Behind the scenes: Is Not Magazine

When is a magazine not a magazine? When the Is Not Collective turns its hand to it, that's when. Tom Dennis discovers why the writing's on the wall down under.

There are strange things afoot on the streets of Melbourne. Australia's second largest city has long been a centre of counter-culture - and now even its advertising hoardings are becoming a forum for creative expression.

You see, for a couple of weeks every two or three months, people actually stop and stare. At sites where billposters and adverts would normally jostle for position, Is Not Magazine is conducting its editorial experiment - and to great effect.

Is Not Magazine is the brainchild of five young Melbournians, and uniquely, takes the form of a 1.5x2-metre billposter. The magazine launched 18 months ago, and has quickly grown to swathe over 50 regular sites in Melbourne, a growing number in Sydney and there are plans for Europe, too.

"I had a poster from the Astor Theatre in the house," recalls designer and founder Jeremy Wortsman, of the eureka moment for Is Not Magazine. "When I walked out the door, there was a wall of street posters on a building site. When I turned the corner and saw a group of people standing outside a local bookshop looking at the housing notice board the whole idea really clicked. I found the idea of people gathering outside to read was a really powerful image."

More questions than answers
The rest of the Is Not Magazine crew is made up of co-designer Stuart Geddes and three writers and editorial directors: Mel Campbell, Natasha Ludowyk and Penny Modra. The publication started as a cross between a literary magazine and a street press, carrying no advertising and funded through subscriptions, back issues and T-shirt sales. But given the design concept and editorial stance, the magazine quickly developed into a much broader project.

Indeed, with contributors including Jeremyville, Lachlan Conn of comic collective Silent Army and graffiti artist Eamo, Is Not Magazine is striking in both its concept and design. Each issue combines a particular colour theme with a distinct editorial style, as Wortsman explains: "A lot of magazines usually have one theme and a variety of different takes on that, but with two themes we are able to achieve a bit more subtlety with our writing - to concentrate more on the questions than the answers."

As unconventional as this may sound, the premise of each issue remains simple, as do the regular features. Take the navigation: a contents list appears near the top of the billposter and highlights features of the magazine by grid reference. The magazine's layout is subtly latticed with ten columns running across the top, and 15 rows running down the outer edge. But that's not where the interactivity ends: Is Not Magazine is much more intelligent than that€¦

More than words
"Things like the flash fictions, crosswords and story jumps are very important to the mag," says Wortsman. "Just the idea that a magazine can be more than words on paper is something we like. And it maintains this sense of curiosity, wonder and innovation."

Is Not Magazine's communal editorial sense is characterised by the fact it pretty much prints everything that its contributors submit. Another neat innovation is its policy of using typeface sizes that are large enough for passing readers to photograph articles with their mobile phone cameras and read them on screen later in the comfort of their own homes.

In terms of physically getting the magazine on to the poster sites, the team try to distance themselves from any direct guerrilla activity. As any art collective knows, begging favours and forging friendships is as quick a way to success as any fat bank loan. Is Not Magazine is no different, relying on its printers to secure the sites and distribute the poster magazines throughout each target city.

"The magazine comes out every three months, and where it pops up and when is pretty variable," says Wortsman. "I'm glad to leave it to the pros at this point, though. There are some great wheat-paste artists in Melbourne who go up, over and around traditional sites, as well as in strange places. I see what we do as somewhere in between that and traditional billposter disciplines."

Whether Is Not Magazine succeeds because it's unusual, or because it is just a well designed, well-executed idea isn't the team's concern. In fact they seem more concerned with bringing a smile to people's faces than making a huge profit.

"I like the surprise element," Wortsman insists. "Hoarding sites are always changing, so you never know when one might pop up. It's nice to have random encounters like that." And that's precisely what makes Is Not Magazine so special to its fans.

INFO www.isnotmagazine.org