The NYWF Zine Fair, public space, and a city on the edge of a total redevelopment

National Young Writers’ Festival
Image: National Young Writers’ Festival 2017 (Close up zines – Scott Limbrick)

On Sunday morning of the October long weekend, people gather at the Newcastle Elderly Citizens’ Centre to set up their stalls for the National Young Writers’ Festival Zine Fair. Trestle tables are covered in pink plastic tablecloths, puppy-print material and paisley sarongs; decorated with fake flowers, animal toys and succulents; and covered end-to-end in inexpensively produced, small-circulation self-published ‘magazines’, called zines. There are poetry zines and chapbooks published by Sydney’s grassroots literary organisation Subbed In; photography zines by local artist Dylan Smyth; a random assortment of local and interstate zines stocked by Newcastle’s zine shop Tiny Boat; queer zines by Concrete Queers; and comics by Eloise Grills. There are zines by individuals, like Julia Pillai, an art and politics student from Melbourne, and zines by small collectives, like Ugly Pineapple. I’m also setting up a table, selling my personal zine or ‘perzine’ series ‘How to be Alone.’  I’m definitely no stranger here – I’ve been tabling at this Zine Fair on and off for the last twelve years.

The Elderly Citizens’ Centre seems an unlikely venue to host the predominantly youth-driven self-publishing community. Yet with abundant natural light and a cosy interior (crocheted blankets in the corner, community noticeboards, and a kitchen that offers $2 hot lunch options during the week) the space feels as intimate and comfortable as a share house lounge room, or the bedroom floor where many of these zines may have been assembled. I make the rounds and collect a diverse range of publications: personal zines, poetry, art zines, one page mini zines, full colour zines, black-and-white zines, comics, photography, cultural criticism, fanzines about succulents, fanzines about feminism. I love the fact that every time you open a zine, you have no idea what you’re going to get. Each zine is as unique as its maker.

Zines also have an uncanny way of capturing the moment, right now. The strongest theme in my NYWF haul is that of how to deal with an uncertain future.

Philosophical frogs, a cartoon mini zine of incredibly pessimistic frogs, depicts a frog claiming that “optimism is insisting that all is well when we are miserable.” Another frog explains that “to live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” In Don’t, a zine with full-colour illustrations and experimental writing, Victoria Manifold’s opening inscription reads “don’t have a body.” Next to drawings of women smiling and looking uncomfortable or sad, Victoria has written statements like “your whole body is just a machine for making a ghost”. Optimism, in this zine, is treated with a similar level of disdain to Philosophical frogs: “you wrote a love story with your body but no one wanted to read it” is printed opposite a downcast looking woman dressed in pink. The conclusion is, “Having to live inside a body is the loneliest thing in the world.”

lil’ Pink Zine by Julia Pillai is a commentary on the “playful, powerful… potential” of the colour pink:

Millennials love pink more than avocado, or toast, or not buying houses, or being crushed by the reality created by people before them.

In another, untitled zine by Julia, a fragile line drawing exquisitely printed on tracing paper shows a potential route for escape from a skyline dominated by skyscrapers and ‘Mega Marts’. Beyond the mountains, a tiny boat drifts away from the land.

National Young Writers’ Festival
Image: National Young Writers’ Festival 2017 (Artists on stage – Bridget Lutherborrow)

2017 marks the 20th anniversary of This Is Not Art, an annual festival of emerging and experimental arts. TiNA, as it’s known to young people across Australia, is an umbrella for a number of different festivals that includes NYWF, Critical Animals and Crack Theatre Festival. Some streams have been around since 1998, others are more recent additions, and some, such as Electrofringe and SoundSummit, began at TiNA but have since diverged. The Zine Fair is a festival event with a history almost as old as TiNA itself: it started in 2000, making it one of the longest-running contemporary zine fairs in the world, exceeding even the USA’s world-famous Portland Zine Symposium. Yet, for a zine fair with such staying power, in 2017, the fair seems to have shrunk down to almost nothing. There are just 23 stalls this year – in February 2017, Sticky Institute’s Festival of the Photocopier (FOTP) had 225. Having seen the Zine Fair in its heydey, before it was eclipsed in size by zine fairs like the FOTP and the MCA Zine Fair, I wonder whether NYWF Zine Fair is still relevant to zinemakers.

I spoke to Julia Pillai after the fair, and discovered this was their first time behind the table at a zine fair. Far from being irrelevant, Julia saw NYWF Zine Fair as an inclusive event that welcomed them, a total zine newbie. “It was very approachable for someone who might be new to zines, or who might have made zines but never had the experience of selling them up front to people.” The fair seemed less intimidating than one of the bigger zine fairs like FOTP, and after coming to NYWF Julia felt they’d have more confidence to do a bigger zine fair. “It’s like, not scary to show your zines at National Young Writers’ Festival… It’s probably a really good gateway into zine fairs.”

NYWF Zine Fair was also good for Julia because it gave them the opportunity to talk to the “zine lord” sitting next to them: Eloise Grills, a writer and comics artist whose work has been published in numerous magazines and literary journals. Julia was able to ask for advice such as how to price their zines and drawings – knowledge that is specific to zinemaking culture, that you only gain from making contact with more experienced zinemakers. Chatting with Eloise was enriching for Julia in other ways, too. “What do you do for four hours when you’re sitting next to someone? You chat about stuff, you talk about your drawings.” This kind of casual bonding and sharing of knowledge between artists with differing levels of experience is something unique to the non-hierarchical space of the NYWF Zine Fair.

But while the smaller size of the NYWF Zine Fair has benefits, I can’t help thinking that it feels different from previous years, when it occupied large public spaces such as Civic Park and the multi level carpark behind the Elderly Citizens’ Centre.

My first experience of TiNA’s Zine Fair was in 2005, when I coordinated it. That year, rows of tables stretched all the way down Auckland Street like a block party for bookworms. Auckland Street was the hub of TiNA, and the nearby PAN building (Performing Arts Newcastle) provided both a space for workshops and a festival bar, where people could make new friends, get big ideas and share experiences. This centralised venue allowed people to make casual connections that could grow into community support between young artists.

PAN has since been replaced by NeW Space, the University of Newcastle’s $95 million ‘landmark education precint’. The infamous graffiti that inspired This Is Not Art’s name had a similar fate: once scrawled down the face of Latec House, the anarchic message has now been lost, replaced by The Pinnacle Apartments, a 16 storey apartment building. Without PAN, I don’t feel the sense of festival togetherness as strongly as in the past. And I’m aware that the redevelopment coming soon to Newcastle’s East End may see an end to available spaces for TiNA events like the zine fair.

I spoke to one of the exiting NYWF Co-directors and local poet David Graham about difficulties accessing large, public spaces for the zine fair. “Both years that I was co-director the zine fair shifted about three of four times. It is directly connected to the development that’s going on in Newcastle at the moment.”

The development includes the construction of numerous high rise apartment buildings, a light rail along Hunter Street, road upgrades, and redevelopment of both Newcastle’s West End and East End. In the East End, the area known as Hunter Street Mall has been the centre of the ‘Renew’ program since 2008. This program allows artists and community members to set up space in disused shopfronts and offices on a short-term, rent-free basis. 260 projects have come through Renew Newcastle, transforming the Mall into an interconnected creative community. The General Manager of Renew Newcastle, Cristopher Saunders, says that “Renew has enabled many creative enterprises to flourish, bringing enormous life and vitality to the city.” I experienced this first-hand when I moved to Newcastle to participate in Renew in 2009.

Renew began as a way to make use of empty space in the CBD, but as Christopher describes, “The knock-on effect brought people into the city, which made it attractive to developers.” Having returned to Newcastle in late 2017, I’m currently working from a temporary studio that I’ll have to vacate in the near future due to the development. On my way to my studio each day, I pass a sign that says, “Something exciting is coming to Newcastle’s East End!” But I find it hard to get excited when I know that the price tag on these apartments, and the inevitable gentrification of businesses in the area, may push artists like me out.  Christopher says, “I’d love to see provisions for vibrant cultural activity within the redevelopment. I’m afraid of Newcastle becoming a bland, shiny city.” Unless the redevelopment includes a plan to retain creative enterprises, it’s hard to see how Newcastle will keep its unique creative heart.

National Young Writers’ Festival
Image: National Young Writers’ Festival 2017 (Zine Library – Bridget Lutherborrow)

The recent announcement of Renew Newcastle’s 18-month lease on the old Newcastle railway station will allow Renew artists to temporarily activate a space that has been closed since the railway line was cut short in 2014. Yet the power to decide what will be established long-term remains, as always, in the hands of the developers.

It’s not only redevelopment that’s competing for space with artists and arts festivals like TiNA. “The big old train sheds that they had [the zine fair] in in 2015, in 2016 we weren’t allowed to use them because Mattara Festival had already booked them… In 2017 we couldn’t use them because of Supercars.” David tells me. The Newcastle 500 car race, which took place in the month following TiNA, had already been disrupting local businesses and residents for months, with road works and upgrades to pavements. It’s an event that will now take place yearly, for the next five years. “Definitely at an operational level the city has become harder to do [public space] activation things, like getting someone to perform on the side of the street is getting harder,” David says. “Eventually it was far too difficult to use any outdoor space, so we had to use the Elderly Citizens’ Centre… [the Zine Fair] fit alright in there, but it doesn’t have space to grow.”

Adeline Teoh, a freelance writer and Program Co-ordinator of the Younger Young Writers’ Program, who has been coming to TiNA since 2001, says that the development is not necessarily a terrible thing, “as long as there are spaces for that to coexist with the community that has been built up there over the years through TINA. You have to kind of take it as an opportunity to introduce zine culture to people who’ve never encountered it before.” Adeline says that these new audiences can become buyers and readers, which is great for zinemakers. “You can’t have that if you’re only grungy.” Adeline says it would be “crazy” not to make space for the NYWF Zine Fair in Newcastle every year: “It’s one of the things that makes [the city] cool, right? Newcastle’s not Sydney or Melbourne.” But the future of the zine fair, and TiNA itself, also depends on the people who come each year: “It’s up to the people in the community to not give up on it.”

Whether a ‘revitalised’ Newcastle CBD will save space for artists and arts events like TiNA remains to be seen. Will Newcastle, as a city, continue to be able to provide the kind of inclusive spaces that zine fairs provide for young artists, or will we need to retreat from the skyscrapers and Mega Marts, over the hills to an uncertain future?


Bastian Fox Phelan


National Young Writers’ Festival was presented September 28 – October 1 2017, as part of This is Not Art (TiNA) in the city of Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia. NYWF gives 18-35 year old writers a place to present their work and share ideas, to learn about the industry in which they write and to meet with like-minded people in a friendly festival atmosphere. The NYWF is currently calling for applications for their 2018 program. The Open Call Out for artists is on until 31 March 2018, apply here.

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