We talk to Hannah Sawtell, the latest guest editor, about turning a print magazine into sound.
If you really sat down and tried, you could turn a lot of pages in the space of 30 days. While we've spent over a decade providing you with about 120 of those pages every month, it turns out that VICE isn't the only magazine in the world. This series, Ink Spots, is a helpful guide to which zines, pamphlets, and publications you should be reading when you're not reading ours.
When art critic Maria Fusco started Happy Hypocrite back in the spring of 2008, her plan was to make a new space "for and about experimental art writing." The print magazine would be a testing ground for artists, writers, and theorists to publish radical research, new ideas, and informal conversations between brilliant minds that might not otherwise be published. Maria edited the first five issues of HH, and then opened the door up to a new woman guest editor per issue because, as she puts it, "there are a lot of amazing women editors who do not get the visibility they deserve."
Fusco hands over total creative control to her guests. The only rules for continuity are that part of the issue features an archive section of reprinted ephemera relevant to the theme, that a certain percentage of each issue's content is sourced through open submission, and the size of the mag stays the same: just short of A4. A standout was issue six, where Maria passed Happy Hypocrite over to the cult American writer Lynne Tillman, who chose "freedom of speech" as her topic, and featured a cover from the artist Susan Hiller and a contribution from the incredible writer Lydia Davis.
Now in its ninth issue, Happy Hypocrite once again finds itself with a new editor: London-based artist Hannah Sawtell. Her issue of Happy Hypocrite is called the "accumulator_plus" issue and consists of the print magazine, as well as a sound piece/radio show based around the content.
For her theme, Hannah chose to focus on ideas of regeneration and resistance, specifically in relation to sound. She relates this to the fact that she grew up listening to pirate radio in the UK, and later ran a music label in Detroit called Planet E with techno producer Carl Craig. Her issue of Happy Hypocrite honors these ties. It features an interview with Detroit producer Anthony "Shake" Shakir where he looks back on the stories behind some of his records, as well as a brilliant essay from critic Jonathan P. Watts on the lineage between London pirate radio and grime music.
Beyond the brutalist typeface that sits on the front of every issue of the Happy Hypocrite, #accumulator_plus looks totally fresh throughout, influenced aesthetically by old rave posters. To find out more about Hannah's thinking behind how the issue would shape up, and how you turn a magazine into a piece of audio for radio, I gave the artist a call.
VICE: When you set out to create this issue, what were the main themes you were thinking about?
Hannah Sawtell: I was thinking about use of the word "plus" and what it would mean to present "plus" as a suggestion of my work being sometimes made up of collaborations or negotiations with others, to repurpose "plus" away from what could feel a cynical or disingenuous promise. The format of this journal already lends itself to this... It starts with a call out to the general public for texts, which I then have to choose from. For the call out, I offered up my work—a set of my hashtags used in a previous work that was part of my show "Accumulator" at the New Museum—as though they were questions to elicit a response.
My concerns in the work are about speed, progress, communication technologies now, on a global and local level, but with this journal to also focus on "frictions," things made outside of a market-driven initiative. This is an ongoing part of my practice, to consider events as they are active, before they become co-opted.
In light of that, how did you pick your contributors?
Just after I was invited to edit this edition, Colin Faver, a key figure in the history of underground music and pirate radio in London, died. The journal has a fixed format, including an "archive" section, so I dedicated the whole archive to him. I wanted part of the journal to be based around the idea of radio as a possibly democratic platform, also, its evolution from pirate radio to online radio in London. Colin's archive shows how he began as a DJ and club promoter, designing his own flyers, to starting Kiss FM from a flat in London, to the station's final appropriation into a commercial enterprise.
Other than that, the musician JLin was invited to send an image that could represent a piece of music, or sound. The image is in the journal and it's of some ducks by water. She took it in response to a song she chose, you find out what the sound was in the next journal. And then the Iranian-American artist Morehshin Allahyari was invited to write about the politics of repetition, and I made a collaborative piece with the writer Jennifer Lucy Allan using images and text. There was a lot of call and response.
What influence would you say that time has had on the mag?
There is a nod to things made "from the ground up," so to speak. Detroit techno, pirate radio, grime—I think these forms start with a similar proposal or intention to represent local culture. Of course, anything can be commodified eventually, but is there still a point when something holds onto the proposition: "Can you hear it?" For instance, Anthony Shakir, who I interview in the edition, is still working away from home in Detroit.
The issue charts the physical gentrification of cities, and how that detrimentally affects their music scenes. How have you experienced this first hand—in Detroit or London?
It's the same in both, although much more extreme in London of course, as property and land is so valuable. That's the nature of cities, but London is becoming homogenized. It's a great shame. Detroit was a very different thing because when I lived there, it was really like a forgotten place. Not to the people who lived there of course, but by the rest of America. The likes of record store/distributor Submerge and the label Transmat sent a signal from Detroit to the world... It was an extremely important and exciting time.
The great thing about space there then, was that there was loads of it to use... and those events were a place that people, after a week's work, could really let their hair down. But now of course what follows a period like that in Detroit is that people move in to utilize those spaces—artists and the like—and then follows gentrification. Same as New York, same as London. People will always find ways to resist and to organize though.
What part does technology play in that? When it comes to clubbing or music venues, are we finding new spaces to converge online because physical spaces are no longer there? Or are the physical spaces no longer there because we're finding new spaces online?
It seems to vacillate between both problems, but I really believe we need to get folks out of their rooms and into a physical space with others and for that space not to be a completely branded option only. Yes, technology has to be culpable too, and online space is also branded, but it can be and is used with a different intention.
Talking of getting folks out of their rooms, you held a live event that formed part of the issue, can you tell me about it?
As I also work with sound and image, I asked Happy Hypocrite's publisher, Bookworks, if we could make this issue a little different: I would edit the book, but also turn the book into sound and present it as a live event and radio show. I asked contributors to send sound that could represent what they wrote. I invited JLin, who is in the book publication, to come to London (she lives in Indiana) to participate. I gave JLIN two tracks and some of my work to re-edit live. The tracks I chose represent some parts of the journal. At the end of the book publication, the artist Tai Shani describes an image with text. I made a live audio reply to her description to close the radio show, in this way extending the call and response idea through to the radio program.
The event was in Bermondsey, the next area of London currently being gentrified, it's about to have massive redevelopment. It was free to all, I chose a great sound-system and specific lighting, and was an hour long recording of a radio show, which is an aural version and transmission of the book publication, which would then be broadcast on NTS Radio. It tied together everything that's discussed in the issue about new ways of attempting to think about how sound, image, and writing can interact.