Coilhouse Magazine covers a madly eclectic range of creative work being done across the planet. It looks at some of the most innovative art and artists you've never heard of, as well as plenty that you'll probably recognize, especially if you've got a penchant for the fantastical, underground, geeky, or wildly odd phenomena. The Coilhouse mission statement puts it this way:
We cover art, fashion, technology, music and film to convey an alternative culture that we would like to live in, as opposed to the one that's being sold or handed down to us.
Founding editors Nadya Lev, Zoetica Ebb, and Meredith Yayanos launched a Coilhouse blog in 2007, and published the first magazine issue in 2008. To date there have been five issues of Coilhouse, each a solid book filled cover to cover with articles and interviews and stunning photography. Every issue has sold out — though as of this week, back issues are temporarily available in PDF form!
With a mission to "Inform / Inspire / Infect," Coilhouse is smart, fascinating, and fun — and so are its founding editors. I asked them (and creative director Courtney Riot) a few questions about their work on this project.
io9: Let's begin with origin stories. You launched Coilhouse with a tagline calling it "a love letter to alternative culture". What is your own relationship to alt culture, and what role has it played in your life to inspire such a love letter?
Nadya Lev: By 2007, pre-Coilhouse, I was already expressing many of the same things that I now try to bring to light with the magazine — only it was by doing photography portraits of people I knew. You could say that I worked in the realm of "alt fashion." The best example of my work from around that time period is a collaboration with my friend Mildred — she showed up to our shoot wearing corrugated plastic tubing in her hair, aviator goggles, rubber gloves covered with belts and straps, scratches on her mouth and war paint on her eyes, looking like she'd just survived the apocalypse. No styling team, no makeup artist: just one person radically altering their appearance from head to toe to give us a glimpse of their inner world. I had an intense desire to document these interesting and creative people, because no one was doing what they were doing at the time. Specifically, I felt the drive to present them in a really personal, visually striking way: "This is how I see them." I thought that Mer and Zo were the perfect partners to do that with, so I introduced them, and the three of us jumped in together. Although this Coilhouse venture has evolved tremendously since then, on a basic level, it's still just a handful of people saying, "Let us share these things we love, let us show you how we see them." Courtney's design plays a huge role in getting that across.
Meredith Yayanos: I doubt I'm much different than any other culture-cramming geek, at least in terms of how I love the things I love. (Obsessively, passionately, a little manically, sometimes.) I'm a writer and a musician who grew up on an uncensored diet of books, music, comics, films, zines, anime, video games, D&D, issues of OMNI, editions of RE/SEARCH, bootleg tape trading, punk shows, poetry readings, etc. Long since entering "adulthood", I've continued to love all of those things. A byproduct of always being in this mindset is that I've spent my whole life chasing after indulgent family and friends (even the occasional confused stranger), waving whatever neat stuff has most recently won my heart in front of me, going "Eeeee, look, look, lookit! So SHINY, LOOK!" When I first met Nadya, and then Zo, they both got hit full blast with that. They just kind of smiled and went "well, HELLO." Kindred spirits, for sure. And now, Coilhouse is finally providing me with a healthy and constructive outlet for my lifelong neomaxizoomdweebie compulsions.
Zoetica Ebb: I've always been fascinated with the idea of hidden life, a world beneath (or above, or within) the commonly available surface. What began as a peculiar, introverted kid's rejection of the norm in run-down Communist Russia in favor of the enigmatic, the fantastical and the beautiful, became a quest for something better. An internal quest at first; devouring age-inappropriate books by the bed-ful, being introduced to dark Russian folklore and somber Byzantine temples by my mother. My imagination swelled to absurd proportions. Then, the adventure of a lifetime, beginning with a family move to the States at the age of 12, and then leaving my new home at 14 to explore the mysteries of the South on my own. Teenage escapades amidst the foggy bayous of Baton Rouge and the floating cemeteries of New Orleans with Voodoo priestesses and traveling folk returned me to the "normal" world angry and hungry for more. The awareness of and need for the hidden world eclipsed everything, and my affair with the idea of "alternative cultures" took identifiable root. By the time Nadya, Mer and I joined forces, I'd paid my dues to a miscellany of "scenes", traveled across Europe and North America a few times, and, in addition to running my own art and photography blog, was writing a DIY fashion and lifestyle column for Suicidegirls.com. The magazines that once inspired me were dead or dying, the alternative cultures I grew up in were all but gone, and the vibrant, burgeoning new culturestuff I admired wasn't getting due exposure. All three of us loved print and felt a growing gap in publishing, Coilhouse was our answer.
What moved you to start up a print magazine at a time when people are forever declaring that print is dead?
MY: I think all four of us are all paper fetishists who enjoy a good keepsake. Back when the three co-founders first met, we immediately bonded over a mutual desire to to put together something that was gorgeous, and tangible. Things really got cooking when Courtney came aboard, starting with Issue 02. That's when our aesthetic solidified.
The Coilhouse venture is definitely a product of the interwubz, but it's hard to explain how giddy we get, curating the best of what we discover online and putting it in print with a lot of attention paid to design, context, presentation. Words and images in print just feel good between your fingertips.
NL: It's a funny time for me to answer this question, because I'm actually in the process of getting rid of all my physical media. I read everything on the iPad. That's only because in the past 3 years, I've never lived in one place for longer than 6 or 7 months. Moving boxes and boxes of books gets old, I can tell you that. But yes – the majority of print is dying: more and more people are reading everything on their screens. How do I reconcile that with my love of print? Well, first of all, I think that people with a stable living environment will always want to fill their space with beautiful and interesting objects. I certainly want that, one day! Disposable magazines will die, but I've seen tons of unusual, independent art magazines crop up in the past few years. A magazine with a cover page that's actually a thin slice of etched wood: magazine that's die-cut in the shape of a circle, packaged inside a frisbee. A magazine that comes on a roll of film that you have to develop and print. I want to own that. I want to make that.
The magazine's design is so striking. Every issue is like an art book: apart from reading the articles, I just want to turn the pages and get lost in all that vivid beauty. When you're laying it all out, do you have any style ideals in mind? What sort of visual impact do you want to have on the reader?
Courtney Riot: When I look at magazines that I love, I always feel like there are hard rules that their designers have to follow. While that works for them, I never felt it was something that would translate well with Coilhouse. We needed to take different path, so we've created rules that stretch, bend and mold to whatever we've decided a specific piece should look like. (You can't expect me to design an issue that features both Sonny Vincent and Ron Moore and use the same type treatments.) I thought: what if we could create a magazine that made it challenging for the reader to cut up? What if we could create beautiful, chaotic and sometimes visually overwhelming art pieces that beg to remain intact and adored? What if each article was given its own unique look, but still flowed well when read from start to finish? I hope we achieve that. That's my one goal when designing, and the one impact I'd like to have on the reader.
Your magazine feels deeply science-fictional to me, though it doesn't exactly define itself that way, because it showcases real people who are working on the sorts of art and inventions that seem to belong within the realm of fantasy and SF. We tend to think of such creations as imaginary or futuristic, but they're actually happening all around the planet. You even dig up the oddest artifacts from the distant past! How do you find all these artists, musicians, mad scientists, writers, and fringe people making fantastical things? What do you look for? What pulls them all together as belonging under the Coilhouse masthead?
NL: All sci-fi worlds are really alternative cultures to our own. Sci-fi was always the first place where progressive ideas got tested. It was a "safe" way to introduce such ideas to a larger mainstream audience, and our culture's slowly but surely catching up. Good sci-fi still exists to question the taboos, inequalities and problems of our culture. Genderbending, magic, atheism, polyamory, alternative family structures – everything that the religious right fears the most also happens to be the stuff of great science fiction. The people who enjoy science fiction and say "this is the world I want to live in" – that's us, that's the majority of our readers. That's why it was important for us to kick off Issue 01 with a piece by Samuel Delany, an excerpt from an upcoming novel about a utopian community for gay black men, and why we continually interview science fiction creators and come back to science fictional themes in the art and fashion we cover. It's no coincidence that so much of "weird/alternative fashion" is very futuristic, very much inspired by costume design from films like Dune and Blade Runner (which, in turn, were inspired by underground/punk fashion of the time). It's just another way for all of us to signal to one another: "Let's see how far we can take our existence here, to remake the world in our image."
ZE: How about "neo-utopian" rather than "science-fictional"? ...Both? Both could work, neither fits completely. Though there was a practical need to define Coilhouse in the beginning, it's tough to pigeonhole ourselves these days. There are a number of recurring themes throughout all our print issues and blog, but when it comes to a unifying factor, the answer is in the nucleus of our slogan: Inform Inspire Infect. Inspiration! We look for that which genuinely inspires and impacts us, in one way or another. Two aspects of this tend to be ingenuity and passion, but that's about as specific as it gets. We are a love letter, after all – we write about what we love.
Much of the Coilhouse content comes to us by word-of-mouth through our wonderful network of supporters, other stuff is the fruit of the Web and late night googlemancery. Over the years, I've had quite a few moments of "I wonder if this exists?" and gone on a search that would lead to an accidental abundance of discoveries – we all have. That's the quintessential magic of the Internet.
MY: In tandem with our mighty Web-Fu, there's a ton of exploration that happens in meatspace. We've all been deeply fortunate to travel the world. Personally, I've done a ton of touring as a performer in various bands and circuses, always on a shoestring, and often depending on the kindness of local weirdos for anything from a home-cooked meal to a museum recommendation. I've found that, in any given township, anywhere in the world, if your antennae's up, it's not too hard to hook up with like-minded creative folks who are glad to share their bliss with you. Just about every city/country any one of us visits has yielded Coilhouse fodder, from Tokyo, Japan to Blackwell, Oklahoma. Traveling is how we've met many of our readers and contributors, as well.
A lot of internet culture gets caught up in consumer mentality: critiquing (and often tearing down) what others have produced. And some of the scenes and subcultures you explore are often perceived as cliquey or jaded: places where one might expect to find snark and contempt. What constantly astounds me about Coilhouse is that while the magazine is sharp and intellectual and artistically discerning, you seem to approach everything with a sense of wonder, delight, respect, and unabashed geeky love. How, in the face of haters and appropriators and occasional crushing apocalyptic despair, do you manage to keep open hearts and minds? This is maybe more of a life question than a magazine question. But I'd really like to know your secret.
MY: I think it's safe to say that everyone on staff is more naturally inclined to be celebratory than cynical. Coilhouse is not a 100% snark-free zone, but we do try to pick our battles carefully. Fostering a forum that's as inclusive and diverse as possible is a big deal for me, personally. Passionate, civil debate is always encouraged over here — non-committal negating and knee-jerk sneering? Not so much.
A while back my friend Matt Jones made this t-shirt that I wear a lot, riffing off that famous British KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON poster from WWII. It's a bright, resilient green; it says GET EXCITED AND MAKE THINGS. Both the original sentiment and Jones' adaptation have given me a lot of comfort over the years. Whenever some dissatisfied grump decides to crap all over something I care about (or, alternately, when I'm on the verge of flinging poo) I try to keep at least one of those two basic tenets in the forefront of my mind, and remind myself that people who create nothing, love nothing, and do nothing are often the harshest critics of all.
Tell us your hopes and dreams for what you want Coilhouse to be.
NL: I want it to continue to expand outward. I want us to eventually publish books, not just a quarterly(ish) magazine. I want there to be more Coilhouse events full of art and performance. It would be great to create a more interactive version of the magazine for various devices while continuing to experiment with more elaborate and baroque print processes: basically, more of everything in every direction.
MY: I cherish our gorgeous, wonky love child just the way it is, but it'll be fun to keep watching it evolve as we continue to take on new collaborators, new subject matter, and new mediums. I'd be overjoyed to see us go further into the green and subsequently be able to pay our staff better, maybe hit our goal of publishing the magazine quarterly. I'm not holding my breath, though. We all just gotta keep doing the best we can.
Portrait of Zoetica Ebb, Nadya Lev, and Meredith Yayanos by Kurt Komoda
If you're interested in finding out more about Coilhouse, see the blog, and check out the limited-time sale on PDFs of all their back issues.