For the fourth installment of Perimeter Talks for 2018, Perimeter co-founder Dan Rule spoke with Freek Lomme, the founder of Dutch independent publishing house, exhibition space and curatorial platform Onomatopee Projects. Founded in 2006, Onomatopee is known for its transdisciplinary approach spanning art, design, cultural inquiry, fashion and sound. The pair spoke about Onomatopee as both a wider endeavour and its specific approach to those mediums. The following is an edited excerpt from that conversation.
Dan Rule: Freek, would you like to lead us off by giving us an introduction to Onomatopee?
Freek Lomme: I started Onomatopee together with a friend of mine, a graphic designer, Remco van Bladel in 2006. I come from a background in curating. I ended up suddenly being a curator at an art space after critically responding to a policy plan — I was invited to talk and then they hired me. I was still a student. But that’s how I got into art, was by chance. I liked it a lot. I ended up programming at a big art space studio building where they had enormous big spaces. It’s great to have a lot of space, but if you cannot really program it with proper stuff you end up programming it with boring festivals or hiring it to people that you actually don’t want to be talking to. That’s when it came to my mind that it might just be better to start small and to start by doing the stuff you like, in a way you like. I also felt in curating shows that many of the shows we did — as with every show — it’s temporal, so it’s not meant to last. The memories only stick to the people who are closely involved, others tend to forget about it. Publishing is a good means to keep projects alive. Publishing is also a really good means if you’re situated in the cultural periphery — there’s no commercial gallery in Eindhoven where I’m situated, for example. I felt like it would be interesting to expand, to get stuff out and publishing offers an opportunity to build discourse. Publishing is also a means to create conversations and to connect different people. What we started to do with Onomatopee was to combine publishing and exhibition making. We started out by making projects that were interdisciplinary – stepping out of the art world.
For example, one project we did early on was to make a manual for visual culture. We discussed visual rhetorics in another project, we discussed the poetic momentum, so we touched upon different themes – different artistic strategies you could say. Another interesting project we did was in the local scene in the Netherlands there was cultural shift, a change in the creative landscape, from artists to designers. We did a project that discussed those two practices — we brought together an artist and a designer working with the same materials to see what was actually the art in the practice and what was actually the design in the practice. By making that kind of explicit we noticed that you cannot really say — sometimes the artist was more of a designer, sometimes the designer was more of an artist. What matters in the end is not the label but really just engaging the stuff you have in front of you to see what you can get out of that.
This was a project that was typical to Onomatopee and how we developed within the context that we were working in. That stayed with us over the years as we became a little bit bigger. We got a space in a studio building where we could do exhibitions in 2008, so we didn’t have to carry stuff around all the time and the books could vanish from my hallway where my girlfriend couldn’t pass through anymore (laughs). We became a little bit more visible, and in 2010 we managed to get some public funding that really took us to another level. That’s when I could pay myself at Onomatopee and it became more serious. By that time we had made about 40 publications, and had started collaborating with artists on external projects. I didn’t know much about publishing at the time, but over the years we also grew in our perspective on publishing and our perspective on bookmaking, so now I follow up on books much more. I’m not a graphic designer, I don’t have InDesign and I cannot design much so I always come up with really ugly excel visualisations or something.
DR: I prefer to work in Word (laughs).
FL: I find word art sometimes really difficult.
Anyway so at this moment there’s also two curators working at Onoamtopee, editors working at Onoamtopee and then I follow up on the business aspects.
In making books, for us it’s really important that we stick to our local responsibility in a sense. Eindhoven as I said is not a cultural place of huge enlightenment, so it’s important that we speak up about the projects that we do and try and be as clear as possible about those projects to people who visit us. We try to be mediators in that sense, because we are a foundation we’re not a private institution. That’s an interesting play always in the making of projects. We’re also a little bit known for having books that are sometimes a bit nerdy or different.
DR: Definitely. I like that ‘nerdiness’ comment but there’s also a playfulness happening in your books as well, which speaks to that democracy and accessibility that you’ve often talked about – the idea that they can be very complex ideas or peripheral ideas but the communication of those ideas is really central to it. It’s about sharing that information and putting it out into a wider sphere rather than a small art-only echo chamber.
I think it would be nice to touch on something you just said, about the publisher who is not a designer but works closely with designers and closely in conceiving books. What is your role as a publisher in that wider scheme of all this output, working with all these different collaborators?
FL: As a publisher you have some formal roles: you need to store the stuff; you need to distribute the stuff; you need to promote the stuff; you need to get it out. That’s really the publishing part. The publisher can be an editor, but doesn’t have to be. In our case we initiate projects ourselves but we also host projects. In the end it’s commercial so there’s the business aspect of it as well.
I think the processing of the book and advising on it is really important to combine the content and the form in a way that is appropriate. Often the role of the editor and the publisher is sometimes to say, ‘We should not do that because I know that shops don’t like that’. Expectation and accommodation are part of the artistic process. I like that dialogue.
DR: Michael Mack when he was out here put it really well, and I’ve often felt like this as a publisher is that your role is often as an uncomfortable middle-man between designer and artist. The idea that the artist has a particular vision for the book and how the particular body of work might operate in book form, the designer of course has a different vision that has a whole lot of different knowledge bases.
FL: They both have to accommodate each other.
DR: Exactly, and as a publisher you’re sort of going, ‘Yeah I can see your perspective, but the designer’s right, but its your work, but now it’s a book its not all your work’.
FL: It’s fragile, because designers often have a lot of pride and artists have a lot of commitment and passion, so the artist could run away crying or mad while the designer is just saying ‘I’m not going to do that’. If you just have a little bit of humour and bull shit about it that helps. I’m aware of both sides now and maybe also because we have gained a little bit of a position that you also have the authority to speak up. I’m speaking up more and more now because I know what makes sense. You develop in your qualities and in your awareness of your qualities.
DR: Let’s speak to your show at Bus Projects, Being as Becoming (April 11-May 5).
FL: I did a few shows that actually informed this project. I did a show in 2010 that was a collaboration with European Ceramic Work Centre, now called Sunday Morning. It’s a really big ceramic work centre in the Netherlands. If you want to be eligible for a residency there you have to file a proposal — you do some ceramic tests and then you expand on the tests and then it proceeds. So you have a few steps that you can document. What we did is we followed up on the process of the making — I made an informative exhibition out of it. We showed the art work but really in the end the process of it. People really appreciated that show; it was informative, it was really communicative with texts and the exhibition design was really nice. The purpose of that was to show an independent chain of production and presentation that’s still vibrant in the arts community. That project was really exciting to me because we stepped up to the process — we showed how it worked, the kind of poetic considerations that were involved in dealing with the materials and the conditions of the materials and so forth. Then in 2014 I applied for funding to do a few longer-term collaborations with artists and we made three studio exhibitions. The artist was working in Onomatopee to make new works while at the same time we had a little exhibition, we had conversations, we brought in some writers to develop a book. There were a lot of conversations between visitors and the artists. I think the practice of making is actually much more exciting — the building of a show is much more exciting than actually having a show up.
Then two years ago I did the project Can You Feel It. We did a residency where we had some artists making works and we did a show of that, we had some writers writing about the project on the side and in one of the conversations the practice of making was addressed again. Suddenly I realised in a way we’d been doing this project before and I thought we should just forefront that, make it a hypothetical situation in which we forefront the dynamics of art over the statics. I thought this was something we should do because we are an independent space and a commercial gallery could never do this because you’d never have work to sell. The idea to make art that may be more of a service instead of a finished good is something that is really exciting.
With the show at Bus what we did is we made an ethnographic situation: there’s a walkway throughout the space and by making that walkway you also divide the space into zones and leave the free zones to artists, so you have an almost ethnographic situation looking down on the artist. There’s descriptive text there and there are writers that describe the process. In a sense the exhibition is relative because it opens up to all factors available in the process. Instead of having just writers who write the text at a distance we have writers writing letters to the space, and then visitors can read those letters and reply to the artist and then start a conversation. Similarly, we recently had a show when we didn’t do lectures by smart people but just put the smart people behind the bar to serve drinks and enter conversation. That way it’s personalised. It’s a nice approach to disseminate these expert qualities. We really want to mediate between experts and people who are not experts in the field. That’s what’s exciting about this project and collaborating with Bus because they are an independent space so we are also stepping up for the type of production that takes place there and we’re also stepping up for a type of alternative economy, you could say, that is also part of that legacy. To become aware of that is important because even within independent spaces you see gallery work and you see the language of gallery work or of the commercial sphere that does not necessarily have to be there.
Onomatopee is in this really precarious situation because we don’t get support from the city right now, we are supported nationally. Because normally the city supports the back office, we have really low costs in the back of Onomatopee so I’m doing the administration myself, I do the cleaning and do basically everything just to keep the space up but we have a huge amount of money to program. It’s a uniquely weird position in that way. But it also provides urgency and it also has something to do with the loyalty that we have at Onomatmopee to produce this kind of work, to get this going. I often feel like there’s a lot of aggression motivating me in the end. It’s a bit painful to say but it’s also because you feel there’s stuff at stake as well. In a project like Being is Becoming it’s less evident, it’s less activist in that stance, but it’s also trying to mobilise a scene and to create a different awareness about what the scene might be doing. It’s a proposal.
Perimeter x Heavy is a new editorial collaboration exploring contemporary photography, art, design and their various relationships to the published form. Produced in-house by the team at Melbourne-based bookstore, publisher and distribution house Perimeter and Sydney-based photography magazine and online platform The Heavy Collective, Perimeter x Heavy comprises book reviews, interviews, studio visits and features. While further expounding the published output of artists who feature across both Perimeter and Heavy’s inventories, the platform aims to provide thoughtful insights into the wider here and now of contemporary publishing practice.