How DIY culture—and the way we document it—is evolving
What happens when an entire subculture has no archive? No story exists. When no story exists, we assume there’s no story to be told.
For most of this country’s history, underground cultural movements were rarely documented. That changed in the 20th century, when musicologists, sociologists and historians became more interested in preserving and tracing populist movements, in everything from blues field recordings to Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.”
Zines evolved the storytelling further, providing a record of DIY (Do-It-Yourself) culture’s breakout in the early days of punk, through the rise of alternative, to today. And with the accessibility of the Internet, the zine ethos has continued to evolve.
Grasstronaut (grasstronaut.com) is a site I started here in Santa Cruz in August of last year. It’s a blog deeply influenced by zine culture that features interviews, case studies and resources from grassroots arts projects. Above all else, it’s an archive of stories.
There’s no better way to tell our stories than to do it ourselves. Zines are printed ephemera—usually a few sheets of 8.5” x 11” folded in half to form a booklet. The content is whatever you want it to be. The format is whatever you want it to be. This freedom may seem chaotic, but this is actually what makes zines great: the absolute control over what you produce.
And that’s what separates zine culture from mainstream media: we get to drive. We conceptualize, tinker with design, and spend hours hunched over a xerox machine at Kinko’s to bring these to life. You can make a zine about your favorite pumpkin cookie recipe or thoughts on increased militarization of the police force. A list of all of the best bathroom graffiti in Santa Cruz. Your poetry. Illustrations.
My thing is DIY arts. And while there’s no xeroxing involved with Grasstronaut, zine culture is deeply sewn into its ethos. It’s a centralized online resource for an international underground arts community. Just like a zine, it’s scrappy, it’s non-commercial, it’s distributed by its community—and it tells our story.
Faith in Space
Phone tag. Several thousand rounds of it. And then, thanks to the sweet Verizon overlords, I answer the phone and it’s Kyle Napalan. He’s the founder of the Dial, a multi-use arts warehouse space once based in Murrieta, California. It was an all-ages oasis of printmaking space, open mics, dance sessions, film fests, and art shows. Police had threatened the Dial before, but it finally buckled due to noise complaints in October 2014. Now the organizers are without a physical space. I interviewed Napalan for two hours for Grasstronaut about what it’s like to lose a place like this.
“We recognize that when a DIY space faces difficulty, no matter where it is, there is a disruption in the vibration of the overall quality of what we’re trying to do,” Napalan says.
DIY isn’t new. It’s not a phenomenon. This is a subculture that has thrived for decades, evolving to survive and thrive despite local noise ordinances and police crackdowns. We present art in critical and important contexts: cheaply, accessibly, and underground.
So when Napalan talks about a disruption in the force, he means it. Shutting down the Dial meant a loss of a subversive community space in an area where that is rare—there are only a few dozen DIY art spaces like the Dial in California. Keep zooming in, and the Dial was the only creative resource of its kind in the Temecula area. When we talk, it’s half an interview for Grasstronaut, and half a phone call to connect Napalan with resources. So many other spaces just like the Dial experience shutdowns or evictions, or go broke. The C.H.E. Cafe, their neighbors to the south, are teetering daily on eviction at the hands of UC San Diego.
There’s no one place you can find out about this. That’s kind of the point. The stories of these entities exist in scattered local news sources (“Grand Rapids DIY space closing”) and personal Facebook posts (“This venue sucks because they allowed racist bands to perform”), meandering low-budget documentaries and, of course, zines, but nothing central. You could only collect history via websites, hearsay, and being there. And phone calls between Murrieta and Santa Cruz late on a Thursday night. Without that, there’s no story.
It’s part of the charm. It’s part of the challenge. DIY arts can be so many things: physical spaces, temporary programs, publications, artists, collectives, record labels, podcasts. Big or small (but usually small), illegal or legit.
When I speak to Napalan, I find out he has no idea about Silent Barn, a strikingly similar multi-use arts space in Bushwick, New York. I quickly make it clear that going to their website as soon as possible ranks just short of a life-or-death situation. Isn’t it amazing that two similar, alternative arts warehouses on opposite sides of the country had no clue about each other?
They deserve to know of each other. Zines are great, but you would have to curate the most niche collection in the world to gain any continuity of DIY arts stories. Also, please call me if you have this niche collection.
The Dial is anything but gone. And it’s thanks, in part, to the worst (or best) timing in the world. They received nonprofit status three weeks before their shutdown, and finished fundraising for a brand new, shiny PA system the day they closed. So, for Napalan and the rest of the Dial Collective, giving up is just not an option. How could it be? They have local support, a community of artists who are hungry for a home, and a lot more to learn.
For now, their story lives on Grasstronaut. So do dozens of other DIY arts spaces, collectives, publishing houses, and artists. Grasstronaut is inspired by the reality that zines and the DIY ethos help create—it exists if you make it.
ILLUSTRATION: An artist’s conception of the DIY ecosystem. PIA BARNETT