OutCrowd: the Interview that never was

Questions for Mél Hogan, by OutCrowd (05/2011)

When you think of someone reading “No More Potlucks,” who do you instinctually imagine as the reader?

I first imagine the readers to be the people featured in the journal. And then I imagine that their friends, their communities, their families, and their online social networks become readers. And then some readers become contributors, and the cycle repeats itself, and grows.

Your most recent issue, titled “animal,” explored our recent fascinations with animals and our more primal side as humans. Where do you find the ideas for your themes?

Ah. Good question. It’s actually a lengthy process and an important one. M-C MacPhee (content curator) and I make long lists year after year of words that we think might make good themes. What makes a good word? Well, usually we like a loaded word, and by that I mean a word that can be interpreted in a lot of different ways and that is rich in meaning on all those fronts. Trespassing. Fixate. Ego. Anonyme. Words that have multiple meanings are great because they help us to imagine different types of contributors. So that’s what we do next; we associate words with artists, activists and academics whose work we feel strongly about and when we have a good match, we make it a theme.  My dream would be to have words that are bilingual (like Animal, Rage, Rural, Chance, etc., for each issue, but since that doesn’t always work out, we have one or two in French each year—the two languages of NMP also add layers of meaning for themes, as you can probably imagine.

Do you fear for the future of the ‘magazine’?

Not at all. Why? What is there to fear in the future?  Based on what has developed in the last five years in terms of open source content management systems and print-on-demand, I can only imagine what another ten, fifteen, years will bring…Drupal, DropBox, Lulu, etc are all web-based services NMP relies and that make doing what we do not only possible but possible with so little money. We have no funds, except for a party each year (thank you Miriam Ginestier!) and a few generous donors who give us money, with no strings attached. But basically everyone in NMP—editors and contributors alike—is volunteering their talent, energy, and time because they believe in the project, and presumably gain and generate value in other ways.

So I don’t fear for the future of the journal in terms of sustainability. What we can do now we could never have done even a few years ago. The sustainability of the journal depends a lot on the efforts and the drive of people – technology and money are second to that.

I definitely could not keep NMP going without M-C MacPhee, who has been my best friend for more than a decade. It might sound corny, but at the heart of any good project is a good relationship. NMP actually has a great team of people helping out in different ways, to different capacities and with varying time commitments. Info on our team is found here: http://nomorepotlucks.org/credits

Of course if someone wanted to give us a lot of money so that NMP could become a full time job for 2 or 3 of us, that would be the most amazing thing ever. But so far, I’d say that I’m quite reluctant to think that money would necessarily make NMP better. I’d love to pay contributors and editors, etc, of course, but I’d want for that to be substantial, otherwise managing money just becomes another task to take on…and we’re pretty full on as it is!

For now the momentum is SO great—we are booking issues one year ahead of time (!!)—so we feel energized and inspired by this. We also get invited to speak about NMP a lot, at art festivals and academic conferences, so we’re fueled by the support we are getting.

What worries me though is the state of the internet more generally—will there be usage based billing, will throttling continue, will copyright become (more) of a hassle, will the web turn into (more of) a giant shopping mall… the bigger picture worries me a little because right now I feel really free doing what I do with NMP, though I am aware that the web could be transformed considerably by regulations/policy in the next few years. I’m hoping the strong counter current to these commercial forces will maintain the balance, keep everyone in check, if not tilt the web in favour of continued experimentation and creative freedom.

Where do you imagine a line of censorship for such a free-thinking magazine? What falls to the cutting room floor?

The only time I considered the issue of censorship was in an early issue where we had a ‘porn’ video and I worried that our ISP or host might flag it. Pretty sure we agreed not to host “adult” material when we bought our server space. But nothing like that ever happened, but it does make us cognizant of the fact that ownership of content online, and control over it, is murky. So yea, I do worry of the general policing of the internet… In that way we have very little control over NMP. But I personally accept that as a risk of doing stuff online, along with server crashes, sites getting hacked and spammed, and so on.

What falls to the cutting room floor isn’t really about pieces that go too far or are explicit in ways we aren’t willing to stand by – in fact we encourage people to push the boundaries of acceptability (acceptable to who?) in NMP. This is true both in terms of experimental writing and multimedia presentation of work, and in terms of content. What doesn’t make it in—though it has happened that we’ve turned pieces down—are just pieces that aren’t quite ready for the deadline, that we normally rework for a later issue. NMP is 90% by invitation, so when we ask people it’s because we are already familiar with their previous work. More and more we are getting outside proposals though, so we’ll see if that changes the process. We encourage proposals and are open to change.

How do you communicate your style to contributing artists—is there a way that you expect them to think?

We usually refer artists and other contributors to previous issues for them to get a sense of what the journal is about. Whatever they ‘get’ from NMP, that’s usually enough to guide their submission.

We don’t have a mandate but we somehow, I think, have a very strong editorial voice. We really encourage people to publish stuff they can’t see being published anywhere else. For academics in particular this can mean work that isn’t accepted by more traditional peer-reviewed journals that normally have a very long turnaround, and works that are presented as video, audio, or any combination of these things.

For artists, NMP is a great place to not only showcase their work but to have it reviewed and written about, either by being matched to a curator or an NMP editor. McLeod’s video series is a really good example of this—each issue has a featured video that is documented and reviewed by a curator. It’s very important to write about art and to get interviews with artists to be posted alongside the work itself. For activists, we think NMP is a place to be heard—it’s definitely an alternative to a newspaper or a blog, in part because it’s within the context of an arts and culture journal.

I’m always happy when people write and tell us NMP is THE place they want their work published, and not because it doesn’t fit in other contexts but because NMP is the best one for whatever they are producing. This has happened and I love hearing how and why NMP works for them, and I feel like that’s because of the amazing content and how they relate to it.

For me its important to balance the artist-academic-activist content in each issue, but as far as what people contribute, we’re very open and often publish things that push our own boundaries as editors, or that we don’t fully agree with, or that we’re not sure we fully understand. We try to balance that with being accountable and responsible for the overall publication seeing as one contribution belongs to an issue and influences the overall content of NMP.

What do you hope for a reader to think after closing the magazine and moving on to the rest of the day?

It’s funny because sometimes I’m so busy working on the details of getting the publication together online and in print, that I don’t take time to think of the important questions, like this one.

Off the top of my head, what I hope readers get is a sense that there is a lot going on in Canada in terms of art, theory and politics. And I hope that reading about it, or watching/listening/reading about it inspires readers to make things; either start their own journal, make art, make noise in their communities, or pitch an idea to NMP!

How do you your design in No More Potlucks express the relationship between images and writing?

This is an interesting question because part of it is about my limitations as a web designer for the online version, and the way we need to have certain features automated for the sake of consistency …but also to have a stable workflow. So that means that things, like the article thumbnail, might crop and scale to frame something differently than if I could do it all manually, but the trade off means I can take this on and stay sane by maximizing the potential of the content management system. Over time, I imagine, I will make these things even better. When we initially designed NMP we never imagined it would take off the way it has, so to go back in time I would revise the back end and front end design a lot. This would mean that, to answer your question with a specific example, we could insert images through our back end interface within the text, rather than just at the top of the piece. When we do insert images in the body of the text, as some pieces require it, we do it through FTP. Maybe that’s too technical or specific, but anyway, it’s just to say that for the online version, these things are simultaneously flexible and restraining.

For laying out the print version (which has become so much ore enjoyable since working with Momoko Allard) we have a pretty standard template, which we improve each year. I love our look now, in print. We decided to have a lot of white space and let the images and texts breath. We design the issue from a grid; two columns for most texts, and a (double) one column for fiction pieces. We are a hybrid, in terms of layout, between an art catalogue and a journal, so we design each piece to be relatively the same, and each issue to resemble the one before.

All the issues are available from Lulu, via print-on-demand (http://stores.lulu.com/nomorepotlucks).

Choosing the cover image is pretty intense, sometimes. A great image isn’t necessarily a great cover. And as we have learned a cover speaks loudly about who people think we are and what people assume we represent. So I chose very carefully… Over time, the covers a s a collection of images takes on its own meaning, and I think represents well the general idea of NMP. But I leave it up to you to say what that is…what the connections are between themes, images, etc.

What is ugly to you?

Injustice. Insecurities. Taking things too seriously. Inequality. These things are ugly.

In terms of design aesthetics, I’m probably quite conservative. I like clean lines, minimalist and simple grid layouts, and the choice of one good font for body text and one slightly more illustrative for titles. I think good design is about knowing why you are putting things where you are putting them. Everything has a place and until you really know that, you don’t mess with the rules, you follow them! I do still feel quite limited in my CSS skills to get NMP to look exactly how I want it to in Drupal, but it’s OK for now – the design works.

In print, the design is where I want it to be. 

Many of the articles in your magazine cover diverse transnational subjects. How have you navigated the magazine’s multicultural, multi-lingual perspective in a way that inspires universal interest?

We strive to showcase a lot of Canadian content, at least 75% of any issue. That said, who and what counts as Canadian is open and we don’t have a firm take on that. But we are quite strict on maintaining a certain Canadian-ness in whatever shape and form it takes on given that it would be so easy to fill the pages with American content—there is so much being produced south of the border that resonates with NMP.

Which issue would you recommend for a first-time reader?

Pretty soon all the issues will be free online—we are ditching the subscription model—so I would recommend that someone just playfully navigate the site and read it diagonally… whatever draws them in, randomly or thematically, for research or leisure.

What is a magazine without its design?

 Nothing!

Of course if you ask the designer they’re going to tell you it’s really important… but seriously, I think design is funny in the sense that if you do it well, the work and craft of it disappear, and so it is not really recognized (except by other designers, usually). I think NMP could use a slight upgrade – a slight freshener. As the art director I try to balance those changes with the consistency of what has become NMP and what people expect when they visit the site.

I think design is communication. Design says as much (more?) than content. Design speaks to us on another level though many of us haven’t developed the affective vocabulary for it nor a shared sense of how colour, shape and form appeal or repel. We feel it, but we don’t understand it necessarily. And so the layout of the website, and print journal, means we read the content differently whether or not we are aware of the design.

How do you judge a really successful issue?

I’m not sure. For me, there have been a few little dances-of-joy and virtual high5s when I get someone whose work I really admire to be in NMP… like Ann Cvetkovich, Laura Murray or Jane Anderson… or Mary Bryson, Kim Sawchuk, Anne Golden, Line Chamberland, Jane Siberry… all these amazing thinkers and doers… the list is quite long now. To me this is a great measure of success.  The mix of academic, activist and artist content is a measure of success too. As is diversity by all definitions.

There have also been pieces that have had an insane amount of hits: I’m thinking here of Sarah Maple’s work, the piece on the late Will Munro, and pretty much anything Yasmin Nair writes. I can see from our stats, and more recently through a visible counter at the bottom of each page, which submissions get the most attention. This is also a measure of success.

So far though, I think each issue has been successful by virtue of being up on time, out in print, and full of amazing content… and this for 15 issues now.