Monday, May 2, 2016

An Assembly of Conspirators: Omnibus News and Smile, 2016

 Note: This paper was presented at the Art Magazines and Magazine Art panel at the 
Association of Art Historians, 42nd Annual Conference, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, 2016. 
This online version has a very edited selection of the images that accompanied the original presentation.

Since the title of this session is “art magazines and magazine art” I want to briefly address some of the issues raised by these terms and, in particular, the larger context in which they appeared in Clive Phillpot’s, February 1980, Artforum article, the title of which was adopted for this panel.

Samuel Bibby in his call for submissions, observes that “…the category magazine art, with a few notable exceptions, has gone largely unaddressed by art history despite its relative prevalence as part of contemporary artistic practice”.  Phillpot, in his article, succinctly articulates his definition of ‘magazine art’ when he states, “By magazine art I mean art conceived specifically for a magazine context and, therefore, art which is realized only when the magazine itself has been composed and printed”.1  This key observation certainly helps to clear away some of the brush when it comes to defining this new attitude by artists concerning the magazine page, and indeed their approach to the totality of the magazine itself.  Another way of restating this observation is that the magazine itself moved beyond being simply a site of reproduction, and now began to be explored by artists as a site of production, and as a consequence this activity established the artists’ magazine as an artistic medium in itself. 

In response to Bibby’s observation that the term ‘magazine art’ has never gained any currency in the paucity of literature on the subject, I would argue that another term, ‘artists’ pages’ is the one that has now come to serve as the default term for these singular kinds of artists’ interventions in the pages of art magazines.

However, Phillpot’s article really has a larger target than the single artists’ page, and this lies in his attempt to sketch a topography for what he describes as “artists’ magazines” which he claims is “…a useful umbrella term to describe magazines for which artists have been centrally responsible…”.2  Phillpot’s text is then taken up with a survey of the varieties of post-1960s magazines in which artists played key roles in determining, both the content, production and publishing method of their magazines. What emerges from this text is a sense of the broad variety of artists’ magazines that responded to and served as primary sites for artists engaged in new forms of art, for which the page and the magazine provided indispensable printed matter contexts for the realization of their works.  I hesitate to go any further with regard to discussing the particular terminology that we use to describe these artist-initiated periodicals, since there is such a wide variety of artists’ magazines that would appear to fall under this rubric, with a range that swings between artists’ magazines lite, to the more rarified extreme of artists’ periodicals 100% proof. As if to illustrate this quandary of definition we can’t even really agree, not that there’s been any particular discussion, on the terms we use to describe these magazines, are they ‘artists’ magazines’ or ‘artists’ periodicals’ and what are the differences between these two terms, if indeed they differ at all? And this doesn’t even begin account for the variety of terms used in different national contexts!

I want now to turn my attention to two quite different artists’ periodicals that embraced two very distinctive publishing models and to explore how their artist editor’s set out to extend, both physically and conceptually, the materiality of the magazine. I want to examine how the resulting publications challenged not only received ideas about the role of the editor, but equally importantly, both in their very individual ways offered the contributors a newly activated role in the collaborative process that is a key feature of both these periodicals’ publishing models.

Omnibus News
The first periodical that I want to look at is titled Omnibus News and its only issue was published in the middle of 1969 in Munich, by its three editors, Thomas Niggl, Christian D’Orville and Heimrad Prem, who are self-described as “a well-to-do architect, a painter and a doctor.”   In their call for works, they appealed to a broad audience for submissions, including:

 …children, philosophers, literary figures, painters, sculptors, filmmakers, photographers, musicians, mathematicians, women….architects, sociologists, unbelievers, psychologists, doctors, asocial types — every homo lundens.3

Furthermore, the editors stated that their motives and hopes for this publication were to create an “…open forum, primary information, Arts Lab., telephone book-like collection system, experiments, expressions of the counter-culture…” and the resulting effect would be that “Omnibus News will contribute in such a way that every young and open-minded person will feel that much better in the world around them.”4

Omnibus News’ publishing strategy was simple, the editors issued a call for submissions in which interested individuals were invited to submit up to 2 pages of artists’ pages in an edition of 1500 copies each. Contributors were responsible for the cost of reproducing their own submissions, and all works would be accepted with no editing or censorship. The ‘editors’ then compiled the magazine by taking one page from each of the piles of submissions and from this they literally assembled the periodical. In a reversal of the traditional editorial hierarchy, the contributors now functioned as the ‘editors’ of their works, and the former editors’ roles were now reduced to being mere compilers or assemblers of the periodical. While this publishing model had previously been nurtured within smaller and intimate personal artistic networks, with Omnibus News the editors opened it up and invited the world to step up for a ride on this new periodical omnibus.

The final publication is comprised of 192 submissions (384 pages) bound and sequenced alphabetically in an A4 format and in an edition of 1500 and it contains a wide assortment of visual works, literary and theoretical texts, proposals and documentation, scores and reproductions of extant works created in a variety of media, and printed mostly in black and white. At the end of the periodical is a three-page listing of the contributor’s names and addresses, which extends the periodical’s collaborative model in offering the contributors the opportunity to establish direct contact with their fellow contributors.

A survey of the contributor’s list reveals submissions from eight countries, with an 82% majority from Germany. Contributors were also asked to donate 15 DM to help with the binding & postage and for this they would receive 10 copies of the periodical, and thus they also unwittingly became distributors of the periodical as well. The editors also hoped to distribute the remaining copies in a variety of unconventional locations such as the libraries of military barracks and old people’s homes. 

As for the publication itself, the front and back covers reproduce a number of particularly grisly series of photographs from the aftermath of a serious crash between a bus and train at a crossing. The dark humor contained within this visual play on the periodical’s title is only the most visible feature of the editors' larger intentions in adopting this experimental publishing strategy, with Christian D’Orville proudly noting that through its “…elimination of conventional values and elimination of thematic directions…” Omnibus News will undoubtedly secure “…a place within the opposition to the official art world.”5 D’Orville further speculates upon the ramifications of this democratized magazine model, and how people will respond to this ‘open’ publishing concept, observing:

It is exactly the expansion to people who up to this point did not want or could not participate, which awakens my interest. Everybody can be their own editor. No general achievement-expectation thus should keep the individual from experimenting. The publishers are only the compilers and organizers of OMNIBUS NEWS. 6

He goes on:

My interest in OMNIBUS NEWS shows itself first in my curiosity to discover what could develop out of the possibility of such a sheet-compilation. The heterogeneous and the accidental, the important and the unimportant…7

On the edges of the flier seeking submissions to Omnibus News, which is reproduced in the magazine, are a number of slogans that encourage contributors to literally sabotage the periodical itself, such as “drop a full load into the Omnibus,” “Sprinkle sugar in the Omnibus tank,” “Scratch the enamel,” “Puncture the tires of the Omnibus,” to “Pee on the Omnibus wheels,” and “Hurl sand in the gears.” Taking this theme a little further, I want to propose that like the spectacular crash that is featured on the front and back covers, that Omnibus News itself was the tool with which these three editors conspired to quite literally to 'crash' the periodical — or at the very least to do their best to 'disassemble' it. By taking away all the familiar structures in the creation of a periodical (editorial control, guarantee of quality content, and pliant contributors) and by simply announcing a deadline, the size and number of pages to submit, they were taking a calculated risk in undertaking a publishing experiment that had never been attempted on such a broad scale before. However, the larger artistic and political culture in Munich during 1969 provided very immediate examples of the emergence of an alternative & experimental culture in the wake of the 1968 revolts across Europe. The editors of Omnibus News were certainly alert to all these events as well as the collective strategies deployed in these movements for social change, and I want to propose that Omnibus News’ collectivist publishing strategy cannot be seen in isolation from the larger political, social and cultural struggles of this tumultuous period.

Included in the magazine’s editorial page is a rather interesting link to the struggles in Latin America in the form of a reproduction of an editorial written by Margaret Randall and Sergio Mondragón for the 26th edition of their Cuban-based periodical El Corno Emplumado, dated April 1968. The inclusion of this statement is a telling sign, not only of political solidarity with this important long-standing cultural journal, but an implicit agreement with the editors’ position on the artists' role within the revolution as:

…one who refuses to be considered a luxury of the revolution… who defends his right to dream, to create beauty…(he) will be the only one capable of proving that his work is not a luxury, but a necessity not only for himself but also for his fellow man.8

Looking ahead and beyond the immediacy of this issue one of the editors has handwritten around the above clipping from El Corno Emplumado the following, “‘idea for next edition: 10 persons closed together with an offset printing machine will work (together) one week in a locked room.” 9

For reasons that remain unclear the editors did not publish a second issue of Omnibus News,  despite the inclusion in the first issue of a brief outline for a future issue with a very different set of editorial limitations. It would seem to appear that the editors were content with the results of this first publishing experiment and that periodicity itself was the next periodical convention to be discarded.10

To summarize, Omnibus News stands as a landmark publication in the history of post-WWII artists’ periodicals, and the year of its publication also represents a watershed moment in which assembling periodicals would appear in other countries, most notably in Canada and the United States, indeed, the name “assembling” comes from a well-known American example appropriately titled Assembling that published 12 issues between 1970-1986.


Smile Magazine

I want now to look at the second periodical under examination and that is Smile magazine. On the screen is a work by the American artist Ray Johnson (1927-1995) with what appears to be two different designs for the cover page of a publication called Smile. As anyone who knows this artists' mercurial practice, there's always a story and more attached to his works. In a 1987 letter from Johnson to the young English cultural critic Stewart Home and reprinted in Lightworks magazine (#22, 2000) he writes:

Thank you for your letter.

Yes, I did my magazine Smile because of File in Canada who were inspired by Life and Anna Banana did her Vile and some people in Chicago did Bile. My Smile magazine did you know was invisible?11

The Johnsonian twist was of course — did you know my Smile was invisible?! However, despite the fact that Ray Johnson never actually published a copy of Smile magazine, he is a vitally important person in the larger Smile magazine project. Johnson has often been called the father of mail art, and while this is not the place to argue that, I think its commonly agreed upon that his particular way of working and his use of the postal system in particular was influential in the creation of what is now called the international mail art network. For Stewart Home who was new to this network and who had published his Smile magazine in 1984 totally unaware of Johnson’s, this network would become a vital structure in supporting contact between fellow conspirators as well as the circulation and distribution of the magazine itself.

Smile magazine makes its first and most important institutional appearance as the subject of an exhibition curated by Simon Ford at the National Art Library, Victoria and Albert Museum in 1992 titled “Smile Classified.” This exhibit featured over 100 different periodicals from three continents that all bore the same title, “Smile” or a similar variant.

What I want to explore here is Smile magazine’s relationship to the Neoist Cultural Conspiracy, Home’s application of Neoism’s ‘multiple name concept’ to periodical publishing and his creation of an open source periodical platform and finally, his role in ‘authoring’ the movement in the face of competing narratives from Canada’s earliest and best known Neoist, Monty Cantsin aka István Kántor.

Neoism's beginnings can be traced to the first encounter in 1976 in Budapest between David Zack (an American writer and mail artist), and István Kántor (a Hungarian medical student and aspiring pop singer).  During their conversations Zack outlined his proposal for the creation of an 'open popstar,' who’s name would be Monty Cantsin.  A year later Kántor emigrated to Montreal and subsequently visited Zack, who was living in Portland, Oregon.  This visit confirmed Kántor's new identity as Monty Cantsin 'open popstar,' and soon after returning to Montreal he formed the Neoist movement.  Although Kántor is the individual most closely identified with the Monty Cantsin name, the open popstar concept was premised upon the 'multiple name concept’, that is, multiple people using the same name for their creative activities.  By utilizing the Monty Cantsin name, anyone could participate in expanding the collective identity of Monty Cantsin in whatever manner they desired, save themselves the money, time, and effort involved in establishing their own artistic identity, and at the same time further the cause of Neoism.

Defining Neoism or indeed 'classifying' it, is to encounter its paradoxical nature. Quite literally, Neoism means "New-Ism," which establishes its modernist/avant-garde lineage, positions it as something that is always in the process of becoming, and refuses to commit to any specific formal or theoretical positions with which to achieve its ends. One Neoist has described it as "a movement to create the illusion that there's a movement called Neoism."12 Kántor, when pressed for a definition of Neoism in 1993, replied that:

I have thousands of definitions but none of them are good for anything, and perhaps always the newest one is the best.12 (my italics)

On the beginnings of Neoism, Kántor replied;

The birth of neoism took place as follows: there was a name, and I said 'let's give it a try,' and whatever comes out will be called neoism.13

Contrary to Neoism's etymological basis in 'newness' is its refusal to generate new objects or ideas.  Neoism's strategy is one of appropriating previously extant activities and ideas as it's own.  Kántor elaborates on this signature characteristic of Neoism;

It uses 'ready-made' ideas. It does not necessarily have to invent a form.  But the form that has already been used can be re-used by Neoism and turned into something else. If you look at the principles of Neoism actually you can immediately see that inventions are old and boring. The Neoists don't want to invent things, the Neoists want to apply things better than anyone else. Originality, uniqueness and the term 'new' are not what's important anymore. What is important is that we completely recycle all the ideas that already exist, as if somebody had recycled the whole of the 20th century.14

Stewart Home was also interested in recycling previously used ideas, in particular, the idea of the avant-garde and critiques of the institution of art. In 1985 his impact on Neoism's history would take a decisive turn. After returning from the Ninth Neoist Festival in Ponte Nossa, Italy, he announced his split from Neoism in his "Open Letter to the Neoist network and the public at large";

My approach to art, life and politics has not changed, I simply feel it's no longer feasible for me to be a 'neoist.'  Splits and schisms are essential to my conception of neoism and any public slanging match between an ex-neoist and the remaining members of the movement is worth twelve dozen great works of art. Ultimately what all neoists should aim for is an acrimonious split with the movement. To leave neoism is to realize it. (my emphasis)15

Home's paradigmatic avant-garde split with Neoism took place on a number of different levels.  Frustrated over the Neoist strategy that deliberately obscured this anti-art movement’s aims, Home wanted to introduce a clarity in its theoretical position and situate it within historical precedents. To achieve the former he linked Neoism with Situationism and Fluxus, two post-WWII groups he felt constituted part of this century's 'utopian current,' and for the latter he made the historical connection explicit when he wrote that Neoism "…is an illegible note that Tristan Tzara allowed to fall from his breast pocket prior to a performance at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916."16 At the same time Home used the split to position himself as the architect of a rehabilitated Neoist 'avant-garde,' one that would be constructed in such a way that it could be successfully introduced into the historicization process.  A critical component in this strategy was his insight into the pivotal role that texts play in the construction of avant-garde movements. Home states;

When I hooked up with the Neoists, I thought certain aspects of the movement were underdeveloped.  For example, there wasn’t enough text.  This was one of the things I wanted to introduce in vast quantities... As a result [of this lack], the Neoists were in danger of losing their avant-garde identity and becoming just another part of the underground. While its members were madly documenting [their] events...there’d been a failure to grasp the central role that written reports played in the process of historicization.17

Subsequently, Home renewed his original call for the use of Smile as a multiple name in the context of periodical publishing, and in a direct challenge to Kántor, proposed the name Karen Eliot as a counter multiple name. With the implementation of these two strategies, Home cemented his split with Neoism, and through the promotion of Smile as an 'international magazine of multiple origins,' created a mechanism for the collective production of “vast quantities” of printed matter.

For David Zack, the author of the multiple name concept, it was a strategy through which “…people can share their art power."18 For Kántor and Home, it was a form of collective resistance to the construction of the individual;

Kántor: By giving the same name to different people we create a kind of confusion that makes control impossible—because everybody has the same name there is no control possible.19

Home: It is in Power's interest that each individual has a unique name, thus making them easily identifiable. Without these classifications Power cannot control because it cannot differentiate, divide and isolate.20

Thus, multiplicity was seen by the Neoists as a way of thwarting capitalism's construction and reification of the individual, and the means through which to create a non-hierarchical and collectively constructed identity. Implicit in this position is a critique of a string of related concepts, recognized by both Kántor and Home, that are associated with the construction of the 'individual' and valorized under capital, some of these are; genius, originality, artist/author/ producer, ownership and copyright.

I want to turn my attention to Home’s role in the application of the multiple name concept and to argue that Home's active promotion of the use of multiple names (for both individuals and periodicals), was another key element in his 'avant-gardization' of Neoism, and that through this double application of the multiple name concept, he was able to influence how and in what manner Neoism would be introduced into the historicization process.

Furthermore, it was only through the activation of the multiple name concept and the establishment of a collective identity that Neoism could be perceived as a candidate for an avant-garde movement. Multiple names gave a collective form to the 'form-lessness' at the center of Neoism.  Home's investment in this strategy is clear, if Neoism was not perceived as an avant-garde movement then his plans for its eventual historicization would not take place.

One of the ostensible reasons for Home's split with the Neoists was his observation that István Kántor had become over-identified with Monty Cantsin and was therefore diminishing the revolutionary potential of this strategy. Kántor himself suggests that this critique was substantially correct in the following statements;

Because I was the first person to become Monty Cantsin and I created the name Neoism, I was completely beholden by it, and I put all my life and energy into it.21

This Monty Cantsin job is one of the most difficult ones I ever got, and it is not easy to accomplish it and balance the fictive and real parts.22

This 'over-identification' on Kántor's behalf gave Home added incentive to contest Kántor's position and it only served to confirm his reasons for introducing the Karen Eliot multiple name. For Home, multiple names were to be approached as 'open contexts,' as situations, rather than 'jobs';

Karen Eliot is a name which refers to an individual human being who can be anyone. The name is fixed, the people using it aren't. Anyone can become Karen Eliot simply by adopting the name, but they are only Karen Eliot for the period in which the name is used. Karen Eliot was materialized, rather than born, as an open context in the summer of '85. When one becomes Karen Eliot one's previous existence consists of the acts other people have undertaken using the name.23

The Karen Eliot 'open context' generated a substantial amount of texts and actions in her name, as well as revitalizing the collective use of Monty Cantsin. It is interesting to note that although Home put forward Karen Eliot as an 'other' to Kántor's Monty Cantsin, there was no discussion on his behalf, or others, around issues of gender.

Home's original proposal in his own Smile, #2 (1984), for the use of multiple names in the context of periodical publishing and his renewed promotion of it a year later in conjunction with his introduction of the Karen Eliot multiple name, must be seen as his one 'original' contribution to Neoism. As it turned out, the Smile project was extremely successful with the Victoria & Albert’s checklist showing that between the years 1984-89 there were 101 issues published by approximately 32 editors. Sizes for the majority of these Smiles are divided between A5, with slightly more in the A4 format, and a variety of printing methods. Print runs for the vast majority of Smiles were small and in most cases probably no more than 50-300 copies were printed of individual issues.

In Home’s own Smile (#1-10, 1984-87) he published texts that ranged from Neoist texts to his own fiction and poetry, to surveys of post-WWII art movements, cultural criticism, as well as promoting the two major projects that he was involved with from 1985 onwards—the Festivals of Plagiarism and the Art Strike 1990-1993. As a strategy for bringing together a wide variety of texts and, to a lesser extent, images generated by multiple Neoists, Smile magazine provided a broad umbrella for these collective activities.

Home’s use of the multiple name concept, coupled with Smiles’ open periodical strategy, led to the creation of a substantial periodical platform that was available to both participants and interested observers within and outside the mail art network. Seen from today’s vantage point what Home set in motion can also be described as an ‘open source periodical.’ This strategy, coupled with the Neoist’s embrace of ‘positive plagiarism’, through which Neoist’s everywhere were encouraged to creatively re-use each other’s texts as well as found and ready-made texts, helped fill out the pages of many Smile magazines.  Home in his promotion of the concept of ‘positive plagiarism’, that was set within the larger context of the appropriationist art scene of the 1980s, was careful to distinguish between the two approaches:

’Post-modern appropriation’ is different from plagiarism. While post-modern theory asserts that there is no longer any basic reality, the plagiarist recognizes that Power is always a reality in historical society.24

It is not too surprising to note that many of the Smiles reproduced, in varying degrees, texts by Home, which combined with each individual editor’s own texts & images, plagiarized or otherwise, contributed to amplifying and extending the printed matter basis of Neoism. Home’s larger strategy with Smile can now be revealed as occupying a key role in consolidating both his own position as theorist, and the establishment of Neoism’s avant-garde credentials. Additionally, this activity also helped to burnish his own growing credentials as a writer and cultural critic, to which he could now add, ‘author’ of a revitalized Neoist movement.


Home’s insight into how to prepare a movement for its eventual historification was revealed early on in his involvement with the Neoists when he wrote “What’s crucial to any avant-garde group is you have to have at least one theorist to try and formulate the whole thing as a movement.”25   Home’s surprise success in this quest and coupled with Smile’s entry, and by implication himself, into the academy only serves to illustrate another of his longer term goals for Neoism which he summarized in a 1986 article stating, “Theorists start out as authors and end up as authorities.” 26, 27


1.         Phillpot, Clive, "Art Magazines and Magazine Art," in: Artforum Feb., 1980, 52.

2.         Ibid.

3.         Call for works sheet, Omnibus News, #1, 1969, np. Translation Curt Germundson.

4.         Ibid.

5.         Editor's page, Omnibus News 1, 1969, 1. Translation Curt Germundson.

6.         Ibid.

7.         Ibid.

8.         Ibid.

9.         Ibid.

10.      Geza Perneczky, a researcher of assembling magazines, recently discovered that there was a later second version of Omnibus News, edited by Peter & Susanne Schwenk in Martenbeth, Germany, 1980, that was half the size of the original, in: Perneczky, Geza. Assembling Magazines: 1969-2000. Budapest: Arnyekkotok Foundation, 2007, p. 157.

11.       Lightworks magazine, #22, 2000.

12.       Pain, Paddy. “István Kántor,” (interview), Kinokaze, #2, 1993, p. 17.

13.       Perneczky, Geza. The Magazine Network, Koln: Soft Geometry, 1993, p. 157.

14.       Pain, Paddy. “István Kántor,” (interview), Kinokaze, #2, 1993, p. 18.

15.       Home, Stewart. “Open letter to the neoist network and the public at large,” Smile, #8, 1985, p. 1.

16.       Home, Stewart. Smile, #7, 1985, p. 4.

17.       Home, Stewart. Neoism, Plagiarism & Praxis, AK Press: Edinburgh/San Francisco, 1995, p. 70.

18.       Letter from David Zack to Grauf Haufen (1986) in : Cantsin, Monty. Neoism Now, Berlin: Artcore Editions, 1987, unpaginated.

19.       Pain, Paddy. “István Kántor,” (interview), Kinokaze, #2, 1993, p. 18.

20.       Home, Stewart. Smile, #6, 1984, p. 4.

21.       Pain, Paddy. “István Kántor,” (interview), Kinokaze, #2, 1993, p. 19.

22.       István Kántor, in Smile, #23, nd., p. 9.

23.       Stewart Home, in Smile, #11, 1989, p. 1.

24.       Home, Stewart. Neoism, Plagiarism & Praxis, AK Press: Edinburgh/San Francisco, 1995, p. 49.

25.       Pain, Paddy. “Stewart Home,” (interview). Kinokaze, #2, 1993, p. 23.

26.       Home, Stewart. “From Author to Authority.” Smile, #9, 1986, p. 14.

27.      In the summer of 1985 I returned to London for a visit and ended up meeting with Stewart Home (b. 1962) who I had met through the mail art network. As I was about to take my leave and after a series of entertaining and enlightening conversations he leaned over to me and said that I should adopt the name Karen Eliot and publish a magazine called Smile. While I was initially reluctant to give up my ‘individuality’ for a project I knew little about, I was nonetheless intrigued by his proposal. As a result of this encounter, and upon my return to the USA, I adopted the name Janet Janet for part of my cultural activities. Between 1986-89 she published texts and visual works in a number of international artists’ periodicals, presented performances in the SF Bay Area and participated in shows organized by the international correspondence art network. From 1985-89 she published 14 issues of Schism magazine. The name Schism was chosen from Stewart Home’s reference to ‘splits and schisms’ in his 1985 “Open Letter to the Neoist network and the public at large,” in which he explained the reasons for his split with the Neoist movement. As a result of these connections, as well as Schism’s oblique similarity to Smile, Schism is considered part of the Smile publishing project and was included in the 1992 Smile exhibition in the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, England.