What do we talk about when we talk about contemporary culture? Especially if considering culture as represented in the dazzling quick medium of magazines, where do we locate our definition of cultural production today?
While musing languidly about these useless questions – and not really wanting to embrace an academic rant on them – I picked up three magazines of recent crop to try and understand if anything had really changed in this realm during the schizophrenic, freakonomic year of 2010.
And the first sign that something had changed was that, while I was going through the typical new London magazine about “fashion, design, music, film, art, culture, travel and lifestyle” – this one dubbed The Hub –, I suddenly noticed that the publication was strangely dense.
One article after the other suggested a real thick volume of content, which is awkward for a magazine that seemed to fit in that long tradition of slight and slick superficiality that comes all the way from Dazed and Confused onto Wallpaper and all their other simulacra.
And what was the explanation for this apparent outburst of well-designed substance? There was simply no advertising. No intermission. No visual branding intervals. Nada. I run for the next magazine in my desk – the Italian Pizza – to check if this was a trend, and again… niente.
In Pizza’s case, in fact, there was instead an even run of “fake campaigns art works” by Peppe Tortora, that somewhat perversely cared to remind us that we are indeed sweetly addicted to those oases of brand emptiness in-between every two other pieces of information overload.
If, as I will do in a moment, I was already talking about Brooklyn and Toronto based Assembly, and this being a more alternative assemblage of powerful cultural stuff, such absence of the commercial would be just normal. But when looking at these other magazines this was plainly unexpected.
This mysterious absence of publicity is ever more weird when Pizza, for example, looks at culture from the monocular point of view of fashion.
When, despite you being based in Milan, you don’t have the fashion industry behind you and yet you insist in promoting the cultural actors that somehow revolve around such world – the photographers, the writers, the designers, the artists etc. –, then you may only be deemed extremely generous.
Or perhaps Pizza is driven by that other noble purpose of boosting a certain cultural identity through a hip medium. Indeed, Italianess comes up as a subject in each single interview in this rivista. Would this be a show of anxiety because of the position that Italy now occupies in the new European geo-economic domino?
As its name proudly forwards, Pizza is all about the wonderful mix that Italians invented and exported to the world, only now metamorphed from fast-food onto a big, beautiful cultural mishmash. With its optimistic view on the return of a wonderful, glamorous Ur reality The Hub plays the same game, but for the London scene and its proud local goodies.
As such, both mags are late representatives of an already nostalgic view of European culture as a grand assemblage of pleasurable activities that once had an energetic economy booming behind them. With ads gone as a symptom of a new lifestyle, and with consumers consistently fleeing onto a paradise of free internet content, let’s see how this culture will fare without the money behind it.
As for Assembly, this journal is an amazing example of a rather different cultural ambition. Here, content is indeed independent from the finantial context. It talks to us of a production of culture that will always happen, independently of big economic groups or whatever fashionable trends are booming or sinking.
Assembly‘s thematic diversity is truly cosmopolitan, reminding us that it is not only theory or current thinking, but also contemporary urban life itself that is eminently interdisciplinary and wide-ranging in its deeper interests. Texts range from appealing short fictions to mind-boggling medical or musical essays. And its interviews range from shrewd to unabashedly important.
As such, the first issue of Assembly smartly blends together visual essays on suburban Toronto and insightful reflections on the South African informal city. Or the confessions of a stalker, and the political report of an Iranian émigré, intersected by Mathew Craven’s vintage American imagery inspired collages.
This is a global journal for a cultural niche, but this niche is the one that, across the world, will probably remain faithful to intelligent content, now matter how everything else is receding into the delightful savagery of ultra-liberal economics.