Studio Visit: Riot of Perfume

Words: Kathleen Hefty
Images: Brendan Burdzinski

July 17 2016

When a contemporary kindred spirit picks up the ethos of a decades-old publication, the result can help to bridge the gap between the zeitgeists of two generations. So if the 1970s gave birth to Avalanche, a “cross between a magazine, an artist book, and an exhibition space in print,” as founder and editor Liza Béar puts it, Riot of Perfume easily carries the torch of this boundary-crossing attitude.

Named after a Rimbaud poem, Riot of Perfume includes a seductive mix of poetry, interviews, fiction, translations, and fashion editorials. In a scene dominated by commercial-driven content and ephemeral digital publications, the New York-based biannual magazine defies the expectations of a successful independent magazine. Wry fashion stories open up to experimental fiction, and world-renowned artists share the pages with unpublished little known writers and photographers. Disjointed as the pairings may sound, Riot of Perfume makes it work. Their effort here is not to recreate the magazines they admire, but to provide a true reflection of current culture while challenging contemporary aesthetic. Writer Kathleen Hefty met up with publisher and founder Eugenie Dalland and her co-editor Tanya Merrill at the unofficial Riot of Perfume headquarters (Eugenie’s art-filled apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn) as they wrap up production for the magazine’s eighth issue.

Thank you so much for talking with us! Tanya, have you been with Riot since the beginning?

Tanya Merrill: I started in the third issue. Eugenie and I went to college together at Sarah Lawrence, so I had known about Riot from the very beginning and was excited by its unique perspective. I was living in San Francisco at the time and when I moved back to New York, the third issue was under way. I had just quit my job at the School of Visual Arts and was painting more. My schedule had opened up and it was the perfect moment.

Eugenie, you and Marco (Lockmann) started Riot of Perfume?

Eugenie Dalland: Yes. It was late 2011, and we had about four weeks to put together the entire magazine. I was the editor, but as with most “labor of love” projects, one winds up wearing many hats. I became the publisher as well, and art director, creative director … intern. Everything.

And you’re going into the eighth issue?

TM: Yes, the eighth one will come out in September.

ED: Not that we’ll necessarily make a big deal of this, but it’ll be our 5th anniversary, which is crazy.

What can you tell us about the issue?

TM: For every issue, I think, this is the best issue we’ve ever done. Every single issue is our favorite.

ED: The whole process is really organic. We work with our friends a lot. We’ll be at dinner, and someone will say, I just discovered this really cool photographer from Hong Kong, you should check out her work. Then six weeks later we have an interview with her and are running a big portfolio of her work. We can talk about some of the artists we’re working with (on the upcoming issue). The photographer from Hong Kong is named Wong Wo Bik and she was really active in the ’80s shooting Polaroids. We’re running a big portfolio of her work, as well as a few series by artists based in NYC who haven’t had their work published in a magazine before.

TM: I am particularly excited about Meena Hasan’s work in this coming issue. She makes collages and then does paintings from those collages. We’re showing [both] the collages and the paintings side by side — sort of a site-specific piece for the magazine.

ED: From the beginning, we’ve been lucky enough to work with contributors who want to create material that is just for the magazine format, which is awesome. It’s something that people don’t seem to take advantage of all that much. We like to look at the magazine and treat it like a canvas.

TM: Or like a print exhibition.

It’s nice to think of it as “site-specific” because it really is physical in a way that a lot of content isn’t anymore. Do you ever feel pressure to build the online presence of the magazine?

ED: Not really.

TM: It does come up all the time. People ask us a lot.

ED: For the first two or three years we were generating unique content for the website, but ultimately it was just like running two magazines. It was too much work and it didn’t really make sense for us anyway. Riot is very much about the printed form. There are five of us now. We’re pretty much all freelancers. Our designer John White is an art director. Tanya’s a painter, I’m a stylist and writer, Nic Viollet, who is our associate editor, works at Gagosian, our editorial assistant Luisa Alcantara is a painter. So we’ve all got a lot of other things going on, but it’s cool because we get to draw on all our specific interests.

How do you find the writers and poets for Riot?

ED: We publish essays, interviews, poetry, fiction, and experimental writing pieces, so it depends on what kind of written piece it is. Most of the time I guess it’s a combination of commissioning writers, and accepting pitches, like at any publication. A lot of things happen organically, and I guess we actually wind up accepting pitches from people more than we commission writers for pieces we already have in mind. What matters most to us is the strength and originality of an idea. We don’t care if the contributor is established or not.

TM: If someone sends us an email (submission), and we can feel their love for something, then it’s like, oh, of course! It’s about people who are clearly passionate.

ED: I think that that really comes across when you read it.

Do you go into each issue with a theme?

ED: No, never. No themes, no trends. As few commercial interests as possible — actually no commercial interests [laughs]. Which is awesome, because it gives us and our contributors the freedom to do whatever we want.

TM: We love the combination of poetry mixed with fashion and visual art — and placing everything as equal. A lot of times with art and culture publications there will be a little poem off to the side, almost as a side note to the main feature. Our poetry has always had its own main page.

ED: Poetry has been part of our DNA from the beginning. “Riot of Perfume” comes from the Arthur Rimbaud poem, Matinée d’ivresse. I translate a poem of his for almost every issue. At some point we’d love to publish a collection of all the poetry we’ve run. It’s interesting — the majority of this poetry is in translation, and much of that work has been translated originally for the magazine. Sometimes for the first time in English. For example, in our last issue we ran several poems by a German poet named Stefan Döring. Tanya was at Columbia last summer for a painting program and she happened to meet a German PhD student named Michael Swellander. He told her about this poet he was translating who was part of a radical art movement in East Berlin called the Prenzlauer Berg Connection, which was active from the late ’70s until the fall of the Berlin wall.

TM: Döring’s work had never been translated into English before, and I thought, this is perfect! I can’t believe you just mentioned this to me in a bar. I search for people that are doing work like this!

ED: [Laughs]. Bar conversations have definitely been very advantageous for finding content. I like that we have a non-digital community of people that we work with. Our layout process is very social and usually involves great quantities of wine.

Do you have an idea of the order or does it just come together?

TM: It’s never really decided before. If we go into the layout process with decisions made, the agency each issue seems to have, would diminish. We allow space for the unexpected and the work builds the thread between features naturally. There is no design template of sections and pacing like “first literature, then art, then fashion”. It’s different every time.

ED: We don’t even choose the cover until we’ve already seen everything, because we want it to represent the tone and aesthetic of the whole magazine.

What are you two reading right now?

TM: I’m re-reading the essay “Why There Have Been No Great Women Artists.”

ED: I’m reading a series of interviews that the Paris Review put out in the late 80s and a bunch of poetry, including a collection of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, which is so stunning. She’s amazing. And a really great experimental fiction book by Anne Carson called Autobiography of Red, which is pretty cool. It’s really weird and very good. I just started reading the Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy — beautiful depictions of the West.

Do you feel that New York in particular is Riot? The city is at the heart of it?

ED: Yes, in a way.

TM: Both of us are from here and so is Nic, our associate editor. It is very very New York-centric – like guerilla-style filmmaking from the 70s. Jim Jarmusch is our spirit animal.

TM: I feel like I’m always thinking of my parents. They lived here and their New York is very ingrained in how I’m trying to live here.

Striving to create a sense of community around art?

TM: Yeah, and not be jaded, being really open.

ED: Nor being caught up in what’s considered cool and trendy, and just trying to stick to doing your own thing.

Kathleen Hefty is a writer and editor based in New York City.
Brendan Burdzinski is a photographer based in New York City, you can follow him on Instagram.