Modern Animal

Isolarii is a pocket-sized magazine that conceives of every issue as a kind of ‘island’; new space from which to view the world. Authored by the Ukrainian artist Yevgenia Belorusets, issue five is entitled ‘Modern Animal’ and is conceived as a series of lectures on the modern lives of animals. 

Speaking to me via email, Belorusets explains that she chose the lecture form to mimic “the Soviet form of education — when I was very young before the USSR collapsed”. But while many lectures are based on interviews Belorusets conducted while travelling through war-torn regions of Ukraine, Modern Animal is in essence a work of fiction. Throughout the course of the tiny book, the boundary between human and animal shifts and changes, with lectures voiced by animals.

Strange twists and non-human narrators can make this issue difficult to follow, but if you submit to its dream-like logic, Modern Animal makes for an enlightening read. Co-editor Sebastian Clark talked us through the inspirations behind this very unusual magazine.

I love the second lecture, delivered by an animal. I particularly love the digression about the Chancellor’s inhuman jealousy of the lecturer and his “pop-eyed”, “flop eared” wife. The lecture is fictional, and fantastical. What was the intention behind taking on the fictional form again ? (I know you embraced fiction with issue 4, ‘Street Cop’, which was by Robert Coover and Art Spiegelman).

I love that section — it’s the perfect example of Yevgenia’s ability to pull the rug out from under you while you read and to capture these characters’ voices.

We see Yevgenia’s work as a great refutation of autofiction; the mode of writing, from Karl Ove Knausgaard to Sally Rooney, that has dominated literature in recent years. A model that is, ultimately, vain, mundane and self-obsessed. Yevgenia’s work is based on interviews she conducted while travelling through war-torn regions of Ukraine. She then, often working with the interview subjects, transforms these into fictionalised accounts and stories. The issue is written with many people, about many people; it’s a kind of contemporary folk literature in some ways. At a time when it is starting to feel like the edifice of celebrity is evaporating, vanity is a depreciating currency.

It felt right to release a book like this as a follow up to Street Cop, to show a very different aspect of fantastical fiction. Although Isolarii moves erratically and irrationally, there is inevitably a link between all the issues. We want each book to always feel related to the last, but still surprising.

The theme for this issue is Modern Animal. How do you choose your themes and what inspired this one?

Intuition, really; a feeling of what seems appropriate. Our guiding mantra is that every two months we will deliver you a work that is a necessary perspectival shift for the moment.

We have a lot of projects on the go with many different writers and we push ahead with one when we think it’s going to be most relevant. We then try to focus only on that book, working intensively with its author.

You publish forewords online to coincide with every print issue. I really like the foreword for Modern Animal, which is written by Peter Greenaway, and is composed of a series of tiny stories. Number eight, about a depression-era zoo in Linz where the animals were fed to one another to save money, is particularly striking. Is it a true story? If not, what is the intention behind mixing truth and fiction, or presenting fiction as truth?

The foreword is by the filmmaker Peter Greenaway. They’re all premises for films he did not make, so none of them are true exactly. The fact that they could be true — or could be read as true — is where their humour really develops, I think. Greenaway is great at pointing out the absurdity of human nature by presenting these viable fantasies.


Why is it that Greenaway’s foreword is online-only? And not included in the magazine?

Releasing the forewords digitally makes them more informal in a way; they can be more experimental (like Warren Ellis’s musical score for Can Xue’s Purple Perilla). They’re also often, in practice, afterwords. Maybe we need to rename them!

It’s also important to us that we’re not absolute luddites in printing books. We’d like to develop logical ways to hybridise print with digital media. Digital media, I think, fell into an orthodox way of doing things very quickly in the late 2000s and 2010s (the Vice model) and there is still a lot to explore.

In time, an Isolarii subscription won’t only be about delivering you books, but giving you access to a broader system for adventuring through the most avant-garde projects of our time.

Isolarii, particularly this issue of Isolarii, doesn’t constitute easy reading. The lectures in here are strange, and there is little by way of introduction, or explanation of Belorusets’ intentions. I like this open-endedness, but I wonder: do you ever worry it will put readers off?

I think it is a bewildering read, because it is different, but not necessarily a difficult read.

Being open-ended is key. We’re not trying to describe it in certain ways to target certain audiences. One reviewer of the work took it to be a strange autobiography, which is not how it was intended, but I — and I know Yevgenia too — think that’s wonderful! We’re producing these works for you, not ourselves, and so we always want you to come to the work without too much influence/information. They’re islands for you to inhabit as you wish.

In that sense, I think we really trust our readers. People don’t need to be talked down to as much as they are. And the response has been wonderful. So hopefully we just continue to find the right people who are open to adventure and a bit of craziness.

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