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Mirror Sydney

September 17, 2017

My new book has been published by Giramondo Publishing and is out in stores and available to order! It is based on my blog Mirror Sydney, the project that I have been working on for the past five years, so it’s a proud moment to see it out in the world. A collection of essays and hand-drawn maps, the book charts an alternative Sydney, investigating the minor, the odd, and the unexpected, and the layers of time that exist in the present. It’s about Sydney as well as a way of encountering and perceiving urban places, taking notice of atmospheres, moods and details.

I write about edgelands and abandoned places, urban wilderness, anachronistic places, forgotten traditions, and suburban memories. I ride the monorail and travel on the underground footway that, in the 1960s, was seen as the peak of future transportation technology. I visit the lost property auction where years worth of objects left on trains are put up for sale. I read the messages on the community notice boards and ghost signs. I travel into the suburbs, and investigate the city’s underground, and the places where unexpected memories lie.

 

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Zines on The Mix

June 26, 2017

A short profile on contemporary zine culture by Lisa Skerrett screened on ABC’s The Mix last weekend – visit the Other Worlds zine fair, Sticky Institute, Copier Jam, and me in my room to hear a little bit about the state of zines in 2017 and a little bit about the decades before. If you’d like to watch it, hop to it, it’s up on ABC iView until July 8th.

While I’m in zine announcement mode, I’ve put some copies of I am a Camera #19 up on etsy for those who’d like to order it.

 

Zine News for May

May 3, 2017

May is a big month for zines in Sydney, with both the MCA Zine Fair (21st May) and Other Worlds (28th May) coming up at the end of the month. I’ll have a table at Other Worlds this year, and a new I am a Camera with me, so do drop by if you’re in Sydney, its on at Marrickville Town Hall, from 12-4pm.

Other Worlds poster by Ben Juers.

There’s a feature on zines by Maria Zarro (of Astrobabble zine) in this month’s Ciao Magazine, which you can read at Inside the Inner West’s Zine Culture. She interviews Chris Mikul (of Bizarrism and Biblio-curiosa) and me, and Chris and I can be seen, zines held aloft, on the cover of the magazine.

Chris Mikul and I hanging out on a King Street doorstep.

Another recent interview I’ve done on zines has been published as part of 6 Australian Art Book Makers on the Power of Print at Vice, in an article by Sami Emory, which also includes among its interviews the Refugee Art Project, and Big Ego Books.

Copier Jam!, an exhibition of zines and comic curated by Jeremy Staples, is showing at Wollongong Art Gallery until June 25th, including some of my zines, from the early days of Psychobabble onwards, as well as many other zines from the past and present by Australian zine makers.

Copier Jam! visitor reads what was on my mind in 1997.

A Letter from March

March 10, 2017

 

It is hard to write a new post after the previous one, but I will try my best. It has been a week of on and off rain, and I’ve been doing a lot of teaching, taking students through what it is to write nonfiction, to write about Sydney, to think about shadow places. I’ve had little time for much else. My favourite moments have been looking out of the train as it goes over the Harbour Bridge, over the steel-grey water that comes with these overcast days, and sending my thoughts out into that wide space below.

I have some matters current and upcoming which I will tell you about: I have an article about mapping, archives and data in the latest issue of Artlink, for those with an interest in my more critical writing.

At the end of the month Copier Jam opens in Wollongong, a group exhibition of zines and comics curated by Jeremy Staples. The opening’s on March 31st with details here.

Copier Jam_E-Invite

The exhibition includes zines by me (including the eternally popular but long sold out “peacock” edition of I am a Camera) and Andy Paine, Ashley Ronning, Aunty Mabel’s Zine Distro, Ben Constantine, Canberra Zine Emporium, Comicoz, Douglas Holgate, Gemma Flack, Golden Stapler Awards, Iain McIntyre, Philip Dearest, Silent Army, Squishface Studio, Sticky Institute, Unbelievably Bad, and You Zine.

For those interested in my work on Sydney, I’ll be presenting a talk on St Peters in May for the Heritage Festival, it’s called Post Industrial Playground, and it on at St Peters library on May 10th. Find out about the underground history of a place that’s rapidly being transformed into the Westconnex motorway…

Miss Helen

January 4, 2017

Towards the end of 2016 I lost my beloved friend of over 20 years, Miss Helen. She died after a year of fighting an advanced and aggressive cancer. Miss Helen was a person with the gift of elevating the ordinary life into the realm of magic, and she managed to continue to do this even in the most trying of circumstances. Despite the cruelty of her illness, she faced all that she experienced with great courage. Grieving Helen has been hard for me, and I miss her intensely. One of the worst feelings is that Helen has disappeared, and the world just continues along whether she’s here or not. So I wanted to write something about the space Miss Helen made in the world, and to write a little of her story, and the story of our friendship.

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Miss Helen and me at TINA, Newcastle, 2007.

Helen was a prolific artist and writer, working with textiles and multimedia and, most prominently, zines: she is regarded as one of Australia’s most notable zinemakers, making them consistently for 20 years. She perfected the tiny but profound zine: her zines were often small in size but were full of her astute, funny voice, her observations and ideas and her vision of the world around her. Helen’s first zine was Astrogrrrl, a one page zine she made in her teenage bedroom, filling it with lists and observations, questionnaires she’d send to bands, recipes, comments on punk and underground culture, repurposed clippings, drawings, all stuck together so as to leave no space uncovered.

Helen started Astrogrrrl in 1996, the year I started my first zine, Psychobabble. I remember collecting my first letter from her from my PO box. I looked at the address on the back of the envelope, wondering where Loftus was, and who Helen Astro might be. I found out that she lived as far south as I lived north of the city – I liked to imagine us both making zines from our bedrooms back then, both of us with the radio on, listening to Fur or Magic Dirt, writing our way out of the world we were living in, in the hope of constructing or connecting with a new one.

 

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The 1990s was a heyday for zines, and although the scene was small and dispersed across the country, it was a tight-knit one that it was easy to become a part of. Helen was a few years younger than me – I’d just left school by the time I made Psychobabble, but she was still in high school when she made Astrogrrrl. She called it her “secret double life” – by day she’d be at high school with its restrictions and rivalries, “a post-grunge dork with photographs of obscure bands on my folder”. Her secret identity was Helen Astro the zine maker, writing letters to people all over the country, swapping zines and tapes and stories.

Helen and I wrote to each other for a while before meeting in person at a Lawnsmell instore gig at Phantom Records in 1997. Lawnsmell were a zine band, their bassplayer, Glenn, made Scrollzine and they were the kind of DIY punk band that were the musical equivalent of cut and paste. Their sound could be frenetic and ragged, but it all came together into something exciting, made us want to make things. One day last year when Helen and I were talking about meeting at this gig, it was the feeling of energy and empowerment we agreed upon as the legacy of this time. It was a lifesaving thing, reaching out in the hope that we might find people out there who felt similarly dissatisfied with prevailing cultural ideals, and wanted to make things, serious or silly, that were fed from this energy.

This was an exciting time to make zines. There was a lot of vitality and exchange among zinemakers – it was the first time I felt like I was somewhere I belonged, and I know it was the same for Helen, too. At zine picnics we’d meet people in person we’d only ever written to, and sit underneath fig trees in Centennial Park talking until the sun started to set. Helen would organise funny suburban excursions to places like the Tramway Museum at Loftus – although a lot happened in the inner city, zines were as much a suburban and a regional phenomena as a city one. Most zine activity happened through the mail, so it didn’t matter if you lived in the outer suburbs or away from a major city, as long as you could find a photocopier or post a letter.

Helen made 26 issues of Astrogrrrl, the last around 1999, though she continued to use “Astro Press” as the imprint for her subsequent zines. She’d started using the name Miss Helen by then too, moving on from the default zine naming system whereby your name was paired with the name of your zine (making Helen Astro, or Vanessa Psychobabble). After finishing Astrogrrrl, in the 2000s she made zines under different names, sometimes split zines or collaborations, among them: Spycorp, The Hospital for Broken Hearts, The Bubbles Pop, The Little Golden Book of Angst. She believed in the importance of zine community organising zine picnics, and setting up an email list for zinemakers that was, pre-social media, an important way of discussing and organising within the scene.

In the 2000s she also began Fly Away Bird, her other long-running zine series, which she made from 2004 – 2013. Her style had by now refined into individual pages of illustration and text, each of which distilled something of an emotion or an experience, whether it be something joyful or trying. I loved to read them – Helen was my close friend and we regularly went on adventures, catching ferries, eating icecreams, having tea parties, taking her little dog Snuffy out for a walk, sharing tables at zine fairs – but there was something magic about the way she’d turn her life and thoughts into zines. She honoured moments, objects, emotions and frivolity, never dwelling on anything too long, but for just the right amount of time to make you think about it.

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There’s a page photocopied from Fly Away Bird above my desk as I write this. A cartoon girl in frilly clothes and boots, floating amid a page of hearts and the words “so happy right now, I could flap my hands like little wings and float away”. The corners of it have holes from the pin marks where it was pinned to a corkboard for her 2007 “Zine Factory” exhibition at Penrith Regional Gallery. The exhibition included her zines as well as her knitted cupcakes and creatures: a giant knitted bunny which sat on a while wicker chair with a cute, stubborn expression on its face. More than anyone I know, Helen harnessed the transcendent power of cuteness. She believed that in our response to cuteness is a feeling of tenderness and love that can be directed both towards the world at large, or inwards towards the self.

In her last zine, Iridescent Jubilee, which accompanied her tea party installation at Waverley Library Gallery, she wrote of wanting to “make things that are ultimate joy bombs”. Missing her, I try to reach for this sense of joy. I haven’t felt very happy over the last few months, certainly not as if I could float away, but every time I look at the happy girl being carried aloft by canaries, I think of how Helen brought joy to my life, and to many others. I know that Helen’s zines affected a lot of people, gave them solace and companionship, whether they knew her in person or not. That feeling that zines sometimes inspire, when they seem to be speaking directly to you, has a strong power. Helen’s zines, small enough to fit in a pocket, always honest, accepting life with its contradictions and struggles and making something good out of it, are treasures.

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From Fly Away Bird #8

I haven’t covered anywhere near all the things that Helen made in her artistic life in this short piece of writing, and little of our friendship and how she was such a vital presence in my life. It’s hard when I’m still getting used to writing about her in the past tense. But I’ve made a start. And although she is no longer here to continue to make art and zines, her zines reached thousands of people, and her work is an important part of the zine and DIY cultures she was a part of.

Throughout Helen’s life she believed strongly in the true values of DIY: passion, community, communication. In one of her issues of Fly Away Bird she writes what I interpret as a guide to reading her zines: “I want you to think, to understand and start making your world more like what you want.” The call to action that she and I had felt so strongly back when we started making zines, that there was no alternative but to make the good things you wished yourself to discover. This spirit remained strong throughout all the many things she made and sent out into the world.

The Writer and the Silver Bear

September 16, 2016

As far as material possession go, I have more than my fair share after 25 years of regular op shopping. As much as I tell myself there is nothing more I need or want, sometimes objects with particular talismanic power will make themselves known to me. It was thus with the silver bear.

The bear was put out for sale outside Reverse Garbage, alongside a box of foam offcuts. It was about a metre high and glittery silver and at first I fought my inclination to inspect it further. But after I had left the store, and was sitting on a bench outside having some lunch, I found my eyes drawn back to the bear. The situation escalated. When a man approached the bear and picked it up, testing its weight, I had a sudden lurch of feeling. The next thing I knew:

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Writing Place Course

August 15, 2016

As some of you dear readers may know, for the last four years or so I’ve been writing the blog Mirror Sydney, which takes as its subject overlooked, forgotten or unexpected places in Sydney. I’ll be sharing some of the things I’ve learnt along the way at a course that’s coming up soon at the NSW Writers’ Centre: Writing Place for Fiction and Non-Fiction. So if you’re interested in sharpening your skills on writing place, whatever style you write in, this is the course for you: I promise tips, tricks, and plenty of inspiration.

MK Boot