Founding documents #8: Comments that may not have existed hitherto

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In the spring of 2011, while I was a student at CalArts, I enrolled in a course, led by Jen Hofer, called “Literary Citizenship: Tiny Press Practices.” The class’s culminating project was for each student to produce a handmade, semi-reproducible book object. The remainder of the course was a wide-ranging survey/seminar on the methods and ethics of small press publication and book production. Thus, we were exposed to a variety of ingeniously produced physical objects, from chapbooks bound into the spines of matchbooks to xeroxed broadsides, and equally various methods of distribution, from pen-pal collectives to books left on subway benches. As fascinating as the course was, one method of publication/distribution was mostly glossed over: the Internet.

Of the two or three net-based publications we looked at, only one approached the same level of ingenuity with its ephemeral intangible medium as the physical books we’d been looking at. This was [out of nothing]. Not content to quietly emulate static sheets of paper, [out of nothing]‘s pages (?) reveled in its own virtual existence, arranging pieces like landmarks spread across a theoretically infinite map or assaulting the senses with garishly hyperactive GIFs and oddly synced soundtracks. I eagerly volunteered to lead the class discussion on this unit, which involved reaching out to the editors…

(Byron Campbell; March 2013)

BC: Whence [out of nothing]?  That title itself, as you can see from my attempts at framing the question, seems to participate in some of the counter-motions or obstacles to “straight” reading that the site as a whole engenders.  What was the philosophy behind the title?  What’s the philosophy behind {out of nothing} as a publication, both in terms of design and content?  Johannes Göransson, in the foreword to Issue #4, mentions “mucked up hybrid writings that are written from a position in the technological hullaballoo.”  Is that an accurate description of what you were going for?

Eric Lindley:  Some of our main goals as a magazine were to publish new or unpublished writers/artists, and to essentially reinvent the wheel when it came to a literary magazine—which is to say we wanted to take nothing for granted in constructing the site, so each decision would be questioned from a critical and creative view: hence the playful “seasons” of the issues, and the entirely new format for each issue. To me, those two ideas are represented by the name….

Joe Milazzo: I knew that I would be leaving LA upon graduating from CalArts, so the decision to establish a literary journal, as much as it was a fulfillment of a long-standing desire, also fulfilled an immediate need: to maintain a connection to the vibrant community of creative people I had been fortunate enough to participate in while studying at CalArts. I wanted to continue to working with Janice and Eric, and so, together, we created a way to do just that. Maybe this is just pragmatics, but I would not discount it at all as a motivating factor, or even a “good reason” to undertake projects such as this. Writers, working so often in solitude, tend to discount the value of community and collegiality (except when it is served with drinks). But I’ve found both invaluable.

As to the title and whatever aesthetics I could tease out of that… so much really valuable writing, here and abroad, arrives out of the circumstances of privation (not to over-romanticize that too much though; see above). Writing that happens despite the fact that there is very little material support for its ever happening in the first place.  The day-to-day, hand-to-mouth transactions involving language: not necessarily banal, but not measured solely according to factors of value / contribution / non-waste*: those truly fascinate me.  I mean, there’s the commodity—often construed as content—and then there’s the receipt for your purchase, which gets wadded up in the bottom of the bag and only consulted in moments of doubt or emergency (“Did I get it at the advertised sale price? Was I over-charged?”).  I’m not sure I believe all writing has to upset or unsettle, but I do know I’m not into writing that aims only to avoid such an affect.  Congratulatory and willfully blindfolded writing.

*(e.g., A student responding to me in class about memorable sensory details by identifying an odor as “catfish and halitosis”—gratuitous, and specifically situational, and brilliant for it.)

I had also hoped that whatever journal I decided to work on would serve as a refuge for previously unpublishable writers of merit.  So many fine writers, but so many considered to be incarnations of “nothing”—nobodies, not read, not vetted, with no record, and thus not worth reading—all because their work can’t be easily diagrammed or fenced in.

Finally, there’s the “void” of the internet itself, this bottomless reservoir—yet simultaneously destination—into which we continue to pour information. The internet is essentially empty, especially in terms of how social networking operates: a new profile is essentially blank, and has to be filled in / populated with rough translations of meat-world “realities” into regularized, classifiable bits that can be digitally managed and manipulated. And from a publishing industry perspective… the internet has destroyed the economic bases for writing (really, “content” regardless of medium) entirely; from the most pessimistic of points-of-view, one I don’t share but acknowledge exists and thus is available as a material for art-making, the internet has destroyed literary culture altogether, corrupted the language, replaced traditional modes of expression with formlessness, and on and on. For some, this is literary year zero. Janice, Eric and I agreed very early on that [out of nothing] would be web-based, in part to facilitate curation, since we would be dispersed across the country, in part to control costs (which are minimal). But we also agreed that [out of nothing] would be more than another literary journal that just happens to exist online. We agreed that our project would be, in part, an exploration of what it really means, experientially, to write, read and “be” in the weird text-proliferating-across-a-landscape-of-collapsed-media-wherein-everything-is-accessible-but-less-than-you-would-imagine-is-available existence that is “online.”  In other words, that our “form” would be as much “content” as anything else. (So, yes, “mucked up hybrid writings that are written from a position in the technological hullaballoo” is pretty spot-on.)

Janice Lee: I think, as the last one coming into these questions, I ditto a lot of what Joe and Eric say. I also add the problematic that Scott McCloud often talks about in terms of the mistake that often happens when people use new mediums to present work. So often the shape of the old technology just becomes the content of the new, so that the technology itself isn’t being utilized but rather used to replace an irrelevant form. I think of the problematics of so many hypertexts, or so many webcomics that don’t use the computer as a new medium, but rather import the shape of comics on a physical page into the screen. McCloud offers one path, to view the screen as a window, rather than facing the limitations of a page format—one thing that I was thinking about when designing Issue 2. I think that’s something I think about a lot, especially in this age where books seem to be declining and so many are questioning the role of printed books next to kindle, the iPad, etc (this last year I believe Amazon’s digital book sales doubled their print books sales), how to really use the form, shape, tools, of the internet, to present work in a digital form.

BC: All three of you are art-makers yourselves.  How does your own art practice inform the work you select for publication, or the way you present it?

EL: For starters, each issue is designed by a different editor, and you can pretty much tell who has designed each one if you know our personalities or our art. Though we all have the ridiculously diverse skill sets of the media-hungry people that we are, Joe has particular expertise in information design—you’ll be able to see that in the next issue—Janice in web design and cognitive theory—evident in issue #2—and I like things that are vaguely and eerily deliberate, trashy, sad, and are squeezed into media that don’t quite accommodate them—maybe evident in issue #3.

And I think the art we select is very much informed by our interests, which also informs our own work, but the selection process is so collaborative it becomes an aggregate of all of our interests that determines each choice—either that, or one person’s particularly strong interests.

JM: [out of nothing] is particularly important to my practice in that it forces me to think, but think in terms of doing. I.e., all those rather philosophical issues I mentioned in my initial response are perfectly mull-able, but I’ve found they only mean something to me insofar as I, to paraphrase Eric, force or impel them through instantiations that are not commensurate to their implications… until, of course, by happenstance, usually, they are. [out of nothing] also exposes me to a tremendous amount of unfamiliar work, and allows me to get outside the sometime stultifying comfort of my own proclivities, which is always a good thing. The most exciting phases of any particular issue’s production are those conversations Eric, Janice and I have regarding direction, design, etc., because there is such a profound sharing of responsibilities that is realized there / then.

JL: I think inherently the aesthetic I display in my art practice is also going to influence my tastes in selecting work, but again, the real advantage of this collaboration to me is the tremendous amount of trust between us. There may be times where one of the editors looks over a particular piece of work, one that another editor finds importance in. We’re really open to this kind of conversation, and often have great ones when discussing the work that’s submitted to us. At the same time, though we have differing tastes, we also have overlaps. It’s the edges where it’s particularly exciting, where’s it’s not quite such an easy overlap of interests, but not quite divergent, where our own interests in various issues or disciplines create productive conversation and range. I myself am really influenced by cognitive theory, consciousness studies, philosophy, so often view work through that lens.

BC: In Issue #4, each of the pieces of (mostly text) is paired with what appears to be a GIF animation.  What was your process for pairing image to text?

EL:  What was our process for that? We asked them for an image of something in particular, right?

JM: For 4, which we had decided beforehand was to have an “old website” (say, circa 1997) / “eye cancer” look, we asked each contributor to respond to the following: “What image, action, object, activity, or sense-memory conveys what is most excessive about you / your work? Please clearly describe your said image, action, object, activity, or sense-memory in detail.” The resulting texts—and, in some cases, the returned images—were then transformed into animated GIFs. (The original texts themselves are accessible via the website, and you can see that some of our visual interpretations are rather free.)

JL: Yes. The theme of “excess” was something we kept in mind, so based on the answers to our prompts (the answers are their resulting “bios” in the issue), the 3 of us editors, plus a little help from my partner Jeff, created GIFs for each. Some were more challenging than others, and there is obviously a range of interpretation of style, really adding to that “eye cancer” effect we were aiming for.

BC: On a somewhat related note, I noticed that virtually none of the bios are presented in the traditional format.  They’re not even traditionally biographical, for the most part, and feel more like mini-poems or micro-fictions.  How did this emerge, and how easy or difficult is it to encourage the authors to participate?

EL: Bios are so terrible!  I remember that when I was a kid, it was always so exciting to see people just being funny in their theater bios—and since artmaking for me is often about slotting uncannily inappropriate information into partially recognizable forms as a way to question the form, the bio seemed more like an opportunity to play with and question the idea of bios than an opportunity for people to basically rehash what’s already on their website.

That said, some people are instantly game, and others are not.  Some people give us something interesting, and then take it back later and give us a more traditional bio. It’s all good—we also realize that it’s important for people to spread the word about their—EXCITING AND INTERESTING—writing, which, if it appears in our journal, we really believe in. So we’re not too restrictive on the bios if they’re not as fun or explorative as we like them to be.

JM: I’d like to think our approach to introducing or framing our contributors accomplishes two things. 1) It allows for each issue to be more of a collaborative or even collective expression. We are, after all, asking our writers and artists to complete an additional creative exercise. But what that provides for is precisely the propagation of thematics, or aesthetic intentionality, through every aspect of the publication. (I’m sure the issue is coming in which the contributor bios are all links in an Exquisite Corpse.) 2) I honestly believe that, its many virtues aside, the “indie lit” scene / world / whatever is just as plagued with personality cults as the “major publishing” scene / world / whatever to which it is meant to serve as an alternative. I would never deny anyone the right to promote their work, or to celebrate their successes.  However, I think multiple alternatives to the question of how you communicate something to your readership / audience about yourself, your interests, background, oeuvre, etc. are warranted, and I believe our approach—playful, oblique, and, again, concerned much more with the evolving gestalt that is [out of nothing] (rather than the presence of any one individual writer or artists in our “pages”)—offers such an alternative.

JL: Again, just echoing the others, but yes, not wanting the bios to be a place just to display people’s long list of publications or resumes, but rather another place to put their creativity on view, and use their creativity to represent who they are rather than a list of literary journals. As Eric mentioned, some people are much more game and send back really enthusiastic responses to the question (the question or prompt which is often hidden to the viewer), while others try to fit their traditional bios into the prompt. To each their own. We editors also answer the prompts we ask, sometimes in different forms, but we want to play the game too.

BC: Aside from standard text, there are pieces in #4 that include text w/ layered sound files, some sort of audio/video player, a Google docs text window embedded within the browser window, and “simpleviewer” photo viewer.  Does it become difficult to maintain all these formats, media, and the means to access them?  Do you ever encounter something and say “Sorry, we just can’t publish that?”

EL: I forgot to mention that “out of nothing” includes media that may not have existed hitherto it’s publication in our journal—I love seeing new media, and I want to see more sent to us—but of course it’s hard to invent a new medium, so that’s rare…. If someone sends us something that we like (and have space for), even (maybe especially) if it’s in an unusual format, we’ll see it published somehow. We’ve talked about publishing live performance in the form of webcam, one-time documentation. We’ve talked about web-design-qua-art that could be integrated somehow. We’ve talked about guest designers working on an issue as their kind of artwork more-or-less infecting or altering the way in which we present information…. Or maybe we didn’t go that far? The point is that we all love to see new forms, and are dedicated to bringing them to light.

JM: I’d actually like to see maintenance and delivery become more difficult. We’ve received, and published, several pieces that, at first, presented real challenges to us in terms of presentation. (Examples: Laura Vena’s and Shone One’s collaborations for issue #1; Vadim Bystritski’s “PDA Diary” in #3, which required the creation of a specific web interface.) But I am looking forward to that submission that operationalizes all of the “multimedia” capabilities of the web in a completely fresh, unexpected and nearly impossible way. (Maybe it would just be a schematic.) That piece will be one will we absolutely HAVE to publish.

JL: I don’t think we’d ever turn something away for that reason. I welcome the challenge. We’re always learning (like in Issue 2, the canvas like format was new to me, and I didn’t know how doable it was, I had some help of course), and I think that’s part of the goal of [out of nothing], to publish the unpublishable, not only in terms of what the text or work itself is doing, but also the format. Isn’t that what the internet is for?

BC: Why do you think it’s important that this work have a public space?  Do you think it would have a public space without [out of nothing]?  What role does technology play in your own art-making and art-seeking practices?

EL:  Some of the work we publish might find an outlet elsewhere, but the work we’re most excited about is stuff that we really haven’t seen the likes of anywhere else. I think magazine’s like ours are important, though readership and audience is a big question mark at times—preaching to the choir, etc. They offer exciting alternatives to a sometimes clumsily commercialized world of writing, and represent some of the best and worst qualities of artwork, on the edge of the exciting and ridiculous.

Technology is huge in my artmaking process (I’ve done work in biofeedback and am right now working on a combination science experiment and puppet show). I believe that technology is shaping not only the media through which we work, which inherently shapes the ideas we convey, but also provides us with new metaphors by which we conceptualize our own cognitive and bodily existence (for instance, people used to think of their brains like libraries, but now think of them like computers, and increasingly consider their social minds to function like nodes in the internet, where notions of collectivity and community are shaped by our sense of selves floating through a collective information cloud—or, that’s debatable, but you get my point). Of course, bear in mind that I think of virtually everything as a technology, from language to math to cell phones…  we just forget technologies are technologies when they become necessary, or at least familiar.

JM: There are other journals, such as Diagram and LIES/ISLE (and others, I’m sure), which follow a similar aesthetic program. And, even if there were not, the nature of literary publishing today is such that no one should have any compunction at all about self-publishing, whether that means creating a micro print-run of a sheaf of poems, starting a blog, or founding a tiny literary journal. How public are these efforts? Will they find an audience? It’s rather unknowable. No artist can ever fully predict, much less determine, what will happen once his / her work is externalized. But that very uncertainty is, for me, the ultimate justification for that externalization. An example: the themes we choose for each issue of [out of nothing]… we search for the most creative expression we can for what are typically vague preferences for work of a certain type. They’re notional. By “releasing” them in the form we do, we are looking for our potential contributors to help us simultaneously navigate and map out what it is that we are in search of.

Technology itself is just such a projective, prosthetic risk. I agree 100% with what Eric says about technologies. A technology is just something we’ve made that extends our capabilities in the world, and, in the process, extends that world as well, language being the best example. In the course of human history, the exchange of signs allowed for human being to communicate necessary information in ways they had not before. At the same time, language created a new universe of possible social interactions. What we often fail to consider, focused as we are on “solutions,” is the fact that our natures are such that we have to rely on technologies. Technologies provide evidence of our “greatness” in one respect, yet they are also testimony to our weaknesses and frailties. Technology is important to me in both respects, but perhaps the latter more than the former, in the sense that the latter perhaps offers more of an answer to the question of what it means to be human; or, better, what it means to be always wanting to achieve the status of “human,” to understand ourselves not for who / what we are, essentially, exceptionally self-evident (as much as we enjoy that narrative) but relationally, in terms of who / what we are in the context of this world that receives us and that we measure against its capacity to alter itself in the satisfaction of our desires. My hope is that what we are engaged in, in even some small way, with [out of nothing] is a re-imagination of many such relationships, maybe not transparently, but at least in full view.

JL: Absolutely 100% echo both Joe and Eric. Technology is definitely a misleading term here, and if we’re speaking specifically of digital or electronic technology, that’s one thing, but I think the technology of writing itself too is advancing, or narrative Carole Maso asks why so many of our stories look the same, when we have a wealth of tools at our disposal, words even. I’m co-curating an interdisciplinary lecture series in LA right with Laura Vena called Novum, and part of what we’re aiming for there, as well as I what aim for in my own work, is widening horizons. That might sound a little cheesy, but I’m thinking too in terms of the reconceptualization of narrative that needs to happen, the kind of writing that asks a reader to construct their own phenomenological self-model while reading. Ernst Bloch uses the term “Novum” to describe a “a moment of newness in lived history that refreshes human collective consciousness, awakening it from the trancelike sense of history as fated and empty, into awareness that it can be changed… the unexpectedly new, which pushes humanity out of its present toward the not yet realized,”… towards a “blankness of horizon of consciousness… formed not by the past but by the future… a not yet conscious ontological pull of the future, of a tidal influence exerted upon by that which lies out of sight below the horizon, an unconscious of what is yet to come.” I’ve been obsessed with concepts like these lately, especially in relation to consciousness and subjectivity, questions like how can we manifest and influence subjectivity differently through different forms, say like the internet, or what can we learn from the neuroscientific research that will aid in the technology of writing, or what writing itself can learn from the mode of science fiction, sharing both a fondness for technology and newness and moving forward and innovation, but also the spirit of inquiry and trying to decipher the construction of human understanding.

BC: Toward the end of class, we started talking about the idea of a “rooted in the earth” community, a community based not so much around topics, issues, or themes, but around geographical location.  We mused about how a journal or press might best serve such a community, and wondered whether printed materials were more appropriate to that job, as opposed to online media that could reach a more diffuse community of ideas/themes.  Do you have any thoughts on this question, specifically with regard to your own projects?

EL: I suppose I have a lot to say about local/global/physical/electronic, but I think the first thing that comes to mind is that oddly the difference between physical and electronic can be opposite to what you’d expect. The physical object endures and can be passed around and has a certain cachet that can potentially extend its life geographically, while the electronic can sometimes require an internet “gatekeeper” to bestow its blessing for people other than the immediate community to see it…..  I do have friends from other states and cities who are more likely to see my work in print publications than they are to do the two clicks necessary to check out outofnothing.org….   That said, the two media are geared more toward what you’d expect:  print/local and electronic/remote.  But I don’t think either is necessarily more appropriate—that would depend on a more subtle definition of the community one intends to reach.

I do think that artmaking in general is an exciting way to build local community, too, whether it speaks to a larger audience or preaches to the choir (because the choir needs preaching, too)….

JL: Really I think my short answer is just “it depends.”

I think about the kinds of online communities that have been sparking lately ie. Egypt, and the group Anonymous especially that stemmed from the 4chan forums and have since mobilized people in specific geographic locations and disparate ones.

So really I think it has more to do with how connected a particular community is to the internet, and how connected they are outside of it. Meaning I don’t believe either form is more or less suited generally, but that suitability ultimately depends on the specific goals and culture of the group.

JM: I do think geography is important, and that authors, publishers, readers et al. ignore it at the risk of, well, a valorized ignorance of literature’s patterns of circulation and consumption. But I’m probably too sensitive to this issue because I’m the product of a culture that has always (over-)valued the unique aspects of what is, after all, fairly accidental… there’s those who live in Texas, and then there are “native Texans.”  Worse, there’s the whole business of “Texas letters”: a proud provincialism. More, and more diverse literary communities spread across the whole of the cultural landscape, yes, of course, that’s a good thing. And if literary locavorism is an important aspect of that, I think that’s laudable, and for reasons that have to do with being “rooted in the earth” in the sense that this philosophy / aesthetic is all about sustainable practices and, on the whole, exercising more care in our relationships with the environments that sustain us.  That said, I definitely believe that the digital has a role to play in all that. I’d even point to the third issue of [out of nothing] as an example of that, for I feel that that particular issue is, at least in part, an exploration of whether or not—or, rather, how—virtual objects might satisfy human needs that objects as confined to the meatspace traditionally have. (We’re talking ultra-local here: the topography within the range of one’s immediate grasp.)  I’d also point out how much social / new media on the web is focused on the  fine grain of geography or the “hyperlocal”: citizen journalism specific to particular urban neighborhoods that are typically under- or mis-represented in the major newspaper that otherwise serves the city at large; marketplaces such as Freecycle; what used to be Platial (now Geocommons?)… Short answer: any prospective community would benefit from considering how both the actual and the virtual may make something new and valuable out of social cohesion.



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