Leonard Koren published WET Magazine for 5 1/2 years between 1976 and 1981 as part of a creative and philosophical experiment he called “gourmet bathing.” WET Magazine became his primary vehicle of expression during that time. Overt definition equals death for artistic ideas so Leonard has maintained a refusal to define explicitly what gourmet bathing is, however he has offered four basic tenets or principles:
~ Water, steam, air, and mud—and the energy to heat them—are precious resources to be cherished and conserved.
~ Cleanliness is next to impossible (but keep trying anyway).
~ Nakedness is almost always an excellent idea.
~ In addition to all its other charms, bathing is an accommodating metaphor.
Full of youthful ambition, and desiring to become a part of the gourmet bathing revolution, I wrote Leonard a letter in 1981 and convinced him to let me be his design intern that summer. I was psyched. When I arrived in Venice, California with my t-square and x-acto blade in hand (in the days before desktop publishing), Leonard told me this was to be WET’s final publication. Like Billy Preston jamming with the Beatles on their last album, there was something bittersweet about having a part in WET’s swan song but I embraced every moment.
“WET never took itself all that seriously,” said Leonard. “To paraphrase one of its contributors, WET was a parody of all enthusiasms, or more accurately, a parody of all enthusiasms taken a bit too far. WET’s most endearing quality was its wholehearted embrace of the absurd. Each and every issue wrestled mightily with seriously silly propositions: Workable Extremist Thinking. Waste Everything Twice. We Eat Tuna . . . Take your pick.”
Leonard’s post WET career has gone on to include an eclectic array of gigs directing Japanese music videos, being a popular culture commentator and most steadily as publisher of fifteen beautifully crafted books related to design and aesthetics. Some of the titles are; Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (1994) and Which “Aesthetics” Do You Mean?: Ten Definitions (2010). His current project is Making WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing. It will be published this coming mid-March, 2012 and will feature selected layouts and covers from each of the issues as well as a narrative of the more interesting episodes and personalities along the way to making WET.
AGITPROP: What is your current job description?
LEONARD KOREN: A guy trying to make a living by producing and publishing books. That is, books made of paper, not books intended for electronic devices. My book subjects are primarily design and aesthetics related—though I hope to move a bit into ethics also.
AGITPROP: Do you mean the ethics of design or are you referring to ethics in a larger social context such as justice, courage, temperance and so on?
LEONARD KOREN: The domains of design and aesthetics, in and of themselves, really don’t have much to do with notions of “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad” in the moral sense. In fact “stealing,” as in incorporating someone else’s ideas into your work, is almost institutionalized as a “best practice” in fields relating to design and aesthetics.
No one involved in the fields of design or aesthetics is necessarily bound to a particular moral code. By “move a bit into ethics” I really mean I want to bind myself more strongly to a personal code of right and wrong behavior in terms of what I produce and its effect on the larger community.
AGITPROP: Can you expand on this?
LEONARD KOREN: When I make an artistic decision, I try to consider how the ramifications will play out down the line, say 50 years or more. I try to keep in mind “do no evil,” but not as a corporate marketing slogan, as a personal credo. Frankly, I’m not always successful. It’s hard to account for all of life’s unintended consequences.
AGITPROP: In December 1980 you published the Fire Issue of WET. The cover photo was of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thích Quảng Đức, emolating himself as a protest to issues related to the Vietnam War. Would you please comment on the ethics of publishing that image?
LEONARD KOREN: A number of creators associated with WET felt the image was in very bad taste—almost sacrilegious. I disagreed. Someone gave their life to make a very visual anti-war “statement.” The more that image is reproduced the better, I thought. If WET was making fun of the burning Buddhist, that would be a different story. But we weren’t. I think it was a quite sobering cover.
AGITPROP: I think it was Mallarmé who said, “Everything exists to end up in a book.” (Or maybe a magazine!) You’ve published fifteen books. What is it about books that has created such strong devotion in you?
LEONARD KOREN: I like the physical qualities: the kinds of paper, the tactility, the “objectness.” I also like that you can stare at an open page for as long as you like, without glare, and really get into an image. I also like the totemic aspects of the book as a thing: just possessing a book, without even reading it, confers some kind of value.
AGITPROP: Digital books are revolutionizing the publishing industry. Any thoughts on how this change from tactility to intangibility will affect the consciousness of tomorrow’s readers?
LEONARD KOREN: I’m not sure how readers’ consciousness will evolve. The future for critical, thoughtful consideration of information inflows doesn’t seem too promising though.
AGITPROP: What is essential for you to be able to do your work?
LEONARD KOREN: Reasonably good health, time, and a little (physical) space for a desk and chair.
AGITPROP: Speaking of space, you recently moved from a city to the country. How’s that working out?
LEONARD KOREN: I don’t miss the city, if that’s what you mean. I do like the quiet and beauty of the country.
AGITPROP: You’ve been in cities so long I was curious to know if you have noticed a shift in your focus and/or interests.
LEONARD KOREN: When in cities I find my concerns tend to be more reactive to the things around me; “responsive” is a more positive term. In the country, undisturbed by the noisier world outside, I tend to focus more on the perennial, existential thoughts that occupy my mind.
AGITPROP: How important is empathy for what you do?
LEONARD KOREN: Not much.
AGITPROP: So are your design solutions based on your own preferences or do you try and imagine a universal end user?
LEONARD KOREN: I try to satisfy what I imagine to be that universal part of myself that requires (1) clarity, (2) a sensual charge, and (3) some degree of novelty.
AGITPROP: During the 70s and 80s there was clearly a moment when Japanese culture was important to your development. Can you describe your first conscious encounter with it?
LEONARD KOREN: My mother was interested in the Japanese sense of order and beauty for as long as I can remember. I think she thought the Japanese aesthetic sensibility was smart, cool and, of course, beautiful.
At one point she had a Japanese carpenter build some furniture for my brother and my bedrooms. (Which I still have to this day). Then she instituted a rule that we had to take our shoes off at the entrance to our house, which made sense because we lived in the hills on a dirt road. . . . When I was around 16 or 17, my stepfather returned from a trip to Japan with a few books about Japanese architecture and design. I was fascinated by the concepts of asymmetry, refined rusticity, warm minimalism, et al, therein. I asked my mother if I could build a “Japanese tea house” on her property. She agreed and I set to work scavenging materials from the neighborhood. I designed as I built. I applied my interpretations of the photographs I studied whenever I needed to make a decision.
By the end of my teens I had moved on and was no longer consciously interested in things, or design systems, Japanese.
AGITPROP: Making WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing is your most recent book and it will be published in mid-March 2012. It’s the true story of how you created WET Magazine (1976-1981) and opened up a dialogue around the idea of “gourmet bathing” while pushing a pretty radical design aesthetic. Can you please describe the milieu WET was born out of and why it was important?
LEONARD KOREN: WET was born in Venice, California. I fell into Venice by accident. I grew up on the Westside of Los Angeles and Venice beckoned from high school on as a place of special freedoms. The Venice I lived in and knew was a community of artists and like-minded creators. Most of the artist/creators were open to having me come by their studios and hang out. I was able to study the degree of seriousness, both artistic and commercial, necessary to “make it” as an artist/creator. I learned that you had better make “success” happen yourself, because that is the only way it is going to happen, if at all. I also learned that each artist must create their own unique way if they want to have something of value to offer the world outside their heads. In sum: My time in Venice provided a metaphorical kick in the butt. And the permissiveness of the Venice culture allowed me to seriously pursue my silly work—making WET—and not feel like a complete idiot.
AGITPROP: Well, the idea of gourmet bathing certainly is a very silly and slippery idea in a perverse kind of way. What kinds of thinking and or activities were you hoping to encompass with it?
LEONARD KOREN: I wasn’t thinking out very far. I simply liked the semantic frisson of the conjoined “gourmet” and “bathing.” The term seemed to connote a kind of sensuous absurdity. I was, of course, interested in bathing as a source of artistic imagery. But I also knew that in the realm of art, any abstract notion can take on a solid existence if you plug away at it long enough, which is what I had hoped to do with the notion of gourmet bathing. Exactly how that would manifest, I didn’t know. That’s where putting one foot in front of the next, and not thinking too deeply about the consequences, comes into the picture. That is, start making something and the next step/s to take begin to reveal themselves.
AGITPROP: Anyone who remembers WET remembers that it was as mental as it was visual. What would you say was WET Magazine’s influence on the collective unconscious at the height of its influence?
LEONARD KOREN: I was too close to the enterprise to assess its influence. I do know that lots of art directors, designers, and many artists in the US and Japan were very into the magazine. I doubt if magazines like Ray Gun and Beach Culture would have emerged in the form they did if there wasn’t the prior example of WET. Also, there were some pretty high profile WET alumni, like Matt Groening who went on to co-create the The Simpsons TV show. And graphically, WET was once of the incubators for the style then known as “New Wave,” and later as “Postmodern.” Ultimately all of WET’s graphic and editorial innovations seemed to be absorbed into our visual culture. . . So to answer your question, I really don’t know how far or deep WET influenced the “collective unconscious.” If you have any insights into this question I’d really like to know.
AGITPROP: I discovered WET while I was an art director for a college humor magazine. It became my design bible. I think that was in 1979.I do remember that WET seemed to come along in that moment just before Postmodern style and New Wave came sharply into focus. My earliest impression of a Postmodern look was that it was about visual references to Classicism floating against a deconstructed grid! People were really having a field day with all the prefab graphics you could get on Letraset sheets and that fostered a kind of a collage aesthetic. Then when I did my internship at WET in the summer of 1981, I recall Matt Groening hanging around the office. He was doing Life in Hell and other comics. His visual style was humorous but primitive. His slightly misanthropic personality added a contrasting note to most of the other staffers I met. Wippo was another great character who really embodied the energy of the New Wave musical moment. Gary Panter’s work was also a revelation to me and referenced Japanese culture a lot, too. WET was not iconoclastic like punk. It always seemed to be more about bringing what was hidden into the open rather than destroying what was already in plain site.
LEONARD KOREN: Thanks for the snapshot!
AGITPROP: With so many talented people hanging around and contributing what did your experience with WET teach you about the value of collaboration?
LEONARD KOREN: I learned that people at a certain stage of their creative careers crave an opportunity to create, and a visible venue to show off their creations. In such circumstances they will work for free. I learned to honor and respect these contributions. I had fun as an art and creative director. I also learned that I need long stretches of solitude, away from these creators, so I can consolidate my own thinking and let my intuition come to the fore. In other words, I like collaborative environments and situations, but I need an equal amount of time away from them to recoup my energy and direction.
AGITPROP: Is there a connection for you between intuition and the conscious cultivation of a spiritual dimension of life?
LEONARD KOREN: I don’t understand exactly what you mean by the term “spiritual.” If you mean a non-rational poetic perception of the invisible underlying mechanisms of reality/realities, then yes, there is a connection between intuition and the spiritual dimension of my life. But I don’t consciously cultivate it.
AGITPROP: For me cultivating a spiritual dimension means being in a place that’s apart from the domain of ideas, words and logical thinking; a place where the mind can recognize itself again. Was gourmet bathing ever intended to fill that role?
LEONARD KOREN: Yes and no. Gourmet bathing was intended to engage your mind, to force it into an encounter with absurdity, so that you could no longer take your thinking or your ideas so damn seriously. Of course, it is easier to make such observations in retrospect. There wasn’t such a vigorously coherent agenda for gourmet bathing at the time I was publishing WET.
AGITPROP: How did you come around to the idea of making Making WET?
LEONARD KOREN: To make a book about the process of making WET was an impulse that has reoccurred to me about four or five times since the magazine’s demise. What was different this time, that is, why I finally made the book this time, are three factors. One, I have a young son, and I am an old guy. I wanted to impart some of the lessons I’ve learned about art, life, and business to my kid in a light, easy-to-digest manner. He won’t even know the book is for him, but it will give him some resonant clues about where he came from and how his DNA predecessor responded when confronted with certain circumstances. Secondly, the last couple of books I’ve made have been rather heady, veering toward the non-sensual. I wanted to get back to the sensual, the visual, the visceral, and Making WET allowed me to do that. Thirdly, I got an email out of the blue from an Italian bathroom fixture manufacturer abut a year ago asking if I would consider starting up WET again. I politely said no, but it made me realize that maybe the circle of culture had come around again and a dose of WET—this time in book form—was in order.
AGITPROP: Is there WETness after death?
LEONARD KOREN: Who knows?
Leonard Koren on the web
Leonard Koren’s books can be found on Amazon.com
A recent New York Times profile of Leonard Koren