Freedom of the Present

Dushko Petrovich

What Am I Doing Online?

This is a question I often ask myself at the end of a day of nonstop screen staring, when instead of going for a jog or collapsing into bed, I click myself into yet another Twitter essay or Facebook dustup. What, indeed, am I doing? Even now, the temptation is to click myself out of this impending essay and into some other random discussion, or maybe check my email.

For you, dear reader, I resist! So if I ask you, in turn, not to click away from this piece, it’s because I’m pretty sure you have some of the same problems I do. When you ask yourself what you are doing online, for example, you might find that it becomes incredibly useful—at this very point—to interrogate everyone else’s activities and motives. What the fuck, you may have asked yourself, is Jerry Saltz doing online? Or what is Tate Britain—or, rather, Tate Britain’s digital media coordinator, or, probably, Tate Britain’s digital media coordinator’s intern—doing online? What is Artforum really doing online? Is October online? It takes only one curious click and you’re right back in the Web.

Let’s pull back a minute, shall we? I mean, we can’t pull back too far, since even reading this probably involves being online, but I do think it’s good to reflect.

You Can’t Step into the Same Medium Twice

I have a friend who writes text messages as if they were e-mails, complete with greeting and salutation, and sometimes even paragraphs. Naturally, he also writes e-mails as if they were letters, responding after a pronounced delay with lengthy, almost Victorian-era meditations on life’s major themes. I shoot back: What do your letters look like these days? No reply.

Since our friendship spans back to the era of actual letters, and includes the brief period when e-mails really resembled letters, the banter also addresses the slippage within each form of correspondence: One day I’d like to sit down and write you a real e-mail. Remember real emails?

This friend happens to have been my first editor, so this conversation also drifts into questions of publishing. When he first asked me to write about art, I told him I would be writing much as I speak about art—in short fragments, as if to a friend. I didn’t even have a computer at the time, so I memorized my essay in snippets, like comedy bits, and sent each one along in a separate e-mail from a public computer. This artisanal method earned me a nickname: “The 19th-Century Man.”

Paper Thick

I enjoyed the experience of writing for n+1, so when I got subsequent offers—from newspapers, magazines, and online publications—I took them. As I moved among the different registers of language—spoken, printed, Web-based—I couldn’t help but notice that those registers, too, were shifting. While I was figuring out how to write for a newspaper (in my case, the Ideas section of the Boston Globe) I was also aware that I was publishing in the twilight of the format, which meant that its role was evolving dramatically. In the pre-digital era, the daily newspaper was a pretty quick and dirty venue for a published essay. But as I was entering the trade, newspaper publishing, though undoubtedly moribund, was also acquiring a new status as a site of relative slowness and austerity.

Editing Web

Meanwhile, n+1 had started a website and they, of course, needed content. It seems odd, in retrospect, but this was 2004, so the website came after the print journal and involved something of an adjustment in everyone’s thinking. Basically, it meant that instead of starting with an idea and taking as long as it took, you now started with an event, and tried to get the writing uploaded before it was no longer timely.

Seen this way, it was quite reasonable that n+1 would want a review of PS1’s huge “Greater New York” show from their art critic. I, on the other hand, found the idea crazy. How could I possibly talk about so many artists, so fast? I didn’t want to put myself in unflattering competition with more seasoned writers who could digest such a thing in forty-eight hours and eight hundred words, so I quickly convinced myself that what those more seasoned writers did was very limited and falsely comprehensive. Instead of competing one-on-one, I invited a few friends to help out. I wrote one piece, about stuff I felt comfortable discussing, and edited three others from artists with very different expertise. In the end, I felt that our amateur group review was at least as good as the ones in the Times and Artforum, so I ended up repeating the process, not fully realizing I was editing for the Web until I decided to edit elsewhere.

Paper Monument                    

As it turns out, my own print editors at n+1 had severely trimmed a weird, meandering piece I wrote about seeing some art and some public nudity in Florida. I was actually stuck in a hotel room in Chicago watching a Flavor of Love marathon when I got the news. I had been travelling on a graduate school trip back from Mexico City when our flight to Boston was cancelled, and I was having the kind of stomach problems that make you exceedingly grateful for reality television shows shown consecutively (this was before Netflix). Mark Greif was on the phone telling me gingerly about 4,000 words becoming 1,500. Naturally, I preferred zero words to that development, so I told him as much and crawled back into bed. I remember thinking—perhaps in something of a dream state, and with Flavor Flav’s misadventures blaring in the background—I can probably just make my own damn magazine.

In the perfect cinema of memory, I call my friend Roger White the next morning to discuss doing just that, but it was probably several conversations over a few weeks during which we discussed the possibility. (I also remember trying to back out when I got a fellowship to go to London, but Roger pulled me back in.) We knew it was an odd time to be getting into old-fashioned print publishing, so when the mayhem of naming the endeavor finally ended, we had settled on a somewhat self-effacing combination that reflected both our hope and our foolhardiness.

A Magazine Like a Book

Editing Paper Monument, we very much wanted to bring the candor of the art world’s spoken discussions to print publishing. At the same time, we wanted to publish articles that would last. We also had a sense that there were many interesting pieces that wouldn’t be published by commercial glossies on the one hand, or by academic journals on the other. All of this put us somewhere in between.

We knew, of course, that everyone was going digital, but our counter-step wasn’t motivated by nostalgia or a veneration of publishing’s traditions. We didn’t even really know those traditions, except as readers. Both Roger and I are painters, and we savored the physical accomplishment of printing a journal, but that also wasn’t the biggest consideration. Mainly, we liked the idea that paper afforded us a slower time signature. We could be sure that the art world’s news cycle—reviews, reporting, and all writing about seasonal and annual concerns like fairs, “young artists to watch,” and the like—would be finding a very germane environment on the Web, and that because of this, magazines would be freed, in some sense, to be more like serial books.

A Book Like a Magazine

After doing the journal for a few years, we noticed the obvious corollary: we could also make a book using much the same methodology.

As a relatively inexpensive experiment, we set out to make a small book about etiquette. We had found that a lot of people worried about this in the art world, and we thought it would be interesting to talk about important matters like the social role of the artist and the attendant power relationships by examining seemingly mundane things like outfits and handshakes.

We solicited stories and advice via a questionnaire, and then we also commissioned essays from people we thought had manners that were either exemplary or bracingly bad. Much to our surprise, the procedure worked. The slim, Zagat-shaped volume—we liked the implication that you would carry it in your back pocket, to have it at the ready—became something of a legend, with people all over telling us that they had read I Like Your Work: Art and Etiquette in their friends’ bathrooms.

The Digital-to-Print Revolution

We were almost suspicious of our first book’s popularity, so with our second book we tried to make something more serious, even boring. Still seeking to collect and publish fragments from the rich oral tradition of the art world, we decided to address the sundry questions of art school by focusing exclusively on its assignments. Again, our methodology was to approach a number of people, from competent and venerable department chairs to unruly types who had failed at art school, or never even gone. We wanted to give people access to a range of stories and tactics that are normally only handed down from person to person. A book editor from Penguin told us that she admired our “analog crowdsourcing.” There had always been anthologies, edited volumes, and publications based on questionnaires, but our methods emphasized heterogeneity and a certain unruliness. Some of this, of course, came from the art world, but some if it we had learned on the Web. Indeed, we had often seen people asking for advice on their syllabi on Facebook, where the responses were as varied as they were instructive.

A Website Like a Book

When we published Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment, our big regret was that we had to cut it off where we did. It had taken a number of years, and we had eighty-nine contributions in total, so we felt that the book was complete, in some sense. But when people asked us how we decided what got in and what didn’t, the answer was simply that we took everything, and we would have kept going, but we had to send it to the printer.

The obvious solution was to make a website for the book, and we did just that with We imagined the site serving as a free, searchable archive of the book, while it also gave us a way to expand on the book’s content. We built it so that people could both upload and download assignments, in the hope that it would function much like, where people also share results, adjustments, and variations on each assignment.

In reality, however, the site ended up working more like a traditional archive, where people come, look, and take, without leaving very much behind. I don’t know if that is due to the site’s design, or if the book’s own popularity somehow precludes the growth of the site. It remains an experiment, and for the time being, we prefer the website to a full-on sequel of the book. We may use the material gathered from the website to make a second assignments book, but probably not until we finish all our other book ideas.

Paperless Monument

Paper Monument also has a website, but we haven’t focused on it too much. We use it to announce things, and to sell things, and we do post written and visual material there, but we’ve never attended to it in a sustained way, because we have always chosen to concentrate on the printed material. Still, from time to time we have wanted to experiment with digital formats, and over the years we’ve run a few series that were made specifically for the Web.

Our first idea was to double down on the shortness and quickness of the Web by posting very, very short reviews. These were meant to be even more distilled than the 250-word reports you see in the New Yorker or on Some of the one-liners, anagrams, and haiku that came out of this effort were really inventive and memorable, but we eventually felt like the tone of such short responses ended up more dismissive and snarky than we wanted. In the end, we decided to get out of the review game altogether. Conventional publishing does it relatively well, and we didn’t have the energy to reform it.

Our second idea, called See Something Say Something, is an ongoing and open-ended response to what we feel is the hyper-topicality and constricting formats found on the Web. Riffing off the citizen surveillance expected of us in the post-9/11 era, we ask people simply to report on something that catches their attention, wherever they happen to see it. Naturally, we don’t have a timeline for this project; instead, we simply post things when the spirit moves someone to say something. Perhaps this is a Quaker approach to online publishing?

Our most recent web project, IRL, is similarly intermittent, but the format is more explicitly digital. Wanting to acknowledge and expand upon the fact that a lot of vernacular communication about art now occurs person-to-person over smartphones, we wanted to have a Web series that reflected this hand-held version of text plus pictures, while at the same time it highlighted creative and critical uses of this everyday format. The pieces are sent to us by phone, and we post screen-grabs of the text bubbles and the pictures. If people see this and decide to raise their art-texting game, we’ll consider it a success.

In the end, a major job of our website is to reassure people that we are still alive during the (oftentimes long) lulls when we are working on our next project. The site does this partly by acting as a digital archive of the essays from our past issues, which are available to download for free. At first, that seemed like a depressingly limited role for to play, but we may slowly come to embrace it.

Digital Monuments

That said, when I daydream, I often daydream about having more time and energy to devote to the opportunities and problems of digital publishing. Since much of the truth (both good and bad) of the art world is still transmitted orally, and since institutions currently host most of art’s “digital conversations,” I often fantasize about building un-institutional and even anti-institutional venues for this still emerging form of communication.

Of course, one of the main debate-sponsoring institutions in the art world is Facebook. The problems with private, strictly linear, and difficult-to-archive threads have been well documented, but even with all the trolls and ignoramuses, I still enjoy this vocal audience, mostly because it remains such a conspicuous rarity in the art world.

Economics of Scale

Much of the freedom that Roger White and I enjoy in editing Paper Monument comes from the fact that we are not professional editors, and we maintain this position conscientiously. We support ourselves by other means and have so far managed the project so the non-editorial work is kept to a minimum.

That said, we try to get the work out to the largest possible audience. In addition to being available digitally, all of our journals have sold out their print runs, and our first two books are entering their sixth and fifth editions, respectively. We have never been interested in any hermeticism or rarity of print—quite the opposite.


Roger and I had an interesting experience one time in Los Angeles. We had gone out to launch the third issue of Paper Monument, I think it was, and the event was at Ooga Booga, the legendary bookshop in Chinatown. The store had got a band, so there was no reading, and things there are really laid back, so at some point, we realized that no one was going to introduce us as the editors. Initially, this seemed like a bit of a slight or a waste—we had travelled three time zones!—but we actually ended up enjoying the voyeurism of it. People would talk about the journal right in front of us, and we could hear both the good and the bad in a way we hadn’t before. It was far more revealing, for us, than any analytics of clicks and page views.

Attention Spam

Reading in print is like having a conversation at home; reading online is like having a conversation out. Each can be deep, interesting, and exciting, but when you’re out, you tend to skip around, be clever, drop something midway, let someone else join the conversation, etc. At home, the people involved in the conversation are fixed, so your dialogic fidelity increases greatly, which can be crucial.

Freedom of the Press

The other evening at an opening, I found myself explaining to a fellow editor how I felt that I had more freedom, editorially, when I was publishing in print. But I think these books and magazines feel so free to me because I have learned to think of them as various phenomena of the Web—crowdsourcing, comment boxes, blogs, and the like.

Freedom of Speech

Talking about art led me first to writing, then to editing, then to publishing about art. For me, conversation remains an underlying model for the various art-related interchanges that occur in magazines and books, and on the Web. So when I’m moving among the various layers, from whispered gossip to footnoted theory to online comments, I am always thinking of shifting things around, not just from print to online and back again, but to and from points that at present lie entirely outside the realm of publication.

Online, Again

To return to my original question, I don’t think art-world people are really doing enough online. I mean, like everyone, we’re doing a lot—I won’t argue with the numbers—but I still don’t think it’s enough.

Put another way, I think the vast majority of our online “activity” is actually quite passive—conformist, careerist, conservative, bland. As an Internet junkie, and as someone who isn’t happy with my own efforts in the realm, I don’t have any solutions at the ready, but admitting the problem does seem like a good first step. If anyone wants to discuss the second steps, I’m on Twitter @DushkoP.

Dushko Petrovich is an artist living in New York. In addition to writing for various publications, he is a co-founder of Paper Monument and serves as president of the n+1 Foundation’s Board of Directors. He teaches at Yale and RISD.

 The Red Hook Journal has received generous support from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA).