Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.More info ×
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
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe
How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency