By Tony Martins / Photographs by Angelina McCormick
Like guerilla fighters, we started with nothing.
Ten years on, in a material sense, little has changed. Even now, Guerilla magazine has no office, no steering committee, no revenue model, and no definable future.
What we do have is a history.
Armed only with a determined intent to be approachable, in-depth, and broadly curious, Guerilla morphed from an upstart web quarterly known to but a few hundred souls into a rather impressive network of contributors, readers, and supporters with a substantial body of work and a handful or two of plaudits to show for its efforts.
Striking out in March of 2004, the magazine aimed to explore Ottawa culture “at ground level”—a height from which there are plenty of willing co-conspirators to be found if they are approached authentically. This MO worked because it had to; we had no alternative. We merely had two freelancers—myself and founding art director/coder Allen Ford—and a web domain name. We had a guerilla ethos demanding that action be taken with whatever resources were within reach. The name for the publication naturally emerged from that ethos—this despite the fact that Allen believed the name to be Gorilla until his initial logo designs were submitted and rejected!
Our early online editions were elegantly designed, conversational, and contemplative—establishing the basic Guerilla formula that remains in place to this day. Allen’s less-is-more approach to layouts reflected our early motto that “content is king, baby.” We consciously put the words and images ahead of any aesthetic acrobatics or claims to coolness. We weren’t cool, we thought. We were committed. We added no frills, no self-congratulatory extras, and certainly no high-falutin’ art-speak to impress the right circles. Readers, and the arts community in general, responded probably because we were doing something simple but invaluable: we were paying attention.
From left, current art director Paul Cavanaugh, founding editor and publisher Tony Martins, and founding art director Allen Ford.
Slowly, word got around. Guerilla seemed to be filling the niche it set out to fill by taking a long and hard look at local cultural circles and offering interpretations of some of the most accomplished stuff Ottawa had to offer. Our second quarterly edition published in June of 2004 examined venerable photographer Tony Fouhse, analysed Ottawa’s narrowly thwarted arts funding cuts, and profiled WestFest founding producer Elaina Martin. We were already tackling some big issues and big names.
Unencumbered by the need to sell advertising or develop content to reach any target demographic, we approached the magazine as would artists, operating more on instinct than anything else. Allen and I had both worked as journalists and in the marketing field where we would create content at the behest of bosses or clients. Here, there were no clients and we were the bosses.
But alas, the demands of Allen’s growing graphic design business and young family necessitated that he step down after designing eight editions, clearing the way for two additional key figures in the Guerilla story: Chris Healey and Paul Cavanaugh.
Chris was working at the Ottawa School of Art in the mid-2000s, where he’d used the blog-friendly and open source content management system called Joomla! to build a website for the school. I asked if he could do the same for Guerilla. He said he could. And he saved our bacon.
With our online edition #10 in September of 2006, the magazine took on a much different look. Gone were the lovely layouts in favour of a template approach that gave us pinpoint control over content but sacrificed command of look and feel. In the coming years we refined our Joomla! design and expanded the range of offerings dramatically, including, for the first time, content published between quarterly editions in our blog and g-Gallery sections. We remain with Joomla! just as it remains on the forefront of online publishing all over the world. Thanks, Chris, for pointing us in the right direction on more than one occasion!
Smell the ink, baby
In 2007, buoyed by a modest but loyal following, we ventured into the world of print. With Paul Cavanaugh on board as art director, we held a now-historic brainstorming session at a coffee shop on Elgin Street. The objective was to print in a way that would be physically imposing using our guerilla methodology: low cost yet high impact. Freelance designer and long-time Guerilla supporter Steve Denny floated the idea to print on one large sheet of paper in a way that could be folded down into magazine dimensions. The Guerilla poster-magazine was born with issue #13 in the fall of 2007.
Although we were ecstatic to be in print and often vocalized how much we loved to “smell the ink,” those early poster-magazines were really only complements to the full quarterly edition posted online. Yes, some people disliked having to unfold the beasts to read them, but they were popular. So much so that many readers were unaware that Guerilla even had a web site. And when we submitted the first three for consideration in the 2008 Applied Arts magazine design annual, we were awarded in the magazine series category.
Much of the credit there of course goes to Paul, who continued to produce elegantly understated design that let the striking visuals become even more striking. After six poster editions, we scratched our itch to print entire quarterly issues and switched to a more conventional saddle-stitched magazine format beginning with issue #21 in September of 2009. Although the print version went on a two-year hiatus following our Erotica Edition in the spring of 2011, a crucial co-publishing partnership with CHUO 89.1 FM breathed new life into Guerilla print in the fall of last year. Back with a new and bigger format, the revitalized print edition caused a bit of a stir in local circles and seemed to demonstrate that, contrary to conventional wisdom, print publications could be very much alive and kicking.
Something from nothing
And so, the fight continues. Seemingly without end. As the corporate mainstream media grapples with the onslaught known as the Internet and with its own shrinking revenue streams, independent niche publications like Guerilla are all the more important, appreciated, and under siege. Can we survive? For how long can our skeleton crew and cast of mostly unpaid contributors produce something from nothing?
Ultimately, whatever Guerilla has been able to achieve is testimony to Ottawa’s insistence that its cultural life matters and must be taken seriously. There have been no wealthy advertisers with bucketsful of money, but there have been hundreds of contributors, volunteers, supporters, donors, and believers. All of Guerilla’s goals were met long ago. We continue because we helped bring about a momentum that now has a life of its own. If you are reading this, you likely played a part in that. And if you did, thank you.
At the close of an essay titled “Ottawa is a Culture Machine” included in the very first issue of Guerilla, I essentially set out the challenge that any cultural publication in Ottawa would face:
“In Ottawa, we bear a burden. We are the main engine of Canada's official Culture Industry. This is a heavy gig and one we take quite seriously. For instance, we keep the outdoor sculptures free of rust and we hosted the Junos once. Yet the downtown core empties at 5 p.m. and the style-setters have no power in this town, no strut, no smirk, no superior air, and no optimism. Do you think we can change any of that?”
After ten years, did we?
These Guerilla people deserve heartfelt thanks
Aaron McKenzie Fraser – The magazine’s first go-to photographer who regularly went above and beyond to deliver excellent images. Sylvie Hill – Penner of a cherished-but-short-lived column in Guerilla called “Charger” and a fiercely talented poet whose work was featured in our first-ever edition. Elaina Martin – The first and most significant advertising sponsor of the Guerilla print edition as founding producer of WestFest. Kirk Finken – The former “Layercake” columnist and regular contributor who never shied from controversy or sharp opinion. Rémi Thériault – The magazine’s second go-to photographer who capably filled the shoes of his former roommate, Aaron McKenzie Fraser. National Arts Centre – The publication’s most committed advertising supporter through the steady purchase of web banners and eblast sponsorships, thanks in large part to the wonderful media buyers at Banfield. Jonathan Browns – An ever-resourceful and loyal supporter and productive member of the GuerillaCRAWL committee. Angelina McCormick – A frequent photographic contributor of the highest order and a critical source of moral support and volunteer assistance. David Monkhouse – An event co-host when working at the National Gallery of Canada and diligent member of the GuerillaCRAWL committee. Nigel Beale – One of our most talented and longstanding contributors and our most devoted pub companion. Sanita Fejzic – A repeat contributor, an ardent supporter, and the writer of Guerilla’s only successful grant application. Anthony Tremmaglia – Guerilla’s foremost contributor of top-level illustrations for which he could have charged us a pretty penny, but didn’t. Patrick Gordon – A loyal advertiser, print edition distributor, and co-host of many GuerillaLIVE events. Enriched Bread Artists – An important advertiser, partner, and event co-host who often gave us shelter and sustenance. School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa – A key early collaborator and a longstanding source of many of our most talented photographic contributors. CHUO 89.1 FM – A delightfully surprising and critical partner on the print side of things that arrived just in time to get us back into print leading up to an including the 10th anniversary edition.