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Interview with Oliver Lowenstein of the Fourth Door Review

by (2003)

Several months ago, was thrilled to receive its first issue of the Fourth Door Review, a surprisingly sturdy, well printed magazine on thick chlorine-free, wood-free paper. Elegant and unpretentious, the Review "explores green thinking from a future oriented perspective". The articles are thoughtful and cover a range of topics from Andy Goldsworthy's use of dance, film and video, to the current resurgence in European timberbuild architecture, to a two page review of a CD by the Thai Elephant Orchestra. The Fourth Door Review was recently awarded the Utne Reader 2002 New paradigm/new culture Independent press award. If gave out awards for exceptional publications, the Review would get one from us, too.

What follows is an email interview by Sam Bower of with Oliver Lowenstein the founder, editor and creative writing and design force behind this refreshingly eclectic annual publication.

Q: What does the name "Fourth Door" refer to? Does it get the audience past the Fourth Wall into Toffler's Third Wave?

Oliver Lowenstein: Possibly. The way I imagine it, the Fourth Door is a way into possible futures, with the emphasis on the plurality implied by possible. It feels today as if the increasing tug and ubiquity of one omnidominant official future, drowns out the capacity to even imagine other, unofficial futures. What I like is finding stuff that enables people in the green diaspora to imagine what could be possible in the future, and showcasing these micro-gestures which are being realised today by people, small groups and individuals all over the planet. This is only one way of looking at what the doors open on to, and certainly Jim Morrison and Aldous Huxley are also in the mix. In a way it is also about the ordinal of fourth, and what this evokes, not as number, but as quality, and also the resonances with such disparate spirits as Ouspensky and Jon Hassell, and in terms of dimensionality, I would like to think, the relativity theories of Einstein. Also in contrast to the ideal of a number-quality there is the physicality of the door, potentially as a crafted object, and its virtual cyberspatial counterpart - in that cyberspace is the most likely place you'd encounter a Fourth Door. This is only my imaginings, and I'm hoping people will spark their own meanings from the associations of two words.

Fourth Door Review, No. 6

Q: How did the Fourth Door Review begin?

OL: I published the first issue of Fourth Door Review in 1996, after saying I would do this magazine-review type thing to my wife for so long, that she said, 'well, get on with it'. So eventually I did. I'd had some experience of self-publishing, running an even tinier post-punk zine in the late seventies. The itch to try another wider ranging magazine which talked, and did so seriously, to the generation I was growing up amidst had never really gone away. It only took a very long time to get started.

So Fourth Door began as a way of reconciling those ghosts - with an increasing immersion in ecological issues on the one hand, and an equal, albeit amateur, absorption with a whole range of science related subjects, particularly philosophy of science, and technology issues - from radical technological critiques to watching this huge wave of digitalization crash over us in the nineties.

From that it became clear that the green community was, mainly, ignoring computers, and there was a need to think about this seriously, and try and see how the green perspective could be reconciled - up to a point - with the changing world computers were bringing into being. And to try and be positive and adaptive about the changes, rather than either pretending it wasn't happening, or merely denouncing it as the destroyer of all green futures. But at the same time I had a deep love of and respect for doing things by hand, with care, and of skill and craft, so that also became a crucial part of the mix. There didn't seem any reason why the two poles couldn't co-exist within the pages of a review. Particularly as I saw the continuation of what might be called 'craft/maker ecologies' as ecological in nature. So craft became core, as a key narrative in the issues so far, and the tension between how to turn new media to green ends and the meditational qualities of making became an absorbing challenge. The questions became: Are these poles contra-indicated? Or is there a way to resolve these? And if so how?

Q: In what ways has your vision for the Review changed since Issue #1 in 1996?

OL: I was completely na´ve as to the slog ahead to maintain its existence. So it took around twenty months after issue 1 for the next issue to appear. And in that time, as between each issue, things move on. The vision, if that's what it is, isn't so hard. I have a sense of what the next three issues could contain. But the day-to-day running, which I also do, as well as the house cleaning, makes it difficult to run the review on any timeline of regularity. I refer to this as the blue moon theory of publishing.

I guess I've also improved my understanding of what I do, so it's less intuitive, perhaps, although I've tried to build in spaces for intuition. For instance there are some lovely pictures of sand forms by Pamela Soden in issue 5. I happened to meet Pamela, a retired teacher, while she was on her way to stay with her daughter, on a train in mid-Wales, and as the train traveled alongside the beautiful Gower estuary, she mentioned she liked photographing sand forms, and from there she showed me a small collection of pictures she was carrying. I thought these were great, and asked if she'd be interested in the pictures being in Fourth Door. She said yes and eventually her photographs appeared as illustrative material to the Fritjof Capra piece in issue 5. That was from serendipitous chance. There seems less opportunity for that these days, when I get mainly press releases, invoices and orders to chase every day, rather than moments where you feel the roots of chance brought that into existence, although this does still happen occasionally.

Also my knowledge with the content feels much better familiar. I kind of know what is expected of a Fourth Door Review, which I didn't when I began. As a consequence I wonder if I am pushing the content and design enough, or whether the review has become increasingly influenced by a need to reach a wider audience for its survival. Whether it plays safe at times. It is difficult to do something entirely new each time, like, no repeats.

Q: As an Editor with clearly wide-ranging interests, how do you decide what to include?

Back Issue of Fourth Door Review.

OL: It's a sense of what will work together, and how the dynamics of relationship between one subject matter and another feel as if they could work. The basic sections are givens into which I need to pour material which will cook well together, and then bring these different pots to the meal, so that the taste, smells and textures of each compliments and goes to make a whole gastronomic delight! At least that's the ideal. The funny thing is it does seem to work. It works for many people who read the review, even though the connections between the subjects can seem both distant and completely personal and idiosyncratic. For me it feels like choreography or orchestration, and what is interesting is it leads to juxtapositions I wouldn't have otherwise contemplated.

It is also connected with imagining what could be possible, say the example of the architect, Steve Johnson's, tree level Forest House home from issue 2/3, housing Dieter Jung's ambient holograms (issue 4). This imagine, when it appeared, seemed outside the box of what greens consider permissible. The Forest House would be okay, but Holography is an industrial technology? It doesn't work. Yet, why not imagine some back country Vermont commune with the technology to create holograms which are used to meditational effect. This was at least conceivable as a kind of sympathetic environment for artistic uses of technology to be applied in. And if it's imaginable why not try and present it in the review? It does lead to questions though; for instance, I am still trying to figure out what the relation is between ambient music and visual culture and traditional ecological thinking? And knowing I don't have an answer is really personally stimulating. It also leads to being caught between these two communities. Some greens say the review is too technological, and some techno's say it is too green! Which is also interesting.

So in a sense this makes the review primarily about relationship, and at times it can seem as if the implicit web of relationships set up within the pages of the review is similar to an ecosystem, though of course without the constraints of a food chain. But everything can, to a point, connect to everything else.

Q: The Fourth Door Review is described on your website as "a review committed to wild green futures". What do you see as the role of the wild in contemporary culture and in the future?

OL: I fear for the wild, which includes the inner wildness as much as that of our external environment. Although I guess this may be the perspective of someone who lives in one of the most-densely populated parts of the first world. I think those words were written with a sense of how domesticated the green movement can feel it has become. It appears to contain as many certainties as any other ism. This has made me question whether what I am doing is a genuinely green review journal. It probably isn't.

Fourth Door Review: Dissolving the differences between ecology and technology, land art and digital crafts, music and media.
Fourth Door Review: Dissolving the differences between ecology and technology, land art and digital crafts, music and media.

I guess it's inevitable but in environmentalism's move into the mainstream it sometimes feels to me as if there's been a soul-loss of sorts. The green futures agendas are already very bureacratised and technocratised, because those involved want to compete with or be accepted by the mainstream, and if you want to do that, generally the perception is that it has to be done on the mainstreams terms. This usually means a change of pace-culture, working and living at the dominant pace-culture, writing and communicating in the shorthand of 'speak' and acronym inflected bureau talk. This doesn't have much to do with the human creature remaining in touch with the wildness both inside and out. This bureacratisation is in such contrast to the arguably great cultural flowering of the (nineteen) sixties, a time when, although many presently hasten to dismiss it, my sense is that the cultural experiments that were tried were truer, and wilder, than what has come since. In that sense the sixties are this strange historical and cultural anomaly in the recent path of the West, for there hasn't been any comparable vision since, and there isn't anything really comparable before. And although people usually state it wasn't realistic to believe that the sixties dream was realisable, the mess Industrial societies find themselves in is a terrible indictment of the mainstreams failure.

Industrial societies want the optimum, or perhaps, the maximum productivity from its 'human capital', which implies increasingly accelerating culture. Greens have, mainly of necessity - feeding our families - bought into this, but the challenge maybe how we can do less, live slower, and do so at ease with ourselves. One question then becomes can we do these sorts of things with the technological toys we surround ourselves by, or is there a relation between technology and cultural tempo and acceleration? Is technology an agency bringing on this acceleration? The technologist's mantra is that technology in itself is neutral, while others see an explicit link. If there is a link, can one still make a counter-gesture where technology is used, as it were, 'against itself'?

Here's an example. You can see this culturally listening to music over the last three decades. There has been a real acceleration of rhythm and speed in a lot of popular music. Analogously there has been the emergence of slower music. At the far end of this spectrum think of Brian Eno's 'Music for Airports' and how this envisages a very different pace culture all within the context of an airport, of all places, and suggests a culture of balance and of possible deceleration. So for me 'Music for Airports' is an example of designing in slowness, and ecological balance with contemporary (in this case, music) technology.

Q: Do you feel the hybrid emergent green culture explored in the Review is becoming more mainstream?

OL: I can only say from what I see over here, in Britain, and to a lesser extent, in Europe. If you're talking about support for artists, musicians, performers, yes it seems to becoming part of the mainstream. Much of it is to do with new generations with new tastes taking the cultural reins, and the fact that some of these people are hugely popular. Andy Goldsworthy is a green cultural icon in this country, and also is a core part of our school arts curriculum, and he has been knighted. But if you look to the kind of society the work these artists, musicians, architects and designers points to, then the mainstream society completely ignores these implications. In place it shows every sign of going in the opposite direction, becoming increasingly accelerated, addictive, and vacuous in character.

Q: Is "mainstreaming" this information through the media important?

OL: I'm not sure what you mean by "mainstreaming", but if by it you mean getting the kind of subject matter Fourth Door deals with into the mainstream press and media my sense is, it's where most people want to get there stuff into, because it equals exposure and potential future economic security, at the least, and success and a brilliant career at the other end of the spectrum, people are unceasingly trying to do this. I am as guilty as others as I write for the mainstream media from time to time. But I do wonder whether it helps that much in the wider picture of green cultural change, rather than concentrating on the real work of doing the work, be it the gardening, the laundry or whatever. I sometimes wonder how much music may have been played and made since humans have been around in the eons before recording technology was created. And how much of it could have possibly been great, great music that we'll never know about, and whether it still outnumbers, or not, the amount of recorded music that has been created in the last fifty or so years? It could be no-one knows about all the best music that was ever made, because it happened before cultural memory really kicked in. And whether this matters. Gary Snyder used to mention his Japanese wandering poet friend, Nanao Sakaki, quoting his words of there being "no need to be remembered."

Q: What impact do you think the Review has had on its readers?

OL: This is very difficult to say. I'm hoping the effect is that people will say there is a wider discussion of what green issues are about to be had, which includes, rather than willingly ignores contemporary life and technology. And to ask themselves about the connections between subjects which they would otherwise not see the link between. Originally part of the hope was that the organically interdisciplinary approach and content would uncover a readership who were equally as interested across the various different fields as I was. Today I'm not sure if this has happened. People seem to read the sections or the specific person they're interested in, rather than go for the whole interconnecting ecology of the review. Saying that, people write or ring up and say they really like the review. But very few people write critiquing something that's been written, or develop the dialogue initiated within the reviews' pages. The letters page is non-existent so far. Many people do seem to feel a bit overwhelmed by the length of the pieces, which I've found interesting as someone who has lived on a diet of New York Review of Books essays over the years. Maybe this is to do with people not having time, or a move away from literate text based reading.

Fourth Door Research, Cycle Station Project design proposal.
Fourth Door Research, Cycle Station Project design proposal.

Q: The Fourth Door Review is the journal of Fourth Door Research. What is Fourth Door Research?

OL: Fourth Door Research began as a bit of whimsy on my part, which has become progressively more serious. It was originally called the Fourth Door Research Unit, as along the road from where I live there is within the University of Sussex, something called the Science Policy Research Unit, and I thought I'd like one of those, hence the FDRU. It's acted as a conduit for any number of ideas which I and a couple of friends started playing around with in the mid-nineties. One of these however has taken off. It's called the Cycle Station Project, and envisages a network of Cycle Stations as overnight stay rest and relaxation centres based around sustainable design, so people can cycle over a long distance staying in a chain of these, one by one. This is being developed as a live project of a number of prototype buildings in Southern England and Northern France. As Fourth Door Research grew my sense developed of wanting to try and do something which was practical as a counterbalance to the dreamt ideals of the review itself. There are a range of other ideas and research proposals which we are interested in developing with interested bodies. If you want to look at the Cycle Station Project in fuller detail, go to the Fourth Door website, you'll find a split homepage. Click on Fourth Door Research. In this go to Project Research where the entry portal for Cycle Stations resides.

Q: The Review has refreshingly little advertising on its pages (I counted 4 small ads in the most recent issue). Do subscriptions cover publication costs?

OL: No. The situation is improving, but the whole thing is financially crazy. Whether we can keep going is an open question at present although there are various potential benefactors hanging out there in the wind. I've financed previous issues independently, with an overdraft and even moving house to raise the money to keep going. There's been some financial support from individuals and institutions with the later issues. Clearly subscriptions are going to help, so I'd particularly encourage any US art college or humanity dept's periodical librarian whose reading this to look at the website, and if you like what we're doing to take out a subscription. People say why not take advertising, which could help financially. But adverts would change the whole ethos of the review, and it is refreshing - for me as well - to see an essentially advert free magazine zone.

Q: How often does the Review come out with a new issue?

OL: There were allusions earlier to the blue moon theory of publishing, which essentially means publishing when everything is ready. The designers do their part in their own downtime, which means the whole thing takes a very long time. At present it aspires to be an annual, although I think it will get to be more frequent when there's a sizeable enough readership base to make it self-sufficient.

Q: What can readers look forward to next?

OL: I'd like to abandon the review completely and start again with a clean slate. Once you do something though an expectancy is created, so the challenge becomes how you can do something new and fresh and yet recognisable. There's some interesting interviews lined up for the next issue - George Dyson and David Nash, to name two. But to keep things personally interesting I may throw some stuff into the mix, which is completely new terrain to Fourth Door, and also hopefully expand the design experimentation. I'd like to say expect the unexpected, though we'll have to wait and see how it turns out.


For more information please visit the Fourth Door Review website.

© 2010