Box of Water (1985-88)
Stephen Perkins, 2018
Thank goodness for the xerox, the cassette, the video, the computer, the fax, the modem – the corporate trickle down, the crumbs of accessible technologies – we take them fully aware of the strings attached…With our access to these technologies of duplication and with our finger on their buttons, the site of power shifts to the point of re-production. The xerox remix, the dub, the pleasures of plagiarism with these and others we transact, re-negotiate a more appropriate culture, moving it forward, backwards, sideways…1
The above text was written six years after I had published the final issue of my xerox art magazine, Box of Water (4 issues, 1985-88), and it summarizes something of my publishing experiences as well as taking aim at the larger cultural and political landscape of the time. But perhaps the most important thing for my generation of alternative artists and publishers was the proliferation of xerox machines.2 It was a totally unique historical moment in which the only thing stopping an aspiring editor from publishing the first issue of their magazine, was the walk to the nearest copy shop.
Left to right: #1 (1985), #2 (1986), #3 (1987) and #4 (1988)
Almost overnight a whole generation of artists responded to the possibilities opened up by this accessible and relatively cheap duplicative technology. Whether editors were using the copy store on the high street or slipping some extra copies at work, artists had no problem finding multiple uses for the fruits of these machines. For myself, I had never seriously considered publishing a magazine, but this was our moment to seize and very soon in the review pages of Box of Water I would be writing about the plethora of publications all being generated through our access to this new xeroxographic technology and all of whom shared similar DIY philosophies.3
But back to the beginning and the basics. Despite my claim in the first issue’s editorial that the magazine would come out twice a year, it never did. Over its four-issue lifetime it was published annually only. The format for the first three issues was half-fold, and the final one was vertical half-fold. Right from the beginning I bought a Swingline saddle stapler and this sturdy machine has been my trusted partner in publishing ever since. Xeroxing a typical run of 250 copies of the magazine cost me approximately $400 each time. Below is the first editorial and it gives a flavor of the range of work I was looking to publish, as well as the kind of publications I was looking to review:
Published twice a year, with the emphasis on work from around the world, Box of Water depends upon you for submissions. Looking for: Xerox, image/language juxtapositions, photography, performance documentation, posters & other visually oriented combinations…Box of Water will review almost anything: magazines, books, tapes, artists books, ‘zines etc… 4
Box of Water, #1, 1985
In the first issue’s editorial I thank the approximately 150 people from 25 different countries who submitted work to the magazine noting that this issue is comprised of 46 works by an equal number of artists from 17 different countries, all of this accompanied by three pages of magazine reviews and one of cassette tape reviews.
Box of Water #1, and inside pages by Vittore Baroni (Italy) and A. De Araujo (Brasil)
I look at the first issue now and I see all of its faults, but also its pugnacious quality — quite literally in the drawing of a boxer on the front cover by New York artist Carlo Pittore (1943-2005).5 I also remember the wonderful post-publication bliss I experienced after I had xeroxed, stapled and sent out contributors’ copies to over twenty countries around the world.
The magazine’s international focus was no accident as it reflected my desire to stay connected to my former life in England and Europe, but it also mirrors my introduction to the world of mail art by way of Tom Patrick, an artist from Berkeley.6,7 Tom Patrick, who I had met a couple of years earlier, had shared with me his experiences of being involved in this international network of artists working outside of the traditional art system. I was immediately taken by this non-commercial network of international artists who exchanged their works within a culture of gift-giving and mutual exchange and soon became an active participant. As soon as I shared with this network that I was looking for works for my magazine the artworks and publications poured into my mail box, and I never had a problem of too few submissions for the magazine. After I had been publishing a little while I realized that this network was really dependent upon publications like mine to help consolidate and give a face to this decentralized international network, and that these ‘network’ magazines provided crucial nodes through which a sense of community could be generated and sustained across the networks’ large geographic areas. This community would continue to be one of the major sources for artworks and publications that I would feature and review throughout the life of Box of Water.
As I look back over the first issue I see how I was working out how to sequence different types of images both vertical and horizontal, and how to play them off against each other to their best advantage and how important this pairing was in creating the tenor and backbone of the magazine. The review section for this issue takes up four pages, but it would increase in size over the course of the magazine to where it comprised almost half of the magazine by the final issue. The reproduction quality was always important for me and I especially sought out xerox machines that would give me rich, deep blacks. Before copying each issue I would do my research and find the best machines in the copy shops in the neighborhood, as well as making sure with the stores' personnel that it would be OK to take over a machine for a couple of hours.
Box of Water, #2, 1986
The second issue of Box of Water came out a year later in 1986 with a much bolder set of images that fill the pages in a series of sharp pairings on pages stripped down to nothing but their page numbers. There is an expanded magazine review section and a page of cassette tape reviews by Nathan Yrizarry. This issue felt much tighter in its sequencing and the choice of images is strong. I also really enjoyed writing the reviews of the funky magazines and other publications people were sending me. My acquisition at this time of an Apple Macintosh made all the difference with formatting the text for this, and all future issues of the magazine, although I always had to paste up the issue for copying.
The following statement comes from the editorial to this issue and was written in response to a contributor who wanted to know why they had not heard from me about their submission, and my response outlines something of the model that I was using in the construction of this magazine:
Once the deadline is past I edit down an eclectic selection of work that I want to use (naturally I have my biases) and I attempt to sequence the work so that different pieces will play off and reinforce each other. At present I review all the magazines, artists books, tapes etc…that are sent to me. Once Box of Water is xeroxed (250 copies), I send a copy to all the people who’s work has been included in that issue and a copy to everyone who’s material has been reviewed. At this point I am unable to acknowledge everyone who submits work to Box of Water. But I consider everything I receive to be permanently in the “active file” and may be used in future issues.
Box of Water, #3, 1987
The third issue came with a new and larger typeface for the magazine’s title and section headings, and the font has a distinctly computer-like presence with its dot-matrix printer look. The cover image is of a human hand grasping that of a robot’s, accompanied by the text ‘Hommage de l’auteur absent...’ (‘homage to the absent author’). Inside are more cool pairings rendered in the darkest of blacks, with images bleeding to the edges wherever possible. There is a noticeable increase in works combining image and text. Two new review sections were added, one for ‘compilation/assembling’ magazines and the other for ‘exhibition catalogues.’ This issue is also the first time in which propaganda about the Art Strike (1990-1993) is published and this reflects my own involvement with this project. Also included in this issue is information about the Smile magazine multiple name project, which was part of the larger Neoist movement and the allied Festivals of Plagiarism (1988-89).
This issue felt successful to me and once again I felt I had tried to push the boundaries between images with my pairings and sequencing. At another level, some of the deeper themes in this issue were foregrounded in a piece by Karen Elion on the first page that combined an image of a woman provocatively holding a strawberry to her pursed lips with a text that read:
The paper is not the
the process creates the
the model is replication
The correspondence between this text on the first page of the magazine and its enclosure within a front cover that extols the ‘absent author,’ with a text on the back cover by Jurgen Olbrich that insists upon the presence of both a ‘viewer’ and ‘author’ gives me pause to smile. Olbrich’s text reads:
everything you do is right
everything you do is wrong
Box of Water, #4, 1988
Unbeknownst to me at the beginning of editing this issue, this would be the final issue of Box of Water as I decided to stop publishing the magazine in solidarity with the aims of the Art Strike (1990-1993),8 and because I was getting bored with the visual artwork that was being submitted to the magazine. But what was exciting about this issue was the new vertical-fold format which allowed me to mix images in a far more interesting manner than I was able to in the previous format. I wrote in the editorial that it allowed for “…a different use of images with less emphasis on individual authorship and more on recombination and recycling.” I also terminated the cassette tape review section but kept the other three sections (magazines, compilations and catalogues) and this narrower focus allowed for a much sharper definition of what the magazine was about:
Box of Water is an annual magazine of visual and textual experimentations, with reviews of magazines, compilations, and exhibition catalogues publishing work in this area.
The magazine review section once again takes up almost half the magazine and this growing section was also in response to my burgeoning interest in the wide diversity of artists’ magazines, and other assorted artists’ publications that I was being sent for review. Indeed, it was from publishing Box of Water and my introduction to the broader field of artists’ alternative literature and publishing, that I decided to go back to graduate school, eventually receiving my PhD in Art History in 2003 with a dissertation on the history of artists’ periodicals titled Artists’ Periodicals and Alternative Artists’ Networks: 1963-1977".
By way of conclusion, I have to confess that I still enjoy the elongated vertical format of issue number four with its strong images and texts laid out across the two tall pages and would have continued exploring it had the magazine not expired. However, I learnt so much doing just these four annual issues — at the very least realizing how time-consuming it must be to publish on a more regular schedule.
Box of Water was also part of a very unique moment in publishing — the move from analogue to digital. As I mention in this text, from issue number two onwards I was formatting text on my first Apple Macintosh computer, but this was before there was any available page layout software, so I always had to do the final paste-up by hand and glue stick! But nevertheless, there was a bridge being crossed at this exact moment from the hands-on analogue approach to that of the digital, in which the click of a mouse was the only sound of the magazine under production.9
But, I have to admit, there was always a special kind of joy I experienced after having pasted up the whole issue, done a test printing and completed the final preparations for its baptism by light the next day.
1. Perkins, Stephen, Is the pen mightier than the sword?, panel presentation, Underground Press Conference, Chicago, 1994, p. 1.
2. The use of word “xerox” here is intentional. The Xerox Corporation does not endorse this generic use of the word, but for us the word was a charged term that signified artworks created by photocopier machines coupled with a healthy dash of the DIY for these new 'xerox magazines.'
3. One magazine that was influential to me and inspired me to think about publishing my own was my involvement with the San Francisco magazine Unsound (10 issues, 1983-1987) edited initially by William Davenport and Chris Rankin. Davenport and his wife Tamara Freedman were good friends of mine and I helped with writing, reviews and other tasks for various issues of this music magazine that was covered the new industrial and experimental music scene. It was inspiring and educational to see how the whole thing worked and the many different choices, both design and content-wise that the editors had to make as production on each issue moved ahead.
4. Editorial, Box of Water, #1, 1985. When I asked my longtime Half Moon Bay poet friend, Clifford Hunt, what should I call my magazine he came up with the title Box of Water - thanks Clifford! Producing Box of Water was a much more labor-intensive experience compared to the the ease with which it’s possible to do magazine layout now – as all the layout with Box of Water was done by hand, a typewriter, printer and lots of glue sticks!
5. A small digression with regard to Carlo Pittore (1943-2005). I always remember Carlo as being a very lively and a supportive correspondent and particularly so when he discovered that I was starting a magazine (he’d had some experience in this field as well), and here's a paragraph from a 1985 letter he wrote to me:
To you/for starting a magazine —. I wish you: Courage – Love – Hope – Faith – Money – Friends with available cash, credit, & loans — patience, & of course — an artsoul.
On June 14, 1985, upon receiving a copy of the first issue, with his drawing on the front, he wrote me:
What a nice surprise to open your envelope & find Box of Water & a little bit of me…on the cover no less. Thank you. Thank you. In the absence of the material accoutrements of recognition, success, etc — at least to be appreciated in some way by one’s peers — is a Joy — & to you — my appreciation. The issue is very strong!
6. I arrived in San Francisco from the UK in the summer of 1980 to start an MA in Art at San Francisco State University. The big draw for me about San Francisco State was Prof., John Collier, Jr. (1913-1992), who taught there and was an early leader in the field of visual anthropology. He was a singular man and was the principal advisor for my MA thesis on family photo albums. Also on my committee was his son Prof., Malcolm Collier, who was on the anthropology faculty at SF State at the time.
7. Tom Patrick edited and published the incomparable Eat it Up magazine that ran for 44 issues from 1981-1985, as well as being involved with the infamous radio show Over The Edge (KPFA in Berkeley) that was coordinated for many years by Don Joyce (1944-2015) along with other members and friends of Negativland and continues to the present day [https://www.negativland.com/news/]
8. There is an interesting history of calls for an ‘art strike’ from the 1960s onwards, but perhaps the most persuasive was made by Gustave Metzger who argued for a three-year art strike from 1977-1980 stating:
The refusal of labor is the chief weapon of workers fighting the system: artists can use the same weapon. To‑ bring down the art system it is necessary to call for years without art…when artists will not produce work, sell work, permit work to go on exhibition and refuse collaboration with any part of the publicity machinery of the art world. This total withdrawal of labour is the most extreme collective challenge that artists can make to the state.
Source: Perkins, Stephen, On the passage of a few persons through a rather brief period of time in San Francisco between 1985-1990: Multiple Names, Neoism, the Festivals of Plagiarism and Art Strike 1990-1993, paper presented at Pro Arts, Oakland, March 2017.
9. I want to note here that Box of Water was not the only magazine I was publishing at this time as I was also publishing a small 8-page periodical called Schism, #11-24 (1985-1989) and authored by a ‘pseudonymous’ author called Janet Janet. This periodical was also considered part of the Smile magazine publishing project and was included in the 1992 exhibition, Smile Classified at the National Art Library, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK.