Celebrating 10 years of mono.kultur

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mono.kultur celebrated its 10th birthday last Friday in Berlin, and because it’s a magazine that’s always modern in its outlook – constantly thinking about what’s next instead of what’s past – the team decided to invite a new crop of Berlin-based independents to a bar in Mitte for a panel discussion. ‘Anniversaries always come with the trappings of nostalgia,’ editor/founder Kai von Rabenau said to me before the panel, ‘so we thought it would be interesting to talk to other, more recent publishing projects about what it has been like for them and to compare notes, rather than just talking about ourselves.’

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The evening ‘mono.klub’ event brought together the nomadic Flaneur, literary journal Berlin Quarterly and travel magazine Il Paradiso, as well as digital architecture site Uncube and the weekly Berlin lifestyle newsletter, Cee Cee. ‘It was really important for us to invite a couple of projects that work with digital formats’, Kai noted, ‘those can be overlooked sometimes in the plethora of fairs and books and talks on self-publishing, when they are just as excellent at what they do.”

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2003 – then
A summary of the panel discussion is below, but first, I managed to get some thoughts from Kai about how the independent publishing world has changed since mono.kultur first began. ‘What has changed? Pretty much everything, really,’ said Kai, ‘When we started, I don’t think there even was the term “self-publishing” – it was still a pretty daring idea that you could simply publish your own magazine, instead of bowing down to what was out there.’

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There were a few other independents around, quietly operating in the distance, such as 032c in Berlin and a German equivalent to Dazed & Confused called Style & the Family Tunes. Fantastic Man had also launched 6 months prior, but as Kai explained, ‘the infrastructure was scarce: I remember vividly taking our first few issues on bike around different stores in Berlin. I can’t see young publishers doing that today, with a whole new range of distributors and stores dedicated to independent publishing.’

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Today there are more precedents for young magazines to learn from, and Kai sees a radical difference: ‘The whole genre has professionalised to a certain extent, and I should think that most new projects will be nowhere near as naïve as we were when we started – we had no plans or goals or strategies other than putting out the kind of magazine that we would think of as exciting. I have the impression that new titles are much more focused and ambitious in their targets, which I think is great and also a little dangerous sometimes.’

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Lastly, the other tremendous change for independent publishing is of course the web – when mono.kultur began, Facebook didn’t exist, and ‘we were still using dial-in connections for that mysterious thing called the Internet.’ Kai sees this change as central: ‘the Internet is to blame for much of the ever-ongoing self-publishing boom.’

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2013 – when
Kai described that they had no plans at all starting mono.kultur, other than that they were young designers and journalists who knew they wanted to make something together. They didn’t think any further than that. Berlin as a place also seemed important, and as Kai noted at the panel discussion: ‘We could have started anywhere, but we couldn’t have lasted so long.’

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Berlin as a key location for independent publishers seemed to resonate for all the guests on Friday – and not just because its a city of cheap rent, like-minded communities and the legendary magazine shop Do You Read Me?!. For Il Paradiso’s Andreas Wellnitz, Germany’s rich publishing history has been a key inspiration, and working with Zeit Magazin for years has fuelled his love of beautifully designed printed matter. Flaneur founder Ricarda Messner described how she began the magazine as a way to reconnect with her home-city having left for a few years and then come back. Newsletter Cee Cee – who conceive of themselves as an ‘email-magazine’ – were inspired by the immense amount of independent cafes, shops, restaurants and galleries springing up around Berlin, so their weekly list of recommendations is a way of covering the city’s energetic, constantly evolving cultural activities.

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Get a group of self-publishers together, and the talk inevitably creeps towards distribution. Flaneur’s Ricarda and Berlin Quarterly’s Cesare Alemanni both discussed how they sometimes listed themselves as a book – for Flaneur, this especially helps lower distribution costs in France.

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Cesare enjoys his magazine’s book-like quality – the printed publication swaps hands and gets lost in second-hand bookshops, it’s safe and preserved on bookshelves for years to come. Yet, as Sophie Lovell of Uncube then pointed out: ‘The Internet never forgets. A magazine is safer online than in print.’ Sophie described how the archive of back-issues keeps the contents of an Uncube issues alive, and how it’s fascinating to watch the number of readers of an old issue continue to grow after a new issue has been released.

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At the end of the talk, a particularly thoughtful audience question caught my attention and echoed something I’ve been wondering for a while. She flagged up how a lot of new magazines centre around place or geography, and although this isn’t true for all of the speakers (Uncube is an architecture magazine, and Berlin Quarterly a literary one not necessarily anchored by place), the question was interesting. She pointed out that when mono.kultur started, magazines focused on people (like Fantastic Man). Now, magazines often focus on place, even if it’s just an occasional theme. This abstractly ties back to Kai’s point about the Internet and the self-publishing boom – a sense of place seems more vital than ever to combat the displacement felt after a day spent nowhere and everywhere online.

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At the panel Kai referred to the mono.kultur project as ‘the ultimate fanzine’, in the sense that they get to speak intensely with heroes and then design an entire publication around them. When I ask Kai what’s next, he enigmatically suggested there will be a new issue soon, with the interviewee remaining a secret for now. mono.kultur delight in innovation and re-intervention, and they’ve got their fingers on the pulse – having created a Sissel Tolaas issue that contained 12 scents inside, and another on Ai Weiwei released just before he rose to staggering heights of art stardom. Miranda July, James Nachtwey, Brian Eno, Dave Eggers, Kim Gordon, Chris Ware – their list of fascinating interviewees is endless. Yet Kai didn’t dwell on any of this on Friday – the team have their eyes fixed on the next ten years rather than the last. The when more than the then.

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