Obscurity Rocks

This is the transcript of a conversation between Michael Bojkowski and Andrew Losowsky, recorded for Gym Class Magazine in September 2009. In it Michael and Andrew introduce each other to a number of publications that test the boundaries of what it means to be considered a ‘magazine’.

Michael Bojkowski

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Andrew: The truth is, I don’t have quite such a huge magazine collection — a few hundred, yes, but that barely takes up a bookcase and a small cupboard. For reasons of space and economy, I’ve become rather choosy about what makes the cut, which in the main means magazines that are produced in an interesting format/material, magazines that tell a story in an unusual or striking manner, and anniversary issues that do a decent job of self-examination of what the magazine means for those who make it (which I find much more revealing than the admittedly more popular first editions).

My bookcases hold the usual spread of RayGuns, Nests, early Colors and so forth, plus a few other treats, including a near-complete set of Eats and Flairs, a few Visionaires, and these particular titles that I’ve pulled out at semi-random.

Michael: Crikey! That’s sounds like pretty awesome collection. Definitely quality over quantity (I had to do an mini-audit once lost count at around 400+). I’ve been scrounging around trying to find some mags you might not have seen before which is like an impossible mission impossible really.

Portfolio — Issue 3

Portfolio, Issue 3. Image via theideaofthebook.com

Andrew: This is really to establish my credentials early. Alexey Brodovitch and Frank Zachary’s personal side project, and no less lovely, engaging and mad than when it was made in 1951. We want to talk about a man who hand-marbles paper in France? Why of course we should include a sheet of said marbling for every reader! One of the earliest true graphic design magazines, now hideously expensive to get hold of.

Michael: Portfolio looks ace. I just did a quick search to see if I could find any copies online and all sorts of stuff comes up including some saucy Amercian ‘modelling’ magazine. I did manage to find a copy of the Portfolio you were talking about on eBay for a paltry 600 dollars! It looks absolutely beautiful. Bit embarrassed I’ve never sought it out before. There go my credentials! Anyhoo, I’ll see if I can scrape back a bit of my rep by seeing your Portfolio and raising you an Un Sedicesimo

Un Sedicesimo

Un Sedicesimo, issue 11. Image via unsedicesimo.it.

Michael: I’ve only just started collecting these so they’re not very vintage but they’re doing a pretty good job of chronicling recent design thought and visual culture so far. There’s a really cool little blurb in each issue explaining why they are a ‘magazine’ and how they refuse the conform to traditional ideas of what a magazine is about too. For instance they proudly state that, there’s no editorial office, nor a subject nor a fixed design. Each issue has a different author. Apart from the format and number of pages, it will be a different magazine each time it’s published from masthead to colophon.

Andrew: This one had passed me by — thanks for bringing it to my attention. Looks lovely — and a great list of contributors so far. Sigh. Another thing I need to start collecting — thanks a bunch :)

InFlight

Spread from Johan Grimonprez’s InFlight magazine project. Via johangrimonprez.be/main/Books_Inflight.html

Andrew: A curiosity this—created pre-9/11 by artist Johan Grimonprez — it’s a lovingly produced spoof inflight magazine about the history and business of hijacking and alien abduction. Well-researched, engaging and terrifying, it also includes a mock safety card and a sick bag. If I didn’t love my copy so much, I’d enjoy slipping it into a seat pocket one day, and watching the results.

Michael: More like ‘in-fright’ by the sounds of it! I’m not going to pretend I’ve heard of Johan Grimonprez before. I did the lazy thing and had a bit of a google. Seems like he’s quite the merry prankster, doing faux Hitchcockian casting calls etc. Not sure about the picture of a woman tucking into a dead bird that seems to come up over and over again when searching for his work though.

I’m a gonna see your Inflight and raise you a Bulgaria. We should get Gym Class to make up some score or something. I know who’d be out in front though. Anyhoo…

Bulgaria

A spread from Bulgaria magazine. Hand, model’s own.

Michael: Bulgaria magazine has more to do with Helsinki than it does the real live Balkans. It’s confusing and not helped by the fact that it only comes out once a year. This issue is particularly baffling as the creators have attempted to fuse four different magazines into one. There’s the fashion magazine, the science magazine, the celebrity magazine and the… er… catalogue magazine. Magalogue? I dunno. I preferred the previous issue although I seem to have misplaced it. Could be I left it at YCN. They have a stack on my mags still… or at least I hope they do. I’ll find out one day.

Andrew: I have this one — they created four different covers for it, but I got the pink hair dryer one as well! I also have a previous issue, in a green canvas bag. The cover is a rather lovely photograph of some wood. I met the guys behind it, they strolled into Le Cool’s office in Barcelona while I was there and gave us a copy of the slightly mad guidebook to Helsinki they made for the city government. Lovely stuff.

Michael: I thought you would know Bulgaria. I’ve exchanged emails with… is it Bob? I want to say Bulgarian Bob but that’s so not right. Pretty wacky. Would you recommend the Guidebook? I love a good Guidebook me. :)

Andrew: I don’t actually have a copy any more. I remember it being.. slightly odd. In a good way.

La Más Bella — Tú issue

La Más Bella, the Tú issue in the form of a leather wallet. Image via lamasbella.es/what-is-la-mas-bella

Andrew: I bought this out of their custom-built vending machine in Barcelona, and it still makes me giggle. An art magazine that changes form each issue, this edition is themed “you” and is a wallet filled with beautifully reproduced wonders in various hidden pockets. They went all out to make the driving licence feel real, the fake money contains security foil printing, the fake press card is even laminated. The attention to detail makes the whole thing sing, and I’m still not 100% sure I’ve found everything inside.

Michael: La Más Bella have some pretty radical ideas. I remember reading up about them when you invited them to Colophon. I think I might have watched a video with you interviewing them. I have to admit I’m actually kind of conservative when it comes to magazine formats, I like to hold something I can flick through, but after seeing what La Más Bella were doing I was willing to consider opening up my definition a bit more. Still haven’t seen a copy in the flesh. Have you got loads of them? I reckon Gasbook might be an early precursor to this mag. What do you think?

Andrew: Oh and yes, I have four or five La Más Bellas. The wallet’s my favourite though, followed by the latest one (tapas), the apron and the comedy set of vinyl sleeves. I missed out on the wine bottle, sadly.

Gasbook

Gas Book, issue 7 including video cassette, t-shirt, poster, disc and more. Image via gasbook.net

Michael: Gasbook launched with the idea that they would do everything to avoid resembling the traditional notion of the book. So you got video tapes, CDs, cards with random stuff by various designers on one side and a jigsaw puzzle of a poster on the back, empty record sleeves etc etc. It would be wrapped up in a different type and shape of packaging each time too. I know they called it book but I’m classing it was a magazine because they produced regular numbered ‘issues’ over a period of time. They produce a magazine called Atmosphere now. It’s not nearly as adventurous.

Andrew: Gasbook’s news to me — some googling has revealed some nice other publishing work from the creator, too. Though La Más Bella began about four years earlier, in 1993 (albeit as a more traditional format magazine for their first two issues). Pepe from La Más Bella is something of a collector of alternative format publications, including Fluxus stuff. I like something I can flick through too, but I also like exploring objects to see what they hide. Maybe I’m just a frustrated pickpocket.

Eros

Complete set of issues of Eros. Only 4 issues that were produced before the magazine was forced to close.

Andrew: Those who attended Colophon and saw my frantic Pecha Kucha will already know how much I like this hardback magazine from the early 60s, and its sad background story (the editor and publisher, Ralph Ginzburg was sent to jail on a technicality by a particularly vicious Bobby Kennedy, who didn’t like the idea of an erotic, non-pornographic magazine, hence only four issues).

Designed by Herb Lubalin—it’s inconsistent but when it’s good, it’s stunning. Such as the two spreads I’ve pulled out here — the subscription cards reproduced, including perforations, containing some of the feedback they got from their mailouts, and the final photoshoot of Marilyn Munroe — including crosses in lipstick, drawn by her over the images she didn’t like.

Michael: There’s a few designers that are fans of this title. I remember reading that the designers at Big Active were fans. The story behind it’s publisher/editor is as intriguing as the title. Why haven’t they made a movie about Mr Ginzburg yet? They haven’t have they? The story of the last edition of Eros would be pretty ace.

I couldn’t find anything as saucy or as classy as this in my collection so I went the other way. May I introduce The UK Entertainer

The UK Entertainer

Um… so this is The UK Entertainer. Embarrassingly enough I still have this issue… in a box… somewhere…

Michael: Okay at this point, so I feel I must stress that I was genuinely intrigued and interested in this when I picked it up on a day trip to Brighton mainly because I thought it was some elaborate joke. It’s just weird. What it should be is a newsletter for a Martial Arts School in Sussex but instead it’s this incongruently over-confident and garish little glossy, full colour publication that ends up being kind of endearing in it’s mawkishness. It’s sprinkled with bizarre little comments like “Why is there only one Monopolies Commission?’ No article, just a funny little joke scrawled above a picture of a couple of people touching their toes. There’s a caption Competition featuring a man and a dog skipping and a gabillion pictures of really really (like deathly so) ordinary people drinking in random pubs — “A proper bunch of happy old gits” — apparently. My fave pic is of a couple of old blokes in a pub (natch) having a laugh with the caption “Bert & Melvyn decided to a have a drink and ended up and the wrong page”. I kid you not. You couldn’t make this up. I was far too amused by The UK Entertainer. Not really up there with Eros though really is it? Shall we move on then…

Andrew: Sounds like a cross between Karen and Coupe. Marvellous. And no, no film about Ginzberg as yet — though as he detailed in Fact: (his follow-up mag, pre-Avant Garde), in the end he was jailed on a technicality regarding the book he gave out as the subscribers’ free gift. Worth tracking down that issue, if you’re interested in the story behind it all.

Michael: Um. It’s probably a lot less classy than either of those mags. In fact, it could be perceived as actually pretty crap. I still pick it up and flick through it every now and then though. Don’t know why really but I do find it kind of fascinating.

KasinoA4 — Family Issue

The cover of the Family Issue of Kasino A4 magazine.

Andrew: A great mag anyway, this was particularly lovely: the first 300 people to buy The Family Issue from their website received customised copies courtesy of an illustrator they commissioned. I never felt so warmly welcomed into a family that wasn’t my own.

Michael: Woo-hoo! I’ve got this one too! I had to sign mine myself though. :( It’s good, huh. I’m such a fan of Kasino A4 now. Every issue manages to exude a warmth and joviality… is that a word? Oh well, it is now. Even when they’re talking about scary clowns and stuff. After crawling about on the floor pulling out random mags here and there (I really have to find some decent selves) I have to conclude that there’s not many mags that welcome you in as readily as Kasino A4. Which is annoying because I wanted to see if I had an equivalent that you hadn’t heard of (Good for Nothing? Stand Off? Special? Index?). The nearest contender seems to be Is Not Take Away

Is Not Take Away

Contents page from Is Not magazine take away edition. A magazine originally made as A0 size bill posters on walls.

Michael: Did you know the crew behind the poster format magazine that used to adorn the streets of Melbourne—known as Is Not Magazine—did a trimmed down version? You probably did, huh. Anyhoo, I never scored a poster (or a tshirt — the tshirt version of the magazine looked completely rad) so this handy purse-size version suits me fine. It even has it’s own selected highlights package at the back… oh, hang on that’s a compilation of a year’s worth of blog comments by the looks of things.

Andrew: I didn’t know they did that! I’m half pleased, half disappointed that it wasn’t ‘wall-only’. But then I do have a tube filled with some of their back issues (minus one that I sacrificed to the wall of a gallery in Milan as part of my ‘Objects as Magazines’ exhibition last year) — my plan one day is to buy a house and paper the littlest room with them. Talk about great toilet reading.

One of my proudest moments was being mentioned in an issue of Is/Not — it’s one thing to write for a newspaper or magazine with a huge circulation, quite another to know that your name is plastered up on the walls of an Antipodean city or two. Such a shame it ended… we wanted them to take a room at the last Colophon.

Michael: BTW I met the guys behind Is/Not the other week. Stuart Geddes is producing some luverly editorial design for various clients around Melbourne under the moniker, Chase & Galley. I should try and get a copy of Design Observer over to you, they produced a one-off newspaper for the State of Design Festival a couple of months ago. The festival was a little lack lustre but their paper was ace! Jeremy Wortsman’s illustration agency, The Jackie Winter Group, is going great guns by the looks of things, as is the gallery he helps run called Lamington Drive. I was hoping your name was in Is Not Take Away but alas I shall probably never get to see that edition. :(

Freestyle

Freestyle magazine with it’s circular format that fitted neatly into a Frisbee. Image via magazinedesigning.com/freestyle-magazine.

Andrew: One last visual goody for you — a magazine I only recently received. It arrived in a pizza box, and is called Freestyle. It comes with a specially designed Frisbee each issue (this one was designed by Eley Kishimoto), and combines traditional magazine binding with an unusual shape (and a few other touches — the cover actually contains red thread sewn into it). As a magazine, the format doesn’t always work, and the content is rather inconsistent, but when they succeed — such as with these beautiful photos of chimps — their circular format is just fabulous. There’s still plenty of life in print yet.

Michael: I totally agree with you on the ‘life left in print’ thing. ‘Keepability’ is key now. Down with ugly, black-hearted, disposable rags who only exist to satisfy advertisers.

Hey, I wanted to ask you a question for the article (and to satisfy my curiosity too). I was just wondering how many countries you reckon you’ve visited.

Andrew: I just counted — 38, and I’ve lived in four different ones since I was 18. Plenty more to go, of course. Always.

Michael: I imagine you’ve seen a lot of newsstands.

Andrew: Never enough.

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Michael Bojkowski

Michael is a design practitioner with 20+ years experience across a wide array of fields. You can find his writing on and around design scattered around online.