Alexander Provan is the editor of Triple Canopy, a magazine based in New York, and contributing editor at Bidoun, a magazine of the arts and culture of the Middle East and its diaspora. His writing on digital culture, aesthetics, literature, and politics has been published in Frieze, Artforum, Bookforum, Art in America, The Nation, n+1, and in several exhibition catalogues. He is a fellow at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics (2013–2015).
So I’m just going to jump right into this without describing Triple Canopyvery much, but I will mostly speak about Triple Canopy, which is a magazine based mostly in New York as well as a few other places around the world which does various activities all of which we understand as publication in which we argue should be understood by others as publication.
So when—I also was going to have a more linear presentation that reflected directly on these images, but I canned that, so I’m just going to occasionally scroll through them and I they may or may not relate directly to what I’m saying. So when Triple Canopy first formed in 2007, we the editors were motivated by the increasing characterization of the Internet as a venue for the unremitting production of content and by the corresponding feeling among magazines and art institutions that they somehow had to participate in this production. That they had to solicit interactions, pursue accessibility, conjure a virtual body of enthusiasts, while also preserving their financial models.
At the same time we were frustrated with the frequent valorization of online forums or social networks or publications that seemed designed to generate fleeting or inflammatory interactions among users who gathered because they shared interests or hobbies or political affiliations or supposedly identities. Were those really communities and not just marketing ploys? If they were communities, were they to be lauded, mimicked? Should magazines strive to create such communities or perhaps they could simply be found if you knew where to look. How many unique page views and what kind of bounce rate makes for a legitimate community? Perhaps we were anomalous, but as far as I remember none of us considered ourselves to be part of any online community. I don’t think we were interested in creating one, really. In fact we wanted to argue against the fragmentation of culture, its branded platforms with particular breeds of content likely to appeal to narrowly and quantitatively defined groups. On the most basic level we wanted to establish a magazine that would through its rigorous editing, its Catholic interests and its considered presentation of work address people as sophisticated and unpredictable readers who could not so easily be classified by profession, age, locale political orientation, ethnicity or consumption patterns.
We wanted to create a space where readers as well as contributing artists and writers could expect to have absorbing, rewarding, stimulating and even profound experiences that would not soon be forgotten. This was probably a bit of a fantasy. Or at least this idealism may belie our actual readership in the intervening years. Nevertheless, I think this agenda speaks to Triple Canopy‘s orientation. Toward technology and the discourse around it to our concern to how we can create culture and meaningful bodies of knowledge in what is increasingly a resistant efficient particularized world.
“Culture is also something personal,” John Dewey writes in Democracy and Education. “It is cultivation with respect to the appreciation of ideas and art and broad human interests. When efficiency is identified with the narrow range of acts instead of with the spirit and meaning of activity, culture is opposed to efficiency.”
Dewey saw in the early 20th century an atomization of experience into “separate institutions with diverse and independent purposes and methods. Business is business, science is science, art is art, politics is politics, social intercourse is social intercourse.”
His description of the conflation of culture and efficiency seems twice as true today.
As the line between the Internet and real life disappears, as our consciousnesses are molded if not overtaken by our screens, we want Triple Canopy to serve as an alternative to tech world fantasies about crowd sourced knowledge production, an algorithmic cultural creation to a star system cultural economy that pays a few people a lot and a lot of people little or nothing, and to ossify cultural institutions that neutralize everything that they survey. We want to support work that resists and expands to the present and keeps supporting it until it finds its place in the world which may take years.
We want to keep enlarging our sense of what Dewey called “the unity or integrity of experience” and we want to engage the world at our own speed. This leads me back to the question of for whom a magazine might exist especially a magazine that operates primarily online and so can theoretically be for everyone and just as easily for no one. I’ll talk about this in rather reductive terms, community on one side and public on the other side and I won’t attempt to define community. Maybe we can fail to do that later. But I’ll—I’ll briefly distinguish between community and public and explain why but it’s helpful to think of Triple Canopy‘s work in terms of public and not community.
So obviously a community may may be foundational to or may arise from the activities of a magazine. That’s certainly the case with Triple Canopy, but our motivation has not primarily been to support or dramatically enlarge the community that birthed the magazine and it has for the last almost ten years sustained it. This has to do with what I said about the atomization of culture and the way in which the digital economy has come to understand and profit from individuals as quantities of relatable data points. It also has to do with the way the world community is used. So often used to identify voluntary non-economic unequivocally good activities rooted in empathy kindness selflessness in blogging and so often fallaciously. Since we don’t have that much time I’m just going to continue by reading an excerpt from an excellent book on the subject. It’s Miranda Joseph’s Against the Romance of Community.
She writes, “What I call the discourse of community, positions community as the defining other of modernity, of capitalism. This discourse includes a romantic narrative of community as prior in time to ‘society,’ locating community in a long lost past for which we yearn nostalgically from our current fallen state of alienation, bureaucratization, rationality, it distinguishes community from society spatially as local, involving face to face relations where capital is global and faceless. Community is all about boundaries between us and them. Boundaries that are naturalized through reference to place or race or culture or identity. While capital would seem to denature, crossing all borders and making everything, everyone equivalent. Further this discourse contrasts community to modern capitalist society structurally. The foundation of community is supposed to be values, while capitalist society is based only on value (economic value). Community is posited as particular where capitalism is abstract. Posited as its other, its opposite. Community is often presented as a complement to capitalism, balancing and humanizing it, even in fact enabling it.”
That’s the end of the quote.
The sound that happens when quotes end.
Thanks for that.
None of this is to discounter communities as they actually exist or to discount the power they can exercise. But it is to encourage wariness of the use of this term, especially I think when it pertains to the digital economy, which describes a particular kind of value to our expressions and interactions. Alternatively I want to talk about how a magazine can, through the presentation of work, through various modes of address and circulation, constitute a public.
For a long time, Triple Canopy has looked for the work of historian Michael Warner, specifically his book Publics and Counterpublics. Warner draws on Jurgen Habermas’s analysis of the bourgeois public sphere but he works to figure out how Habermas’s model which is built on the universal value of rational discourse and so widely and rightly criticized can be tweaked so as to allow for a public sphere that’s composed of numerous publics, not a single hegemonic one. To that end, Warner describes counterpublics as being formed in opposition to the dominant discourse and the norms it tries to instill.
Publication is a particular form of making public, a discreet set of practices. Not every radio broadcaster, blog post, exhibition, or pamphlet counts as publication. We can think of “to make public,” not just as making something public but as making a public. Which is more complex than simply making information available.
Temporality is crucial here. A magazine can organize time through the regular delivery of articles and issues. As Warner writes, “A public is understood to be an ongoing space of encounter for discourse. No texts themselves create publics, but the concatenation of texts through time. Only when a previously existing discourse can be supposed, and when a responding discourse can be postulated, can a text address a public.” So and maybe it’s a little idealistic to think that a publication can literally organize time and situate a reader within that certain notion of time, but this is more or less what Warner suggests and he also suggests that a reader will recognize one’s self as inhabiting that time at the same time as however many other readers may exist.
So how else is a public formed according to Warner? A public is self-reflexive. People recognize themselves as being part of a public when addressed as such by a text. Which is to say a public is form of discourse. A public is composed essentially of strangers who choose to join one another through discourse. A public can just as well enable one to recognize one self as not being addressed and so as not being part of it which may lead to the generation of what he calls “counterpublics.” A public is made by capturing people’s attention and doing so repeatedly, regularly via the circulation of texts through time and the expectation that this will continue to happen. Different publications, whether academic journals or Reddit forums possess different temporalities. Ultimately I think a public provides a forum for the social world in which it exists through time, through media, and through this kind of mutual recognition.
This may seem like a rather abstract idea, but I think for Triple Canopy at least it has actually animated and on a daily basis shaped the work that we do. And it compels us when conceiving of a publishing platform to ask questions like, how can the platform, the structures and concepts of publication, support the tools we use and support the people who use them?
How can the website hold activities on the web in print and in person, hold them together and communicate how they relate? Can an issue of a magazine reasonably include a book, an installation a single image, an artist’s edition and a reported essay? Can multiple issues occur simultaneously or one for a month and one for a year and is the magazine issue the best metaphor for a coherent set of inquiries in whatever form that starts at some point and eventually ends? How can a magazine effectively annex various kinds of communication networks and face to face interactions and bodily experiences for and as publication?
And can a magazine shape a public and resultantly shape our social world?
So this is—these are images of a recent project we did, which is emblematic in a way. It’s called pointing machines, and it was—it began with a long period of research and discussion among the editors, and was initially instantiated as an installation at the Whitney Biennial and these are some images from the various paintings and prints and objects that were included in that installation. The issue hinged on the historic and contemporary reproduction of images and artworks and the various kinds of audiences and meaning they can attain, through painting, through photography, through 3D printing, through publication, through Zazzle and so on, and that body of research and that initial instantiation of the project was used as a prompt to write other writers and artists and scholars and performers to contribute to the issue over time and then the results of that issue which is still ongoing are on our website.
And I will stop there. Thanks.