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Art in a Box, with Love from James Franco

Actor’s mirror-and-lipstick tribute to Brad Renfro is featured in object-based publication The Thing

The actor James Franco crouched over a table, his neck bowed in deep concentration. Franco had come to a tiny 400-square-foot storefront in the Mission district to commemorate the passing of a friend. But this was no funeral. It was the latest installment of The Thing, a quarterly publication that Franco was guest editing.

“It represents what it’s like to be a performer,” said Franco, pointing to the objects that would be bundled into the issue — a lipstick-covered mirror and a photo of a switchblade carving the word “Brad,” as in the actor Brad Renfro, into Franco’s right arm. “You go into something with such high hopes, things happen, you get so terribly disappointed.”

The Thing is a conceptual art object-based publication started by two Bay Area artists, Jonn Herschend and Will Rogan, in 2007. As magazine, book, and music publishing continues to migrate onto iPads and MP3 players, projects like The Thing — which celebrate tactile pleasures — have grown in the Bay Area.

“We wanted to do something in books and writing,” said Rogan, a former librarian.

“But we also wanted something that could reveal itself in physical terms,” added Herschend. “You know, something with an element of surprise.”

The Thing, which publishes 500 to 1,000 copies per issue, has indeed surprised its fans with things like door stops and double-sided playing cards. “It’s like the opposite of digital,” Rogan said. “You can feel it, you unwrap it, and it has history.”

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Another part of the fun is that each issue has featured a different guest editor, including Jonathan Lethem, a writer, and Chris Johanson, an artist. The author Dave Eggers and the designers MacFadden & Thorpe will edit future issues.

Rogan and Herschend’s publication-as-art approach dates back to the early 1960s Fluxus “intermedia” movement, when artists and musicians collaborated on hand-built limited edition “magazines” that included games, cards and whatever else they could dream up.

Fluxus is “when the shift from publication as supplement of information about art to magazine page as a medium — and as an exhibition space — really started happening,” said Gwen Allen, a professor at San Francisco State University and author of the book “Artists’ Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art.”

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