At work with: Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, Emergence

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The latest in a wave of magazines addressing ecology and our planet is Emergence, a beautifully produced print addition to a busy online programme. The California-based magazine’s executive editor Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee tells us about the publication and how his background as an award-winning film-maker relates to it.


Portrait by Beth Evans

Tell us about your typical Monday journey to work
I live in Point Reyes Station, a small town on the Pacific coast, about 1.5 hours north of San Francisco. Our office is a seven minute drive away, in the even smaller town of Inverness. We have our weekly editorial meeting on Monday mornings at 10am, so before heading into the office, I’m usually creating the agenda over coffee and catching up on anything we’ll need to go over as a team. Then I’ll head over to the office around 9:30. I really should be biking in, but usually have Oliver with me (my 12 year old chow/shepherd/coyote mongrel). We’re a very dog-friendly office.

Describe the state of your desk and what you can see in your office
My desk is in a converted garage next to our office. It’s a multipurpose space, serving as a meeting room, editing suite, podcast recording studio and film equipment storage area. When it’s warm, we can open the garage doors (we get some funny and curious looks from folks walking or driving by); otherwise, you can’t really look in.

At the moment my desk has various drafts of essays, scraps of paper with to-do lists, a copy of Richard Powers’s ‘The Overstory’ and a big stack of letters we include with each copy of the print edition that I need to sign (not sure how much longer that’s going to continue).

My desk tends to spill over to the nearby coffee table as well. Right now, it has a selection of art and photo books, including Thomas Joshua Cooper’s ‘The World’s Edge’, ‘The Pillar’ by Stephen Gill, and ‘A Dictionary of Color Combinations ’by Seigensha. Also, ‘The End of the End of the Earth’ essay collection by Jonathan Franzen, who we’re interviewing for our summer Apocalypse issue.

Which magazine do you first remember?
I’m sure I was first exposed to something like National Geographic, but the first magazine I remember caring about was Thrasher. I started skateboarding in London in the mid 80s as a kid and Thrasher was a bible. I think it was the only skate mag back then, and it offered up a monthly dose of inspiration. Later as a teenager, when I got into music and jazz, it was Downbeat.

Which magazine matters to you the most right now?
I read the New York Times Magazine most weeks (what they did with the ‘1619 Project’, above, was definitely the most inspiring thing I read in a magazine all year) and have an endlessly towering stack of New Yorkers I slowly make my way through.

But honestly for editorial inspiration I read more books than magazines. I just finished Barry Lopez’s brilliant and profound ‘Horizons’ and am currently reading Karen Armstrong’s ‘The Lost Art of Scripture’ and ‘Barkskins’ by Annie Proulx. I also watch short docs from the New York Times Op-Docs and Field of Vision. I’m really interested in multidisciplinary works like Burtynsky’s Anthropocene, where the mediums of print, film, VR, and a gallery exhibition offers audiences a multisensory experience.

It’s something we’re exploring here at Emergence, and we’ll have our first gallery exhibition next month in Melbourne. We’re transforming our forthcoming trees issue into VR experiences, botanical and aromatic installations, films, and live storytelling.

Can you describe your magazine in three words?
Too easy! It’s our tagline. Ecology, culture, and spirituality.

Your background is filmmaking; how did you come to be producing a magazine?
Well, I guess that also raises the question of how you define a magazine, something we are still trying to figure out, I think. We release a quarterly online edition, produce a podcast, an annual print edition, produce original films and VR, host events with film screenings and live storytelling and are now moving into gallery installations. In some ways, we’re as much a production company as we are a magazine. Some of the mediums we work with fit within a conventional magazine format—essays, poetry, photography—but a lot of what we do is documentary film and media and more closely tied to the work I’ve done as a filmmaker.

As a storyteller, I’ve always been interested in pairing different mediums together to create a unique storytelling experience. I’ve done some work in the past, developing online platforms or storytelling experiences that blend film with essays, photography, audio and interactive web experiences.

The idea of producing a magazine came from the desire to create a platform that combined all these mediums to create a compelling narrative experience and explore how to live in relationship with the living world in a rich and meaningful way. As creatively satisfying as it is to create your work, I find it equally, if not more satisfying to build a platform that invites diverse writers, filmmakers and artists into a space where they can explore ideas and create and share compelling and meaningful stories.

That said, it’s definitely been an interesting learning experience launching and running a magazine, especially with our foray into print. But I am blessed to have an amazing team that continually inspires me and helps me feel a little less blind.

Documentary film and jazz (what I did before filmmaking) are improvisational at their core, and I always like the challenge of being forced to learn through creating something. So my experience in those mediums and being comfortable improvising helped me feel comfortable launching Emergence (or at least pretending it would be fine).

One thing we talked about early on before the magazine launched was the desire for all the stories to all share a certain cinematic aesthetic, regardless of the medium. That definitely draws on my work in film.

Your magazine has existed online for a couple of years, posting content in quarterly ‘issues’. How do these issues work?
Each quarter we release an online issue comprised of 12-15 stories with a companion podcast series. Each issue explores a theme. Our last issue was on Food, with previous issues on themes like Language, Technology and Faith. Our next issue is on Trees. We release all the content online at once.

We released our first print edition, an annual, in September 2019. It pulls what we felt was the best work we published online from our first four issues into a print experience. It’s comprised not only of essays, interviews, poetry, and photography from those issues but also print adaptations of films, virtual reality, and multimedia experiences.

URLs are included with many of the stories directing readers, if they choose, to experience a film or multimedia version of the story they are reading in print. We also invited all of our writers to narrate their essays and direct readers to a link on the site where people can listen to stories if they feel to. We wanted to explore the relationship between digital and analogue and challenge ourselves to adapt stories from digital mediums to the world of print.

How do you want your readers to respond to Emergence?
I would say we’re trying to offer stories and experiences that can help us live in deeper connection with the living world. I believe that a story itself–the act of creating, reading or watching it–is a vehicle that creates change. Stories can have an alchemical magic to them, take you on a deep and powerful journey and shift your perspective.

It doesn’t have to result in an outer “action” or for example change your habits as a consumer or relationship to capitalism (although it might do that for some). In times of such uncertainty, climate breakdown, division and ecological devastation we need stories that can help us listen to the Earth and move beyond the human centric worldview that’s killing us to one that respects and embraces the non-human. And listening is indeed an “action” that can result in change and something we hope readers will be compelled to do.

We do offer a “practice” with each issue that’s inspired by one of the featured stories, offering a framework of how to translate listening into simple ways of being or actions. In our food issue it was a cookbook inspired by monastic cuisine and cooking with the seasons. For our language issue it was a practice for listening to the voices of birds.

For our wildness issue, it was a practice of learning how to listen to the silence (silence being the presence of non human generated sound). Through these practices we hope to inspire people to get offline, slow down and engage with the themes we’re exploring in a meaningful way with their communities and environment.

And generally if one of our stories inspires you to get outside, to be in nature and away from a screen, then that’s a win.

The print edition is a beautiful thing; what did you hope it would add to the overall project? And has it matched that hope?
As much as we love the web and digital storytelling, its nature is ephemeral. From the beginning, we always wanted to create a version of the magazine that you could hold in your hands, place in your lap, put in your backpack, and head to the woods with—one that would hopefully find a place of permanence on your bookshelf. It’s a vastly different experience to read a story, look at photography or artwork in print than it is to engage with it digitally. Print evokes a very different reaction and feeling, one that has a physicality the digital world can never recreate. Its like the difference between watching a film on your iPhone vs. in a film theater with a great projector and sound system. You can’t really compare them.

Online allows us to be accessible to a wide audience and explore the creative digital mediums the web offers. We do our best to create an online space that is a place to breathe. We’re ad free and have worked hard to try and create an online experience that encourages readers and visitors to the site to slow down. Slow consumption is a word we use a lot here. But print can do that without having to try, it just is.

I truly fell in love with the process of working with print over the last year and the experience exceeded my expectations. We’re very excited about continuing this exploration in volume two, due out this fall.

What’s going to be the highlight of your coming week?
I’m heading to Sundance for the premiere of a new AR piece/installation I’m involved in about air and breath.

Executive editor/filmmaker: Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee
Editors: Seana Quinn & Bethany Ritz
Art Director: Hannah Merriman

emergencemagazine.org


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