Monday, April 13, 2009

Microcosm on Tour

Portland-based Independent publisher Microcosm Publishing is heading out on a cross-country tour. True to their radical roots, the tour aims not only to sell books, but also to hold workshops on a wide range of skills by a bus full experts with extensive knowledge in the DIY arts. Authors and artists hitting the road include Microcosm founder Joe Biel, Do-It-Yourself Screenprinting author John Isaacson, Moe Bowstern, author of the rad zine series Xtra Tuf, vegan chef Joshua Ploeg, and Shelley Jackson, co-author of Chainbreaker, the indespensible bike-culture book and zine.

The tour begins today in Chicago, winds its way through the rust belt with 2 days in Buffalo, and finishes with 2 weeks in the South. Full tour info here.

Joe Biel was kind enough to share some time and thoughts with me before heading out.

Hi Joe. How you been?

I'm doing way better than I was a year or two ago when I was real sick and not moving much. Shit is tops about now! I'm moving about and not limited by my body! Got my fourth eye surgery and now I can see and function in the world.

What are you working on?

Right now I am spending every minute of my life finishing up a documentary about Plan-it X Records called "If It Ain't Cheap, It Ain't Punk." Then I'm going to do a new issue of my zine about biking in Portland "Bipedal, By Pedal" about the hostile interactions between motorists and cyclists. Then it's back to work on my next big project, which is an interview book for Garrett County Press called "Beyond Resistance and Community" wherein I talk to old punks who have pursued crafts other than music.

Tell us about the upcoming tour. Who are you traveling with? What are you hoping to accomplish? Who do you want to reach?

This tour is one of our more ambitous ones. It's a series of skillshare events with Shelley Jackson (Chainbreaker), Joshua Ploeg (who was the singer for Behead the Prophet and now does a sweet touring cooking show), John Isaacson (DIY Screenprinting), Moe Bowstern (Xtra Tuf), and Dave Roche (On Subbing) is joining us a little bit too. I've been making fuel for our converted SVO RV for the last three weeks. We collect waste grease left over from restaurants, heat it up to remove impurities and then run it through filters to protect the engine. So we drive around the eastern half of the country and do skillshare events. I'm going to show my new documentary and we will talk about how art intersects politics, especially in a so-called liberal administration.

I don’t have to tell you, the word is that print media is in trouble. Newspapers are shutting down, bookstores are closing, etc. Do you agree that print is dying? How do printed books and magazines stay relevant when everyone is getting their information on line?

Print isn't dying. It just requires a new and smarter approach. I've been teaching workshops about starting distribution co-ops to solve this problem but no one wants to do the work. That's why a lot of magazines and publishers are tanking or cancelling production. It's hard to accept that you have to drop the white collar white to do very blue collar work. It's not glamorous but it's the big picture. I don't think all people get all kinds of information online or some people get all information online.

The biggest way for print to stay relevant is to offer something different. Microcosm focuses on artistic books about DIY subjects because that's what we are interested in, but it's also a hot subject in a post-boom economy when much of the industry is losing relevance.

Print was wounded by the corporatization of bookstores around 1994; not by the internet. Barnes & Nobles and Borders drastically changed the climate of book selling because publishers were offering huge discounts to big chains and then getting huge returns which forced prices way up. People weren't willing to pay twice as much for the same book so sales suffered.

Have blogs totally replaced zines? Are there still new and important zines being created? What do you see as the essential difference between the two mediums? What have we lost by making blogging so accessible? What have we gained?

Blogs and zines are apples and oranges. They can't replace each other. That is a popular myth. There are new zines being produced daily. We get daily zines submissions; at least one or two per day. I think ideally a zine has a lot more work put into it than most websites. It's more of a commitment.

I don't think of it in terms of gains/losses. It's comparing apples and oranges. You can eat them both.

How does Microcosm decide what to publish? How do you find the writers/artists worth distributing?

The collective meets monthly, reviews our production chart & submissions, and composes our own ideas for books to publish. We vote as a group and everyone is granted a block or vote of approval. Our distributed work is built from daily submissions that we review in these meetings. We build relationships with people and often choose what to publish based on our favorite zines/people.

What are some great new titles we should know about? Some great zines? Some great blogs?

Right now Dwelling Portably and Make Your Place are two of my favorite things. It doesn't hurt that I am building a portable liveable shack but these books are really popular AND relevant in my own life. There are so many great zines that I don't know what to plug. Secret Files of Cap'n Sissy is always a favorite. I really like the writing of OJ Killed Elvis. But often I find that my favorites are the ones I've never heard of and never see again. I don't read blogs. I don't really know how to find them.

Punk was essential for our generation, but now it can seem so dated. Is Punk still relevant for young people? Has it changed with the times?

It's undoubtedly relevant for young people as it was relevant for you or I. Of course it's changed with the times. It means a different fashion, aesthetic, or sound but it was the same way for you or I. It just seems a lot more relevant when you are in your formative years, no matter how hollow or politically unsophisticated the message is. It's about inspiring you to do something that is beyond that. I owe my life and path to punk. I've said that over and over. I don't relate with punk music now but that doesn’t matter. I associate it with a certain set of politics, a DIY ethic, and a positive force for activism.

Any chance of opening a Microcosm shop in Seattle? Or at least bringing the tour here?

Microcosm doesn’t have any staff in Seattle so we don't really have the means to do that. I could see us having a cool shop in Georgetown but that's a good ways away. We aren't really looking to globalize in that way either. We are talking about a west coast tour for 2010 though. Stay tuned!

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