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Guerilla: The Same Formula, But Now Across Canada

December 2011

By Mike Levin

There’s something unsettling about Tony Martins. Unsettling, that is, if you expect someone with publisher/editor/writer after his name to have a definite plan of what his next issue, and maybe the one after that, should contain.

And if that content is shifting from Ottawa culture to all-of-Canada culture, then why does he simply shrug when I ask what Guerilla 31 will be about when it is posted in March? “You know, it’s never really been a goal-oriented thing. It’s evolved, about making an impact with whatever you have at your disposal,” he says.

Martins started Guerilla magazine in 2004 and since then has built with partner Paul Cavanaugh, arguably, Ottawa’s best-known alternative arts media – Ottawa culture at ground level – with very strong content and issue-launch events at places like the National Gallery of Canada. It’s always been online, and until two issues ago also came in print form. Now he’s looking for new journalistic territory.

“We tell Ottawa about itself, away from special interest groups. Canada needs that too,” he says, and he’s right. There are less than half a dozen national arts media (personal blogs not included) on the Internet, and only Canada Arts Connect focusses on anything other than high-profile visual arts and artists. None regularly cover outsider art or drag queens or tattoos or musicians who are too honest for their own promotional good.

Come spring, those stories won’t be just about Ottawa but from anywhere in this country that Martins can dig up an enthusiastic writer or photographer who wants to help dissect Canada’s cultural guts.

But first there is the launch of Guerilla 30, December 17 at the National Arts Centre, the magazine’s final Ottawa-centric hurrah.

Tony Martins. Courtesy of the most exquisite moments.

Then it’s the national stage. “Not much will be different. It will be about establishing credibility in other cities, a bigger pool.” He’s not completely sure how it will work, or even if, although he’s had a previous career in promotional marketing so networking is just another skin.

This is how Guerilla started, and that’s why his national plan can puzzle outsiders. Canadians tend not to do this kind of thing on a wing and a prayer; we’d have a marketing team and a sales rep, an established group of contributors and focus groups. And even then we’d be sweating in our boots.

“Huh,” Martins says. “It’s going to be the same formula, quarterly, five or six in-depth stories and steady additions to G-gallery and the blog. It’s just me, same budget. We’ll see how it goes.” He’s had success once, albeit through hard work; no reason it won’t happen again.

Anyone can put up a Website and write about any subject they want. But with the Guerilla brand centred in Ottawa, Martins is taking a gamble. “I don’t see it that way. The keys are (being able to create) content development without being (in multiple cities), but there are tons of young writers and photographers out there. It’s just about using contacts.”

Ultimately online success is measured by traffic, and he’s not giving up his other jobs, including editing the Kitchisippi Times. Guerilla may eventually reunite with its hard-copy sibling; it may graft on a business manager who can sell advertising. Martins adds these things with another shrug, although there is a plan planted in his head. “I have thought about this for so long,” he says. “I see it as (an attempt) to get the same respect we have in Ottawa.”

It seems simple, but it’s not. Martins drove Guerilla by finding a niche that was virtually empty and then by convincing some very good writers and photographers to help fill it for virtually no money. It was entirely collaborative, an inevitable direction for arts in Canada.

Which is where he’ll strike out for after the NAC launch, probably unsettling a few more people along the way.

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