Real Review

A print magazine in the digital era may seem anachronistic, but Real Review is both a container for content and a thoughtfully considered design object whose materiality mirrors its focus on the contemporary. With a focus on its methodological approach, Union reviews Real Review.

Thomas Essex-Plath

A burgeoning angst had, during the 17th century, begun to suffuse the community of European intellectuals known as the ‘Republic of Letters’. The flourishing of intellectual labour throughout the early modern period had cultivated a peculiar problem. With the profusion of both texts and readers, it had become increasingly difficult for the intelligentsia to sustain the belief that they could be acquainted with all relevant intellectual discoveries and publications. Their complex networks of correspondence no longer seemed capable of managing the deluge of printed material. In response, a new form of publication was proposed. In 1665, the Journal des sçavans – the first academic journal – emerged from the presses. At its heart was the book review: a new apparatus to efficiently distribute knowledge on the fruits of scholarly labour. In doing so, it defined the bounds of an intellectual domain, not to mention furthering the centralisation of scholarly life and the unique governmentality of the French absolutist regime.

When tracing this branch of its genealogy, we might understand ‘the review’ as manifesting an underlying, perpetual anxiety concerning overabundance. This overabundance might be of texts, but reviews more generally could also be seen as a response to other forms of overabundance – of consumer products and the dilemmas of consumer choice. The review could even be understood as an attempt to register a personal identity within an endless and bewilderingly diverse stream of content, such as via the Instagram ‘like’ feature.

Real Review – a contemporary culture magazine published by the REAL Foundation – does not share in this anxiety. As editor-in-chief, Jack Self, makes clear: “I’m not anxious about the overproduction of material … it has never been possible to encapsulate the sum of human knowledge about anything – even Plato and Socrates complain about this, and that was several thousand years ago.” What’s more, this anxiety is shirked even though the field of objects that the magazine takes for review is the broadest possible. The very first architectural periodicals, which appeared during the second industrialised print revolution, were fertile ground for that peculiarly architectural form of review – the building review.

Something like this had existed in previous publications, but those earlier descriptions of buildings were distinct insofar as they were primarily concerned with establishing ahistorical texts that we would now call ‘the canon’. In contrast, reviews were part of an effort to describe and understand conditions peculiar to the present – novel typologies. Indeed, the frequency of publication, relatively low cost and, therefore, wide distribution and readership of periodicals were necessary preconditions for this effort. Thus, the review in the architectural periodical instituted a new and unique concern with a form of contemporaneity in architecture. Something called ‘the contemporary’ constitutes the core concern of Real Review, encapsulated in its strapline: “What it means to live today.” Jack Self is an architect and, at its inception, Real Review was nominally an architectural magazine. Despite that, building reviews, or even explicitly architectural concerns, are more or less absent within its pages. In fact, one could read through a recent issue in its entirety and be completely unaware of its architectural origins. This is not a criticism. Real Review owes no allegiances to architecture and ought not be obliged to serve out distinctly ‘architectural’ content. Instead, what it offers is a methodology (or, perhaps, a sensibility) applied in each article, which can be learnt and employed to find meaning and understanding in the world at large. The basic intent of Real Review is to share this methodology: a way of carefully and rigorously tracing the operation of agency in the trajectories of material culture in order to act within that reality. A valuable tool for a profession that forever bemoans its loss of agency.

If there is any specific idea that binds Real Review’s articles together it may well be this recurring insight: take anything in contemporary culture, look at it again, and you will soon discover that it is constantly spiralling outwards in a constitutive network of associations. The kinds of curious and unexpected relations that these analyses unveil are echoed in the physical proximities of topics within an issue – topics that might not otherwise be considered as adjacent. These are rendered even stronger by the peculiar juxtapositions across multiple pages engendered by Real Review’s unique vertical fold. This physical feature is part of the careful orchestration of the magazine-object, scripting a very specific kind of textual experience. Holding an issue of Real Review, and the bodily comportment that its unique format demands, is not like any other publication. Font sizes alternate across articles – big-small-big-small – and, as a result, establish a cadence in the speed at which one moves through its pages – fast-slow-fast-slow. This, in turn, is co-ordinated with certain kinds of content: the smaller and slower font engrossing and focusing readers for the more intellectually challenging articles, with the larger font typically reserved for the lighter and easier pieces. As Jack explains it, characteristics like these emerge from understanding the magazine-object as bearing certain kinds of spatial and temporal possibilities, and the ensuing attempt to orchestrate these to maximum effect.

What may be most revealing in this orchestration of its physicality is the way that Real Review courts a particular kind of ephemerality – it is printed on light paper stock and wears its use in a way that suggests it eventually fading away to nothing. There is no more apt material character for an object that seeks to capture the contemporary – it weathers away as does the condition that it has sought to index. The contemporary – this ad hoc and concerted effort of wrangling together an assembly of concerns and things – is always fleeting, constantly being renegotiated and inevitably falling apart, giving way to some other contingent assemblage. “You can’t grasp the contemporary in its totality,” is how Jack sees it, but you can get a sense of what it feels like to live today. Real Review does not circumscribe the contemporary, but rather works to catch some of it in its sails and, through the effects of the contemporary on it, become an index of a much larger diffuse and ambiguous condition – a mood, which it gestures towards. Over the last half a decade, Real Review has coalesced a community of writers and readers around this methodology for meeting with the contemporary.

“If there is any specific idea that binds Real Review’s articles together it may well be this recurring insight: take anything in contemporary culture, look at it again, and you will soon discover that it is constantly spiralling outwards in a constitutive network of associations.”