Meet the Collective Breathing New Life Into Helsinki’s Zine Scene

The city’s DIY publishing scene is booming. All-female group Kosminen/Khaos is leading the movement.

art | culture | Helsinki

art | culture | Helsinki

All photos courtesy of Kosminen.

Zine culture is experiencing a global wave of momentum. Though the self-published, small-circulation works have been booming in underground communities since the 70s – when they became integral to the punk scene – today’s shops and fairs devoted to zines have become tourist destinations. New York’s Printed Matter bookstore boasts over 100,000 visitors annually, and Montreal’s EXPOZINE saw 20 000 people visit the fair in 2015. In Europe, zine festivals such as BERLIN ZINEFEST have been covered by medias like NPR, and South East London’s zine fest boasts a devoted following. Even high profile artists and brands have recently begun experimenting with the medium: Frank Ocean dropped Boys Don’t Cry, the zine last year, and Nike released On Design, a limited-edition zine featuring diverse art and graphic design.

Helsinki is no exception to this increase in popularity. As artist and zine specialist Tuukka Kaila tells us, the city’s self-publishing scene has been claimed by a new wave of young artists with a fresh look on things—and Kosminen/Khaos are at the forefront. Kosminen, meaning “cosmic”, was essentially born as four photographers’ “let’s get together and look at each others’ photos” club in 2010. Since then, founders Anna Niskanen, Helen Korpak, Liina Aalto-Setälä and Lotta Blomberg have turned it into an art and photography collective: they even release their own quarterly zine alongside pursuing their own creative projects. In 2016, they partnered with Khaos Publishing’s founder Iina Esko and merged their respective projects. The nucleus of their collaboration is the Kosminen bookstore: managed by Esko, it’s become a cultural melting pot that’s considered a low threshold spot for people to party, read hard-to-find pieces and experience art.

Tuukka Kaila describes the art collective, bookstore and publishing house as “the best thing happening in Helsinki right now.” We spoke with photographer and Kosminen’s founding member Helen Korpak about the importance of enabling others, female camaraderie and what it’s like to be so badly starved for photography books you practically want to jerk off on them.

art | culture | Helsinki

GIRLS ARE AWESOME: Hey, Helen. What made you launch a publishing house and a bookstore?

I’ve always loved zines and self-publishing so I was super excited to get involved. But one of our partners, Iina? Not so much. She had just published something herself and thought, “Never again!” Six months later, she started thinking of doing it again. That’s how Khaos got started.

How does the Kosminen bookstore operate on a daily basis?

It’s all very symbiotic! There are four of us behind Kosminen, the bookstore, and Khaos, the publishing house. The common denominator is me as I’m involved directly with both collectives, but Khaos is lead by Iina Esko. Kosminen functions as an artistic workspace four days a week for Anna Niskanen, Liina Aalto-Setälä, Lotta Blomberg and myself. The remaining days it’s open as a bookstore, which Iina rents for Khaos.

Khaos specializes in all types of print and isn’t limited to a single genre. We have published poetry, photography, illustration and punk zines. And our next publication is about the history of electronic music in Finland. The red thread for all Khaos’ publications is that they deal with subcultures, which also makes them stand out from publishers in the literary field. The Khaos catalogue is a mixed bag of pieces both in English and Finnish.

Kosminen and Khaos – it’s a big love affair, albeit a messy one.

art | culture | Helsinki

The Kosminen space.

Zines. What’s there to love?

I’ve never even asked myself that! I guess it’s the freedom of it all. People make zines about the most mundane things. They’re kind of like memes: anyone can make them, but they are fundamentally fantastic and weird in a legitimate way. I used to dream about making zines but never did because I was too scared of failing. Now, the zine scene in Helsinki is really amazing and suddenly the threshold has been lowered in terms of accessibility but not quality. When we at Khaos look for pieces to curate, we always follow the principle of honesty being the best policy. While nothing has to be true per se, the content needs to feel honest.

We knew from the beginning that Kosminen would function as a purely ideological venture, so for us the best part is just sitting there while the store is open while people come flick through the pieces we’ve curated. You don’t actually have to buy anything: you can just come and have a look. I recently came back from London and it was wonderful to visit a city large enough to sustain a business like ours. It’s a fact of life that one cannot make a living selling alternative prints in Helsinki. I mean, I love money but I’m also a realist.

Well, who doesn’t! What are your aspirations for the collective, the store and the publishing house?

We hope that people like the things we publish. Friendship is also a big part of Kosminen. It’s all about making things amongst friends. I have been surprised to see how well it has worked to turn friendship into collaboration and keep our relationship functioning on the side. We have never had tense moments since we really respect each other. Not letting anyone down is hugely important, so we keep to given deadlines. Everyone will always have their voice heard. Kosminen is a democratic process.

art | culture | Helsinki

The Kosminen founders.

The collective is all female. Was that intentional?

Partly, but Kosminen came to life without us taking a conscious decision. We were simply really inspired by each other. However, there is a strong feminist backbone to what we do. We mostly get approached by women asking if they can hold release parties at Kosminen, which is great. Khaos gets half female, half male applicants, which is important to Iina. Her intention is to keep the books and the content intersectional. I like to think that because so
many things around us are male separatist, we are female separatist, in turn. It’s completely natural to us.

What are the benefits of working in an all female environment?

We certainly say ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ more. The dynamic in our working group of four women is very respectful and kind. I have obviously worked with men as well, but in those environments I often felt as if I should have more integrity or been tougher. For me, it is a subliminal feeling of inferiority which I guess can often only be seen in retrospect.

art | culture | Helsinki

Khaos Publishing allows young artists such as Eylül Aslan to become #contributoroftheweek on your social channels. Most of the art exhibitions and print launches are also by upcoming artists. How important is your role as an enabler of fresh talent?

This is the best compliment we could get. In my mind, many Instagram accounts that do weekly takeovers are super homogenous. With Khaos, we like to think bringing variety into #contributoroftheweek increases diversity in the world. We’d probably get more followers if we were tighter curators or focused on trends, but that would just contribute to the endless stream of what already exists out there. For us, it’s the ultimate dream to be seen as enablers since working in the arts can involve so much bullshit. There’s a lot of jealousy around and we want to be a complete antidote to that. Kosminen is a very tight knit group so we could be seen as elitist, but as a collective we work very hard against alienation and push others the best we can. Meeting people and making friends while lifting them up is a luxury to us. Maybe it’s a Jesus thing? Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you.

Do you have a favourite bookshop anywhere in the world?

Lugemik in Tallinn is amazing! Also, Salon für Kunstbuch in Vienna. Living in Helsinki we are starved for photography books, so we’d literally be wanking over the things we’d see at those shops.

art | culture | Helsinki

Ok, gross. Why should everyone visit Kosminen?

It’s really inspiring. You could also bring your zine along to have it featured in the library, or we can pass it to Khaos for selling. You should also come because we really want you to come. It’s that simple.

Thanks, Helen.

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