Monday, February 19, 2024

venture capital

Opinion Markets InsightAdd to myFT The new realism in venture capital is healthy Rising stockpile of ‘dry powder’ is a sign of private capital’s growing attraction as an asset class HOLDEN SPAHTAdd to myFT 

The writer is managing partner at Thoma Bravo The stampede of new Silicon Valley unicorns emerging into the world has thinned into a straggling herd. Venture capital firm Cowboy Ventures recently reported that of 532 US start-ups with billion-dollar-plus valuations in 2023, 60 per cent were what it dubbed “Zirpicorns” — companies last priced between January 2020 and March 2022 when zero-interest rate policies propped up valuations. Times have changed. Higher interest rates are just one aspect of a more broadly challenging business and market environment that makes private equity firms even more selective about the companies they target for their portfolios. Finding a pathway to operational excellence and profitability for portfolio companies is the hard work that private equity managers live for. But PE can’t acquire a company that won’t sell at a plausible price. And it has naturally taken time for start-up owners to come to grips with valuations that are more realistic in a normal interest rate and business environment. That’s contributed to a stockpile of so-called “dry powder” — funds committed by investors but sitting idle — that has risen to nearly $4tn, according to estimates from BlackRock and Preqin. It’s obvious that money not put to use doesn’t earn returns. And with exits from older investments still constrained by the drought in initial public offerings, stories are being told about how private equity faces a dilemma of nearly irreconcilable imbalances: too many older acquisitions under management; investors asking for return of capital to meet their liabilities; PE firms trying to raise money for new funds.  That does sound like an awkward equation. For the optimists, it is just a matter of buying a little time until a “new normal” crystallises. But that would require substantial monetary policy easing, market stabilisation without a recession, a reopening of the IPO window; a burst of (delayed) exits to the public markets. Meanwhile, there’s a contingent of private equity pessimists (in fairness, they would probably call themselves pragmatists) who see the dry powder as dangerously combustible. In their eyes, the ailing Zirpicorns are more like zombies — and time-buying tactics are compounding the risks of what they consider excess leverage. These delaying strategies include so-called NAV loans, which use a fund’s investment assets as collateral to raise money, and continuation funds that buy assets from existing funds within private equity groups. Private capital accumulation looks to the pessimists like an omen of some kind of reckoning. I think both these perspectives miss the mark. Start with the actual dry powder stockpile: $4tn is indeed a lot of money. But as a proportion of overall private capital assets under management — which Apollo estimates at more than $13tn — today’s uninvested capital (at about 30 per cent) isn’t unprecedented. It is actually proportionately smaller than it was in 2019 (about 40 per cent). A stockpile of dry powder is in reality a sign of private capital’s growing attraction as an asset class. Even with exits constrained, investors want to allocate more money because the returns justify it. And that demand may be even higher than it appears: Many investors are restricted by rigid allocation caps to the sector. Profitable exits also do not depend on a robust IPO environment. From my perspective, exiting portfolio companies through sales to strategic buyers after making operational and business improvements is even more attractive. And this pathway is set to grow substantially in 2024. Secular trends in the economy such as the reshaping of geopolitics and the emergence of a new generation of artificial intelligence together signal a period of significant restructuring where firms will work to reorganise their assets and capabilities. Overall, the rapidly evolving turn towards greater scrutiny of business models and return on investment is evidence that the days of waiting a decade or more for technology firms to generate profits are over. And that’s good news. More expensive money that leads to more demands to justify valuations through business performance is healthy pressure for private equity managers. Meanwhile, investors will be moved to scrutinise even more carefully the sources of their private equity returns and understand how much of performance is coming from financial leverage, from valuation-multiple expansion, and — most importantly — from operational business improvement. The combination of these business disciplines leads me to believe that what’s ahead for private equity investment won’t just be a replay of the 2010s. I think it looks even better.


Good and timely read. Most people probably get VC backward. So much focus on how much money is raised and at what valuation. Most interestingly, ZIRP means there's little comparability between vintages post 2009, and 2021/22. When money was so cheap and so hot, the game was just as much about the front end of the funnel, as the back. At the end of it all, the retail equity markets determine the majority of VC activity. One way or another. There's ultimately only two real profitable exits for these businesses. Either IPO on their own, or M&A into another company. Even if there's a circuitous route via PE, in the end, someone has to pay a premium to push so much capital back through the funnel. It's actually a great situation to create an efficient market. Lots of dry powered combine with high rates and a tough exit market. That means it's harder to raise, which means the companies that raise have to be better. These factors also force VCs to be more disciplined and also corporate development teams to be more pragmatic. Finally, since there's little point on comparing vintages now, to the last fifteen years, those managers and funds starting today don't need to compete with the (largely self appointed) titans of VC. It's easy to be a titan when the gods have rigged the game in your favour. No, we have a whole new VC market now. One based on rational exit routes and probabilities, rather than hot money sloshing around. And we'll all be better for it.

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Comment guidelines Please keep comments respectful. Use plain English for our global readership and avoid using phrasing that could be misinterpreted as offensive. By commenting, you agree to abide by our community guidelines and these terms and conditions. We encourage you to report inappropriate comments. Sign in and Join the Conversation Tab: All Comments ( 10 ) Sort by digitaurus 6 HOURS AGO Compared to 2001/2 this VC correction has been a walk in the park. So far. Recommend 1 Reply Share Report Graphs that go up 7 HOURS AGO The best start-ups are profitable already before they even start talking to VCs. Recommend Reply Share Report Arden8 7 HOURS AGO   In reply to Graphs that go up Then they’re, by definition, not start-ups Recommend Reply Share Report So, it wasn't that easy 8 HOURS AGO A stockpile is dry powder is just a reflection of the fact that the world's central bankers printed $30trn over the last 15 years - and have barely run down these balances Recommend Reply Share Report F2020 9 HOURS AGO Have they not considered IPOs with 10% free float, and then cook up a few AI projects and narrative route? 😅 Recommend 3 Reply Share Report Arden8 11 HOURS AGO Erm, shouldn’t a GP know that dry powder in the form of uncalled commitments is not “uninvested” - well not unless the KP is particularly inept at managing their cash flows. Recommend 3 Reply Share Report digitaurus 7 HOURS AGO   In reply to Arden8 I presume they were keeping it simple for the hoi poloi? Or it might be a subtle threat to the LPs that they are on the line for the three trillion regardless of how many distributions they receive (or don’t) in the meantime… Recommend 1 Reply Share Report not the spare 6 HOURS AGO   In reply to Arden8 100%. The idea that institutions commit to private equity and leave the uncalled commitments in cash under the mattress is ludicrous. Now paying fees on uninvested capital? That’s a world of hurt. Recommend 1 Reply Share Report GoAlpha 12 HOURS AGO Good and timely read. Most people probably get VC backward. So much focus on how much money is raised and at what valuation. Most interestingly, ZIRP means there's little comparability between vintages post 2009, and 2021/22. When money was so cheap and so hot, the game was just as much about the front end of the funnel, as the back. At the end of it all, the retail equity markets determine the majority of VC activity. One way or another. There's ultimately only two real profitable exits for these businesses. Either IPO on their own, or M&A into another company. Even if there's a circuitous route via PE, in the end, someone has to pay a premium to push so much capital back through the funnel. It's actually a great situation to create an efficient market. Lots of dry powered combine with high rates and a tough exit market. That means it's harder to raise, which means the companies that raise have to be better. These factors also force VCs to be more disciplined and also corporate development teams to be more pragmatic. Finally, since there's little point on comparing vintages now, to the last fifteen years, those managers and funds starting today don't need to compete with the (largely self appointed) titans of VC. It's easy to be a titan when the gods have rigged the game in your favour. No, we have a whole new VC market now. One based on rational exit routes and probabilities, rather than hot money sloshing around. And we'll all be better for it. Recommend 3 Reply Share Report Argus 15 HOURS AGO (Edited) So the managing partner at Thoma Bravo, selling his own book, boasts that his business is better than ever. It’s one thing for the FT to cut and paste press releases but giving them the full Monty to then pen a self promotional OPED takes the cake. Are we the product as ‚The Zuck‘ likes to describe us? Rest assured that what’s not dry powder in PE was invested at 15x EBITDA vs 8x historically according to Bain and leveraged to the gunnels when 6 mos LIBOR was zero (rate PE funds deals at) and is now close to 6%. And then comes the risk premium. „ Finding a pathway to operational excellence and profitability for portfolio companies is the hard work that private equity managers live for.“ I had to chuckle. Is this note code for „we know our goose is cooked, but let’s make the most of it“? PE makes or loses money at point of acquisition and sale. IPO is highest buyer. It’s not happening because nobody wants to mark to market, so it’s nailbiting time. The only thing going for it is fact that there are no covenants so creditors are unable to „squeeze their . . .“ They have plenty of dry powder to chase bad money with good and plug funding gaps, hoping rates will come down and media like FT are open to accepting advertising like contributions in exchange for propaganda pieces such as these. Isn’t it nice to feel so appreciated as subscribers ? Bravo Tommy !



“Argylle” Is the I.P. Ouroboros That Hollywood Hath Wrought

Intentionally or not, the new spy movie suggests the extreme convolutions that a production must undergo to justify its existence as an original story.
Three people sitting at a table.
Henry Cavill, Dua Lipa, and John Cena in “Argylle.”Photograph by Peter Mountain / Courtesy Apple TV+

The word “content” is a workhorse of the digital era, referring to any form of culture or media pumped through the distribution tubes of the Internet, regardless of its medium. “Intellectual property,” in this framework, means existing content that can generate more content ad infinitum. It describes character-driven franchises such as James Bond, “universes” including Marvel’s ever-expanding array of superheroes, the real-life events that inspired the true-crime boom, and even narrative typologies such as the television series “True Detective,” which, by shuffling its settings and cast members, can be indefinitely extended. Good I.P. insures that any production derived from it has a preëxisting fan base and an ability to generate headlines: a new riff on an old favorite. (See: “Mean Girls,” the movie-musical based on the musical based on the movie.) In an era where streaming platforms are scrambling to fill their content coffers, reworking existing I.P. has become a reliable shortcut to bankability. Woe betide the piece of content that risks entering the market as something wholly unfamiliar.

All of this goes some way toward explaining the perplexing existence of “Argylle,” a cutesy and convoluted new spy film from Universal Pictures and Apple Original Films directed by Matthew Vaughn, who is perhaps best known for his “Kingsman” franchise of gentlemanly British action capers. “Argylle,” according to press accounts, is a movie adaptation of a novel, also called “Argylle,” that was published in January, by Bantam, written by a much-hyped début author named Elly Conway. The book, about “a troubled agent with a tarnished past,” quickly became a national best-seller. Its cover boasted, “the book that inspired the major motion picture.” Elly Conway was presumed to be a pseudonym, since no author with that name revealed herself during the book’s release. Then, when the film came out this month, its main character turned out to be a successful spy novelist with the same name, Elly Conway. The novel was, reportedly, a kind of real-world I.P. prop commissioned by Vaughn from two veteran thriller writers, Terry Hayes and Tammy Cohen; the book appears to have been adapted from the movie, not, as advertised, the other way around. The contents of the novel, meanwhile, bear little resemblance to the movie in theatres now. Instead, it unspools a story that is meant to be the subject of a later film in the nascent “Argylle” franchise—which, as we learn in a reveal at the end, probably ties into Vaughn’s “Kingsman” franchise. Am I making this clear?

Clarity is not the goal of this I.P. ouroboros. In the film, Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) is in the midst of writing the fifth volume of a series called “Argylle.” Conway is mousy, phobic of plane travel, and loves her parents and her cat, a Scottish Fold named Alfie. (This latter detail has fuelled speculation that the novel was, in fact, written by Taylor Swift, who owns cats of the same breed.) But the film begins with yet another bait and switch: a brief segment starring Henry Cavill as Aubrey Argylle, the Bond-ish hero of Elly Conway’s novels, and his villainous opponent, a faux-Bond girl played by the pop star Dua Lipa. A scene of them squaring off on a Greek island fades out into a “real life” scene of Conway reading from her new volume at a book-launch event.


Throwing Shade Through Crosswords

Unfortunately, those first several minutes of Cavill and Lipa are the best thing in the more than two-hour-long movie. It may surprise you that Conway the fictional novelist is not what she seems, either. She quickly gets embroiled in a spy plot, because her novels are too accurate—she has somehow predicted what a criminal organization called the Division is up to, so the Division’s agents are trying to catch her. She is rescued by a true (albeit shabby) spy, Aidan Wilde, played by Sam Rockwell, who leads her on a quest to discover the truth—or something. Distractingly, in moments of distress or when she needs extra motivation for a dramatic escape, Conway’s vision goes blurry and Aidan is replaced onscreen by the novelist’s character, Argylle, in a kind of hallucination.

The narrative is driven by the question of who is manipulating whom, though ultimately it’s easiest to conclude that the screenplay is manipulating the viewer. Conway, in fact, has been deluded, too: She is actually Aidan’s colleague, a real spy named Rachel Kylle, whose false identity as a novelist was brainwashed into her by Division members posing as Conway’s parents, when she came out of a coma induced by an assignment gone awry. Her novels are actually hazy memories of her spy exploits. (Were the enthusiastic readers at Conway’s events fake, too, or did the implanted novels really become a surprise hit? We may never know.) The inexplicable twists are interspersed with puerile action scenes. Driven to destroy the Division’s headquarters, Conway, now Kylle, performs martial arts in a haze of multicolored smoke, then ice-skates on knives through a pool of crude oil on a rig, the site of the film’s sorely overdue dénouement. Bereft of all she loved as Conway except for her cat, Kylle recovers a forgotten romance with Aidan and reassumes her authorial identity at a final book launch.

But wait: at the book launch, a man stands up who appears to be Aubrey Argylle, a real-life version of Conway’s fake books’ fictional protagonist. Kylle freaks out; the screen fades to black. I.P. films like to deploy the gimmick of an extra post- or mid-credits scene to tease the extension of the franchise into future spinoffs. Here, as the credits roll, we see a young Aubrey Argylle in a pub called the Kingsman Arms (an apparent reference to Vaughn’s other series) ordering a cosmopolitan in a kind of secret-code exchange and then, in lieu of a cocktail, being handed a gun by the bartender—a scene which, unbeknownst to the uninformed viewer, is drawn from “Argylle” the “real” novel that was likely published to promote the film. The last thing onscreen is a poster of the movie’s Argylle book series with words appearing above it: “book one the movie coming soon.” (Presumably that film will simply star Cavill.) This banner read to me as something of an ominous forecast from Vaughn: not only must a story not be new but it also must not end. Whether intentionally or not, “Argylle” serves best as a meta-parable of the extreme contortions that a production must undergo in today’s Hollywood to justify its existence as an original story.

Another prominent film of the past year riffs on the instability of authorial identity, with far more fruitful results: Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction,” an adaptation of the 2001 novel “Erasure,” by Percival Everett. In it, Thelonious (Monk) Ellison, a Black novelist and professor, struggles with the publishing industry’s shoehorning of his novels into the genre of “African American Fiction.” For his latest novel, instead of his usual recastings of Greek plays, Monk writes a pastiche of Black clichés — gangs, drugs, gun violence—and titles it “My Pafology” (later changing it, hilariously, to “Fuck”) under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh, who, according to the book’s marketing, is a felon on the run. The novel is a smash hit and it, too, meets the fate of all popular storytelling: a movie adaptation. Yet the true subject of “American Fiction,” and the thing that “Argylle” completely lacks, is the mundane dramas of rounded human relationships. Monk’s family includes his brother, who is newly out of the closet; his mother, who’s been showing signs of Alzheimer’s; and a longtime housekeeper seeking a life beyond her job. The deceitful novel in question is not just a narrative prop but a stone thrown into a lake; its consequences ripple through the lives of those around the author at the story’s center. Toward its end, “American Fiction” stumbles out into a cumbersome meta-narrative with multiple dream-within-a-dream variations, but it is unlikely to spawn a sequel, let alone an entire I.P. multiverse; the film is content—that is, satisfied—to simply tell a story from start to finish, which feels like something of a novelty right now. ♦

Through Zines


American Counterculture, Glimpsed Through Zines

Zine-making is a tradition shared by the young and alienated, people enamored with the fringes of culture. Can a museum exhibit capture its essence?
A zine made by Maggie Lee.
Art work by Maggie Lee / Courtesy Brooklyn Museum

The first zine that I ever read was called Snotrag, and its author was a straight-edge hardcore fan, bike enthusiast, and occasional raver who lived in Vermont. I was none of these things; our main commonality was that we were both at debate camp. Snotrag was just five photocopied pages folded in half, but having it handed to me felt like an intimate gesture. Each page was filled with wobbly, hand-arranged columns of riffs, interviews, reviews of basement shows and seven-inch singles, and recaps of debate rounds, with little graphic design beyond the occasional boldface album title and a photocopied act up sticker. There were two pages left completely blank, presumably by accident. I recall a feeling of discovery, not just of new musical genres or bands but of the fact that you could be into so many different things at once: punk, Derrida, nanotechnology, aids activism, Islam, the great outdoors. I was inspired to start my own zine as a way to test out different poses, to figure out whether I was a dreamer or a cynic, a zealot or a snob, though my sense of taste was less confident. I mostly cultivated a political stance out of everything I rejected. Figuring out what I actually loved would come much later.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was participating in a long tradition shared by the young and alienated, people who were enamored with the fringes of culture. It would be impossible to imagine a comprehensive history of zines, since it would be made up of so many small, forgotten moments like this one. Countless publications have started and then never made it past one or two issues. What mattered was that you tried at all. And what’s drawn people to trying is less a clear lineage than a shared feeling.

Many believe that zines date back to the nineteen-thirties and forties, when science-fiction enthusiasts eager to dissect their favorite stories (or publish their own) began making “fan magazines,” or fanzines. These early examples, some of which involved teen-agers running amok with typewriters and school ditto machines, were an expression of devotion—self-published, amateurish, and unconcerned with the bottom line. They were also a defense against loneliness. Starting your own publication always suggests a desire for connection and community, casting about for fellow-oddballs, willing a readership into existence. Throughout the twentieth century, zines were as much about what people loved as fans—comic books, horror films, rock music—as what they rejected. In the nineteen-seventies, with the popularization of xerographic copiers, the form became closely associated with the punk subculture and its do-it-yourself ethos. In the decades that followed, zines became an important forum for the discussion of radical feminism and identity, avant-garde poetry and art, the chosen platform for the thoughtful and angst-ridden. Pigeons of New York, weird Wikipedia entries, graffiti, Chinese food, dumpster diving, anarchist politics: there’s probably a zine for any niche interest that you can imagine.

“Copy Machine Manifestos,” an ambitious exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, curated by the art historians Branden W. Joseph and Drew Sawyer, documents a sliver of this world. It focusses largely on artists’ zines, loosely defined as those published by people with some relationship to the art world. The Canadian artist and pioneering zine-maker A. A. Bronson has characterized such works as “format-oriented,” as artists, disenchanted with the snooty circuits of galleries and critics, explored the possibilities of do-it-yourself publishing.

Thousands of zines are on display in “Copy Machine Manifestos,” and it offers a thrilling survey of North American subcultures throughout the twentieth century. The artist John Dowd recognized the possibilities of the Xerox machine early on, and in the late nineteen-sixties he began circulating stark, black-and-white publications, among them Fanzini and The Star, which featured Dada-inspired collages of rock stars, Disney icons, and advertisements. At a time when it was still onerous to collect and manipulate printed images, there was a subversive power to Dowd’s cut-and-paste juxtapositions. “I really like pictures in sequence,” he would later say, “facing each other on opposite pages; then you can say something.” Dowd was part of the mail-art scene, which circumvented traditional media and distribution channels in favor of artists trading pieces through the postal service. His zines spawned their own fan club and inspired others to luxuriate in the grainy, washed-out aesthetics of xeroxing.

A zine called Vile.
Art work by Anna Banana, “Vile, vol. 1, no. 2 vol. 2, no. 1 (issue 4)” / Photograph by David Vu / Courtesy Brooklyn Museum

Whereas the counterculture of the sixties resulted in a boom in community and movement newspapers, the artists’ zines of the nineteen-seventies pushed toward more transgressive extremes. Vile was a San Francisco publication that emerged in the mid-seventies, inspired by a Toronto one called File; both appropriated the red-and-white logo from Life magazine. The covers of Vile were clearly meant to shock; one depicts a hanged man with an erect penis. Issues of Dirt, an early Boston zine by Mark Morrisroe and Lynelle White, feature interviews with punk musicians alongside hand-scrawled headlines lampooning the celebrity-obsessed gossip of mainstream tabloids. Despite the maverick bent of D.I.Y. publishing, zines still carried traces of the mass-culture moments that they were trying to resist.

The Brooklyn Museum show is staged chronologically, and, by the time the exhibit reaches the eighties, the movements and subcultures represented by these zines feel nameable and bounded, from the emergence of a queer-zine underground in that decade to the rise of Riot Grrl in the next. One of the most moving pieces on display is not an issue of a zine but “Envelope Quilt,” by the artist and filmmaker K8 Hardy, which stitches together the envelopes mailed to her by readers over the years.


Roger J. Carter: Rebel Revolutionary

The cultural historian Stephen Duncombe, in his 1997 book “Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture,” described zines as “bursts of raw emotion” that prize “unfettered, authentic expression” over polish. “Envelope Quilt,” which bridges the distance between the artist and her readers, captures some of that energy. But the museum’s focus on so-called artists’ zines means that “Copy Machine Manifestos” is less interested in random, amateurish provocations and more invested in the relationship between self-published works and the canons and conventions of art history. Displaying stapled photocopies meant to be subterranean and anti-institutional behind glass, in a museum, will always feel a bit strange, particularly when the original appeal of zines was both their tactility and their disposability. The exhibit ends up feeling like a startling collection of covers, with only a teasing sense of what was written inside. Contextualizing works within artists’ Å“uvres would have helped, too. What did the expanse of a zine allow Raymond PettibonMiranda July, or Harmony Korine to explore that they couldn’t in their painting, or writing, or filmmaking?

The last gallery featured a small display of zines for picking up and browsing, and a gallery online featured scans of selected issues. But there were so many more, encased in glass, that I had wanted to open—to see whether they were typeset or handwritten or had a sense of humor, what kinds of things they reviewed or railed against. I was reminded of a wonderful 2010 show about the history of New York’s alternative art spaces, at the now shuttered Exit Art, a key part of that world. Each space was represented by a box of archival materials, arranged on a massive table, with gloves and magnifying glasses provided for patrons. We were invited to scrutinize reproductions of the paperwork, ephemera, and publications of these spaces ourselves—to feel a small part of the communities they each sought to convene.

A zine by Robert Ford titled Thing.
Art work by Robert Ford / Photograph by Evan McKnight / Courtesy Brooklyn Museum

An excellent companion book, published by Phaidon and edited by the show’s curators Joseph and Sawyer, makes up for some of the exhibition’s inherent limitations, reprinting full pages from many of the zines in the collection, and giving readers a fuller sense of what these artists were resisting. Some offerings feel modest and intimate, thickets of handwritten notes and remixed clip art. There are riffs on coloring books, advice columns, corporate advertising. Ari Marcopoulos’s nineties and two-thousands zines, full of grainy Xeroxes of his photography, feel like a rejection of digital perfectionism, instead capturing the thrumming chaos of the everyday. Others suggest aspiration, maybe even a desire to become a real magazine; Thing, the Robert Ford-helmed zine about Black, queer club culture from the nineties, feels like a scaled-down analogue to mainstream life-style publishing, with clean, sophisticated layouts and graphic design.

Mostly, the book’s essays shift attention away from the artists and publishers, conveying a sense of the excitement felt by readers who learned that a different world was possible. The art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson shares memories of the “cool older sibling” effect of coming across a stranger’s zine—a treasure, though one not meant to be treated with too much curatorial preciousness. Instead, she’s drawn to the informal circuits that emerge when zines circulate as intended, as “knowledge is passed down and also passed around.” The critic Tavia Nyong’o tenderly recalls how reading old copies of Idle Sheet, a New York zine documenting the ballroom scene, was like seeing “hieroglyphs of my future.”

The thrill that Nyong’o describes was neither a common, everyday sensation of the mid-nineteen-nineties nor one that was particularly rare. It just required effort and luck. I came into the world of zines around this time, when the rise (and marketability) of alternative culture meant that they were no longer the sole province of remote weirdos. Publishing zines was a normal, almost generic thing to do if you had poetry to share, some semester-abroad escapades you wanted to jot down, a new band you loved. Sometimes it seemed like there were things that my friends and I could communicate to one another only by trading zines. Making mine insured a ready-made excuse to contact strangers with silly questions that I was trying to figure out about myself. I learned a lot about taste, mostly through mimicking what I read in Giant RobotSecret Asian ManTrash Heap, or Chickfactor, and, because of my adoration for some Halifax pop bands of the early nineteen-nineties, I befriended a disproportionate number of people from eastern Canada. There were moments of kinship and community, and there were times when it seemed like the most embittered individuals on the planet were zine-makers reviewing other people’s efforts.

It was impossible not to think about these memories as I walked through “Copy Machine Manifestos.” I didn’t recognize many of the titles; nothing I was involved with when I was younger would have been deemed important by the museum’s standards. But I was reacquainted with the random joy of coming across something new and trying to figure out my relationship to it. Before it was possible to connect with strangers around the world instantaneously, they would sometimes appear erratically, intermittently, and mysteriously, in print. You’d recognize a fellow-traveller, even if you were heading for different horizons.

Perhaps this is why a lot of young people are returning to a seemingly outdated form of self-expression; it seems that there are more how-to workshops and zine fairs than ever before. These efforts exist in a space that’s out of the Internet’s reach. Any one of us has access to a global megaphone. But maybe what we seek are smaller, out-of-the-way conversations, forms befitting minor histories. Zines still provide what Bryan-Wilson terms a “tender and protective intimacy.” They allow us to feel like we are still sketching the outlines of our true selves. They are work, but not an onerous amount, just enough to make the endeavor seem a path of slight resistance. That friction—between doing something yourself and choosing to do nothing—is where politics emerges.

I still keep Snotrag on my desk, along with a few other zines that retain a sense of mystery for me. I don’t know whether there were any other issues, and I’ve never listened to any of the bands interviewed inside. But I read the editor’s note over and over. “BELIEVE IN YOURSELF, REMEMBER YOUR FREINDS [sic], BUT DO NOT DELUDE YOURSELF, BE BOLD ENOUGH TO TRUST SOMEONE, REACH OUT YOUR HAND TO SOMEONE WHO NEEDS IT.” ♦

A zine called Dirt by Mark Morrisroe and Lynelle White
Art work by Mark Morrisroe and Lynelle White / Courtesy Brooklyn Museum