On Wednesday, the forty-eight-year-old San Francisco Bay Guardian announced that it would shut its doors, effective immediately. A report on the Bay Area blog SFist quotes SFBG publisher Glenn Zuehls as saying, “Unfortunately, [...] the obstacles for a profitable Bay Guardian are too great to overcome.” This, despite the SFBG’s wide popularity and the vast wealth that exists in the region.
The circumstances of this terminus are echoed in an interview between Art Papers‘ Editor/Artistic Director Victoria Camblin and Jay Kinney, the founder of the journal Gnosis, which operated in San Francisco from 1985 to 1999. In the excerpt below, the two discuss spirituality, technology, and alternative publishing. This article was originally published in the Sept/Oct 2014 issue of Art Papers.
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 by Jay Lynch;
page from Bijou Funnies #1 (Fall 1968). Images courtesy Jay Kinney.
Victoria Camblin: 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.
Jay Kinney: 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: Gnosiscould 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!
Read the full interview here.