The Leeds-based artist Sam Hutchinson released the zine Marx’s CCTV Grave through his Big Cartel in July of 2020, describing it as “40 pages of experiments, unused works, uncomfortable images and screenshots”. Befitting his practice, which incorporates photography, sculpture and installation to recycle the “visual pollution” we absorb daily under capitalism, the publication features a sequence of images that seem to move through and around corrupted bodies and architecture, between physical and digital space, and shifting from pinpoint clarity to sudden glitch. As with much of the artist’s work, many of these images are appropriated from online sources or extracted as stills from internet video platforms. They become characterized by a certain digital materiality, emphasising medium over indexicality; watermarks float over photographs from stock image banks, static noise distorts material recorded from analogue TV sets and re-uploaded to the internet at low resolution, and photographs of screens—phones and DSLR preview displays—deneutralise and perform the primary image content. This peeling back of the curtain to reveal the often insidious infrastructure that mediates our daily experience of photographic imagery is perhaps nothing new, but throughout these “uncomfortable images” a sense of corporeal debasement slowly emerges, of bodily matter coagulating, shifting and flowing.
I am concerned that the subversive and democratic potential of zine making has occasionally been reduced to a template of what Mark Fisher called “frozen aesthetic styles” that endlessly rehash “older gestures of rebellion”, now defanged and absorbed by capital.
There is one type of image that appears on several occasions throughout the sequence. Each shows a human face, only just legible, its features contorted and abstracted through pixelation and what look like layers of coloured slime. Many of the figures have their hands raised to their face, as if in despair or terror. I assumed these images to be stills from some kind of sci-fi body horror in the vein of David Cronenberg—they look a bit like half-digested victims of a flesh-eating mutant. When I asked Hutchinson about them, he disclosed that they were stills from the children’s TV game show Get Your Own Back, which ran from 1991 to 2004. Presented by the piratical Dave Benson Phillips, the show was a staple of the British millennial childhood. Young contestants would appear alongside an adult who had aggrieved them—an annoying relative, or excessively strict teacher or sports coach—and compete for the chance to dunk the adult into a pool of gunge as a form of revenge. In the final round, the child’s ability to answer a series of questions correctly would determine the height from which the adult was tipped into the gunge tank—the clickety-clack cranking up of the condemned adult’s chair sending the pre-teen audience into a frenzy.
“[N]othing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV” wrote Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism, in which he articulated the absorption and commodification of acts of cultural resistance after Thatcher, after the end of history. Gunge was a ubiquitous feature of children’s television throughout and since the Thatcher era, as was the turning-the-tables format of inflicting punishment or humiliation on adults or figures of authority. This format updates the ritual of license, a formalised or institutionalised role reversal wherein certain deviations from the norm are permitted within strictly specified times as a way of sustaining the status quo in the long term. This is often discussed in the context of early Christian societies and the Medieval carnival, during which the church and ruling classes allowed the mimicry and ridicule of their elites for a set number of days, with limited material risk to structures of power. In the context of Marx’s CCTV Grave, the gunged parents become re-cast as “tolerant elites” who abide gestures of rebellion from their young antagonists whilst risking little in terms of their ultimate authority. The screenshots speak to a broader cynicism in much of Hutchinson’s work around the ways that acts of cultural and sociological resistance over recent decades have sadly failed and, when memorialised as images, become pathetic. These images’ potential for transformative or subversive emotional affect is recuperated within a framework that presents no risk to capitalism, in what Hito Steyerl describes as “the swirl of permanent capitalist deterritorialization”. In this reading, resistance is a cliché scripted in advance for viewing figures and likes; gunge is just another performance of defiance, and every move is, in the words of Fisher, “anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened”.
Early in her 2009 essay In Defense of the Poor Image, Steyerl suggests that this information capitalism transforms “quality into accessibility, exhibition value into cult value, films into clips, contemplation into distraction”. It is a text that resonates well with Hutchinson’s practice, which often militates against the “the fetish value of high resolution”. The tensile materialities of image, artwork and popular cultural media are explored further in Hutchinson’s most recent publication, the first distributed under his own imprint, Former Headquarters. Formal Mourning (2021) is a tabloid newsprint zine featuring “images appropriated from archival tabloid and broadsheet newspapers from the British mainstream press between 1999 and 2021. Each edition was selected for its front-page depictions of significant historical events, as well as the press representation of collective public emotion […]”. Rather than images that can be clearly associated with such historical events, Hutchinson has focused on the visual waste with which legacy media feeds the compromised attention spans of its readership—abstracted crops from page 3 onwards that suggest celebrity, commodity, sex, sensation and spectacle. The spectre of death seems to hover, almost enticingly, just outside the frame, always elsewhere (although typically, for that period, in the Gulf). Another spectre haunting the work is that of Tony Blair, in the sense that the images are suffused with the sickly, morning-after smell of New Labour, Cool Britannia and the War on Terror; of false moral hierarchies, the end of free higher education, a barely-functioning democracy after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the total neutralisation of Thatcherite systems of capital—a legacy that cast a long shadow over the late millennial childhood and adolescence experienced by Hutchinson. Formal Mourning attempts to parse the ways in which the poor image is engineered by the mainstream press as part of a wider process of transforming the very belief systems and values at the core of British society, in order to reinforce a conservative economic agenda and an anti-internationalist outlook.
The totemic configurations pictured in HopeHope seem to reflexively emphasise the absurdity—no, obscenity—of the art world’s global flows of capital, seen from the perspective of an occupied and impoverished territory.
Of all Hutchinson’s recent publications, HopeHope (2020) is readable as a more straightforward documentary series, picturing the young skateboarders living in Asira ash-Shamaliya, a town in the northern West Bank. Hutchinson, himself a professional skater, volunteered in Asira with the charity SkatePal, who teach skateboarding and build skateparks across occupied Palestine, and to whom proceeds from this zine are donated. Interspersed between portraits from skate workshops and fashion-inflected straight-ups are still lives of masonry, building materials and discarded tiles piled into cairns and other precarious structures. These photographs function in two ways. Firstly, they gesture towards the broader, fraught context of the images of laughing children: militarised border walls, extrajudicial demolitions, evictions, occupation and death. But the tendency for our brains to read these images as “sculptural” reminds me of a conversation between Hutchinson and the artist Allan Gardner in the Spring 2020 issue of Mousse magazine, where they discuss the internalised aesthetic codes that encourage us to comfortably accept certain objects as contemporary art. These codes constitute a language advanced by the market, industrialised in art schools and reinforced through gallery press releases and most criticism. Hutchinson seems acutely aware of these manoeuvres and the extent to which rocks, masonry and other building materials currently proliferate in this contemporary visual language—especially in works that claim a social conscience. The totemic configurations pictured in HopeHope seem to reflexively emphasise the absurdity—no, obscenity—of the art world’s global flows of capital, seen from the perspective of an occupied and impoverished territory.
A companion piece to HopeHope, the diminutive You Are My Life (2020) allows Hutchinson to riff on more tangential observations from his time in the West Bank. Car decals, Nike swooshes and aspirational slogan stickers featuring predominantly Western commercial signifiers are decontextualised in close crops and abstracted further through risograph printing in monochrome red and green, two of the four Pan-Arab colours that make up the Palestinian flag. The colours hold significance across the region but nowhere more so than in the West Bank, where the 1967 Israel Defence Forces Order No. 101 (“The Prohibition of Incitement and Hostile Propaganda Actions”) was used to criminalise the depiction or raising of the Palestinian flag, and the production of art and acts of publishing that combined the colours red, green, black or white, which were deemed to be “inciting material”. Whilst severely restricting and censoring cultural production within the occupied territories, the same military order denied Palestinians in the West Bank the right to purchase any form of printed matter, including books, posters, photographs and artworks, from abroad unless they had prior military approval. As in HopeHope, an oppressive history simmers just under the surface of what could otherwise be read as a playfully irreverent zine, in which political critique is dressed in aesthetic codes that are well-rehearsed in the field of art publishing.
The form of the zine provides space for experimental modes of thinking through and doing photography that can feel genuinely liberatory in the context of an otherwise conservative and risk averse photography scene. But beyond this context—and often we must be reminded to look beyond it—how significant really is the role of independent print publishing in the current political climate?
It’s interesting to consider Hutchinson’s publishing practice in terms of the contemporary efficacy of the zine as a site of cultural resistance. The historical canon of low-budget, short-run creative publishing has long been ascribed a political agency, and there would appear to be an academic consensus that zines, in the words of design professor Teal Triggs, “allow voices to be heard that wouldn’t otherwise be heard”. I find myself suspecting this principle, with increasing regularity, to be fairly meaningless egalitarian rhetoric. There is no doubt that independent publishing in the form of zine making provides a space to examine the ways in which images operate as cultural artefacts and how these qualities shift and mutate across different platforms, specifically digital and print. For example, there is something to note about the translation of the imagery in Formal Mourning out of and back into the printed form, in which litho-printed photographs are abstracted into halftone layers as the images are cropped and scanned, before being digitally printed back onto newsprint. Form and content are unified in calling into question the ongoing influence of legacy formats such as tabloid newspapers in an age where the power of Silicon Valley is otherwise consolidated. Beyond Hutchinson’s work, the networks and ecosystems of zine culture allow for the growth of like-minded communities and accessible marketplaces for the exchange of ideas, artworks and resources. The form of the zine provides space for experimental modes of thinking through and doing photography that can feel genuinely liberatory in the context of an otherwise conservative and risk averse photography scene. But beyond this context—and often we must be reminded to look beyond it—how significant really is the role of independent print publishing in the current political climate? What’s more meaningful to those whose voices so often go unheard – a risograph machine or, for example, a free Twitter account? I am concerned that the subversive and democratic potential of zine making has occasionally been reduced to a template of what Mark Fisher called “frozen aesthetic styles” that endlessly rehash “older gestures of rebellion”, now defanged and absorbed by capital. This is perhaps typified by formulaic zine workshops run by major institutions with directors on six figure salaries. I often suspect that zine making as we know it in the context of the contemporary art world is a bit like the gunge tank—a site where resistance to the mainstream becomes a performance, then an image, then a product, sold back into its own echo chamber: a risk to no-one.
I often suspect that zine making as we know it in the context of the contemporary art world is a bit like the gunge tank—a site where resistance to the mainstream becomes a performance, then an image, then a product, sold back into its own echo chamber: a risk to no-one.
This is not to say that Sam Hutchinson’s zine work is not compelling and urgent, for indeed it is. And who’s to say gunge isn’t fun, and amusing, and energising. It is satisfying to see our enemies humiliated and temporarily incapacitated, even just for a few minutes. There is always an emancipatory potential in messiness, in stickiness and disarray. The gunging provides a momentary glitch, a loosening of the fabric of the real which, over time and through repetition, might even transcend simulacra and adopt an actually existing transformative power. Until then, these publications are most meaningful when understood not in the sense of publishing as resistance, but as a condemnation of the limits of publishing, and by extension the diminishing potential of a truly radical working-class counter-culture in the space of print. Hutchinson’s work with zines is more self-reflexive than first impressions might imply, critiquing not only the relationship between the popular cultural image and its audiences, mediators, contexts and consumption, but also with the zine itself—a form that could do with recovering some of its political punch.