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Assembly Required

Zinemaking seems a grueling, tedious, often-pointless, and usually thankless task -- then someone takes you seriously.

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It's going to be another long night for Oakland zinesters Chris Duncan and Griffin McPartland, who are sitting at the dining room table in Griffin's Temescal flat, pawing through big, heavy stacks of their indie publication, Hot and Cold. Coldplay and KMD are shuffling on an iPod, and the two guys are drinking coffee out of jelly jars, trying to get a fix going. Their eyes are already looking a little rucked and sunken from the long workday, and now they'll face a string of consecutive all-nighters, which is par for the course in this DIY arts racket. At this point, they have one week left to finish assembling 150 copies of Issue 4 -- their seventh issue, but more on that later -- along with five hundred copies of a catalogue they designed for their new exhibition, The Zine UnBound: Kults, Werewolves, and Sarcastic Hippies, which opens this week at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. That's not to mention an installation piece for which Chris plans to extend hundreds of strands of colored string from the art center's ceiling down to triangular bases on its ground floor to create multiple narrow, forty-foot-tall pyramids. Nor the fact that both artists have day jobs; Hot and Cold is, after all, a money-losing operation.

Not that Chris and Griffin aren't acclimated to their twelve-hour sessions painstakingly sewing or stapling pages together, developing photos for their cover -- Issue 4's three-print juxtaposes photographer Vic Blu's picture of his invalid grandfather with images of memorabilia from a Mexico trip and a photo of seagulls in flight -- spray-gluing, folding, custom-slicing, nip-tucking their zine covers, and silk-screening with a tiny Japanese machine called a Gocco -- hell, even the process of slipping these hand-made magazines into individual Ziploc baggies is pretty onerous. "The process takes you through the whole range of emotions," Chris confesses, "from 'Oh, this is awesome!' to just hating everything."

Despite the obvious commonalities between these guys -- both are surly underground arts nerds with an offbeat sense of humor, an intensity of purpose that verges on the obsessive, and nearly every available body part covered in tattoos -- it would have been hard at first glance to fathom the two of them embarking on a project of this magnitude. Chris and Griffin met at the Alameda Skate Park in 2000; Chris had just graduated from the California College of Arts and Crafts with a degree in painting, and was working odd jobs while painting T-shirt logos on the side. When Griffin saw one of Chris' designs -- "a bird that was very line-heavy; white on a black shirt" -- he tried to recruit Chris for F Word, a zine he was publishing at the time. Griffin describes that rag as a compendium of all the "misdirected shit" you think about when you're twenty -- such as having a crush on the girl who bagged your groceries at Lucky's. At the time, he was managing a copy room at Xerox with his friend Joey, and he'd leave work every day to get hammered and come up with all sorts of wacked-out material for F Word. That publication propelled itself through just two issues, at which point Griffin and Chris hooked up to launch what would become Keepsake Society, "a little art collective," in Chris' words, "that roller-coastered its way from being something to nothing to something again."

Chris, the more soft-spoken of the two, says that growing up in New Jersey, he'd catch the trains down to New York throughout his middle-school years to check out punk shows and pick up new zines. By twelve or thirteen he was avidly reading all the hand-written 25-cent rags that were spawned by various underground scenes during the 1990s -- zines with titles like Boiling Point, Bullshit Monthly, and Anti-Matter (which later became Anti). Griffin says he had less exposure to cool punk shit, coming up in drab, suburban Hayward, where only recently a few tattoo parlors started popping up amid all the strip malls and cheesy sports bars. Moreover, Griffin confesses he has no formal arts education -- in fact, he pretty much garnered all his skills from making zines and working random jobs. What most attracted him to this marginal, underground culture was the desire to abnegate his past life in Hayward.

They had a rocky start. Griffin, who says he was "in a very 'apart' phase" back then, had to be strong-armed and cajoled back to the sordid world of zine-making. After having dinner together one night, the two were pacing across Griffin's dining-room floor, volleying ideas at one another. Chris mentioned the zine thing, and at first Griffin resisted, with the excuse that the two of them were going in opposite directions aesthetically. "Chris was drawing pictures of birds," he recalls, "and I was drawing pictures of dicks." The two just didn't seem to match up. But Chris suggested, in that case, they could call the zine Hot and Cold -- to signify the merging of opposites. The name stuck.

The guys decided to plan Hot and Cold's demise from the outset, mostly so they could avoid the pitfall of neurotically minting new schlock long after they had tired of it. Ten issues seemed about right, so ten it was. To make things more interesting they opted to count backward, ending at Issue 1. The dudes put out a call for submissions to a select group of artists they knew, and within two months had assembled 150 meticulously hand-crafted copies of Issue 10. Each zine is a dizzying hodge-podge of photographs, stencil drawings, silk-screen prints, found writings, salty aphorisms, plus an envelope stuffed with other goodies: CDs, stickers, DVDs, postcard sets, other zines, hand-made wallets, calendars, someone's 2004 crush list -- even a vegan cookbook. "Our goal is to fully overwhelm people," Chris says.

"At the same time as we overwhelm ourselves," Griffin interjects.

Press materials for The Zine UnBound, which features Hot and Cold alongside Brooklyn's K48 and Werewolf Express out of Los Angeles, are plumped with grandiose statements about the social impetus of zines -- stuff about the importance of collectives, and DIY culture buttressing against commodification in the gallery world. And granted, the makers of Hot and Cold generally agree with this manifesto, although they approach it with their own personal edge. One of Griffin's more trenchant swipes is a drawing of a hoopty Cutlass with rotating pizzas for wheels instead of spinners. "I wanted to bag on the ridiculousness of having an $800 car with $5,000 rims," he explains.

Notwithstanding their populist sensibility, Chris and Griffin are really just two drifters trying to make it in the arts world, where they merely represent their punky selves. For the most part, their artistic zeal outpaces any emphasis on political commentary or personal ambition. But they've obviously progressed since 2003, and part of that maturation meant abandoning all those wonderful dick drawings. In fact, Griffin didn't contribute a single dick to Issue 10. Instead, he drew a gorgeous centerfold of a horse sniffing another horse's ass.

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