Cornerfold reinivigorates new writing

Simon Sellars

The New York Times recently posited that only 2 things succeed on the internet: shopping, as perfected by Amazon and searching, as perfected by Google (pornography could be added, too, perfected by everyone). The Times (May 11, 2003) paints a flat, numb panorama, with creative pursuits and the promise of genuinely new media levelled by e-commerce. The pestilence of spam is a direct illustration of this—base levels of consumerism replicating themselves and subsuming online space with exhortations to buy, sell, consume.

Is the net really dead as a viable medium for original artistic concepts? In Australia, our arts bodies seem to have a waning interest in online content. The Victorian Government’s launch of 6 new digital media funds, while positive, is skewed towards animation and game platforms (there’s a brief deference to internet content under these categories). But the net has obvious potential for interaction and collaborative action that is done a disservice by this abduction into the arena of “things that move”—animation and film.

Cornerfold, an SBS website, subverts this impetus by melding comic art and zine-style writing with multimedia techniques. Cornerfold editor, Michele Sabto, defines zines (including some comics) as “independent, not-for-profit self-publications made for love, not money.” She points to a developing trend in Australian zine and comic publishing: the switch from punk-style anti-establishment rants to autobiographical writing—immediate, short reflections on everyday life, but still resolutely non-commercial. It’s an aesthetic she says is ideal for the web—and it’s the stuff of Cornerfold.

Initially Sabto wanted to publish examples of Australian zine writing as a stand-alone e-book for Palm Pilots. “But no one really thought e-books would go anywhere,” she recalls. “Then I took the idea to Film Victoria and they put me with a great program manager, David Tiley, who’s no longer there (because they don’t really have program managers any more). He said, ‘Why not do it as rich media?’ So we reworked the whole thing and that was really valuable because David guided me through the entire process.”

Tiley recommended the joint SBS/Film Victoria fund. Sabto then met Suzie Hoban, SBS’s New Media supervisor, and discovered that the reworked proposal fell in neatly with the broadcaster’s new media aims. “SBS want to position themselves towards the youth market,” she says. “They have this particular idea that they’re a niche publisher and so the whole ethos of Cornerfold really appealed.”

But Cornerfold is not simply a writers’ platform. For the site’s art director, Dylan Nichols, “it’s about content-driven multimedia. In terms of what’s out there that’s similar, the closest would be Born magazine, but that doesn’t have the zine focus. Born is high art and more experimental, and a lot of the pieces aren’t really that cohesive.”

Cornerfold consists of the cornerfold ezine, featuring writing and comic art commissioned by Sabto (each edited piece is given to a designer who builds a visual complement in consultation with the writer); 2 web logs: pixelstories, for visual essays, and like it is, for text (anyone can post to these, although they are vetted by Sabto); swap, run by the designers, with the aim of pitching writers and artists together in “madcap creative schemes”; and spit it out, a discussion forum. Cornerfold is themed and renewed every 5 weeks—all components must address the theme and the word limit is 800.

A recent highlight was “Jesus Christ: A Who Weekly Tribute”, a Flash-built piece written by Melissa Sorini and designed by Adam Horne. Sorini’s insights on celebrity culture were presented as a hand-drawn tome, with flippable pages. When certain highlighted words were clicked, mesh-like illustrations draped over the page to reveal hidden meanings in the text.

The piece’s execution demonstrates Cornerfold’s mission to reinvigorate web-based writing. As Nichols and his fellow designers (all from the Forecast Project collective) are keenly aware, reading lengthy text from a computer screen can be quite a chore. For Nichols, “it’s a hard balance to have an 800-word text on the screen and keep it interesting, and to also have movement and animation while not being too literal or too filmic. We distil key themes and ideas and try to keep the reader interested as well.”

That approach has paid off. Sabto points to very positive feedback that has “picked up on the design. There’s a lot of writing on the internet, but it’s rare for good design and writing to come together coherently. Sites driven by authors tend to have images whacked on as an afterthought, and sites driven by designers tend to be too conceptual.”

Is there tension in the idea of a corporation like SBS co-opting “independent, non-commercial” art forms? According to Sabto, “It’s all in the way it’s done. The pieces aren’t massaged or commissioned to fit some marketing person’s idea of what the ‘target market’ wants. For Cornerfold authors, getting paid doesn’t mean selling out—it just means they’re being remunerated for their efforts for a change.”

Cornerfold has successfully built a welcoming online community for new writers, and has introduced many of those writers to new avenues for publishing their work. Sabto and her team demonstrate that the internet’s potential for artistic expression isn’t limited to porn, or to heavy design that treats text as just another graphic. And although Cornerfold’s web future is finite (funding is for 9 issues; there are 4 to go), it will live on—SBS plans to repackage selected pieces as television “interstitials” (short blocks between programs), and there’s talk of a print anthology.

“Cornerfold got up because it did fit in with SBS’s aims,” Sabto says. “But perhaps there should be more scope within digital funding guidelines for independent, specifically internet-based content—rather than seed money for concepts. It’s a shame there are no longer program managers to guide applicants through the often arduous and confusing application process.”

It remains to be seen whether the Cornerfold baton will be passed on. Perhaps that’s up to the rest of us—and to the funding bodies.

Cornerfold www.cornerfold.com.au

The Forecast Project www.theforecastproject.org [no-longer operational]

RealTime issue #55 June-July 2003 pg. 23

© Simon Sellars; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2003
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