Aspen, Pop-Up, and the Multimedia Magazine

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Illustration by CargoCollective/EugeniaLoli
"A magazine is defined less by the nature of its contents than by its function as a container. The fact that this repository happened to take the form of a set of bound pages for several hundred years is not necessarily, therefore, a natural or innate feature of the magazine."

“By unbinding our magazine, letting it run free in its box, there’s no end to our three-dimensional ideas. In short, you don’t simply read Aspen … you hear it, hang it, feel it, fly it, even sniff it!”

— Advertisement for Aspen magazine, 1968

“Pop-Up Magazine is a live magazine, created for a stage, a screen, and a live audience. Nothing will arrive in your mailbox. Nothing will go online. Nothing will be filmed or recorded. An issue exists for one night, in one place.”

—, 2013

We live in a time of unprecedented uncertainty about the future of print. Signs of the demise of books, magazines, and newspapers are everywhere. Yet as surely as printed matter is dying out, it is being reincarnated—not only on the screens of our tablets and smartphones, but in different guises altogether. Consider Pop-Up Magazine, billed as a “live magazine.” Each issue consists of an evening of performances, lectures, and screenings, staged in front of a live audience. In an age when everything is archived and incessantly posted, aggregated, tweeted, and retweeted, Pop-Up privileges immediacy and presence. There are no recordings of the show, no YouTube videos to watch after the fact. You have to be there.

Something of a cross between This American Life and an old-fashioned variety show, Pop-Up started in 2009 in a tiny, 360-seat theater in San Francisco’s Mission District, and released its ninth issue in May 2013 to a full house of nearly 3,000 at the Davies Symphony Hall. According to Editor-in-Chief Douglas McGray, its title was intended to suggest the interactivity and three-dimensionality of a pop-up book. It also inevitably, if unintentionally, references the pop-up retail craze and its manufactured aura of scarcity and ephemerality, however. Tickets to each issue go on sale at exactly noon on a specified day and are usually sold out within minutes. The “articles” are based on the model of a general interest publication such as The New Yorker, with features in such categories as arts and literature, music, sports, science, memoir, travel, profiles, foreign affairs, etc.

Yet what makes Pop-Up a magazine is more than merely its table of contents. The word magazine, after all, stems from the Arabic makhzan, meaning “storehouse.” According to this etymology, a magazine is defined less by the nature of its contents than by its function as a container. The fact that this repository happened to take the form of a set of bound pages for several hundred years is not necessarily, therefore, a natural or innate feature of the magazine. So, then, what is?

Although the onset of the digital age has certainly intensified the current crisis of print, the roots of this predicament go back at least to the 19th century, when the telegraph (called “the Victorian Internet” by author Tom Standage) and telephone were invented. At the time, some predicted that the printed page would be abandoned in favor of the electronically transmitted word. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was around this same time that the poet Stéphane Mallarmé imagined a publication that would be liberated from the traditional codex form. Called Le Livre, it was to be a three-dimensional book with a set of mobile sections contained in boxes. Instead of being read privately by individuals, this “Book” would be performed aloud and collectively. Le Livre was never realized in Mallarmé’s lifetime, but his notes about it were posthumously published and translated into English in the avant-garde music journal Die Reihe in the 1960s, where several American artists came across them.

The conceptual artist Dan Graham, for example, was fascinated by Mallarmé’s book, describing it as follows:

“The linear book’s ‘time’ is enclosed, whereas Mallarmé’s ‘Book’ exists in a moment-to-moment specificity, its duration being formally identified with the constituent group of ‘readers’ whose presence literally informs it. Unlike the old book, the reader does not work his way progressively through in one direction.”

Graham was not alone in his preoccupation with the possibilities of the book as a new kind of object and social space in the 1960s. At a time when Marshall McLuhan was hailing the end of the book, Roland Barthes was declaring the death of the author, and the countercultures—including the civil rights, antiwar, gay rights, feminist, new communalist, and environmental movements—were launching widespread social revolution, the print medium was ripe to be reinvented as a realm of radical, utopian promise. Whereas text had always had an interactive dimension, it was no longer merely an archival medium, but being reconceived as a spatiotemporal entity in its own right, with the potential for actions, events, and relationships.

Artists during this period investigated the printed page as a new kind of artistic medium, experimenting with the formal and conceptual possibilities of books and magazines. They explored the materiality of the page, emphasizing its visual form and tactility—what Graham once called “the physicality of print.” Perhaps no publication better represents this phenomenon than Aspen magazine. Claiming to be “the first multi-media magazine,” this quirky, implausible periodical came in a laminated cardboard box containing various unbound contents including posters and booklets, Super 8 films, Flexi-disc records, and other objects. As its publisher, Phyllis Johnson, explained to readers in the first issue, published in 1965, the magazine “need not be restricted to a bunch of pages stapled together,” but could include objects such as “blueprints, a bit of rock, wildflower seeds, tea samples, an opera libretti [sic], old newspapers, jigsaw puzzles.”

She named Aspen after the Colorado resort town where she was vacationing when she came up with the idea. The first few issues catered to Aspen’s wealthy, educated residents and tourists with articles on wildlife, skiing, recipes, and jazz records. This changed when Johnson began to commission artists to design and guest-edit the magazine, however, starting with issue 3, which was assembled and overseen by Andy Warhol. As was enthusiastically claimed in an advertisement for the publication, “Aspen gives you actual works of art! Exactly as the artist created them. In exactly the media he created them for.” Subsequent issues were each different, devoted to various topics including minimalist and conceptual art, performance art, British art, art and technology, psychedelic music, and Asian art. A Buckminster Fuller issue in which each article would unfold into a geodesic dome was planned but (fittingly, perhaps) never realized.

In obvious ways, Aspen anticipated a multimedia age of technologies, as the artist Jud Yalkut expressed in his 1968 review of the magazine:

“What possibilities for the further evolution of the magazine format lay ahead in the challenges of new technologies now opening to the artist? More films, slides, film-strips, tape recordings as well as records and tape-loops, inflatable models and sculpture—structures may comprise a complete multimedia package with magazine “box” covers. … In our foreseeable future, the perfection of three-dimensional color videotape may well, in the words of Nam June Paik, make Life magazine as obsolete as Life made Collier’s.”

Yet Yalkut’s hopes for the future of the magazine are shadowed by the fear that new communication technologies might in fact eventually render it extinct. Indeed, with its cardboard-box cover, Aspen appeared markedly—and captivatingly—primitive as an example of multimedia. It explored the communicative possibilities of the future by looking backward, serving as a reliquary for those very media—records, films, and print—that threatened to become obsolete in an emerging digital age. Aspens strange, hybrid format in between old and new media speaks rather poignantly to the anxiety of print at the time—an anxiety that was all too real to magazine publishers, who watched their profits plummet as television cut into advertising revenue.

Aspen 5+6, a special double issue, was dedicated to Mallarmé, and, like the poet’s unrealized Book, promised to transform the semantic and social possibilities of print by stressing the temporality and interactivity of the publication. With contributors including Graham, Sol LeWitt, Brian O’Doherty (who also served as the guest editor of the issue), Mel Bochner, Tony Smith, Marcel Duchamp, Merce Cunningham, William S. Burroughs, Robert Rauschenberg, and John Cage, the issue presented a cross section of the New York avant-garde while stressing the transatlantic affinities and historical precedents of this milieu. It contained films, records, and various unbound texts and artists’ projects, including a miniature cardboard sculpture that could be cut out and pasted together. Roland Barthes’ famous essay “The Death of the Author” was also first published in this historic issue, suggesting how Aspen’s unusual format precipitated a “birth of the reader.” Reading (and watching, and listening to) the magazine was a deeply participatory experience that required the reader to activate the magazine, to bring its mute, static contents to life.

Sadly, given Aspen’s cultural significance, the magazine was forced to fold in 1971, shortly after its 10th issue, when the U.S. Postal Service revoked its second-class mail license. Citing criteria established by Congress in 1879, which required that periodicals be dated, numbered, formed of printed sheets, and have consistency between issues and periodicity, the Postal Service, while admitting that the publication was “a clever and imaginative idea,” concluded that it was not a periodical. Aspen’s violation of the category of the magazine, while little more than a footnote in the history of this short-lived and relatively obscure publication, opens onto a broader set of questions that shed light on the crisis of the magazine today.

For in exceeding the standardized format of the periodical, Aspen not only prefigured the end of the magazine but signaled the destabilization of this very category, suggesting its opening into an “expanded field.” As Walter Benjamin recognized, this paradox is intrinsic to the phenomenon of the outmoded more generally, whereby when a technology grows obsolete, the utopian possibilities that accompanied its invention become newly available. Indeed, while Aspen transgresses the bureaucratic conventions of the magazine, it also prompts us to consider those very conventions anew. As Phyllis Johnson herself stated in a letter to readers published in the first issue of Aspen, “In calling it a ‘magazine,’ we are harking back to the original meaning of the word as ‘a storehouse, a cache, a ship laden with stores.’” Might Pop-Up Magazine, likewise, represent less a radical departure from the category of the magazine than a manifestation of its true potential?

In particular, Pop-Up reflects upon the social processes—the conversations and interactions between readers—that magazines enable and perpetuate. As Jürgen Habermas described in his classic account of the emergence of the public sphere in 18th century Europe, the earliest periodicals fostered a participatory form of communication amid a public too large to converse face-to-face by allowing individual readers to see themselves as part of a larger, ongoing conversation. He observes that periodicals were “so intimately interwoven with the life of the coffee houses” that “articles were not only made the object of discussion by the public of the coffee houses but were viewed as integral parts of this discussion.” Habermas cites the dialogue form used by many of the articles and the practice of publishing letters to the editor as evidence of the distinct reciprocity of public discourse reinforced by these early periodicals: “One and the same discussion transposed into a different medium was continued in order to reenter, via reading, the original conversational medium.”

With its insistence on the presence of a live audience, Pop-Up cultivates the kind of face-to-face interaction that accompanied the dawning of the periodical. After the formal presentation of the magazine, audiences and contributors are invited to continue the conversation informally at the lobby bars. In a sense, what happens offstage is every bit as important as what happens on it—an interpretation confirmed by my own experience of the magazine in spring 2012, when I had occasion to attend issue 6. Thinking back on the evening, what strikes me is how little I remember about the show itself (in much the same way, I suppose, that if I think back to a particular back issue of The New Yorker, I might have trouble recalling specific articles). At the same time, nearly every other detail of that evening is etched in my memory. It was foggy out, I was tired from having met a deadline the night before, and I was wearing a yellow skirt. I remember noticing the other people in line and running into two friends while we waited for the doors to open. I remember standing around in the lobby afterward having drinks and chatting with people. I remember where I sat during the show, and that my boyfriend had just gotten a new pair of glasses, which I tried on during intermission and everything looked disorientingly sharp and distant. And I remember walking out into the dark, drizzly night to catch MUNI home.

Of course there are evenings when you simply don’t remember the movie or play so much as the weather and the pleasant company. But this was different because my heightened awareness of these ambient details was triggered by the show itself. There was a sense—which seemed to be shared by the other audience members—that all of it mattered. That the performance didn’t magically begin and end when the curtain rose and fell, but that these were merely markers in a larger intellectual and social process—designating less a strict theatrical boundary than a periodical—so to speak—transition from one part of the experience to another equally valid one. And this particular kind of enhanced consciousness—which seems to be why you could call Pop-Up a magazine—surely changed the kinds of interactions and conversations that took place in a kind of virtuous circle, contributing to the richness and significance of the event. (The fact that other issues would follow in succession only augmented that feeling.)

The magazine encompassed all of it—the entire experience of that evening. This idea, that a publication might function less as a static volume of information than as a prompt for ongoing events and experiences, can be traced back to artists’ investigations of magazines in the 1960s and 1970s. Dan Graham, for example, went on to guest-edit issue 8 of Aspen in 1970, conceiving of the publication not so much as an object or final product, but as an intermediary—a broker between the reader and the world, connecting the two, however temporarily. He imagined a publication that would “[point] directly to the outside world—to products to be played (maybe records) and services to be rendered.” That Aspen might function as an opportunity for social interaction was also neatly captured in a 1968 advertisement for the publication, which encouraged subscribers to throw an “Aspen box party.” The ad consisted of a photomontage of a stylish ’60s couple posed around a living room, enthusiastically projecting films, playing records, and unfolding the various articles, with the caption: “The Madisons have just received their first issue of Aspen, the multi-media magazine.” The ad copy urges readers to subscribe to the magazine and to “start planning your first ASPEN Box Party.” Despite the slightly gimmicky tone of this sales pitch, it gets precisely at the way in which the boxed publication functioned less as an end than a means. What began as an experience on the page would thus necessarily extend beyond it, activating future meanings and experiences and moments that could never be fully predicted, contained, or controlled.

Gwen Allen is associate professor at San Francisco State University, where she specializes in contemporary art, criticism, and visual culture. Reprinted from Art Papers (Nov.-Dec. 2013), the independent critical voice covering contemporary art and culture in the world today.

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