The Internet has its place, but for zines — the punk siblings to the magazine — paper rocks.
Part personal obsession, part portable gallery and part tour guide for outsiders, zines are flourishing in the fertile ground of Oakland's blossoming art scene like a riot of exotic flora.
The publications range from limited-edition, elaborate collectors' items to do-it-yourself-type zines such as SWEE(t)ART, a "semi-monthly limited edition visual arts periodical" created by artist and curator Obi Kaufman.
Each edition of SWEE(t)ART is hand-numbered and costs $2, a dollar less than when he began publishing in 2007 when he moved to Oakland, a city that is sweet and tart. Thus the title that lends itself to wordplay.
Kaufman called the cost-cutting measure his "own economic stimulus plan." The zine reads like a blog reflecting the author's chummy personality and the pool of art-scene readers Kaufman targets.
"I'm not trying to reach the masses. You can't with 100 editions," he said, referring to the cap he puts on each batch of the handmade publication. Each one is printed on a laser printer on 8.5-inch by 11-inch paper, folded in half and stapled.
The content is timed to coincide with shows and other events. The Summer 2008 SWEE(t)ART features an interview with Matt Decker, an artist who recently opened the Premium tattoo parlor and clothing boutique at 4130 Broadway.
The zine is so easy to produce from month to month because Oakland is diverse and fecund with artists and art, Kaufman said.
"Writing about art in Oakland is like picking fruit," he said.
The rise of art publications reflects the flowering of the art scene in Oakland that has been years in the making, said Theo Konrad Auer, art critic for The Oakbook. But the zines also reflect the larger U.S. culture that substitutes institutional support for the arts with a "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" attitude, Auer said.
In other words, the zines fill the gap in the local art scene created by the lack of buyers, high-end commercial galleries and robust city or corporate funding.
The elaborate zine "Hot and Cold" is an accessible, affordable outlet for artists' work. A painting or drawing might be too expensive for the budget-impaired or too much of a stretch for timid collectors. A zine with contributions from hot new artists is an easier sell. The first edition started at $5, and the most costly issue sold for $35 at the shows timed to the release of each issue.
"Hot and Cold" creates a group exhibit of original work on paper, DVD, CD, stickers, button pins, file folders and nearly any other surface available, including a transparent wallet.
Oakland-based artists Chris Duncan and Griffin McPartland incorporate all the ephemera into each hand-built and bound edition, layer-by-layer. They create a batch of 150 editions once or twice annually and sell them at shows in locations as far-flung as London and North Carolina. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City has acquired the entire collection.
"It's like being part of a grownup yearbook," McPartland said.
Tea Party magazine is at the other end of the spectrum, a nationally distributed word-heavy publication featuring paintings, poetry and profiles, as well as fiction and features that is produced in an old house that publisher David Pang bought in the San Antonio district.
The magazine grew from what nearly amounts to a zine to a full-fledged publication in 1995 to, as Pang put it, provide an independent perspective on the arts that reflects different cultures and classes.
Now 3,000 to 5,000 issues of Tea Party are published annually at a cost of about $30,000 — for printing, materials, staff, contributors and other costs, of which about $10,000 is offset by city arts grants, according to Pang.
Pang is a survivor in a landscape littered with defunct indie publications. Longevity is evasive — especially in the time of blogs, the online descendants of zines.
But blogs and Web sites are ephemeral beasts that can't be painted, drawn, printed, folded, cut and otherwise embellished.
There is something about the immediacy of a physical object in your hand that people love, said M.B., curator of the zine library housed at the Rock Paper Scissor collective on Telegraph Avenue.
"Zines are a creative act in just the way words are aligned," M.B. said. "That's something lost in blogs."
What defines zines — non-commercial support and independent, limited publication — is also what makes it hard for them to survive, said Lori Zook, acting chairwoman for the Oakland Cultural Affairs Commission and grant writer for Tea Party magazine.
But the beauty of the publications is that they are creative and portable, which helps take Oakland's arts beyond the city's borders and helps drive economic support to help the arts scene grow, Zook said.
And, in and of themselves, she added, they are pieces of art.