Hello, Bad Stuff 

How Hi-Fructose magazine stayed sweet in a bad economy.

It's a weird time to be publishing an art magazine, and not only because so many of the old print powerhouses are halting production. Art culture and its critics represent this weird, rarefied niche, said Richmond-based publisher Attaboy (aka Daniel Seifert), whose own quarterly, Hi-Fructose, just marked its twelfth issue. "There's a whole slew of people who don't feel like they can like art any more — that they're not allowed to, or that they're not smart enough, or that they're being conned." In fact, he added, a lot of them aren't aware that working artists still exist. "If you ask somebody on the street, they can't name a living artist," said Attaboy. "Not since Warhol died. For good or bad, they used to say, 'Picasso, Dali, Warhol.'" Shepard Fairey is the only current artist who's managed to insert himself in popular consciousness, he said — "because of the Obama stuff."

But it's mostly the lesser-known, under-the-radar artists that pique Attaboy's interest, and fill the pages of Hi-Fructose: Camille Rose Garcia with her gothic cartoons; Australian illustrator Ashley Wood, whose portfolio includes a fourteen-inch "pipebot" with military paraphernalia; Emeryville artist Josh Keyes, whose flaming deer adorns the cover of Issue #12; French comic book artist Matthiew Bessudo, who seems fixated on guitars, studio gear, and sausages. Attaboy did in fact run one article on Shepard Fairey, with a kind of gonzo journalism slant. Rather than prattle about the Obama "Hope" graphic, the writer tagged along while Fairey wheat-pasted his posters in San Francisco. Attaboy thought it gave an improbable, sexy angle on a well-known artist, and therefore fit in with his magazine's counter-cultural slant. He said he wouldn't object to covering artists like Japanese Louis Vuitton bag designer Takashi Murakami, whose hipster cachet can't override his prodigious imagination. But mostly, Attaboy and co-publisher Annie Owens stick with their magazine's motto: "Under the Counter Culture."

The couple shares a small house in Richmond, where they sat shuffling magazines on a recent Thursday. They moved in just a couple months ago but the place already bears their artistic stamp: The taxidermied head of a Dr. Seuss character (namely, the Mulberry Street Unicorn) adorns a wall above the fireplace, while below it on the mantle sits a blue rubber bust of John F. Kennedy and some gothic dolls designed by Garcia. In a far corner of the living room lies Owens' collection of old film cameras.

They came up with the idea for Hi-Fructose in 2005, mostly out of frustration with other art magazines. "I used to go to the magazine stand and Annie and I would get all mad and leave," Attaboy explained. "I always felt dumb and not cool enough ... not young enough, I didn't have enough money, it's always I didn't have something."

"Not ironic enough," Owens chimed in. "Not street enough."

The very notion of Attaboy being "not cool enough" for an art magazine is enough to produce cognitive dissonance. He looks like a grizzled ex-graffiti artist with a penchant for pin-striped caps and skater clothes. In previous lives he licensed toy ideas to Hasbro, self-published an anthology of "unlikely" comics called I Hate Cartoons, and illustrated Katy St. Clair's music column in the East Bay Express. His current medium is spray paint on plastic. He's amassed enough outsider art knowledge to out-hip just about anybody.

But apparently, he and Owens felt marginalized by the art magazine world. The fine arts magazines were too over-theorized and curatorial; the hipster magazines were too self-consciously ironic and sceney. They wanted to create something outside those norms — a magazine that provided intelligent commentary on left-field art, making it accessible to laymen but tasteful enough for blue-chip collectors. Furthermore, they wanted a magazine snazzy enough to be its own self-contained work of art. "You know how you'd never throw away a National Geographic, even if you're not into nature stuff?" asked Attaboy. He cited National Geographic as his primary model.

They started out with a mom-and-pop set-up, producing Hi-Fructose in their living room (which, at that time, was in nearby Albany). They filled each issue with artist interviews; essays; reviews of toys, books, paintings, sculptures, and bottles of syrup (or whatever else seemed germane); and gallery write-ups — some by people who were heavily steeped in the scene, and others by people who weren't that deep in the art world, but could write about it from an interesting perspective. The editors provided several images of everything they covered, and made the ads align with the illustrations. Thus, the whole magazine has a kind of aesthetic juiciness that makes it more like a picture book than a periodical. They even chose a paper stock that's coated with some type of varnish, to create more tactility.

Owens says the key to survival is a lot of careful decision-making and attention to detail. In the early days of Hi-Fructose she worked a day job managing budgets and wrote a lot of the magazine's art essays in her spare time. She would come home to a living room furnished with boxes, and hand-mail subscriptions with Attaboy. They would argue fiercely about content for the magazine — a pick-and-choose process that often led to cross-examinations at the dinner table. ("It's like a really long tennis match," said Owens.) They would draw on the first 200 subscriber envelopes while watching movies. It wasn't until Issue 9 that they changed methodologies, and hired a warehouse to ship everything. Now, with 2,200 subscribers and retailers throughout the globe, the old way of doing things seems impossible.

The editors are as surprised as anybody that they've made it this far. They've amassed a huge stable of writers, and enough capital to pay them. They no longer have day jobs — Attaboy finally relaunched his own art career with a couple gallery showings in Los Angeles. Last year they compiled the first four issues of Hi-Fructose into a bound volume published by San Francisco company Last Gasp. They have a web site laced with exclusive interviews, videos, and a blog that doesn't seem exceptionally bloggy, in that it's not updated at the reactive three-posts-a-day rate. ("We're not trying to keep up with the art blog race," Attaboy explained.) There's no telling how Hi-Fructose will fare in a wobbly economy, but so far they've succeeded by taking the opposite tack of most magazines, said Owens — slow, careful decision-making, rather than cutting corners. They don't run advertorials; they don't repurpose magazine content for the web, or vice-versa; and, most importantly, they don't print more than they intend to sell.

"The magazine industry is based on waste," said Attaboy, explaining that most magazines print as many copies as they can to justify their high advertising costs, even if half of that physical product winds up in the trash. That system fails in a bad economy, since the advertisers don't bite and they're not making money on the sell-through either. Hi-Fructose is based on a much more efficient model that privileges subscription sales over ad revenue. "We just stumbled upon it," Attaboy said.

Yet, he also attributes the magazine's appeal to its title. "There's the counter culture, and then there's under-the-counter culture," Attaboy said. "The name 'Hi-Fructose' is like, "Hello Bad stuff!' It's so sweet, but it's bad for you, but it's good. It's like a reverse Xerox — 'high fructose' is something you see everywhere. Maybe when people see it, they'll think of us."


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