In Search of the Live Ordinary: An Interview with Karen Lubbock of Karen Magazine
A beige cat near a football in a back garden; a close-up of a pair of arthritic feet; an atmospheric, backlit photograph of a shopkeeper. These are some of the images in the most recent edition of Karen magazine, one of the quirkiest small magazines around. "Have you met KAREN?" enquires the tagline on the magazine's website. "She's pretty ordinary." This is both true and false: Karen Lubbock, the brains behind her eponymous magazine, succeeds in finding the extraordinary in the everyday and preserving it in each edition of her magazine. Issue 3 (not yet sold out, unlike 1 and 2) 'reads' like a collage of words and images. "My neighbour Ben's got a cold, he's had it all week," blares a yellow banner across two pages, then, at the bottom of the right-hand page and in much smaller print, Ben corroboratively murmurs, "I feel as weak as a robin." By recording everyday conversations, Lubbock captures whimsy, pathos, flashes of poetry, and highly original insights that would otherwise be lost forever. Delightful personalities emerge—such as the person who has the ability to find "loads" of four-leaved clovers— while the routine of a 'Housewife, 1946-1998' (Lubbock's late grandmother) speaks volumes, in two short pages, about the domestic and cultural lives of many ordinary people in the post-war years: many readers will recognise their own grandmothers in it. In her sections on the routines of a coalman and a butcher, which were, she tells me, inspired by her conversations with them ("I order my coal from Michael the coalman....and I buy meat and groceries from Michael the butcher"), Lubbock explores traditional working class occupations. The magazine also includes some found objects, such as an envelope bearing the message "A bit of a mess on stairs—1 dead mouse eaten and then brought up!! Sorry!" Little design jokes are inserted here and there, such as the tiny 'k' in a circle next to the title.
Karen won the EMAP lifestyle fanzine award in 2005 when it first appeared and has been quietly building up its readership ever since, so quietly that it appeared in the Observer's list of "the best-kept arts secrets in Britain." The lack of aggressive promotion is deliberate, as Lubbock confirms in our interview: "It links to how I approach the work. I don't use design for design's sake or design the work to 'shout' but want to allow its personality to come through reading the pictures and the words." She admits that starting up the magazine initially seemed like something of a gamble: "Launching a publication devoted to the ordinary life and conversations of unknowns would seem risky at best, but I absolutely believed in the content and originality of the work. I wanted to make a magazine that I liked for people that I imagined I would like, and not make a magazine that followed the traditional formula that mainstream newsstand titles need to use....A successful magazine is about its readers. Karen readers give me incredible encouragement to continue publishing. I am always very thankful for them buying a copy. and I include a personal note when posting each magazine." Nevertheless, despite support from readers, "How to raise and maintain awareness of the work is an on-going dilemma."
Lubbock has a background in residential social work, as well as mundane jobs such as potato picking and working in a bar. She tells me that the Karen concept came out of her research interests and her observations of celebrity culture. Along with her degree in graphic design, "I have recently completed a Master's research degree in communication design and am commissioned to make work that focuses on the everyday. I am interested in people, conversation and the little details in life.....My initial motivation to make the work came from two areas of interest. Firstly celebrity culture and then how this is mediated and consumed and seen as something for 'ordinary' people to aspire to..... and secondly how 'ordinary' real life is represented." When I question whether Karen can really be called a fanzine, she agrees that "Although the mag was awarded an EMAP fanzine award, I wouldn't describe it as a fanzine in the traditional use of that term. It isn't a magazine in the traditional mainstream familiar form. I am making work that involves conversation and features people....in my own life. I decided to use the form of a magazine to creatively document and communicate ordinary life filtered through my sensibility." In reply to my remark that some of the magazine reminds me of Mass-Observation, she comments that it "wasn't an influence but has been a research reference."
The material for the magazine is collected in and around Malmesbury, Wiltshire: "I live in a village which is close to the town of Malmesbury. I collect for the magazine wherever I physically am. My method of documenting isn't pre-determined, but rather I collect material I 'happen across' (I think this method of working is reflective of day-to-day life), and only consider incidences that impact on me on an emotional level....The content of the magazine is composed entirely from my everyday experiences and currently features an edited collection of my conversations with people, photographs of them and/or their environments, other photographs, found ephemera, personal statements and observations. All [the] people that feature in the magazine have approved their contribution, whether that is a conversation or a photograph. Mostly they are quite surprised that I want to include them-- 'Why do you want to include me? I am not very interesting.'-- But [they] often seem to get some personal pleasure from being in it." Lubbock takes all the photos herself, and gathers material on a more or less continual basis. "I use a notebook and to a lesser degree a tape recorder. I collect material all the time but do allow myself some days off." All the conversations she records are ones that she herself has taken part in; she tells me that people who don't want to be in the magazine simply avoid talking to her any more.
'Reading' Karen is a uniquely soothing experience filled with the (generally) contented murmur and bustle of a rural English community. As the International Herald Tribune remarked, it "is in a very English lyric tradition of exalting the unconsidered." At bottom a defiantly egalitarian project, it seeks out the people who are usually ignored by mainstream media and proves in the process far more interesting than any celebrity magazine. It would not be extreme to say that Karen is rapidly becoming something of a cult national treasure.--Isabel Taylor