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Contra Journal
Image courtesy Contra

Contra is the journal publishing stories at the junction of art & conflict

We catch up with the founders of the magazine and look inside the second issue which centres on protest

While art and conflict may appear to exist in disparate realms, the intersections between the two have long shaped public perception. Art has a significant role in sparking activism and helping people to process trauma either through the act of creation or consumption. We are flooded with reports of conflict daily but rarely do they relate to our artistic sensibilities.

Looking to provide an alternative to clinical and dehumanising mainstream narratives, Contra was launched in 2015 as a way of examining conflict through the lens of visual culture. Issue 01, published in 2018, thematically looked at ‘displacement’ and gave a more expansive perspective of the refugee crisis than insidious versions disseminated by media sources elsewhere.

Through a mixture of photo essays and think pieces from leading creatives, the annual magazine is changing the way readers engage with the topic of conflict by making it more accessible.

Dazed spoke to Contra founders George Brodie and Ben Bohm-Duchen – who were awarded a studio space by Dazed this year – to find out more about the release of Issue 02, centred on the theme of ‘protest’, and how the magazine is continuing to raise awareness of conflict.

What made you decide to start Contra last year?

Contra: We first came up with the idea of Contra after we had finished studying representations of conflict at university and were working in the arts. We were fascinated by the power images have in defining how we perceive political situations, but there seemed to be a lack of discussion around this subject outside of academia.

We wanted to create a platform that allowed for a critical analysis of the constant stream of images that shape our opinions of global affairs. But also to make this platform engaging and relevant for a wider demographic that exists beyond the art world, which people can often find detached and inaccessible.

What roles do art and visual culture have when it comes to activism and raising awareness?

Contra: Images have the capacity to grab our attention, capture our imagination and change our opinions. They allow us to dream of alternative futures, and spur us into action towards making these ideas a reality. Visual culture cannot save the world on its own, but it can get the conversation going. With Issue 02, we hope to do just that.

What have you learned since the release of Issue 01, and how has the magazine developed?

Contra: When we started work on Contra, we did so having never embarked on a self-funded project of this scale before. We are a group of volunteers who all hold demanding day jobs, and it has taken time to find a way to manage our schedules and ensure that the time we spend on the magazine is used to its maximum potential.

We have consistently sought to push the potential of the publication further and continue to improve it, and this has naturally come with many lessons. But we are glad to see progress with this issue, which has seen us be more ambitious with our design and content, more than double our number of contributors and nearly 100 more pages. The learning curve continues, of course, and we are excited to take the next step and take these lessons forward into Issue 03.

How important is it that the magazine has a global outlook?

Contra: Conflict is typically seen as something happening “over there”, but it is everywhere. The issues we cover in the magazine relate to countries all over the world – from North Korea to Russia, the United States to the United Arab Emirates. The world is increasingly interconnected and it is crucial that we engage with ideas that decentre Europe and the USA, creating an equal platform for all voices.

While we are based in London (and Berlin), our contributors are international and so are our readers (we are stocked in bookshops on three continents), and we try to embody an internationalist ethos in everything that we do.

Can you explain the choice of covers for Issue 2?

Contra: We decided to have two different covers for Contra in order to show the variety of ways in which the issue’s theme can be approached and interpreted, both visually and editorially.

Cover 1 of Issue 02, Protest, is an image by Sun Mu, a former propaganda artist for the North Korean government who now paints bold satirical images addressing the country’s political situation. His work is discussed within a feature about the underexplored art of North Korea. Cover 2 is an image of one of American artist Nick Cave’s extraordinary Soundsuits. Our interview with Cave in Issue 02 reveals how his bright and colourful installations hide a darker message about gun violence and racism in the US and explores his role as an activist who works closely with communities affected by these issues.

Do you believe in the potential of the magazine to create change, perhaps in the way people perceive conflict after reading?

Contra: We think that political movements and activism work side by side with art and visual culture in creating change. It’s not really possible to compare a magazine with glueing yourself to the side of a Shell building for climate justice or working as an asylum lawyer. However, we hope that we can open up a space in people’s imagination for experiences other than their own by providing a platform to a variety of artists and makers who have taken a position towards conflict.

It's easy for people to become apathetic about topics that feel monumental, complex and beyond their control. How do you keep readers engaged and hopeful about the future?

Contra: It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the media and desensitised to the suffering of others. Fast journalism and social media can contribute to this issue, and one of our key reasons for starting Contra was that we hoped to produce something a little slower and considered. We hope that readers take the publication as a starting point for their own investigations and feel excited to explore the work presented further. Hope and engagement are important in order for us to feel a sense of community with one another, in order to get behind meaningful action.

Contra covers difficult and challenging topics but it is also about driving towards a brighter future and only by addressing these issues can we promote change and continue to be hopeful.

Buy a copy of Contra Issue 02 here