Sex Obsessed: A Conversation with Asher Penn

Dec 22, 2016 11:47 am

When I first encountered Sex magazine, the online-only publication felt both sui generis and familiar. Created by Asher Penn in 2012, Sex reminded me of print magazines like Index or Butt, in that it spotlighted underground artists and cult heroes as well as emerging creatives. Each issue was like a cheat sheet for developing in-the-know taste.  

But Sex was nothing like other websites I was reading at the time. Penn didn’t feature subjects during a press cycle. The site had a minimal, no-frills aesthetic that focused on text over images, interviews over reviews. And despite showcasing complex artists like Petra Cortright, Jordan Wolfson, and Venus X, the language was welcoming and casual, as if the reader were invited to sit in on a discussion between two friends. In other words, Sex reminded me of the print magazines I grew up loving. It was a 2.0 version of them. But it rejected the status quo of internet publishing.

The most impressive thing about Sex was that one guy was able to create a magazine with a singular vision without a budget or much outside help. Anyone could have created something like Sex, but no one did—at least not with as distinct a voice and identity. Sex took a hiatus from releasing new issues in 2015, as Penn focused on new projects, such as founding a film production house called BetaPictures, which released Maggie Lee’s incredible 2015 documentary Mommy. This month, however, powerHouse Books released Sex Magazine #1-10, a print anthology celebrating the best of the publication’s three-year run. I spoke to Penn about the legacy of Sex and how he approached turning the online magazine into a physical art object.


ZACH SOKOL  What originally inspired you to make an online-only publication?

ASHER PENN  Making a print publication in 2012 seemed wasteful, almost arrogant, doomed for failure. Making a quality online magazine seemed like a better use of energy, with a way lower overhead, and more sustainable. As the internet and publishing has changed since, and in many ways for the worse, I’m really glad that the book  exists. I also believe that we are living at a time, more than ever, where young people deserve access to quality, well-designed alternative publishing in print.

SOKOL  I remember you once told me that Sex was partly a response to how vibrant the internet was at the time, and how exciting certain creative communities felt. Can you expand on that?

PENN  That has a lot to do with the time the magazine launched. By 2012, dozens of print magazines had fizzled and those that lasted mostly sucked. A lot of publications seemed really out of touch, and, outside of DIS and Rhizome, nobody was really considering online work. As an internet-only publication, Sex made allies of artists who were operating in the same way.

SOKOL  Before you started Sex, you had an art practice. What was your work like? Were there any parallels between it and what you were doing with the magazine? 

PENN  I went to art school for photography and after I graduated I started making books and having shows, mostly with small, independent galleries operated by young artists. A lot of the work centered around appropriation, popular culture, writing. At one point, I wrote  a fake interview with Wolfgang Tillmans, which was kind of weird. Looking back, I couldn’t tell you what my work was about. I was interested in art, but didn’t really have much to say, which is probably why I stopped. I started Sex to find out more about what art actually meant and explore creativity outside the scope of the art world.

SOKOL  What publications would you say informed Sex?

PENN  I used to work at Printed Matter, and there I learned about artists’ magazines as an extension of artists’ books—working within the conventions of common media forms and filling them with something different. Collectives like The Fugs, General Idea, and Bernadette Corporation all had great magazines that are still worth looking at today. I also really like oral histories—whether it’s the story of MTV or the defunct Alleged Gallery. Hearing about how something went down from the people involved, in their own words, really help gain insight into a period. How Sassy Changed My Life [2007], a book about the early ’90s teen magazine by Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer, was eye-opening for me. It showed how a truly cool mainstream magazine could channel healthy values to young people when they needed it. 

SOKOL  What websites were influential? Sex felt like it was informed by digital culture as much as print.

PENN  Around 2012, a lot of magazine websites were either too minimal or too busy. They would look like a blog, or there would be some really ugly ad systems. I was looking at a lot of personal sites with really simple code that would always load super fast. I remember coming back to Vincent Gallo’s homepage a lot when designing the Sex site. He still updates it, but the layout has remained the same since it launched. I never really wanted to change our site’s design, either.

SOKOL  Can you tell me about how the anthology came together?

PENN  PowerHouse approached me about curating a series of photo books. Around that time, I had already been feeling that the magazine needed to transition to print, and had even designed a mockup using the material for the ninth issue. I figured I could work on an anthology almost as a test. I’m glad I did because the process was a great deal more complicated than I imagined. It felt like going back to school.

SOKOL  How did you approach editing the book? I’m specifically curious about how you interpreted the aesthetic of Sex’s website in print, and how you chose which interviews to include.

PENN  It was a crazy huge task. There was a lot that had to be cut, and with each pass I got really obsessed with the design. I made an effort to shout out as many people who were involved in the magazine as possible. As far as art direction, it was really fun to put together images in a way that channeled the vibe of the magazine itself. The quality of the imagery has no real consistency, but I feel like the images collectively reflect an aesthetic and attitude that is specific to the magazine’s style.

SOKOL  I’m interested in how aware you were of the potential future success of the artists you featured. For example, Venus X and Eckhaus Latta were covered in Sex pretty much before anywhere else. Did it ever feel like a race to spotlight artists before their careers took off and everyone else was hip to them?

PENN  Isn’t this what you’re supposed to try do as a creative? If people are biting your energy, you’re doing something right. It’s not just about getting there first but doing it in the right way. In the 2000s, so many people who were first covered by Index began to feel recycled afterwards. Less inspired publications bounced them around for what seemed like a decade. It was lazy and boring.

SOKOL  In retrospect, what do you think made Sex distinct from other culture publications at the time?

PENN  I’d say that we really made an effort to channel the ideas and stories of artists in an uncompromising way instead of reducing them to a shallow clickbait headline. You don’t have to be academic or boring to do that either. Being accessible and communicative can take a lot of work, but I think it’s worth the effort to engage with people, make cool stuff, and have fun.