INTERVIEW: CIVILIZATION

RICHARD TURLEY + Lucas Mascatello + Mia Kerin

  Photo:  Amy Lombard

Civilization, a new print-only "newspaper about New York City," redacts identifying information from its interviews, features reviews of grocery stores, publishes three perspectives on the same house party, and costs ten dollars. If you're feeling flush, you can get any part of the paper printed on a T-shirt for fifty dollars. There are very few images in the paper, which is principally oriented around words.

We sat down with two of the newspaper's three founders, Richard Turley and Lucas Mascatello, on Memorial Day—the third founder, Mia Kerin, was under the weather and following the interview annotated the transcript, which has been condensed and edited for clarity below.


RICHARD: We met Mia in... February, I think. But Lucas and I have known each other for a while. We used to work together when I was at MTV. And that was like two, three years ago. 

LUCAS: We hung out a lot, but it’s hard to say that we made a lot of stuff together at that time. We did some writing together or whatever but it was really more like we were friends for a long time and had done some other magazine projects together. You were sort of working on it before I came in, but you didn’t really know what it was yet.

RICHARD: The longer version of it is I quit drinking around October last year and in an effort to fill that hole... I suppose I’m still processing exactly what that means. But around Christmastime when you make New Years’ Resolutions to yourself, I was thinking I should do something this year that’s a bit more self-initiated, that’s actually something that feels like it belongs to me as opposed to a brand that I’m working with or some friend’s magazine that I’m doing. I also at the same time I bought this book about the East Village Other, the old newspaper from the '60s, and that was very inspiring. They had lots of interviews—[to Lucas], do you know that book that I gave you the other day?

LUCAS: Totally. You were really excited about it.

RICHARD: It was just really informal interviews. I think they just picked up the phone and turned on the tape recorder, which is basically what we do. Then one lunchtime I was in the magazine store on Varick called BJs, and I had this moment where I was really annoyed, like there’s nothing to buy. And it all crystallized around like, fuck it—I’m going to do my own thing. So that was in January, I got back to my desk and emailed everyone I knew—well not everyone I knew, but a lot of editors and writers.

Q: How did you describe it in that email?

RICHARD: I’ve probably got that email.

Q: Let’s pull it up.

LUCAS: The emails I got were intense. There was a lot of energy in them.

RICHARD: Well, I just tried to explain it to people.

Q: Do you want to read out excerpts?

RICHARD: [reading the email] "I hope the world is treating you well. Happy New Year. I have a favor to ask, or rather a wondering. I was walking through a magazine store the other day. It was once a glorious place full of paper and ideas and excitement and fervor. And yet this place somehow wasn’t that. It was empty and stark and worrisome. Now cheap corn snacks populated what places magazines once stood. I know that magazines have passed as a mass media experience, and I’m fucking glad I’m out of it. But in the same way I feel [Ed note: the word that came next was indecipherable, but we suspect it meant something like "ill-served."] I wonder how many others might feel the same and if there might be a market for a new periodical. So, throwing caution and a few thousand dollars to the wind and producing my own. It will be a 12-page black and white newspaper, it may be called BORED, it may also be called MOTHERFUCKER, or FAME WHORES OF HEDGE FUND CITY" – which is actually still a quite good name.

LUCAS: Yeah, I remember all of this.

RICHARD: "The name is somewhat TBD, however, it will happen and I wonder if you might like to contribute. Ideally the result will be a collision of thoughts on a page which are held together more by what separates them than by what joins them together. The people I’m asking to contribute are mostly mag or media people, people for whom some years ago the idea of New York magazine arriving at their newsstands would have been a thrill, or the Village Voice, or mayhaps an even better reference would be the East Village Other". Blah blah blah, it’s quite long, but that’s about half of it. I suppose I actually had a fairly good idea of what it would be. It was “in a world of format driven, niche organized labeled and platform-optimized, BORED is a randomized mess of content colliding and crashing against each other. A cascade of words and pictures and drawings, but really mostly words. Words as ideas, observations, mutterings, interviews, thoughts, snapshots, digressions". Yadda yadda yadda, you get the idea.

I suppose I had sort of an idea about what to do. [to Lucas] It’s almost like you were the person who said, “No, you've got to do it, really.”

LUCAS: You asked a lot of people to send you stuff, and I didn’t really know what to send you, so I sent you a bunch of random shit. And then I came and met you in your office, and I’d been recording a lot of my phone calls with people for no real reason.

Q: Were you telling them you were recording?

LUCAS: Sometimes. It just seemed like we'd tapped into the idea of oral histories, or it being raw somehow being a big part of it. I had a lot of ephemera and shit in my phone and stuff I’d been working on that didn’t belong anywhere, so we were figuring out pretty early on how to filter in all this stuff we'd made or were making that didn't really belong anywhere. 

Q: Like, “Here's an outlet for this stuff.”

LUCAS: I wasn’t coming to it from a journalistic background necessarily or an editorial background. For me, it was more like, "Who do I know that's interesting? How can I find conversations that are interesting?" It was less about history or context for me and more about the people I knew and trying to make something out of this stuff that I felt like otherwise wouldn’t go anywhere.

Q: But it's also not online. The conversations you’re publishing—and you blot out certain names, certain details—but even if you didn't, it’s not searchable. I think I'd almost feel more comfortable giving a totally candid, honest interview because I know it’s not going to show up immediately and be tweetable.

RICHARD: That wasn't—the idea for it not to have a website was based as much… I'm not worried about it now, it ended up getting balanced out, but when we first started, we had a lot of like, dysfunctional, toxic male stories. Platforms are entirely how you experience content nowadays, they're almost the entire context for how we receive ideas. The moment you divorce the content and put it on a different platform, and it appears in a different way, and it gets separated from the things it’s next to, it loses its identity. The whole point of our thing is that this shit is next to each other and it kind of vibrates next to. And it's this sluice of content, just like Instagram is a sluice of content. It's that.

And I think once you start pulling out articles, the articles just being interviews with someone, then it kind of exposes that article, and I think there’s a danger in us being identifiable as someone who is solely that kind of idea – whether it be toxic masculinity or something else, it just ends up being exposed. And there’s the opportunity then for someone to jump on that and believe that’s somehow symbolic of our worldview. And it isn't. Our worldview is multi-plural—chaos, everything next to each other, colliding. 

But then also, I don’t fucking want to have a website. You know what I mean, quite frankly, I don't want to have to deal with that shit. I can't afford it, and don't want one. 

MIA: I think the general understanding and process of putting content out today is roughly based on how it’s going to be received and how do we posture ourselves to be accessible towards those people? And I think its easy to look at what we’ve put out—New York in a blender—and say we didn’t care. But the reality it is, everyone’s fucking, taking drugs, not taking drugs, overhearing something new, overtelling something old, and there really isn’t an opinion or goal around that that even we have figured out. 

LUCAS:  It’s better to have our T-shirts be hard to make and kind of fucked up. Richard mailed almost all of the issues himself. It's in part just a stylistic decision too. The kind of people I admire and the kind of influences I have, I’m not super interested in making something that’s a part of what's contemporary-stylish or is easy to cut and paste. 

Q: Something that was surprising but felt very real and natural is reading it, you realize that, yes, other people are having sex. Reading other magazines, sometimes you’re led to believe that no, no one is having sex—maybe in movies, sometimes, but not really. Was that a conscious choice?

RICHARD: To have sex in it? Yes. I mean, we wanted it to be kinda sordid. There’s definitely a voyeuristic aspect to the paper. And because there are no pictures, you can be a bit more lurid, you can be a little bit more sexy—I hate that word, but you can dial that stuff up when you’re not having to present the content with pictures and any kind of illustration. It feels less exposed, less dangerous somehow. 

LUCAS: I think also it's like, everybody’s having sex, but it’s not always good sex. It's not always interesting to read about. We’re interested in stuff that’s sort of banal. A lot of sex is sort of mundane and fucked up. Sometimes it's really great, but I think having people talk about sex in the newspaper is the same as having them talk about anything—it's what's affecting you, what are you excited by. 

 
 Mia Kerin, Richard Turley, and Lucas Mascatello. Photo courtesy of  Civilization.

Mia Kerin, Richard Turley, and Lucas Mascatello. Photo courtesy of Civilization.

 

RICHARD: I think that’s in presentation style that we have, where we just flatten everything out so there’s no real hierarchy—there’s hierarchy in terms of size of article, I suppose you could say—but everything’s sort of the same note, really.

Q: You do a pull quote, but that's not necessarily the focal point of the interview.

MIA: Well, I mean, when you’re talking with someone, you don’t really think about the five best words they used or a key phrase or anything like that. It’s not natural to think that way, but its definitely digital. We’re getting everything. 

RICHARD: I don’t think we ever sat down and said we’re going to talk about sex. The magazine's about—[to Lucas] you said it the other day—the magazine is about people, really. It's just like People magazine used to be before celebrity culture ripped it apart in the '90s. Everything in there is about a person, or about someone who has experienced something, and the fact that you can't see any of these people means that you have to make up your own mind about what they look like.

That flattening out is really important to us. There are no pictures, so you have to paint pictures of this person you're reading about and then you suddenly discover like, “Oh, this person’s 80.” You just stumble about it, without any of the traditional signposting you have in newspapers or magazines. 

LUCAS: It’s also about not having an ethical bias. We’re not for a certain kind of sex or a certain kind of party. Honestly, the attempt to keep things balanced is also an attempt to not participate in a lot of conversations or not make decisions about what is right or what is wrong. The second we start editorializing things, people will stop wanting to talk to us. I think the opportunity for people to confess things, tell the truth. It's really just our job to balance it out, give different perspectives.

MIA: We aren’t doing anything people aren’t already doing for themselves and with others for one reason or another. We just so happen to have made a paper for this type of interaction.

Q: And you give the option I guess, up front, “this is going to be anonymous”?  

RICHARD: I mean, we've got some stuff that's going in the next issue that there’s no fucking way anyone in the world is going to want—you don't even have to ask the question, no one is going to want to have their name attributed to it. 

LUCAS: It's interesting when we're talking, if we ask someone to be involved or I ask someone to talk to me for the paper, I usually tell them we’re not looking for journalists or we're not looking for professional writers or professionals. I’m not looking for professionals at all.

RICHARD: I think in some ways we have more in common with a podcast than we have with the New York Times or whatever the fuck.

LUCAS: Or like a chat room, you know. We’re more like dirty Internet. I'm just trying to keep it honest and interesting. I find that if it’s anonymous, people don’t seem to value it less—after putting out the first one, I'm not super concerned about having attributable names or having it be super legible.

MIA: Right, but even a podcast has this formulaic way of telling you exactly what you’re supposed to be hearing. We’re totally like a chat room, like Omegle or Chatroulette, minus like, all the dicks—but some of them. 

Q: You've talked in other interviews about a sort of image-fatigue. I’ve experienced it: you look at images all day, on Instagram, wherever. It sounds like from the beginning you imagined this as being mostly words.

RICHARD: I imagined it mostly words. I think there was a sort of challenge to create the feeling of—we're never trying to create the feeling of social media on a paper, but that feeling of scrolling through, reading it but not really reading it. Taking it in, but kind of grazing. I was interested in seeing if you could find a print-based equivalent to that – to make an environment that appears counter to this idea of grazing and make it really accessible. That was the design challenge in a way.

I know from designing newspapers that people take in shitloads of information. We’re out of the habit of looking at pages that size, and we're out of the habit of taking content in that way, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do it and we don't enjoy doing it. But pictures themselves, yeah, I think we've said it before, and I think Mia said it brilliantly, that pictures nowadays are really complicated. 

MIA: The fun part is that you actually can’t scroll through, you just have to deal with it. Pictures are complicated for the reason that an image is powerful in a way that can suppress thought and communication that flows naturally. 

LUCAS: A picture says a lot stylistically. If we had fashion photos in it or a certain kind of photographic aesthetic or design aesthetic that was about a series of images, it makes us more like a magazine. I think the effort here is to make a newspaper, to make it interesting to graze, but also to give people an object that I think now people treat more like a book. The people I know that are actually reading the paper that I gave it to—they sit down with it sort of like a book, they take it with them.

Q: We’ve talked a little bit about other publications, but the BJs story—where you couldn't really find anything of interest, where no one’s doing this well—or maybe [to Lucas], you disagree?

LUCAS: I have a really different relationship with magazines. I’m not compelled to buy any. I look for magazines that have nice pictures in them. It's sort of a masturbatory thing, it's like a luxury thing. Often I get them for free, or from other people. I related to what Richard was saying because I didn’t relate to any of the writing in any of these publications, and so from that perspective I get it.

MIA: Yeah, I totally don’t own any magazines. I spend more time thinking about everyone that’s passing through—anyone that talks to me, or fucked me over, or I wanna fuck over, or that I’ve laid down with, or that’s made a difference to me. And there’s already Nan Goldin, so we’ve got a newspaper instead.

Q: You keep calling it a newspaper. You're not journalists, but was there something you were trying to capture, like, “Hey, look: here’s information or perspective that can help you experience your life here in a more interesting or effective way?”

LUCAS: To be contemporary, to capture what’s happening now, you have to let people tell the truth. For us, or at least for me, I didn't necessarily think about having specific news to report. We talked about how people used to write about New York in a certain style, and that style became less specific. Right now we’re really not sure what that sounds like. We were trying to sort of give people that opportunity to speak directly. Whether or not it’s newsworthy I’m not so sure. It’s like a community newspaper. Richard has this weird—what's that newspaper you get in your building? It’s a tiny little newspaper. 

RICHARD: They're great, and they're usually run by old people. I read West View far more often than I do the New York Times. It's useful. West View has openings and closings of stores and shit in the neighborhood. It's useful stuff. There was sort of a moment a few years ago when people that highly localized news services would be a thing, like Warren Buffet bought a bunch of local newspapers. I'm not going to make any predictions about that, but I do kind of feel as if I don't if there's any kind of media, newspaper potential anymore. Nobody really wants it. We’re a $10 luxury item. We’re a distraction.

MIA: Yeah, we are like a luxury no one necessarily wants, which is basically just living life. 

RICHARD: I just call it a newspaper because of the format. I think what it does do that a lot of magazines and newspapers are failing to do at the moment—this is kind of trite, but you hope you learn stuff, meet new people. It’s words and ideas that aren't collected together in the same way as any other paper, or at least not one I've seen before.

MIA: So many publications that rely heavily on their websites and images now started simply as a newspaper. We’re not really antique fetishists, but this format makes it easier to do what we’re doing without allying ourselves with or aiming ourselves against what others are already doing. 

LUCAS: We’re looking for stuff that we think is weird and interesting, right? If certain newspapers target certain neighborhoods, maybe we target a certain demographic—people that are weird enough to be interested in it. As shitty as it sounds or as corny as it sounds, it's about creating kind of a safe space for people to express that stuff. Because the only way you’re going to get that is for it to feel like it’s in context with other weird, specific stuff.

RICHARD: I think there’s something kind of circular about what we’re doing. We're trying to create a community of people who are interested in a magazine, but who are also in it.

Q: Last thing—you’re going to do another issue it sounds like...

RICHARD: We're going to do another issue in July.

Q: I want to make some news here. As a non-journalist, you can tell me: is there some sort of… scoop?

RICHARD: We haven’t got any scoops. It’s not going to be a million miles different from this one. The same shit. Maybe a different spot color. 

Q: It could be red.

RICHARD: It might be red. The second one is probably going to be difficult... we'll see. 

Q: The sophomore album.

RICHARD: We really did just jigsaw this thing together. It literally started from one article and grew. That is how it's built. You can’t plan it too much. The process of putting this together I’m really quite keen to replicate, which is quite exploratory. There need to be certain things, but I don’t think we realized what we did when we did it the first time. If we can keep the same sense of not really having a plan and feeling it out, I think we'll be golden—hope we'll be golden. 

LUCAS: A lot of it is me writing shit on my phone. The scoop is that we’re texting all the time.