Notes from Dispense and Connect: On the past, present and future of magazines

100 ideas

Earlier this week, I went to Dispense and Connect at the Southbank Centre, an event that was part of its current ‘100 ideas’ season. It was a panel talk about magazines; given this vague, expansive topic the three panellists each set and answered their own questions. First up was Bice Curiger, editor of art mag Parkett; she basically talked about influences on her and the magazine; for my tastes, her talk was a bit dry and consisted mostly of references to obscure 70s German art titles. Maybe I’m a philistine 😉

Far more entertaining was speaker no 2., Sina Najafi, editor of NYC art and culture mag Cabinet. Sina talked about Cabinet’s ideas and ethos, and highlighted some of its most interesting stories. The magazine’s aim, he said, was to go “towards a new culture of curiosity. We’re interested in meandering as a process of curiosity.” One of the slides showed an image from Tristram Shandy (below) which illustrates a storyline taking a very sinuous path to go from A to B and reach its ‘conclusion’. Cabinet’s rather wonderful full piece on illustrations of narrative progress, ‘A Timelines of Timelines’ is archived on their site, here.

Tristram Shandy handwriting

Other story highlights from the magazine that Najafi talked about included a piece called “NATO as architectural critic”, which looked at the way NATO bombed Belgrade, in which they simply decided to target whichever buildings ‘looked’ like they should be important. Cabinet also reproduced drawings of the seven patterns Goats walk in when they’re high on acid, as discovered by the CIA in an experiment at Yale(!) A good sell, and next time pay day rolls around, I’ll certainly be grabbing myself a sub.

The third speaker was writer and editor Barry Miles, whohelped launch counter cultural mag International Times in the 60s. I.T.’s launch was “one of the two most revolutionary events
in the history of English alternative music and thinking. The I.T.
event was important because it marked the first recognition of a
rapidly spreading socio-cultural revolution” according to Soft
Machine’s Daevid Allen. (And yes, at Dispense and Connect, someone asked what the other event was, and according to Miles, no-one can remember).

Being a bit of a 60s obsessive, I found Barry’s talk completely enthralling, so it was his talk I took the most notes on. I’ll put up a full post of these later, rather than overwhelm this general round up with them. Suffice to say, Miles’ talk was hugely entertaining and full of tall tales. The point that he kept coming back to and stressing was that I.T. was “a community paper, our community’s paper. I.T. was outside normal society in every respect.” This was reflected in his reminiscence of the title’s genesis:

“We put on a poetry reading at the Albert Hall in 1965. It cost £400 to hire, then another £100 an hour. And bear I mind, I earned £10 a week at this time, and we had only 9 days to publicise it. But we sold the tickets and it went ahead, and on that night we saw that we, youth culture, were a real constituency. It’s very, very difficult now to imagine how straight England was, even in the mid 60s. It was a very black and white world then. The idea of anyone from our community writing for the Guardian or the Times was inconceivable. Our group of people needed somewhere to express themselves.”

Of course, these days, any mention of “community’ doesn’t make most media people think of magazines, but of the web – MySpace, social networks etc – and indeed, when asked by a member of the audience about I.T.’s relation to this, Miles’ reply was that “yes, I suppose in some way you could see I.T. as a kind of blog.”

Najafi, as editor of a currently published title, was far warier of the community approach; despite the fact that his magazine, Cabinet, has a lot of reader involvement projects (such as Cabinetlandia, the magazine’s own country where readers can buy land), he was wary of the potentially alienating and limiting factors of ‘community’. For him, I got the feeling it was the individual’s exploration of each issue’s cabinet of curiosities that took precedence, rather than any form of ‘group empowerment.’ Distance and the solitary pleasures of reading/thinking are as crucial as community, and given the web’s efficiency at forming the later, perhaps it’s no bad thing that 21st century magazines are rediscovering their power to inspire a good meander in territories of the former.

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