“Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one,” said A. J. Liebling of The New Yorker. When Ed Marszewski cofounded Lumpen Magazine 26 years ago as a student in Chicago, he was driven by these words—critical of mainstream consensus and determined to provide an antidote to the growing influence of monopolizing corporations.

Today, Lumpen is published three times a year with a circulation of 15,000 across the U.S., and looks very different to its humble zine origins. As well as spearheading the indie title ,Marszewski is now also cofounder of Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar, Kimski; president of Marz Community Brewing Co.; co-director of Public Media Institute, which programs the DIY space, Co-Prosperity Sphere, and Chicago’s Lumpen Radio, WLPN-LP.

Despite changes and growths, the spirit of the critical art and culture publication remains much the same as it did in 1991. Marszewski tells us the story of Lumpen’s very first run, and how the Chicago self-publishing staple evolved from a slap-dash cut-and-paste job to the visually aware alt-illustration favorite that it’s become.

“We started The Lumpen Times (as it was called then) while I was in my third year of college at the University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana in 1991. I was living in a shared house with some friends, studying political science, active in the environmental and anti-war movements, and participated in a lot of protests and guerrilla actions on campus.

“We took heed of Ben Bagdikian and Noam Chomsky’s warning about the monopolization of the media by a handful of corporations. Back then, there were a few dozen companies that controlled the majority of what we read, saw, and heard. For example, CNN’s 24/7 news coverage had started to make a real impact, and its framing and presentation didn’t coincide with the analysis we were reading in titles like The Nation, Mother Jones, In These Times, and other (mostly left) publications. What we were reading there seemed far more in tune with the idea of a world we wanted to live in.

“It’s within this context that we decided to come together to discuss a zine. Artists, writers, poets, and anyone who had an idea were invited to submit. We met in a classroom off the quad, I believe. The general idea was that it would follow the tradition of the underground press of the ’60s and the alternative press of the ’80s.

The origins of the name. Page from Lumpen issue 1, 1991.

“We tossed around a lot of names and most of them sucked. So finally we agreed to name it after the house where many of us lives, The Lumpen House. Lumpen described our collective situation: “designating persons or groups regarded as belonging to a low or contemptible segment of their class or kind because of their unproductiveness, shiftlessness, alienation, degeneration, etc.”

“Issue 1 was a mostly cut and paste affair on 11 x 17 inch copy paper. It was folded and saddle stitched at Kinkos in Urbana. I knew people there and they gave us free copies, like thousands and thousands of them. It included really bad poetry, collages, short stories, propaganda from an environmental organization, anti-Iraq war protest information, a community calendar, psychedelic illustrations, and reprints of essays we chopped from The New York Times. It was garbage but also very punk.

“We had access to a Mac SE from the honors department that allowed us to type and print out text, which we could cut and lay down onto 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper in columns. We really had no design inspiration. We didn’t have access to too many zines and had no idea we were part of a long-running mail art, zine tradition. To launch, we had a little party, and then freely circulated it to coffee shops, bars, bookstores, clubs, or handed it out to people in the quad.

“People dug it. After issue 1, we decided to do another right away. Copies were picked up fast. The internet didn’t have a browser at this point. It looked shitty for years until we went to offset printing and used Quark for layout and a fax machine to make half tones (yes, a fax machine to make half tones.)

“We convinced ourselves that by participating in the Info War, collectively people would make educated decisions that could lead to better policies to create a better world, whatever that meant. Usually it meant stopping wars and military actions, advocating for social, racial, and economic justice, and saving the environment. That naïve belief continues to drive Lumpen to this day.

Page from Lumpen issue 1, 1991.

“These early days were important, because we taught ourselves to use software and applications. We used our innate aesthetic sensibilities, imitated other design materials and researched typography and design by reading Émigré and other indies to help us appear more like a ‘professional’ product.

“The biggest leap in the evolution of Lumpen Times, or Lumpen as it’s called today, though, was to work with designers. These individuals created a better Lumpen, and won us awards, including issues by Dakota Brown, Michael Freimuth, Aaron Pederson, Plural Design and of course Jeremiah Chiu of Studio Chew. From early on, we learned how to communicate via print design in order to synthesize the best news and views we could find, and hopefully to activate them. During the evolution of the magazine, I learned that if someone can do something better than myself, like design, than I should probably let them do it.” 

Lumpen issue 1 cover, 1991.