Dot Dot Dot is the most stimulating and original visual culture magazine produced by designers since Emigre's heyday in the late 1980s to the mid-1990s.* Founded in 2000, it comes out twice a year and they print only 3,000 copies, so I'm guessing that many people reading this may never have seen it. Don't let that put you off. If you are reading Design Observer, then you are likely to be the kind of person who would enjoy this publication.
The latest issue, no. 9, has just appeared. Where else can you find a mixture of articles like this?** There are essays about Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, the cult British rock band Stereolab, experimental novelist B. S. Johnson (currently undergoing a revival), and the Polish women's magazine Ty i Ja (You and I), which "struck a strange balance between fascination with the spectacle of consumer society and its critique." There's an article about the semantic poetry of Polish émigré avant-gardist Stefan Themerson, illustrated with many intriguing examples, and another about Dutch radical Jan van Toorn in the form of a numbered list.*** You've never heard of half of this stuff? Maybe not, but perhaps you should know about it because it's fascinating, out of the ordinary, demanding and rewarding. Isn't this what a good magazine should be doing — taking you somewhere unfamiliar rather than falling into lockstep with the brain-ossifying PR agendas of media corps that dish up the same predictable pap the world over?
Still, at first sight Dot Dot Dot could seem a little too serious. It's the size of a paperback book and the typography tends to be fairly plain, though, as with issue 9, it's usually highly readable. There are generally a few colour images and this issue has some mysterious diagrams and lines of figures resembling equations that I have yet to unravel. There is often something of the physics textbook about DDD, though a mad collagist sometimes appears to have gained control of its pages. The magazine has a dry humour, too. The editors, Peter Bilak (from Slovakia), who is based in The Hague, and Stuart Bailey (from Britain), like to keep things oblique, off kilter, a little enigmatic. They loathe designer slickness and gloss and love accidents, imperfections, discontinuities and visible signs of process. They don't believe in making things easy for themselves, or for that matter, the reader. The issue comes with an A4 stapled facsimile insert of some lecture notes about Kurt Schwitters, which were already quite bashed up when my copy arrived in the post (it's probably the effect they intended). DDD is about as far from, say, Communication Arts as a design publication could get. The covers usually have a peculiar offhandedness and number 9, with its three scribbled red blobs on a graph paper background, is no exception. It almost shouldn't work, yet it does.
This issue has a rather poignant sign-off, though it's delivered without self-pity and with DDD's customary, off-the-wall cleverness. The back cover offers a lesson in what the editors call "elementary mathematics". Here, with stark clarity, is the dispiriting reality of independent publishing.**** It has taken them nine issues, they confess, to find out why the term is an oxymoron. DDD is owed 14,221 euros ($19,025) and because they cannot afford legal help their debtors ignore all demands to pay up.
Bilak and Bailey present two lists. The first shows their expenses for issue 8: printing, authors' fees, editorial and office, postage and miscellaneous. Total: 19,430 euros. Advertising, subscriptions and sales generated only 8,743 euros. If it weren't for a 14,000 euro subsidy per issue from Dutch arts funding, they would never have made it this far.
The second list — what a masterly stroke — shows all the debtors and the amounts they owe. According to DDD, Hennessy & Ingalls in the US have owed them 1,905 euros since 3 August 2002. The Spanish distributor Actar's debts, each one separately itemised, also date back to 2002 and total 8,546 euros. They have other non-payers in Britain (the shop in question is selling the issue), Canada, Portugal, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic. In a nice design touch, the accusatory column of figures wraps around on to the spine. DDD hope to shame these companies into settling their bills; they reason that, at this point, they have nothing to lose. But this being Dot Dot Dot, they don't waste the opportunity to provide some referential devices and illuminating historical context. The back cover also shows three previous cases where the economic realities of a project were made explicit: a page from the Last Whole Earth Catalogue, itemising publishing costs (1971); the back sleeve of a punk record by the TV Personalities, noting production costs (1978); and OMA's studio expenditure shown on a page from S,M,L,XL (1995).
Let's hope this brave, audacious ploy doesn't end up being a kind of suicide note. DDD's unpredictability and intelligence, its enthusiasm for pointing a flashlight into corners of culture that tend to be overlooked, makes it one of our more valuable design publications. Their five-year struggle as publishers also underlines the absolute necessity for independent projects with small print runs but something important to say to receive subsidy. The idea sometimes advanced by successful people in the arts that everything should be left to flourish or fail on its own terms, without life-support funding, in a market place heavily stacked against the off-beat and marginal would spell the end of such publications. Our appreciation of visual culture would be a whole lot poorer without this kind of passionate personal venture. Why not take out a subscription?***** They have created something special and they deserve support.
* Emigre will cease publishing with issue 69. We'll doubtless return to the subject.
** OK, Cabinet is pretty good, too. So is 2wice.
*** Full disclosure: I have a short essay in the issue.
**** For more on this subject, see Put About: A Critical Anthology on Independent Publishing, which is designed, with elliptical informality, by DDD's Stuart Bailey.
***** Dot Dot Dot no. 9 is also available here.