The Chicago-based magazine Punk Planet–nominated for the past two years in Utne Reader‘s Alternate Press Awards for “General Excellence,” along with such better-heeled competition as The Nation, Mother Jones and The Ecologist–recently celebrated its fiftieth issue and the publication of a well-received collection of interviews: We Owe You Nothing (Akashic Books). The magazine’s name poses a question–what exactly would a punk planet look like?–that its contents answer in ways that will surprise any reader for whom punk inspires visions only of loud guitars and torn leather jackets.
I asked the magazine’s editor, Daniel Sinker, about his operating definition of the term as he took a break from moving offices to a new space three times as large: that is, with room for three human beings at once, rather than just one at a time. “At this point the definition of punk matters very little to me. It’s a means to an end more than anything else. A way of filtering the world.” He adds ruefully, “Of course, punk is one of those things where everyone believes their own definition is the right one.”
Punk is, of course, a musical and subcultural tradition established around 1976 by bands like the Ramones in New York and the Sex Pistols in London. But punk has also evolved, for some, into a much broader category: a lifestyle, an ethic, a worldview. Reading through We Owe You Nothing and recent issues of Punk Planet, you encounter repeated references to punk as, above all, a principle of countercultural openness, heterogeneity and action. For poster designer Frank Kozik, responsible for some of the most memorable graphic design of the 1990s underground, punk was originally a salon des refusés: “What I remember from the early days of punk [in Austin, Texas] is that you’d go to a show and everybody would be there. Every outcast got to go: the fags, weird leftover hippies, new wavers, confused jocks, proto-punk rockers, bikers, skinheads, Mexicans–all these freaks would go to these shows.”
According to this perspective, punk’s meaning has always resided less in any particular style than in an attitude of creative volatility: “I would go there and think, ‘This is like science fiction…’ It was exciting to go to a show, because something was going to happen.” Something: not any one thing, and nothing predictable ahead of time, but something. Punk Planet also, however, regularly receives complaints from readers who see punk as a single, conservative tradition. Here’s one prompted by the magazine’s (wonderful, I think) all-Chicago issue #50: “You couldn’t actually find anything PUNK to write about, so you write about a bunch of fucking country bands like the Mekons and Bloodshot Records or fucking wank-music like Tortoise? And”–the offended reader alludes here to a profile of Hot Doug’s, an independent Chicago hot-dog stand–“what the hell was that hot dog bullshit?”
Punk Planet‘s first issue–as an undistinguished newsprint fanzine–came out in 1994, when Sinker was a student at the Art Institute in Chicago. It was originally published by a collective, but Sinker quickly filled a leadership vacuum and became the editor in chief; since then, the magazine has depended to a large extent on his personal dedication. In his introduction to the fiftieth issue, Sinker hazarded an analogy between the magazine’s worldview and “the ethics of the Chicago underground.” “In Chicago, you do your work in an honest fashion…. you do your work because it’s the work that defines you.”
Sinker’s paean to the value of honest labor may bring to mind Benjamin Franklin more than Sid Vicious, but his emphasis on work and labor does point to a common denominator in much of Punk Planet‘s eclectic content. Punk was appropriated by the mainstream in the 1990s as an attractively rebellious style and a catchy updating of rock-and-roll traditionalism (for example, Green Day’s three-chord guitar tunes). Punk Planet aims to recover and propagate an alternate punk tradition, one rooted in an anticorporate DIY–“do it yourself”–ethic that can easily be extrapolated from the realms of music and popular culture to politics, the workplace and indeed everyday life as a whole.
“The DIY ethic is a big part of what sets punk and the underground apart from the mainstream,” Sinker comments. “In the mainstream there’s very little opportunity to make or build things. Things are just there–you just buy them. People connect with brands instead of with themselves or their communities. I think we should use our hands and minds to make our own world, our own reality. So one aim of Punk Planet is to show people how to make their own things–and to offer examples of people who are doing that.”
These “things” include not only songs, fanzines and CDs but any number of other objects, events, ideas and forms of political and community action. One of the magazine’s most appealing regular features is “The DIY Files,” recent installments of which have ranged from Heather Whinna’s exhaustive step-by-step advice, in issue #50, on how to book a large punk show (“bring in Girl Scout cookies or a case of beer” when you collect money from the record store selling the tickets; “selling 3,000 tickets to anything is a pain in the ass and small tokens of your appreciation go a long way”), to issue #51’s delightful “Making your own Lamp”: “Use electrical tape to cover any excess wire (wrap each individually, then tape them together if need be).” The cover feature of the May/June 2001 issue (#43), “Become the Media,” is essentially an expanded DIY file, with detailed articles on digital editing, sound recording and the like. And the magazine’s regular political coverage has pushed the do-it-yourself concept all the way to, for example, Jeff Gurtzel’s trip to the West Bank as a part of a small group of internationals bringing medicine and food to Palestinians under siege. The DIY ethic also applies to Punk Planet itself, by necessity as well as choice. Working as the magazine’s only full-time or even regular employee, Sinker produces six 150-page issues a year notable for their high standards for graphic design and visual quality as well as for writing. (I first picked up the magazine when one of its striking, full-color original-art covers caught my eye.)
Once you accept a capacious definition of punk as no less than a principle of self-determined action and creation in the world, motivated by dissatisfaction with the commercial, consumerist mainstream, it makes perfect sense that Punk Planet would publish cover stories on the history of the Washington, DC, punk scene as well as on “the sorry state of the American criminal justice system”; interviews with punk-affiliated musicians like Ian MacKaye, Kathleen Hanna, Thurston Moore and Sleater-Kinney, as well as with Noam Chomsky and members of the Central Ohio Abortion Access Fund. (The magazine’s version of punk–heavily influenced, Sinker says, by the early ’90s Riot Grrrl movement–is resolutely feminist.)
I suggest to Sinker that Punk Planet may have evolved into something resembling what the Whole Earth Catalog was to the 1960s counterculture–not just a magazine but a community resource for a national movement. Sinker admits the similarity but notes a few differences between contemporary punk and that earlier American counterculture: “A much larger part of punk has its identity based around independence and working outside of established institutions. That could be part of why it’s lasted–by now punk has lasted a lot longer than the 1960s movement ever did. Punk is much less hierarchical, much more about autonomy. In some ways it means that punk has to rebuild the wheel forty times–but that also means that there are forty wheels at the end of the day instead of just one.”
May those forty wheels continue to spin.