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Q&A: Gemma Warren and Vanessa Runions, Carbon Paper (Toronto)

by Tracy Stefanucci

Gemma Warren and Vanessa Runions are Co-Founders of Carbon Paper, an art magazine that is available for free around the city of Toronto. Described by Warren and Runions as “a smart, sneaky and sexy little number, guaranteed for laughs, intellectual conversation and critical responses,” the magazine proclaims to be a “stage for debates, dialogues and response.” Carbon Paper is an exhibitor at the 2014 Vancouver Art/Book Fair, where you too can pick up a free copy.

Project Space: What inspired you to start Carbon Paper?

Carbon Paper: We worked together on an arts publication in our final year of university. After graduation we noticed there was very little dialogue about art in Toronto within the city itself. Essentially, if you weren’t in the scene you were an outsider, and an insular environment is never good for growth.

We weren’t really sure what Carbon would look like, but we knew we wanted to break the academic mould that often stifles most established art publications. After our first launch it was pretty evident there was a need for something like Carbon. We offered new editorial space that was free of the conservative expectations of many other arts publications. And with an emphasis on locality, we were able to offer a more focused perspective.Screen Shot 2014-08-29 at 11.15.20 PM

PS: What need does the magazine fulfill in Toronto’s artistic community?

CP: I think it is more about what Carbon represents. The publication provides an opportunity for contributors to shed the weight of institutional expectations. Too many writers and artists are held back because they feel the need to be overly polite and congenial. Not that we want people to be mean, but honesty is constructive even if it stings. There is nothing wrong with being honest, and I think we offer a space where it’s ok to do that—we support it, encourage it. If we could all be a little less timid, I think we would be living in a very different city.

PS: What kind of debates, dialogues, responses and conversations take place in Carbon Paper? Any recent examples?

CP: Two examples come to mind, the first being an article we published in our second issue titled “A Commoner’s Guide to the Galleries.” A journalist, with very little connection to the art world, made her way to several Toronto galleries aiming to test reactions to her as an art-world outsider. The results were varied, but the writer was met with more than one cold shoulder once she revealed to the gallerists that she knew nothing about art. After the issue was released, a local gallery published its own “guide to the galleries” in response to that piece. It wasn’t in opposition to what we printed, but it was a great alternative perspective, and the beginning of an important conversation.

The second example that comes to mind is the format we’ve recently adopted for our exhibition reviews section. Along with the more traditional reviews format, we’ve decided to shake things up a bit and experiment with a format that supports dialogue. Our newest issue includes a review written as a conversation between two writers. It’s reminiscent of the Siskel and Ebert approach, but in regards to art writing. The resulting review is exactly what we were looking for: conversational, critical and an exercise in plurality.

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PS: How does being a free magazine affect your publication and, ultimately, who your audience is?

CP: Being a free publication affects us in several ways, good and bad. Because Carbon Paper is free, we don’t qualify for most publishing grants, which means we rely on fundraising and ad sales. Being reliant on ad sales can be tricky—we don’t want to censor our writers for the sake of our advertisers, and if we print a scathing review of a recent show, we risk losing a potential ad sale from that gallery. But if we charge for the publication, we limit access to it. We want Carbon Paper to be accessible and available to everyone—it’s in our mandate.

Fingers crossed we find a loophole in the granting system. I’m sure our accessibility affects who reads the publication, but there’s no real way to know how because we’re still so new. Some people see value only in monetary terms, and I don’t think those people would consider our publication worth much because there’s no price tag attached to it. Our worth is in our purpose, and we really believe in what we’re doing. Our audience has grown a lot since our first issue, and that’s evident through social media and at the events we host. The people reading our publication aren’t just picking it up because it’s free—they’re actively participating in the process, and that’s the best possible outcome.

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PS: How would you describe the artists’ publishing community in Toronto?

CP: There’s a strong publishing presence in Toronto, but I don’t think it’s evolved into a community yet; it’s still pretty disparate. I could name seven or eight really solid arts publications being produced in the city, but there’s very little communication between them. Part of that is an assumed competition, as if we can’t all get along because we’re fighting for the attention of the same audience, grants and advertisers. But if we joined forces and supported each other—like a community—we’d be much better off. I suppose all good things take time, and I’m just happy people are still motivated to produce art publications, because it’s definitely not easy.

PS: Who are some of your favourite artists or publishers right now?

CP: We’re lucky enough to have Art Metropole in the city. They’ve been amazing supporters of Carbon. Art Met is small but they get shit done so it’s nice to have them on our side. In terms of artists, Toronto has some really incredible names up there right now. You can grab our third issue to see what artists we have our eyes on…

Images: Courtesy of Carbon Paper