Blogpost: WHERE THE METAPHOR FALLS SHORT

An interview with Gina Badger, the final editor of FUSE Magazine (1976-2014)
by cheyanne turions

In death, rebirth. Or so the colloquial sentiment goes. Nutrient recycling. Recovery. Surrender. Ecologically, this process is known as succession and it can be thought of as a map of sorts, describing the four phases through which ecosystems pass: rapid growth, conservation, release, and reorganization. Trajectories unfurl at different paces for different scales, and the phases need not always be sequential, but what is sometimes termed “creative destruction” refers to the release phase of the cycle of succession, describing “the disturbances that periodically punctuate the adaptive cycle. It breaks down stability and predictability but releases resources for innovation and reorganization.”[1] A familiar example is the restorative function of forests fires—what looks to be destruction in one moment can actually create a fertile zone for life cycles to continue.

In the face of austerity politics and the ongoing concentrations of wealth that characterize late capitalism, ecological examples of resilience are popular. And yet, plant, animal, and environmental actors—like rain, phosphorus, or wind—are not quite the same as human actors, who are capable of reason and can act empathetically.

This summer, after nearly forty years of production, the Canadian art periodical FUSE Magazine ceased publication. In an ecology of publication in the country, the loss is significant. Its final editor was Gina Badger, an artist, writer, and editor deeply engaged in the intersection of art and politics. During the three years of her tenure, the sensitivity of her thinking and the fury of her resolve could be read in her work on the development of the States of Postcoloniality series, which was later re-considered as States of Coloniality; a redesign of the magazine that productively pushed at the aesthetic understandings of what a newsstand periodical looks like; and a constant re-imagining of how to run an intellectually rigorous and politically provocative magazine with fewer and fewer resources. The existence of FUSE, to me, has always been a happy miracle. I register its cessation of publication as a small tragedy, but perhaps the end of FUSE has the potential to focus people’s attention on what they found valuable about the magazine and to feel a responsibility for shepherding the spirit of that project into the future. Perhaps this is where the “creative” potential of the “destruction” comes into focus. Its demise displaces the energy of running the magazine onto the people who recognize the value of FUSE’s activities. This conversation with Badger is my own first step.

What was FUSE? How do you understand its cultural value?

FUSE changed significantly, filling many different roles over its 37 years. That’s what a resilient organization does; it’s agile. I think the heart of FUSE’s mandate has always been to serve as a movement-building tool, though this certainly wasn’t always explicit. From the beginning, its editors positioned the magazine between people invested in social change at a grassroots level and people who create culture. I say “culture” and not “art” deliberately because for the first couple of decades at least, the magazine’s emphasis was equally on the visual and performing arts (theatre, film, music). FUSE’s specialization in the expanded field of visual arts is relatively recent.

As far as the magazine’s leftist political orientation goes, that’s another thing that’s never been precisely defined; its content has consistently demonstrated a commitment to feminist, pro-labour, anti-racist, and anti-colonial politics. And it’s always been a venue for critical analysis of public policies and funding. That positioning between activism and cultural production is what made FUSE uniquely valuable on the Canadian art scene. I consider this to be an important niche because of historical and present-day tensions between front-line organizers and people working in the arts, who share concerns and motivations, but who can’t always speak the same language in terms of tactics and strategies. Making connections is a hard job, but when I look at a project like FUSE, that is the potential I see and the reason for the magazine to exist. At its best, that’s what happened.

The baseline of this was simply addressing both audiences [cultural workers and activists] with the magazine’s content and distribution, but there were also more interactive ways for it to play out. During my tenure at FUSE, there were opportunities for extended exchange between an explicitly political event and an art world publication—for instance, when we partnered with Israeli Apartheid Week and launched our “Palestine–Palestine” issue at their opening event. Eventually, a year and half after its publication, during the 2014 siege on Gaza, we were able to contribute to a Palestine House fundraiser to support Gazans by building a small campaign around that issue. Other times, it didn’t work at all, which was frustrating for everyone. I think the point is to keep trying to get there, because you always build relationships in the process.

Is there something about the form of the magazine that lent itself to accomplishing these goals?

Ideally, a magazine is good for that kind of bridge-building because it is a space, not-quite-virtual and not-quite-physical, that can be simultaneously inhabited by people who wouldn’t normally be in a room together or who might have a hard time working together. One of the things that I tried to do as an editor to facilitate cohabitation was through the redevelopment of the historical “Short FUSE” section of the magazine. In the 1990s, Short FUSEs were little political rants at the back of the magazine. When I reintroduced them in 2011, I curated a collection of three or four texts and placed them up front so that they could serve as an introduction linking the theme of the magazine to current events. Each short FUSE was a contained news report or response to a specific event, and I often commissioned folks from outside the art world. For instance, we had a series of short reports on the Occupy Movement, when it was first gaining speed, critically reflecting upon the relationship of the movement’s rhetoric to colonialism. The rest of magazine was full of artworks and writing by art historians and art critics. In terms of immediate audience, this ensured that the magazine would end up in the homes of diverse contributors, accessible to everyone around them. And this is the thing about a magazine that is particular: it is a thing—it lays around, it’s portable, it gets left in a place as mundane as a dentist’s office or someone’s bedroom, and people encounter it by chance. I like to imagine FUSE being in the bathroom of an organizer, whose roommate is grumpy about art but who picks up the magazine and reads it, and can see that there are interesting ideas bouncing back and forth between these different ways of working. We interact with a paper magazine differently than an online publication because the content all comes together. It’s a collection of visual materials and written words that appear as a unit. Putting those things together is a deliberate intervention.

In the end, what was it that led to the demise of FUSE? Was it purely a financial consideration? Given that so much of the fiscal support for FUSE came from arts councils, do you think there is something shifting in the peer review process that is disconnecting the value of the activities that FUSE undertook from the medium of the magazine?

It’s so hard for me to say whether the peer review process is shifting; I have not ever sat on a jury, and the process just isn’t that transparent. What I do know anecdotally and subjectively from my position in art publishing in Canada right now is that there are a number of publications that are suffering, not specifically because they have a political mandate, but because their staff are trying to think creatively about their medium so that they can survive frozen budgets, decreased staff hours, et cetera. This means that their outputs are changing so that they don’t necessarily fit within the established funding streams anymore.

There are definitely issues with self-censorship in moments of austerity, where organizations become afraid of producing risky content because they just can’t afford to take any chances with funding. And we’re not only talking about a political risk—like publishing an issue called “Palestine–Palestine”—we’re talking about design risks, such as producing a magazine that doesn’t look like a commercial magazine. This latter issue was the most problematic for FUSE recently. We were moderately experimental in terms of cover design and typography and it is outrageous to me that this is even a thing, but based on the comments that I’ve seen from juries, it is. As far as I can tell, there was not a fair or measured comparison of FUSE’s mandate to its output; success was rather measured in its ability to perform like a commercial magazine in all senses of the word: numbers of subscribers, newsstand sales, the way the cover of the magazine looked. The fact is that FUSE was process and community driven, and experimentation was a priority. And those are things that caused problems during my tenure.

The explanation for FUSE’s demise is both complicated and banal. In these cases it’s never one thing or event, it’s a long process. Certainly, its closure was strongly foreshadowed by the policies of several granting bodies. One of FUSE’s major grants disappeared in 2010 when Heritage Canada changed its eligibility requirements for operating funding for periodicals; this represented a $30,000 loss. This happened just before I was hired and that’s the type of gap that very few organizations can successfully make up in a short amount of time. Instead, they just figure out how to make do with less. What happens to an organization that is chronically under-resourced is not unlike what happens to individuals who are personally under-resourced. It impacts their ability to make long-term strategic decisions because they are constantly in crisis management mode. It makes it really hard to do things that are otherwise normal for organizations to do, like have a healthy, regular fundraising program.

To be totally clear, the decision to cease publication of the magazine was directly related to a lack of financial resources.

Absolutely.

At a certain point, it became clear that ceasing publication was the only option left. Cutbacks were no longer possible because so many expenses had already been eliminated over the years. FUSE had already given up its storage space. Staff had taken over for the cleaning service, bike-couriered our grant applications ourselves, and had arranged for another organization to share our office. FUSE had literally cut down every possible overhead expense, just short of not paying people. And because of the granting structure, it’s not possible for a publication to cut back on its production. In general, publications that are trying to be creative about what they produce and how they produce it are more than happy to change the paper they print on, or publish more content online, but they are hamstrung because that can result in a drastic reduction of funding.

What do you think is at stake for the Canadian arts community in a general sense considering the role that FUSE played in the country’s artistic discourse?

Cynically, I know that artists and writers will always do the work, whether we are going to be paid or not. We might produce less or it might be less flamboyant, but as long as artists are breathing, we will be doing our work. But someone is going to make money off of it and it’s usually not the artist. Truthfully, is Canada losing the only place where people can talk about art and politics in this way? Obviously not. But it is losing one of the only places where you can get paid to do that. Because of frozen budgets, the amount that one would get paid to write at FUSE was stuck at $0.12/word forever, which is, at most, 50% of publishing industry standard. It’s a miserable pay rate, but it is a paid writing gig, which is extremely uncommon these days. The public funding model is not functioning well. Are artists and their organizations the entities that should suffer? No. But that is the consequence. Those are the people whose livelihoods are directly affected by this problem. In this sense, losing FUSE is a symptom of the scarcity of good, paid work for artists and writers.

As far as these death and rebirth metaphors go, I definitely think it is dangerous to compare the economy to nature. I feel I need to disclaim that I am not a purist about nature; I do not think that humans are separate from nature. But they just don’t operate the same way, so I think that ecological metaphors are inappropriate for the changes we’re seeing in the publicly-funded arts sector. The fact that people are losing jobs right now and that living wages are scarce is not a feature of the natural environment. This situation is created by our governments’ conservative policies that redistribute wealth to the benefit of corporate CEOs, banks, and mining companies. Maybe these metaphors make us feel better, like it is inevitable for us to lose the institutions we’ve lovingly built over the years, or it’s inevitable that we’ll be forced to work for less, but I think it’s a little bit dangerous to justify it to ourselves in that way. It obscures the political reality, which is that in this economy we don’t matter unless we’re attracting tourists or enhancing the profile of corporations; we’re just a liability that someone’s waiting to de-fund.

I don’t think that waged labour is the best model for human life to work on, but that’s what we have. So we need it, waged labour. We cannot live without it in this reality.

This interview was conducted on 08 August 2014.

Gina Badger no longer works for FUSE Magazine and statements in this interview represent her individual opinions only, not those of FUSE, its former staff, or its board.

Lead image: Never Lose It (Part 5) from FUSE Magazine

[1] Brian Walker and David Salt, Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World (United States of America: Island Press), 75.

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