Today's interviewee is currently promoting her latest book Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity but that's only one of the many cool projects she's been involved with. She's also the author of Hey Kidz! Buy This Book: A Radical Primer on Corporate and Governmental Propaganda and Artistic Activism for Short People, was the associate publisher of the now defunct but beloved Punk Planet, was the series editor for Houghton Mifflin's Best American Comics books and taught at Columbia College, amongst many other things that you can read about here.
What elements of your book should be of interest to people who aren't involved in underground culture?
I'm quite sure that the majority of copies have been sold to marketing execs, actually, and therefore people who aren't involved in underground culture at all. I think the same was probably true of the original issue of Punk Planet, in which the article "Black Market" appeared that the book grew out of. Those people are really up on what they consider "edgy." Unfortunately, they seem to believe that telling them to fuck off is "edgy," and not actually what it really is: a demand that they stop thinking they can stick their message on everything in our culture. Including my message. Which for the record is: leave some things alone.
So already, I'm pretty sure that despite that I wrote it for a very select group of people--my friends, friends of my friends, people that I admire that have become disheartened by the decreasing impact of autonomous cultural production in North America--I think that's maybe not even going to be the people that read this book. It's going to be the people who want to "game" the ideas I discuss in it. People who *don't* want there to remain aspects of our culture free of consumerist messages. But I didn't write it for them: I wrote it for the hundreds of people I've met in the past few years--most in the last few weeks, on tour with this book-- who are totally bummed out that their work appears to be in vain, that they're pouring their hearts and souls, and entire life savings, into brilliant little comics and songs and films and sometimes hats just to prove that you don't have to buy everything, that there's another way of living, and no one seems to get that. Don't give up hope!
Ultimately, however, the book is about the corporate co-optation of individualized, small media and personal relationships--things that have nothing to do with how you identify culturally, whether mainstream or underground or Amish or whatever. And how this is being used as a model to make the marketing of corporate produced goods and services a social activity, instead of paid labor. Unfortunately, it seems to be sort of mainstream right now to not question how screwed up that is. But if any of those people want to read my book, they're welcome to.
How do you think it can be made accessible and of interest to people who don't consider themselves necessarily underground or indie or DIY?
Well, if it's not accessible to them already--I mean it's a book, you can check it out of the library or buy it or steal it from a bookstore or your friend or whatever--then, ahh, I don't know what to tell them. And anyway, this is not something that needs to be made "more accessible". A central argument of the book is that not everything needs to be made accessible to all people. Some things are about communicating the right things to the right people. Clinton's dumb-ass Telecommunications Act of 1996 I think really changed the conversation of art and media, and after that passed, all of the sudden making stuff became about reaching the widest number of people with your message. I think we're starting to see that doesn't work: I mean marketers are, that's why Facebook Ads is supposed to be such a revolution. Activists too, right, or we would have accomplished a few more of our goals, say in the WTO protests in Seattle. Everyone read about those but they somehow still failed to spark the popular imagination. My writing, my work, my physical appearance, all of this is about making ideas I think might be pretty radical to much of our culture more accessible, but I don't for a second believe that going on TV with them is going to make more people get behind them. It's just that if you do come across them, I hope I have made it easier for you to understand.
I'm stealing a question that someone named Kyle posted to the Chicago Reader's site: "How can an anti-capitalist sell a book? Isn't that what capitalists do?"
Well, Kyle has obviously not read my book, nor possibly any other books, because I do not claim to be any sort of pure anticapitalist. I can really only consider myself a critic of capitalism. 'Cause guess what? I don't even think I know what it looks like to be an anti-capitalist, or how that would work, considering our present-day culture, which is infused through-and-through with capitalism. What I claim to be is anti-corporate. And I think Kyle will also enjoy hearing that if he is eliding "corporate" and "all books" then he does not know much about independent book publishing, nor the New Press, which is a really amazing not-for-profit publisher founded by Andre Schiffrin as a response to media consolidation and therefore the eroding democracy in the book world.
But you know, the interview I did with the amazing and brilliant Rob Walker addressed this a little bit, and even though he's more tolerant of the forces of marketing than I am, I think he has a really good point: "I would also argue that selling a book with a point of view isn't exactly the same thing as selling, say, a sneaker. Whatever one thinks of Naomi Klein, the dumbest critique is "Well she's just brand now, too! So she's a hypocrite!" Not really. It's one thing to try to associate a sneaker with a point of view and thus a "brand" and all that. But she isn't associating a commodity with a point of view."
I am most profoundly putting out a point of view into the world. I do this in millions of small ways that don't earn me any money, and one, this book, that might eventually earn me a small amount. There's also of course a difference between sustainability and profits. Capitalism is about accruing profits. My work, the New Press, the ideas that I discuss in this book, these are about sustaining a part of our culture that is critical of capitalism in its many guises. We do a pretty good job. You should support that.
In the first poem you ever wrote, what feelings did you discuss?
Gosh, the entire gamut of feelings that can possibly be felt by a 15-year-old girl: discomfort, unease, sorrow, pathos, frustration. It is such a bummer that emo was not invented until I was too old to take advantage of it. I'm quite sure it wasn't the first poem I ever wrote, though, but the first one that was published. And I'm going to go out on a limb here and proclaim that it will also be the last.
How would you describe your teaching style?
Spazzy. Unless I was in a job interview. Then: energetic. This is also how I would describe my reading style, and my interpersonal nature in general. As well as my cat.
What's your favorite new comic (new as in new or new to you?)
The cartoonist who designed my tour poster, Jo Dery, makes all the very best comics.
How do you decide which art should be shown on that CTA?
Oh, I have very clear opinions on this matter, but when I was on that CTA public art committee, the other members of the committee did not seem to concur with them. How I decide is: what I like, what promotes themes I feel are lacking in the rest of our culture, and what communicated them well and or interestingly and or with an aesthetic sense. Some people decide by whether or not the art is a giant metal sculpture. I think that is a profound waste of space and time and money. But there are many more of them than there are of me. What're you gonna do? You can't fight city hall, sometimes even from within city hall. And trust me, I tried.
How do you choose what goes into the Best American Comics anthology?
I've actually left that gig, sort of over a dispute about this very thing. I preferred to read them, and then decide based on a combination aesthetics and merit and interest and innovation and all this great stuff that make comics be art, you know? But in a corporate environment, this isn't efficient. So when there started to be questions about the meaning of "best", I left. I'm proud to have started that project off, and I really enjoyed working with a lot of the people involved, but the comics world is caught between several different rocks and hard places right now, and I think what's coming out of the big-publisher's "discovery" of the graphic novel (which has happened, keep in mind, about four times in the past few decades) isn't very interesting. There are good people finally able to make a living doing great work--Anders Nilsen, Lauren Weinstein, Esther Pearl Watson--but this comes at a cost of having a shit-ton more crap to wade through, all from not-so-good artists and publishers just trying to cash in on the comics craze. Which isn't ultimately improving the form or supporting anything good, it's just turning kids into lazy readers. Soon, though, I'm sure big publishers will rediscover the written word, and this will all shift up again, so the heat will be off and people can go back to making interesting work at their own pace.
What's a marketing campaign that you have to admit you find clever, amusing or generally well-done?
Well, have you ever heard of the Fasty-Drive Motor Vehicle? Their marketing campaign is amazing. It should be the model for all marketing campaigns.
What do you think of the marketing of things like "going green" or the Gap's "Go Red" campaign?
The project red business has made it very very clear that these things are about marketing, and not about raising awareness or money for specific ends. There's been some great research done into how much money that raised and how the vast majority of it went into further promotions of the campaign and none or very very little to actual AIDS relief orgs in Africa: at one point the campaign was costing $100 Million and had only brought in $18 Million, and you gotta know that tiny amount's all going back into the administrative costs of such a multi-branded effort. Gaaar. (I blogged about this here) To me it again comes down to integrity. If any individual involved in that ridiculousness thought about what they were doing for a second, they might be able to actually start having an impact. Move over a decimal point. Actual divert funds from Clear Channel billboards into some of those health organizations. Whatever. But there's this perception that everyone involved is already "doing enough" or "their part". When they are clearly not, and in the mean time making even more stupid crappy co-branded ads, and then also bankrupting our ability to create actual better and more engaged responses to a genuine humanitarian crisis that have a chance at a real impact. The bottom line is that branded "activist" projects--from anything Bono or Angelina Jolie gets on board--aren't about activism, they're about branding. Which is fundamentally pro-consumerist and therefore wholly opposed to the kinds of changes it will take to permanently resolve, for example, the AIDS crisis in Africa. I'm sorry: the revolution will just not be made available for purchase at the Gap.
For my parents, what is a zine?
A self-published periodical likely printed in an edition of less than maybe 5000 that is created by an individual or small group of people who connect through social networks and work toward the engagement and expression of their passions, and not in pursuit of profit.
Any guilty pleasures, things people who follow your work would be surprised that you're into?
The Chicago Sky, because they are a team of sports-players. They do the basketballing, and they use a "court" and pretty outfits. Also, they're one of the only independently-owned teams in the WNBA, and sometimes they gouge out each others' eyeballs. Also, I am incredibly good at special effects makeup. I don't know that these are guilty pleasures, really, but people seem surprised by them.
Tell us about what you did with Punk Planet.
Well, we were a bimonthly magazine devoted to independent art, culture and politics with ridiculously high standards for writing, illustration, and design. Also, we organized and supported various political cultural activities and projects--from the Swing State Poster Project in the lead-up to the last elections to feminist and self-publishing conferences. We worked primarily with new and untested writers, mostly rather young, interns galore, also young, and operated as a resource for other self-publishers and writers and independent cultural producers. What I didn't do was write checks, but pretty much everything else. The death of Punk Planet was a terrible loss. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to be able to leave the office and not be tied down to a bimonthly schedule, but the end of the magazine signals bad things for independent cultural production. As I think the book makes clear.
Brad Pitt recently spent two million dollars on Banksy's artwork. Thoughts?
Ummm, does Brad Pitt really deserve to ever have two million dollars at his disposal?
Tell us about the work you'll be doing in Cambodia.
Well, I don't exactly know what it'll look like yet, but I've been invited to be a leadership resident at the Harpswell Foundation Dormitory for University Women, which is the first all-female residence for college students in Phnom Penh. I've been told that I'll be giving regular "leadership seminars" and also hopefully just imparting English fluency through my handy skill of not speaking Khmer, and I have to say that this makes me deeply concerned for the next generation of women leaders in Cambodia. I think I have certain skills to impart, mostly of special effects makeup and making up words, but I'm not sure how much good they will do these brilliant young women who are studying engineering and public policy and biology.
But there's a crazy but small comics scene there and the work that's coming out of it is really neat, and I have amassed a healthy network of amazing folks doing cool work to go check out, and for some reason these girls do not seem averse to me teaching them a little bit maybe about self-publishing. They're not so excited about democracy over there right now, in fact journalists who are "raising questions"--which, you know, is their job--are getting beat up by military policy or getting their houses burned down and stuff, so maybe really small media is the way to start to let these girls question their assumed roles on society. I don't know. My argument is always: I got started doing this stuff when I was about 15, and it worked for me.
Really, I was pretty bummed out when Punk Planet folded, and I think the book shows that frustration and rage. And I think all of that is appropriate and the only way to incite real change in a larger culture, but it's no way to live. Going to Cambodia to work with the next generation of women leaders in a country devastated by genocide, a strict ban on free expression, and rampant corruption because someone somewhere thinks that can do some good? That's a good way to live. I'm gonna go do that.
How does it feel to be the 194th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
Oh my god, I'm the 194th? You didn't even mention that. You were like, "Do you want to be interviewed?" not, "Do you want this very special place of honor among all the interviewees I've ever approached?" 194. That's amazing. I feel nothing but love right now.