Regard(s) is a magazine created by the MA Fashion Studies students at The New School Parson Paris exploring the meaning of fashion publishing today. The magazine investigates the different issues connected to the making and distribution of printed magazines in the context of today's digital media landscape.
I was a contributing editor and writer for the magazine, on top of taking still life photography photos for a section.
A MAGAZINE FOR THE SENSES IS A MAGAZINE FOR THE SOUL
by Angelene Wong.
Originally published in Regard(s).
In the far corner of my bedroom rests my collection of magazines. The spines of these magazines face outwards, some pristine in their sharp rectangularity and some visibly having lived wilder lives with their slight tears and worn-in edges, with dates spanning from the late 1990s to present. From bottom to top, it starts with the ‘90s clique of bubblegum pink pre-teen magazines like Total Girl ordained by celebrity cover girls, followed by Seventeen which I religiously read every month from the early 2000s. From the loud Arsis Italic font against block-coloured backgrounds, the collection proceeds upward to the all-caps boldness of NYLON and i-D that accompanied the emotionally distraught music taste of my mid to late teen years. The elegantly minimalistic spines of L’Officiel lounge above these, which allowed my first peek into the elusive haute world through the fantastical editorials on large glossy pages. Finally, the latest additions at the top – The Gentlewoman, Shot of Joy, Suited, and Vestoj sit jarringly yet rebelliously on a matted throne atop a high pile of glossies. As a commentary on the different stages of my growing up, these magazines are, in Kira Permunian’s words, “memorabilia of the times."
Permunian, author of “The Value of Print in the Digital Age,” speaks of the sentimental value of printed objects within the pervasive print versus digital debate. He says, “As I would leaf through the pages of my favourite novel, more memories flash as little photos, notes from friends and loved ones pop up. I can still see the highlighted phrases that used to mean so much to me. Some still do. It’s beautiful. With a magazine, I enjoy the feeling of the glossy finish under my fingertips as I skim through the featured articles, advertisements and the like. Some even come alive in vibrant colours.”
This awareness haunts my daily scrolling of fashion news on my Business of Fashion iPhone application, or when I enter the blogs of Song of Style and The Man Repeller ‘sideways’ through their Instagram profiles, to when I purchase a new pair of sneakers through sliding up on the screen when viewing Hypebae’s Instagram story. My method of receiving information has changed with the digital turn, yet while the subject matter may be the same, the experience of a print magazine, as Permunian related, cannot be similarly replicated or replaced by the digital medium.
REVISITING THE TIMEWORN PRINT VS. DIGITAL DEBATE
On one side of the ring the supporters of digital media cite immediacy, cheapness (or freeness), convenience, interactivity in terms of two-way communication, and the ability to share information instantly as its benefits. A written article can be substantiated by a video, the commercialisation of the digital media has quickened the see-now-buy-now approach, and one platform can lead you through an endless rhizome of hyperlinks. The possibilities are virtually endless. Yet, its print counterpart, the older veteran that persists against retirement hangs onto power. It seemingly surfs the technological tides in constantly evolving ways, according to the changing human-technology relationship.
The argument for print is slightly less ‘rational,’ less easy to list down the benefits in practical terms. Instead, it encompasses a more affective user experience. ‘User experience’ would actually do the apparent liveliness of the print magazine an injustice. In a Freeport Press survey taken in 2017 on the preference for digital or print magazines, many identified the “look and feel” of a print magazine as their siren song. “No one buys a magazine nowadays for info, per se,” says Ana Paula Picasso, founder of Emerging Markets Today. “That’s why the Internet is here. You buy a magazine to have an experience that goes beyond information. A visual and tactile experience perhaps.” Though her argument negates how interaction with a screen is also a visual and tactile experience, her sentiment that print magazines carry a certain magic – something missing from digital magazines – echoes through society. Further ingredients of this magic are print’s exclusivity in terms of circulation and content, and collectability. After all, e-books never sell out.
So what is this magic and why do we persist to produce and consume print magazines? Anyone with a smartphone can access information so easily online. This article aims to explore the material and multi-sensory experience of print that set it apart from digital, with a particular focus on independent print magazines.
PRINT MAGAZINES AS MIXED MEDIA
Firstly, to understand print’s ‘magic,’ we need to study it not as a visual medium but as mixed media. The traditional privileging of magazines as visual media is what W.J.T. Mitchell diagnoses as “sensory hygiene,” which criticises the act of singular categorisation. He argues in his essay, “There Are No Visual Media,” for an approach similar to that of architecture, Gesamstkunstwerk, which posits that due to the multifaceted sensorial experience, architecture should be received in a state of distraction. On top of this, “sensory ratios” identify how all media are mixed in different proportions of elements. This is not forgetting the print magazine’s represented contents, typography, graphic design, shape, weight, and material. These work together to produce haptic, olfactory, auditory, maybe even gustatory responses, on top of the visual, and enhance the symbolic significance of the content.
Visual culture expert Paul Jobling’s study of fashion spreads follows after Roland Barthes semiotic approach to the fashion magazine. Jobling criticises Barthes for his focus on text and neglect of fashion photography in magazines. Instead, Jobling argues that fashion photography evidences social politics, and this is enhanced by the collaborative effort of image and text that create symbolic value for the reader. Interestingly, Jobling did not take into account how the very materiality of the print magazine enhances its reception. How does the rectangular shape of most magazines and their sizes create a specific environment for the digestion of its contents? How do matte and glossy paper convey a sense of humility or elitism about a magazine’s identity?
Material thinking has enabled scholars to transgress media specific boundaries to understand the effect of objects more holistically. Painters in the 18th century devoted great attention to the depiction of texture in the garments of royalty, to convey wealth and power through the richness of their garb. As one’s fingers itch to caress the life-like depiction of a velvet skirt, we realise the haptic possibilities of this ‘visual’ medium. After all, for Mitchell, “Seeing painting is seeing touching, seeing the hand gestures of the artist, which is why we are so rigorously prohibited from actually touching the canvas ourselves.”
This mixed media approach has been identified through a handful of different nomenclature. Anthropologist Webb Keane calls it the “bundled” signifying qualities while anthropologist and art historian Christopher Pinney calls the bodily engagement with artworks “corpothetics.” Historian Elizabeth Edwards looks at what she calls a “sensory photograph,” which is “entangled with orality, tactility, and haptic engagement.” She recognises how this affective relationship to photographs as objects are due to a “double helix of image biography and the biography of material refiguration and remediation.” As such, she posits it as necessary to trace the “placing” of a photograph within social relations, as these changing contexts constitute shifting significances of the object. This type of material thinking borrows from the anthropological perspective of Arjun Appadurai and Igor Kopytoff who argue how things have social lives; they accumulate social significances as they move from one context to another and so have agency of their own – their own biography.
Recalling my pile of magazines, those slight tears in the corners, the bend of a page, or an accidental pen mark – these are evidences of the energy of their social lives. A page ripped out recalls of a light-hearted conversation with a childhood friend over the exchange of the magazine. The series of magazines stacked from oldest to newest creates a conversation between these titles and their roles during different stages of my growing up, yet the relegation of the glossies to the bottom of the pile mourns a bygone heyday.
SOCIAL LIFE OF A MAGAZINE
The social life of a magazine begins from its production. At 19, I interned at the Cosmopolitan Magazine Singapore and once a month a colleague would distribute the latest issue around the office the day it hit newsstands. All typing and conversations would halt as we silently marveled at our words, images, and design manifested on the glossy pages with bewildering awareness that what we held in our hands – our creation, mistakes and all – was suddenly vulnerable to public scrutiny. Unlike these magazines that pass from seller to buyer, to friend or family member, to shelf or bin, it is difficult to trace the social life of digital media.
Though, the experience of the screen is not to be mistaken as lying outside of the material realm. In its instantaneousness and standardisation of approach towards information reception – scrolling, clicking, and typing – it hardly leaves room for those telling ‘imperfections’ one can leave on paper. Also, from the publishing of content to its consumption, digital magazines’ social lives are indicated by the shares and likes they receive. They may go viral or be stored as bookmarks in one’s browser but these majority quantitative breadcrumbs on the path are coldly and flatly removed from the humanness of hand to paper interaction. It is no wonder Apple is constantly reevaluating the touch experience of its products.
This February, Dior repurposed vintage magazines for a floor to ceiling collage as their set for the FW18 collection showing. What does this indicate for the status of magazines today? For Marshall McLuhan whose work forms the cornerstones of media theory, magazines become art when they have outlived their relevance, like vinyls today. This is true when one thinks of the magazine archives in libraries and the seeking out of vintage magazines like i-D issues from 20 years ago or more. What then do we make of the renaissance of print magazines in the form of the matted and weighty independent magazines? How are we to understand symposiums like those organised by MagCulture that discuss the independent magazine at length and the continued effort to legitimise print magazines as still relevant?
LONGING FOR TOUCH
There seems to be nostalgia for the analog mode in the face of the cold screen. While we have yet to achieve the hologram computers that levitate in space like in the television series Agents of Shield – they seem fascinating to the eye but it is difficult to estimate how satisfying a bodily experience they would provide – we are faced with the proliferation of hardware which we cannot fold, wring, stain, sniff, or caress in a fetishistic manner as we do paper. Some contemporary magazines self-reflexively play on this need for the material. The fourth issue of Whatevr Fanzine comes in a vibrant pizza box filled with snacks to accompany your magazine consumption, while Wrap Paper’s illustrations are to be used as wrapping paper. Scentisphere is a marketing and branding company that produces scented ink and coatings for advertisements in scratch-n-sniff advertising.
The current niche demographic of print magazine buyers accompanies this shift. A quick glance – which often guiltily prolongs into an extended browse – of the ice cream-hued selection of independent magazines in select book and concept stores (hardly does one visit kiosks anymore) reveals the unique perspectives of these titles along with their higher price point than those you may choose to recycle or give away after one read. This cover price, combined with advertising, events, and brand collaborations are some tactics used to keep these independent magazines afloat in the industry, reported Business of Fashion. Does this indicate a triumphant resurgence of print over digital?
Author of The End of Print, Dave Carson, adopts a more objective stance and says, “Rather than debate whether [the changing medium] is good or bad let’s accept it and address it.” By accepting it, he points to the collaboration between print and digital whereby the relationship is best described like that between Emojis and words – Emojis, or earlier known as emoticons, convey what words fail to, and vice versa. In this way, social media and websites are used to harness the presence and desirability of the main print product. Distribution companies such as KD Presse act to advise independent magazine publishers on promotional tactics combining physical and digital techniques that accord with the reigning ideologies of the times. The Gentlewoman and Shot of Joy use the Instagram Story function to showcase pages of their printed magazine, while Kinfolk, having appeared in countless flat lay images on Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr, has seemingly become a staple coffee table piece. Independent print magazines, with their limited circulation, high quality editorials and writing to match, ‘Instagrammability,’ and high involvement on social media have set the stage for a new value of its medium. These material objects acknowledge the hyper-commercialised and hyper-technologised state of mass media and in a way use these circumstances to their advantage. They create a ‘safe’ environment; one that calls for a solitary corner in your favourite local café, a flat white and cool jazz – an escape from the noise that slowly infiltrated personal space with tailored advertising. Moreover, they are what remain in the world when digital information speedily fades into ephemera. With this generation of independent print magazines, there is a return to select quality, to thought and heart given to its creation for the love of print magazines. It is above all something we feel is authentic by the touch on our own fingertips, legitimised by the calming smell of thick GSM paper, ready to be hugged, torn, given away, burnt, or recycled, in a media-saturated world where we often feel helpless and confused by the information overload.