Words by Bren Carruthers
Illustration by Heath Hipwell

Born into the digital age, it’s hard for me to imagine a time when accessing a community of like-minded people was difficult; the internet has made connecting with others so much easier. But long before websites like Tumblr became the glue that seems to bind every piece of fandom, opinion, and self-made art together in one format, self-printed zines were the primary means of underground expression.

Zines are handmade, photocopied publications, usually made in very small numbers and based on very niche topics. Unlike most other media of the late twentieth century, zines had the ability to be whatever the creator desired. For some zine makers, that meant cut and paste collages. For others, it encompassed a range of mediums, including handwritten content, political rhetoric, comics, photography, and art.

In the same way that Gutenberg’s printing press changed the way ideas were circulated to the masses, the mass availability of the photocopier allowed the 20th century underground to exchange new ideas quickly and easily through various subcultural scenes. Fuelled by caffeine and their beliefs, eager devotees spent countless late hours hovering over warm copiers. They would spread their zines through mail order, sell them at gigs or zine fairs, or supply them to record stores to be filed away in their own section.

The first real appearance of the zine in its identifiable form was in the science fiction community, where fans would publish their grievances and thoughts on the latest sci-fi hit. In many ways, these works are a precursor to the fanfiction, fan art, and alternate universe works that pepper the internet today.

Other fan communities followed. Punk, a music fanzine that began printing in 1976, chronicled the underground music scene found in New York City at that time. One of the bands in that scene, The Ramones, launched into the mainstream spotlight, taking the term punk with them and giving the genre its name.

However, zines also had the ability to transcend fan circles and become social movements in their own right. Zinemaking played a prominent role in the riot grrrl movement of the early ‘90s, a vital building block of third-wave feminism. Stitching together a do-it-yourself aesthetic in both art and music and shunning the mainstream, artists like Kathleen Hanna claimed the name of the Riot Grrrl zine, and helped evolve it into an entire movement. As best explained by The Riot Grrrl Manifesto, zines were a vital necessity:

BECAUSE we need to talk to each other. Communication/inclusion is the key. We will never know if we don’t break the code of silence… BECAUSE in every form of media we see us/myself slapped, decapitated, laughed at, objectified, raped, trivialized, pushed, ignored, stereotyped, kicked, scorned, molested, silenced, invalidated, knifed, shot, choked and killed. BECAUSE a safe space needs to be created for girls where we can open our eyes and reach out to each other without being threatened by this sexist society and our day to day bullshit.

Espousing sex positivity, anti-oppression, and reclaiming ownership of misogynist slurs, the riot grrrl movement not only inspired an entire lineage of female artists and musicians, but also helped to inform and inspire artists like Kurt Cobain.

As the internet became more popular, the zine age slipped away. Of course, zines are still being made today, although they are now mostly the domain of the obscure hobbyist. Rather than an outlet for the underground, modern zinemakers are far more interested in exploration with the medium. Some zines are accompanied by extremely personal effects, like a strand of hair or even the zinemaker’s own blood. Other zines play with genre, delving into incredibly niche topics and postulations. Yet most modern zines are explorations in graphic art—the zine is, after all, another blank canvas waiting for an artist to impress their personality on its surface.

Melbourne, as a UNESCO City of Literature, helps play a major role in modern zine culture. The Sticky Institute in Campbell Arcade, under Flinders Street in the city, is one of the few zine-specific stores in the world. It acts as a cultural nexus for the medium not just locally, but globally, through their refined ability to access and order zines from across the world.

While the days of the zine as a facilitator of fandom and subculture may be gone, the medium is sure to live on, much in the same way that people will continue to hang onto the printed newspaper or book. The romance of print, of intimacy and tangibility of the physical item, and the human desire to collect means that printed matter will always have a role in art and culture.

Words by Bren Carruthers
Illustration by Heath Hipwell 

MEDIA_Xenophiles_445x852The reclusive lifestyle is as old as civilisation itself. Stories of hermits pepper ancient folk tales and mythologies, with every cave seemingly inhabited by a mystic, heretic or lunatic. In a modern world, the geographic environment is significantly different, yet the relentless stress of the social environment is more oppressive than ever – so where are our modern equivalents of the archetypal hermit?

The Japanese have a term for it: Hikikomori. They’re solitary figures, hidden away from public eyes, often with the assistance of their concerned but enabling parents. For years, they spend their time in isolation, rarely leaving their rooms, if at all; living an existence that is rarely acknowledged publicly, due to Japan’s shame culture. It’s estimated that as much as 1% of Japan’s population are hikikomori.

The West has its own version of the archtype: the twenty-something slacker that lives in his parents basement or garage and plays World of Warcraft, surrounded by discarded snack wrappers and bottles of urine. Regardless of the surrounding mainstream culture, it seems that this sort of lifestyle is becoming an increasing phenomenon.

I spoke with a reformed Australian hikikomori, now resocialising and involved in society. For him, it was a slow, almost unrecognised descent into isolation. “I went overseas,” he says. “When I came back, rather than tell my friends, I decided that I’d like some time alone, to gather my thoughts and rebalance myself. I ended up isolating myself for eight months.”

It’s clear that hikikomori have a lot in common with people who suffer mental illnesses such as Avoidant Personality Disorder, yet very few hikikomori test positive for mental illnesses that accurately account for their actions.

“It was just solitude,” says my reformee. “But when you’re alone like that, structures break down. Your sleeping pattern becomes fluid and irrelevant. Bedtime is when you’re sleepy. Meals are when you’re hungry. It’s chaos… but there’s also an unbridled freedom that comes with that.”

Quite often, the phenomenon has been linked with affluence, and not without good reason. The vast majority of hikikomori receiving the financial support necessary to maintain their lifestyle through their parents, living in their childhood homes with their living expenses borne by their complicit and loving hosts. Yet the Global Financial Crisis has also brought another variant of the hikikomori to academic attention – one that is a victim of circumstance. Unable to find any employment, many hikikomori socially withdraw due to a lack of options available to them. The issue is becoming particularly noticeable in Italy, Spain and Greece, countries with exceptionally high levels of youth unemployment.

Whether the hikikomori lifestyle can be considered a true subculture is debatable, however, because hikikomori mainly use the Internet and online gaming as their main sources of entertainment, there is often a communal factor that goes largely unacknowledged. It’s not unusual for hikikomori to pass time reading, writing, or with any other average hobby, but MMORPGs are a very common pastime, and offer a forum through which they can escape their confined realities in a communal experience. Social websites like 4chan and Reddit also help to supplement the desire for social interaction.

Is this the future of humanity? It’s pretty unlikely. Doomsayers have been bellowing from the mountains suggesting that the simplest change to the communicative status quo will bring about the end of man for centuries. In the 18th century, a French statesman argued that newspapers would create social isolation, whilst Socrates was recorded as regularly speaking out about the dangers of writing.

Yet there can be no doubt that the future of the hikikomori as a subculture is unclear. In Japan, there is real concern as the “first wave” of hikikomori, now between the ages of 35 and 45, are now being forced to face the inevitable: the death of their parents from old age. Disturbingly, a survey conducted by a researcher at Osaka University asked hikikomori what they would do upon the death of their parents. A significant majority indicated suicide or starvation. Only a small fraction indicated an intention to re-enter mainstream society.

Is intervention necessary? Or is a life of solitude — as long as the hikikomori has the ability to be responsible for themself — a legitimate lifestyle? One thing is certain: if social isolation is truly an aspect of the human condition that people will inevitably be drawn to, then it seems likely that the phenomenon will continue well into our online-driven future.