Cabinet Magazine Hopes Its New Home Catches Fire

It seems apt that Cabinet magazine, now into its tenth year, finally has its own events space. The Brooklyn quarterly of arts and culture owes its name to the "Cabinets of Curiosities" of yore, originally places where late Renaissance aristocrats and royalty kept weird items—like shrunken heads, stuffed amphibians, clockwork automata, and horns from mythic beasts. These patrons sometimes fitted their spaces with mirrors, curved glass, secret passageways, and hidden drawers, all things that might appeal to Cabinet’s editors, who possess a mischievous streak.

And now the Cabinet folks have their own cabinet of a sort, a warehouse-like affair in Gowanus in Brooklyn. Cabinet was originally run from editor Sina Najafi's home, and then for a time out of a Dumbo office, while holding its public events at various locations around town. In 2007, for instance, the magazine collaborated with the Slought Foundation (Slought.org) to put on an interactive symposium about the history of sloth (both the deadly sin and the animal) at the Chelsea Art Center. The magazine’s new location opened last October, in the building where they used to rent a small section for storage.

This current HQ is at Nevins and Union streets; the most notable business in this semi-industrial area is the South Brooklyn Casket Company, whose façade has been a morbid inspiration to local artists and musicians. Najafi seems as thrilled to have his space as an 11-year-old with a new toy rocket set. "The idea is we all live in New York," says Najafi, "all these people come and go, and if we have a space we just casually sit there like a spider and catch all these wonderful people coming through, and we don't have to pay for their tickets because some other institution has invited them!' Translation: Najafi is plotting to use espionage to identify other New York institutions’ desirable incoming speakers, then send imposters to the airport to intercept them and bring them back to speak at the Cabinet space instead. The idea is borrowed from MIT students’ hijacking of high-profile Harvard guests in 1940, the school's first ever hack against its archrival.

Fuse night at Cabinet’s Gowanus space
Emily Peet-Lukes
Fuse night at Cabinet’s Gowanus space

Until Najafi can swing this, though, the magazine’s live events will rely primarily on the talents of the 500-some-odd individuals who’ve written or edited for the magazine in the past. Current and upcoming events include "A Series of Coincidences," an art installation by four of Cabinet's editors, now running in the Gowanus space. On Wednesday, February 25, Oron Catts, a former writer for Cabinet who has developed technology to grow flesh under laboratory conditions, will give a talk called "Semi-Living Tissue." One of his last projects was mounted at MOMA, a miniature "victimless leather coat" that started to overwhelm its nutrient support system and had to be tragically “killed.”

Such a creature would have certainly made an entertaining guest at February 18’s fete in honor of Cabinet's new, fire-themed issue. The scene at the new space was lively, if not ablaze. The assorted performance artists, freelance writers, and alt-magazine staff in attendance seemed to enjoy the fine alcohol, schmoozing, and the two super-tall wooden highchairs where Cabinet speakers sit while lecturing. However, the overall dynamics of the party turned out a bit wonky. The spectacle of fire is supposed to exert a primitive pull on groups of humans, no? Interestingly, not much socializing materialized in front of the flickering globe of lava projected onto a video screen by artist Matt Bigert. Instead, a large void opened up around it, occasionally filled by lone hypnotized oglers.

The other major adornment, also Bigert’s, was a composition of live gunpowder fuses pasted on two large sheets of paper so as to resemble neurons. In the event's main act, he brought the flammable work into the alleyway outside and set the fuses alight for an audience of guests, leaving behind a synaptic pattern in gunpowder residue. It was a neat metaphor relating to the Cabinet article "Sparks of Life," which traces the 19th-century understanding of fire as consciousness's animating principle. But what is Cabinet's animating principle?

"The politics of curiosity," Najafi calls it.

Although numerous guests at the party vigorously resisted comparing Cabinet to n+1, that other current cultural journal of note, doing so is illuminating. Walk into St. Mark's Bookstore, for example, and there they sit, side-by-side, similarly sized and shaped. When asked about his putative rival, Najafi said he hadn't gotten around to reading any n+1 issues yet, although they'd just worked out a subscription exchange.

In a general sense, the magazines tread similar ground. Equally erudite, both seem committed to the care and renewal of Western culture (Cabinet makes some forays into Eastern as well). In tone, though, they are diametric opposites. The pages of n+1 reek with end-of-history, post-boomer anxiety: fear that the radicalism of the '60s has been permanently sold out and replaced with an irreversible spiral of cheapening and hype. Cabinet's version of synthetic history, on the other hand, is far too tangled to permit the specter of an endpoint.

Cabinet’s effect is a kind of soothing yet critical optimism. The magazine doesn't shirk from themes of sexuality, hallucination, brutal power, and the general inhumanity of man, but its overall sensibility verges on an almost childlike wonder—at the odd hacks that constitute human culture and the endless novelties they can yield when looked at from the right angle. Articles in the past have speculated about the path that the six-pointed star took from Eastern religious icon to Western sheriff's badge; profiled a collector of obsolete computer technology; and probed the tangled legal precedents regarding women's pleasure devices. On a more rare contemporary note, an interview examined Eudora's system for flagging inappropriate e-mails to caution their writers. (The phrases "sexual relationship" and "her tongue is furry" set off warnings; the term "wop" did not.)

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