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Niku Arbabi: 

Zinesetter

The way some people accumulate computers, Niku Arbabi saves typewriters. Right now she has four favorites: "New ones follow me home," she says, smiling.

Her typewriters are integral to her art, or are at least one facet of her creative output. An artist, DJ, designer, writer, promoter, filmmaker and extraordinary zine creator, Arbabi isn't one to be pigeonholed.

Low tech only in their DIY style, her zines are smart, informative, dead-on glimpses of art and pop culture. Print-media snapshots, each one is an original statement in a neat package.

Chances are, if you visited a local arts event in the past year and they had a cool zine-like promotion, Arbabi probably designed it. For the Ms. Films festival, she constructed a film handbook chock-full of contact info, technical data, diagrams and photos. For the ongoing Chicks Rock series, she produced bright, red, palm-sized treasures with band interviews, photos and a map. Inside boasted 12 different design fonts and 88 pages of delight held together with a pair of staples.

Of course, zine making isn't her career path, so Arbabi works at the Communication Studies Department at UNC-CH, coordinating events and curating the ScreenArts film series. She also dreams of a $10,000 grant for Ms. Films.

We caught up with Arbabi between the Trailer Park Fest and planning for the next wave of local film festivals.

When did you start writing with such enthusiasm? Were you inspired in high school?

I wasn't a very good writer in high school; nevertheless, [I] had encouragement and support in my writing. When I was in 10th grade a program was started that I think only four or five of us geeky kids took part in. Once a week we'd drop our notebooks off at the library and they would be taken to an anonymous person, a professor of English at [Michigan Technological University], who would make comments and constructive criticism and return them. It was a good process. I took creative writing classes and French classes at [MTU] for the last couple years of high school.

Around that time two people arrived in the wilderness of Upper Michigan from Los Angeles. They opened a coffee bar venue, encouraging artists [and] recording local musicians. They put out a zine called SPAM--Superior Art and Music--every week.

During those years I had pieces in it regularly; sometimes [I] would have pieces appear under a variety of names, with the idea that each persona had its own writing style and personality influencing it. Around that time I started finding out about zines from other places. I knew right away I loved zines. I was turned on by the aesthetics, the homemade quality; having this very personal project that only existed in limited quantities, circulating.

I did mail art--collage, stuff sewn together on a sewing machine--[and] I made found object mobiles, did some metal sculpture, got more into collage prose, or combinations of writing and collage.

Your zines have a multi-style, multi-font look. How do you go about creating a zine?

It depends on the type of zine I'm doing. If it's an informational one, I start with the text, make sure it will fit and it's legible. Sometimes I do it on the computer--I do enjoy fonts--or I use a typewriter. Then I do the layout, putting each page together, putting the text on a nice background, and adding images if possible.

If it's more of a collage-based zine, it usually starts with finding a bunch of images I want to use from magazines or whatever is around. There is an interaction and balance between the image collage and word collage.

What artists and writers have you looked up to?

Bernie Larson and Emily Smith, for how they did the suburban exchange in the Upper Peninsula.

In terms of art for art, the really good zinemakers are who make me giddy [are] Androo Robinson, John Gerkin, Cindy Ovenrack, Greig Means, Dishwater Pete.

Some of my favorite writers are Katherine Dunn, Francesca Lia Block, Raymond Chandler, Michelle Tea, Margaret Atwood. Richard Brautigan influenced me to consider the everyday, the mundane as art.

I like reading stuff that just regular people are writing without considering themselves writers--letters people write, "Missed Connections," the Readers Write column in The Sun magazine.

What are your next writing and art promotion projects?

A second Chicks Rock zine with local/personal pieces, conversations and interviews.

I'm collaborating with a friend on a zine on robots and gender; I'm working with Devon Devine to do a zine on the DIY Film Festival.

Chicks Rock DIY Day is coming up October 23 and I'm hoping to compile information from workshop presenters into a zine for folks to take home.

Microcosm Publishing, a great zine publisher/distributor, is coming through North Carolina on a national tour and will be doing a program at UNC. They'll be showing a documentary on zines and zine culture, doing zine readings and a comic zine slideshow. I'd like to put together a little zine giving people some local and non-local resources and recommendations.

There's a Ms. Films show at UNC on Sept. 17 [and] I'd like to take Ms. Films on tour.

Someday it would be great to get a salary from Ms. Films, but that's way in the future.

Contributing writer John Valentine can be reached at ajcg@acpub.duke.edu.

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