Art Papers  

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Sept/Oct 2014 issue:

Joyce Pensato

by Will Corwin

Defining Provincialism, the Primal Scene
by Terry Smith

Institutional Astrology
by Karen Tauches

The Zombies Are Real
by Kojo Griffin

A Local History of the Paranormal from Ichabod Crane to the Kinderhook Creature
by Christopher Kline

White Walkers #SnowJam2014

by Paul Boshears

Jay Kinney's Gnosis Magazine

Text / Victoria Camblin

Gnosis was a print quarterly devoted to Western esotericism. It closed 15 years ago, around the time of Silicon Valley's first dot-com boom. Here, Jay Kinney, the journal's founder, speaks about Gnosis' genesis, its contributions to the field of occult and spiritual studies, and its relationship to technology. Gnosis was a special-interest magazine conceived in northern California alongside the first Macintosh computers and laser printers; among many other things, it is an example of a seldom discussed shared history between alternative press and the development of the technologies that have been seen both to enable and to undermine it.

left to right: Bijou Funnies #1 (Fall 1968), illustration Jay Lynch;
page from Bijou Funnies #1 (Fall 1968) [all images courtesy Jay Kinney]

The San Francisco author and editor Jay Kinney was active as a cartoonist during the heyday of the American underground comix scene in the 1970s: he edited the "adults only" satire Young Lust alongside Zippy the Pinhead's Bill Griffith, and his work appeared in Bijou Funnies, where the editorial crew included Jay Lynch, Skip Williamson, and R. Crumb. Kinney's shift away from art in the 1980s led him to an editorial position at CoEvolution Quarterly, a spin-off of Stewart Brand's legendary Whole Earth Catalog—the counterculture publication that functioned as a tool to make "the complete information on anything" available at readers' fingertips. To many, Brand's efforts prefaced the Internet in content and in form, and Steve Jobs compared the Whole Earth Catalog to the Google search engine in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University. Brand's Whole Earth associate Kevin Kelly went on to found Wired magazine in 1993; Kinney had meanwhile created Gnosis, a nonprofit quarterly "Journal of the Western Inner Traditions" produced out of San Francisco from 1985 to 1999. In the fields of both publishing and occult studies, Gnosis was unique in its relatively wide distribution, and its breadth of both academic and subcultural influence; its themed issues covered topics such as "Alchemy," "[Carl] Jung and the Unconscious," "Sex and Spirituality," "Pop Culture and the Esoteric," and "The Grail."

Gnosis was, perhaps unexpectedly, also one of the first publications to use desktop publishing software. Kinney, who has studied and practiced Gnosticism, Sufism, and, most recently, Freemasonry, now serves on the board of directors of the International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals, a nonprofit effort to digitize and make available spiritualist and occult newspapers, magazines, and journals, many of which have been discarded by libraries. He currently contributes to California Freemason, a bimonthly magazine for the Grand Lodge of California, most recently with an article about Freemasonry and academia, where esotericism and theosophy are re-emerging as fields of scholarly interest.

left to right: Weirdo #4 (Winter 1981-1982), art director + illustration Robert Crumb; Occult Laff-Parade #1 (Summer 1973), art director + illustration Jay Kinney [all images courtesy Jay Kinney]

Victoria Camblin: Have you ever encountered any stigma around the term "spirituality"?

Jay Kinney: I suppose that depends on which crowd you're hanging with! A lot of people think of spirituality as being interested in what's going on in the universe, being interested in the deeper connection in things—without having to be associated with a particular religion or theology. Many people use the word "spirituality" in order to avoid having to talk about religion, because I think religion tends to be an "either/or" thing: you're either "with us" or "against us." That's how a lot of religions seem to look at it: "You either believe what we believe, or you're a heathen ... an infidel!"

VC: Right—it's dogma.

JK: When I started publishing Gnosis, I avoided using the term "spirituality" in the subtitle of the magazine, and just referred to it as "A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions." That was ambiguous enough so that people could read what they wanted into it. "Inner" in the sense of esoteric—in the sense of "hidden"—or in the sense of that dichotomy between esoteric and exoteric. Part of what we covered in the magazine was spiritual, part of it was mystical, part of it was occult. I think you can make a case for both occult and mystical subjects to be seen as esoteric, because they're not the mainstream expression of a religion or a spirituality—instead, they're the inner essence of it; they're both focused on the experience of the individual, the inner experience.

VC: Can you say a little bit about how you came to publish Gnosis? You were an artist and cartoonist; later, you were involved with the Whole Earth Catalog—where does the interest in esotericism fit into this path and your relationship to some very important moments and countercurrents in print culture?

JK: From an early age I was very interested in publishing and editing. In elementary school I put out a neighborhood newspaper—I could squeeze out five copies of an issue with a typewriter and carbon paper. I was also very interested in Mad magazine, which started just around the time I learned to read. I came upon it and was blown away.
   When I graduated high school in 1968, the underground comix movement was just getting under way. By happenstance I was in touch with a couple of cartoonists in Chicago who were involved in starting Bijou Funnies, which was one of the earliest underground comix. I was invited to be in the first issue, and for much of the 1970s I was very involved in that scene. The movement peaked around 1974 or 1975, but went on into the 80s, and I stuck with it. I couldn't make a living off comics, though.
   Stewart Brand, the genius behind the Whole Earth Catalog, had seen a "silent" comic strip I had done in 1975 that he really liked—it was all pictures, no word balloons—so he invited me to contribute a three- or four-page comic to CoEvolution Quarterly, a Whole Earth Catalog spin-off. Then I started writing for the magazine and joined the production staff doing paste-up—now a totally obsolete practice. One thing led to another, and by 1983, Stewart—who had been editor all of that time and was ready to start concentrating on other projects—was looking for editors to take over at CoEvolution. Art Kleiner would edit one issue, then I would edit the next. That went on through 1984. The first issue of Gnosis came out in 1985. There was no money to speak of; it was all done on $2,500. I had one employee, and we were operating out of my house.

left to right: Gnosis #1 (Fall/Winter 1985), art director Rebecca Wilson, illustration Alex Grey; Gnosis #21 (Fall 1991), art director Rebecca Wilson, illustration D. Papety; Gnosis #27 (Spring 1993), art director Tony Lane, illustration Fra Angelico & Norman Rockwell homage;

VC: Did you ever make any money?

JK: Sure. We were forced to shut Gnosis down because of financial circumstances—partly associated with the first dot-com boom here in San Francisco—but by that time the gross income of the magazine was about a third of a million dollars a year. I was able to make a decent living from it and pay decent wages to the staff.
   The only problem was that we tended to run into a financial crisis about once a year when one of our distributors would go bankrupt, owing us tens of thousands of dollars we never saw. I would have to write a letter to subscribers, asking if they could make donations or renew their subscriptions ahead of time. Usually with one of those letters I could raise $20,000 and get us out of the jam. If it hadn't been for the support of the readers, we wouldn't have been able to keep going.

VC: So shutting down was a question of historical circumstances?

JK: I think it was lucky that we started the magazine when we did, and it was a [favorable] time to shut it down, too. That period between 1985 and 1999/2000 was a heyday for small magazines and independent distributors who were often focused on a single city: Seattle had a small distributor doing magazines like Vegetarian Times and Yoga Journal. It was also the heyday of independent bookstores, and that was where a lot of the distributors placed their magazines.
   By the time we had to shut down in 1999, independent bookstores were under pressure from Barnes & Noble and Borders. Even though those bookstores had marvelous magazine sections—which was great for magazine junkies—financially they were not that great for us.

VC: The sequel being that those big chains didn't last. Independent bookstores have lasted longer in the battle with Amazon than Borders did. Now I feel that print magazines are having a kind of renaissance—you have stores full of independent special semi-annuals.

JK: Gnosis actually came out twice a year for the first two years—partly just to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, and because we could only manage to pay the printer every six months. Since that was a slower cycle than most magazines, the independent distributors could actually sell out of Gnosis. That was a tremendous boon that helped give us the funds to push us along.
   But when I had to shut Gnosis down 15 years later, I couldn't even go near a newsstand for three or four years afterwards, the whole thing was so traumatic.

VC: I have this theory that society's interest in esoterica spikes during periods of technological progress. In the late 19th century you had an Industrial Revolution, and you also had a resurgence of occult societies, the tarot came back, the mysteries of Ancient Egypt were all the rage. Now, with the tech industry boom, you have dot-commers going to healing ceremonies, and so on. I can't help but think of the paths of the Whole Earth team: one direction gave us Wired, and the other, Gnosis, as though technology and inner traditions came out of the margins together.

JK: Gnosis was certainly a continuation of the underground media in the 60s and early 70s, when you had cultural permission to make untraditional or alternative publications, and the sense that there might well be enough of an audience so you could get by. Underground newspapers were also made feasible by the fact that you had web offset presses starting to become available all over the country. If the printers weren't totally freaked out by the content, then you had relatively cheap means to publish a weekly newspaper. So the underground press really benefited from that technological development.

VC: Did that impact the format, too?

JK: I more or less based the first issues of Gnosis on Weirdo magazine, which was published by Last Gasp [an underground comix publisher] and had been edited for several years by R. Crumb. I basically used the same page size, the same cover stock and interior paper, and we could gang up color covers in the same press run: Gnosis could do a cover run with an issue of Weirdo or some other Last Gasp publication. So my involvement with underground comix made it possible to fit Gnosis into an arrangement with the printer where we only had to pay for half or a quarter of the color cover run.
   In terms of industrial or cultural changes, the first issue of Gnosis coincided with the year Aldus introduced the PageMaker page-makeup software, which we used to do one or two of the articles in the very first issue of Gnosis. We were one of the first magazines on newsstands to have desktop-published layouts.

VC: That's incredible for an independent special-interest magazine. Were these alternative publications at the technological forefront just because of your proximity to the tech industry in California?

JK: Well, Stewart Brand had the idea of jumping on the bandwagon with PCs and Macs, which were just starting in 1984. He got in tight with the PR firm that was promoting the very first Macintosh, so I had the opportunity through Whole Earth to get one of the first 128K Macs at a discount—though it was still something like $3,500 bucks—to get the first Apple laser printer, and a beta version of PageMaker that had been provided to Whole Earth to try out and review in anticipation of its imminent release.
   I was the one who ended up learning PageMaker and doing a sort of trial run on it for a section of The Whole Earth Software Catalog, which came together around that time.
   I have to say, the beta version of PageMaker that I was working with was maddening. It would crash every two minutes, I would have to save constantly or I would lose my work—and I was saving to floppy discs!

left to right: Gnosis #29 (Fall 1993), art directors Richard N. Carter & David Gilmore, illustration Alex Grey; Gnosis #32 (Summer 1994), art director David Gilmore, illustration Steve Postman; Gnosis #35 (Spring 1995), art director David Gilmore, illustration anonymous

VC: Wasn't that too cutting-edge for the local alternative printers? There must have been technological discrepancies.

JK: There was an outfit over in Berkeley called Krishna Copy that had been just a Xerox shop, but they got the prototype Compugraphic machine that would take PageMaker files and print out the results on photographic paper at relatively high resolution. So we would design the whole issue in PageMaker and then go to Krishna Copy and sit around while they were running out the pages from our files. That was what we did for several years, until the resolution on laser printers got high enough to go in-house. We ran out the pages on the laser printer and pasted them up on boards and took those to the printer. From 1985 to 1999, all those issues were still pasted up, even though towards the end we had switched to QuarkXPress, and our printer was trying to arrange things so they could accept files directly. We used a lot of oddball cheap fonts the printer didn't have, and we would get quirky little ads sent to us as printouts. It was simpler to just paste everything down on page layout boards and send those to the printers.

VC: So would you say that Gnosis continued the Whole Earth philosophy, which was all about "access to tools"?

JK: Yes—we were sort of a bridge between the two eras in publishing. In my utilitarian philosophy, encouraged by having to have an issue done every three months, there wasn't a huge margin to experiment.

VC: You had some quite big names early on, too. An early issue of Gnosis featured previously unpublished work by Philip K. Dick.

JK: I had been into science fiction in high school and college, and I was involved in science fiction fandom—also an arena where people published zines. Philip K. Dick had been my favorite science fiction writer. Art Spiegelman was one of the two editors of Arcade magazine, which was an attempt to take underground comics and put them in a well-designed, hopefully "newsstand" magazine, but which ultimately failed. Spiegelman had solicited a story from Phil Dick for Arcade, and given it to me to illustrate. I did so, but when it came time to publish it, he decided Dick's story wasn't really good enough, so he bounced it (and, by association, my illustrations). They sat unpublished for 10 years, and I still had the art and the manuscript of the story. Phil Dick died just around the time that Gnosis was getting off the ground, and his literary executor gave us permission to use the story in Gnosis. So that was the first place it saw print—through this interweaving of connections between underground comix and science fiction fandom.

VC: A very interdisciplinary network of contributors—members of the science fiction community, artists, scholars of all kinds, and multihyphenates like Robert Anton Wilson and Joscelyn Godwin—came together around Gnosis' special focus. Are the "inner traditions" unique as a cultural vector?

JK: There's definitely something there. When I went to World Cons [World Science Fiction Conventions] in the 1970s, Tim Zell and his wife would be there, and they founded the Church of All Worlds—a pagan religion developed out of Robert Heinlein's 1961 science fiction novel, A Stranger in a Strange Land. There are also things that grew out of science fiction and fantasy that were then intertwined with the development of the Internet: a lot of the people at universities who were involved with the earliest versions of the Internet and networking on campuses were science fiction fans. They were like, okay, we're developing the future— we're making science fiction come true!    Once the Internet opened up, it was no longer under the control of the science fiction-reading IT people at universities. The science fiction/fantasy/horror pop culture of the 1970s and 1980s became mainstream. This little subculture gave way to Star Wars.

VC: Where does the horror genre fit into this cultural trajectory? There's always been something of a mainstream connection there, with these lurid newsstand thrillers, "penny dreadfuls," and so on.

JK: Horror writers at the turn of the 20th century were also interested and involved in the occult, and it shows up in places like Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu novels and occult suspense potboilers.    I would say the 1970s into the 80s was the real golden era of occult publishing, though. You had the British publisher Aquarian Press then, and it was the best era of Samuel Weiser books. That was part of what gave me inspiration for Gnosis. There were all of these books coming out, but there was no place for them to be reviewed. SUNY [State University of New York] Press did a great series for many years on Western esotericism; they would send us books to review, and also buy ads in the magazine, so we were supporting this field, and in turn they were supporting us.    The vision with Gnosis was also that we weren't going to engage in back-patting: we did honest reviews, so if the book wasn't up to snuff, we said that. I think that was appreciated by publishers and gave us a reputation for integrity. It made Gnosis the go-to magazine to find out what was being published—not everyone lived in a town that had an occult bookstore!

left to right: Gnosis #36 (Summer 1995), art director David Gilmore, illustration Irene Belknap; Gnosis #39 (Spring 1996), art director David Gilmore, illustration Tennessee Rice; Gnosis #41 (Fall 1996), art director David Gilmore, illustration Steve Postman

VC: You were a critical voice in a sphere that I imagine could be as insular and favoritist as the contemporary art world.

JK: We really tried to keep ourselves from being too entangled with any one group or organization. We were nonsectarian with the approach we took, some issues were more occult-oriented, some were more mystical, others were interested in Jungian psychology. All of these different things were part of the mix. Around 1978/1979 the Nag Hammadi scriptures were finally translated into English, and Elaine Pagels wrote The Gnostic Gospels, a readable scholarly discussion of early Christian Gnosticism, and it became a best seller. Phil Dick had his mystical "pink beam" experience and was writing about it around that time. There was a numinous aura to a lot of these things that seemed to bubble up around 1980.

VC: Gnosis did an issue on "The Spirituality of America" in the 1990s, and something in the introduction questioned the spiritual nature of puritanical American religion, and its popular reception. I would be curious to hear your thoughts on how these various traditions are being reflected in contemporary culture. "Religion" seems to be behind every discussion both here and abroad, for instance.

JK: Ironically, maybe a year or two after Gnosis went under, interest in a lot of the esoteric topics we had featured—the Divine Feminine, secret societies—surged, resulting in the Dan Brown phenomenon. I think it has cooled off, but it has taken on other permutations, say with hip-hop artists claiming to be members of the Illuminati.

VC: I've often thought that the person with consistent esoteric interests—regardless of the particular tradition—is research-oriented. You have to dig around for information, and a lot of it is archival.

JK: Certainly for some people, though, it's also experiential.

VC: Maybe that's research, too, though—research into the self, looking inward as well as looking back in time? There is a quote in the Gnosis archives online about how most of the literature on secret societies is "out there," but remains a "secret just" because no one's read it.

JK: If I consider the subtitle of Gnosis—"A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions"—there was an implicit concept of "Tradition." Certain teachings or occultist perspectives have been handed down over centuries. It's not something someone came up with last week, and I think that's something that a lot of people find attractive.
   These days stuff arises out of some Hollywood studio's brainstorm; culture in general doesn't have many long-lasting values. Maybe, say, evangelical Christians do, but to me that's about propagating the "outer shell," too.

VC: So the distinction, then, is almost about a certain criticality—the esotericist has a desire to go "deeper" in some way?

JK: My premise with Gnosis was that if you went to the inner essence of any religious or spiritual tradition, it tended to be similar. I won't say the "same," but it seemed to me that the experiences that Hindu, Catholic, and Sufi mystics spoke of had more in common than any exoteric religious practices [do]. You can see that with Thomas Merton, who was a Trappist monk, yet very mystically oriented. He studied Taoism, Buddhism, Sufism, and Hinduism, and found a common language. That's where we were coming from—regardless of individual religion or path or tradition—Gnosis served a common ground.

VC: I was at a conference on occultism recently, and an astrologer-turned-scholar completely rejected my theory that we ever see spikes in interest in occultism or esotericism. He said it has always been consistently there, and that any apparent increase or decrease is completely subjective.

JK: I think there are real "ups" and "downs." One of my favorite books is Joscelyn Godwin's The Theosophical Enlightenment. It basically shows that throughout the course of the 19th century there was an interest in esoteric and occult subjects. There's a certain constant average level of interest, but if you plot out the number of spiritual publications in existence at a given time, you could make a bar graph that rises and falls like a stock market bar graph. Whether that's part of some greater cycle, who knows?

Victoria Camblin is the editor and artistic director of ART PAPERS.

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