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Ever since the internet landed, there’s been predictions and firmly held beliefs that print is dying. Within cities where media hubs are based, news in recent years appears to confirm this prediction. Publications, such as NME and The Independent have ceased their print issues and London’s print mecca, Wardour News, recently shut its doors due to the city’s rising rent prices. On the surface it seems as though more publications are moving online, but despite this mainstream decline, an underground culture of independent publishing has flourished, thriving outside of the confines of traditional media outlets. What lies at the heart of this resurgence is a culture of activism that’s helping to shape contemporary thought.

In the wake of a post-Brexit society, we’ve seen a spike in public displays of toxic, far-right ideologies – think the recent AfD march in Berlin – but meeting this surge of divisive politics is a rise in DIY activism, with independent publications amplifying marginalised voices and providing designers with an outlet to produce freethinking, explorative visual art.

And so it’s within this subsection of print that London’s Somerset House are celebrating DIY culture and independent publishing with a sprawling exhibition titled Print! Tearing It Up. Beginning from the 20th century, the exhibition chronicles the trajectory of DIY print – from its roots in social activism from decades past to the now inverted strategy of modern, online publications shifting its voice to IRL zines. We caught up with curators Claire Catterall and Paul Gorman to talk the upcoming exhibition, changes in the print landscape and how the culture has shaped an awareness of social issues.

Why has Somerset House chosen to open an exhibition on independent publishing?

Claire Catterall: Independent publishing is going through something of a renaissance, which is an incredible and seemingly unlikely phenomenon in this digital age, when most things seem to be gravitating towards the internet. But the sheer quantity of the indie magazines we are seeing, together with their intelligence, wit and superior design values, really does put paid to the notion that print is dead. We wanted to explore the reasons behind this, but also to look back to the indie magazines that had come before this present generation, to trace the journey and highlight the legacy of these trailblazing forebears.

How do you think the culture of independent publishing has changed from its roots in the 20th century?

Paul Gorman: Most obviously by the advent of the digital age. Our interest was sparked by the diversity of great publications springing up over the last few years amid all the dire predictions of the death of print. It has been fascinating to witness the ways in which contemporary titles operate, sometimes as a reaction to the sterility of the online world but other times in step with its more impactful aspects. Some magazines – think gal-dem or Courier – grew out of websites whereas others exist in their own right – I particularly like Alpa Depani’s architecture zine Romp – or are part of an overall package as one of the platforms that the makers use to get their points across.

How did you approach the curation process and select the titles? What criteria did you look for?

PG: Initially we focused on those publications that made a difference, going back to Wyndham Lewis’ WWI Modernist manifesto Blast and then joining the dots to come bang up to date. There was a pattern of must-include titles down the years, for example, The Face and i-D and the ways in which they created an entirely new sector, lifestyle publishing, by wrapping up all the aspects which surround pop and youth culture: music, fashion, design, media, etc.

Then we sought out those which may have been unfairly overlooked or underrated: Collusion, David Toop and Sue Steward’s short-lived music magazine which covered hip-hop and dance and world music early on in the 80s and Graham Greene’s Night And Day, which lasted just six months in the 1930s. Greene used the magazine to consider high and low culture in a critical way – that’s par for the course these days. This experiment came unstuck, of course, when Greene was sued for libel for making perspicacious but nevertheless libellous remarks about the child star Shirley Temple!

We also loaded in the subversive, whether it be from the underground press of the 60s and 70s – such as Oz, IT and Friends (which later became Frendz) – or the architectural press from the 80s such as NATO. And finally we added personal favourites. This is not intended as a “definitive” show with every single issue of every title represented, but a personal and hopefully informed selection which visitors can spark off. We deliberately put “DIY” on the back cover of the catalogue; without bashing people over the head, the message is that if you feel inspired by what you have seen then by all means do it yourself. That’s a punk rock attitude which we find in even the most august and unexpected places in this story.

What are some of the themes connecting the publications in the upcoming exhibition?

PG: To make the cut, titles had to express independent thought and an oppositional stance, even if this was in terms of what are considered “ephemeral subjects”, fashion or music say. Also a spirit of going up against doctrinaire viewpoints. Just this week American film director Rob Reiner said – in relation to his new film about the duplicity involved in the Iraq War and the maelstrom of fake news created by the Trump administration – that democracy depends on a free and independent press. Not to make too big a deal of it, but many of the magazines we cover were and are prepared to delve beyond the spectacle of consumerism and celebrity to deliver on uncomfortable subjects, whether they be the troubles in Northern Ireland, the Greenham Common protests or Brexit and Grenfell today.

In what ways do you think independent publishing has changed the world?

CC: Independent magazines have traditionally given voice to fringe and minority groups, allowing them to be heard, and have often initiated or given their backing to important issues and campaigns (such as Greenham Common, CND, Red Wedge etc). Magazines such as Spare Rib brought women’s rights to a wider audience, allowing its radical agenda to become part of the mainstream discourse, while Private Eye pokes a stick at some of the trickiest political issues of the day, using investigative journalism and satire to question that which the mainstream media often lets go unchallenged. On a more cultural note, magazines such as The Face not only changed forever the way magazines looked and behaved, but in so doing also changed the direction of the lives of many of its readers – as many a testament, particularly from readers in the 80s, will verify. The current generation of independent magazine editors draws on the radical approach of their forebears to address contemporary concerns such as migration, identity, gender, sexuality and media manipulation, playing a significant role in moving the debate forward.

What are some of the titles that have resonated with you the most?

CC: I love Spare Rib as its voice is so fearless and bold, but also warm and funny. It was so brave in the way it tackled women’s issues and some of the articles are still so relevant today. I think what I like best about it is the way it’s so obviously written by women for women. The sense of relief in being able to talk about things such as body image and housework from a woman’s point of view, and from their ordinary lived experience, is palpable.

I think Sabat is also incredible, but especially in the way it shows how the feminist debate has moved on. Looking at it in the context of its trajectory from Spare Rib to the present day, you really begin to appreciate the changes that have happened over the decades, that in no small part were due to Spare Rib and its like, and which have given space to the writers in Sabat to express themselves in a quite uncompromising manner. Yet, in its own way Sabat is just as brave and bold, focusing on the idea of the feminine to explore the multifaceted aspects of womanhood through the prism of witchcraft and mysticism.

What are you hoping viewers will be able to take away from the exhibition?

CC: Firstly, we’d like visitors to learn that independent magazines have a rich history based in radical politics, the underground and counterculture and are a potent force for activism and change. Not only do they reflect the zeitgeist – capturing the political, social and cultural temperature of the times – they often rewrite the rule book. Independent magazines have given an important platform to some of our best writers, designers, photographers and stylists, who have gone on to influence the mainstream in significant ways. We’d also like to show how print can exist in the digital era on its own terms, but also in mutually beneficial and complementary ways. In many ways, the digital realm provides the tools for the printed independent magazine to exist. But most of all we’d like visitors to know that today the independent magazine sector is more vital, exciting and relevant than ever before, and that if you have something to say, and the passion and energy to put your beliefs onto the printed page, a magazine is a powerful vehicle to get your message across.

Print! Tearing It Up runs at Somerset House, 8 June to 22 August