At Pop-Up Magazine Shows, No Recordings Allowed

Nov 21, 2011
Originally published on November 22, 2011 12:16 am

Magazines, documentaries and art are usually meant to be preserved to live on in time. But a group in San Francisco has decided that art, if ephemeral, may be appreciated in a different way.

The group created Pop-Up Magazine, a live magazine that happens once onstage, in one place — and it's not recorded.

Editor Douglas McGray says the idea came from trying to get different kinds of artists in the same room.

"The reason we started it was we felt that filmmakers have their film openings, and artists will have gallery openings, and writers will have their readings. And we're never at the same things together," McGray tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "We thought about the idea of a live magazine as a way to bring these different communities together and bring their communities of fans together."

So, for Pop-Up Magazine, documentary filmmakers, writers, radio producers, photographers and artists present their work to an audience live onstage — about 20 stories in 90 minutes. McGray says the stories are very short. The shortest they've ever done was 17 seconds — and they run up to 5 or 6 minutes.

"You find that that's enough time to tell a rich story or profile a person or explain an idea," he says.

Sometimes the artists will perform without any props, but there is a large screen at the back of the stage that can display film. They'll also sometimes incorporate voices or sounds or musical accompaniment.

The magazine is edited and has a table of contents. McGray says the staff reaches out to "potential contributors we admire" to put on the show.

"Once we figure out what makes sense to do onstage, sometimes we'll collaborate really closely and figure out how we can encourage someone to experiment with different forms," he says. "We'll have a radio producer who will decide that they're going to try out using some Super 8 film or using some images. Or we'll have an illustrator who will get paired with someone who works in sound."

And, of course, there is no record that the performances ever happened. The staff, McGray says, doesn't even have secret recordings or photographs.

"When I think back to old issues and think fondly of moments that were really terrific," he says. "I'm just remembering them."

So far, McGray says, Pop-Up Magazine has received great feedback about the concept.

"I find that people watch a thing differently when it really is going to happen once. You can't share the link to your favorite story — you're going to have to retell it yourself. You can't go back and watch it later. I think you focus in a different way, I think you remember in a different way. I like the way it makes peoples' brains work," he says. "People, when they come and when the lights go down, they feel like they're about to see something special precisely because it's only going to happen once."

McGray is careful to say that the performances are not a negative reaction to technology.

"All of us are online," he says. "All of us are on social media, and [in] a lot of ways the huge audience for this show has been built on social media. These are great ways to connect and to share ideas and to meet people. It's also just nice to unplug and come together for a night and do something that's different."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Modern media liberate us from the bonds of time and place. Buy a record or, before that, a wax cylinder, and you could hear Caruso singing without ever leaving Missoula. Movies, digital photographs, archived sound files and podcasts, streaming videos of lectures and performances. All of these breakthroughs redefine what is accessible to us, what is potentially familiar.

Compound that expanded universe of the available with mobile devices and our remote location or our busy schedule becomes merely a minor inconvenience to experiencing things.

Well, perhaps inevitable that this markdown of the value of the here and now would stimulate reaction and here's an interesting one. Pop-Up Magazine. It happens once in one place unrecorded. Now you see it. If not, you don't. Douglas McGray is the editor of Pop-Up and he joins us from San Francisco. Welcome to the program.

DOUGLAS MCGRAY: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And tell us what Pop-Up Magazine is. Describe it.

MCGRAY: Pop-Up Magazine is a live magazine. It's a magazine that's performed onstage. You have a table of contents and you have a series of about 20 stories in 90 minutes and they're documentary filmmakers, writers, radio producers, photographers and artists who present their work to a live audience, live onstage.

SIEGEL: And many of their presentations are very short.

MCGRAY: They are very short. The shortest one we've ever done was 17 seconds. They run up to about maybe five or six minutes long and you find that that's enough time to tell a rich story or profile a person or explain an idea.

SIEGEL: And the person who's presenting comes out onstage. And does this - just speech or do they have pictures or sounds to accompany them?

MCGRAY: There is a big screen at the back of the stage and the person comes out. The presenter takes the mic and then they will read. And sometimes, they just read. Sometimes, there's film that comes up behind them. Sometimes they will use the sound system and you'll hear voices or sound that's playing in the theatre. We've even had live musical accompaniment to pieces. So they can be very simple and very low-fi or they can be these rich multimedia, immersive experiences.

SIEGEL: Magazines are edited. Is this one edited?

MCGRAY: It is. You know, we reach out to potential contributors we admire and people come to us and we'll talk stories the way that an editor will talk with a writer. Once we figure out what makes sense to do onstage, sometimes we'll collaborate really closely and figure out how we can encourage someone to experiment with different forms.

We'll have a radio producer who will decide that they're going to try using some Super 8 film or using some images, or we'll have an illustrator who'll get paired with someone who works in sound. So, it's a lot like a magazine. It just happens to be live and ephemeral.

SIEGEL: Now, in theory, you could make it less than ephemeral. You could take the same people who presented and have both a matinee and an evening performance or have it several days a week. But you definitely decided that's not what this is all about?

MCGRAY: Well, one thing that we found that's really interesting is we started the show in a small theatre and the reason we started it was we felt that filmmakers have their film openings and artists will have gallery openings and writers will have their readings and we're never at the same things together. We thought about stories, the idea of a live magazine, as a way to bring these different communities together and bring their communities of fans together.

SIEGEL: Now, there's live and then there's live. You could have a script and go back and do the live show the next day if you wanted to.

MCGRAY: I find that people watch a thing differently when it really is only going to happen once. You can't share the link to your favorite story. You're going to have to retell it yourself. And you can't go back and watch something later. I think you focus in a different way and I think you remember in a different way. And I like the way it makes people's brains work. And we've gotten great feedback to that effect that people, when they come and when the lights go down, they feel like they're about to see something special, precisely because it's only going to happen once.

SIEGEL: And, in fact, when I first emailed you about this, I asked - suspecting the answer - if there was any sound, any recorded moment that we might be able to hear on the program. The answer is, no. You don't have it.

MCGRAY: It's true. We don't even have secret recordings or photographs for ourselves. When I think back to old issues and think fondly of moments that were really terrific, I'm just remembering them.

SIEGEL: The way it used to be at one time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCGRAY: And I should say that this is not a negative reaction to technology because all of us are online. All of us are on social media. In a lot of ways, the huge audience for this show has been built on social media. These are great ways to connect and to share ideas and to meet people. It's also just nice to unplug and come together for a night and do something that's different.

SIEGEL: Well, Douglas McGray, thank you very much for talking with us today.

MCGRAY: Thanks so much.

SIEGEL: Douglas McGray is the editor of Pop-Up Magazine which, as you heard, isn't exactly a magazine. He spoke to us from San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

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