BOMB Magazine, Celebrating 25 Years

by Nell McClister

 

This year BOMB is celebrating its 25th anniversary: a milestone, especially since no one at the outset in 1981 thought the magazine would last longer than three issues. As we pass the quarter-century mark of publishing interviews between artists and writers, alongside artists’ writings and new fiction and poetry, we’ve been reflecting on what it is about our interviews that has found such longevity. This paper, delivered at the Association of Art Historians’ 2006 conference at the University of Leeds, discusses the magazine’s origins, and its original intention, which remains its mandate: to foreground the work of art as always in dialogue, with the artist as engaged in the world, and the reader or viewer as instrumental in the construction of a work’s meaning.

 


Sarah Charlesworth, cover of BOMB #1, May 1981.

BOMB originated in a conversation around a kitchen table. The group of friends who were to become its founding editors (Betsy Sussler, Liza Bear of Avalanche, Sarah Charlesworth, Glenn O’Brien, Michael McClard) had been tossing around the idea for about a year of starting an artist-edited magazine that “talked about the work the way they talked about it among themselves,” but what really triggered issue #1, which came out in May of 1981, was the decision, made another night around the same kitchen table, to call the magazine BOMB—a reflection of the editors’ certainty that this venture was going to bomb, to be ephemeral and disappear after a couple of issues, thus sharing the fate of the films and plays that these friends had been working on. Indeed, the founding editor-in-chief, who still helms the magazine, Betsy Sussler, had co-founded (with Eric Mitchell and McClard) another art magazine called X Motion Picture just the year before that folded after three issues, as one of those projects that was right only for a certain time. No one imagined that BOMB would fill a gap that perhaps hadn’t been widely felt or described yet, which is the call for the voice of the artist to accompany the product of his or her creativity—and that is the visual artist, the playwright, the writer and poet, the actor, the musician, and, in more recent years in BOMB, also the architect, the dancer, the philosopher.

In researching the history of the magazine, I was struck by the notion, described to me by Sussler as keenly felt by her and her friends back in 1980 and ‘81, that the critic’s voice was considered more worthwhile than the artist’s. It is difficult to imagine a time when the authority of the artist’s voice was in question, but it is not so difficult to see that artists and critics were often to be found on opposite sides of the fence. As Richard Prince observes in the special ’80s issue of Artforum (March 03), Critics tried to tell you what you were doing, and wanted you to make the kind of work that they were thinking about . . . . I probably resented that." Prince, like his friends and fellow early contributors to BOMB, came at the art world from somewhat of an outsider perspective, with what might in his own case be described as a defiantly enigmatic, almost Warhol-esque approach.

It has been noted that the ’60s and ’70s witnessed a crisis of criticism given that the authoritative, even dictatorial writings of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried had been observed to be complicit in the homogenization and commercialization of the art world. Early BOMB was black-and-white, printed on newsprint, a deliberately low-budget, populist alternative to critical-essay glossies like Artforum. BOMB combined its interviews with downtown-style gritty fiction and political commentary in the indirect form of essays and as raw information offered as is, such as chapter one of the manifesto for the so-called New World Information Order, drafted by an international committee calling itself the Non-Aligned Movement, which appears in BOMB #1. Such cross-pollination between interview, fiction, and political content emphasized the situation of the artist as inextricably linked with urban, political, and economic reality, complicating the idea of the cultural producer.

Although the rejection of the critic’s mediation was central to BOMB‘s original idea, resentment like Prince’s did not play a major role. As Sussler puts it, “There are revelations that happen in conversations between artists that make the work more transparent not only to the reader but to the artists themselves. And that’s what we were after.” They were also after revelations that can happen on the page, when images and text are brought together. As Sussler says, “We were collaging.” Such juxtaposition demonstrates the kind of sparking or resonance that the magazine was generally going for by putting all kinds of artists together, both their testimony and their work, to create essentially another sort of dialogue or exchange. In Sussler’s words, “it was never about any sort of exposé. It was really about a collaborative project, that we were all going to sit down and get to the heart of the matter.” In order to attain such depth in conversation, the participants must have a certain level of shared knowledge: whether as friends who are familiar with every detail of the subject’s body of work, or as peers who know the terms of creative production. This also guards against the kind of scripted interviews that invariably turn up in print now and again: the predictable questions and the mechanical if sometimes profound-sounding answers that appear in every interview with that person. As Sussler observes, the most important thing you can do as an interviewer is listen, and then the conversation naturally evolves.

BOMB’s earliest interviews were edited as one-act plays; the performative aspect of discussing your own work was pushed to the forefront, and only later did the conversations emerge as experimental dialogues in which not only can the revelations that Sussler mentioned take place but the paradoxes inherent in the creative process can be spontaneously explored. The fiction and art that accompanied the interviews is similar. What emerges is a picture of a group of artists engaged with the limits of good taste, questioning the boundaries of what is possible to address in art.

What was developing in the downtown literary, theater, visual arts, and film world was a post-familial subcultural community, a surrogate family, a new kind of “tribe.” The philosopher and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman sees the ’80s as the “age of ’contingency,” “the era of neotribalism and community, since contingency needs friendship as an alternative to madness. The ‘neo’ here points to the difference between traditional practices of community . . . and the whole of individual acts of self-identification that result in the ‘tribes’ of the present—tribes that tend to be ‘concepts’ rather than ‘integrated social bodies.’” The early BOMB contributors and editors were used to working collaboratively and collectively. There were power struggles, certainly, but for example, in the ensemble theater group Nightshift, in which Sussler acted, everyone was in constant discussion over where the play, say, was going and what it meant. As the BOMB community grew, a growing audience of readers expanded this idea of the “family” of the magazine. In the early issues the interviews lack introductions or indeed any kind of blurb to identify the participants or the projects they are discussing. Sussler assured me that this came as a result of no one’s having had any publishing experience, but the familiarity, even if the lack of information can be the opposite of welcoming, does serve to assume the reader as one of “our own,” not a person on the outside who might need an introduction to the material but a compatriot, an insider. The audience was invited to access the narrative of cultural production close-up. And indeed, rather than a kind of voyeur or eavesdropper, the reader of the interview and of this kind of typical BOMB article is in fact the unspoken subject—as in the target, the implied listener—to the conversation, which after all is recorded for publication.

The interview format lends itself particularly well to such a policy of inclusion. As a silent third party to a dialogue rather than a receiver of a monologic critical essay, the reader is neither excluded nor addressed in a direct manner that might place him or her outside the privileged conversation. What’s more, whereas in the critical essay the “voice” is usually assumed as an authority, an objective voice from “on high” that proclaims, in the interview, and especially in the two-way interviews or dialogues in BOMB, the interlocutor constantly reminds the reader of his or her subjectivity: both authoritative in his or her earnest presence in the conversation and limited to his or her own angle and experience that’s brought to the table. And of course the subjectivity of the artist is also foregrounded in the interview format. Discussing art often means demystifying it, which can short-circuit the aura of the artwork but also amplifies its communicative power and expands its connotations while positing its author as a human being who developed a good idea, not an unassailable cultural producer or a kind of channeler. The interview format thus allows for a truer reflection of the situation of art production and art viewing, and rather than simply celebrate the power of the artwork, it achieves something much more important: it makes it more complex, it emphasizes the labor that goes into art, the passion of the artist, which in turn empowers the reader. And that moment of revelation that Sussler speaks of does happen in the course of the conversation, and that moment remains an authentic reflection of the creative process and also the evolving nature of insight and the search for meaning itself.

The invaluable support of the community, the “family,” that recognizes the importance of the venture and their own crucial place in it brings us back to the question of the form’s longevity. The magazine may not have a huge readership—it’s currently about 40,000—but its fan base is fiercely loyal. In thinking about why, and in reflecting on the nature of the BOMB interview, I started to think about the idea of storytelling as Walter Benjamin describes it in his 1936 essay “The Storyteller,” which is based on the work of Nikolai Leskov, the nineteenth-century Russian novelist and journalist, but which applies to exactly what BOMB‘s editors, and Sussler in particular, have been pursuing all along: originally growing out of their craft as playwrights, actors, visual artists, and writers, such storytelling carries the weight and legacy of classical oral tradition and lore but involves a perfectly contemporary exchange of experience. As Benjamin notes in his essay, “Experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth is the source from which all storytellers have drawn. And among those who have written down the tales, it is the great ones whose written version differs least” from the spoken versions. The editing at BOMB always takes into account the translation of the spoken text into written text as a process of making what was spoken come across to the reader. What’s more, the artists and writers do most of the editing of their own interview themselves. And visual artists as much as playwrights and novelists have chosen as their career path a form of storytelling: the communication of a lived or dreamed experience, or the creation of an experience of looking or witnessing, the triggering of a new experience using an object.

Such sharing of information is part of the process of making the artist’s production accessible or transparent. As Benjamin defines it, “counsel” consists of practical advice, or a moral, or a kind of maxim: basically it “contains, openly or covertly, something useful.” Benjamin finds in his day that “‘having counsel’ is beginning to have an old-fashioned ring,” and “this is because the communicability of experience is decreasing,” which he attributed to World War I, noting that men returned from the battlefield having grown silent.

Benjamin’s notion of a decrease in communicable experience in the face of the growing impact of the modern world, with its effect of alienation, is typically prescient. Jumping ahead from his historical moment to the late ’70s and early ’80s, a time of economic recession, political conservatism, cultural denouement, and fragmentation after the demise of late ’60s optimism and the unraveling of high art forms like Minimalism, it becomes clear that the efforts of artists and writers to find new ways to express their discoveries about themselves and the world also called for new forms of documentation. BOMB created a whole that was greater than the sum of its very fragmented parts: a comment on the times, in the voices of the times. And as the communicability of experience may be decreasing, the importance of the effort to communicate it only increases. As Edward Rothstein observed in the New York Times in a review on March 20 of Stephen Miller’s new book Conversation: A History of a Declining Art [Yale] that “conversation may be . . . one of the most fundamental political and social acts, indispensable to negotiating allegiances, establishing common ground, clearing tangled paths. Conversation may reflect not just the state of our selves, but the state of society.” The open-ended format of the interview highlights a dialogue about opinions and how they relate to one another. The artist’s tendency to point outside the work to political events and motivations and to other artists as well as to personal experience helps keep the discussion accessible, which is part of the battle against insider-ism that any cultural magazine must fight, and solidifies the notion of the artist as a figure who is engaged in the world in the search for meaning and the tools with which to express it.

BOMB 96
Summer 2006
The cover of BOMB 96
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