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Framework

George Ttoouli

5 November 10 words: James Walker
The editor of Polarity, a new surrealist art publication, discusses why he set up and how you can get involved
George Ttoouli - no relation to Indiana Jones

Only a surrealist would think it was a good idea to start up a magazine in the middle of a recession, and thank goodness this one did. Polarity is the beautifully produced brain child of Geroge Ttoouli. Here’s what the reiki practitioner and creative writing lecturer had to say for himself….

Tell us a small personal secret we can broadcast to millions.
I’m short, hairy and have moons for testicles. No, OK, but I think Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye is one of the masterpieces of literature. Why write more if you can get so much out of a novella like that? Also, I’m a reiki practitioner.

Talking of writing, tell us about your new magazine, Polarity.
Polarity started out as a conceptual convergence of multi-disciplinary contemporary surrealist artists as a way of re-energising the movement of anti-mainstream art without falling into avant garde cerebralism.

Pardon?
Actually, I’m not entirely sure what it’s about. It just felt like the right way to go about putting a magazine together. I’m bored senseless with most art mags, where you’re encouraged to turn to the contents page, then the contributor notes, before any actual art has hit you. The magazine’s about the creative work, and about the joy that comes from creative work. Surrealism’s a loose term we’ve positioned ourselves in the gravitational pull of.

Why did you decide to set up at this particular moment?
I remember having a chat with some of my graduating students about how they should start a magazine, or some kind of project. I fielded a couple of magazine ideas. One was Polarity – a magazine in which the work would be organised along a spectrum between two polarised themes. The other was Doppelganger, a magazine that imitated a different mainstream magazine each issue, satirically. So one issue could be an iD mag piss take, the next might hit Nuts, then Readers’ Digest, etc. I’m throwing that out to the world because it’s got practical issues I don’t think I will ever want to face – potential copyright, lots of hard work each issue trying to get content in on different themes.
 
So Polarity won that discussion and we started talking about timescale and so on. To be honest, we decided to set up before the banks collapsed. Something interesting investment banker Daniel Yarrow said in interview recently – that for any project planning you should double the costs, double the length of time it takes to complete and halve the expected revenue. Common knowledge, but if I’d read that back when we were starting, I might not have started Polarity.

Polarity magazine offers themed issues with a surrealist twist. 

So what’s the basic structure of the magazine, do you have themed issues?
We concoct the themes through intense editorial discussions, usually with alcohol present. The themes exist to provide an extra context for the art works – imagine a book of British wildlife in which all the animals photographed were dead. Flattened hedgehogs, splattered badgers, a pile of dead chaffinches. The context of expectation is completely fucked. I like that.
 
With themes like Death vs. Taxes, we had to be very careful not to gravitate towards the obvious. Our Art Editor attempted a ‘no skulls’ rule for her side of things, which nearly worked – Nicholas Hudson Paine’s piece was too lush to ignore. Rules are there to be broken. But some of the work doesn’t seem connected to the themes, so by positioning within these contexts, the work gains extra dimensions. Each issue is then an ‘argument’ of sorts, when taken as a whole. It’s an idea I’ve adapted from Likestarlings, where the context of a dialogue through poetry energises the work greatly.

Each issue has a single quotation underlying it (so far – we’re consistent in our inconsistency, but give us a few more issues before we prove that point). Issue 2: Arms vs. Song is underpinned by epic poetry – “Of arms I sing...”. #3: White vs. Purple works from a line from an Edgar Allan Poe story about white and purple water. The quotations aren’t directly connected to the work we’ve commissioned, or had submitted, as it makes for greater leaps of ideas.

Just one of the many magazines which inspired Polarity.

Who are your influences?
The Believer is in there, with the whole of McSweeney’s. One thing that puts me off about McSweeney’s is that it’s very parochially Californian. I think it’s fantastic, but there’s room for something darker, more European in vibe. So we threw Bataille’s Documents into the mix, along with a touch of BOMB.

The US has it all right now, with indie magazines, some great stuff over there. Here in the UK I’ve found a few interesting things – Phosphor in Leeds, Welsh mag Patricide. But whenever I’ve asked people if there’s anything like the Believer over here, they point a bit vaguely to things like the Idler, which does what it does, but lacks the delight of surrealist practitioners, or they just shrug.

And target audience?
In terms of audience, well, yes, we’re working on that. It’s out there though – there’s a fractured spread of people across the country who are into the weird – obsessives, collectors, Dalkey Archive fans, those kind of people. We need a lot of help with our marketing.

My favourite article in the magazine was the Geoff Dyer piece. It was like a new form of literary criticism. Is it your hope to find new art forms?
That was partly an accident, as most of the best experiments in art and science tend to be. We have a ‘no reviews’ rule, and when I tapped on Scott for something as a favour, he came back with something a bit too traditional for our tastes. So I asked if I could put it in a rewrite mix. I alphabetised the sentences, turned it into an abecedarian poem of sorts. He took a look, liked it, shuffled a couple of things out of order (rules are there to be broken, of course) and we ended up with a semi-poem semi-review.

I’ve since learned of these experiments loosely falling under the category of ‘lyrical essays’. I’m reading David Shields’ Reality Hunger at the moment; the whole book sets out and practices a manifesto for lyrical essay writing, the creative in creative non-fiction. I’m not interested in finding the ‘new’ so much as finding delight. That’s the problem I have with a lot of work I’ve read in my search for something like Polarity – there’s a lot of joyless, po-faced stuff out there.

"All that was once directly lived has become mere representation" and to prove he was right, here's a photo of Situationist author and film maker Guy Debord

Surrealists or Situationists?
Definitely surrealists. Capitalism is just one of the problems, but the moral, political aesthetic is key to what we do. I don’t take society seriously any more, though. I find government, law, order, all these are near-irrelevances to my day-to-day operations. Even the recession, to some extent, is just icing on the cake of my daily life.

Capitalism is an ideology like any other. Something to be parodied, adopted and rejected. Sure, I have to sell enough copies to keep the magazine going and I want it to be read, but if I could give this stuff away for free, I would. I see that as the most political aim I could have.

Is surrealism the best genre to awaken us from our intellectual slumber?
Surrealism works within a moral frame, but for me, ultimately, if the work is done well enough it will carry a moral message in itself. By taking people away from their expectations, ‘spiritual’ growth occurs, so the art can defamiliarise, or reconstitute the basic building blocks of communication, and that is enough to create change. That equips people for activism, for thinking outside of boxes. Change is better than stagnation in all cases, though the end products are not, necessarily.

What do you hope to achieve?
Long term I hope to make the magazine a platform for a community, modelled on Lewis Hyde’s notion of how artistic communities work (see The Gift). You could call that community the ‘New Surrealists’, if you like, though I still think of that idea as partly an attempt to see if I can manufacture the idea of a new art movement simply by declaring it exists.

James Harringman, more than just an Andrew Ridgley in this partnership. 

The mag is beautifully presented, a real work of art in itself. Who’s responsible for this and how important do you think this is in shifting copies? I ask as the temptation for a new press is usually to be more economical in production.
James Harringman of studio harringman is our designer. I knew I wanted a square magazine, and the general vibe to the pages. He came up with the masthead, the overall look, the page layout, after several draft designs.

Yes, it costs what it looks like it costs. But I see that as part of the resistance to the conventionalising forces of capitalism and society as a whole: we could have gone for a lot cheaper if we’d fitted a printer’s standard machine sizes and so on, but that would have been soulless.

The reaction has been worth it so far. We’ve had nothing but positive reactions to the look of the magazine, and the free supplement (incidentally, each issue will have a free artefact with it; the first was designed by me, and produced with the help of Nine Arches Press, who put out beautiful poetry pamphlets).

You mention Nine Arches Press, someone who we work with on a spoken word event (Shindig! 23rd Nov, Jam Café), how can small presses work together to survive in the current economic climate?
One of the big things we’ve noticed is trading events, cross-marketing. The best connections we’ve had are through people who are willing to work openly, in good faith, in sharing their cultural outlets.

So when we host a launch, we promote work by people like Nine Arches Press, who helped us with production, as I said. And they do the same for us. They’ve got a good thing going with event nights around the Midlands. There’s also Penned in the Margins in London, who are big on regional partnerships. And since coming to Nottingham I’ve had a great reaction from people up there, there’s a great community. I also want to try and establish links to Phosphor and Patricide; I see them as our serious, intellectual cousins.

The Gift by Lewis Hyde suggests that certain spheres of life, which we care about, are not well organized by the marketplace

I would advise people to take note of the principles in Lewis Hyde’s The Gift. I can’t recommend that book highly enough. The spirit of giving underpins how creative communities survive. I’m less interested in formalised rules, systems like independent publishing alliances and so on; they have their place, but they’re ultimately too focused on the commoditisation of the art to bring people into a relationship. Polarity needs a community, not sales, to survive. I’ll get my money elsewhere to keep it going.

How can people contribute?
You can email any of the editors with ideas, suggestions, or work at any time. Details on the Polarity website: . We’re just about full for issue 2, but still looking at things.

George Ttoouli's blog
James Walker's website 

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