Editors’ Space: Dan Visel

EMERGING FORMS: Interview with Dan Visel, Contributing Editor, Triple Canopy

(Interviewer: Caroline Malone, ES Editor for SPACES)

Dan Visel is a contributing editor of Triple Canopy. He is presently working for Unfold, a start-up mapping political discourse. Besides Dan Viselworking as a book designer and editor, he has since 2005 been been part of the Institute for the Future of the Book, a Brooklyn-based think tank focusing on the changing nature of the book as it moved from the printed page to the networked screen; in addition to managing the Institute’s software development projects, he has written and spoken extensively about the changing nature of the book and its relation to technology.

Caroline: In the traditional print world of publishing, literary magazines legitimize themselves in several ways, forming a hierarchy of reputations. Are online literary magazines evolving similarly? And if so, do you think this endangers one of the purposes of the online format which is to provide greater opportunity for more authors to be published?

Dan Visel: As you note, print publication is semantically richer than most people assume: if you pick up a magazine, for example, and notice that it’s printed full color on glossy paper or that it’s available everywhere, you’re probably going to make some assumptions. It costs money to print a magazine well; and widespread distribution means that other people think the magazine’s worthwhile in some way, even if that’s only that people are likely to buy it. A photocopied zine triggers similar associations. This works on a more aesthetic level as well: if a magazine is designed well, it’s likely there’s a correlation with the quality of its content. This isn’t invariable, of course, but the reader assumes, perhaps subconsciously, that if work and money went into making something look good, it’s probably worthwhile.

Things are more complex online: it’s harder to judge a book by its cover, though there are still some correlations. There’s a low bar to enter publishing online, and as web technology has matured, it’s become easier and easier to present well-designed content online. A one-time investment can get anyone a flashy design for your first issue. The web loves novelty; it’s easy to make a splash. That said, it’s as difficult to sustain good content online as it is in the print world; and as in the print world, longevity is a marker of reputation. Perhaps more than in the print world, selectivity can also be a factor. There’s a perception in the online world that a site must always have something new; this impulse tends to lead to poorly selected (or edited) content. Plenty of magazines end up being effectively edited by interns, which is unfortunate.

Publication for more people isn’t really a problem: if you’re a writer, there have never been more outlets for publication, whether it’s self-publication or a paid book deal. The problem, I would argue, is really the attention of the reader. As readers, we’re bombarded with content from all sides, most of it free; in effect, publishers have offloaded the problem of the slush pile onto readers. Occasionally there are rewards from this – one of my favorite novels of the past decade was self-published before being picked up by a bigger press – but we need, more than ever, filters to figure out what’s worth our attention. Reputation still plays a big role in this. We’re in a period of flux: the mechanisms that we used in a pre-Internet world to ascribe value to content still exist, though they work imperfectly. Newer methods are appearing, though nothing’s codified.

Caroline: There are artists – visual artists, poets, fiction writers, etc. – who resist online print culture. What would you say to them to convince them that the virtual platform is an excellent choice for sharing their talent?

Dan Visel: There’s an unfortunate trope of replacement that comes up when people are talking about the relationship between print culture and online culture, as if the digital will replace the printed world. It’s only necessary to look at previous moments of technological change to notice that the actuality is more complex. Film, for example, might seem to be a replacement for theater: and certainly plenty of things that can be done with theater can be done as well in film. But that doesn’t mean, of course, that theater doesn’t exist anymore. More germane to your point, film only becomes interesting as a medium when it starts exploring what it can do that theater can’t do. I think people are often right to be skeptical of digital publication, because too often it’s a watered-down version of print publication. Looking at a JPEG of a painting isn’t as good as looking at a painting (nor is a printed reproduction of a painting). But when the digital world starts looking at what can be done that can’t be done with print, value emerges. If the JPEG of a painting allows zooming in to detail smaller than the eye can see, that might be a start: it’s doing things that are difficult to do in print or in person. But that’s not valuable for every JPEG of a painting: as in the offline world, design must match content. The digital world allows different kinds of design; just as in the print world, good design takes work. Making something digital doesn’t automatically make it good.

Caroline: On the Triple Canopy submissions page, it states that the magazine has “been charting an expanded field of publication: creating print objects and public programs that exist in dialogue with our online content, drawing on the history of print culture while also acting as a hub for exploration of emerging forms of technology and the public spaces constituted around them.” How do you see this interchange as creating new forms for art? 

Dan Visel: Perhaps a good example of this might be a recent project that Triple Canopy did, which started with an invitation from the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art to be in a show on conceptual tendencies in writing. We started by putting together a special issue of the magazine for visitors to the museum: this consisted of several articles that we’d previously published that had to do with the subject as well as several newly commissioned pieces. We then put together a series of symposia at our space in Brooklyn, bringing together poets and artists to talk about conceptual strategies: these weren’t directly connected to the pieces in the special issue, but were distinctly related. We recorded the audio of the events; MP3s were made available from our website. The audio was transcribed and the transcripts were edited for clarity; two of our editors also thoroughly annotated what was being talked about. This was turned into a printed book, called Corrected Slogans; also included were photographs of the events, as well as comment cards that the audience at the events filled out.

Related material was presented in a number of different ways, which reached a number of different audiences. People visiting the MCA could read the articles and connect them with what they were seeing; the events brought in an audience of poets and artists who started conversations about what was being talked about. Because the events were sequential, ideas that were brought up in earlier ones impacted the discussions in later ones; people who were in the audience in earlier events became panelists in later ones. And a printed book provides a concise record of a great deal of thinking: it can be picked up in a bookstore by people who have no idea what Triple Canopy is or that the MCA had a show about conceptual writing.

This sort of interchange is enabled by the internet. It’s not specific to the internet: books have been starting conversations, both in person and in print, since people started writing books. But the internet allows us to respond more quickly. We didn’t know when we started the project that we’d end up with a book: a project might best end in an event or an online piece. Technology gives us options.


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