Philomena Epps is the founder and editor of Orlando. She also writes freelance arts features and exhibition reviews, and is currently working on a research project at Tate about their history of performance art.
Philomena is our guest curator all this week, check back each day this week to see her recommendations.
What’s the significance behind the magazine’s name?
The name Orlando is indebted to one of my favourite books, the 1928 novel by Virginia Woolf. Orlando lives across three centuries, metamorphosing from man to woman. The characterisation of Orlando is multifaceted; Woolf creates this powerful, bold and transgressive being. Her romantic vision suggests that the creative mind can be androgynous. I wanted my magazine to operate in a similar way, using androgyny as a signifier for multiplicity, the collective and to promote an open vernacular of cooperation and inclusion. By abandoning rigid notions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, Orlando nods to a future where societal constraints are dispelled in favour of a united body. In many other cultural practices, the androgynous body has stood outside the norm, and by doing so, has challenged traditional gender roles and the place of either sex in society. The story of Orlando recognises the complexity of identity, which I have replicated by initiating a fluid and evolving creative environment. Every individual is nuanced and complicated, and ultimately that makes them much more interesting to me. I was tired of having people speak for me, or over me, and I wanted to create a place where I could give people space to think, to write, to create. Woolf’s theory of needing ‘a room of one’s own’ still very much applies. The novel also uses the story of Orlando as a metaphor for a country going through historical changes. The relationship between Orlando’s personal stories and the shifts in politics over the centuries are intertwined. Similarly, the perspectives espoused by gender theory or queer discourse can be used to tackle the effect of any stigmatising politics, and provides a productive and critical language in which to question the world we live in.
Society is totally biased in its privilege of the able heterosexual white man, and I agree that a level of responsibility should certainly be taken by those who gain from that, but more importantly, I believe that men should be educated about how patriarchy has negatively shaped and informed their identity.
You’re approaching a rethinking of gender in cultural life at a time when it’s going through a renaissance, in the mainstream at least. Gender equality made leaps last year in terms of the focus given to it by publishers.
I’m sceptical about this ‘renaissance’. I can’t argue with the fact that there has been a deluge of liberal publishing, or exhibitions exploring expanded understandings of gender or sexual equality, but, if you scratch the surface, something doesn’t add up. I actually laughed out loud when I recently received the press release for the Saatchi Gallery’s tokenistic ‘all woman show’. It was so disingenuous. Just because something looks celebratory, it doesn’t mean it can’t be questioned or even criticised. It is productive to have this dialogue. In the mainstream, gender [read: feminism, read: white middle class feminism] has become something marketable and lucrative. Last year, The Spectator ran a pitiful article titled ‘Feminism is over, the battle is won. Time to move on’. I would like to direct the author to an article published in The Guardian the other week that showed a large spike in the amount of violent crimes against women and the dangerous resurgence of sexism in society. Austerity has definitely played a crucial part in that. It is disproportionately affecting women as their economic independence is being cut short. There have been life-threatening cuts to domestic violence services and the closure of many shelters. The last couple of years have also been a watershed moment for transgender rights, but I think it’s problematic that publishers are commissioning cis people to write on these experiences instead. Mainstream publishing has a tendency to co-opt other people’s experiences when trying desperately to appear culturally relevant. It is even more dangerous when someone like Jeremy Clarkson is given column inches in the weekend papers to espouse muddled hate speech thinly veiled as ‘opinion’. There has also been very little racial diversity in this mainstream discussion of feminism and/or gender. Orlando is an intersectional publication, which means it seeks to consider the intersection of differing social and cultural identities and their related systems of oppression and discrimination. I would like to urge anyone who has written a hollow feature on ‘gender’ recently to go to a protest, reach out to your local community, or in the least… just take the time to listen.
Given the “unified” gendered voice Orlando speaks from, do you think the rise of publishers’ activity in gender debates is a consequence of women claiming a stronger voice, or men engaging with cultural responsibility on a deeper level? Or is it not that simple?
Firstly, women have always had a strong voice. Society just hasn’t always been interested in listening to them. I also think it is reductive to divide it into the binary of ‘men’ doing one thing and ‘women’ doing another, as that is part of the problem. The unified gendered voice of Orlando seeks to appeal to a common humanity. However, not everything needs to be worked through together. There has been a lot of attention paid to safe spaces lately, particularly in the context of universities. I think it is crucial that people are allowed these places to support one another and work through issues that directly relate to them. I have had countless arguments with men who refuse to adopt the word ‘feminist’, despite ‘believing in equal rights’. Despite their laboured defences, I can only assume that the real issue lies in the ‘fem’ sound, as they seem content to adopt ‘humanist’, ‘equal-ist’, and others. I was disturbed by the recent removal of feminism from the politics syllabus in Britain. Even though it was reinstated after a petition, it demonstrates how quickly women’s history and voices can be erased. Society is totally biased in its privilege of the able heterosexual white man, and I agree that a level of responsibility should certainly be taken by those who gain from that, but more importantly, I believe that men should be educated about how patriarchy has negatively shaped and informed their identity as much as women’s. In ‘Understanding Patriarchy’, the writer and activist bell hooks considers this idea more eloquently than I could, “both men and women participate in this tortured value system … [Patriarchy] is the unacknowledged paradigm of relationships that has suffused Western civilization generation after generation, deforming both sexes, and destroying the passionate bond between them”. The idea of a unified voice is totally utopian, but I think through education, empathy, and collaboration and collective discussion, we could start to get closer to a better future.
However disingenuous the means to achieving it, how much has that greater interest in gender had on people’s interest and awareness of Orlando? Or on the pool of writers you’ve been able to draw from?
I have always wanted to stand outside of the ‘gender-is-trendy’ zeitgeist, and simply reflect people’s lives and pursuits in an honest and engaging manner. Orlando isn’t really about gender; it’s just the theory that underscores the identity of the platform. The content aims to be broad in scope, ranging from interviews, profiles, exhibition reviews, comics, photography and art, and more academic essays or comment pieces. The pool of writers and artists are a combination of people I have heard about and commissioned, or people who have contacted me independently. Unfortunately, there are a few individuals or collectives who haven’t been able to afford the time to contribute, particularly grass roots political communities who just don’t have the manpower, or better-known writers attributed to other publications who aren’t able to write freelance editorial. On the whole, I have found it really great to meet and connect with so many like-minded people. My editing is minimal, usually grammatical rather than content-based. Whenever I contact people I always insist that although I have invited them to write something, it is their space to say whatever they want, in their own words. I think people value that.
I think DIY publishing, zines and artist’s small press represent the most honest and authentic visions of feminism and diversity. These publications are made by people who are experiencing it in the here and now.
What sort of coverage of feminism and diversity is available to readers at an indie publishing level? Would you say Orlando is a part of a growing movement?
Absolutely, however, I would say that Orlando is part of the rise of DIY publishing and the new wave of post-millennial zine culture. There has been a lot of ‘indie publishing’ produced recently that masquerades as small press but in reality has a large budget, or commercial funding, and is ridden with swathes of dull advertising. I think DIY publishing, zines and artist’s small press represent the most honest and authentic visions of feminism and diversity. These publications are made by people who are experiencing it in the here and now. Last year, Orlando was featured by i-D magazine and Dazed Digital as one of the best new zines, alongside some other fantastic publications. It is important for me to feel part of a wider sphere, and I would definitely like to collaborate on events or larger projects with other publications. Unlike other competitive magazines, I think it is valuable and productive to establish a community that wants to work together and hopefully encourage positive change. By sharing resources and ideas, everyone can create bigger, better and more exciting things!
What was the reception like for Issue 0?
The theme of Issue 0 was ‘proto’ – signifying beginnings, fresh ideas and current inspirations. It was a prototype in both style and subject – designed to provoke engagement and test editorial and artistic ideas. I wanted to represent contributors who were at the emergent stage and give them space to talk about their work-in-progress or significant formative interests. The content ranged from a piece about Genesis Breyer P-Orridge; an interview with a duo invested in making feminist films; artwork by Josie Turnbull, an up-and-coming artist and graduate from Glasgow School of Art; an essay about AIDS documentaries; a conversation between two members of a design collective in New York; and a piece of creative writing about what it means to write ‘as a woman’.
The response to Issue 0 was really positive! It was limited edition in 200 copies and I only have one box left. I don’t have an external distributor, so I undertook everything myself. I would make myself maps highlighting where independent or artist bookshops were in London, go there, and talk to the shop assistant about why they should stock Orlando. It was pretty nerve-wracking. In London, Charlotte Street News, Freedom Press Bookshop, Housmans, ICA, Tenderbooks, The Photographers Gallery and Ti Pi Tin stocked us. I sent some magazines to News from Nowhere in Liverpool, and NewBridge Books in Newcastle, who also featured Orlando in a special shop display during their Queer in Print exhibition in the summer. In Europe, Issue 0 was sold in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Paris and Vienna. In America, it was stocked in Chicago, San Francisco, and, the one I was most excited about, the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York. I also donated copies to libraries and artist spaces in London, Brighton and Manchester.
And Issue 01 will be published in the coming months, what are the highlights?
After Issue 0, it felt natural to then take stock, and focus on the past, believing that sometimes we need to look back to go forward productively. I was acutely aware that many of the discussions I was having were increasingly considering the past through the lens of the present in order to imagine more considered and hopeful futures. The overarching theme for this issue has been made deliberately sweeping in order to provide a scope of content surrounding ideas of history, memory and the future. Although Orlando is still dedicated to providing a platform for new voices, it has been important for this issue to introduce the voices of older generations. This collision of temporalities is particularly key to a collective notion of the future. Issue 01 is more focused on the role of art in the space of social change and political engagement. My personal highlight was interviewing Mary Kelly, who is an artist I was introduced to at a formative time in my political and cultural education. However, I am really proud of all the content. There will be a piece about Patricia Cronin’s ‘Shrine for Girls’, which has been established as one of the highlights of the Venice Biennale. Performance artist Poppy Jackson, artist Georgia Horgan and a research collective called ‘Doing What Comes Naturally’ have also been given pages discuss their own practice, experiences, or share opinions on topical issues. There is a wonderful creative piece by the same creative writer, India Doyle, who wrote for Issue 0, this time recounting the memory of a grandfather she never met. There are also two pieces that consider education (Herstory) and history (Pride of Place) looking respectively at the representation of women in the curriculum, and the place of ‘queer history’ in cultural collective memory. The issue should go to print within the next month or so.
In what ways does the online and print content differ? Do they serve different goals?
The content in the print issue is related to a theme. Issue 01 will be different to Issue 0 in terms of visual style, format and size, as part of an ongoing demonstration of continual change. I wanted the whole publication to stand up as an art piece, in order to achieve a hard copy visual connection that online web-based communications can’t. You can’t wave a website article on the barricades. The design of the website layout is intended to create an ongoing interdisciplinary conversation. The content is added regularly on a rolling basis. There is a sense of equality. All the texts are formatted identically. It is bright, instantly engaging, but legible. I have also introduced a word limit cap in order to make everything punchy and accessible.
You’ve mentioned that the magazine is free of commercial interest. How will it be funded?
The magazine is non-profit. All the money from magazine sales are used to fund web hosting fees and printing costs. I have also invested some of my own money to keep the magazine afloat. When Issue 0 was produced, I ran a collaborative launch event with Snatch Documentaries who were also fundraising for their short film ‘Kids On Gender’. We charged a small entry fee, ran a raffle, and sold food and drink, alongside magazines and donated artworks. This money helped support Orlando for a significant amount of 2015. I will be running another launch for Issue 01 that will operate in a similar way.
Do you think Orlando’s future will remain in publishing, or can you see it developing in new areas?
I would love to expand into different areas. Aside from magazines, I would also be interested in working on a book with an artist. My intention is for Orlando to be used as a cultural platform, not just publishing. I am open to the idea of collaborating with other people on screenings and exhibitions. I really enjoyed the process of organising an event to celebrate Issue 0, and I am intending to do the same for Issue 01, rather than just hosting a private view or party. It could also be really interesting to work on a documentary or non-fiction film. I think the broad ethos behind Orlando, the idea that the theoretical language behind gender and identity politics can be used as a lens to consider a whole scope of issues, also applies in terms of what could be produced. I like the idea that we are all Orlando. Anything is possible!
Philomena Epp's recommendations
Philomena Epps is our guest curator all this week, check back each day to see her recommendations.