaret Thatcher, and when the James Bulger child murder happened, many blamed the culture of the people of Liverpool – this was in the liberal Guardian, it wasn’t the right-wing press.
When I went to Liverpool to make my film for the DIY Knowledge exhibition, I found people had an extra level of hospitality, friendliness and support that I hadn’t experienced in London. I saw what a beautiful, resistant, defiant city it was in the ‘80s. I could see the falseness of Thatcher’s demonisation.
How did Liverpool champion an alternative media culture?
People forget that there were many wilderness years where no one had any interest in Hillsborough. Everyone would parrot the same lies about football hooligans killing their own. The zines helped the real stories survive.
There’s amazing levels of class critique, wit and humour, and creativity in these football fanzines. They had a particular attitude towards mocking Thatcherism, the police and the state, and the language of chairmen of boards. They often use that Scouse sense of humour, laughing through adversity. Zines like ‘The End’ by Peter Hooton and ‘What’s the Score’ by Pete Naylor. They showed the truth decades before it entered the mainstream – things that weren’t highlighted officially until the second inquest last year.
Speaking to the campaigners, it was new to me to hear zines talked about as a white working class medium, because we usually assume they’re for middle class hipsters. I built a whole archive of zines from the ‘80s and ‘90s that are totally out of print – they’re treasures for me and I want to give them the time and space they really deserve in future exhibitions.
Can you tell us more about the Theresa May statue?
The first talk at this year’s festival is called ‘Theresa May & the Others’. May referred to my brother as ‘the others’, and you think, ‘who are the others?’ And I realised there were other others, and that the others is all of us.
We didn’t know when we started this that a General Election would come. This is my bit to ‘making June the end of May’.
The DIY Cultures 2017 day festival: Zines, Artists’ Books and Comics will be held on 14th May. See the full programme here: http://diycultures.tumblr.com/programme.
The DIY Knowledge exhibition is open from now until 2nd June in the Lower Cafe Gallery of Rich Mix: https://www.richmix.org.uk/
featured and body (final) photo by Aimee Valinski
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