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The Thing Quarterly: A Conversation with Jonn Herschend and Will Rogan

Like many publications, The Thing Quarterly arrives to the home of subscribers four times a year. The form of its contents, however, is wholly unpredictable. Since 2007, the forces behind The Thing, Jonn Herschend and Will Rogan, have invited figures who span the visual arts, music, literature, and design, to create an issue—in the form of an object. Artists receive only two stipulations: the object has to be functional, and it has to incorporate text in some way. In January 2014, I met Herschend and Rogan in their new storefront in San Francisco to discuss the publication model, working with artists, and their favorite Things.

Desi Gonzalez I heard about The Thing Quarterly when I went to the New York Book Fair this fall; I went to your booth and I ended up getting a subscription after that. My first Thing was the Tauba Auerbach clock. I was intrigued by the entire model of the publication. You conceived of this concept while you were in graduate school in Berkeley—can you talk about how this came about?

Will Rogan Jonn and I wanted to work on a project together. We started graduate school at the same time and we both noticed an overlapping interest revolving around texts and objects. We tried to make a video together, but it didn’t work.

Jonn Herschend A video of Will throwing a ladder in a field. It was really bad.

WR But we just tossed the idea of collaborating back and forth while we were in school. After we finished school, Jonn approached Courtney Fink from the art space Southern Exposure to get some advice.

JH That was our first step.

WR She told us that we just needed to get it rolling. Southern Exposure pulled us into a residency and really helped us get the project going. She gave us this formal moment to start the project. That was the beginning.

DG Why did you choose this model for your publication instead of another format?

JH Both of our backgrounds and practices revolved around the idea of objects and text. Will worked as a librarian for five years at the San Francisco Art Institute and I worked as a high school English teacher for five years. So we each had this background that was immersed in the idea of the book. We also like the idea of how many publications have begun in San Francisco but have left. Rolling Stone, Spin, Artforum—there’s a rich history of publishing here but then all of the publications leave. We were very interested in this notion of making something that would be of San Francisco that would be about objects and about text. And it had be something that was, at that time, relatable to our practice.

WR I think we wanted to make a traditional magazine at some point. We still do. But we’re not magazine editors and we’re not really writers. Even now we both still think of The Thing as a magazine to a degree. It’s just the particular magazine that we ended up doing.

DG The elements of a magazine that The Thing maintains is the anticipation or excitement of receiving it; when you open a magazine, you don’t know what’s going to be in there. I felt that way when I received the clock. I pored over the text itself on the box, almost as if it were letters to the editor or a masthead.

JH And that’s interesting to us too. We’ve become very aware of creating a masthead or of taking opportunities to put text into things. Ben Marcus’s issue actually had a booklet that came with it.

Artists always want to break the rules. Even though The Thing is as far away as you can be from having restrictions, artists still will go further—so it’s interesting; we go into new territory every quarter with how the text element plays out.

WR And I think their inclination is the same as ours, which is: What will fit within this form? A lot of what we think about and what is continuing to evolve with The Thing as a publication are elements like mastheads that can we exploit and reuse and use differently.

DG Some of the artists you work with have a lot of experience with publications. You’ve worked with writer Dave Eggers on one of them. Is it different working with artists who are inclined to work with text or the publication format?

JH Dave was really fun to work with. McSweeney’s is a publication we admire. Issue 17, the junk mail one, is one we both really like. It was literally junk mail, a totally unwieldy object, and once you open it . . .

WR It’s all over. Once you open it, it’s all over your house.

Issue 16 is by American writer Dave Eggers. Published on a shower curtain, with the idea that one would read it while showering

JH We were interested in working with Dave because we had a fondness with what he was doing with text and objects and books. When we approached him, he came over and said: What do you guys really want to do that you’ve never done before? And I said a shower curtain. And he said, okay, done. So he came up with a text for the shower curtain, he designed it, laid it out. It was really fun and easy. I think in many ways, the curtain nailed it as to what The Thing actually is.

DG I like the idea of a shower curtain, something you use in a place like a bathroom, where you a lot of spend time and you just start reading things, but what texts do you actually have to read around you?

WR Only a shampoo bottle.

DG Exactly. But returning to our discussion of the artists: How do you select which artists you work with?

WR We have a running list. That’s the most fun part of this job: sitting down with the list and deciding what the mix will be. We always look at the full year, any four consecutive issues, as a unit. Since Ben Marcus’s piece just dropped off, we’re now looking at the next four. And when we add someone to the mix, we have a list of people that we want to work with. There are so many different filters: sometimes we want to have a balance of people that work in different fields, writers, filmmakers, musicians. We don’t want to be too biased on male or female, and we also think about our audience a lot and what has been successful in the past. At the end of the day we want to work with people that we love.

JH And that are fun to work with.

DG What’s it like working with different artists? How do you work with them to develop a project?

JH It depends on each one. There haven’t been any two artists that have approached the project in the same way. So I think it all depends. The conversation is the fun part—they usually come to us with an idea. For example, there’s an upcoming potential issue that came out of the artist’s love—he’s a boomerang fanatic. Will met with him in New York.

WR He’s just super into boomerangs; he has been to boomerang events. It’s this whole side thing that’s not a part of his art practice. But if you know his art, it totally makes sense. It’s very elliptical, there are a lot of circles, a lot of hands.

JH And the next issue, coming out in February, is John Baldessari’s. It’s going to be two pillowcases.

DG I’m supposed to get this one. It’ll ruin my surprise!

JH [Laughs.] But I didn’t tell you what it’s made of . . . We’ll tell you more about what it’s like to work with the artists instead.

Issue 7, February-April 2009, entitled "Chaldron Optical System," by Jonathan Lethem

WR It's different with every single person. There are projects like Dave’s, which go smoothly in a lot of ways, and the thing turns out as we had imagined it in the beginning. Often it’s not that easy, either due to manufacturing issues or the pragmatic level of the objects. Hopefully, eventually, we will start working with people we’ve worked with before, but up until now, other than printers, the objects are all made by different manufacturers. The boomerang person can’t make pillowcases, unfortunately.

JH It would be awesome if they could, though.

WR When we did Jonathan Lethem’s glasses, we had to figure out how to get past all of the safeguards that people have on manufacturing. That experience taught us that the key is to work with people who have connections to manufacturers, which also taught us that the objects end up being a lot better when the connections are to people have who have some skin in the game.

JH Yeah, that brought us to Matt Singer, the chief designer for Jack Spade at the time. We called him out of the blue because we were at a point of desperation; we'd tried everyone—all these glasses manufacturers—and they were all saying the same thing, that there’s one factory that makes them all, pretty much. But Matt said that we can totally do this. He knew who we were and wanted to make it happen. He and Selima Optique teamed up to make the issue for Jonathan. He’s since left and has his own clothing line and it’s great. He’s been an advisor for us on a lot of thing and has brought a lot more quality and thought to the issues.

After Matt, quality became really important to us. Before then, it was all about concept. You put this person here with this object and it automatically becomes interesting; it becomes imbued with some sort of specialness. But for someone who doesn’t know who the artist is, if they come across The Thing Quarterly in a bookstore, they may not be as interested because it’s just not as seductive.

DG It’s interesting to think about the usefulness of an object too. It’s one thing to get a shower curtain art object but it’s another to put it up, put it to use.

JH The shower curtain was another challenge. We were tenacious until we found someone. The guys who made the shower curtain are fans of Dave Eggers, and they had a shower curtain company called Izola. We were lucky, again. And the same again with Tauba Auerbach’s 24-hour clock. Managing editor Sarah Simon had to figure it out, and that was insane. We talked to every clock manufacturer in the country. None of them were interested or understood what we were asking. They all thought it was some kind of scam. Eventually we ended up working with a group out of New York, Assembly Design.

DG Are you talking about the mechanism to make the clock run 24 hours, or the object itself?

WR The mechanism of the clock was available. You can order the motors. Assembling and silkscreening the actual face was what was difficult.

JH I mean, it seems so simple.

Issue 20, by visual artist Tauba Auerbach, takes the form of a 24-hour wall clock.

WR We were trying to make an IBM-style glass dome clock when we started it, like the clock you’d see in a school but one that goes for 24 hours. You know, an old, classic, mid-century type of clock. A lot of our research was devoted to making that sort of clock. I think if we had started with this clock, it wouldn’t have been as much of an ordeal.

JH So there again the object changed, from Tauba’s initial idea to the final version.

WR I think this project is really generous towards artists, since we’re all artists working on it too. They just have to come up with an idea and be available to talk about it.

DG How long does it take from the conception of an object to actually producing it?

JH It just depends. We’re trying to stay a lot further ahead of production now. We should be a year out. Even with Baldessari’s, we’ve been working on it for a while. We did have a setback on it, though. So now we’re literally down to the wire.

DG Earlier you mentioned wanting to make The Thing Quarterly very San Francisco—at least in terms of producing the magazine here. From my understanding of what you do, the wrapping parties seem to bring in a local community. Can you speak to that and any other ways you might work in a San Francisco way?

JH That’s a good question. We’re not necessarily bringing San Francisco with us into this process, but we’re from here and don’t want to leave here. We’re interested in the history that San Francisco has brought to publications thus far and we want to contribute to that. So we mentioned that San Francisco has great publishing but it always ends up leaving.

WR Or it ends up being DIY and zine-driven, which we both appreciate as well, but we wanted to bring a more international perspective on what’s interesting in the art world. Because San Francisco can have a tendency to be caught up in itself.

DG I think, conversely, that everything that has an international perspective doesn’t have to go to New York.

JH And there’s a lot more going on right now. Michelle Grabner’s Suburban has been a great model for that. She ran a project out of her garage in the suburbs of Chicago where she would show work by local and internationally acclaimed artists. I think that’s a great way to think about how one can inject the art conversation into a landscape. I love hearing from the artists from here but I also love it when they come from out of town.

DG Which local artists have you worked with?

WR A lot. Tucker Nichols is one. Kota Ezawa, Anne Walsh. Trisha Donnelly was local when we worked with her.

JH Tauba Auerbach was also in San Francisco. Trevor Paglen—he was at Berkeley. A lot of the people have connections here.

WR The wrapping parties go over really well here, and they’re really fun to do. There is a core of people that comes to the events, mostly because they’re interested in the particular artist or the publication.

JH It’s open to the public and it’s a weird event, you never know who is going to show up. The last one was insane. We usually get around four cases of beer and it’s over in two hours; this time we had more beer and many more students that showed up from the art schools. The level of energy was out of control.

WR We always think we know what it’s going to be like when we go into it—like, okay, we’ll put the tables here and see what happens. It always changes. There are always things going on. The floor gets covered with this insane amount of cardboard by the time we’re done with it.

JH It’s fun to do, but it’s more expensive for us to do it this way than just wrap it ourselves or hire people to come in to try to wrap it. We usually end up having to rewrap some of them. No one wants a pizza stain on their issue.

WR They’re so complicated; each box is like a new crazy origami puzzle. They’re all completely different.

DG So a new box is designed for each project?

Issue 21 is by experimental novelist Ben Marcus. The issue includes a custom tin of Thompson Cream - a salve for people and things, as well as an accompanying booklet containing text by Marcus.

WR Yeah. And we’re working with Brian Roettinger coming up; he does some album design. The stuff on his records is fucking gorgeous. He got into graphic design because of an interest in album art. So we hope the packaging will be a part of what his object is.

DG How many subscribers do you have and who are they?

JH Right now, our circulation is about 1200 to 1500. And we have a loyal base—subscribers range from 600 to 1000. But we make more copies of each issue because some people will buy a single issue and we sell them to stores. It’s very different from a limited edition.

DG So you never set a cap of how many things you make—could you potentially have an infinite number of subscribers?

JH Yeah. If 3000 people wanted John Baldessari’s within the time period we were making it, then we would just beef up production.

WR What we don’t do is to go back and remake an issue as it was. We don’t reprint.

JH Subscribers seem to range all over the place, based on the fans of the particular person we’re working with. But we don’t entirely know. We’re going to put a survey out to find out: Who are you? Who are these people? We thought, in the beginning, that they were going to be artists. We thought the art community would be the place that would embrace us. But it turns out it was more of the design community. So we do know that. And that’s been very interesting for us, because, as we had discussed earlier, it forces us to think the object out more. You can’t be half-assed about that.

DG Do you have any speculations on why it is the design community that is interested in The Thing?

WR Well, we occupy this super-weird space in the art world. Our price point is a strange place. We’re also not an edition; it’s hard for people to deal with that in the art world. My guess is that designers have more room in their life for objects that fit into this netherworld.

JH There’s more of a market for something like a $60 pair of cups in the design community.

WR That said, we are still very interested in the art world and that community.

DG It’s kind of surprising for me to hear that, but also refreshing. I decided to buy the subscription starting with Issue 20 because I really like two of the artists. It was more of a connection to the artists and their work. But if subscribers are interested in design, maybe The Thing is reaching more people, who might not be entrenched in contemporary art.

JH Yeah. With Tauba Auerbach’s issue, for instance, the sign-up was insane. And that was clearly because they knew who she was. But she also occupies that space between art and design. So it seems like we are hovering in the same zone.

There was an article written about us in Artforum in our second or third year. It was a nice feature article, really positive. We thought, "This is it!" It was a great deal. We went and bought an ad on the website. We didn’t get one sale from it. But then that same month, Design*Sponge wrote about us, and suddenly there were sales pouring in.

DG Do you have a favorite Thing?

JH I feel like it’s always the last one. [Pause.] I have some I use a lot. I use the Lethem glasses a lot. They’re my reading glasses.

WR That’s actually one of my favorites, but I hardly use them. My favorites belong to two different sides. There are really hyper-functional ones. I imagine some people receive them and they don’t put them out; they keep them in boxes. I like to fuck with that impulse by having the thing be really functional. Like the clock. Why would you keep the clock in a box? So the functional ones, like Lethem's and Auerbach’s, I really like. But then I also like the obtuse ones. For example, Trisha Donnelly made a rectangular record with us, and it is one of the most bizarre objects we’ve made.

DG How does the publication intersect with your own practices as artists? Have you seen any influence from one to the other?

WR Influence, yes. Both ways. I feel my practice being influenced by what we do here, not necessarily formally but sometimes conceptually. Recently I thought, I need to put everything I make in a box. But I think both of us do our best to keep this as a separate project because it is a collaborative endeavor, not just the two of us but the whole staff. We’ve always known we want to keep our art out of The Thing. Just because it feels a little uncomfortable . . .

JH Like curating yourself into your own show.

DG But you also have the projects that you do that are outside of the quarterly. How do you decide if something is a Thing project or an outside project?

WR I think James Franco is a good case study for that. He originally came to us wanting to do a switchblade as an issue. Legality kept us from doing that. He came up with another thing, but he still really wanted to do the switchblade. So we decided to create it as a limited edition. We haven’t really done enough limited edition things to say what a consistent difference there is between them and other issues, other than us saying there is no way we’re going to make 750 of those things, you know? Sometimes we make limited editions for special occasions. We did one of a pencil with Colter Jacobson for the New York Art Book Fair a few years back.

We’re trying to be a lot more thoughtful with that model right now and approach it with more business intent. Up until now, we only work with four people a year, and we want to work with more. There’s always some more cool shit to do. I think there’s a better way of approaching the limited edition things, though. We just love putting more stuff in the world; we love putting ephemera out there that people care about.

About Author

Desi Gonzalez is a writer, museum educator, and a media and technology researcher. She is currently an M.S. candidate in Comparative Media Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her writing has been featured in Art in America, The Brooklyn Rail, and Hyperallergic.

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