by Michael Pace
Reading the first issue of Civilization (2018), I felt something like relief after telling myself it didn’t want to be read. Newspaper is already uncomfortable—an extreme medium, with its walls of text on pages proportionate to none. It is impossible to hold, let alone finish: a confusion of stories, recklessly arranged, with a 24-hour shelf life. Filled to the margins with interviews, infographics, listicles, statistics, cartoons and more, Civilization’s 16 broadsheet pages are too much, though I suspect it loves its impossibility as the joke of its soul. Co-editor Richard Turley, a New York City- based designer, says the impetus to start Civilization came from “looking at the few [print] magazines and newspapers that remain,” and concluding that they all “look the same.” He expressed wanting Civilization to give its readers a total experience of New York City—“scattered moments in the city, what people are talking about, what they experience”—but the end result is a publication that seems more intent on winning circulation as a fashion object than as a text. Its impossible readability lies less in its unruly form or ambitious scope than in its insularity and self-commodification.
Visually, Civilization is as strong as it is exhausting: a black, white and yellow cacophony of content. The issue is a marvel for its sheer abundance, beautiful in its oppression. Its pages are so filled with variably arranged text and illustration as to intimidate the reader. The totality feels cynical, as if rendering the absurdity of a newspaper’s mission to represent a defined local, national or global moment, day after day. How could any cipher honour the indecipherable muchness of the world? Civilization exhausts its own resources in trying. In places, the borders around articles break apart and the text overflows, as though Civilization cannot contain its own ambition while sustaining coherence. The sole relief from the paper’s visual assault is in its centrefold: an advertisement for NYC-based fashion brand Telfar, the only time I have ever experienced advertising as a space to breathe. On all other pages, “information,” such as a count of someone’s macro-nutrient intake on a given day, a list of “Types of Hats on the M Train 11.25 AM Friday,” or in one case, just “Human-/itarian/Crisis” in a large font, splashed across the page, fill any and all space between meatier articles, like interviews with NYC professionals or friends of the editors and long-form prose contributions. These spontaneous parts subvert the medium’s established seriousness and, in their sheer volume, are endowed with uncanny authority.
Newspaper is an appropriately capacious choice for a publication wanting to communicate a city’s myriad subjectivities, and Civilization is in a position to showcase its expressive potential as a collaborative medium. Yet it is impossible to finish without feeling like, in all its maximalism, and for all its stated aims of multiplicity, an editorial voice has keenly gathered contributions that support its own hypothesis. In an interview between “Civilization” and “Psychologist,” the former wants to ascertain “whether or not living in New York makes people crazy.” This question answers why the visions of the city appear so consistent across so many contributions; pieces of data about the city and its “Drinking Water Contaminants,” “Crime Statistics” and “Hygiene, Vermin, & Filth” assert a coolly nihilistic picture of NYC, as if the only thing that can be quantified is the city’s depravity, its psychic burden. These are stories of dissatisfied consumerism, “Adrenal Exhaustion,” good pills at bad parties, shoplifting at Dean & DeLuca. The struggles of the creative class to survive in an impossibly expensive city are painted with the greyscale of hip apathy. Here, there is only one New York City, with little room for contradiction. The effect is a sort of filibuster—too ironic to be polemic, but wearying in its insistent detachment and unrelenting ennui. In this sense, the newspaper feels closer in spirit to a newsletter, a dispatch from an echo chamber, intended for circulation only among a particular set of New Yorkers who love to hate their city. I am often left wondering what is meant to be of interest in Civilization to anyone but them.
So, I am suspicious when Civilization reminds me on every page that I can pay to have any crop of it printed on a premium cotton T-shirt for $50. The paper is keen to circulate beyond the social network generating it, but as what? The designers behind the publication seem as (if not more) invested in it being seen as being read, in it achieving a status closer to the New Yorker tote bag than the magazine. The first issue’s rapid endorsement from the fashion industry (the cover page was a featured print in Junya Watanabe’s Spring/Summer 2020 menswear show) deepens my suspicion, as though the publication could be a status symbol from its debut, as though it was already a “cool” commodity before its contents had ever been read. Interesting, then, that its most lucid (and entertaining) contributions are its more explicit engagements with consumer experience: reviews of a Zara, spa or supermarket that approach facets of capitalism as aesthetic objects. These seem to be flickers of Civilization’s self-reflexivity with regards to its own consumerist entanglements, but ultimately, in exploiting its circulation to achieve commodity power as an object, Civilization diminishes the effect, neutralizing the contributions under its own will for marketability. If its status is ultimately its success, then the inherent joke of Civilization is on me, for trying to read something with no text.