Publications on (not only) art: cultural, social and political uses

Line Ellegaard

Contexts / 03.08.2011
Branka Ćurčić from and Pauline van Mourik Broekman from Mute at Publicaciones (no solo) de arte: usos culturales, sociales y políticos. Photo: Guillermo Sánchez/IMASCAS

What are the changes to art journals in the past thirty years? How has the internet affected traditional publishing models? As an organisation with a vested interest in the above questions, Afterall teamed up with Mute and Seville-based BNV Producciones to organise a conference on the cultural, social and political uses of journals today.

The conference was hosted by UNIA arteypensamiento and I+CAS in Seville in May 2011, and covered a plethora of publishing projects, from key art journals of the past thirty years and recent institutional publications to hybrid fanzine-journals and pioneering online platforms involving social networks and online activism. What were the foundational energies that made them appear? What conditions brought them into being? Are their initial propositions still relevant? Art journals and publications are generally used and identified as spaces for critical writing. To look at the history of these publications is to analyse not only what discourse was produced, but how, why and under what circumstances – and to question the platform claimed by a given discourse is, in other words, to turn the space of criticality into the object of critical enquiry. It not only requires an enquiry into the content produced but also the visual format, the materiality (or lack thereof) and the structural organisation of the project.

The discussion in May took on board these wider concerns, as well as more practical ones such as the fact that addressing the subject of the magazine or journal in its material and/or online form is inflected by the rise of artistic research as an academic discipline. It was also influenced by the fact that new technologies for assembling and distributing publications – desktop publishing, print on demand, online publishing arms – have reached a certain level of maturity. The timing of the conference also became significant, placed as it was between announcements of drastic funding cuts to art and culture sectors throughout post-financial crisis Europe and a recent phenomenon, particularly in Spain, of publicly funded art institutions and museums launching their own publishing projects.

The programme consisted of two halves. The first part focused on printed publications, revisiting the historical narratives of October, Third Text, Texte zur Kunst and Afterall, as well as the lesser known editorial projects Valdez, an independent Colombian magazine that has been published at irregular intervals since 1997, and the Argentinean Ramona, which published 101 issues between 2000 and 2010 and which now continues online. These ‘posthumous’ or historical recapitulations were followed by presentations on four recently launched publications from Spanish art institutions: the biannual publications Carta by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (MNCARS), Índex by the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), Radar by Museum de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León (MUSAC) and the quarterly De 11 a 21 by the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo (CAAC). The second half of the programme was devoted to an investigation of online publishing platforms, taking the emergence of the internet and its initial promise of critical autonomy, free experimentation and collectivism as a starting point from which to question the current state of affairs. The case studies here, all presented by founding editors, were: pioneering online forum for cultural criticism, media arts and online activism The Thing, which started as a dial-up bulletin in New York in 1991; New Media Centre_Kuda.Org, an independent Serbian cultural organisation and the UK-based publications Collapse: Journal of Philosophical Research and Development and the online magazine Mute.1

In the context of traditional print publishing, the most interesting metaphor to arise was that of the zombie, which Adrian Rifkin used to characterise October.

In the context of traditional print publishing, the most interesting metaphor to arise was that of the zombie, which Adrian Rifkin used to characterise October.2 He noted that the internal logic of the journal is effectively its periodicity, meaning that a journal can continue long after the original critical impetus ceases to be, so to speak, ‘alive’. It might merely serve an institutionalised discourse of art that continues because the processes are in motion.

Rifkin provocatively dated October's ‘living deadness’ to its very inception. In the journal’s initial editorial statement from 1976, the October editors write how they named the journal in tribute to the moment of radical artistic innovation following the Soviet October Revolution in 1917. This position, Rifkin suggested, was redundant from the outset; the journal’s alignment with the Left was never reciprocated, he argued from personal experience, and the activist Left in the US renounced the journal shortly after its launch.

The powerful, if provocative, image of October as a rotten yet reactive body whose outdated discourse continues to dominate the institutions of art might all too easily be welcomed by those who oppose this hegemonic monster from the margins, but the figure the zombie evokes is of a much more ambiguous nature. The zombie might itself be seen as an outsider, or as Robin Mackay remarked in the subsequent discussion: ‘October’s hegemony is equally a marginalisation’.3 Indeed, the continual feeding of the peer-reviewed journal by contributors looking to gain visibility though its hegemonic position inevitably perpetuates its existence and makes it difficult for the journal to renew itself.

How, then, can publishing projects maintain a position of criticality? The look of the journal signals at first sight its critical aspiration and alliances – that is, the journal is and should be judged by its cover. So when Ramona, a journal for and by the generation of artists that emerged during the economic crisis in Argentina during the late 1990s and early 2000s, chose to look like ‘a messed-up October’ it was intended to project a certain critical, ironic position towards the dominant mode of art theory. Similarly Mute started out mimicking the format of the Financial Times at its 1994 launch, staking out its anti-authoritarian attitude. Since then Mute has changed format five times – a continual material transformation, Pauline van Mourik Broekman, one of the founders of the magazine, argued, that reflects Mute’s continuous re-examination of its own position It could be seen, as she suggested in her paper, as a way to ‘disrupt, or avoid, the seemingly inevitable process of becoming a hegemon oneself, having started out as anti-hegemonic’.

Jesus Alcaide from I+CAS, Robin Mackay from URBANOMIC and Pauline van Mourik Broekman from Mute, speaking at Publicaciones (no solo) de arte: usos culturales, sociales y políticos. Photograph: Guillermo Sánchez/IMASCAS

Constant re-positioning through editorial ‘interventions’, a self-reflexive attitude and changing formats might be part of a reflexive discourse that attacks power whilst at the same time executing it. But to work anti-hegemonically does not necessarily mean attacking the hegemonic – it could simply­­ mean creating an alternative space. Either way to change the look of a journal instinctively changes the aesthetics of its discourse, suggesting a change in editorial focus that is meant to sustain a critical attitude towards what is being said, why and how this is played out on the page.

The structural organisation is part and parcel of sustaining criticality. It would make sense that a project promoting anti-capitalistic content should not depend on a capitalist financial structure for survival. However, for independent publishing projects outside of academia that are unable to secure public funding there might be few options besides a commercial structure. Branka Ćurčić's presentation on, the publishing strand of the Serbian cultural organisation New Media Centre_Kuda.Org, showed how alternative means of making form and structure consistent with content are possible.3 is based on a free (i.e. non-monetary) distribution model, giving their publications away as promotional material. Although this strategy is a consequence of not having access to public funding in Serbia, where it is heavily monopolised, Ćurčić sees this dissemination model as a tool to gain visibility. Giving away their publications as free promotional material, they use strategies of a commercial nature to accumulate not profit, but ‘social capital’.

But the question of how to maintain a space for critical resistance under capitalism remains unanswered. Re-appropriating marketing strategies to different ends offers some space but is equally limiting; for any publishing activity remains pocketed within larger art projects which merit public funding on their own terms. As for sustaining criticality a change in format might revive or re-position a discourse. Securing consistency between form and content through an appropriate structural organisation also sustains a level of criticality – but it might, however, be harder to achieve than the provision of critical content.

Special thanks to Manuel Prados of BNV Produccionnes and Pauline van Mourik Broekman of Mute for their assistance in gathering materials and documentation. This article will continue to be augmented with transcripts and further presentations.

  1. On the subject of The Thing, an excellent and illuminating interview with the network founder Wolfgang Staehle can be read here.

  2. A recurring figure in theory, the zombie has been linked to alienation associated the entranced consumer in Marxian theory, perhaps more of a victim than an evil. More recently Lars Bang Larsen pointed out that unlike Frankenstein or Dracula the zombie never is at the centre of the plot, insisting that the zombie ‘cannot be reduced to a negative presence’. L. B. Larsen, Zombies of Immaterial Labor: The Modern Monster and Death of Death, e-flux journal, issue 15, 2010.

  3. Mackay's full presentation, along with other lectures and documents from the event, can be downloaded here.

  4. Ćurčić's full presentation, along with other lectures and documents from the event, may be downloaded here.