Talking with ZAPP's Graham Isaac and Emily Cabaniss about the future of zine culture in Seattle

Last week was awfully long for Zine Archive and Publishing Project (ZAPP) managing director Graham Isaac and ZAPP volunteer operations coordinator Emily Cabaniss. On Monday night, the Seattle Review of Books published the news that Hugo House was donating ZAPP’s extensive collection — tens of thousands of zines collected over almost two decades at their headquarters in the Hugo House — to Seattle Public Library. On Tuesday, ZAPP published a statement saying that “we did not give up the archive, it was taken from us.” On Wednesday, I talked with Hugo House executive director Tree Swenson and SPL spokesperson Andra Addison about the move. By the time they met with me on Thursday afternoon, Isaac and Cabaniss looked pretty tired (“I’m exhausted,” Isaac wrote on Facebook earlier in the week.) But as they huddled over their coffees, Cabaniss and Isaac perked up when they talked about making zines. They’re clearly true believers in the DIY literature community, with a bottomless enthusiasm for self-expression. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

How did you come to be involved with ZAPP?

Graham Isaac: I got involved with ZAPP in 2009 as a volunteer, and then I was communications intern from 2010 through 2011. I stepped away for a few years, just volunteering at occasional events. Then I started getting back involved as a volunteer in 2013, when ZAPP left Hugo House. I was mainly doing things like press releases and whatnot, and then I stepped in as managing director in early 2015.

Emily Cabaniss: I came to ZAPP in December of 2014. First I was doing social media stuff. I have experience doing social media exhibits, so I did Tumblr exhibits for ZAPP.

That kind of morphed into being an extra set of hands for ZAPP. Then in early 2015, when Graham became the managing director, I took on a more active role doing ZAPP's budgets, representing ZAPP to our sponsor Shunpike, and planning meetings, strategies, delegation — a lot of stuff like that.

The way we present literature by default can be really disempowering to readers. It can make them feel like they’re just consumers.

When ZAPP first untethered from Hugo House and it was floating in limbo, what was your vision for it?

GI: At that point I was largely involved as an extra set of hands, but I think for everyone I talked to, and for everyone who has been involved, the dream vision has always been an independent space where ZAPP could run programming, have the entire archive accessible, and grow the archive. The goal since untethering has always been to find a space where ZAPP could be ZAPP, so to speak.

EC: One of ZAPP's main values is radical accessibility. When we talk about the archive we also want to talk about the publishing component, and I think we intended the collection to be not really a special collection whose main priority was preservation, but instead to be this springboard for continued creativity. Be a way to preserve the voices of people who had made zines, but also show people that anyone's voice anyone can make a zine.

It boiled down to “read a zine, make a zine.” The idea was that you could make a zine and put it right in ZAPP. You could shelve it yourself.

This is a super-elementary question, but I actually don't think I've addressed this in my coverage so far, and it's really important for people who are just now hearing about ZAPP: Why are zines still relevant for you in 2017?

GI: There's a lot of reasons. I think for one, just the physical act of making something can be very powerful. Even if you [create] it on a computer but staple it yourself, you have a connection to the work that's really awesome.

I also think that as we're seeing more and more top-down arts organizations suffer and as we're seeing more and more surveillance of the internet and whatnot, the idea of something that is wholly independent is valuable. It doesn't have to go through various processes. This is important. But other things are important too, but this is important.

EC: When I think about zines, I think about the way that we're introduced to the literary tradition in school — the way we are given these books and are told, "these are the great books; you must read them." But there is not really that connection of “how did someone get to write great books? How did someone get their voice?" How does that happen?

The way we present literature by default can be really disempowering to readers. It can make them feel like they're just consumers. Zines to me are a way to short-circuit that process. To give people the power to make and create whatever they want. To make them feel like what they make has value, and to let their voices be heard and read and seen, unfettered by a publishing process.

GI: It's also just really satisfying.

EC: It's fun, yeah.

GI: Once you've made it and it's done and you look at it, it just feels great. Not to necessarily sound all, like, “woohoo!” about it, but just spreading that feeling and making it accessible and low-barrier has been very important.

You've issued your statement. It seems as though the collection is in the hands of, or is about to be in the hands of, Seattle Public Library. I mean, it's physically in their hands, but the custody rights may not officially be there. But it's almost there. It's very confusing.

GI: At this point, all the communication that we've received from Tree and the library indicated that any sort of final signatures were a mere formality. So, we have to operate with the assumption that it is going to the library and that it is a done deal.

It's a really tough time for you and I'm sorry about what happened. You've put a lot of work into this over the years. I want to know if there's anything you wanted to say to the community and the donors who've supported you over the years?

GI: Well, I think first off, just: thank you for that support, and for being there for us, and letting us do our best to be there for you. Also, we wanted to let people know that the way that this transpired was not the way we would have chosen. We recognize that many people who donated zines, time, and energy over the years have done so with the goal of a fully independent and sustainable ZAPP. And that's why we wanted to make sure people knew the details of the transaction.

EC: Yeah, we'd say thank you for your love, and it's been a really great experience to read all the memories that people have of ZAPP on social media — their Facebook comments and their articles. It makes me feel like this is not the end.

I would say to them: zines don't die. ZAPP closes, but you don't stop making zines, you don't stop being this person. So many people have said that ZAPP, and their experience of ZAPP, was this thing that made them the person that they are. I want to say to everyone who had an experience like that: go out and be the person that you are because of ZAPP. That's ZAPP's legacy.

GI: There are so many communities and projects that grew out of ZAPP over the years, and I think those will carry on regardless. I think that larger community is still going to be there, and I think that's excellent.

So, it sounds like we're on the “what's next” portion of the conversation. First I wanted to ask, what do you see your connection to this community being going forward? And then, what in would you, personally, like to do next?

GI: If I can bring back to ZAPP first, for a second: I think the one thing I want to say is I am glad at least, that we can pay it forward a little bit to things, places like Hollow Earth Radio, Short Run Festival, and IPRC. Those are examples of the communities I was talking about.

For myself, I'm going to work on some of my own art now, and try and engage with the community just as a member, as a listener, as a reader, as an artist. I'm not really trying to start any new nonprofits for a little while, you know?

EC: All of this work has been hugely educational for me personally. I'm grateful for that, because I'm a different person — hopefully a better person — now because of it.

I think kind of the same thing. I don't really want to start any nonprofits. I do want to put what I learned at ZAPP to work for other organizations. But I don't know. I think I need a break.

I really didn't have any connection with the community before I started with ZAPP. I'm a librarian, that's my job. And that was the route that I came to zines: someone I knew said, "You're a librarian, you want to talk about zines?"

Now, I know more people in the community, and I want to do more listening and I want to do more learning. We made something, and I want to keep making stuff. And I want to be an advocate for zines to people that I know.

GI: I definitely put some of my own writing and artistic projects on hold during this. I want to get back to some of that. You know, go make a zine.