[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]
Ausgang is a website, compass, and treasure box, all designed and maintained by Melinda Fries. The site, an institution at ten years old, is updated quarterly with contributions from folks across the globe, on pre-determined topics ranging from “10 Books I’d Recommend” to “Radio” to “Guns.” New topics are announced regularly, in pairs, but anyone can contribute to any section at any time. Contributions can be written, played, scanned, or anything else’d—there is no set tone or ethic, which is part of the reason why ausgang always feels exciting and new.
This summer, Melinda was kind enough to answer some questions by email. Mairead Case sent her a list of questions, in random order, and then Melinda answered as she wished—the interview below is a transcript of their internet conversation.
What made you start ausgang? Was it because of a space you were in, a goal you had, some friends, something else? Why is it a website instead of, oh, a zine or a listserv or something?
I was moving constantly at that time in my life. I wanted a long term project that didn’t require me to be in the same physical space to maintain it. I also wanted a project that could involve the public. I wanted to find a way to collaborate loosely with a group that was much more diverse that what I was finding within the “art world.” While there are many artists who participate in ausgang, many of the submissions are from people who are not interested one way or the other in whether or not ausgang is an art project.
A zine would have required more physical living space than I often had, and a listserv would not have resulted in the same kind of “space” that you find when you visit ausgang.
I decided at the very beginning to post on the seasons. I wanted to post regularly but not daily or even monthly. I wanted to see something that would slowly change vs. the daily and hourly updates that people were getting excited about even ten years ago. I spend a lot of time alone and periodically check out of technology use. I wanted to create an ongoing site that reflected this.
Where did the name come from?
The name “ausgang” is German for “exit.” I spent a lot of time in Germany during the years I was beginning ausgang and liked both the literal and philosophical meanings.
Do you listen to music while you are uploading everything? Or eat snacks?
Snacks that are not too gooey or that won’t melt are important. I usually start with a music playlist that will last several hours, but talk radio is where I always end up. NPR, depending on what’s playing, but with internet radio the choices are phenomenal. WFMU and Coast to Coast are standby favorites of mine.
What excites you about ausgang? Why is it still important to you, and has that reason changed over time?
There has never been an issue where I was not amazed by some crazy, beautiful response to a topic. Something that I would never have thought of or noticed otherwise. I get excited when people I have never met before tell me they are readers or contributors. I do not know everyone who contributes personally, and there are a few people who contribute under aliases so I do not even know all contributors’ real names. I like this part of ausgang very much.
How are you different from when you started it? Or are you?
I hope so—it’s been ten years! Hahaha. Exactly how is harder to say. I have evolved, and so has the site. It is no longer an internal need for me to have a constant steady project, but I have kept going with ausgang because I enjoy it, it surprises me often, and new contributors turn up every issue.
How do you pick how to do it? Meaning: why those times of the year? Why those topics? Where are the photos from?
Since I didn’t want to post daily or monthly, the seasons seemed like an existing and intuitive way to divide time. My life was very chaotic and having a regular project that happened at the same time every three months was a good way to personally organize myself.
The topics are chosen from what interests me at the moment. I don’t plan these ahead of time, and I know instinctively when I’ve chosen the right ones. Occasionally I ask someone else to choose the topics, but this is rare.
I usually pick or shoot the photo for the current cover while I am putting together the updates. Often someone has emailed me an image or I see one on Facebook that I think is appropriate. Just as often I take a walk and find what I am looking for.
I just re-read the contributions you made to the Sleeping and Living section. Do you still like living above street traffic? And however did you find the open hotel room?
Yes, I like street traffic noises although after house sitting recently on a busy street in Humboldt Park I realized that my street corner here at 50th and Racine is quiet in comparison. There are occasional fights and police and gunshots and fireworks and buses, but overall it’s quiet and I’m liking it. It’s a different kind of quiet than the kind found in the suburbs or a rural area. There is truck traffic and other industrial noise, but compared to the talking and shouting that you hear in other parts of the city, there is an aural space to be found here. There is also physical space. Buildings are father apart, and due to poverty and lack of city upkeep, the area has an amazing number of empty lots.
Open hotel room doors are found by walking the halls of a hotel and keeping your eyes open. It goes without saying that the cheaper the hotel is, the more chance you have of actually getting in the building. When we found those rooms (it happened twice), we were simply looking for a dry quiet corner to sit out a rainstorm. Sometimes hotels also have a public bathroom/shower by the pool, which can come in handy when travelling the way we were at the time.
Where did you grow up? Did you like being a teenager?
I grew up near the airport and Highway 80, on the edge of Cleveland. I hated being a teenager. I was painfully shy and awkward, and facing the world took a lot of time and effort for me. However, I did find an amazing community of people at a local community center. The ages ranged from 12-40. I have always been surrounded by groups diverse in age, ethnicity, and economic background.
Do you know most of the people who contribute to the site, or are most people friendly strangers? Have you made any friends because of ausgang?
As I said above, I don’t know everyone in person. Over the years I have become friends with several people after they contributed, and have also connected with a few people because they contribute regularly. There are several people that I only have an email/internet relationship with, but I have to say I consider them to be very integral parts of my extended family. Occasionally people ask for more information about a contributor and I usually forward these requests to the person. So I’m not always sure what happens there, but have found out later that occasional shows or meetings have happened this way.
What feels like home?
For many years nothing did, so it was easy to move around constantly. Sleeping outside has always felt just right in many ways. Sleeping on a moving freight train is perfection. As I’ve moved around and settled more I realize that crumbling, heavy industry combined with green always resonates. Think Youngstown and Cleveland, Eastern Europe, Kansas City, and Chicago, but not the Loop. Rather, the industrial corridors, and in particular the South and West sides. The view out my window these days could be the view from many cities I’ve lived in over the years.
What feels like your main project right now?
Life. Ha ha ha. OK, well maybe living life while laughing.
There is the Free Store [a partnership with Salem Collo-Julin and Biggest Fags Ever (Zena Sakowski and Rob Kelly), see http://thefreestorechicago.org/ and talk of an ausgang book and a very, very long walk I would like to take. Recently, I started taking photos in an organized way again, which means I will possibly be shooting some new video soon as well. But everything is in flux and it’s an exciting time of change.
What is your favorite entry or category on the site? If I had never been to ausgang before, how would you tell me to find my way around?
I have many, many favorites entries, but a few standouts are How to Make Your Own Inkjet Finger from Swezlex, Grilled Cheese Collection from Deborah Stratman, and Train Notes from 1987 from James Benning. There are so many more, but those I really love and revisit. I am very fond of the topics Lists, The Weather, Accidents & Injuries, and Fakes & Scams, but I also get excited about the new ones, even if no one else does. Instructions is currently my fave.
My directions on finding your way around are simple. Follow the numbers, with 1 being the newest entries. The site is very layered, and if you get lost inside a section the numbers in the navigation will always bring you back to the surface. People often ask me what the rules for submission are, and I tell them to go visit the site and look around for a few days. If they see a place or topic for their piece, then they should send it over. Usually this is enough. Very rarely do I have to reject something.
What do you think will happen to Ausgang in the future? What would you like to happen?
There is talk of a book that would include selections from the site, and I have talked and thought of possibly ending the updates while leaving the site as an archive. Each time I think of this possibility, a new submission comes in that just knocks me over. For 2010 I decided to just let things be. I have been updating more often over the summer and may continue to do that. By the end of this year either a new shape will have emerged or I will be satisfied to keep things as they are.