Interview with Sina Najafi, editor-in-chief, Cabinet Magazine.
The following oral history transcript is the result of a recorded interview with Sina Najafi conducted by Sohrab Mohebbi. The interview took place at Cabinet Magazine’s offices at 300 Nevins Street in Brooklyn, NY on Saturday April 23rd, 2011.
Sina Najafi and Sohrab Mohebbi have reviewed the interview transcript and have made corrections and emendations. The reader should bear in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose. This interview was funded by the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA).
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. <>
SOHRAB MOHEBBI: When did you start thinking about starting a new magazine? Maybe we can go back to the beginning of Cabinet?
SINA NAJAFI: I began to think about starting a new magazine in early 1999. At the time, I was a graduate student at New York University, writing a dissertation in comparative literature. I had been part of a magazine called Index in Sweden, where I had been living in the mid-90s, and then part of another Stockholm-based magazine called Merge, which was actually in English. So in 1999, I was with Merge when I decided to leave and start Cabinet. Part of the reason why I was interested in starting a new magazine was that I’d moved to the US and my colleagues were all in Stockholm at the time, which made things difficult; but I also wanted to be part of a cultural magazine where we could really open up the definition of culture, so that it would be defined in an almost anthropological sense as everything human beings do and say in order to make sense of the world around them. I thought this would be a way to form a venue where all kinds of languages, artifacts, and knowledge, from jargon-free academic discourse to something approaching pranks, could live right next to each other. One idea for the magazine was that it would be a place where no one mode of talking about the world would be dominant, and no one approach would feel at home in it, so that the publication as a whole would feel slightly foreign to all its readers. We wanted the magazine to feel homeless and displaced, so that no one could say that it’s fundamentally a magazine about this or that, with some other things added to its central core. At that time, I had just met an artist—a sculptor and a sound artist—called Brian Conley, who had also done a PhD in philosophy and was very interested in all the kinds of things that I was interested in. And so he joined me and we decided to start the magazine together. In the summer of 1999, we formed a corporation in New York State called Immaterial Incorporated. That’s the official name [of Cabinet Magazine].
MOHEBBI: Immaterial Incorporated.
NAJAFI: Yes. It was basically a bad pun around immateriality and incorporeality. And Immaterial Incorporated then applied for 501(c)(3) status, so we formally became a nonprofit in August 1999. You need three people to form a non-profit, and the third member of the board was Nathalie Gimon, who was at the New Yorker at the time. She had access to some funds through her family’s foundation, and she gave us the seed money for the magazine. She is the person to whom we really owe everything; she looked at a table of contents and three edited articles that we had printed out on a laser printer and decided to support us by arranging for us to get a grant of $80,000 for that first year. And then she followed it in the second year with a second grant of $80,000. So that was our starting budget, $80,000 per year, which is enough to pay for four issues’ printing. So everybody worked for free; writers received a tiny symbolic sum, and the whole thing was run out of a small room in my house in Brooklyn, which is where we were for six years, until 2005.
Our first issue came out in December 2000. One of the things we had decided right away was that we wanted to have a section of the magazine to focus around one particular topic, but not the whole issue, as that can get quite tedious, for both the readers and the editors. We wanted the themes to be untimely, so they could not be what people were discussing. They could also not be urgent, in part because it takes nine months between the time an article is commissioned and when it comes out, so urgency of a certain nature was better left to weeklies, dailies, and the web. We wanted the themes to be broad and open enough that we could really go into every field of knowledge and into every nook and cranny of culture—the themes could not be associated with or specific to any particular discipline. So we had the themed section, an unthemed section, and we also decided to have a set of regular columns. But we didn’t want a traditional column—“important person weighing in on the intellectual scene” or some such. So, for example, one of the columns was called Inventory and it was about listmaking or cataloguing in whatever way we could understand this activity. And we had a column called Colors, where we assigned a color to a writer (no haggling on their part) and s/he had to write about it however they thought best.
The themed section of that first issue was on “Invented Languages.” So we looked at the history of inorganic languages that had been artificially constructed, either for utopian reasons, or as ways of demarcating some national entity from some other national entity, or as artist projects. We spent a lot of time thinking about the design of that first issue, and in some sense, decisions that we made together with our first designer, Richard Massey, are still with us. We wanted the design to be as simple and rigorous as possible. It wasn’t going to be a magazine where the designer would express himself by experimenting with a different font and format for each article. Instead, we wanted a very neutral box or container, as neutral as possible, so that all the various voices would come through as strongly as possible. We felt that if the design were as variegated as our content, we would end up with cacophony. The design had to pull of a sleight-of-hand, a sort of trick on the reader, which was to place under one simple umbrella an interview with someone who is a bone trader, an article about contemporary ideas of war trauma, and an article about Swedish artist Öyvind Fahlström’s made-up languages. The neutral design was supposed to help produce a sense of cohesion, so that readers who would normally reject out of hand the idea of being interested in all these different topics would in fact be more open-minded about the collection of stuff we were offering them.
MOHEBBI: It’s kind of against the idea of design.
NAJAFI: It was against the kinds of experiments that, say, David Carson had been doing at Ray Gun, against the idea of design where the designer’s subjectivity was to be strongly visible at every turn, and had to be expressed on every page.
MOHEBBI: Creating an identity for—
NAJAFI: Yes, so the models that Richard Massey, who had just finished the MFA program in design at Yale, brought to the table were the old Economist; the 1972 Munich Olympics catalogue; and the NASA catalogues from the sixties and seventies, which were as simple as it gets: one page of text, one image; one page of text, one image, with text and image never on the same page together. So everything was to look as simple as possible, which is never simple, and we chose a very basic font called Univers.
I’ve mentioned the open and expansive notion of culture that we wanted to operate with, but another basic guiding principle for us was the question, “What would an art magazine look like if it was for artists rather than about artists?” For this, we took the artist’s studio wall as a point of departure, and as inspiration. And the third question for us was, “How do you get all the incredible work being done in the academy and bring it out of its shell?” We felt that the language that was available to academics in the US was atrophying because the number of intellectual, non-academic publications had been dwindling in this country, and so academics had less and less reason to try and craft new ways of writing that would be appropriate for being an intellectual in the public sphere. So we wanted to be a venue where that could happen. Our model for this sort of thing was the late work of Michel Foucault, where very complex ideas are laid out in incredibly powerful, simple prose.
In some sense, we were most interested in the collision between the artist’s wall—you know, the kind of undisciplined mishmash of amazing stories and interesting images—and the very disciplined work of academics, and in staging that confrontation in the most productive way possible, which is not to say that there would be no friction. We wanted to see how academic work could learn from the speculative mode of thinking that runs through some artistic practices, and how artists could learn to make more of a difference by understanding all the good things that happen when you “discipline” yourself and get to know a field of inquiry inside and out.
We also thought of the magazine as a sourcebook of ideas for artists, in part by being a place for unusual histories that could be of interest to artists, and in part by encouraging artists themselves to write about the research they were conducting, as opposed to discussing the artwork that the research was for. We felt that there was a need for this because art magazines were basically interested in the finished work and often left out all the other stuff—the sociological, scientific, anthropological historical, and political material—that had in fact fascinated the artist to begin with and formed the germ of the artwork.
MOHEBBI: So would you say that you started with the idea of a magazine for artists, or was art a departure point, in terms of thinking about magazines?
NAJAFI: As I said, there was more than one thing in play, but for sure, the idea of an art magazine for artists was something that we aimed for. Whether we succeeded or not is for artists to decide, but about a third of our readers are artists, which means a lot to us. We imagined—maybe wrongly—that an art magazine for artists wouldn’t actually have interviews with artists, and it wouldn’t write reviews of shows. It would have art projects by artists, it would have artists writing about things they were interested in, and it would also include material that would be interesting to artists to think with for future projects. We had a lot of discussion about what to include and what not to include, but we knew for sure that we didn’t want reviews of artworks; the work of evaluating, critiquing, passing judgment was something we did not want to be involved in. We felt there were many other ways of encountering artworks, some of which were joyous, exuberant, or mischievous in ways that seemed to us worth exploring. I still remember, for instance, the incredible experience, in 1985, when I was at college, of opening the anthology called Art After Modernism—is that still used?
NAJAFI: … and reading an essay there by Kathy Acker, which had one of its sections start off by confessing to the eroticism of looking at and being looked at by a young boy in a Caravaggio painting. The opening line read: “A young boy is looking at me. I’m looking at him. … Can I handle this boy, who obviously wants me, this much fertility and pleasure?” And this was an eye-opening moment for me and for a lot of my peers, because here was a way of engaging and critiquing an artwork that didn’t disavow desire. It didn’t pretend to have critical distance, and it didn’t pretend that taking up critical distance is the only legitimate way of looking at art. We weren’t interested in those modes of engagement where you had to vouch that you were at the right distance away from the work to judge it—instead, we wanted to be too close to the object, we wanted to be enthusiastic, or we wanted to be too far from it so that we could productively misread it.
In some sense, our project has been, for better or for worse, about bringing out the things that we have been interested in and opening them to discover what’s inside. The magazine has in part been about an exuberant encounter with things of interest, rather than critique, judgment, and taste-making. And we don’t like polemics either, of fisticuffs with other magazines or other writers whose work or stance might seem problematic to us. We prefer to do our work on our own terms and hopefully it’s of some interest to some people.
All of these decisions have had some repercussions on our struggles as a non-profit, in part because without reviews you have very little hope of getting ads from galleries. We sell a fair number of issues—we print around 13,000 copies at the moment—but we’ve never had ads commensurate with that sort of circulation.
MOHEBBI: I was checking the website. Most of the issues are already sold out.
NAJAFI: They are. We printed 5,000 copies of the first issue, when we had zero subscribers and no distributors, and about three years ago around Christmas, a woman walked into our office and bought the very last one. That issue took eight years to sell out! But we did start with absolutely zero readers.
MOHEBBI: So it just grew.
NAJAFI: Slowly, yes.
MOHEBBI: Can you talk a bit about how you chose the name? Is it related to how you cover this whole spectrum of what is called culture? A cabinet of curiosities?
NAJAFI: Our first grant applications went out under other names, but none of us were happy with any of them. And then one day I was building Ikea cabinets at home and trying to think of alternative names when I realized that the thing I had in my hand was the name we had been looking for. The cabinet of curiosity was definitely the most important reference; we were interested in all the ways in which artifacts and modes of knowledge that we now keep apart co-existed in one single physical and epistemological space in the early cabinets of curiosity. And we were also interested in the notion of curiosity, though—and this we found in Foucault, and a fragment from a statement he made in an interview in fact forms part of our mission statement—we imagined an ethical, politicized sense of curiosity. For Foucault, curiosity is deeply political because it starts by dismantling all the hierarchies that exist and it also denaturalizes the world, so that you take nothing in it for granted. So we think of curiosity as the first tool you need to be politicized or political, and we think of Cabinet’s quiet commitment to curiosity not as being Political with a capital “P”, but political with a small “p”, in the sense that wanting to know how the world came to be how it is forms the real basis for reimagining it otherwise. To take a simple example: radio didn’t have to be a one-way communication system. It wasn’t that way in the early days, and then slowly political forces made it into a one-way communication system. So curiosity would be the mode by which you would begin to understand how everything in the world was manufactured to be how it is, even things that apparently could not have been otherwise. There’s a kind of basic Barthesian lesson about denaturalizing the world that curiosity brings with it.
MOHEBBI: When I open a Cabinet magazine, I’m not sure if there’s a particular use to this knowledge that I’m gaining right now. And that also could be some kind of a political way of looking, a knowledge that is not acquired to serve a purpose or to push an agenda, academic, political, cultural or otherwise.
NAJAFI: Yes, for example, we have lots of material that’s properly historical and may not seem directly relevant to contemporary issues. We’re very interested in the formations of modernity and how these formations have made us able to think certain things, and utterly incapable of imagining some other things. So we think of all the historical material that we publish as small contributions toward building a larger picture of how we have come to be what we are.
MOHEBBI: If you go on the website and check the A to Z list of writers who have written for Cabinet magazine, it’s an incredibly large and varied list of contributors.
MOHEBBI: So I wonder, when you are working on a particular issue, how do you approach the writers, or do they approach you?
NAJAFI: It has stayed remarkably the same in most ways, and changed in some ways. We were accepting submissions from the very beginning and we still do. We read every submission. But for the first issue, we basically went to friends and people whose work we liked, and asked to interview them or have them write for us. And we imagined that two things would happen, which didn’t. One was that the submissions pile would not only become larger but that more and more people would know exactly what we like. We fantasized that at some point we would just spend a few days reading the submissions and have a whole issue almost there. And that has not happened. We still have the same number of texts —two to three—in every issue from the submissions pile. And the other thing that we imagined is that all our writers would write for us again and again. And that hasn’t happened. It was idiotic of us to imagine otherwise. Part of the reason is that our fees are so modest, but the main reason is that we have themed issues, and when we do an issue on, say, horticulture, we have an article by a historian of gardens who will most likely never appear in our pages again. A lot of people write for us only once because they specialize in the theme of the issue— that’s why we have such a large list of writers. And in terms of finding these people, we usually have to search for them. They’re writing a book that we hear about, or we are teaching a course that touches on the theme, and so on.
One thing that has changed since the early days—and this is not a change for the better—is that we used to scour all sorts of small enthusiast publications, niche publications dedicated to understanding one phenomenon or slice of history, and see if we could find ideas there. So for example, we used to subscribe to Guinea Pig Zero, which is great. Do you know Guinea Pig Zero?
NAJAFI: It was a small photocopied newsletter for the hundred-and-something people in US who make a living by offering themselves full-time to pharmaceutical companies for human testing of new medications. So they go from hospital to hospital and volunteer to be tested on. And they get a thousand dollars here, two thousand dollars there, and so on. And Guinea Pig Zero was a way of sharing information about the different hospitals and drug programs, and how they treated the volunteers for their experiments.
MOHEBBI: So you would subscribe to all these little very particular…
NAJAFI: Yes. We used to track them a lot more, and I do miss that. I think that’s just a function of us being so busy now that we don’t have the time to look for that kind of material, that kind of enthusiast, amateur material, which is wonderful.
MOHEBBI: How much time do you spend on an issue? For instance, if you have an issue coming out in summer, would it be three months prior to that?
NAJAFI: Well, it used to be that we were always working on two issues down the line, so in January we’d be working on the issue coming out in June. But recently that cushion has gone. We are now basically working on the very next issue and we’re suffering as a result of that. Not only is it unpleasant but also the work suffers. What happens when you don’t have time to look properly is that the things that are closest to you end up in the magazine more and more.
MOHEBBI: But you do have a large pool of contributing editors.
NAJAFI: Yes, they look out for material, and that’s great. But the more lead time you have, the better it is. And of course, as soon as an issue comes out, we get amazing suggestions from people saying, “You did an issue on friendship. Do you know this amazing book or this project?” We would like to do a “Regrets” issue at one point, where all these fantastic belated suggestions can finally find a home. It’s what Balzac calls l’esprit de l’escalier, or the wit of the staircase—as soon as you are coming down the stairs from the dinner party, you’re suddenly struck by exactly what you should have said to be more witty. So there’s always the after-the-fact kind of wisdom, and regrets.
MOHEBBI: How would you describe the magazine’s editorial voice, given the wide variety of writers and since it’s not addressing one particular audience.
NAJAFI: Well, I don’t know if the magazine itself has a voice, to be honest. I mean, a single, unified voice: maybe it does. I’d have to think about that. But we do know certain things we like to have in the writers’ voices. There are certain kinds of things that we always edit out, and certain kinds of things that we always leave in, and certain kinds of things we avoid. For example, we don’t like texts where the fragile, sensitive ego of the writer is put out there as a hyper-sensitive, possibly vulnerable being in the world. I don’t know where this voice comes from but I see it everywhere. We do like writing where somebody puts themselves very strongly in the middle and doesn’t pretend, as I said, to have critical distance. We edit out a lot of things we agree with—for example, a few issues ago, a writer was discussing a blatantly racist moment in history, and then had a paragraph where he condemned this racism. And we took it out, because such a sentiment goes without saying in our context, and so the function of a statement like that is only to send comforting signs to one another that we belong to the same community, that we think alike, and at heart I have some doubts about the long-term value of such comfort. On the flipside, we never put out editorials distancing ourselves from any political positions that we dislike in texts that we publish. We never say, “We’re publishing this purely as a symptom that we think everyone needs to pay attention to.” Like every magazine, we publish a tiny line in the front pages saying that we don’t necessarily agree with everything we publish, but we leave it at that. We trust the reader to make their own way though it.
One of the other things that we like having in the magazine that is perhaps unusual is that we like digressions. So if somebody is talking about something and then they wander off for a while, we don’t mind that as long as it is interesting. Getting from A to B as quickly as possible is not something we value or encourage, and we think that digressions are in fact very important to texts. In fact, the very first piece we tried to commission in 2000 was from another art publication which had cut out a segment from a conversation they were about to publish. They had sent two art historians to see the Jackson Pollock show that was up at MoMA at that time. The idea was that these two art historians would walk around the show and talk to each other, and the record of their conversation would be published in the magazine. And what happened is that Tom Cruise walked in halfway through, and this had thrown off the whole conversation for twenty minutes because the two art historians were trying to talk about Jackson Pollock, but their attention was now split between the show and Tom Cruise. They were doing their best to stick with Pollock but both of them were kind of star-struck, as one would be, and the whole conversation had gotten derailed. And so the art magazine had cut these twenty minutes out of the text they were going to publish. We asked if we could publish the edited out section with a note that said, “This conversation would have gone between this line and this line in the text that appears in this issue of this art magazine.” And we almost got permission; at the last minute, it was denied by the publisher.
But we’re interested in the twists that happen as you walk, say, through the museum; things happen, and one of the first things to get compromised, if it were ever really possible, is critical distance. Better to allow the contingencies that are part of every enterprise to be acknowledged and be part of the record than excise them and pretend that we always have fully assured and masterful scripts for getting to where we want to go.
MOHEBBI: I was reading a book by Samuel Edgerton about art and criminal prosecution during the renaissance in Florence, and he mentions how only the artists and the doctors were entitled to a corpse, for instance. A moment where there wasn’t a clear-cut distinction between various disciplines, and for instance law, medicine and art were intertwined. There is something similar to that at Cabinet, both at the magazine and here at the space where you look at the intersection or the passage between science and art. How would you organize a space around a topic or like this—
NAJAFI: I think that some of the events we put on at our event space are quite traditional, like a panel between two people who have interesting perspectives on an interesting topic. Experimenting with genre and format is important to us but it’s not a requirement. On the other hand, we are always interested in trying out other modes of thinking, talking, and listening, and this often also involves crossing disciplinary boundaries. For example, we’ve had a series of bunk bed conversations here, where we have two people wearing pajamas or night gear in a bunk bed, having a discussion about the sorts of things that you might talk about late at night way past your bedtime. These conversations have had themes, for example such as friendship, or sleep, or nostalgia, and the participants have often been drawn from very different fields. Or we’ve recently started a series called “Fairs for Knowledge,” and the idea is to take learning out of the classroom and into unexpected venues. For instance, last weekend, we had an event at Jo’s Restaurant in Manhattan, with six different experts who knew something about the history of clouds in literature, in art, in science, et cetera. Every diner was given an additional menu that we had created which offered six cloud-related conversations from which you could choose one for free. Once you placed your order, the expert on the topic you’d chosen would join you for ten minutes, talk to you about the history of, say, cloud seeding, or Goethe’s interest in cloud typologies. Some people came to the restaurant for the event; some people came to the restaurant not knowing about it at all and were pleasantly surprised, and some people were like, “I just want my eggs: no conversation.” Which we understand, because a lot of the events that have been most interesting to us have put us in a zone of slight discomfort. I think unless you put yourself in a zone where you’re worried about the results and worried that you might even be embarrassed at the end of it, nothing’s at stake. Straight-up panels between two amazing intellectuals is always terrific; people learn a lot, and it’s bound to be great. But if you’re interested in experimentation, nothing is worth doing unless you think you might be embarrassed at the end of it; it’s almost like a litmus test. And I think that’s true of writing too, actually; you should always put a little too much of yourself in. Your writing should always humiliate you in some way, to pick up a line of thought from Wayne Koestenbaum’s recent book.
MOHEBBI: Do you think there is a pre-Enlightenment feel to the cross-disciplinary approach of the magazine? Bringing together all these different nooks and crannies of culture under one cover...
NAJAFI: Definitely. In some ways, the magazine vacillates between a pre-Enlightenment mode of thinking—an era before specializations began to carve up knowledge—and an Enlightenment-inspired sense of mode of optimism in what knowledge can bring to the table. Foucault’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” where he tries to see how his own apparently anti-Enlightenment project in fact could be seen to be much more in line with eighteenth-century notions of the Enlightenment, is important here; we’re not advocating a return to the eighteenth century pure and simple, even if that were possible.
MOHEBBI: Sorry. I should have asked this early on, but what was your background?
NAJAFI: My degrees are in comparative literature. I mentioned the Kathy Acker essay; that was from a long time before, when I was an undergraduate in the mid-80s. I started a Ph.D. and when I was writing my dissertation, I sheepishly told my advisor that I was starting a magazine, which is why he hadn’t seen me for a long time. I never finished the dissertation. My advisor was very supportive of my move, actually, and he told me that when he’d been in Berkeley as a graduate student in the late sixties or early seventies, I can’t remember which, the various departments had gotten together to come up with a magazine that would truly bring all the different faculty at Berkeley together. And they had realized, at the end of a long set of meetings, that there’s one thing that everybody—from art historians and literary scholars to economists and scientists—could have something to say about, and that was the chicken. So they had two issues of a magazine that was devoted to the chicken as the most interdisciplinary object in the world. This was amazing for me to hear because my advisor was this brilliant professor who I really admired, and he was saying to me, as Cabinet was taking its first baby steps towards interdisciplinarity, that these smart people at Berkeley had thought that one way to know the world better would be through this examination of all the ways in which this apparently ridiculous animal has figured in its history. So something as negligible as, say, hair could be as valuable a topic for dissecting the world and understanding some of its structures as a grand topic with pedigree, such as evil. Walter Benjamin says you can see the whole ideology of a world through the way someone picks up their cup and brings it to their mouth. And I guess I’m a believer in that.
MOHEBBI: You mentioned Benjamin, you mentioned Foucault, can you talk about the writers you were reading at the time?
NAJAFI: I read what every other young student at the time interested in theory/philosophy/literature was reading: the great trio of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and then Barthes, Foucault, Gramsci, Adorno, Althusser, Lacan, etc. The only part of my reading that was maybe a bit different from the standard fare was that I studied for a while at Princeton with Andrew Ross, who’s now at NYU, and he made us also read work from the British cultural studies tradition, like Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams, as well as a lot of very new writing on the ideologies of techno-culture. But it was basically the usual stuff.
MOHEBBI: So there was a canon that you’d read.
NAJAFI: There was a canon; it’s not very different from the canon of today. But what has maybe changed—maybe, because I don’t really know—is that there was a sense of importance given to theory back then that I think maybe is missing now. And especially with Andrew Ross, it felt like there was something really at stake.
MOHEBBI: But at the magazine, you never followed the canon.
NAJAFI: Actually, Cabinet doesn’t have a lot of theory pieces in it. It has some, but not many. We’re not against it but we prefer it if the theoretical issues come out of concrete phenomena that are discussed first. A phrase we sometimes use when we get a submission that seems to be driven just by a theoretical concern is that it never “touches ground”; it doesn’t seems to have traction in the world in any concrete way. And I guess we feel that what we publish needs to encounter the world directly at some point. Historians are especially good at that mode, and a certain kind of historian has been the most recurring writer type for Cabinet. It’s a mode of reading that I think is very productive.
MOHEBBI: So three years ago, you opened the [event and exhibition] space. How did that come about, what was its relationship with the magazine? Was it an attempt to cover what did not fit the magazine format?
NAJAFI: We’d always done exhibitions and events, but obviously in other people’s spaces before we got our own. Then, as now, some of the programs basically expanded something that had been in the magazine. But more often that not, the events don’t end up having any direct relation to the content of the magazine. For example we did a very large conference in Mexico City, in 2003, on nostalgia. It was a three-day conference with people from all over the world, and if we had been clever, we would have made an issue about nostalgia and just put those things in there; but we didn’t. We were, and are, very bad about synching up stuff, even when they would have made for great content in the magazine. And of course the most interesting things that happen in a space in front of the audience in fact can’t end up on the page anyway, because the performative aspect of it was the key to the event. I used to rue all the missed opportunities to work the events back into the magazine but now I see that it’s best if the two worlds only meet from time to time.
We do a lot more events now that we have our own space, in part because we don’t spend a lot of time coordinating with another institution. But the nature of our events has also changed because it’s harder to convince another institution to be interested in the same risks that you are. Some, or maybe even a lot, of our events don’t work perfectly or even at all, and it’s much easier to fail at home than when you are a guest at someone else’s home. So we do a lot more unusual programs now. And we also always wanted our place to be welcoming and social, so it’s important to us that people can hang out afterwards and have a drink together and maybe continue to talk about the program they’ve seen together.
MOHEBBI: How many people work here in the space, at the office?
NAJAFI: We currently have a full-time staff of two and a part-time staff of two. We’ve found that we can operate according to a very different economy once we moved into our own space. So nobody pays anything to come to any of our events. And unless we have a specific grant to support a program, which is rare, the people we invite to do things here are also doing it for free. This is an economy that can only work if there’s enthusiasm on everyone’s part. I understand that it’s a setup that may seem abusive, but all of us work the events for free and so it does feel like it’s about everyone being generous rather than one group abusing another. I guess the audience is getting the best deal!
MOHEBBI: So the event space is not necessarily responding to the magazine, it’s its own—
NAJAFI: Not necessarily. Some things do, yes. But it has its own life, as it were. And for better or for worse, we don’t have a regular set of programs. We don’t say we must have films every Wednesday night and a debate of this kind the first Thursday of every month. We’ve thought about it but never done it. That’s partly because of overwork (that kind of organization needs much more long-term planning) and partly because the haphazard is also interesting and useful in a city that has so much of its cultural programs planned months in advance according to a known schedule. A lot of things happen quite casually, and that’s not always possible with larger, more rigorous institutions. Having said that, I know that our events don’t really add up in a coherent way, and maybe that’s frustrating at times. It’s like our books. If you looked at our books on a shelf, I think you’d be hard-pressed to think that one publisher put them all out—there’s a book about doodles by US presidents, and one about Gordon Matta-Clark, and then an artist book that’s in the form of commissioned stamps, and then a translation of a travelogue written by two Soviet writers in the 1930s. Our exhibits have also shown a similar heterogeneity.
MOHEBBI: Is there a relationship between the artist projects and the exhibitions?
NAJAFI: The first show that we did, the “Paper Sculpture Show,” was actually based on a set of artist projects in the magazine. In 2001, Matt Freedman, who’s an artist based in New York, organized a project for our pages where he asked five artists to do paper sculptures in the magazine; these were printed on thicker paper and readers could cut them out and make them. And the next year Matt, Mary Ceruti (director of the Sculpture Center), and I co-curated a show at the Sculpture Center based on the same idea. It had 29 artists and ended up traveling to a bunch of venues across the country. And the second show that we did was about one particular project of Gordon Matta-Clark’s usually referred to as “Reality Properties: Fake Estates,” and again, it was from the magazine. We had done a little project on Matta-Clark in our “Property” issue and we decided to expand it and make it into a show, which ended up at the Queens Museum and White Columns. But then we’ve done a lot of shows that have had nothing to do with the content of the magazine, for example a show we did last year on the video artist Jaime Davidovich or another one on the video work of New Zealand artist Darcy Lange. I’m afraid our exhibitions can seem as haphazard or heterogeneous as the books.
MOHEBBI: More like the un-themed section of the magazine?
NAJAFI: Exactly. For example, our next show came from me being at the studio of the artist Terry Winters, and seeing on his wall a string figure, which I recognized to be from Harry Smith’s collection. Smith, who is best known for his Anthology of American Folk Music, collected string figures from all around the world, and many of them have been sitting in the basement of Anthology Film Archives. We’d had a picture of three of his string figures in the magazine a long time before. It turned out that a friend of Terry’s knew Smith and has a bunch of them, and so we will be doing a small show on them. They’re beautiful, and the programming one can have around them could be very interesting, ranging from anthropology to thinking of how string figures function as a form of drawing.
MOHEBBI: What do you think about the relationship between editing and curating? Do you see similarities between the two? Recently it is common to open the radio and hear “this program is curated by so and so.”
NAJAFI: We only curate shows; to use this word for any old activity that selects and juxtaposes seems to me to be an abuse of language. I can even say that there are some shows that we haven’t curated, that we’ve really organized them in some sense. Editing has a long history, and a very rich one, and any editor who’s serious about what they do can be proud of this history. It’s more than adequate as a term for what we do. Our job, when we come across a text that is interesting, is to be its first reader and to try and listen to it as deeply as possible and ask it all the questions that will, hopefully, make it a little bit better. And this is enough of a task for us, especially since we are reading so many different kinds of texts that require so many different modes of attention.
One of the things that the magazine tries to do is to pay respect to expertise and take it seriously. We’re interested in disciplines and the kinds of rigorous work that comes from specialists, although I should also say that we are not just interested in traditional intellectuals but also what Foucault calls specific intellectuals—people who work in a hospital or a prison, for instance, and thereby have a very nuanced sense of how that institution functions and malfunctions. Foucault’s paradigm for the specific intellectual was Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” whose very detailed knowledge of the project and its science then led him to take a political stance on the bomb and its use. So on the one hand, we’re interested in all these kinds of knowledge that have come from studying one thing very well, whether in the academy or not, and making sure that our magazine always shows the insights that are gained by this kind of deep specialization, by all the investment and work that goes into that. On the other hand, we like to debunk the sense that only some people can understand something or have a right to do so. So in that sense, we also want our magazine to be a place where you can glean some sense of what all these different specialists have to offer. We want our magazine to be a place that sanctions knowing many small things, but does so by offering the work of many people who know one big thing. So that’s what the little sign outside our space, our shield with the hedgehog and the fox, is about. Do you know that Isaiah Berlin essay?
MOHEBBI: The hedgehog and the fox?
NAJAFI: Yes, his essay on Tolstoy where he uses as a heuristic device the old Greek dictum that the hedgehog knows one big thing and the fox knows many small things. So the question is, how do you pay respect to the hedgehogs and the foxes at the same time? Both modes of knowledge, both approaches, need to be held in tension and brought together. We think of ourselves as the divide between the two, as a venue that would like to situate itself in that impossible space.
MOHEBBI: Well thank you so much, I think we can leave it here with the fox and the hedgehog. [END]