Of Recklessness and Water

A Q&A with the editor of Skinny Dipper, a magazine so immediate you can’t help but notice the vapidity in everything else.

Vol. I

This spring, a friend and I made our way to the DC Zine Fest at St. Stephens’ church. The back room that has hosted countless punk shows was brimming with artists hawking their wares and curious readers eager for the strange, wonderful, intimate stories zines purvey. My prize from that day was a nonsensical choose-your-own adventure novel some inventive fellow had composed about space ants. It was great.

But I learned about something else, too — near the entrance, Skinny Dipper magazine had a small table. I leafed through a copy of their hefty first volume, and resolved to get a copy for myself. Not only did I do that, but I reached out to their editor, John, for a chance to learn more about the magazine.

What is Skinny Dipper? It’s a magazine, an aggressively physical one. A back-page manifesto declares, among other salvos, “Ask questions over dinner that require paper and pencil to answer: Print.” There are pieces to the magazine that you couldn’t transmit digitally — it comes with a library card, so that you can sign it out to your friends.

“Go simple, go solo, go now.”

Which is a good idea, because someone will try to borrow it. The thing is beautiful, clearly assembled with care, and a testament to print’s enduring, if embattled, allure. (Skinny Dipper comes on the heels of the sadly-deceased The Intentional, a somewhat more literary offering that shuttered after a four-issue run that nonetheless left a lasting imprint on the city’s scene.)

The content here is united aesthetically by the themes of a back-page manifesto (pictured) with the cadence of Edward Abbey’s famous “final paragraph of advice.” There are interviews with a skater who moonlights as a drummer and a tattoo artist returning from Thailand. The art includes some analog photography from a bohemian-looking trip to Puerto Rico, line drawings, a photo essay about the 2017 Inauguration, and paintings of the eponymous skinnydippers. One page manages to fit three hipster cliches in one — high-waisted jeans, a joint and a Cass McCombs quote. It’s a lifestyle magazine, and the lifestyle depicted is sometimes sweet, sometimes thrilling, but always hard to hold on to for long.

There’s a self-consciousness to the magazine that recognizes this tension. That lesson is best exemplified by the volume’s feature, excerpts from the diary of a sometime “train pirate” — a hobo. A half-century after Dylan claimed to have ridden the rails from a circus in Minnesota to stardom in Greenwich Village, the hobo lifestyle retains a durable romanticism.

Still, it’s dangerous. “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong,” goes a becalming mantra for the author’s addled co-pirate. Limbs and lives are lost in dangerous transfers, which the author narrowly avoids — “when the first train came, my buddy was too drunk to run.” Abuse by strangers and companions is a constant danger. Many on the trains are there because they don’t fit into the rest of the world.

I knew one guy who rode the rails. It seemed good for a while. He was finding himself, ending up in good-natured photo shoots with local papers starved for content. Then my other friend saw him in New York. He was slurring his words, falling asleep mid-conversation, in bad shape. Since I’m thinking about him, I google his name. Near the top of the list is a mugshot from one of those websites that trawls public records, making it that much easier for people to see the worst in one another. He was picked up for MDMA trafficking.

But then, not so much farther down, a story from a local paper in North Dakota. It’s about the police kicking transients out of community centers — not awesome — but there he is in the photo, looking healthy. The caption says he’s living in his truck while he waits for a job in the oilfields to start.

Sometimes we can shed our clothes, return to water, begin again. In R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming,” the very best song about skinnydipping, Michael Stipe sings “of recklessness and water,” the abandon of youth now gone, captured in a “photograph on the dashboard, taken years ago.”

It’s hard to leaf through Skinny Dipper without feeling a tinge of wistfulness at the youthful earnestness with which the editors capture, in impossible moments, the bigness of the world. But goddamn, I’m glad they try. We all should.

We chatted a little with the editors to learn more about this awesome project.

Who are we talking to? How would you describe Skinnydipper for someone who’s never read it?

Hello, this is John, the editor of Skinny Dipper. I will try to speak on behalf of my partners, TJ and Lynn, who focus on the design and art direction of the magazine. We grew up together in Southeastern VA and have been formally collaborating in different ways for about 4 years now. Skinny Dipper, our best and most current work, is a print magazine that explores the intersection of art and adventure.

Raw still matters.

Using photography, illustration, and writing, we tell stories of raw experience and shed light on the character of the mid-Atlantic region that formed the magazine’s artistic and intellectual perspective. We created the magazine because we felt that adventure has become an equipment brand and art has become a filter. At the end of it all, we want to prove that raw still matters. We want to show how art and adventure are tools for self-discovery and empowerment, and we started with ourselves.

You started out as an Instagram or something, right? Why’d you decide to go from that to print?

Correct, we began as a website-collective of artists and explorers called The Cove Project. It was fun and we gained traction, but we did not enjoy curating content for a website. Too much emphasis on generating clicks, likes, traffic, etc. Few people would read our long-form pieces. So we transitioned to print to encourage mindfulness in production and consumption, while simultaneously re-branding as Skinny Dipper. It’s nice to produce something tangible with which people can physically interact. Since the essence of Skinny Dipper is the sum of experiences that are distilled to their most raw and meaningful form, print made sense. Just like how swimming naked is better than any other swimming, a heavy magazine is preferable to any other format (in our opinion) for media like photography, literature, and illustration.

That being said, we’ve recently fallen in love with video and animation — which are obviously not suited for print. So we’ve decided to rebuild our website and our email newsletter, both as platforms for these newfound loves and as ways to stay engaged with our readers.

Our newsletter has been up and active and includes exclusive content releases, early updates, and some behind-the-scenes tomfoolery. We just launched our new website which has a weird blog and a small line of products. And both of these platforms are our main channels to send out new films, animations, and anything else we happen to be excited about.

Print is still our baby, but digital isn’t evil. Looookout.

We saw this magazine at the DC Zine Fest. Your PO Box is in Yorktown. And the magazine’s printed in Richmond. What’s the magazine’s relationship to place? How are these scenes distinct? What do you like about each?

Great question. I live in Columbia Heights, while TJ and Lynn live in Richmond — though all three of us are consistently visiting each other’s cities (and we endorse a greater artistic and societal connection between RVA and DC). Our mailing address is still at my childhood home in Yorktown because our addresses in DC and Richmond tend to change every couple of years.

All three of us love Richmond and DC for different reasons. Where to start?

Pros of DC in my opinion: being in our nation’s capital and everything that means; better biking infrastructure/community; greater diversity in certain parts + bigger, far more international atmosphere (obviously) — which often broadens the spectrum of intellectual and artistic possibilities; three airports and Gingko trees.

Pros of Richmond in my opinion: highly accepting and accessible creative community; less-dominated by the fed. gov. industry bubble (consulting, lobbying, etc.) which gives creative industries room to breathe; greater (and less-congested) access to outdoor scenes like the Blue Ridge Mountains or the beaches of VA and NC; high density of breweries and music venues with a smaller-town feel.

We love them both. Overall, we seem to have gained significantly more traction in Richmond than in DC, which is weird and unfortunate since we love DC and its size would seemingly give it a leg up.

There’s this rise in what marketers called “experiences,” as opposed to products. You’ve profiled some really intense experiences, things like riding the rails, skate culture, even the inauguration and its protesters. This last is a good example of an experience that, despite its insurgent nature, has become commodified. What do you see as your role in navigating that boundary between shedding light on something and endorsing it, or even selling it out?

Ahhh so glad you asked that. It’s super complicated. I don’t have a perfect or static answer. I think we need to avoid making activism and social protest a fad, one that is just co-opted by the dominant social group in a way that drowns out the voices that most need to be heard. It’s a fad when it is only practiced when it is cool and convenient. I know that was a critique of the Women’s March — that so many white people showed up now that they felt threatened, whereas marginalized communities have been protesting in different ways for years. Like when these protests amplify the voice of feminism without appropriately uplifting the voice of black feminism — or any other intersectional issue — then the movements can take us one step forward and two steps back.

Credit: Skinny Dipper Magazine.

I remember skipping work on Inauguration Day to observe and join some of the protests. It seemed to me that there were more cameras and media crews documenting the protests than there were actual protesters. I took a picture of someone rallying the crowd, and it captures the ratio of one person protesting and four others documenting or tweeting about it. I don’t know — part of that obviously contributes to the efficacy of some of these movements. Where would the the Women’s March have fallen in history without so many people showing up and then so many more being made aware of its global presence and impact? But it’s harmful once it becomes a check-the-box, thoughtless endeavor that gets you feel-good points and three options for tomorrow’s instagram.

It seemed to me that there were more cameras and media crews documenting the protests than there were actual protesters

At risk of sounding like that cliche anti-digital hipster, I thought that shooting film at the protests allowed me to remain present. I couldn’t (or can’t afford to) take a billion pictures using film and I can’t sit there scrolling through what I shot. It’s about observation, interaction, and synthesis. For me that is not commodification. Our magazine’s feature from the election and subsequent protests is similar — we state that we do not support the current administration and then lay out photos, poems, and illustrations that helped us record or crystallize our existence in this era. It’s not attempting to be comprehensive, but we couldn’t go on without letting people know where we stand and what this all meant to us. I want to learn more about ways to ensure that our representation of similar issues and events is not damaging or commodifying.

What are your plans for Issue Two?

We hope to get Issue Two out the door in early summer 2018. We have big, fun plans. But with a tone of greater responsibility. In our work so far, we’ve come to understand that the culture we are celebrating is deeply rooted in the natural world. If we are to continue celebrating such a culture, the environment that produces it must also be celebrated, and therefore protected. I think readers can expect stories with a greater emphasis on environmental issues, but from a lens that also examines the ways in which marginalized communities affect or are affected by those environmental issues. For example, we recently went to the Eastern Shore of VA to get a sense of how fishing communities are dealing with the health of the Bay, rising sea levels, and regulatory changes. We aren’t sure what it will turn into — maybe a feature for Issue Two — but that’s the kind of stuff we are tracking. That being said, we want to keep it fun. During our weekend of work on the Eastern Shore, we were lucky enough to also go spearfishing and hang-gliding. It’s been every-penny-worth-it so far, and we have high hopes that Issue Two will be even better.