Edmonton Small Press Association Q & A
Posted: Tuesday, November 14, 2000
By: Darren Schroeder
A while ago I sent off a few local small press comics to the Edmonton Small Press Association. I had found out from somewhere that this group were putting together an exhibition in the near future and were looking for titles to include in the show. I didn't expect to hear anything more about it, so when a little parcel arrived with a thank you letter, catalogue and various other bits of coherent publicity material I was more than a little impressed. It looked like this group knows how to get things done. I tracked down S. Lynette Bondarchuck, one of the committee members, and asked her a few questions...
Darren Schroeder: So what are the aims of the Edmonton Small Press Association?
S. Lynette Bondarchuck: That's a hard question, seeing as we have lofty long-term goals (but more on that later)!
In the short-term I'd have to say our main goal is simply to turn people on to small press; our mandate is to encourage and support the creation and dissemination of small press and contemporary art, but that's still pretty vague... it generally means we want people to be AWARE of small press and accept it as a viable, worthy and culturally significant activity. Basically, we think 'small press' is an ART FORM, and we think that if more people were exposed to it they'd agree with us. I get irate when people disagree with that statement - especially when they, like most people, are fairly ignorant of zine culture... agh. That's a rant I'll save for a bit later!
Anyway, in the long term - if we can manage to stay afloat - we'll be working on finding space and raising funds for our own public gallery so we can have rotating exhibitions; a public library & archive so our collection can be more accessible to the masses; and maybe eventually a production house, if there's an interest and if we have enough financial support...
DS: Do you have room or building set up for the public to visit?
Lynette: Not yet, we don't, but it's something we're looking into and something we'd definitely like to see happen down the road. For the past 2 years we've had our office and library in our converted basement, and we've always made people aware that they are welcome to come by, but there aren't too many people who are comfortable coming into somebody's residential neighborhood to hang around their basement and browse!
Basically, we want to find a space that has regular hours, where people can drop in whenever they like and look at new stuff (like public galleries do); we're already associated with enough artists to justify monthly shows for the next two years (!), and God knows there are enough good bands around hurting for a friendly venue, but without funding for a publicly-accessible space it's pretty much a pipe dream. Agh. Very frustrating, having the passion but no financial means...
DS: How long has it been running?
Lynette: The original board got together in May of 1998 and we became 'official' in October '98 when we were incorporated as a non-profit society. Considering the short time we've been together we've actually done quite a lot. A fair bit of public events (meaning increased exposure), with more emerging each year...
DS: How does the group define small press?
Lynette: Pretty much the usual definition, although I think our boundaries are a bit more open. There has always been the subcultural aspect with a lot of punk/indie/underground aesthetic (ie- small self-published comics, cut 'n' paste rant-zines, litzines, etc.), but I've found over the last couple of years that those lines are hard to draw. For example, we also find a lot of cool little art zines making their way to us: Everything from original comics, to handmade flip books, postcards, mail art, etc. We also actively support indie musicians as well, because we see a fundamental connection between somebody self-publishing a zine and 'self-publishing' a CD...
DS: I see that ESPA were involved in running an exhibition for The Works Visual arts Festival in Edmonton. How did that go?
Lynette: It went GREAT. Amazing actually, but let me give you some background info first...
The ESPA has had a *hard* time getting any sort of recognition in the local art community. Edmonton is a very conservative city, and 'art' is usually defined as 'wildlife watercolors or any number of equally boring, unoriginal, inane projects. In seeking grant money for Subtitles over the last year, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, the provincial funding body, actually refused our application, citing that my ten year old can do this. I don't mind telling you I was PISSED OFF, to say the least. The AFA, and other funding bodies like it, are run by a population of dinosaurs who have no vision, and no idea what 'contemporary' art can mean; in turn, their hi-brow attitude pretty much guarantees that tons of worthwhile projects/events will get quashed even before they begin. It is absolutely shameful.
That said, producing Subtitles was no easy task. With zero funding and only a handful of volunteers doing all the work, it's pretty amazing that we were able to produce it at all. Subtitles took us a full year to produce, and consisted of about 80 pieces of original art being installed as well as hundreds of zines that were sent to us from all over the globe. It was the first big event that we produced that served to 'legitimize' small press activities in the art community here, and those who previously ridiculed our activities were in for a big surprise; people genuinely liked the exhibit (as was obvious by consistent peals of laughter coming from the exhibition space), over 1500 people came through over the week, and because it was held in the public library we were rewarded a certain amount of 'respectability'. It was an exhausting process, but after all was said and done, it was definitely worth the effort.
DS: What is the small press scene like in Edmonton?
Lynette: That depends on how you look at it. I'd have to say 'ambivalent', for lack of a better word. There's always something being produced, but for some reason I'm not privy to, there seems to be a big 'split' (ie- no one seems to want to work together). In my opinion, this is a big problem, because God knows there is 'strength in numbers' and all of us can use support from each other. Like I said, I don't know the reason for the split, but I think a lot of it has to do with EGO, which is always a surefire way to cause problems. I think another reason has to do with 'autonomy', in that people simply want to be left alone to do their own thing. I think this is STUPID in a lot of ways: small press is hardly a 'lucrative' activity, and the people who ignore the opportunity to network with others will only ensure that their projects eventually fall into obscurity. There are at least 10 different local producers we've written to over the last couple of years who have not responded to us, and because of this we are no longer willing to waste our time and effort on them - we won't buy their books for our library, and we won't invite them to our events anymore, because it's simply a waste of our time. It's unfortunate, and although we are trying our damnedest to bring people together, it's a difficult process. Ironically enough, we get way more support/interest from people outside of Edmonton. It's really sad, actually. (I know, not exactly a ringing endorsement, but true.) On a positive note, Subtitles gave us the opportunity to meet a handful of new (local) producers who we now work with. I think it's fair to say that for every 'too-cool' zinester there's at least one more who is sincerely cool, and that's who the ESPA is here to support...
DS: Do you think the 'ambivalent' local creators are trying to protect their subcultural aesthetic by shying away from anything that looks organized?
Lynette: In some cases, yes. A few people (very condescendingly) have said Well, isn't it ironic that you claim to be supporting 'independent artists', but here you are asking for funding? That's hardly 'independent'. Our take on this is: Well, if our taxes can go to support your misdirected definition of 'art', art that means nothing to us personally, then don't we deserve some reciprocation? We just want our 'piece of the pie', so to speak. If certain people choose not to be involved with us because of it, fine, but I still think it's their loss.
It's never been our intention to be 'institutional' or formalized; it's a common misconception that if we're 'organized', we would expect people to sacrifice their autonomy. We want to see people generating their own activities, and more cooperation between disciplines, and then we can all figure out together how to keep us operating.
I think an appropriate 'philosophy' regarding the ESPA is that it's 'all inclusive', and whoever wants to contribute anything can... it really doesn't matter how people are involved, as long as they have a passion for the small press 'aesthetic' and want to be cooperative. To do this we need more people to invest their time in the common goal of developing a forum for ourselves, but one that is recognizable and *appreciated* by the public, not one that alienates them, which I think is all too often the case in the snooty 'art world'... and I don't just mean for the visual artists, either; if people want to organize their own music-oriented forums, hey, tell us how we can contribute...
DS: How many people were involved at the start of ESPA and are all people still involved?
Lynette: There were originally about ten of us; most are still involved in one way or another, although a few have moved on (graduated, moved out of town, etc.), or are increasingly too busy with new jobs, etc., to provide much input. For the most part this is alright; there are always new people popping up now and then, and it definitely keeps a fresh perspective on things when new people are able to participate in the development of the organization.
DS: It has been my experience that even when comic creators are invited to be involved with the gallery/arts scene, there is always a sense that the 'artists' are doing the comic creators a favour. Have you experienced anything like that?
Lynette: Yes, sort of. What many people don't realize is that most of us are 'comics creators' ourselves (in one way or another). We did not one day say Gee, seeing as we're much more savvy about the arts scene maybe we should help those poor lo-brow artists get a show! It is not like that at all, and the ESPA is not like a traditional arts group or gallery (public or otherwise) that usually looks at artists as 'commodities' that serve their interests first.
On the contrary, the ESPA began in response to traditional arts groups turning their noses up at what we were trying to do. As mentioned, some funding agencies wouldn't even accept our applications, let alone consider our stuff worthwhile, and unfortunately that mentality tends to trickle down to the public galleries that otherwise might've found the work a viable art form.
SO, we said Fine, fuck you guys! We'll start our own group! A group that will not only support the artists working in this medium, but also show the public that yes, there is art that the 'average Joe' can appreciate.
DS: What do you see as the benefits of small press gaining 'respectability' in the wider arts community?
Lynette: There are many reasons, including those that recognize the artists, but I'd have to say the 'prime directive' is that the recognition of small press helps art become more accessible to the public itself. EVERYONE has at least one person around them that says art sucks, or art is not worthwhile to me, or why should my taxes pay some pretentious artist to produce shit my 3-year old can do... Sound familiar? My point is, we think small press reflects our CULTURE way more than most 'fine art' does. Traditional art simply does not reflect the interests or attitudes of the masses. If it did, there wouldn't be museum after museum filled with artworks commissioned by the church (politicians, corporate interests, etc.)!
DS: Did any of the 1500 visitors to the exhibit buy any comics?
Lynette: Yes, quite a bit actually. We sold about $500 worth of zines, which is pretty good considering most items sell for only a couple of dollars at most.
DS: What sort work made up the 80 pieces of original art on display?
Lynette: Most of it was original comic art, but we also framed up some of the more interesting/unusual zines that would be too easily overlooked otherwise. Most of it was from 'emerging' or relatively unknown artists, but we also had work from people like Peter Bagge, Roberta Gregory, Mary Fleener, Donna Barr, etc., who are all artists who started out self-publishing (and most still do despite their more popular titles being picked up by 'bona-fide' publishers). These artists were invited specifically because they helped 'pave the way' of contemporary underground comics, and also to demonstrate that yes, there is a market for this kind of art, regardless of what the hi-brow art types will have you believe. Those artists remain an inspiration to the next generation and provide fine examples that, if emerging creators are willing to stick with it, they too can make a living at it.
DS: You said you received hundreds of zines. Were their any common themes or trends apparent in these?
Lynette: Nope, not really. There will always be 'common themes' (as in bio-zines), but considering all people are different, and each has their own story/opinion to share, there is a never-ending fountain of diversity in the zines we receive for exhibition. That's one of the great things about zines' they are not easily lumped into one homogenous definition! As far as 'themes' go, we were lucky to have a fair representation from a lot of different avenues (feminist/grrrl oriented, gay comics, standard super-hero-type, general bio-zines, etc.), but one thing I was disappointed about was the lack of 'visible minority' zines, that is, zines made by or containing content related to minorities. Unfortunately zine-dom still seems to be a predominantly 'white' activity, but hopefully this will change as more people recognize that zines are an excellent avenue for any kind of self-expression.
DS: Small press creators tend to do their own thing content wise, so what was your policy on censorship?
Lynette: We didn't have a 'policy' per se (at least not for the exhibit), although we do have certain positions regarding censorship, which is to say we don't censor in general.
Our bylaws do state that we won't 'actively' support any projects we deem as hate-lit, but then again, that's only one form of expression that could be deemed as 'worthy of censorship' by the very righteous!
Let me clarify: The bylaw was written in by consensus of those of us who have certain personal values regarding the issue, and because we would be the ones running the organization, we wanted to retain the right to 'reject' a project if we think it's warranted. I would not personally waste my time and effort on 'promoting' anything that was anti-gay (for example), simply because I have a lot of gay friends, I don't believe it's right, and it's my prerogative to NOT ACT if I don't want to. However, I am nonetheless totally open to comics/zines that depict sexual situations, profanity, etc., and only because I personally value freedom of expression in it's most basic sense. Conversely, this is only my opinion, and others in the organization can do what they want.
That said, a few zines that I personally do consider as hate-lit have made their way to us, and in those instances it's fair to say we take a 'read at your own risk' approach (and yes, they were a part of the exhibition, although were kept out of reach of young kids, etc.). As a public-oriented arts organization we do have to be careful about pissing people off, but we are also unarguably 'pro freedom of speech'. Despite my own opinions regarding hate-lit, I do believe there is a certain amount of cultural value (for lack of a better word) regarding hate-lit, if only because it represents a real faction of society (eg - it's like being a Jew but denying my own kids access to anti-Semitic propaganda in order to 'protect' them; just because I try to deny the 'fact' doesn't mean it doesn't exist, and denying hate-lit outright only serves to drive those producers deeper underground where they might do more damage). Well, that's they way I feel about it anyway. Have I made any sense here, or am I babbling nonsensically? After all that, did I answer your question?
DS: How did you get involved with Small Press comics?
Lynette: If we go wa-a-a-y back, I've been an underground comics buff since I was about 6 years old; I had older pothead cousins who were into Crumb and Freak Bros., and my Dad (or maybe it was my uncle Lyle) also had some 'comic smut' that I used to sneak peeks at when no one else was around! All very eye-opening reading for a young developing mind! I realize now that I was doomed from the start...
Regarding small press though, only about ten years ago. In the mid-eighties I 're-discovered' underground comics with Neat Stuff, Love & Rockets, stuff like that; then, when I lived in Montreal ('87 to'91), I also had a few friends that were doing interesting chapbooks and artwork. There were also lots of friends in alternative bands (rock, punk, some indescribable), and between us all was a mutual aesthetic for underground culture. One of my roommates (a great artist by the name of Steve Godin) was working for a printer, and he used to make cool postcards and greeting cards. I hadn't been doing a lot of artwork during that period so unfortunately I missed out of getting involved in the production aspects, but it was a really inspirational time for me.
It wasn't until I moved out to Edmonton, and went back to Montreal for a trip that I attended a comic jam there. The comic jam was basically a big party which was held at the Stornaway gallery (which unfortunately I don't know much about, but I think the jams went on consistently for some time). Anyway, people sat around drawing comics, and as each comic was finished it went up on the wall, and at the end of the night the organizers gathered them up and a few months later 'voila' there was a cool little book! I was like, 'WHAT A GREAT IDEA!' (and to be honest, I'm still kind of appalled that I didn't think of it myself, it's such a simple idea....).
It actually wasn't until after starting my own zine that I even heard of long-running mags like Factsheet 5 (and the more recent Canadian equivalent, Broken Pencil) that I began realize the scope of the zine movement; it had been going on full blast for years in the States, but was still relatively new to Canada, only really happening in the more 'metropolitan' cities, and pretty underground in its own right.
Anyway, I decided I wanted to try the same thing here, so I rounded up a bunch of people, we organized a jam, and it went over really great. It was after that round that a bunch of us decided to get 'organized' and form the ESPA. Since then, the hardcore interest has come from gradually expanding into organizing shows and meeting more artists. (Of course it always helped to be an avid collector first...)
DS: How would you describe the ESPA's newsletter?
Lynette: Heh. Funny you should ask, 'cause I've just been agonizing over what to do with it! Our newsletter (the Press Kit) is really our only avenue for communicating with people (the members, the artists, the 'public-at-large'), so we tend to spend a lot of time telling people about what we've been up to, and who's involved, etc., etc. (this past year was one big ugly ad campaign for Subtitles and I'm sure people are sick of hearing about it!). Anyway, I'm not quite sure if it's been at all 'effective' as far as interesting reading goes...
Part of our goal is to involve people, and the newsletter is fairly effective to that end, especially because it tends to generate a fair bit of word-of-mouth. I think it's great that the small press community has allowed for me to give this interview to you, for example, and we'd like to see more of that interactivity in the future. Oh, but I digress...
We just started adding zine and music reviews, and we have a classifieds section which contains calls-for-submissions and other miscellany, but unfortunately we're not very consistent at this point. Because most of the info is local, there's not likely to be a whole lot of interest from outside, so hopefully we can add more interesting info in the future.
Another problem is it's (supposed to be) quarterly, which means a lot of the submissions we get expire before we go to print, so time is a big problem. Right now I'm a full issue behind! Newsletter be damned! At this point there's not a lot of people contributing, so it's hard for us to know what people want to hear about, not to mention that we're so disconnected geographically that it's hard to distribute effectively. (Yet another can of worms I'll get into later...)
All that said, people from anywhere are always welcome to contribute! Send a review about a project in your area, or write an article about something relevant to small press, and we'll most likely put it in the next issue. Besides time, the only other real thing holding us back from making a better newsletter is the cost, and although the formats are different, it's still tantamount to putting together a zine. The lack of focus and lack of postage kills us.
DS: What does it cost to subscribe to this?
Lynette: Nothing, actually, because we'll always add anyone to our mailing list who requests it; people who buy a membership ($20 per year/ $10 for student, senior, youth or low-income) will get it mailed to them, and the same goes for people who donate books or zines to our library, or participate in a show (they effectively become 'members' and also get it mailed to them). If it were up to me we'd have a much bigger mailing list than we do; right now we're printing about 400 copies per issue, about half which is dropped off around town (so that they are publicly accessible), and the rest that is mailed out.
To answer your question (sorry I'm such a windbag), we don't have a subscription rate because it would just be opening a whole new can o' worms (more stuff to organize, keep track of), so if somebody writes and says "add me to your mailing list", I will, but it does cost us a lot, so please people, be kind and donate IRC's or whatever it takes to cover the cost of sending you a newsletter!
DS: If a movie were made of your life story, who should play you?
Lynette: Oh, god, I dunno. Narcissist that I am, I always thought I'd play myself! Otherwise, I guess somebody who's short, female, mouthy, punkass and bitchy? Lili Taylor could probably do me justice, though we look nothing alike... Courtney Love maybe...
DS: Did art play a big part in your childhood?
Lynette: Sort of, but in a 'crafty' sort of way (mom was big on crafts and so kept me out of her hair); I spent a lot of time trying to convince my parents to let me take professional guitar lessons and shit like that, but my older sister fucked hers up and I kinda got shafted because of it... not to mention I lived in a shithole small town during my 'formative years', with little opportunities for 'artistic expression'... I did spend a fair bit of time drawing and painting on my own, though, but didn't really start doing too much about it until the late-80's. I'm still pretty crafty; maybe that's why I find putting together zines and stuff fun...
DS: Comics or Ice Hockey, which is more important and why?
Lynette: Comics definitely. Hockey sucks. (yes i know, i'm a bad canadian...)
I'll probably make a lot of enemies saying this, but I just don't get people who spend their money making hockey stars richer... I say if you like hockey, GO PLAY. I think art has a lot more to offer to society than professional sports. Art is therapy and it's totally empowering to create something from just a vision inside your mind; I think practicing it brings out positive energy and in turn brings people together in a positive manner... unlike pounding the shit out of each other on an ice rink, that is...
Lynette and the ESPA are currently calling for submissions to Going Postal, a show of mail art. Check out the details here.
You can contact Lynette and the ESPA via: Ph: (780) 434-9236,
Snail-Mail: P.O. Box 75086, Ritchie Postal Outlet, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 0V4, Canada.
Canadian Content interview with Lynette
A review of an ESPA Publication STOP-@-SPAM SEE.
If you have a comment or question about Small Press then feel free to contact me