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Do you remember the first time a magazine changed your life?

As a tweenager I bought Mizz religiously, I saved my pocket money to buy Smash Hits, NME and Kerrang! The latter was during my non-ironic tie-wearing phase when I thought I was Avril phase, which was accompanied by a black bold line of kohl – but just on the bottom off my eyes. And now, I could spend hours browsing shelves flicking through pretty pages, getting dodgy looks from the corner shop cashier, until I finally settle on a magazine that looks more like a book. I buy homemade zines from Instagram for 99p plus postage. I’d spend any spare cash on the beautiful, picturesque and perfect publications that grace high street and indie stores alike. They all end up on my painted pink bookshelf, pride of place, and they’re ready to be there forever.

And forever is the key word here.

Print is forever. Nothing will ever replace the feeling of something tangible in our hands that we can read, that we can revisit and go back to. That’s truly the best form of magic there is.

We asked Paul Gorman, curator of the Print! Tearing It Up exhibition currently being shown at Somerset House, about what the first print mag that truly resonated with him was, “In summer 1972, when I was 12, I bought at my local newsagents in north London issue 33 of Frendz, which was a late-flowering underground paper where post-psychedelic design shaded into glam and coverage included social issues and well as rock & roll festivals. Up until that point I had been buying comics like the Beano, US magazines such as Captain America and the Fantastic Four and as a little kid Captain Scarlett and TV21. Frendz provided me with an entry point into a countercultural world which continues to feed my fascination for art, design, music and politics.”

For years, people, the press, consumers and producers of # content, have all uttered the words ‘print is dying’ at least once. But, like, is it? Is it really? Are magazines six feet under the ground, having buckled from the weight of the internet? The short answer is no. Print hasn’t particularly gone anywhere, despite the competition presented to it in this multimedia age. Paul said there was certainly the threat of print publications ceasing in the 00s when “digital seemed to overwhelm major publishers who shifted to skeleton staffs and closed titles by the busload.

“A good example is The Face magazine, acquired by Emap in 1999. This was one of the most important publications of the second half of the 20th century but within five years it was closed and, more importantly, the archive wasn’t digitised so it left no footprint. And the impact of the financial crash of 2008 combined with the rise of online has continued to accelerated the rate of closures. Simultaneously these factors encouraged a regrouping among independents so that within a couple of years successful contemporary titles such as The Gentlewoman and Mushpit started to emerge.”

With the threat of digitalisation, with all of us spending our lives online, and the ease and vastness of pressing send from our mouse to send something out on to the world wide web, it’s no surprise that some journalism absolutely thrives under these circumstances. Breaking news, on-going stories and archived features are right at home online. But, “the differences” between print and digital, Paul says, “are what makes print special. The permanence of print vs the glibness of expression online is one of the great appeals to the current crop of contemporary titles.”

Claire Catterall, Somerset House’s Senior Curator, said of the exhibition, which is being shown at Somerset House until August 22nd, “For us, above all, the exhibition is a celebration of the resurgence of independent magazines, which is remarkable, not only because it’s happening at a time when most media is migrating on line, precipitating the demise of many newsstand favourites and the oft quoted ‘death of print’, but also because the sheer quantity of the magazines appearing is staggering, covering seemingly every subject and minority interest, but also crucially providing a platform for gender and identity politics, allowing minority and underrepresented groups such the LGBTQ+ community, and people of colour to have a voice. And also, it must be noted, these magazines are erudite, intelligent, stylish, funny and brilliantly designed.

“We hope visitors to the exhibition will get a sense of the power of the independent voice in print, then and now. But we also want to show that it’s not over yet, this remarkable resurgence is only just beginning, and as more and more people find their voice, it can only get better. Just as the magazines of the past changed the conversation, the magazines of today will almost certainly do the same.”

But how did they select which publications made the cut? “As we needed to take a more focused view,” Claire said, “we start our exhibition at the beginning of the twentieth century, with Blast, the hugely influential Vorticist magazine published on the eve of the First World War, that really heralded the start of Modernism.

“This exhibition can’t be an all encompassing history of the independent magazine. Much as we’d love to see that show – it would of course be much bigger. What we are offering is a focused selection, drawn from a few key archives. We’ve picked out a few magazines for particular attention, either because we see them as key, or because they have a particularly relevant story to tell, but also because they may have been short lived and perhaps not so well known, but super interesting.

“Frustratingly you won’t be able to flick through them. Which is after all the joy of a magazine. But you will get the chance to read some of the great contemporary magazines at the end of the exhibition, where we have constructed a newsstand – in homage to the great newsstands throughout London and the rest of the country.”

Paul let’s us know why the notable magazines chosen were described as notable to begin with. He said, “Blast, the radical arts and literary magazine produced by the writer Wyndham Lewis and his group of self-described ‘Vorticists’ on the cusp of WWI (two issues were published in 1914 and 1915), is notable in that it set out to swept aside the heavy burden of Victorianism across the arts and instead embraced modernism. This set the tone for many ensuing publications, such as Graham Greene’s 1937 weekly Night And Day, which was intended as a British New Yorker, and applied the same critical approach to high and low culture. We saw such approaches, with overlays of political protest and social subversion in the underground press publications of the 60s and 70s – such as Oz, IT and Friends (which became Frendz) – and the important magazines which grew out of that scene: the enduring Time Out, the feminist Spare Rob and Gay News.

“Private Eye is a significant publication, mixing biting satire and investigative journalism to great effect since 1961 (and these days selling more copies than it ever has before), as are the contemporary magazines which address identity and migration, the pressing issues of our day: British Values, Clove, gal-dem, Hotdog, Riposte and THIIIRD are all good examples.”

When asked about what the future of print publications looks like, Paul said, “It remains in the hands of the independent publishers who are ‘small, mobile and intelligent’ to borrow the phrase of the great British guitarist and thinker Robert Fripp. They can be flexible and respond more adeptly to market pressures. They are also tapping into the desire for change as expressed by #metoo and the revolts against Trump and Brexit. The corporate magazine publishing model is collapsing – see the cutbacks at Conde Nast (which closed UK Glamour even though it was selling 260,000 copies a month) and the closure of the print edition of NME by Time Inc after it was bought by a private equity firm.

“Ten years after the crash independent magazines are providing self-determination, space and agency to the views, wishes and desires of people from racial and social minorities who have been previously denied a strong voice and had become dissatisfied that their contributions were being lost to the ether of the Internet. Given the uncertainties we face and the failures of those we have elected to represent us, everything is up for grabs.”

So, in conclusion, print is not dead. See you in the magazine aisle.

PROCESS! is a two day festival celebrating independent media and making from Somerset House and Somerset House Studios residents OOMK as part of PRINT! Tearing It Up. Running from 21st-22nd July, Saturday 11.00-20.00 / Sunday 11.00-17.30. Tickets £7.

Words by Eliza Frost

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