21C Magazine’s Ashley Crawford – Mediapunk interview

Ashley Crawford

Richard Metzger called 21C his favorite magazine of the 90s and “The most unabashedly intellectual and forward-thinking journal that I have ever seen, anywhere.” Editor Ashley Crawford joined the magazine in 1990 when the magazine was still a publication of Australian Commission For The Future “a comparatively short-lived governmental entity.” Ashley took the magazine international with the help of publishing house Gordon & Breach in 1994. The magazine continued in this form until 1999. After a short lived online revival helmed by Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky) in the early 00s, the magazine went back into long-term hiatus.

Now it’s back in a new digital form. Ashley was kind enough to answer a few questions about the magazine’s past, present, and future for the inaugural Mediapunk interview.

You can read the magazine online here or follow them on Twitter here.

How did you get involved in 21C? Were you the editor from the beginning or were you brought on later? Were you involved the Australian Commission For The Future before 21C?

OK, strange history. 21C was already up and running and had, from memory, two editors before me. I was running an independent arts/culture magazine called Tension. It was actually in the process of folding when the Commission for the Future approached me to take over. The Commission was a government body and the magazine was funded accordingly. I worked under the government structure editing the magazine from 1990-93 in that version and even then, although it had a strong Australian flavor, it was beginning to tackle cyberspace, information overload, virtual reality etc.

In 1994 I was approached by a Swiss-based international company, Gordon & Breach, who wanted to start an international art magazine – World Art. I accepted but didn’t really want to let go of 21C and so organized a take-over of the magazine. Accordingly I ended up editing and publishing a revised version of the title from 1994 to 1999. Given we were suddenly international in scope I made the most of it and approached folk I’d been a fan of for some time, amongst them such people as J.G. Ballard, William Gibson, Kathy Acker, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, John Shirley, Mark Dery, Andrew Ross, R.U. Sirius, Claudia Springer, McKenzie Wark, Darren Tofts, Michael Moorcock, Thurston Moore, Erik Davis and others. To my utter amazement they all responded enthusiastically.

How different was the 1990-93 version from the 1994-1999 version?

Extremely. The earlier version was extremely parochial with a strong Australian flavor. We changed the format and structure entirely. The earlier version had a strong socio-political flavor whereas the second version, while maintaining some of that eg; covering Noam Chomsky, tended towards the more speculative which you can see in the selection on that archive site up now. The posthuman, cyberpunk etc.

In the newer material we tend to be going weirdly post-cyber. Where once it was replicants and cyborgs now it seems to be zombies. Where once it was the glittering on-line (albeit wonderfully gritty) world of Neuromancer and Snow Crash, today it seems to be the blasted wilderness of Cormac McCarthy, Brian Evenson and Brian Conn or the strange, fantastical but distinctly visceral rituals of Ben Marcus or Matthew Derby.

What was your background before 21C?

Actually I was trained as an old-fashioned reporter on a newspaper before the days of training in universities – trained on the street as it were. Never attended uni although I’ve lectured in innumerable colleges around the world. Age 17 saw my first slaughtered body on a police rounds job – a poor women cut into a million pieces – long story. Probably did insurmountable damage to a young mind. This was, mind you, 1979, and being threatened by the mafia etc, was part of the job. Fear, adrenalin, alcohol, nicotine and speed were part of the job. Then I got assigned to writing on rock music where fear, adrenalin, alcohol, nicotine and speed were ESSENTIAL to the job. Try snorting cocaine with Ian Drury, trying to out-drink Mark E.Smith or getting thrown into jail with Nick Cave as starting points…

But I was always attracted to the mind-games of folk like Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard. Then along came the cyberpunks and through 21C I had the opportunity to meet and/or correspond with some incredible minds; Ballard, Acker, Gibson, etc. There is a kind of adrenalin / challenge to addressing such folk – sadly they’re rarities in our world.

In the early 00s, Paul D. Miller edited two issues of a new, online edition of 21C – what happened with that, and how did the new version come about? Why now?

The DJ Spooky combo came about when a long-term 21C contributor, Mark Dery, invited me on-board as executive editor of a magazine he’d taken editorship of called Artbyte in New York in 2001 shortly after 21C had died in its print-form. Dery had fantastic ambitions for Artbyte but unfortunately the publisher was, to say the least, eccentric. We didn’t stand a chance.

Paul was an contributor to Artbyte. When 21C died he asked if I would be happy for him to try and get it running on-line and I said why not? But of course Paul’s busily running around the world being DJ Spooky and simply couldn’t put the energy into it to do anything but maintain a fairly token presence.

Ever since 21C passed away people have been asking me for back issues or how to source specific articles. It’s been driving me nuts. Also I keep coming across things that I’d love to see covered more thoroughly. Most recently, the plethora of writers of decidedly post-cyberpunk dystopic fiction that I’ve tentatively dubbed Apocalypse Noir in the current issue.

21C Apocalypse Noir

What have you been up to since 21C folded?

Predominantly freelancing in the realms of visual art and travel, soaking up alien cultures in as real a way as is possible in the wired world. Been spending a fair bit of time with Australian indigenous people in the bush, discovering their totally unique culture(s). A lot of newspaper and magazine work.

Magazines and other publications have been rushing iPad apps out the door. Will we be seeing 21C in the App Store?

We’re looking at that right now. I’d love to see it as an App. But I’d also love to see it as hard copy. We have a lot to sort out and, as Mark Dery has pointed out, at the moment it’s just white heterosexual grumpy men featured, so we have to address that urgently.

And on the subject of the iPad – do you see the future of magazines in e-readers of various types?

I still cherish the notion of magazines – and more particularly books – as object. 21C was fairly renowned for its design and illustration and I have yet to see an equivalent on-screen. I’m also concerned that reading substantial articles/essays on-screen is somewhat tiring – maybe that’s generational – but a great deal of what is published on line is intentionally brief – attention spans are getting slighter and slighter to the point that a celebrity telling the world that she burped after breakfast is a hot ticket on Twitter. I’m more of a fan of the approach taken by Harper’s or The New Yorker – not necessarily the subject matter, but the intelligence and effort put into the research and argument. The kind of approach you see in 21C by such writers as Mark Dery and Erik Davis. It’s all too rare in this age.

Can you do that on an iPad? We’ll know soon enough I hope.

I was going to say – there’s something of a new renaissance in indie magazines right now – stuff like Dodgem Logic, Coilhouse, and Steampunk Magazine. They’re all quite successful in their own right, though I’m not sure how many people’s livelihood each of them is able to support. And then there’s stuff like Lulu and Mag Cloud that enable people to get into print with very low risk. So it’s a surprisingly exciting time for print.

Are there any magazines coming out right now that you’re fond of?

I love parts of lots of magazines but few of them have the depth that I hanker for. A part of that is the twitter age of low concentration spans. A part of it is lack of first-hand training. A part of it is a lack of decent pay – few writers can afford to take weeks off to do decent research. I wish something like Steampunk or Coilhouse (or 21C for that matter) had the resources of the New Yorker… we can but dream…

One issue of Coilhouse actually had a piece that had originally been published online years before called “Dark Miracle” by Joshua Ellis (still available here). It was a piece of long form journalism that was “crowdfunded” (before the term had been invented, I think, and way before Kickstarter). I think that’s probably where longer form journalism is headed, especially for the indies – it’s gonna have to be paid for by someone in advance. Two of my big interests right now are “journalist as brand” and “journalism as a service” (as opposed to product).

I can only speak for myself here, but I have a terrible attention span – I’ve always got dozens of browser tabs open, I’m constantly on Twitter and I was a smart phone “early adopter.” But I still read long form journalism (from places like The New Yorker and The Atlantic and Vanity Fair) and even entire books on my laptop and Blackberry. It usually takes me a while, because I’m dividing up my attention, but I do it. So I do think there’s at least some audience there.

Speaking of distractions – have a read of this – I think it’s pertinent to our discussion.

Again only speaking for myself: I’ve been having better luck focusing on reading on mobile devices – my Blackberry and my iPod Touch. There’s just less less stuff going on on them, and I can curl up on the couch and read. That’s something I think is encouraging about dedicated devices like the Kindle – they should make it easier to focus on reading longer pieces. I’m not that worried about arguments about those sorts of devices being “passive” – sometimes it’s best to be passive for a little while.

I did notice something this morning that may be pertinent. It’s my habit to have a read of the New York Times every morning on-line. This morning there was a large and shifting bright red Coca Cola add to one side. It made it impossible to concentrate on the text. Ads in old-style newspapers don’t move and, although they may work subliminally, they’re fairly easy to ignore. The Coke ad on-line was a constant distraction making it impossible to ignore and, indeed, making it impossible to complete an article and after a minute or so I gave up and quit the NY Times altogether for the day. If this is the future of on-line advertising then not only print is dead, so is reading.

What advice would you give young professional journalists? What advice would you give “citizen journalists” in terms of learning the ropes?

I’ve done quite a lot of mentoring for younger writers in recent years. Almost all of them seemed bogged down in an academic approach where each and every word seemed to pose a problem rather than a pleasure. We seem to have two extremes – one is university speak which is unbearable, the other is border-line illiteracy. The first rule of thumb is GET YOUR FACTS RIGHT. The second is the old maxim, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE AND WHY. Don’t assume all your readers know who or what you are referring to.


  1. so i clicked the link to laura miller’s book review in salon and… was met with a screen-covering advert that i could not close… for a print subscription to the economist. i get those in the mail too, probably because my subscriptions for Harper’s, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic (where i originally read Nicholas Carr’s article, incidentally) make me an obvious mark. *sigh*

  2. Marshall Kirkpatrick

    May 23, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    I feel like I have some more reading to do, after reading this. Looking forward to it.

  3. Aaron Goldberg

    June 8, 2010 at 11:48 am

    Geez Ashley Crawford hasn’t heard of ‘ad block plus’ to get rid of Coke ads?? What sort of cyberpunk is he? Obviously spending his money on shitty corp. tech no doubt.

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