Betsy Sussler is the editor-in-chief and one of the co-founders of BOMB magazine. Along with Sarah Charlesworth, Glenn O’Brien, Michael McClard, and Liza Bear, Sussler started BOMB in 1981 with the goal of giving artists a platform to discuss their lives and work, with peers in similar professional stages and without a critical or journalistic mediation. On February 16, 2016 Caitlin Deutsch, arts administration and policy graduate student, and Isabel A. Servantez, art history, had an interview by phone with Sussler and discussed a myriad of issues surrounding BOMB magazine’s history, purpose, and future, as it has made the change from its founding as a cultural journal, producing 3,000 physical copies, to a present online readership of 1.5 million people.
ISABEL A. SERVANTEZ: I was looking at a collection of interviews from 1997 that you wrote an introduction for, in which you said, ‘Our jobs as editors, artists, and writers is to listen and in listening to push and pull the interview’s dialogue until its substance reveals itself. These interviews are singular events in their own rights; some jocular and some combative.’ I was wondering, as a facilitator of these conversations and interviews, as an editor, do you see yourself as a creator?
BETSY SUSSLER: I agree with you on one level. Being an editor is a creative task. It has a creative process, but I don’t think of myself as much as a creator as someone who helps to form ideas.
CAITLIN DEUTSCH: I might ask a question to follow up on that. I feel today more than ever that people kind of self-identify as creators or curators or artists in a more liberal way. I think a lot of the word ‘curator’ in the use of Instagram for example, i.e. ‘You curate your Instagram page.’ I was curious if you feel that trend as well in your work with people’s changing notions of how they are using those identities or definitions of themselves, when working with artists?
BS: It’s a very one-on-one process, and it’s a very intimate process of their creativity and how they make art, so in a way the medium is supposed to be the message, but our medium has always been text, because I like how malleable it is. It has transformational qualities.
In terms of creating the text which I do help do, which I enjoy doing, it’s about that transformation and that quote that you first said. I haven’t changed my thoughts on that. It really is how you come to revelation and that listening.
CD: To follow up with this idea of coming to a revelation, something Al and I have talked about and something I’m thinking about in particular for my career as an educator, is how we talk and share our failures. So considering that, do you ever feel like an interview has failed, or that maybe bigger interviews or projects that BOMB has taken on have failed?
BS: I have a very specific view of failure. If you’re not brave enough to fail, you’re not going to make anything very interesting, and that is true in interviews as well. So I’m fine with failing, but I’m not going to present the failure. We’ll work through it until we come up with something that actually makes sense and that takes the failure to the next step, and then the next step. We go through many drafts of a BOMB interview. It’s not like it’s just recorded and plopped into the page. It’s edited and rewritten in collaboration with the participants so that we can take whatever we do and make that into something else. That’s what art is about right?
CD: Do you ever pull back the curtain a little for the reader of the interview and show how many quote ‘failures’ or iterations of a conversation you had to go through to get to the final product?
BS: Our papers are at Columbia University in the rare books and manuscripts department and any scholar that wants can look through all those papers. With that said, this is done with the artists, and their their privacy needs to be protected. So if they said something they are unhappy with or something they don’t want to go public with, we don’t. When the piece is finished everyone has said, ‘This is the best we can do.’
IS: I have a question that’s related directly to that, the emphasis on the collaboration with the artist. I’m studying art history. How do you feel about art historians that quote or interpret an artist’s intention without their approval, when publishing work?
BS: Historians have done this for centuries and it’s perfectly fine and it’s a perfectly legitimate scholarly pursuit. But BOMB was started because we felt that was happening exclusively without privileging the artist’s voice, and that we needed to find a place where artists could feel safe talking about their work. So we have made BOMB very specifically about that. It doesn’t mean that we demean other forms of investigation. It happens to be our particular form of investigation, based on dialogue. Dialogue by its very nature is inclusive and changing and we like incorporating that.
CD: One thing that Al and I were talking about, the thing that was so revelatory about BOMB, was exactly what you’ve just said. It was an intervention. It was breaking through exclusivity and how to talk about art. It’s now been almost 40 years since BOMB made its debut.
CD: Thirty-five. That’s a long time. So I’m wondering if you see things happening in journalism and through other avenues, like social media, that you think are doing the same work that you’re particularly interested in or impressed by or curious about? That is helping bring what you always talked about. The conversations that the artists have, when talking about their practice.
BS: I really hope we changed the nature of critical discourse. I’m proud of that. It’s a pendulum that always swings, and there will be a time when that won’t be that case, but BOMB will still be doing it.
IS: I was wondering if what you’re doing is a journalistic endeavor, but maybe it’s also a historical endeavor?
BS: That’s a good point. We don’t think of it as a journalistic endeavor because we don’t have reportage per say in the magazine. It’s really about dialogue. It’s not a journalist asking questions and somebody giving one liners. It’s really about conversation and when we pair people, it’s not about pairing them with a reporter. It’s pairing them with a fellow artist or theorist or someone they really respect that’s been working side by side with them for years, or someone they don’t know but is on the same trajectory with their own work. We are very careful about pairing and we base that on the potential for conversation and not reportage. When I started BOMB, I was coming from theater. It was very much about playwriting. It used to be a smaller community, and you could actually walk out onto the street and meet members of that community quite by chance.
CD: Do you mind if I ask a question about New York?
BS: No, go ahead
CD: As I was reading some of the anthologies and going back and familiarizing myself with some of the interviews, I was thinking about how, when BOMB came out, it was very connected to scenes in New York City. I’m from New York, but I missed out on that era.
I’m wondering if in today’s urban centers, like in New York, scenes are harder to build. They existed in that past moment by nature of economics and affordability. Now when an artist lands in the city, there isn’t that same, ‘move downtown and there’re artists there,’ and you’re broke but you’re surviving and making art—
BS: And there is a community and you can actually walk out onto the street.
CD: I grew up in an era when that was already changing. I think it’s really different.
BS: It’s gone.
CD: What does it mean for artists today, that you can’t necessarily move somewhere and immediately find your people?
BS: It must be much lonelier. I can’t imagine. But the good news is that there are now centers all over the country that people can move and have that experience. Not necessarily New York, although I imagine in Bushwick you still have that experience to some degree, and Williamsburg, and farther out in areas of Queens. But I’ll just say that BOMB did come out of a very particular milieu. Downtown New York in the late 70s and early 80s. Everyone knew each other. As things changed and as BOMB grew up, it’s become much more international. We still treat all of our subjects and contributors as if they are part of a community, but that community is now worldwide and it’s a community of artists, and writers, and theater directors, and filmmakers. We feel that they have similar values in terms of wanting to make the best work possible, and singular and distinctive work, and so I guess that’s where our notation and intellectually compelling notion of community lies. And then the other thing is that we now have the online BOMB daily, which we consider a virtual community of people discussing and conversing in the same way.
IS: Caitlin and I discussed yesterday, how the Internet has changed the nature of the community that exists.
BS: It’s a different kind of connection. It’s not face-to-face sitting down over a drink or a meal. That’s what I love to do best, because you get to hear and see and sniff and get a sense of someone. Their whole being.
On the other hand, it’s awfully good to be able to communicate with people on a regular basis that you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to. So for BOMB, when we started, we were printing 3,000 copies and most of them were being distributed in New York. After we were afforded a wonderful grant by the A. W. Mellon Foundation, we digitized all of our content and we made it into a virtual library. Now everything BOMB does is online for free. A little quarterly could not—and still could not—have 1.5 million annual readers. But we do now, and that’s all because of the Internet. So it’s about accessibility, and we’re very proud of that. Knowledge is power and now kids all over the world…fifty percent of our readers are under the age of 30. This means a lot to us, and it wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t embraced that world. But we’re still making a print magazine, you know? So we walk both sides of the road and it’s great to do so.
CD: I know when you started BOMB you said it was really hard to think about the future, because you didn’t think BOMB was gonna be this thing that lasted.
BS: I didn’t think it would last and what I didn’t fully understand was the nature of conversation and the nature of dialogue and how critical it is.
CD: Do you still think the nature of conversation that BOMB facilitates between artists and creatives is in its own way continuing to break down the barriers, as it was 35 years ago? I know you said that BOMB has paved the path for that to be the norm. Is the work of BOMB still as dire in some ways as it was when you started the project?
BS: Yes and no. No one does interviews quite the way we do. I think most people don’t understand just how hard they are and what sort of work goes into it. We really do treat the document as, Al, you had the term for it—a ‘historical document.’ A definitive document, and a literary text. We transform it into a literary text. This is really important and it’s something people don’t understand. We’re working now on oral histories and we’re approaching them not from an archaeological or sociological view, but from a point of view of two artists sitting down and talking together about their lives. And how you make this into, what is really becoming novellas, but how you make it readable? Because if it’s not readable it’s not accessible and it doesn’t matter. It’s very nice that it exists, but you want kids in high school to be able to read this and know that they too can open those doors. So I think yes, in a different way we’re important now. We’ve opened a lot of doors and were still opening doors and looking for ways to do that. Now it’s about accessibility and ‘how do you tell a story?’ It might be an intellectual enterprise, but it’s still about storytelling.
CD: I’m always glad to hear people talking about things like storytelling. I work in museum education and everything we do is storytelling for our audience. You talk specifically about high school students. That makes me happy, because what other audience would I want to be talking about? But how do you…do you see BOMB itself being the one that disseminates things like oral histories and interviews, or have you partnered with other organizations?
BS: That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to partner with other organizations that have educational programs that can bring the oral histories into their programs and other interviews too. Everyone says, ‘It’s not just the oral histories that we want.
We are partnering with the Museum of Modern Art and with the Studio Museum in Harlem, and we’re talking to various librarians.
That’s our next step to walking back into the world and getting to a younger audience, so that they can see that they too can do this. Many years ago, when I was at the Art Institute in San Francisco, Lynda Benglis came to speak and she said, ‘Really, students just wanna know that artists scratch their back and stretch their legs like everybody else.’
And I said, ‘Wow!’ That really stuck with me, because of course she’s absolutely right. Once you realize that the fallible human being is sitting up there talking to you about their experience and thoughts, then you’re a little less hard on yourself and it becomes a little more possible to move forward.
IS: I think I have a question in my own practice about art historians that are often verbose, and very flowery. Since you’ve started BOMB, have you seen any transition in art historical texts? Academic texts that are usually very polished, presenting artists, often as sub-god figures? Is there any kind of transition that you’ve noticed maybe making them more accessible?
BS: I can’t really talk about them as a whole, because I don’t read them that often. I have to say I’m more involved in looking at art and editing the magazine, so it doesn’t give me a lot of time to read what you are talking about. That said, I think the writing is getting better.
BS: Something we are working with now is the hope to bring some of the artists involved in the oral histories and in other of our interviews on to the stage in front of a small audience and let them have a way to talk and be asked questions. We think that’s an important aspect. I hope we get the money to do this. We just applied for funds in making chapbooks. Excerpts from the oral histories that can be used as handouts in those.
They are not that expensive. In some instance the oral histories are 100 pages—and you’re not gonna get a 15 year old to read that. But if you give them something 18 pages with images, they very well might consume it.