So what exactly is this Thing?

Times Staff Writer

The Thing is not your garden-variety periodical. Putting a spin on the idea of text messaging, the Thing is by turns a window shade, a baseball cap, a set of coasters and a hunk of rubber. That last issue puts the lie to those glossy fall fashion magazines that could double as doorstops. It is a doorstop.

Bay Area co-editors Will Rogan and Jonn Herschend, a pair of established visual artists, have concocted nothing less than an honest-to-goodness quarterly magazine, albeit an unorthodox one, with the mission of marrying text to household objects. "It's about giving words a different vehicle," Rogan said.

Like all magazine subscribers, the constituency for the Thing never knows the exact contents of a given issue until it arrives. Unlike most, readers might come to find a window treatment silk-screened with a rueful line written by filmmaker-author Miranda July. The issue by July, the coasters by Tucker Nichols, the baseball cap by the German-born artist Kota Ezawa and the doorstop by artist Anne Walsh have already shipped. In coming months, the editors say, critically acclaimed novelist Jonathan Lethem will chime in with a Thing directly playing off his upcoming novel. ("In a really nerdy way, that's so magical," Rogan said. "We were giddy.")

The Thing was conceived by the pair a couple of years ago when Herschend and Rogan were studying for MFAs at UC Berkeley. They kicked around several ideas for a magazine and soon realized they are both suckers for the anachronistically tactile.

"We're both fans of McSweeney's," Herschend said, referencing the literary pranksters who disguised a recent issue of their journal as junk mail. Likewise, they say the Thing owes a debt to Aspen, the fanciful mid-1960s publication in a box that incorporated flexi-discs, occasional movie reels, posters, fliers and flip books. "We both appreciate old artist ephemera and the way it accumulates history," said Rogan, a former librarian. "I love the physicality of words in print."

That physicality extends to the shipping process. This summer, for the fourth time in the journal's inaugural year, and for the first time in Los Angeles, the Thing hosted a wrapping party. Under a climate-curdling heat wave, some two dozen Angelenos -- fueled by cold pizza, gratis beer and a rousing impromptu rendition of the Police's "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," toiled assembly-line style in the Outpost for Contemporary Art’s spartan Highland Park headquarters, packaging Walsh's much-delayed, wildly out-of-order issue No. 2. "It's like a barn-raising," said Herschend, who hails from Missouri. "It would be cheaper to pay a shipper to do everything or to do it ourselves."

"We want people's hands on it," Rogan said.

(As Ezawa's crisp white baseball caps made their way out into the world as Issue No. 3, a little pizza stain got recorded on one for posterity. Its recipient wasn't exactly amused, but "he was very cool about it," Herschend said.)

As editors, Hogan and Herschend let contributors dictate both what form their issue will take and its content; whether the Thing is art or literature is a question the pair haven't entirely settled. "It depends on when you ask," Rogan said. "Looking at each object individually, some would be more literature and some would be more . . . object-y."

For Walsh, her doorstop was definitely a creative writing exercise. She re-created a thank-you note that she sent to tennis legend Billie Jean King after her 1973 Battle of the Sexes triumph over Bobby Riggs, with a little Wiki-help, incorporating facts and context -- as in "My family and I watched you play on tv tonight. We saw you beat Bobby Riggs in 3 sets. WOW."

"A lot of my students didn't know who Billie Jean King was," said Walsh, an associate professor of electronic media at UC Berkeley.

A year into their venture, the entrepreneurs have just more than 1,200 subscribers (subscriptions run $140 a year). L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art will begin stocking back issues in the museum's gift shop after issue No. 5 comes out this month. "It is perfect for the MOCA stores, since we specialize in artist-produced items, and this is a real artwork that is highly collectible and unique," said Grant Breding, the museum's director of retail operations.

Wiki-help"We have a lot of subscribers in the Midwest, in small towns," Herschend said. "Well, probably not a lot, but enough that it's cool," Rogan said.

And when those subscribers write in, the Thing serves its larger purpose of art as social lubricant. "I love checking the e-mail. Sometimes I have amazing conversations with people. Maybe someone doesn't understand and thinks it's a joke on them. That's a conversation I'd never have [otherwise] with someone in Nebraska," Herschend said. "We take this really seriously. Sometimes I spend days thinking about how to write back."

Big ambitions like connecting such far-flung dots is one of the reasons Rogan and Herschend's only dictate for the Thing is that it takes the form of household artifacts. It was key, they say, that their art be not only affordable but also, well, useful. With the doorstop, they joke that they've created the world's first truly functional metaphor. "Billie Jean King opened the door and held it open for other women," Walsh said.

"The first thing we thought of is: We want people to live with this stuff, in a practical way," Rogan said. "We want to collapse the distance" between the artists and the subscribers, between art and life. Whatever else the Thing is, it's more art than business. The Thing came modestly into being after San Francisco gallery Southern Exposure provided the pair with a start-up space and some funds. Their next bit of venture capital arrived unexpectedly when they won a distinguished alumni award of a couple thousand dollars from Berkeley. Now, the editors say, the Thing pretty much holds its own, but nobody's quitting his day job.

"My brother's a CEO, and at one point he was like, 'This is going to totally fail,' " Herschend said. "He's a subscriber."

"Basically, we had no strategy," Rogan said. They do now. "We want to keep working with cool people, how's that for a business model?" he asked.


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