The streets of Melbourne, Australia, are a canvas for provocative art. Despite the council’s attempts to clean up the “graffiti,” the constantly evolving offerings in inner-city alleyways remain a major attraction to visitors. With all eyes on the walls, five innovative editors made their mark.
In April 2005, Is Not magazine was born. Independently published, it brought together creative and thought-provoking works of writing and illustration as an “open magazine.” Rather than flipping through the pages of a journal, readers were challenged to absorb it all on a 1.5m x 2m poster, having to stop still amid the ever-mobile city crowds to read a comic or work of fiction.
After reading a few stories myself while standing in the drizzly streets, I decided to snap a few bits and pieces on my camera phone to enjoy the work more comfortably. As I read the flash fiction and reviews on a tram ride home from work, the originality and imagination of it all excited me. Working as a freelance journalist had left me craving the creative freedoms once experienced earlier in my writing life. I had to be a part of this publishing phenomenon and immediately contacted the editors. What followed was a fruitful relationship, involving vibrant writers’ meetings and getting published in the six issues that followed.
The female editors, Natasha Ludowyk, Penny Modra and Mel Campbell, take care of the written content and the guys, Stuart Geddes and American ex-pat Jeremy Wortsman, are the award-winning design duo who also commission the illustrations.
A fundamental concept of the magazine is to challenge the way readers interact with the art and words. The team had considered a range of innovative ideas before settling on the poster format.
“We had an idea that each different section or article could come out of a vending machine or be in a different bar,” says Geddes.
But the format they finally decided on can be attributed to Wortsman who drew inspiration from a few ideas in the local neighbourhood.
“Jeremy used to live opposite the Rock Posters site and he’d see them posting up stuff every day when he left the house. They’re the guns of street postering in Melbourne, and have been around for a really long time,” explains Modra.
“He was also living around the corner from Readings [an independent Melbourne bookshop with legendary share-housing ads in the window] and he’d see all the really hot girls reading the housing notices,” Modra adds. “One day he put the ideas together and said ‘you guys, we have to publish the magazine on a poster.’ So we rang Rock Posters to get prices and they were really affordable.”
A refreshing approach is taken with the commissioning and creation of the magazine’s content. The editors develop a concept/title for each issue. Themes like “Bigger Is/Not Better” and “The Kid Is/Not My Son” are not prescriptive; rather they open up a dialogue for writers and illustrators to play around in.
“We offer two themes per issue, so that it’s not communicating just one idea,” explains Modra. “It engages many ideas so readers can find an opinion somewhere in the middle of it all.”
And it’s not just the ideas readers can interact with. As the issues are posted on walls around town, inside cafes, lifts and laundromats, many readers are tempted to rip a pen from their pocket and make a contribution to the dialogue. Features such as the regular crossword puzzle invite such interaction, but oddly enough, it’s the outdoor issues that tend to remain untouched.
“People are more likely to write on it in the indoor ones,” says Modra. “Maybe it’s too structured for people in the street.”
“People who generally enjoy interacting may be less likely to stop and write on a wall in the city,” agrees Geddes. “So it’s a slightly fraught idea, but it’s still interesting in the whole context of the magazine and as a communication project.”
The magazine is decidedly against advertising, which creates an interesting juxtaposition when posted alongside so much advertising material. Apart from a couple of stockists and the font provider, there are no brand names mentioned. Is Not has managed to cover productions costs (well, just) by online sales, mostly to overseas fans, and by throwing very popular parties to raise funds.
A lot of international interest in the publication is attributable to the exclusive use of fonts from European designers Underware.
“Our typeface comes from the Netherlands. We send the issues over to them so they pimp us around to TypeCon in New York and other type conferences,” says Geddes. “Their typography has this really strong signwriting lineage, and that whole shopfront, brushed lettering aesthetic seemed to fit with what we were doing so well.”
Sadly, the magazine is now being posted for the last time around Melbourne. The success of Is Not has set each of the editors off on unique career paths and they have ended the publication on a high with a plus-sized issue: “All That Glitters Is/Not Gold”. The writers and artists who offered their talents freely lament the opportunity to see their work plastered all over the walls of this arty city. Thankfully, the stories, drawings and poetry live on for all to see at isnotmagazine.org (and in fragmented pieces on mobile phones across Melbourne). I also have my own collection of rolled up posters to enjoy at home–if only I could find the wall space.