It's not business, it's personal

An Interview with Emily Segal

by Charles Broskoski

Emily Segal. [A photo booth strip of four black and white photos of Emily posing in a ripped sweatshirt and choker necklace.]

"Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal."  – Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), You've Got Mail

In 2020, I wrote about “nodal points,” the idea that important people, places, ideas, references etc. have shaped the direction of my life and how I see myself. Since then, I’ve thought a lot about the people part of this equation. I’ve been wondering what these “nodal points” are for some of my friends, and thinking about how lucky I am to know so many people whose careers have taken paths that are both idiosyncratic and highly impressive. 

These people approach their work from the position that there is a blurry boundary between the work they do, and who they are. Or, put another way: the work that they do is an expression of who they are. 

This is the first in a series of interviews called It’s Not Business, It’s Personal. The goal (other than an excuse to have long conversations with people I look up to) is to explore the ways that people approach work with a motivation that comes from some ineffable internal force. 

My first choice for this series has always been Emily Segal. Aside from being one of my best friends, Emily is a brilliant artist, writer, theorist, and strategist. She’s not only a nodal point for me, but has also had an influence on so many others at all different levels of cultural production, and her career is still in its early stages. My joke is that consuming her work is difficult for me because I’m often distracted by pride. 

We recorded this conversation last fall. The original was three hours long, but it has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Charles Broskoski: Okay. I was thinking that we’ll just start from the beginning. 

Emily Segal: Yes.

Cab: So Emily, where’d you grow up and what were you into as a teen?

Emily: I grew up in New York City on the Upper West Side. I went to school on the Upper East Side and I took the 86th Street crosstown bus inching across central park at a snail’s pace every morning. I was really into sewing. My grandmother taught me how to sew starting when I was in middle school and I became obsessed with making tote bags.

Cab: Oh, wow. I’ve never heard this.

Emily: Aren’t you glad you asked?

Cab: Yes. [laughs]

Emily: I was also super into indie music, punk, and new wave and also into hip-hop and pop and whatever I would hear on the radio. I was, you know, a generationally appropriate 2000s indie snob. I was voted biggest indie snob in my high school yearbook, and most pretentious. [laughs]

Cab: What a sign of things to come. [laughs]

Emily: I was really obsessed with the idea of being a magazine editor and living out what I thought of as this cosmopolitan, elitist, taste-making role. But I was disgusted by that and thought it was really lame. I remember writing in my journal like, “don't go to Brown and then wear cool shoes and write about cultural phenomena for New York magazine.” [laughs] I had this weird fantasy of rigor, or what I thought was rigor.

I really wanted to go to art school, but I wasn't allowed. I had gone to a RISD pre-college program between my sophomore and junior year and it was amazing. But now I actually don’t think it would’ve been right or necessary for me to go to art school. I really feel like I figured out how to go to art school in my own life in a way that’s better than doing it in an institutional setting. My parents were right that I was and am geeky and intellectual enough that it would’ve been a shame for me to not explore those interests more extensively.

Cab: So when you chose Brown, were you thinking about the RISD pre-college thing?

Emily: Yeah, it was in Providence, too, so I ended up having a social life that went across those two schools and beyond into the city. I ended up collaborating on K-HOLE with my peers from RISD. 

It was this incredibly powerful time of just making friends that were life-saving and life-giving. I really feel like my education came through my peers. I did learn from my classes, but it was being in my classes with my friends that taught me a bravery and enthusiasm about learning. That became one of the most important things to me, and I still am fascinated by making publications with my friends.

In high school I was the editor of the newspaper and one of the things that I did was redesign it. My dad’s an illustrator and graphic designer and he taught me how to use InDesign. Once I got to college, you really didn’t start working on that newspaper until you were a sophomore. But if you were a designer, you could start as a freshman because they needed people who could use InDesign. I was just obsessed with it socially, because it was the most mean, glamorous, smart, well-dressed older kids and it was such a world, you know? I got to be around it and contribute this kind of practical, mechanical thing rather than have the pressure of writing. I still don’t love writing articles, which I find to be stressful and disproportionate to their impact. But I love the business of making something kind of from nose to tail. 

This is always advice that I give younger people or students: you can't underestimate how important it is to have one or two practical skills that you’re really good at that you can contribute to a group project. Like coding or knowing how to edit or do audio design or run an event. Those things seem kind of banal, but are almost the whole enchilada.

Cab: So wait, what was the origin story of you meeting the others in K-HOLE?

Emily Segal and Chris Sherron, early K-HOLE days. [Emily and Chris sitting in an office setting at a white table, a stack of sticky notes and sharpies in front of them, white boards behind them. Chris is eating what looks like vanilla wafers.]

Emily: Greg [Fong] I met through a friend. Greg was famous for doing things like smoking a joint in his crit as his sculpture, when he’d never smoked weed before.

Cab: So advanced.

Emily: Oh, he was very advanced. He took these Freud and Foucault classes at Brown and was sort of into the more theoretical egghead stuff that we were all very into at that time. He even made early internet art that were these Freud diagrams on blue cloud sky backgrounds that were on the VVORK blog.

When I met Sean [Monahan] I remember him saying that he wrote a novella, and I was so gagged because I was in this literary scene where it’s such a big deal to write a long piece of fiction. And then a kid in the painting pro program is like, “yeah, whatever I wrote a novel” [laugh] with such nonchalance. 

And then I met Dena [Yago] while I was studying abroad in Berlin, when my bestie Pablo Larios was having a meeting for this short-lived publication he made with John McCusker called If A Then B, Notes on Translation, which was very Dot Dot Dot era. Dena came to one of the meetings for that and I was really intimidated by her. She was very quiet. She knew so many people, she was already showing her art in like grown settings. 

They had all started talking about doing something called K-HOLE, but it was really just as basic as that for a while. It was like when you’re with your friends and you’re like, “should we start a band called [insert band name here]?” 

I was doing my first post-collegiate job, which was as a publicist for Nadine Johnson. I met up with Greg at a Chipotle one day and he asked me to work on K-HOLE because I had this experience making publications. I spent the next several months going to work, opening Gmail, and just Gchatting with Greg for 10 hours. Sometimes it's really productive to have a day job where you’re at the desk because it gives you a lot of time to do your own thing if you’re lucky and no one’s breathing down your neck. We started stockpiling these different pieces of research that would become the case studies for the trend reports that K-HOLE put out. 

Emily in another office setting. [A computer selfie of Emily in a hat adorned with flames and embroidered with “Microsoft.” Office chairs, desks, and modems populate the background.]

I also was learning the dark arts of publicity: I lifted a lot of key addresses from the server at my job, as did everyone else at K-HOLE. Then we launched this PDF [“K-HOLE #1: Fragmoretation: A Report on Visibility”] and did a launch for it at Renwick gallery in May of 2011. And that was sort of the kickoff.

K-HOLE logo. [White text against a black background. A K is in the center and letters spelling out H O L E twice surround it in a circle, creating a hole.]

Cab: When I first heard about K-HOLE from Dena, I remember truly not understanding what the output would be, or how it was going to be situated, as an art project or not — I really couldn’t wrap my head around it. 

Emily: I think I did get it. I think it came from this magazine and editorial obsession, where what people buy bleeds over into something like consumer reports, which was one of the pieces of inspiration. I don’t think that I knew what trend forecasting was, but it was close enough to the cultural criticism I’d been reading in college that I could make the link. And I already had this wonky, very New York, bourgeoisie kind of obsession with knowing what was good in certain objects and what they said. 

Chris Sherron was, and is, such an amazing graphic designer and had done so much inspiring research and development at that time about what K-HOLE could look like. Greg was working at an ad agency and sending us real trend reports from different companies. And we were just like, “This is psychotic, so information rich and strange. We should make one.” I felt very motivated to do it because I felt so bummed out about having this job that I hated.

Cab: I remember y’all having these super-long regular meetings for K-HOLE and wondering what was being talked about. 

Emily: Well, there were two different types of meetings: research meetings and production meetings. For the research meetings, we would just look at things that we liked for hours — music videos, pictures, stuff that we found on the internet. We would find all this ephemera online and obsess over it and try to really articulate to each other what was evocative about it. Then we would get into brainstorming mode about what we wanted to explore, and one person would talk while another took notes. We’d do that for a few sessions and we’d go through it, try and organize it into some sort of structure, and we’d split the structure into parts and assign one to each person to write. Then we would bring it all back together, read it through endlessly, talk through it, rewrite it. Eventually it would seem crystallized enough that we would start to match it up with imagery. Then Chris would sort of be in the driver’s seat and we would start to put it into a layout. 

A page from “K-HOLE #1: FRAGMORETATION: A REPORT ON VISIBILITY.” [The page reads “Not negative in the sense of ‘not good or worthy,’ but negative in the sense of a photo negative: obscured and hidden. Uniqueness relies on what you DON’T do.” And then lists some examples.]

Cab: When did William Gibson become a reference for you all? Was that before?

Emily: I read Pattern Recognition in college because it was on my dad’s bookshelf. Then Greg and I started becoming obsessed with William Gibson together. My motivation for wanting to get a job at a branding agency had to do with wanting to imitate Cayce Pollard in a sort of cosplay way. I was super inspired by Pattern Recognition, I still am. 

There was also a piece of internet ephemera called the “A Gonzo Futurist Manifesto” by Justin Pickard…

Cab: I still have it in one of my channels. 

“A Gonzo Futurist Manifesto” by Justin Pickard, 2012. [A cover image with a floating head and hand in what looks like a hall of mirrors, or some placeless digital zone.]

Emily: Justin Pickard is also great on Are.na. “A Gonzo Futurist Manifesto” was about how to deal with relating to the future in times of great volatility and uncertainty, which of course is still a topic that I’m working on now. It quotes extensively from Bruce Sterling, who’s a close collaborator of William Gibson. And it uses Cayce Pollard as the positive archetype for how to navigate volatility. So by intensely tuning oneself in to subjective responses to things, you can cut through huge amounts of noise and volatility. Even though I couldn’t admit that that’s what I was doing in a lot of trend forecasting settings, that is really what my experience of it was. People would be like, “how do you know this?” And I’d be like, I honestly have no idea. I’m just walking around noticing things, trying to do pattern recognition. 

Cab: What you’re describing as pattern recognition — of going through the world, noticing things, realizing what you’re attracted to, etc.— it’s really easy for me to think of that activity as something I do for myself. But it’s very different when you’re applying it to a larger subsection of people.

Emily: That’s why K-HOLE was really fun and healing, because we found each other so hilarious and we understood why the other ones were obsessed with whatever they were obsessed with. We shared it as a sensibility.

Cab: When did K-HOLE start doing things that were not trend reports but more collaborations?

Emily: We started pretty early on. We would do various little projects and collaborations in between the trend reports. We made this series of posters for the Moscow International Biennale for Young Art. We made deodorant with Eckhaus Latta that was associated with the Brand Anxiety Matrix. That was when we were getting into a more speculative mode, making the things that were in our trend reports and trying to work on these different registers. I think I was also starting to think of what we were doing much more consciously as art. We were represented, in scare quotes, by Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler in Berlin. We never sold anything but it connected us to the art world. Then we were on this 89plus panel that was moderated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, which was extremely validating, in terms of this being an actual art practice. 

Cab: Can you remember the normcore release?

Emily: That was the fall of 2013. That report was launched at Frieze at the Serpentine Marathon. Dena and I presented it on stage. I think people were really excited because we were trying to think about and look at coolness, distinction, and specialness in a way that broke through the stalemate of hipster hypocrisy that had been the norm for so long. All of a sudden it seemed like there was this new vocabulary for talking about these things that was evocative. It was a mix between being really theoretical and really pop cultural and it just resonated. 

It was really exciting. This moment was kind of an introduction into that very grown up experience where you’re working on something and you finally break through in some way — you’re finally getting a new level of attention and feedback and resources. But while that was happening, the actual interpersonal stuff behind the scenes was really breaking down. 

We were going from being a zine started by 22-year-olds to being a business with visibility and budgets and a studio and clients. But we were still non-hierarchical and didn’t have the typical structure that a business has, which I think is super cool. You know, looking back on K-HOLE, it gets historicized into a post-internet moment that’s more masculine, but there was no white straight man in K-HOLE. We were sharing resources, experimenting with shared collective authorship, a non-hierarchical practice. I think that’s important to remember. 

Cab: How far did K-HOLE go in terms of setting itself up as a business?

Getting Better Together: Emily, 2012. [A page with a photo of Emily reading Vogue and the title “Getting Better Together @kholetrends“ underneath, with a breakdown of what she consumed that day.]

Emily: Eventually we had an LLC that we shared, a bank account, and a Google drive. Which is still kind of how I run my businesses now. We didn’t really have a structure. We would just ad hoc figure something out for each project. And then we’d split up the money. 

But we were also babies who didn’t have a lot of tools in our toolkits for working out problems with our friends and collaborators. So we made every mistake in the book with each other.

Cab: Yeah, kind of the classic band narrative. So the working relationship was breaking down, and then this was also coinciding with people wildly misinterpreting the normcore report…

Emily: That happened a few months later. It went viral because of a New York magazine article written by Fiona Duncan. It was originally supposed to run in The Cut, and it was trying to talk about the personal style parts of normcore. We had gone to great lengths in the report to show that it wasn’t just about style, it was also related to this cultural mode of ambiguity and maximum code switching. But we had been getting some good press and I wasn’t that worried about this blog post, so when the journalist came back to me and was like, “hey, I feel like the editors are kind of misinterpreting the trend — they’re making it all about this style of dressing like Jerry Seinfeld or Nike tourists,” I was kind of like whatever. I didn’t think it was gonna be a big deal. So amateur. 

Then they decided to run it in the print magazine, and the article went ultra-viral for that time. It felt like being electrocuted. It was painful because people were interpreting it and misinterpreting it in ways that felt so cringe. It was also intense to see super-established journalists and writers from major, major publications all tweeting about it, writing about it, celebrities tweeting about it. I was on NPR; we had an email from Nike. Samsung was coming into the studio. It was obviously really exciting, but it also seemed to us to be giving the impression to the world that we had really sold out when we hadn’t yet. [laughs] 

Cab: Did you start working at Genius when this was all happening? Or was that a bit later?

Emily: That was a little bit later. By then, we were making enough money for two people to really work on K-HOLE full time. So when Rap Genius, rebranded as Genius, offered me a plush creative director role, I felt like that would be the most responsible thing to do for K-HOLE, because then I would take myself out of the running economically and the resources could be split more fairly among my collaborators.

But of course my collaborators also interpreted it as an abandonment. Which it was in a certain way. I think I also really wanted space from the intensity of the collaboration, and I was younger and messier then, and I don’t think I really knew what I was doing. I was hanging out around Ryder Ripps, Jon Rafman, Simon Denny, all these young men in between tech and culture and art. And I wanted more of their type of power. I felt like having that type of job would help me get it. And then it was kind of a nightmare.

Genius x Simon Denny for PS1. [A person holding two wheat pasted posters that say BETA in large type with the silhouette of a baby crawling across it.]

Cab: How long did it take to know that it wasn’t for you?

Emily: I was driven completely out of my mind within a few months. [laughs] There was a technical part of my job that I really enjoyed, which was commissioning and directing design. But it also required a high degree of interpersonal interface, which was really intense for me. And then just the typical start-up problems: it was overfunded, so it was very easy to throw money at things and not actually fix them. It was a very idiosyncratic, eccentric place. 

Cab: Yeah, in those sorts of situations, I think someone’s ability to get past the hard parts of collaboration are dependent upon how into the larger mission, or company’s work, they are. 

Emily: It also has to do with identity and life path, which are things I struggled with from the beginning. I’m in these corporate settings, but is this really who I am? Am I an artist? Am I a writer? Can those things work together, or not? That was really intense for me when I was younger. Now I kind of hold it all more lightly, but I also run my own businesses, so I don’t find myself in physical environments that are really foreign to me. 

I felt like I wasn’t being true to myself, basically, and that was the most painful part. I was so far down the rabbit hole of doing something I didn’t believe in and it was my whole life. Whereas with consulting, you’re always in and out. So even if something’s really whack, it ends. If it’s your job, it never ends. 

Cab: That makes sense. So you quit Genius and went to Berlin again?

Emily: I quit Genius and I stayed in New York and I worked at 2x4, which I loved. I was working on interesting projects for Prada and for other amazing clients. It was really intellectually stimulating. I was adjunct teaching at Columbia architecture school. I was starting to write a book and had shows coming up. It was a very creative, positive period of my life, but I realized I was going to burn myself out. 

Cab: So you were already starting to write Mercury Retrograde before you moved to Berlin.

Mercury Retrograde by Emily Segal. [A hand with an orange-tipped French manicure holding a book with a pink cover, the title along the top, and an image of loosely-knotted, digitally-rendered pink rope in the center.]

Emily: I was starting to write it right as I was leaving Genius. I was basically trying to account for this whole period that I was just wrapping up, which was sort of post-Occupy pre-Trump. I didn’t know it was pre-Trump at the time, but in retrospect, this was a period where brands really took over urban and cultural space. Looking at that through a literary lens, and asking the question of whether brands are literature — or, how a speculative mode of writing can both be something commercial and more mystical/ personal — those were all themes that I wanted to get down on paper.

I got to Berlin and I’m like, “I’m writing a novel,” and everyone treats you like you have a heroin addiction. They’re like, “oh, I hope you’re okay.” [laughs] You know, it makes people pretty uncomfortable, the first novel, because a lot of people try it and it doesn’t come together. 

I didn’t have anything to show for it for years. So there’s also feelings of like, “oh, I’ve fallen off the map.” I was doubting myself. I felt like I had peaked early because of normcore, and I’d worked so hard on this weird art practice collaboration that I thought was so sophisticated, but the thing that people took away from it was this junky meme. I was spending all my time working on this book, not getting anywhere. It was fun in the moments it was going well, but it was also scary. But you find the right people to give you feedback, and then eventually it starts to take shape. 

Cab: And so you started Nemesis in the middle of writing the book?

Emily: Exactly. So, I kind of skipped over this part, but K-HOLE decided to formally stop collaborating, which was the right thing to do, but was also very upsetting. It was also hard to figure out how to build up my own practice and identity after years of collaborating. I mentioned this period where I had done all this commercial work and felt really soul-sucked by it, so I decided to teach, write articles, and kind of figure out what was the right balance for me.

After that I realized that I want to make my own work, and that I actually do like consulting, so I decided to do commercial work and then my own work, instead of these more in-between activities like teaching or writing catalog essays. I’d rather just split it, have a separation of church and state. That was a useful period of trying a lot of different things, which I really encourage everyone to do in their own way if they can.

So Martti Kalliala was my dear friend in Berlin for years. He was trained as an architect and had worked for Rem Koolhaas and then had moved into this very analogous sphere of criticism, theory, art, and music that also resonated with me. I felt like there was still a lot of room to create a consulting practice that was not just a coldblooded commercial thing, but had an intellectual curiosity to it, and that produced reports that were relevant to a general public, not just to clients. To use consulting as an information-seeking and research process, but not necessarily an art project the way that K-HOLE was. I pitched the idea to Martti and he was super down. We got a client a week later. 

Nemesis became a big part of my everyday life and still is. I got to use a lot of the things that I learned from K-HOLE and design a tighter, better system, and have a more stable partnership to do strategy, branding, and creative direction in a more straightforward and rigorous way. We both have creative practices parallel to this. So we’re in a similar position of wanting this commercial practice to help feed our creative practices, but also not needing our client work to be the place where the magic happens. I think that there’s a trap when smarty-pants, creative people go into strategy. They’re trying to do too much with the strategy because they're taking energy that should go into their own work and putting it into a client interaction. 

Cab: Yeah. You said that Nemesis was operating on a tighter system, but it also feels like for your life, you have all the inputs and outputs set correctly now, you know what I mean?

From the report “Max Pain (A Recent History)” by Nemesis. [Two images against a grey background: the NME logo and a snippet of text from sound/information theory... “the amplification of a dissonant signal creates distortion with artifacts...”]

Emily: I mean, Nemesis really created a new era for me where I got to use the skills that I’ve developed in more intensive corporate settings, but do them on my own terms in a way that feels sustainable and good. I find it draining sometimes like anything else, but I generally really enjoy it and I get to work with people who I respect and learn about interesting things. 

Cab: Who were Nemesis’ first clients?

Emily: So our first client was Rimowa, which had just been acquired by LVMH. We did a little project with True Religion. We were also in touch with Virgil Abloh from basically the beginning. I guess Virgil had been talking to Hans Ulrich Obrist and said that the basis of everything that he did was normcore, which is extremely flattering. And Hans Ulrich was like, “okay, well you have to talk to Emily.” So Virgil just called me and from the very first time that we talked, it was like we’d known each other forever. I know that sounds cheesy, but there was a really high degree of resonance and familiarity. 

He was working on Off-White at the time, which was totally blowing up. I told him about Nemesis, and he said he’d been wanting to do a kind of think-tank style project or report, and invited us to Paris to meet. So Martti and I went to Paris, went to an Off-White show, saw Naomi Campbell walk the runway. Martti didn’t recognize her, which I thought was hilarious. The next morning, the meeting we had was canceled, which is really typical in fashion — it’s a very hurry up and wait industry. But of course, we’d come all the way to Paris and had just started a business and were paying for everything out of our pockets. So I texted him to see if we could just come by the showroom and say hi. We met for half an hour, but there was a lot of chemistry in the room. We ended up meeting more in Paris and working on this report together that was trying to theorize a new form of luxury. It actually never came out, it’s in our vault — maybe we’ll put it out one day.  

We helped Virgil figure out how to do some of the first campaigns he did with Louis Vuitton, which was just amazing. It was really exciting to see someone working on such a high level who saw the way I was doing things, which I had always thought was maybe a bit strange or weird — he saw it as completely obvious. He was like, “of course you just have to do everything.” He was so encouraging, beyond sweet, you know, you could tell him about anything, even if it was something he was totally unfamiliar with, and he would just be like, “You're going to kill it. This is what you should do. You got this.” When he passed away, so many people shared that same story. He had a kind of lightness and sense of humor about working in all these domains that other people were stressed about. It was such a beautiful energy to bring.

Martti Kalliala, Emily Segal, and Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton headquarters in Paris, 2018. Photo by Bafic, via Mousse Magazine. [All three around a table looking at documents laid out, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.]

Cab: And then while Nemesis is starting up, you finished the book, right?

Emily: Yes, I finished the manuscript and I got a great literary agent in New York, and we sent it out to all the big publishing houses. I get a lot of positive feedback but no deal. It felt very close at some of these prestigious publishing places, which would have been amazing in a way, though knowing the life the book has had now I couldn’t see it any other way. But it was really frustrating, after doing so much DIY publishing and self-initiated work with friends, to then be like, “okay, gatekeeper, assess me.”

Of course you want them to be like, “You’re a genius. We are actually giving you the Nobel Prize in literature, we’ve never seen anything like it.” [laughs] I did get some great feedback that did improve the work, which is the most important thing. But I hated being assessed in that way. It felt terrible. A big turning point was when I came back to New York for a visit and I went to the Are.na offices on Canal and was talking to you, and you were kind of reminding me of the types of distribution methods and projects that we thought were cool. And that my book was an artist project, it was meant to account for these years of artistic production. When we were talking about it, it just kind of gave me the permission to start thinking about the book outside of this process of getting it published by a Great Press or whatever. 

A few months later, COVID lockdown struck and my partner and I rented a place in Joshua Tree for a little while. I was getting more rejections from more presses and the economy was crashing. I started researching idly how to start a literary press, and I discovered that there were so many tools available that made it very, very straightforward on a technical level. There are so many new print-on-demand options, distribution options, fulfillment options. With Shopify, you can create a web store for anything really quickly. I was reminded, as we’ve now been talking about for hours, that starting small publishing projects with my friends is what I’ve always done. I felt reconnected to my familiarity and my power, and it became fun again. 

I pitched this idea to Cyrus Dunham and Hannah Baer, dear friends of mine who had also been on the college newspaper with me. They had also written books during the same period as me, and we’d been reflecting on what we liked and didn’t like about those processes. So we had been formulating an editorial hypothesis without even realizing that’s what we were doing. We were realizing there was this hole in the market for books that were advanced, literary, and experimental, and were also very fun and bingy and maybe worked with genre in unexpected ways. We wanted to make a press that’s more pop and more accessible than a lot of small presses are. 

So they agreed to work on this together and for us to put out my book as our first release. My friends at Violet Office hooked us up with design in just an incredible way. Math [Bass] donated artworks that we traded. It felt so supportive and so fun. I basically just diverged from this traditional publishing plan and used the need to put out my own book as a way to start Deluge.

Deluge homepage. [A black background with Deluge and Deluge’s droplet logo in white. Box-y, drop-shadowed, early internet buttons line the top of the homepage, leading to other pages like Books, Merch, and Blog.]

Cab: How do you think about scale for Deluge or for Nemesis? Both projects have been so successful and completely on your own terms. Do you imagine them getting much bigger than they are? 

Emily: Nemesis isn’t meant to get much bigger than it is. It’s cool if we can bring in collaborators and do bigger projects, but it’s meant to be a small, low-overhead business that helps us live our lives. Whereas anything’s possible with Deluge. We’re on a roughly three-book-a-year cadence, but it could definitely get bigger. That’s more undecided for me. When we started it, I didn’t really think of it as a business with a capital B. Nemesis is a commercial project with an intellectual investigation built into it. Deluge is a creative project that’s a labor of love, but it actually has turned out to be more viable as a business than I expected. We did this NFT project to support it, which went really well, and helped open up new possibilities in terms of what we were able to fund and support.

You know, literary presses were to me in the same category as a restaurant — something a rich kid would waste their trust fund on or something. The type of project that just bleeds money. But now that there are these new infrastructural ways to do it, it’s not like that. Even at the very beginning we were kind of breaking even. We can be more targeted about what we make and how we put it out into the world. Because our collaborators have been so generous, it’s been doable. I’m realizing that there are a lot of possibilities for what could happen and we just have to see. I’m very proud of it, and the fact that instead of putting our energy toward discussing what’s wrong with the broken literary industry, we just went ahead and built something that we think is cool. That’s such a positive energetic shift and it just brings blessings into your life and into your practice to do that. Building infrastructure that we can use and that our friends and collaborators can use to put things out makes me really happy. 

Inside the Books page on Deluge’s website. [A page with a grey background and rows of Deluge books, all with clean, simple, & futuristic designs and in excellent color schemes, like yellow-green and black; baby blue and hot pink.]

Cab: Who are the models that you look towards in terms of people making businesses or carrying out their professional lives in interesting ways?

Emily: For Deluge the inspiration was the press Semiotext(e) and Commonplace, which is a podcast about poetry that is super influential for me. Bill Kouligas’ record label Pan is also extremely influential for Deluge as a model because it’s very idiosyncratic and created new genre boundaries between noise music and club music, just by sort of playing out Bill’s own taste in this particular way. The music world has been fucked up for a really long time, so artists have had to figure out alternative ways of doing things. How do you make it work when the traditional system is over? 

Are.na of course is very influential, always, which I know you were just fishing for super gratuitously. Dis, just in terms of being an ongoing entity that’s always changing shape, but staying true to its own vision. And then in terms of sensibility, I want there to be this intimacy with what we put out that harkens back to the way I felt about books and magazines as a teenager, you know? Where you felt really excited to get a new issue of something and you felt like the world stopped and it was just you and this thing. Everything is noisy and wack and sludgy and very few things stand out, and I love literature for requiring you to take time with it. It gives you a bit of breathing room. 

Cab: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I’m thinking back to the early days of this conversation… [laughs] 

Emily: Six hours ago… [laughs]

Cab: The way that you were describing your motivations for publishing and starting Deluge made me think about how generous this process is — finding this kind of literature that speaks to you so specifically and finding ways to support these people.

Emily: Thank you. It’s also something that I encourage people to investigate with their own practices. There’s so much that you can do beyond just making your thing. You can also work on the whole system of getting that thing and others like it out into the world. There’s a lot of room for expansion and creativity there. I think the coolest projects look at the whole system, or try to.

Charles Broskoski is one of the many co-founders of Are.na.