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A Pandora’s box of British wit & whimsey, fun & games

by Tom Scutt

  • 19 January 2015

Last week the Paul Mellon Centre and Yale Center for British Art released a call for submissions to its forthcoming online journal, British Art Studies. While upholding the rigorous scholarship PMC publications are renowned for, the journal will make use of its platform by commissioning interactive media and engaging materials to provide its readers with an immersive experience.

Concrete poetry by Ian Hamilton Finlay, Section 14, Issue 7, Aspen, 1970

Wave/rock, Concrete poetry by Ian Hamilton Finlay, Section 14, Issue 7, Aspen, 1970

Considering what format the journal will take continues to be an exciting task, especially now that the doors are open to submissions and proposals. However, we were surprised that there were so few digital art history projects to look to for guidance, or at least examples which really engage with their online environment. For me, the series of publications that have resulted from the Getty’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative are the most exciting possibilities, in particular the ‘Living Collections Catalogue‘ produced by the Walker Art Center. But what about innovative examples in print?

Early in our research I asked my colleagues Sarah Victoria Turner and Hana Leaper to bring along examples of print and online publications that they thought we could learn from. One of my chosen print examples was Issue 7 of Aspen magazine, published in a box containing thirteen sections, in 1970. Guest edited by Mario Amaya (a founding editor of Art and Artists magazine) and designed by John Kosh, the ‘British Box’ featured contributions from Ossie Clark, Eduardo Paolozzi, J. G. Ballard, Peter Blake, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Ian Hamilton Finlay and David Hockney, among others. An advertisement for the issue in the Evergreen Review declared the publication to be ‘a Pandora’s box of British wit & whimsey, fun & games.’

The format of Aspen, which ran to ten volumes between 1965 and 1971, varied greatly from issue to issue. The one constant factor was that the magazine would be held as loose sections in a box – free from medium restrictions imposed by the fixed format of staple-bound sheets. To open an issue of Aspen is to be mentally and physically immersed in the period of its publication – flexidisc records, Super-8 film, models and photographs were common inclusions. Indeed, the boxes are often compared to time capsules. First published in 1965, Aspens patron and editor Phyllis Johnson described the endeavour as ‘harking back to the original meaning of the word [magazine] as “a storehouse, a cache, a ship laden with stores.”’

Facsimile pocket diary for 1969, written November 1968, Section 8, Issue 7, Aspen, 1970

The Lennon Diary 1969. Diary of the future, by John Lennon., Facsimile pocket diary for 1969, written November 1968, Section 8, Issue 7, Aspen, 1970

Looking inside Issue 7, the reader/spectator/participant is confronted with a stack of pamphlets of varying sizes, flexidiscs, a sewing pattern for British Knickers, John Lennon’s ‘Diary’, and a colouring book. But what was the reader supposed to do when faced with no instructions, no guidelines, and the absence of conventions such as page numbers, narrative, even binding? I would suggest that such a reader is expected to explore, and to learn. I’m particularly interested in how Aspen allowed its authors to take advantage of a non-linear format, and hope we might echo some of those characteristics in British Art Studies through its progression. As an exclusively online publication our readers will be able to explore the journal outside of pre-devised sequences, navigating through related key-words such as artist names, themes or concepts.

Reel of super-8 film, Section 24, Issue 5 + 6, Aspen, 1967

Four Films by Four Artists, Reel of super-8 film, Section 24, Issue 5 + 6, Aspen, 1967

Ubuweb in collaboration with Andrew Stafford produced an online version of Aspen in 2003. Unfortunately the limitations of the web at that point don’t do the publication justice, flattening the tactility and playfulness of the boxed version. The National Art Library hold a complete set of the boxes, as do a number of other institutions. Do take a look sometime, or think about submitting something of your own to British Art Studies.

About the author

  • Digital Lead at the Paul Mellon Centre