Across the top of BOMB’s spring 2016 issue runs the text “35 Years! 35 Years! 35 Years! 35 Years! 35 Years! 35 Years! 35 Years! 35 Years! 35 Years!” The cover depicts a blond woman holding a red Solo cup and a straw, crouched over and mouth agape. She looks like she is about scream.
BOMB magazine—founded 35 years ago by artists Betsy Sussler (who remains as publisher and editor-in-chief), Glenn O’Brien, Michael McClard, Mark Magill, and Sarah Charlesworth—excels at the delicate balancing act between storied history and contemporary relevance. Established artists, musicians, and writers—Kara Walker, David Byrne, Edwidge Danticat, Roxane Gay, Chris Kraus, Colm Tóibín among them—litter the masthead’s list of contributing editors. Meanwhile, over 50 percent of their writers are under 30.
“It’s just real,” associate publisher Mary-Ann Monforton says of BOMB’s success. “It’s a simple idea. It’s got legs.”
Their offices, located in the Brooklyn Academy of Music Cultural District, are bright and sunny and a little crowded. Senior editor Mónica de la Torre remarks on how much the organization has grown even since she arrived, in 2007. “There was no web editor, no development director, no development assistant, no archive editor, no fellows,” she explains. BOMB’s online component, the BOMB Daily, has also expanded considerably. On this rainy day in early April, nearly every employee works on BOMB’s upcoming April 29th gala. (The after party, significantly cheaper than the gala, promises to be equally cool.) It’s the only fundraiser they put on each year, and it provides for 50 percent of the magazine’s operating budget. The stakes, as ever, are high.
“It’s been a real challenge,” says publisher Sussler. She speaks as a veteran who has won many battles on behalf small magazine publishing in general and BOMB in particular. Thirty-five years ago, she explains, “none of us really knew how to design an issue. It was really scotch tape and love.” Now, BOMB is gearing up to announce a $15 million dollar endowment campaign. “We want to be here for generations to come,” she says. “The next 35 years.”
The bulk of BOMB—it’s signature—is made up of conversations between artists. The format, very long and very loopy, differs sharply from series that look, on the surface, similar. The Paris Review’s “Art of [Blank]” interviews, for instance, focus primarily on the interviewee—they are a platform for the writer to make clear their writing. BOMB’s interviews look more like conversations—the interviewer is as much the point as the interviewee. BOMB is also aggressively multi- and interdisciplinary: film, visual art, architecture, music, theater, dance, writing are all the magazine’s prerogative.
“It’s their conversation, not ours,” managing editor Sabine Russ says. The generous space and time that BOMB allows its contributors gives them an opportunity to “deeply focus on their work and why they do it. There’s a certain rawness to it.”
Andrew W. Mellon fellow Michael Blair—who does the nitty-gritty work of transcribing all those hours of initial audio—says hearing the voices behind the interviews is one of his favorite parts of the job.
“I’m proud to take something that’s amorphous and difficult and super abstract and shape it into another thing that people can consume and process and still manage to retain its integrity,” says de la Torre. “That’s incredibly hard to do—especially with people who are really idiosyncratic.” (Aka artists.)
“What we’re looking for is a definitive primary document,” Sussler explains. “Our mandate has stayed the same.” When the magazine was founded in 1981, “we wanted a place where artists talked about the work the way we talked about it amongst ourselves.” That work has expanded to include BOMB’s Oral History Project, which documents the life stories of black artists living in New York City, an initiative of which Sussler is especially proud.
“It never ceases to amaze me that people read us and that it has an impact on their lives,” de la Torre says. She adds with pride and a little annoyance: “When I’m reading about people we’ve interviewed in the Times or The New Yorker, they’ll quote from an interview that we published.” Most of the time, they don’t cite BOMB. If under-acknowledged, BOMB’s impact on contemporary literature is easy to trace. They were the first to publish in English Álvaro Enrigue, Roberto Bolaño, and César Aira.
When asked how the magazine has managed to stay alive, and thrive, over the past 35 years, Susslers responds: “There can be intimacy in interviews. There can be empathy. The reader is a participant.”
“Conversation is open ended,” she adds. And how could you not agree?