Down, Up, and Out: Scientific and Fictional Visions of Representation in Omni Magazine

Down, Up, and Out: Scientific and Fictional Visions of Representation in Omni Magazine



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In 1978, Kathy Keeton founded OMNI magazine with longtime business partner Bob Guccioni, who funded her project through his major financial success as founder and editor-in-chief of Penthouse magazine. Cured in the culture flowing with the mass technological and scientific investment, print culture in the feminism-driven 1970s promised audiences titillating technologies, seducing standards of living, and sexy futures through both textual content and imagery.

Photographs and illustrations such as craters, meteors, and satellite images of Europa’s ice striations as well as Omni’s advertisements such as Ford Mustangs, Marlboros, Dewar’s “White Label” scotch, and Chanel eau de toilet for men, ranged from grayscale to fully colored images. In some cases, Guccioni ran these editorial and advertising pages through an extra layer of coloring, giving the background a metallic sheen. A large financial expenditure like this would certainly guarantee a futuristic and gold-digging audience, suggesting magnificent colonized futures aboard asteroids and human-made satellites above Earth in orbiting Edens. OMNI Magazine fits within the Sagan-O’Neill-Star Wars popular culture, reaching multiplicities of discursive tracts through sensuous yet scientific undertones in an almost Penthouse-grade, racy editorial magazine complete with everything but the bitchin’ kink. Through a practical and theoretical archeological excavation of Omni’s technologies and textual-visual methods, we can understand Guccioni and Keeton’s use of technological sexualization by looking through three different scopes: the microscope, the telescope, and windows to the future.

Roman Vishniac and Laurence Baskin’s colorized micrography images against the scientific uses of the instrument and reading the images addresses definitions of graphic design and scientific practice that intersect here. Turning to the long-running column “Space,” which was in the early years headed by Mark R. Chartrand III addresses Omni‘s tradition of answering to the recent popular science space news, narrowing in on the communication and dispersal of images and their means of popularization. Lastly, Omni’s visions of the future, looking primarily at Omni’s portrayal of Gerard O’Neill, his cylinders orbiting at certain Lagrangian points between the earth and the moon, and the L5 Society he inspired demonstrate attention to the future, a symptom of the 70s, 80s and 90s Science Fiction.

Specifically from 1979 to 1981, a system of sexual signs emerges within Omni, perhaps as a result from Guccioni’s affiliation with Penthouse. The degree to which this affiliation penetrates the science and Science Fictional image-text relationship could be investigated by teasing the science from the fiction, leaving behind a system of sexual signs used to communicate through the advertisement and dissemination of these images and themes.

The large part of scholarly work surrounding Omni responds to its lineage within print history and Omni’s larger reverberations within it; Mike Ashley’s Gateways to Forever: The Story of Science Fiction Magazine from 1970-1980 (2007) provides a historical and biographical account of the magazines and its key players. This history will provide the necessary background upon which I will situate Omni within print’s contemporary lineage, and I intend to augment this history with a graphic design and science history. Furthermore, Omni’s affiliation with the dispersion of nanotechnology’s actors and information is outlined in Patrick McCray’s The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future. McCray provides a synthetic connection between the magazine and nanotechnology, illuminating the locations where this information is communicated in text.

After a twenty-year run Omni fell off the grid, literally and figuratively, when the mid-1990s economy took a downturn. Despite the financial trends and despite their counterparts’ folding around them, Omni managed to make the transition from print to digital format for their 1996 year, as more and more of their progressive and technologically audience adopted the web. Although the magazine successfully made the transition, Keeton died of breast cancer in 1997. Shortly thereafter in 1998, Omni fell into bankruptcy and Guccioni sold his assets, and later died in 2010. Eighteen years later in April 2013, the opportunity to re-open the business of printing predicted futures fell in to the lap of Claire Evans. On August 8, 2013, Omni Reboot launched online.

Omni Reboot reconnects with its past, featuring its usual suspects such as Bruce Sterling, Orson Scott Card, Rudy Rucker, and Ben Bova, biting the fantasy images off the old covers, and highlighting the old paranormal, Science Fictional, and sex-suggesting themes. Evans proclaims her intentions for the new Omni: “We don’t put science on a pedestal; instead, we drag it down into the city, onto the screen, and into the stream of everyday life.”[1] Fitting Omni and Omni Reboot into the lineage of print culture is a significant historical practice and a complicated one at that given its eighteen-year jump into the future. However, in understanding its design methods that highlight visions of science’s scales of representation through sexuality, specific patterns of communication and dispersion of scientific thinking through popular science and Science Fiction magazines becomes very much emblematic of 2013.

  1. [1] Claire Evans, “About Us,” OMNI Reboot, accessed November 1, 2013,

 This is a modified master’s thesis proposal for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s M. A. of Modern and Contemporary Art History, Theory, and Criticism.