︎ Zoë Rayn
Founder and Creative director of Caldera Magazine Zoe Rayn thoughtfully curates an art and design-centric space for BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ creatives.
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How do we create a space for underrepresented communities to share their creative work, without the all too often voyeuristic gaze of the design and arts communities? This question is central to Zoë Rayn’s work as the creative director of Caldera Magazine, a biannual publication creating a specific space for people of color and queer people working in the arts and design. Zoë’s curatorial work seeks to remove the risks of tokenism and make a place where the work and stories can speak and breathe, a caldera—the space left behind. Zoë and I sat down over Zoom to explore the magazine’s story, the role of the curator today, and how her creative network comes together to create these spaces.
I’m trying to be cognizant of the fact that the time that we're living in is very apart from people's typical lives. What have you found peace or curiosity during this differentiated time?
I’ve been finding myself revisiting a lot of readings and artists that I studied in college for some reason, reverting back to a state of true study. It’s nice to revisit that stuff, especially since we're in the midst of planning for our next issue and I'm trying to rework how I might approach some interviews.
It’s nice to go back and read the artists’ critiques from the '70s and to go through my old journals. That's been keeping me fairly busy and inspired.
Also, home improvement has been keeping my mind off of things! It's a strange time to have moved—we moved just about a month or two before this all happened. Being in a new space is giving me something to look forward to every day that's very personal.
Could you tell me the story of the magazine?
I started Caldera in the winter of 2017 and then launched it publicly in January of 2018. It had been a slow-burning passion project of sorts that manifested into an actual magazine or journal of sorts. We classify ourselves as a “magazine,” but we're very quickly becoming thicker and thicker each issue, encroaching on book territory.
I had really started looking into creating some type of platform while I was a gallery assistant at a commercial space here in Philly. I'm fortunate, in that I haven't had any negative racial experiences in my work, but I had a lot of friends who are artists of color or queer artists that had been coping with the realization that they had fallen victim to being the token in a group show or in a workspace.
It came from these conversations with people and thinking of how to create a space that isn't physical (because we're broke and we can't open a physical space obviously), but a publication or something in the digital realm is a way for people to have full agency in their ideas and the way that they're expressing their work. With that in mind, creating a magazine felt natural.
Originally we were quarterly (the first year) but I was the only person doing it then, and publishing four print issues by myself was a lot, with no funding or anything. So, after the first year, we moved to biannual and have since built out a small team of people that are all basically volunteering. That's the full backstory.
That's so cool. It comes from a community experience, which grounds it so well, and from a real need. That's something that I'm very curious about, because looking at the world of design, it’s a place where there are a lot of white, cis straight men’s stories being told. It’s something as a curator it’s important to think about—how to make space while avoiding tokenism.
Because your role as the founder is also the curator, what do you think the role of the curator is in today's climate and how have you grown as a curator in this experience?
That’s a million-dollar question! I’m actually in the process of trying to write something about Instagram becoming the ultimate curation tool, which is stupid and very millennial of me, but I can't help myself because it's all I can think about. It's where I do the bulk of my research now, which is crazy.
I'm very interested in the “why” behind artwork, not really the aesthetic or finished piece, which has proved to be a very interesting curatorial angle to take. As much as I love a pretty painting or an edgy sculpture, I really want to know why people are doing what they're doing and then use that as the basis for the theme [of the issue or story] - whether that's for a specific piece or if that bleeds into the whole issue, that's generally my approach, if I had to try and explain it.
Over time though, we've moved away from using themes (in the collective sense) because they ended up being a bit limiting for some artists who are like, "I don't know why. I'm just doing it.” And I do love that. That's great. That's important. But I still think there's a “why” and they just haven't taken the time to unpack their psyche enough, but we'll get there at some point.
But since then, I'm starting to look at the issue as a whole when I'm curating and looking at the artists list— who we're reaching out to. Do these artists work in a similar style? Do they complement one another or does it kind of resurface in a different piece later on in the issue? I'm just trying to think of the overall big picture.
So I don't know—maybe I’m moving away from a curatorial role and into an artistic direction role. I don't know. I'm reluctant to take any of these titles because I don't know what they mean at the end of the day.
In work sometimes, especially with self-created projects, giving yourself a title almost feels really limiting because you're like, "No, but I do so many different things."
Yeah. Our designer—I love her to death, Vi Tatran—she was the first person I brought onto the team and she got me to realize that I have a very distinct role and I just need to own it, because it makes everyone else's life that much easier. So she's been a great help in that.
Who else do you bring in when you're thinking about building the vision for the magazine, whether they're on the team or just adjacent?
So, the team that I've put together so far are all conveniently people that I know loosely or have met through my personal Instagram and then ended up having a good conversation with.
Vi is our designer, I actually met her when she was a freshman in college and I was a senior and we reconnected after seeing each other at a party. Our associate editor, Nick Schon, is an ambient and noise artist here in Philly. They had recently graduated and reached out because they were into the project. So I brought them on board, and Tara Thomas is a chef based in Brooklyn. She and I had been talking on Instagram for a while and I really wanted to include a culinary aspect, because food is one of the few unifying factors and it is a very creative industry.
Yes! I’ve interviewed Tara. It feels like she’s a celebrity here in Brooklyn.
Yeah, she's great! I didn't realize she was a full on influencer until a week or two ago. It's like, "Oh!"
We also have an executive editor (Jakaila Mustafa) now who I also met through Instagram—looks like everyone came from Instagram for the most part! But in terms of the artists that we reach out to, I have a running list in the notes on my phone that I'm sure makes me look like a psychopath. I just stalk people and if I see something that I like, I immediately take note of their website, their name, their handle. Then throughout the month, I’m sifting through those notes and really researching people and the shows that they've participated in or the work that they've done.
I love that idea, of having a list. It’s this challenge of how to pick people to feature, out of this giant pool of creatives. That's such a big job you have, leading this vision.
One thing I really appreciated about the magazine when I was browsing the website earlier is the balance between looking to the past and looking to the future. I enjoyed the Tracy Chapman piece. Sometimes, contemporary publications for people that are in their twenties and thirties tend to just look to the future, without always recognizing the patterns or events or significance of the past. And so I really appreciate that you all engage with that.
Do you think that's something that's been integral to the vision and why?
That’s definitely my art history degree coming out to play. Thinking of the content, specifically—I make a huge stink about making sure that we're not just acting as trend forecasters, because there are enough of those.
With art specifically, everything we've studied for the most part has been whitewashed and is very white, heteronormative work. I think the biggest part for us in moving forward as POC and queer creatives is to look back and really dig history up, to ask, "Okay. Well, what were our communities doing when all of this was going on?" And some of that is more mainstream, like the Tracy Chapman piece online, and then there are other artists; Nick did a piece on the roots of techno being from a black collective. History like that some of us would know, if we're into that specific medium or industry. But if you're not, you probably don't know, and that [history] could better inform your practice or give you something to start looking into. So it's definitely a big part of the overall vision.
Lifting up the veil and moving the textbook out of the way so you can really see the past.
It's almost like the past is this sort of untapped resource in so many ways, from that perspective. So I feel like it gives you all such a particular journey that's really cool to hear about.
When you have a preserved safe and creative space for people of color, what do you notice coming out of that, versus having a space that creatives of color are interacting with, but where necessarily their voices are held up as the primary voices? What do you notice about having that distinct space carved out?
So, we launched an annual exhibition series where we tap a few artists that have been featured online or in the issue and I put my actual curator hat on and do a full show with them in a space here in Philly. It was interesting because it was the first time that we had done a very artist-centered [exhibition]—visual artists or performing artists working here in Philly, and one in LA. We were doing a more traditional art show.
There's a lot of talk about creating new spaces, which is 100% important, but I do think as much as I might hate it, there is some value in having a really traditional white wall gallery that doesn't distract you from anything other than the artwork.
So we did that and it was really interesting to see people's body language as they came into the space, realizing that they're looking around and able to have a really raw and authentic conversation about their experiences, both positive and negative, in a space where it doesn't at all feel like there's any voyeurism. That was really interesting to see because it was very immediate—no one's coming in with a guard up.
There was a photographer who's active here named Cecil Shang Whaley who was in our second issue; he documents the whole underground DIY drag community. They're all amazing—there’s a show called Alt Slut and it's been one of my favorite outings to date. He documents this whole community and it feels very '80s, in the way that he's documenting the performers and the crowds coming to cheer them on.
We did a show with him and that whole community showed up, and it was just nice to see people kind of go from like, "Am I going to get harassed? Am I going to get yelled at walking down the street?" because it was broad daylight and everyone's dressed up like they're going to [that event], but they're actually just going to an art show and then they come into the space and immediately are at ease. It was a subtle but very affirming thing to watch happen.
And to have had a hand in creating that is really beautiful, because it's so aligned with the vision of the publication as a whole.
Who else is really exciting you, especially as someone who curates creatives' work?
So many people.
So as I was saying earlier, I've been looking to the past a lot, mainly because an article just came out about black galleries in the '80s and how they, unfortunately—not all of them, a few of them—actually just ended up taking advantage of their own community. And there was this whole thing about how [the artist] Howardena Pindell, who was actually from Philadelphia, is now finally getting her deserved recognition. But she's been active for years in different mixed media works. She has a video piece called Free, White and 21, where she basically does whiteface for a portion of it—it's incredible. I feel like some people know about it, but not enough people know about it, and I wish people did.
I'm thinking about trying to curate one of our future exhibition shows around artists interpreting that theme—if you were free, white and 21, how would you interpret that now? I think it would be a great show.︎