BY Emily King in Opinion | 10 OCT 03
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Issue 78

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BY Emily King in Opinion | 10 OCT 03

Most magazines are full of made-up people. These are the inventions of PR, whose pretend hearts and minds are associated with photographs of celebrities. Re-Magazine also deals with phoney individuals, one per issue, but where others make up stories and apply them to the real bodies, Re-Magazine tells something like the truth through the mouthpiece of a fake.

There are any number of reasons to create a pretend person. Oliver Stone invented the character of Willie O'Keefe (played by Kevin Bacon) for his film JFK (1991) and the character's testimony is vital to the credibility of Stone's version of events. The director argues that he is a composite of four other witnesses, but by all accounts these people were themselves fantasists and Bacon's O'Keefe is the screen embodiment of a host of self-delusions. Designer Christopher Wilson also created an unreal historical character in an article for the design magazine Dot Dot Dot: Ernst Bettler, a Swiss graphic designer, born in 1929, who undermines a pharmaceutical company by sneaking the word 'Nazi' into their advertisements. Wilson gives a visual example: a letter A formed from the arms of a woman and a band of type. It's a very convincing anecdote and has made its way, as a true story, into several books and magazines. Wilson's motives remain obscure, but the tale has taken on a life of its own.

Re-Magazine has made up two people so far: John and Claudia. Like Bettler and O'Keefe, they are quite extraordinary, but unlike them they lay no claim to real-world agency. In the end, for all their oddity (which we will get to later), John and Claudia are not there to fake a story, but to make a point. Launched in 1997 as the one-man project of Dutch designer and editor Jop van Bennekom, Re-Magazine began as a magazine about everyday life. Its purpose, among other things, was to resist the market-driven agenda of mainstream publishing. Although a product of The Netherlands, it has always taken on the media in its own first language, English. Their dislike of the media is nothing new - just about the whole of the 'zine industry was founded on the same antipathy - but Van Bennekom and his colleagues take things one step further: Re-Magazine doesn't just hate the rest of the publishing industry; it kind of hates itself too. While it may be perceptive and funny, it is plagued by moodiness and insecurity. Issue 5, for example, the 'Anti-attitude' issue, published in the winter of 2000-01, includes some apparently warm and affirming stuff about family and childhood, but undermines any glowing cosiness with a photo shoot by Viviane Sassen that is suggestive of the underage eroticism of David Hamilton. Titled 'Romanticism', Sassen's photographs make the very idea behind the word seem daft, verging on sordid. The next issue, called 'The Information Trashcan', took things even further. The main part of the magazine is a 'Manic Monologue' printed in white type on black paper that reveals an obsession with trivia in parallel with a trivia-provoked self-disgust. Issue 7, entitled 'Re-view', is founded on the idea of self-consciousness. It describes itself as a 'Difficult Magazine' and it would be impossible not to agree.

Re-Magazine's great virtue is its willingness to expose sentiments that seldom find public expression, most often relating to the apparently quotidian experiences and memories that make up the larger part of existence. Alongside this editorial idiosyncrasy, it is beautifully designed and photographed, each issue adopting a form to suit its subject. The decision to invent a person per issue is partly one of structure. The magazine's stories continue in much the same vein, but they have been given a single spine. The fabrication of John and Claudia has also allowed the magazine's editors to confront the fiction/reality issue. Often on the receiving end of compliments regarding the magazine's authenticity, they were plagued by the knowledge that what appeared so real was almost entirely made up, by them. Now they can make the magazine as real-seeming as they like and, at the same time, admit that it is a fake. At the end of both John and Claudia there are sections that deal with the construction of their personalities. In John it is titled 'Very Extensive Notes and Credits', and in Claudia it is called 'Not In This Issue'.

Neither John nor Claudia is at all likeable. According to Van Bennekom, the former is the outcome of hyper-individualism. He is a young man who disappears from his averagely happy life in order to lead an entirely alienated existence. He treats people and things as parts of a pattern that relates to him alone. Claudia is John's opposite, the anti-John. She is an extraordinarily tall woman (6' 5''), outgoing and positive to an absurd extreme. Van Bennekom sees her as a metaphor for the exaggeration of media presentation. She gushes New Age sentiments that reflect a paradoxically self-conscious desire for unselfconsciousness.

Claudia is as irritating as John, but much more fun. Her magazine is A3 newsprint, reminiscent of Interview magazine, and she has been photographed by, among others, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, Terry Richardson and Wolfgang Tillmans. Her text is in the form of an interview and adopts the mock intimacy that is a commonplace of celebrity journalism. John's magazine is A4 and its design is deadpan, apparently generic. Each page of text is labelled as a document. There are a number of photographs of John and his surroundings, but they are not credited on the page. John's low-key presentation lends an authenticity to his account. As with the Ernst Bettler affair, design can be used to verify a tale, even when it is an honest fake.

Re-Magazine's third invented person will be Marcel, a man with 'issues' about food. Unlike John and Claudia, there is a real Marcel to whom the magazine version will be akin, but not identical. Van Bennekom is happy to describe John and Claudia as 'monsters', but maybe Marcel's living template will enforce some restraint and there is a slim chance he may end up a little more sympathetic.

Emily King is a London-based writer and curator with a specialism in design.