Joe Biel is a writer, filmmaker and zinester who founded Microcosm Publishing. I sat down with him to talk about his new movie (Aftermass), his old movies (100 Dollars and a T-Shirt), and so much more. Read it all or not at all.
Interview by Josh Medsker
What's Mediocre Punkhouse?
During Thanksgiving 2000 I stayed in town while all of my friends but one went away. So my one remaining friend and I made a zine where we parodied Better Homes and Gardens. I can't remember now but I think the intention was to make it ongoing. It is, as the title implies, the reality of living in a punkhouse—dirty dishes, personality conflicts, artistic messes everywhere, musical equipment in the hallway, untrained dogs, and malt liquor. I don't have a copy. Please tell me you do.
Tell me about the birth of Microcosm! What changes has it gone through since 1996? :D
I was a pizza delivery driver and later restaurant manager which meant I mostly worked from 4 PM until midnight while all of my roommates worked 9 to 5. I was lonely, depressed, and drunk for about a year until I decided to start a hobby. I thought it was a good idea to distribute zines. I enjoyed reading and writing them. Perhaps others would too.
Obviously it grew a bit from that hobby project. I started taking milk crates full of zines to shows at our punk club and at bars around the city. Before long people were even buying them!
I had run a record label for awhile so I understood the mechanics of mailorder and enjoyed the rhythm of it. Pretty soon I was getting mail everyday. I had a vision and big ideas.
Then after a few years I started distributing books. Originally those were "acquired" from a chain bookstore "managed" by a "friend." Then I started ordering books from publishers and AK Press. Then in 2002 that got boring so I decided to start publishing original work that wasn't getting published elsewhere and likely wouldn't. I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that those initial decisions of what to publish made a mark and created a lot of imitation to what I was doing.
So, what’s going on? I have been reading posts on We Make Zines and Zinewiki that said you guys had a falling out and that you aren’t a collective member any longer? What happened? You started the thing!
The internet, if it's anything, is a confusing place to get clear and reliable information. That is only compounded with fourth generation rumors and people with an axe to grind. And forcing reactions out of good people.
After being involved in the many various incarnations of Microcosm over seventeen years my tastes and interests changed and sometimes weren't in sync with the scene's, the Microcosm collective's, the organization itself, or the sort of cultural groupthink that was happening around us. And that's one major problem of creating something without much forethought is that we were creating things for a youth culture that we were progressively aging out of and the organization couldn't evolve as fast as it needed to for my own interest. So at various points where I felt particularly out of sync, I would disinvest from Microcosm.
I made Microcosm into a collective in 2005 because that seemed like a good way to reduce my own stress load and do what was "right" politically. But that created a slew of new problems. No one had been on board for ten years like I had, so most people weren't invested in the same way. There weren't good systems, structures, expectations, and clear historical, organizational, and cultural understandings in place for what people were expected to do. And that was my partly fault. So people would sometimes read submissions on the clock for eight hours and go home instead of doing the work needed. To some people a collective meant that they should/could do any job that they wanted or simply demand to do someone else's job because it would make them feel more validated, for some it meant they could fundamentally undermine the systems that made it financially feasible for us to exist, for yet others it meant they could demand raises without pursuing sources of funding to make that possible. And weirdest of all and absolutely counter to democracy, whoever had the strongest personality would determine management policies by simply being the loudest voice, imposing their views on others.
People would say "why don't we publish this book?" and when we did it was a break from the intentionality of a planned flow of releases and we'd end up with a storage room full of unsold books. Many people came in with different understandings of what Microcosm was and with their own ideas about how it should change, which led to a sort of internal "reinventing" and personality clashes every year or so.
Because we had multiple locations with multiple offices in multiple states, the loudest personalities could still determine management policies by simply refusing to back down on their supposed equals in other states and attempts at speaking up about this was increasingly futile. Even as things moved into absurdity. One person spent their healthcare stipend on a carton of cigarettes. Staff who weren't working in the same office with the loudest personalities felt dictated to and managed.
Similarly, there was understandable friction that I got the credit when we did something right, even if I had little to do with it. People wanted to interview me, rather than the collective. So there were increasing efforts to make it appear like more of a semi-anonymous group that projected an amorphous image. And I think to the public, it created a lot of confusion because we didn't seem to act consistently or with forethought. Instead of pursuing a vision we were following watered-down decision making, once it was no longer be objectionable to any of the collective, rather than making planned out choices set out to achieve specific goals.
Within three years of this, we had bankrupted our savings and were existing on my personal credit cards with people were coming and going fast enough that few people really understood the gravity of the situation and thought we always existed in crisis. And everyone has their own weird little unresolved personality issues to play out that they've never quite shed, including me.
Simultaneously, my ex-wife accused me very publicly of abusing her in our relationship, in a moment culminated by me spilling ice cream on our couch and being a jerk about it and a large backlog of self-described "little things." By being vague and using terms like "emotional abuse," she was able to eventually galvanize public support against me. I think people tended to associate and assume I was responsible for things like physical violence or rape. While I think her pain was real, I've done everything that was asked of me, and have acknowledged that many times over, the real problem is that inviting a mob to a proceeding of justice tends not to go well. Rumors and misinformation about what was said or asked of me and how I had cooperated or not just literally ripped apart the scene. And it spiraled out of control, making everyone involved more crazy in the end, and not seeming to make anyone feel better.
And mediation started but once people saw that the situation was complex and not just black and white, they would back away and say they didn't have time to deal with it, creating more chaos and rumors. We're approaching eight years since our breakup and I'd say the situation has only gotten worse because of the sheer volume of rumors and attempts at resolving the situation from the "concerned public" who then back away when they see that there are nuances involved.
Perhaps worst of all, I grew up with a lot of "scene damage" and so when a dozen of people I trust and care about—albeit most of them knowing little about the specifics of the situation—begin to make demands of me and tell me that contrary to professional opinions, that I am "an abuser" and that my therapist is "not a feminist" when she tells me otherwise, I began to believe it all. Fortunately, around the same time I came to develop a social circle of adults who weren't involved in the scene and began asking me questions about it. Instead of condemning me, this time the questions began to question the behavior and thinking of the mob mentality who had shaped public opinion and were making an increasing amount of demands to me.
Through this I began to understand the most complicated nuances of all: A person could experience abuse based on their life experiences and how they had been treated before in damaging ways. A person could experience abuse from someone who happened to hit upon their insecurities, however well-meaning. Two people that communicate very poorly could simulate the dynamics of an abusive relationship by failing to understand each other's statements, motives, feelings, and needs. And the building resentment, hurt, and pain is all very real—intentional or not. And no amount of demands serve to actually heal anyone's feelings. It just creates more hurt.
Feeling unsuccessful, eventually, the same public took a new tactic of trying to put pressure on
my co-workers to make me do unspecified things or at least kick me out of the collective. That threw the people at Microcosm into a new flurry to be forced to "prove" that they did take these issues seriously. Why it was assumed that they didn't take these issues seriously already, I'll never know. They did each thing that was asked of them but yet the meme was repeated that they did not and were in fact, supportive of abuse. And aside from these being some of the people I care about most in the world, the situation was very upsetting because the staff were bending over backwards to cooperate at a time when they were needed to work more and more hours and manage more and more stress and mess.
On top of this, my experience and vision could be frustrating and intimidating to people who had less of either and desperately wanted to be equals or simply had incompatible visions with the other people. The whole thing was stressing us all out something fierce.
So I took a leave in 2010 to give people some space, get some stress relief, and to work on Aftermass. But I was deeply intertwined and dissolving that relationship wasn't so simple as walking away. Operations seemed to be getting increasingly disorganized and the mailorder was painfully behind. Eventually Jessie Duke bought half of my ownership, moved the operation to Kansas, and streamlined the mailorder, with the idea that others would buy out the rest and figure out a way to develop their own line of credit.
I created a new press called Cantankerous and started having successes with things outside of Microcosm, which was certainly a wake-up call. We built a touring package that I'm really proud of with my partner and chef Joshua Ploeg called Dinner + Bikes (www.dinnerandbikes.com
) where we go to your town, Joshua makes seven courses for everyone, and we have movies and presentations about cycling that teach you things like how much money cities would save on health, roads, and maintenance if they invested in cycling rather than cars and how cyclists pay more than their share of road taxes while motorists pay about 1/11 of their cost to society. It was one of the most successful tours we had done so we kept doing it and I continually disinvested from Microcosm.
But at this point Microcosm couldn't afford its staff anymore so when people quit they couldn't be replaced and everyone was simply doing more work. I was casually working part time and had removed myself from collective management. I think at some point management just stopped happening and everyone just kept doing their jobs, to their individual level of commitment. Things were falling apart at the seams.
And I wouldn't give this much detail if there wasn't something of a happy ending. We were still based in two different offices in two different states. I had proposed splitting Publishing + Distribution into two autonomous organizations back in 2010 just before I took a leave. But the collective turned down the notion. Jessie picked up this idea again in June of 2012 and suggested that since no one else was interested in ownership and rather than her taking the continued risk of buying out the remaining ownership, we could literally split into two separate organizations and work internally in our own offices with our own management.
It was something I had long abandoned: A solution that left the entire staff happy. And now we are in the process of paying off our debts and moving on to newer and hopefully better things. And visions can push us to where we each want to go and not have to get approval from half a dozen people of various levels of investment.
Any plans to revisit the Zine Yearbook? Bringing out #10?
Sadly, no. It was such an intense source of negativity and judgment from the public that everyone walked away saddened. We sold less than 1/3 of the printing. I've personally given away more copies than that. We still have over 1,000 left.
When I think of the failures in my life it makes the top three. All that said, I was really proud of the editorial job we did. But with so many people questioning out motives it became impossible to get legs under the thing and get people to actually read it.
People questioning your motives? How do you mean? Like they were upset with the ranking thing (picked .vs. honorable mention)? They didn't like the idea of anthologizing in general? I know people criticized Seth Friedman for doing that, with the Factsheet 5 anthology...
It may sound absurd in hindsight because you can look at years of the continued stream of output to see it wasn't true—rather than trying to expand the reach of the scene or the writing, Microcosm was accused of trying to create a monopoly on zines. I just don't think that would be possible for anyone to do but that was the meme of the time. That was also one of the first times I saw gossip grow really ugly.
Ironically, the whole point of the project that was stressed repeatedly, is that we were trying to repeat some of the voices of people that didn't work with us and spread the word about other distributors and zines utilizing the further reaches of what we could do. But people didn't see it that way.
And to a lesser degree the thing that was also bouncing around and I agree with, to a greater degree, is that by creating a "stepping stone" to making zines it was cheapening the zines themselves. Like the zine became the demo tape instead of the LP, which was undermining the magic of the zine, because it's like the first album of any great, classic band that they had years to write perfectly and assemble, before the execs get their claws and other kinds of flaws into it.
And the result is that the Zine Yearbook didn't have support. And we literally built stairs out of remaining boxes of the book to get on top of our new loft on Friday.
We were discussing anarchism the other day, you and me, about the limitations (perhaps) of collective work. I don’t remember if I ever told you the full story, but some friends and I were trying to put together the Austin Zine Library, which we did, during 2003. I was, at the time, frustrated with some members of the Rhizome Collective, in Austin, where we had our space… because of what seemed to me, a lack of accountability by some members, constant miscommunication between me and the collective. This caused strife between us for a while. Thoughts on this?
This seems inevitable. I don't think leadership is necessary, but I think cultural norms dictate the flow and expectations within an organization. When those norms are tardiness, flakiness, and lack of follow through, expect those norms to be repeated constantly by anyone that enters the organization. I once worked for someone who told me that they only train people on a task twice. By the time you're training a third time, there's something blocking the learning and the habit won't change. Similarly, when you lack clear cultural norms, people either don't know what's expected of them, are bound to be disappointed by the behavior of others, and ultimately throw their hands up in frustration and disinvest. At the same time, there's such a huge amount of work to building an organization that people tend to not realize the value of building a functional organizational culture. That is definitely something I failed miserably at and had to really suffer the consequences of and really learn the value of fifteen years in.
Was “100 Dollars and a T-Shirt” your first film? How did you fall into that? It’s kind of funny… the people I know who do make movies, that’s all they are passionate about. It’s rare (I think) to find someone who writes, publishes zines, runs a publishing company… and also makes films. It’s always seemed like a very singular, focused pursuit.
|The first movie. I love this one.
$100 & A T-Shirt is my first film that anyone saw. And ironically more people probably saw it than anything else I've done. Even though I think everything else is much better, has better production values, and translates better. I think people find $100 charming because it's an appropriately amateur documentary before docs were a dime a dozen. If it came out now it would be annoyingly lo-fi and amateurish. And that's how I think about it.
I came to documentary through a back door, aside from watching and loving to watch them. I was teaching at the time and I figured other people probably taught too and there were no good films about zines. So I pestered other people to make them and failing that, I had no choice but to make one myself. I had worked in video as a teenager and collaborated with a collective called Gracies that made films previously. I had also shot a lot of live bands that got me comfortable with the whole matter back in the 90s.
You said before that your new movie is also a documentary, about the Critical Mass movement?
Aftermass is about the last forty years of how the bicycling network and culture developed in Portland—mostly through activism, advocacy, and city planning. I've been working on it since the end of 2007 and I feel like it's my proudest work to date. It will probably also be longest documentary as the subject matter is a bit more complicated but also more linear. It's sort of like watching those Roman Empire documentaries on the History Channel. If you like those, that is. If you don't, it's nothing like those! But there's plenty of tense and awkward moments with violent cops, lawsuits, and even a spy! And it's all true. And I even tracked down most of the people involved, some of which are now retired and living far away.
What has drawn you to the documentary form? (I actually asked Andria Alefhi, of WNHP zine this same question, since she only publishes non-fiction). Would you ever consider making a fiction film?
I suffered a lot of cultural damage from being neck-deep in scenes that revolved around punk and zines. I learned a lot about ethics and journalism as a result of seeing many bad examples of how to handle reporting. So for two reasons, documentary is the right medium for me. For one thing, I've been pursuing my crafts long enough that I want to reach outside of an intellectual ghetto audience. It is no longer satisfying to make movies that are only suited to be watched by my peers about things which require a lot of context to get the jokes from, let alone understand. So documentaries, in theory, are a "mass-market" medium. And additionally, I have really come to love long-form journalism and the way documentaries provide a nice format for a project that realistically take 3 or 4 years to research. After living a mostly didactic life, I think propaganda is really boring and that the nuances and complexities of reality are much more interesting. And I think this is the right format for exploring complexities outside of academia. It was a way for me to age out of my twenties without throwing my hands up in disgust.
I have made fiction films and I tried to do one more recently, but it sort of flopped. I never released it. But I do make a lot of parody "fiction" movies like this one: https://vimeo.com/24029278. And I had a small part in working on this narrative film, which I still will watch sometimes and I think came out well: http://cantankeroustitles.com/dvds/do-you-copy
Do those count? And before I was working like sixteen jobs all the time, I made fiction movies for fun! But kept them hidden and locked away and sometimes it was enough just to write them but never shoot them.
There has been a debate raging since at least 1995-1994, about whether the internet will kill print. Thoughts?, Mr. Publisher? It seems like we are in a weird flux period in our culture, where things are still sorting themselves out, in terms of that. Since Microcosm seems to be thriving as a print-based entity, even in these uncertain times… I thought you’d be an interesting person to posit that question to.
|Biel's new movie, Aftermass.
Remember when music stopped existing after Napster? I don't. The business of it slowed and changed. And this is far less of a disruption. But I think for major presses the writing is on the wall. It won't be the internet that will kill print. It will be the biggest corporations, as it always has been. Historically, Barnes and Noble and Borders did far more destruction to print than the internet could have. And in the present day it's Amazon, and to a lesser degree, Apple, that are making it infeasible to work in print. If Amazon and Apple have their way then Amazon will become the largest publisher in the world and every book will only be on their own Kindle platform.
But what I do and what Microcosm does is small potatoes in comparison. That's barely a blip on the radar. That level of "success" could exist in parallel to these industries. It's not working within them or against them. It's working divorced from them. If we challenged them we would lose.
I made a lot of mistakes. I think the concept of publishing zine anthologies, which were really sparse before Microcosm served to devalue the zine medium because it created a sort of echelon of success and this idea that your work could be "validated," which is obviously stupid, but I think because many participants are so young, it's dangerous to have these things seen as successes. A lot of the obvious value of it is that it's a very democratized thing—you can produce work however you want to without an industry dictating as much as norms.