Silva Cunningham: The Sketchbooks of Growing Up

Silva Cunningham created a youth culture magazine called Plates Of Meat one year ago. In her words, “The entire thing is about the process of growing up and figuring itself out.” From the first issue to the upcoming fifth, each one follows a different process. Issue 1 was “Sex…all good things start with sex”, Issue 2 was “Adolescence”, Issue 3 was “Style”, Issue 4 was “Phases”, and Issue 5 will be “Fame”. The first time I encountered Plates Of Meat was last summer in magCulture, a magazine shop in London. I was thumbing through different magazines anxiously, the store was closing in ten minutes and I hadn’t found anything right up my alley, so to speak. Then, I found Issue 3 of this zine. While reading the content and all the layouts, in that moment, I actually achieved a “head orgasm”.

On the day we met, Cunningham was just back from the post office, wearing blue eyeshadow, red lipstick and a pair of cute boots made by her mom. It felt like she went to a fashion party, she just likes to dress up sometimes even going nowhere. As we sat down for our interview, she would throw an idea and support it with one or two points; very logical and philosophical.

FRONTRUNNER spoke to Cunningham about the making of Plates Of Meat, teenage years, thoughts on being an adult, and more.

Photo credit: Silva Cunningham

How’s your week, like, week to week?

It really depends. Sometimes I’m incredibly busy and want to cry. Most of the time, I’m mainly just talking to people about the idea of something until the next busy week comes. I’m trying to do each issue of Plates Of Meat on a quarterly schedule. But it’s just me working on the zine, so it’s quite difficult to stick to that schedule in a very rigid way. Embarrassingly, the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is go on Instagram or TikTok, which I hate, but I love. If I see someone who’s made something really cool, I’ll send them a message. So I’ve messaged a lot of random people that I’ve never met before just for the sake of having that work. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Issue 4 of Plates Of Meat launched in early November, so have you started preparing the new issue yet?

Always. The fifth issue is going to be the “Fame” issue. I’m really excited because I’m collaborating with more people than I ever have before. It’s going to feature a lot more specific magazine editorials than it has before. Usually, the way the magazine has operated is that people have preexisting work that they will submit to the magazine, which is great, as well. It means that people have made work on their own fruition, then it happens to go into a publication. Whereas what I’m trying to do this time is more or less set a kind of brief for what I would like to create, and have people that I’m really interested in working with helping me fulfill that brief.

How did you come up with this “fame” theme?

I see fame as a phase that young people have to go through, especially with our generation having grown up with fame being such an accessible resource. Wanting fame, or realising what fame is, is certainly a big part of growing up for people my age who I’ve spoken to on the subject. The idea of it always struck me as interesting. How has “fame” affected the psyche of our generation? How do we think about fame? Do we correlate it purely with success? Is the only achievable success now [regarded as] fame? That’s the question I’m trying to figure out. Whatever kind of path you go down, being famous benefits that career. Everyone seems to have an intuitive understanding of that. Especially within publications and journalism, because most places won’t really publish things about people that you don’t “care” about. For example, they’re going to publish an article about “Harry Styles’ hot 20 new looks” instead of a “regular” person, who created an entire fashion collection based on the mating rituals of doves. To be clear – both of these are reasonable things to show an interest in, however I find it upsetting that it’s often very difficult to find examples similar to the latter. 

For instance, I’m really interested in speaking to someone like Sam Barsky. With no pattern, he knits these incredible jumpers based on famous sights, and then takes photos of himself wearing them at the actual destinations. Just by him sharing his passions, his craft for knitting via the internet, he’s cultivated a niche fan base. He is now quite famous within the knitting circle. I find that so interesting. 

The Fame issue is something better to explore early on in the “life” of the magazine, so that I can do a deep dive into the topic, then re-explore and touch back on that research in later issues.

Are you self-disciplined?

Yes and no.

With myself? Feeding myself and showering and getting dressed every day, absolutely not. With the magazine, when I have someone else’s work involved, I don’t want to let anyone down – especially no one who’s entrusted me with their work. There’s just higher stakes when you’re working with other people’s art. Whereas when I’m just by myself, sitting in the studio, trying to make my own work just for me, not even necessarily for the magazine – I just want to cry, because it’s really hard to motivate myself into doing something for myself and by myself.

So it’s the sense of responsibility driving you to be motivated.

More like guilt, I think. I just don’t want people to be disappointed in something that they’ve contributed to.

What triggered you to make this zine? What moment made you decide to create a zine like this?

I think it was a couple of different things. Issue 1 was going to be a standalone thing without having any further repeats or copies. I made Issue 1 during lockdown when I was doing a foundation at CSM (Central Saint Martins). I knew I wanted to make a “final piece” all about the anthology of something. At that time, all the work I made was just about sex, completely and totally. I made a candle which I’m very proud of, called “Vajankle”. It’s a foot with a vagina on top and the wicks coming out with the vaginas. The moment you light the candle and the vaginas burn away, it suddenly becomes purely a foot and no longer a “useable” object – so to speak. So I was making stuff like this, and thought it would be nice to consolidate all the ideas into some kind of catalog. My favourite thing in the world is a magazine. I love them so much, so I thought it’d be fun to try making one. 

I thought the name Plates Of Meat was funny – it’s Cockney rhyming slang for person’s feet. It’s the perfect blend of whimsical and dumb. 

I never saw the magazine as something that I was going to keep doing, because after I finished Issue 1 I went to UCL (University College London) to study philosophy. I did that course for about two months, then was like, “I hate this, I’m miserable.” I really thought I would have loved philosophy, but it just wasn’t for me. Since I was 16, I thought knowing facts was what being intelligent was – as I got older I realised that knowing the times and dates that things happened doesn’t make you intelligent, it means you have a good memory. Somehow, I just found myself feeling so much happier when I was just making that zine for myself. So, I decided to defer the year and started making Issue 2 (Adolescence Issue) of the magazine. I texted a few of my friends who had made art during lockdown to ask for works about being a young person. I got loads of incredible things, like a sweet, intimate conversation between my friend and her mother, some self-portraits from a good friend who is an incredible photographer, some pictures of my friend’s girls trip in summer, to name just a few. All of these incredible moments that I found, I got real joy in laying out and putting all together in a way that sort of made sense, from a colour perspective, from a story perspective, etc. From then on, I knew I could totally do this again. So I started reaching out to people that I didn’t know and slowly graduated from there. Now it’s a year later. So, there was never a moment where I thought this is what I want to do with my life, and there still hasn’t been. I think I’m just taking it one day at a time. If it becomes consistently unenjoyable to make, I think that it’s the time to leave it – because, who would want to read a magazine made by a person with disdain for their creation.

Are you that kind of person who tend to follow the trendy stuff?

Um, no? No. I think I just like what I like. If that happens to be in line with what’s on trend, sick. At the moment, it happens to not be, if that makes sense. For instance, the whole Y2K thing is what’s going on in fashion at the moment, isn’t it? Well, I don’t like it. From a visual standpoint, I love the way that things were laid out during the year 2000. But what I find really frustrating is that kids now are only taking the “sexy bits” of it. The way trends are going at the moment seems to perpetuate the idea that you have to grow up neatly and quickly, there’s no room for kids to be kids. You have to go straight from being like 7 or 8 years old to being 25. There’s no room for experimentation, no room for you to look like an idiot because everything you do now is documented. And I think kids have an intuitive understanding of this. The things I loved as a kid I was ruthlessly mocked for – not just by other kids, but by the wider internet… any trend you participated in was met with such scrutiny, especially as a young girl. I think it just made me frightened to explore things at the height of their popularity – that was a big point of exploration for me in Issue 4, the Phases issue – because I wanted to give myself the space to not be embarrassed by the trends I wanted to participate in. 

That being said, a lot of the trends that I can think of that are coming out now are based off things that we’ve already seen. My issue with that is, if we have this creative culture that continues thriving on nostalgia, what we can create that is new? I worry it would be a really stale creative scene. Of corse art and pop culture have always rested on the shoulders of what has come before, but what I’ve noticed recently is that most of the art we consume and remake is made for advertising… I’m really tired of seeing things that are just made to be bought as opposed to made of interest and passion. That’s why I have a real interest in things that are off-trend. 

“Vajankle candle”
Photo credit: Silva Cunningham

Do you care about other people’s opinion about your works?

I really care! I really care about how I’m perceived, whether people think what I make is interesting or not. But I don’t care if it’s trendy. I would like to present people enjoying their own creativity and capture what they are actually making of their own fruition. If I’m totally honest, I think being a person in any sort of creative industry, you are seeking to have your work seen – that may not correlate with “caring about their opinion” – but it’s objectively in your best interest for people to connect with what you’re putting out there – I guess that ensures you can have some kind of financial freedom in the future. 

What are your inspirations or creativities for creating all the layouts?

My mom used to work at i-D, so we had a lot of magazines around when I was a kid. My dad also ran a cigarette company called DEATH™ Cigarettes, most of his references were the sort of punk fanzines like Sniffin’ Glue. As I grew up around a lot of creative adults, I slowly gained a wide reference base from all these wildly talented people. I’m horrible at maths, and I’m awful at spelling. Those things weren’t really important in my house. I think my mom is one of the main reasons that I love the things that I love, and I do what I do, because she would be on board to support me, no matter what. I feel incredibly lucky to have been uplifted from such a young age. Although, my dad’s a bit more dubious. He is very nervous about my future, but that’s okay. You got to have someone worrying. 

How do you feel being an adult now?

I don’t think I feel like an adult, but I don’t think I feel like a child. I’m just a bit confused right now. Going to boarding school for me was very stunting. When I was 17, about to leave the school, I realised I didn’t know how to be an adult. Because I’d just been pretending to be really mature and really grown up this whole time since about 13. But I didn’t even know how to clean my sheets, or wash my hands. So that summer when I left school, I convinced myself I was going to die. I couldn’t sleep and my heart was always racing. It turns out, I was just having constant panic attacks. But in my head, this is exactly how I was going to die – dead at 17, dead a virgin… without having anyone really having loved me in the way I want to be loved. I made it my mission to “become an adult” – or “loose my virginity”. 

Then, I lost my virginity at 18, which was nice and fun… but having someone stick something in a hole or orifice in your body doesn’t make you feel like an adult. I think I just really craved some kind of instant, adult feeling. As I’ve gotten a little bit older, I think being an adult isn’t a feeling, being a child isn’t a distinct feeling that you only ever feel once. They’re just states of being and you can fluidly move between each [of them]. 

I found this video for myself at 18 the other day on my old computer. She’s such a scared little person, who was so nervous about dying a virgin and dying being “no one”. What I’m starting to realise now at 20… is that “being no one” and “doing nothing” is not a quantifiable thing. Even if you’re at the top of whatever career ladder you’re in, it will never be enough. I wish we didn’t celebrate birthdays, It can feel like such a weirdly negative thing to celebrate. A lot of my friends turned 20 or 21 this year… and we’ve felt quite put out by the whole experience of not being the youngest person possible in a room – it’s like you have to hit these milestones by a certain point, otherwise you are a failure. When I turned 20, I cried intermittently for the entire day because I hated the idea of turning 20. I don’t know, it’s interesting that from the age of realising what numbers are, we pay a lot of attention to how old we are.

Are you still anxious? 

Always! It’s still something that I can’t quite get out of my head… the idea of what success is. It’s a difficult thought pattern to break yourself out of because no matter where you are or what you’re doing, you’re not “there”. Aristotle called it “Eudaemonia” or the end point of why you’re doing what you’re doing – Aristotle argued that it was all just seeking happiness. I think about that a lot, like why am I doing X Y, Z? It always does come down to “I would like some kind of happiness.” And what I’m trying to figure out at the moment, especially with the next “fame issue”, is: is it possible to be happy and famous? Or is fame simply some kind of figurehead for what success should be or look like and is completely unachievable? Camus argued that “fame” becomes a separate entity to the person all together. Even if it were achievable, would you be happy in that position? My argument at the moment  is “No, I don’t think you would… but how would I know?”

Four issues of Plates of Meat + Halloween costume catalog
Photo credit: Silva Cunningham

Do you have any expectations for your magazine?

Not any in particular. I have hopes that people will enjoy it! But my only expectation for it is that: there will be copies of a thing called Plates Of Meat in some people’s homes… I try to always keep my expectations to the bare minimum of whatever I’m making, because I just don’t know what’s a reasonable expectation of something. I’m quite interested to see where it goes. It’s a tiny bit like having a kid, I want to know what kind of person it will be. I have this idea, throughout the issues, every now and then there’ll be a leg like this Issue 4 cover, or an arm on other issues… eventually, when you put all the magazines together, it’ll be a person. I think it’d be really fun to have a mishmash collage of a guy, “Plates Of Meat Man” it’s something I’m toying with at the moment.

What kind of person will it be like?

I don’t know at the moment. The only faces that I have on the issues are my mom. But I should try some different things, just test the waters out with what’s going on. I like not having a direct formula for how it looks, which means it has legs to go anywhere. The only thing that matters is that it’s called Plates Of Meat, basically. I’ve heard some people say that the lack of formula makes it very confusing. I really like that because growing up is very confusing, it’s not going to be one direct thing. Playing dress-up with who you want to be is a very important part of growing up, you have to try on different costumes to see if they fit. I mean, if that really fits the publication, then maybe it will become a publication solely about Twilight and how much I love Twilight – it just hasn’t figured out what its tagline is yet, and that’s fine too – none of us have…

About the magazine, will you consider doing a digital version sometime in the future?

It’s a sad topic for me. I know print is dying. I’m very broken up about it. Part of what Plates Of Meat is to me is a magazine made for myself at 16. I loved to cut up magazines and make new things out of them. So I really want to see people create their own art made from Plates of Meat. For example, if someone cut this picture of me out, put some deer legs on it and put me in the middle of the ocean, I would be happy as a clam. As for the digital version, I’ll consider it, but it might not happen. I don’t see a point in making a digital magazine where you just press the “next button” and click through it. If something is going to be presented in an online format, there should be a reason why it’s online. 

If I were to do a digital version, I think it would be primarily videos or interactive mini games. I’d really love to do a dress-up game, like those games where you drag dresses onto those insanely thin women in the Flash Player games of the early 2000s. So, if Plates Of Meatwent digital, I want it to be interactive in a way that you cannot have in a printed publication.

Any hopes for 2022?

I don’t really like the idea of being 2022, it just feels like it’s still 2020. I mean, at the end of the first lockdown, I moved out from my childhood home, never to go back. I was born in that house and lived there my entire life. For the past two years, I’ve been trying to find “home” again, without ever really knowing what that meant, because that house was always my home. So my hope for the new year is that I find a home.

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