Changing Chattanooga: Aggie Toppins

Changing Chattanooga: Aggie Toppins

April 4th, 2014 in Chattanooganow

Aggie Toppins sorting through zine donations for the Chattanooga Zine Fest with student volunteers in The Society of Ink and Paper at UTC.

Photo by Maura Friedman /Times Free Press.

Aggie Toppins began producing zines during her graduate program at the Maryland Institute College of Art, but her work in the medium has really flourished in Chattanooga, almost out of creative necessity. ?

When Toppins accepted a post teaching graphic design at UTC, her side work didn't move with her. She had no clients, no new projects or a local network. But returning to zines, self-published magazines for small circulation, provided Toppins with an artistic outlet.?

"Zines helped me to quickly process ideas and study visual form," she says. "The unprecious format was liberating. I knew if something didn't work out in one issue, I'd soon be on to another one."?

Toppins has spread her enthusiasm to the classroom, where she assigns zine projects coupled with a lecture on the history of zines. Students have latched on. They bring in zines ordered from online and started a zine club, The Society of Ink and Paper, where they share and collaborate on zines.

Interested in learning about zines? Toppins and her students will be hosting zine workshops through AIGA Chattanooga on April 7th and The Chattery on April 26th. She is also curating a zine collection at the Public Library, to be unveiled at Zine Fest May 10th.

Occupation: I'm a graphic designer and a professor of graphic design at UTC. See her work here.

Chattanooga native or transplant?

I'm a transplant. I was born in Columbus, Ohio. But I've been lucky to have lived in many different places: New York, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Baltimore. My husband and I moved here from Baltimore just under two years ago.

Why Chattanooga?

I came to Chattanooga to teach at UTC. I was deeply impressed by the students and I felt philosophically aligned with the Art Department faculty. It's a gem of a program. I'm very proud of our work.

What are zines and why do you love them?

Zines, simply put, are self-published books. They are usually cheaply produced in small editions. They often take the form of small magazines, experimental artist books, amateur journalism, or personal narratives.

Zines began as a kind of "unofficial" media-the voice of underground culture. Groups that didn't receive mainstream media attention, like political dissidents, self-identified punks, and even science fictions fans started making zines because they wanted to be represented. They wanted to share their joys and beliefs with like-minded people.

I discovered zines in graduate school. I always loved books, both the form of books and their capacity for visual and narrative expression. But I only made maybe two zines in grad school. It was after I moved to Chattanooga that I started making a lot of zines. When I was new in town, I had no clients, no local network, and no new projects. I was very busy with teaching, but I wanted to be productive in the studio. I was also going through a decompression period after my MFA. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. So I started making zines in order to experiment. By making zines, I could quickly process ideas and study visual form. It was liberating, actually. I knew that if something didn't work out in one issue, I'd soon be on to another. Eventually I found that making zines was no longer a creative exercise but a significant part of my studio practice.

Like other graphic designers, I'm invested in the synthesis of text and image. I'm interested in the potential of the publication as an object and as a way of communicating with a reader. Designers who make zines, I think, do so because we also want to share our joys and beliefs. We also want to express ourselves. It's exciting, for me at least, to see design language and the means of professional reproduction being used by non-designers. This brings design to a larger audience and vice versa-the aesthetics of underground culture certainly inform what designers do.

There is one more point I like to make about designers who make zines. Graphic designers are often agents of mainstream media. We often serve governments, corporations, and other "official" organizations with our work. Zines offer designers an outlet for creative expression which can be independent from client-based commercial practice. Client work can be very rewarding, but it's not the only application for graphic design. Zines represent this idea of design as a cultural practice.

More importantly, zines reflect all kinds of cultures-not just design culture. In a zine library, a fanzine made by an 8th grader who loves Star Trek can be on the same shelf as an abstract visual narrative made by a professionally-trained artist. There's something equalizing and powerful about that. That's what excites me about zines.

How have zines changed Chattanooga so far?

Great zines have been coming out of Chattanooga for a long time-take Spare Change, for example, a fantastic zine by Tom Foote. He's been making this series longer than some of my students have been alive. When he started this zine, I was still losing baby teeth. I'm not sure how many people know about Spare Change, but it's truly prolific. You can buy issues at Collective Clothing.

Perhaps because Chattanooga has such a DIY culture-our library is equipped with a maker space, there's a strong start-up business scene, a sense of civic responsibility among our citizenry, and an excitement built around the arts-zines just make sense here.

I also see how Chattanooga is affected by young artists, including students and recent graduates. When I first came to UTC, I shared my love of zines with my students in course work and in extra-curricular activities. They took to it with great interest and went on to start their own initiatives. Now, I'd say that self-publishing is a part of our culture in the Art Department. Our students started The Society of Ink and Paper, a club that meets regularly to share publication-oriented work. They make zines together and they have exhibitions of zines using our student-run gallery, Apothecary. One of our seniors just planned a zine-making workshop with the local chapter of the AIGA.

The Chattery, an organization that creates fun classes for adults, is also hosting a zine-making workshop soon. And it's no small thing that our Public Library is collecting zines for circulation. I think all these things have shaped are are continuing to shape Chattanooga.

What's the future for zines in Chattanooga?

Over the last four months, I've been working with the Chattanooga Public Library to build a permanent collection of zines for the Maker Space on the 4th floor. We've been lucky to acquire historically significant zines as well as many new zines from all over the world. There will also be a large number of local and regional zines. Our collection spans a wide range of genres and will hopefully appeal to many different interests.

A great thing about our Public Library is that when they start a collection, they don't just acquire objects, they build programming around those objects so that our community can be actively involved. That's why we're planning Chattanooga Zine Fest for May 10. This is the day that the Chattanooga Zine Library will become available to the public. Zine fest will host zine-making workshops and zine readings. There will also be vendors selling and trading their publications. We're still accepting vendor submissions until April 11. We have people coming from all over the US and Canada to sell zines.

My hope is that people walking up to the 4th Floor of the Public Library on May 10 will learn about an entire world of self-publishing. They will be able to buy zines from vendors. They'll be able to read issues in our new collection of zines and check out a zine with their library card. They'll learn to make zines and meet a community of other makers.

After Zine Fest, the library will host zine-making events regularly. This kind of programming is in line with their enthusiasm for maker activities, like Arduino Hack nights, Dev Dev, and Code XX. Zines, of course, are much more low-tech. This adds variety to the library's services.

Favorite place to read in Chattanooga?

I wish I had a more exciting answer. My favorite place to read is at home, on my couch, with a cup of coffee and my dogs. I also like reading in a hammock on my porch.