The Sex Magazine founder talks publishing, prolificacy and never sitting pretty
Asher Penn is kind of hard to pin down. I first became aware of his work as an artist and photographer through his shoots for ‘Sup Magazine and self-produced projects like the Kate Moss Rorschach tests, and the artist book Asher Mixtape Hell—a collection of photographs that is about as unrelenting and frenetic as the name suggests. He also spent time in the trenches of the art publishing world working at seemingly all the New York art book spots from Printed Matter to Boo Hooray and ultimately Karma where he helped owner Brendan Dugan curate their signature mix of contemporary art books and vintage counterculture publications. Oh and he’s written for a slew of publications like Interview Magazine and Only Magazine where he interviewed Seth Price and William Gibson respectively. Though his pace is prolific and his interests seem disparate if not entirely unconnected, if you look carefully, the archipelago of Penn’s projects is actually quite coherent—like a nation-state of micro islands—unified by an intense interest in the space between pop and counterculture and the signifiers of taste.
It was in 2012 that Penn finally tied them all together with Sex Magazine, an online-only quarterly magazine in the legacy of the great indie publications like index and Purple. It has since spawned a series of art production projects like the film incubator Beta Pictures, a pirate radio station Hot 11237, an on-demand streetwear brand inspired by the idea “death for capital,” and ultimately AP Creative a consultancy he started with his collaborator Air Pop. I talked to Penn about how he manages to bring all this work together, the art of being a publisher and why he takes branding so damn seriously.
We met in 2011 when you were working at Karma, Brendan Dugan’s hybrid bookstore, publisher, gallery and design office. This seems like a good place to start. How did you end up there? Brendan Dugan was one of the earliest supporters of my work, even before I moved to NY. He found my site in 2007 and began commissioning photos for 'Sup Magazine and was the first person to collect my artworks. When Brendan had the idea of starting Karma he asked if I could get involved. It was a really fun, collaborative project, creating this boutique bookstore from scratch. In general I was really lucky since I moved to New York to be able to work at places like Printed Matter and Karma and Boo Hooray—very rich creative environments, with a lot of information and a lot of ideas being thrown around all the time.
You certainly had had a big impact on Karma at the beginning. How did working there influence you? It was a great way to start to see how graphic design related to art. I had always been confused why graphic designers liked what I made more than most artists and photographers. Working at Karma gave me a lot of respect for the creativity of designers and showed how much design could contribute to an artwork. I remember the work Brendan did for Bjarne Melgaard with sites like stabfrenzy.com and the Rod Bianco book being particularly inspiring. It was also inspiring seeing how many different voices design and branding could allow.
There is also this aspect of mixing different types of art production and distribution, something like corporate synergy on a small scale. I see elements of this in Sex and the various AP Creative projects. Sure. An Art Service funded Brendan’s creative interests with client work and a lot of the time they crossed over. It’s a great way to work.
You were also working with Bill Hayden on your own publishing project, 100%, around the same time. Bill and I shared a lot of interests including, art, design, publishing, as well as stuff like brand identity. Our idea of 100% was an art book publishing company that had an surprising brand identity, something we felt was lacking from the publishers of artist books in general. Nobody was making money off of publishing artist books, so why not just be as fucked up as possible?
Fucked up? Like how? I don’t know, everything 100% did felt like a prank. We launched our first book by Tyler Dobson at Gavin Brown’s enterprise. Everyone was really impressed we had gotten such a stylish gallery to host our launch but we just showed up on Monday when the gallery was closed and sold the books on the sidewalk. That was fun. I should also say we also put a lot of thought and and labor into our our products. We honestly felt like we were bringing something new to the table every time we published a book.
What happened? Well, it’s difficult to sell and distribute artists' books and make money off of it independently. You’re competing with some people that really have a different economic reality. Like JRP Ringier who are the most beautiful artist book publishers of Europe—they’re also a paper manufacturer, and art collectors so their books are being literally printed on their paper of artists they collect. This inflates the value of the artists they collect all the while the books are going to libraries, schools and museums. It really seems like a scheme. After doing 10 publications that made very little money, I realized I really didn’t want to be a book publisher. I didn't want to deal with stock anymore. I didn't want deal with inventory.
"I think our first motto was “next-level-corpse fucking.'"
So you started Sex, an internet magazine. Yeah. I had always loved magazines. I interned at index in 2003 and was generally very inspired by the culture surrounding magazines like Purple and Butt in the early 2000s. By the end of 2012 it was clear that type of magazine culture was kind of gone.
How did you settle on this particular format? We really started from scratch. We didn’t even know if it was going to be an online magazine at the beginning. As we looked at what was out there it began to narrow itself down. We didn’t want it to be a print magazine because we were gonna lose money and deal with distro and inventory. So it had to be online, but what about the advertising? How do you make online advertising cool? We were thinking about stuff like that.
Where did the identity come from? The name Sex came from Bill Hayden. He suggested it and it was hard to find a better name. Sex Magazine's site and logo was designed by Nathan Antolik. The logo came from a book of old book of fonts he had lying around. I think it's really friendly and cool.
One thing thing that's interesting is how the ads are treated. It's a very considered part of the experience, from the way the rollovers work to the fact that specific ads stay pegged to specific articles. The rollovers were actually a recommendation from Iris Alonzo, creative director at American Apparel. Previously it had just been logos, which was inspired by BCorp Magazine Made In USA. The addition of the rollovers really shows how much creativity and competition can go into online advertising. I also believe that the advertising on the magazine is as important as the content of the magazine itself: it’s the magazine’s cosmology, it’s history. Most of the time if you buy advertising online, it's temporary, where as if you look at back issues of Sex you are going to see that ads from that issue.
Since starting Sex, you’ve launched a number of different projects like the lifestyle brand Pet Cemetery, or Beta Pictures for film, each with its own identity. Why not just keep it under the Sex umbrella? Maybe I should have? I don’t know, I never really liked Vice films or Vice Music… all those projects had to answer to that brand instead of discovering their own thing. It’s really good to give each project the support of Sex Magazine while allowing them the freedom and time to figure themselves out, and hopefully build their own culture.
Even as a smaller project Pet Cemetery seems to contain a lot of your working ideas: from zero overhead internet driven production models and this idea that branding and graphics are core pieces of a larger concept. Totally. Pet Cemetery had initially been Bill Hayden and my publishing house that specialized in second editions like Primary Information. We were really grossed out by stuff like Jack Smith having post-mortem shows at Barbara Gladstone: I think our first motto was “next-level-corpse fucking”. We never published any books so Pet Cemetery was reborn as a streetwear brand that carried on the same themes. The fun thing about Pet Cemetery was to work with on-demand production sites like Boardpusher and Zazzle to create an available inventory without investing any money. That way you can have as many items as you want and it doesn’t matter if anything sells because everything is on-demand.
"One thing I have noticed about artists that do a lot of work online: a lot of them really love mail."
Are people getting into the Pet Cemetery life? Nobody's buying anything. Some people are into it. I wear a Pet Cemetery Hat. Air Pop rides a deck and Jacer Racer is supposed to make a video.
And you are currently working on a new project, Available Works. Which is a social network for artists? No, Available Works is a site that allows artists to sell art online. While there are multiple platforms that sell art, there currently are none that allow for artist managed accounts that are optimized for contemporary art. The idea came from the idea of starting an online art gallery that only sold its work on eBay, bringing transparency to art sales. The social networking element was key as it brought the “curation” experience to the level of instagram—you follow what you like, not what curators are putting in front of you.
Like in the movie "The Social Network," how he wanted to recreate the experience of college online. It seems like Available Works wants to recreate the experience of art-buying inside the artist community, where people barter and exchange and just buy in cash from artists studios. You buy in person, it's a social thing. Totally. One thing I have noticed about artists that do a lot of work online: a lot of them really love mail. It’s a great way of having some kind of tactile interaction with someone you know mostly from the internet. If you’ve ever purchased some art or a zine online from the artist, when it arrives in the mail, you know it’s an intimate, special thing between yourself and the artist, whether it’s as a patron or a friend. I also see that as more and more art is being discovered and consumed online as opposed to galleries, artists are self-representing and promoting themselves often better than any gallery could. It’s just seems exciting getting the artwork directly from the source.
So where are you at with this? We’re launching a demo version of the site sometime in the coming month featuring a spectrum of artists who have shown an interest and enthusiasm for the project. It’s really exciting, as so many of these artists are people whose work I have admired for a long time. I can’t wait to see what they put up.
What's the difference between being publisher or curator as opposed to being a solo artist? For me it’s a lot better. I think it’s definitely less lonely. You get to work with people you admire and put aside your ego to truly support the work of somebody else. I have made a lot of art I am proud of but it was also fairly depressing as a process. In comparison I find it really fun to have a conversation with somebody and talk to them about what they're interested in, what they've been trying to do and what they haven't been able to do and to be able to figure out how to actually make that happen. For me, right now, that is the most fun.