Ask Me, Ask Me, Ask Me

Eldon Garnet discusses the legacy of Impulse magazine

Cover of Impulse Interviews 1978–1990 (Impulse[b], 2019).

The vibrant Toronto-based magazine Impulse ran from 1971 to 1990 and focused on primary texts from cultural creators, such as Kathy Acker, Patti Smith, Joyce Wieland, and Dennis Oppenheim. In the case of nonvisual artists, these appeared in the form of interviews. Impulse[b]—a publishing house that serves as a conceptual continuation of Impulse—recently published a facsimile anthology of Impulse interviews, including discussions with Sylvère Lotringer, Blondie, Paul Virilio, Michel Foucault, and Wim Wenders. Below, Tatum Dooley speaks with Eldon Garnet—the former editor of Impulse—about the art of the interview.   

TATUM DOOLEY: Was there an impulse in Toronto at the time for this kind of magazine?

ELDON GARNET: When I took over Impulse in 1975, I was inspired by the Evergreen Review and was reading Aspen and Avant Garde. I was familiar with the artist’s journal Avalanche and its cofounder Willoughby Sharp, who later became Impulse’s New York editor. With Impulse, I wanted to experiment with what the word magazine could mean. We did an LP record. In 1978, we made an issue that was essentially a microfiche and a Super-8 movie. You had to have a ticket to go see the movie in San Francisco or Toronto, and all you received in the mail was a microfiche, which I called a “cinefiche.”

We were only interested in publishing primary expression by artists, and that’s how we ended up focusing on interviews. How do you deal with a certain kind of artist and make their voice primary? Chris Burden would submit a piece, and it would be a creation for the magazine. But let’s say you’re a dancer—you can’t create for the magazine, so we would do an interview to get as close to the voice of the practitioner as possible.

I should also add that Toronto in the ’80s was a hot spot for publishing. There was an amazing energy going on—which you can see with File and with C Magazine. When I did Impulse, it was very much as an auteur project. It was based on the artist controlling the means of production and dissemination of information. That was the scene back then: Toronto was international; now it’s more regional.

TD: How did you settle on the distinct square shape?

EG: Before it was a square, the magazine was sort of disappearing into object weird-land. In 1978, I met Mary Ann Hanet, and we decided to make a magazine that was square, glossy, and commercial. That’s the Impulse you know. It became a magazine imitating the commercial venture of a magazine. She was such an entrepreneur; she found a distributor who put it on newsstands everywhere. We didn’t have any advertisers, so we had to make up the ads. That’s when Impulse became this kind of cultural artifact done by artists collaborating. The artist Carolyn White, for example, was instrumental throughout Impulse’s history as both an editor and a graphic designer.

TD: The interviews in the book span from highly academic and theoretical philosophers to completely experimental and underground figures.

EG: We would do something on the Mr. Leather convention in Chicago, and at the same time we would have an interview with the thinker Northrop Frye. I think that’s how Impulse still differs from any magazine produced now—it mixed pop with academic, old with young, the local with the international. It had that kind of enjambment. When we first published the architect James Wines, he was so happy to be in the same issue as Patti Smith. We took pride in enjambing people’s thinking.

TD: Do you think that interviewing has changed in the nearly thirty years since Impulse ended?

EG: Yes, and no. There are still people interviewing today. But now everybody does video interviews. When you walked in here with just a tape recorder I was surprised; it’s entirely different.

TD: Maybe I should’ve brought a camera.

EG: No, it’s OK. But it’s important in an interview that there is some tension, that it’s not just a conversation. Warhol’s interviews were always really relaxed. He never got into any depth; I always thought an interview was really only about finding out the subject’s attitude toward death. I was always working my interviews toward that. When I interviewed Warhol, I said I wanted to do an in-depth interview. He said, “Sorry, I don’t do depth.”

TD: I was drawn to the advertisements that you reprinted in the book, surprised at how many of the places have closed. Looking at it now, the book feels just as much like a cemetery as an archive.

EG: All histories are cemeteries, right? I see it as cultural history. This is a book that covers 1978 to 1990. It’s very much of a time, and I wanted to make it a time capsule. Who really wants to read a long interview book? You make it more lively and humane by putting in ads, good and bad.

TD: Something else I found unusual was having two people interview one person—was there a reason for that?

EG: It was fun. I’m not an expert in every subject, so if you’re interviewing Kraftwerk, you want to have someone there that actually has the musicological information, and they can ask those questions. I’m there to ask the subject the philosophical, in-depth questions, where someone else will just ask about the more technical aspects. I find that most interviews with musicians are totally boring. Anyway, maybe people don’t collaborate anymore. Impulse was run out of spaces that were bigger and had people sitting around working and people dropping in and doing that kind of communication aspect. Now if you walk into most galleries or most cultural spaces, there’s no dialogue. There’s a certain kind of iciness that exists.

TD: Is an interview a collaboration?

EG: Yeah. I mean, all I can do is ask you questions, and you can ask me questions, and the answers are predicated on both.

TD: How did you edit these interviews?

EG: Brutally! I edited the death issue of Impulse with my friend Sylvère Lotringer, of Semiotext(e). He would turn twenty pages of a manuscript into three. I was very much a juxtaposer, where I would take something from the beginning and something from the end and make the author coherent again. Because even when I’m talking now, I don’t speak in sentences, but when you transcribe it, it has to be near-sentences, if not sentences themselves. So what you try to do is take the material and structurally organize it and then textually organize it, without losing the voice. That was always the question. How do you make it energetic? You’re almost writing a play or a narrative by editing.

TD: Do you want to talk about the book’s introduction, where you interview yourself?

EG: I love interviewing myself. I could’ve done this interview myself.

TD: OK, ask yourself a question then.

EG: We can talk about the floppiness of the book. It was done on purpose to imitate a huge magazine. We could’ve done this book hardcover, but it would’ve been a dead artifact. We kept it lively and readable. It’s about reading.

TD: Who would you want to interview today?

EG: It’s more who I missed. I always wanted to interview Samuel Beckett and Slavoj Žižek. Generally, I wanted to interview philosophers more than rock stars. Jordan Peterson would be great to interview because you could get to the essence of the asshole. In a recent conversation between the two in Toronto, both were unimpressive, but Peterson was emphatically vacuous. I see a lot of people being interviewed after exhibitions, and I realize how pathetic the interviewer is. They can never get to the core of an idea. That’s the only time I get nostalgic about not doing many interviews anymore.

TD: Interesting. How did I do?

EG: You did fairly OK.

The New York book launch for Impulse Interviews 1978–1990 will take place at Printed Matter St. Mark’s on May 14, 2019 at 6 PM with a screening of the 1978 documentary film by Ross McLaren of Impulse’s international dance competition.