For the past three years, each new issue of the online quarterly Sex Magazine has delivered a diverse, and often thrilling, mixture of dispatches from across the more outré sections of the cultural landscape, with in-depth interviews, essays, photos, and the odd bit of erotica. But now that is coming to an end, at least temporarily. Its founder and editor, Asher Penn, has said that its new issue, number 10, will be its final one in online form, and will possibly be replaced by a print edition. To hear more about the history of Sex, its new issue, and its plans for the future, I spoke up with Penn, whose online projects include Beta Pictures, a film production production company, and Available Works, an online marketplace for artists to sell their work. When we talked via Gchat, it was the day before the magazine’s traditional issue-release party at China Chalet in New York.
Andrew Russeth: How are you?
Asher Penn: I’m good. I’m a little nervous about tomorrow. The stickers still haven’t arrived.
For the party? That is a key part of it.
Yeah, we have new “No Sex” stickers.
Haha, that’s a perfect place to start. I wanted to flash back to 2012—I’m amazed it was so long ago—and ask if you could explain where the name came from.
I had told a friend I was starting a magazine and he said I should just call it “Sex.” Afterwards, it was hard to come up with a better name. It’s only got 3 letters, just like Mad. At the same time I was thinking about Brendan Fowler’s Sex Sells Magazines, which featured these amazing long-form interviews as well as The Fugs’s beat poetry publication Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts.
What kind of reactions did you get to the name?
Some people really like the name. Some are a little disappointed when they see the contents.
I bet. I’m pretty impressed that, when I google “sex magazine,” it comes up as the third or fourth result.
Oh yeah, we’re up there. It only took like 2 months.
Wow. In any sense, are the “no sex” stickers alluding to the fact that this issue, number 10, is the end of the run?
Well, this iteration maybe? I mean, a lot has changed since 2012. I feel like I need a moment to adjust.
Yeah, what have been the changes?
It’s just not as much fun running an online-only magazine in 2015. When I started it felt like there weren’t that many people putting that energy into online publications. There was more elbow room, and established magazines weren’t filling their feed with clickbait articles… I hate clickbait.
I can imagine.
I had actually considered starting a side magazine in response called “Loser.” It would be lists, reviews, best-ofs, how-tos, all centered around being a loser.
That sounds amazing and depressing.
I actually think there’s definitely an audience out there for it.
What would be a sample article?
The loser’s guide to getting dumped, cigarette reviews, best places to meet other losers. A loser’s history of film, why losers and comedy are inseparable… I can imagine so many good writers for it. Dare to dream.
But Sex still feels super special. It was always such a great, weird mix of things.
I’m glad it still feels super special.
Issue 10 is great. Lots of wild stuff. You’re doing video games for the first time.
I think that we actually started talking about video games when we interviewed Brian Gibson, who was working on his game Thumper. Then we also interviewed Nina Freeman who is a game developer and co-founder of Code Liberation Foundation. In general I’ve been finding the community surrounding independent games more and more inspiring.
Why is that?
The technology has just become so accessible that a lot of young people can really express themselves with the medium in a really fun way. Also given the art world’s recent interest in Theresa Duncan, and the amount of artwork about video games using the Oculus Rift… I wanted to kind of point to people like Arcane Kids and Lilith who were doing the real thing.
I’m curious how you think the magazine has changed over time.
I mean, I’d like to think I’m better at running it. I’ve gotten better at editing it. Before Sex I had never edited a magazine, let alone ran my own Wordpress site. All I had done is interviews.
This idea of interviewing people has remained constant, but have any of your goals changed?
The goal has been pretty consistent: explore and expand on different ways that creative people can live their lives, with a real openness and curiosity. I’ve been able to meet and learn from some pretty interesting people, many of whom have really shifted my perspective. There is also a desire for discovery, new information, new ideas: things that aren’t on the internet.
One thing I have always loved is that in some issues I don’t know more than maybe two or three of the names.
Isn’t that when a magazine is the best? In 2001, I would know a third of the people they covered in Index or Butt, but those interviews often blew my mind. Recycled interviews are so lame.
How do you cast such a wide net?
I think that having categories of art, music, fashion, design, etc. kinda forces you to keep it open. It’s always fun to find people in each field that are also defying the expectations of that industry. It reminds me that you can be an exception. We tend to cover a lot of “exceptions.”
How did articles come about?
Often they feel kind of connected. For example, I found out about Aimee Mullins through a talk Lynn Hershman Leeson organized. John Michael Boling and Nasty Nets had been mentioned in our interview with Petra Cortright. Since we interviewed Juiceboxxx he’s become a really valued contributor interviewing people like B L A C K I E and Doug Pound.
And that is all with giving the subject final edit.
Yeah. Even if certain individuals have been covered in the press it’s not that often in the subject’s words. A friend of mine said, “Unless the artist said it, it’s conjecture.”
That’s a good line about “conjecture,” which seems like a synonym for “criticism” there.
What is your day job these days? Are you making art?
For the past 3 years the magazine has been my day job. I calculated the hours, its full time. Right now, I’m working on a book for Powerhouse that is kind of a best-of for the first 10 issues.
When is that being published?
2016. It’s been really fun reimagining the magazine for print. It kinda looks like The New Yorker for the underground. Working on it has made me realize if I was going to continue the magazine, I would want it to be a free print magazine.
What’s stopping you?
There needs to be some other people behind this project other than myself. I really don’t think I can handle another 10 issues just on my own. I’d rather work on something else.
Switching to other projects for a moment, what’s the status of Available Works right now?
We’re still working on the beta, which should be ready for testing in a month. It’s been so much work to get it to this point, but it’s shaping into such an amazing and necessary site. I feel like I will be more inspired to make art when it launches.
You seem to have a certain ambivalence about doing that. Someone was telling me a while back, “Asher does not want to make art.”
It’s funny cause I think my personal definition of art is so broad at this point. Like I feel more creative than ever. I’ve gotten really interested in film lately, which seems to be able to absorb so many art forms and ideas. It’s been crazy to learn how different the entertainment business is from the art world, though.
What do you mean?
I had no idea that film was so beholden to copyright laws. It actually informs the way you work: you have to get all logos cleared or make up your own. With art, it’s literally the opposite. You’re encouraged to flip copyrighted symbols of capitalism for cash, not to sound too cynical.
Works for me.
I don’t know, the parameters of film feel a lot healthier for me creatively.
Do you have anything coming out soon?
I’ve been producing Maggie Lee’s documentary, which should be finished by September. I’m also working on wrapping up shooting a film called Game House. It’s a scary movie about a celebrated video game programmer who relocates to a cabin in the woods to work on her new game.
That sounds incredible. Where are you shooting it?
The Catskills. We’re launching a Kickstarter soon to finish the film.
Have there been any movies you have been particularly excited about lately?
I can’t believe how late I was on seeing Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles from 2013. That has to be one of the greatest documentaries I’ve ever seen in my life.
I still haven’t seen it yet. So, about the party, are you excited about it?
The parties are so awesome. Half the time I feel like I don’t get to experience them cause I’m running around or hiding behind the DJ booth while there is a lineup around the block. I never take enough photos. What I hear from other people is that it really feels like a spectrum of different scenes and groups coming together and checking out these DJs they never saw before. Kind of like the magazine, it just feels like a mix that would never happen anywhere else. :)