The Thing is well-known among arts enthusiasts of the San Francisco Bay Area. For the past seven years editors and co-founders Jonn Herschend and Will Rogan have invited artists from Miranda July to John Baldessari in to participate in the yearly subscription by creating a useful object that enigmatically wavers between utility and art form with a seemingly simple guideline that it should somehow incorporate text. This object is reproduced for over two thousand of its subscribers, hand-wrapped at a public wrapping party, and then mailed off via United States Postal Service. Rogan and Herschend also work on individual projects under The Thing brand, supplementing their collaborative quarterly artistic projects. San Francisco Art Enthusiast caught up with Herschend and Rogan on the eve of the release of their latest project, The Thing The Book published through San Francisco’s own Chronicle Books, that itself has had a longstanding history working with local artists and illustrators, to discuss this unique trajectory that brought them to this moment.
Rogan and Herschend met in 2006 while enrolled in the MFA Program at U.C. Berkeley. “Will and I both had an interest in literature, text and object. He had worked for several years as a librarian and I’d worked for several years as a High School Lit teacher,” says Herschend. “We wanted create a publication that was in conversation with many of the historical publications from S.F. (thinking Artforum, Rolling Stone) and many of the current ones: McSweeney’s in particular. We wanted to also insert the conversation of the publication as object and really take it as far as we could.” During their residency at Southern Exposure, it quickly took off: “We started in a residency at SoEx and had the dream that we would make this project for one year and hand make the publication, expecting maybe 20-30 people to subscribe…We went from 20 to 1500 subscribers in the course of a week.” Since its founding in 2007, the Thing Quarterly has reached national and international audiences. “We currently have a circulation of 2000 and growing. We have subscribers all over the world. Roughly 75% of our subscriber base is from the US, mostly in SF, LA and NYC. The remaining 25% are international and fairly evenly spread throughout the world, although our base in Europe is growing constantly.”
The Thing, Herschend says, complements and continues to inform their own individual art practices: “We are very interested in the democratization of art. We understand that it needs to hold a high price-point, and we are involved in that in our gallery practice (as are many of the artists with whom we work). But we are also intently concerned with the way art exists in the wider world. We feel that there is a lot of room for this sort of threshold. For us it puts the question of the uses of art into play. It sort forces this notion of what is art and how does it get used in the US. It’s also had a great effect in helping us think out the democratization of art. How do we maintain a gallery practice and still push our work further out into a populace that might not participate in a gallery scene?”
Although The Thing has been operating for several years, Rogan and Herschend have not bowed to formulaic equations to each production process, it is still very much a creative collaboration determined with input, ideas and concepts that wish to be expressed by each of the invited artists. “There is not really a usual process. Each issue has its own logic. But we choose artists based on how they would fit together with the contributors we have lined up,” Herschend says. “And we also like to choose contributors who are in some way operating in a grey area. That’s really the fun part. The publishing of the issue is mostly a lot of e-mails and research and conversations. It’s a lot of work, but the end result is when things get really exciting for us. Like right now, we are just about to launch Rodarte’s issue, which is perhaps one of the more beautiful issues we’ve completed to date.”
Herschend and Rogan are celebrating, The Thing The Book coming out today, September 23. Says Herschend of the book, “…We wanted the physical space of the book to be like an exhibition space.” Like The Thing Quarterly, The Thing The Book came about through thoughtful collaboration within the San Francisco art community, namely with San Francisco-based publishing company, Chronicle Books. “Bridget Watson-Payne [Editor of Chronicle Books] came to us and asked if we’d like to make a book,” says Herschend. “We immediately said “Yes!” and we also immediately said that it couldn’t be a “best of” THE THING, that it had to be something new and self reflexive in some way.” She immediately said, “Absolutely!” We were smitten from that point forward. Everyone in Chronicle who worked with us on the book was way into it. We couldn’t believe the support and creativity that poured out. It was truly a blast.” Herschend shares with us one of the particular contributors that made a large impact on the book. “One of the biggest contributions to the book came from McFadden & Thorpe. They are a design firm that we’ve worked with from the very beginning of THE THING. When we knew we were going to make a book, we pulled them in right away. They were responsible for the total layout and aesthetic consistency of the book. They also have a secret section behind the belly band.”
They affirm San Francisco’s art and culture community contributed so significantly to not only its ability to be produced, but also its ensuing success. “We don’t believe that this project would have come into being in this if we were in another city. There is a real community desire to see things happen in this town. The wrapping parties, which we have with most every issue don’t seem to work in the same way in other cities. People like to come by and hang out. It’s a casual scene, which is right down our alley.”
The Thing Quarterly is published once a year; more information about it and The Thing The Book can be found at www.TheThingQuarterly.com.