Dishwasher Pete’s ambition was to wash dishes in every state in America and write about it. These written accounts first appeared in his self-published Dishwasher zine and subsequently in his book of the same title, published by HarperPerennial in 2007. Issue No 7 of Dishwasher found him at a cafe in Boulder, No 8 at an Alaskan fish cannery, No 9 at a seafood restaurant in New Hampshire and No 11 at restaurants in Montana, California and Ohio.
Pete didn’t want the responsibility of a job he felt tied to and was happy to travel across the country working temporarily in each town. His writings communicate the sense of freedom as he relishes the addictive experience of walking out of jobs, enjoying the drifting life, travelling across America in search of plates to wash and celebrating the characters he meets along the way.
In many ways, Pete is typical of the young zine writers who flourished from the punk era onwards, using photocopiers and cheap presses, often scrounging or stealing the paper on which to publish their work. Today they are more likely to set up web pages and blogs, but their key characteristics are the same.
They often find themselves working in menial jobs, unwilling to ‘sell themselves’ to any employer and only prepared to work the minimum hours necessary to get by, but wanting to do something different and, through their zines or blogs, having found a way of doing so. They can write down their thoughts and explore their everyday experiences and find an often-captivated audience. Dishwasher Pete is just one among many practitioners of a burgeoning do-it-yourself ‘lo-fi’ culture.
A refreshing alternative
In a world where making everything faster, bigger, glossier and more expensive is so highly valued, lo-fi is a refreshing alternative. It began as a style of music production in opposition to high production values. Think of a cassette produced on a tape recorder in a bedroom by a 1970s punk band or the home-made instruments played by a skiffle band in the 1950s. That’s lo-fi. It’s about using available resources and celebrates the amateur approach to getting things done.
It is also a joke, a subversion of the term hi-fi (from ‘high fidelity’, meaning the faithful reproduction of the original sound), and an attitude that you don’t need to have access to the latest or most expensive technology to create your own media. You can do it your own way. What is produced can often look messy and shambolic at first glance, but it is created with a different set of values. It is at the heart of DIY culture, which has always tried to blur the division between creators and consumers. It is about taking part and taking control of the means of cultural production. Its rallying call is that it is open to anyone.
The low-tech approach of lo-fi, the use of limited technology when faced with a lack of resources, isn’t just present in music but also in print media. Imagine a 1960s radical newspaper produced using bits and pieces of obsolete printing presses or a 1980s music zine ranting against stadium rock, printed by its author on the office photocopier during the lunch break. Lo-fi is about the tools that are used to create something rather than what is created. Your approach might be lo-fi but the results are your own.
But what is the point? Why bother creating something lo-fi when you can just buy something with much higher production values? Lo-fi is about taking control of the process of creation yourself. Never mind that you might not have access to a recording studio or a printing press, or that what you produce might never pass for professional output. It doesn’t matter.
You will probably need to find the cheapest means of production and distribution. This has changed over the years. At different times it may have been pen and paper, a typewriter, a letter press, a mimeograph, a photocopier, an offset printer, a silk screen, a tape recorder or a computer.
You need to find a way of working with what you have to create whatever you want, whatever you think is missing from the world. There is no particular style of music or type of writing that you can call lo-fi. It is the approach rather than the result that is important, an approach that is idealistically democratic. While political manifestos and publications are often published using limited resources and distributed through non-traditional channels, controlling the means of production can be a political act in itself, whatever the content. Radical too is the central idea that someone can create and distribute their work without the aim of turning it into a profitable career or looking for fame and fortune.
Clearly, technology has played a huge part in setting the course of lo-fi history. Increases in DIY production have come at times when different forms of technology became more accessible and affordable. This is especially obvious in the history of independent publishing. There was a boom in small presses in the 1950s due to advances in offset printing. Radical independent newspapers and magazines of the 1960s also embraced offset printing and the opportunity it brought to publish whatever they wanted, which was often at odds with the established press of the era.
The explosion of small-circulation dissident publications that appeared alongside punk music in the late 1970s was made possible when the photocopier became more widely available. The idea that anyone could create anything was central to the punk ethos and the amateur approach was celebrated in words as well as in music. The photocopier was a vital technological development as it meant that anyone could publish at a fairly low cost. The means of production suddenly became cheap and readily available, and publishing could be almost instant.
Jon Savage, who produced the London Outrage zine in the 1970s, explains his impulse to produce issues at speed. ‘In the lunch hour, I’d sit on the bog attacking bits of paper with glue in a very real fever – got to do it now, now!’ New technology provided a vehicle for Savage’s speed of production and he could photocopy and distribute issues as soon as they were finished. This was an immediate form of cultural production that soon engaged a substantial readership.
As soon as a new affordable technology became widely available it was seized upon by people eager to share their views and creative output with others. With each new development, the technology it replaced suddenly became cheaper and much more accessible. In the hunt for resources, creators have often looked to obsolete technology to find an affordable way to produce work.
Steve Clay, who wrote about self-publishing activities in his book A Secret Location on the Lower East Side, believes that improvements in technology often lead to an increase in self-publishing activity: ‘New technology allows, maybe even forces, old technology to be put to different, often artistic purposes.’
When publishers, as well as small presses, saw the promise of publishing using new offset printing methods in the 1950s, many individual writers began to use the mimeograph to publish cheap books of their own writing. The technology had suddenly become available at a much cheaper price and could be put to good use.
Today, technology is playing its part once again. The internet has made media production accessible to millions of people globally. It is now commonplace. Almost anyone can now publish their writing on a blog, use online print-on-demand technology to produce small print runs of their own books, share their music through downloads or write about their life on Facebook or Twitter. Amateur media production runs along entirely new avenues and individuals are able to share their artistic creations and their lives with a potentially huge audience.
This use of digital media may at first appear to have nothing to do with a lo-fi approach but as digital technologies become more and more prevalent it is the most obvious choice for many people. Of course, motivations vary wildly but the numbers of people who can potentially take part in DIY cultural production have been vastly increased. The lo-fi approach is now often to take the hi-tech option.
Just as punk zine writers used the photocopier and the four-track recorder, digital technologies and the internet are often now the most accessible and appropriate tools to use. Just as in the past, however, people may not be using the latest cutting-edge technology. They may be limited to the budget (or pirated) versions or old copies of software. The lo-fi approach has developed but the limitations can be the same.
Lo-fi has always simultaneously embraced and opposed new technologies. People have both celebrated technology and rejected it. For some, lo-fi will always be about about finding low-tech solutions rather than opting to use the most obvious and available technologies. Someone might have access to the internet and a flashy laptop but want to record music on a four-track and only release it on cassette. Instead of a blog, someone might want to hand-write a zine and print it on paper.
There is often a sense of nostalgia as unusual technologies are chosen instead of the most obvious. With so many technological options now available, the creator may have access to a range of options and pick the one that best suits their needs. Some celebrate immediacy while some want what they produce to last as an enduring record of what they did. What remains the same is the freedom to be able to choose the most appropriate medium and the most suitable tools.
Really it doesn’t matter what choices you make, whether you choose to record your next album using analogue or digital technologies, or whether you publish using the internet or on a photocopier. The importance of a lo-fi approach is firmly entrenched with a wider understanding of DIY culture. It is more about sharing your political, social or cultural views, asserting your independence or building a community than making a vast profit or finding fame. Lo-fi is a celebration of the tools and resources you have available, whatever they are. It is up to you to decide what you want to do with it, just as Dishwasher Pete did.
Amy Spencer’s book DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture is published by Marion Boyars
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry
Airport expansion is a racist policy
Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram
Momentum Kids: the parental is political
Momentum Kids is not about indoctrinating children, but rather the more radical idea that children have an important role to play in shaping the future, writes Kristen Hope