The Birth of Quarantine Zines
Gauraa Shekhar on a Pandemic-Inspired Movement
About a week into lockdown, my social feeds began bristling with #StayHome—a hashtag friends and peers used to catalog and share their life under quarantine. The posts quickly pivoted from blurry pictures of pets pawing at laptops to elaborate housebound efforts (think: sourdough starters, sill-grown scallions, DIY cotton masks). Suddenly, these platforms were seized with an urgency to document thoughtfully curated quarantine lifestyles.
My partner and I—newfound time in hand—soon found ourselves on Squarespace, attempting to secure the domain “quaranzine.com.” We had been yanked from our literary community and pushed into a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, the door sealed shut behind us. We were desperate to find a new way to collaborate with other creatives.
Unfortunately, “quaranzine.com” was already under construction. We tried “quaranzine.net”—but that, too, was claimed. Quaranzine.org? Taken. So were Quarantine Magazine, Stay Home Diary, and Isolation Creations. It seemed like everyone with access to the internet—creative professional or otherwise—was trying to certify new versions of their lives; what it meant for them to be alive and inside in “these times.” I resigned myself, then, to devour them all.
My quest was selfish at first. I wanted to understand the cultural impact of this documentation, yes, but I also wanted to test the waters—if only to see how similar these platforms were to the one we aimed to create. I started with Quaranzine.net, a site that urges out-of-commission artists to share their work. Their directive? “Don’t stop creating… Find inspiration in the shrinking walls around you.” In its inaugural volume, an artist who goes by “Daddy” shares a YouTube link to his music video, “Corona.” The video falls just under the two-minute mark, and shows Daddy fighting magnified microbe emojis and rubbing hand sanitizer over bare flesh. I copy the link into a DM and send it to a friend.
Hours later, my friend responds with a link to Pioneer Works’ Digital Diary, a collaborative project that closed for submissions in June. Digital Diary asked contributors to add a photo or short text into the site answering the prompt, “What are the best and worst parts of virtual life in isolation?” The project swiftly amassed a dense collection of micro-length entries about working from home, or not being able to work from home, or discovering that time alone is actually more productive than originally thought. This discussion feels like one had in the snack room of a small and intimate office; everyone has a remark to make on this change, and how it affected them. It seemed apparent what was universally amiss from the work-from-home experience: idle banter. And people were finding new ways to supplement that.
By way of Twitter, I discovered Past-Ten.com’s Pandemic Series, in which contributors are asked to “reflect on where they were ten years ago, and how the spread of the Coronavirus complicates what they have learned about themselves.” While the personality of each piece in Pandemic Series is individualized, the works share overarching themes of anxiety, uncertainty, loneliness; the comparison of “then” and “now.” Now feels like an especially loaded word, present in almost each one of entries. “Now the COVID-19 death toll washes over me with the same eerie, slow-motion calm as the moments right before a hand strikes a face,” writes contributor Jocelyn Winn. Another entry on the site from writer Teresa Lynn Hasan-Kerr reads, “Solitude is now a theme for everyone.” There is comfort in reading these words now, too; in knowing that the emphasis on now is matched by others, regardless of closeness or physical proximity.
Later, I come across a picture on Instagram: stacked zines the color of ochre, an illustration of a mug with sprawling leaves across each. The project in question is Mug Club Fanzine, an undertaking of Portland-based artist and illustrator Joan LeMay. Mug Club calls for its contributors to take a picture of their favorite mug and write a short text to accompany it. Joan then makes paintings of each mug and runs them with the corresponding story. When I asked Joan what drew her to mugs specifically, she said, “People’s mugs are really personal and individuated objects, actually—it’s why you never set a dinner table for guests with your mugs, unless those mugs are a mass-produced, uniform set. … The humble mug seemed like a perfect jumping off point for storytelling (people have stories about their mugs!) and a perfect subject for starting this zine at this time.”
Anecdotal storytelling seems to be a core element of most quarantine projects, and Mug Club especially. Wherein each narrative—about being young and shoplifting a favorite mug, or finding out years later that a favorite mug is from Pottery Barn—reads like tender and casual conversation with a close friend.
Another print zine born from these times is New York Magazine book critic Molly Young’s The Things They Fancied, which illustrates the “frivolous habits of the moneyed class, spanning several periods of history.” The zine dares to linger on upper-class mundanities such as life before Clorox, and contemporary pubic hair conditioning spray. There’s a temptation to talk right back to the text; to discuss the kind of person who uses Mrs. Meyers as disinfectant. Curious about the zine’s sharp focus, I asked Molly what motivated her to write about this specific subset of opulence. “The idea of ruling-class delusions was obsessively fixed in my mind as it became clear that communities at different income levels were affected in radically different ways,” she said. “I started mentally writing a kind of subtextual polemic as I researched all the ways that rich bozos throughout history have exercised their inanity.” I can’t help but notice that people are using this time to find a meaningful correlation between their interests and current events; a crossover made especially interesting when it includes sensory details about $50,000 perfumes concocted in a suite at the Plaza.
Given that Kinko’s no longer feels like a safe or economical option, I asked Molly about her decision to go to print instead of publishing online. “If I emailed a friend with a link to something I’d written, it would feel like an imposition,” she said. “But if I send a friend a zine, it’s an offering. It’s a humble object, just paper and staples, but there is care in it. I like the idea that someone would read it and pass it on.”
This complex network of isolation projects continues to bloom as people spend more time inside, trying to regain normalcy by documenting and sharing the minutiae of everyday life. The idea that someone would read something you wrote and pass it on, seems to be the underlying impetus behind each of these isolation projects. It’s this exchanging of ideas, this connection and collaboration—that helps viewers, readers, and listeners stay human in our new socially-distanced community. There are 24 volumes of quarantine.net to date, a forthcoming issue of Mug Club (in color, this time)—and as for quaranzine.com? It’s still under construction—but the site encourages you to check back for an update.