The Blackmail goes offline

by Dion Kagan , January 21, 2013Leave a comment

OFFLINE is a print edition of The Blackmail. The Blackmail has been dishing out Aussie-centric popular culture, art culture and subculture online since 2009. As with countless other magazines and journals that appear in my RSS feeds and inbox, I can’t pretend I’ve been a completely religious reader. That said, I’ve been clicking through The Blackmail for a while and there is one particular thing that often strikes me when I’m reading it: the internet is a good place to look at art.

Let me qualify that somewhat. I can count the number of visual art and photography exhibitions I attended in 2012 on one hand. I saw numerous theatre shows and films, attended multiple writers’ and performing arts festivals, academic conferences and book clubs. But visual art is my cultural blind spot. That said, when art is delivered to my screen via curators I have come to trust know more about it than me – like the discerning folk at The Blackmail – I’m inclined to look at it. If I like what I’m scrolling though – like, for example, Cara Stricker’s photos of Burning Man in Nevada – I’ll often become curious enough to read more about the processes undertaken by the practitioners themselves.

If you have any interest in the Australian art world, you’ll appreciate OFFLINE’s interview with Callum Morton, one of Australia’s most revered living artists, whose work combines sculpture, architecture and installation. Even I have heard of him. The interviewer, Melissa Loughnan is a regular contributor to The Blackmail and the Director of Melbourne gallery Utopian Slumps, and she knows how to get the job done. She has Morton teasing out the tensions between the supposed order and geometry of architecture on the one hand, and the potential chaos and disorder of art on the other. Morton provides some canny insights into the differing implications of public vs. private arts funding models – for the art itself, that is – which seems to be on the mind of lots of practitioners these days, not to mention independent arts organisations. The impact of MONA is an interesting case in point.

If there is a theme here it might be the impact and the importance of materials to the artists that use them. A personal anecdote written by sculptor and painter Brendan Huntley elaborates this: ‘I usually talk about the mediums rather than the subject matter… It’s like a collaboration between me, the tools and the materials…’ Huntley puts into words a mini manifesto about the magic of tools and processes that, alongside finished products, The Blackmail has always been interested in: what stuff people use to make art, and how people do artful things with stuff.

The wacky histories of the material are also relevant to the world of music. If you fall into the category of people who have become increasingly sentimental about old technologies as music in the digital age becomes less artefactual and more experiential, you’ll enjoy the feature on cult Australian post-punk band Essendon Airport. As well as an account of their curious sonic influences – punk, funk, ‘oddball minimalism’ and late 70s muzak on 3AK – it’s a ripper of a case study about the historical contingencies of music-making, and the way in which odd combinations in technology can create sounds and styles that people come to love and that ultimately become iconic. Fascinating also is the way in which the material histories of music production and distribution brought about the fortunes of Essendon Airport, which was re-discovered by Guy Blackman in an op shop recycle bin before getting re-issued in 2002.

The thread of the material is also apposite in a retrospective look at the fashion and textiles career of Australian designer Rae Ganim. Ganim’s textiles, which can now be found in the collections of the National Gallery and the State Library of Victoria, are so colourful and distinctive that this became a moment when I literally wished OFFLINE was online so I could see her work in colour. The same applies to some of the other art contained in the edition, especially the photography of Samuel Hodge, whose intimate and vaguely voyeuristic work  has featured on The Blackmail in the past.

There were a couple of ill-advised inclusions in OFFLINE that felt like a lazy gesture to VICE-style irreverence, including a one-page vignette about some methadone users eating a bag of prawns. I’ve never understood the ironic centerfold either ­– if OFFLINE’s is indeed intended ironically.

Thanks to the internet, I do see visual art. Which is why I was a bit dubious when I sat down with OFFLINE. Why make what works so beautifully on the internet into a book? This is clearly a question that publishers, editors, marketing departments, writers and everyone else are asking each other more and more frequently. In this instance, co-publisher of The Blackmail, Tristan Ceddia, in his short preface to OFFLINE, goes some way towards an explanation: ‘Put this book in your back pocket. Throw it in your bag. Read it on the train. And take some time away from your screen’.

Summer is a good time to do that. Take OFFLINE to the beach. It’s neat, light and it contains a recipe for Chocolate-Dipped Maui Macaroons. Actually, I rarely get to the beach or bake, but I imagine the small collection of features, interviews, photo essays, illustrations and short stories compiled in this slim volume would be the perfect length for a beachy, biscuity afternoon.


Dion Kagan is a researcher and lecturer in screen and cultural studies at Melbourne University. He sits on the artistic programming committee of the National Young Writers’ Festival and the editorial advisory committee of Paper Radio.



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