Interview with Freek Lomme, director of Onomatopee

Onomatopee is a publisher only for a half: it includes also a very active exhibition space based in Eindhoven. Guided by young and passionate people, Onomatopee is emerging as a movement defined by an idealistic and committed way to explore our culture through the means of art, design and critics.

What was the impetus for starting Onomatopee?

Onomatopee was started in May 2006 by me in the role of curator and writer and Remco van Bladel working as graphic designer. We wanted to release projects including exhibitions and publications, in order to create a real experience and, at the same time, to go more in depth. We applied for funding and did fundraising, we gathered people and produce the projects basically by ourselves.

We used to work from our own houses. Remco made a lot of design and also research when the project was graphic-design related. At the time he was working for Solar, an Amsterdam-based bureau, and I became unemployed after working as a curator from 2003 till the end of 2005. I had some spare time and I thought it was good to use it setting out something on my own.

I am kind of a poet in my free time, not a good one, but still I like to write poetry, and I’m into criticism as well. Therefore I wanted to expand that realm in the region where I was living, to see what cultural production could bring about. That’s what Onomatopee does: cultural production as artistic and technical practice. We combine them both to look at how things are realized, to understand what that means and what that can add up to our awareness of current state of affairs.

I initiated projects focused on specific themes like “the creative city” or “visual literacy”. In order to deal with these we made exhibitions speculating on the production of the exhibition itself and the places involved. Furthermore, we invited critics and people from the academic world to reflect upon the various aspects related. In this way some kind of editorial board or working group was formed for each project.

The publications were able to live their own lives besides the exhibitions, even if the sphere of the exhibition was partly implemented in the books. While several critical readers are interested in practical stands, many catalogues lack theoretical ones. Claiming that we do both would be a big claim but that’s what we try to do.

Onomatopee's space in Eindhoven

In the beginning the people invited to collaborate used to work directly with us on the subjects that we addressed, conceiving Onomatopee especially as a space. As we started to release more projects and more books, those people began to perceive us more as a publisher, because many of them don’t come to Eindhoven so often to see the project we produce. Of course, we are a publisher, but only partially, because we don’t earn any money at all that way. We just want to expand the audience by spreading the publications.

What do you mean when you say you don’t make any money via publishing?

The books don’t sell that much. Often we distribute them for free to people around the Netherlands. Some newspaper we produce are for free as well. It depends.

So what’s your main source of income?

In the beginning we obtained fundings and subisidies for specific projects, at that time we were basically working for free. It was like that until 2010, when we got some fundings from the Mondriaan Foundation for an annual program and Onomatopee also got to a level which made it more visible to the art and cultural producing world. People became more interested in collaborating, they wanted to produce publications and projects with us or they just sympathize. We opened the door to them starting “Cabinet” projects, where we collaborate with other institutions or individuals which pay us, or help us doing fundraising. On the other hand, the projects we did before as thematic, critical investigations set for a certain urgency, were classified as “Research projects”.

By now, the core of Onomatopee is funded by the city of Eindhoven, while Mondriaan Foundation support our Research program. Then, as I said, there are Cabinet projects produced together with other institutions, and Nest projects, conceived to highlight regional voices on a project base. Sometimes all these intiatives bring us a bit of money but generally we gain network.

You didn’t even mention book revenues, are those so irrelevant?

If you distribute your books via big distributors, they gain at least 50 to 60 percent of the sales, which means that 40 to 50 percent is left to us. Then you have to take out the shipping cost, you have to consider the cost of storage and so on. So, let’s say that you have a book in an edition of 500 copies which costs 15 euros in shop, distributed to alternative shops worldwide in 50 to 100 copies, and you’re not sure if it sells… In this case you don’t earn that much money.

Most of the time we attend bookfairs and it’s nice to represent worldwide the artists and the projects we do, but it’s already a luck if we are able to cover the expenses for going and residing there out of the turnover we realize. Often I personally pay extras to participate becuase it’s convenient to our network, and good to spread the ideas. In the end it’s really marginal from an economical point of view but the people with whom we get in contact might invite you to write a text or to curate a show elsewhere and pay you for that, same goes for designers and artists.

Does it often happens?

Not that much, but it’s increasing, that’s also part of the movement and that’s also part of how we work. People who are being payed on a structural level at Onomatopee, work anyway as freelance, because pensionships would be too expensive and they will die out anyhow…

We try to forget about that and we offer a basic income which is really low. When more money are collected we invest it in the projects in order to increase the realm of Onomatopee and to stimulate a movement. We also try to be generous to the artists, who generally earn even less than we do. It’s a difficult market. Presumibly no one is waiting for artists or curators, and I think also graphic designers will get lower wages as long as the crisis will expand.

We are really happy of the appreciation and respect we receive from several parts of the world. By realizing all these books and by spreading them we accomplish our primary mission as an ungovernamental, idealistic, non-profit organization. As an idealistic entreprenueur we’re doing very well, but as an economic one we’re doing very bad, because we’re basically working as cheap, chinese labourers!

I believe that if you’re a real cultural producing institution you have to make a living from your activity. Of course I could give myself much more money every month instead of hiring always new people, but it’s better to spread the word. And eventually when I’ll be seventy my pensionship would be an invitation to write a text for some kind of weird artist. So I’d rather focus and pushing on that now that we’re still quite young and motivated. It’s a challenge, especially now, to live up to the legacy and see how we can survive. But as Onomatopee is getting bigger I have to get other people and I have to pay them at least a basic income. As long as things are going well to a certain extent, Onomatopee becomes more institutionalized and as such it becomes more expensive.

So what you plan to do to get more money?

Increasing the network, being realistic, being clear to the people we work with; being warm, hospitable and welcoming. Also saying “no” from time to time and being not too specific about certain things you could do for a project. I really value that I can work with the people I’m working with at the moment: Ellen Zoete, for example, who started this year; Lene ter Haar, a new curator who work for free basically because she likes to help us and she’s really good. That’s what Onomatopee is relying on, that’s what makes our hearts beating.

Of course it’s nice for Ellen if she is able to go to some kind of fairs somewhere or if we can show our writings in publications sometimes, of course it’s nice to work with interesting artists and designers, critics and so on. We’ll see how it ends up!

How does the editorial process take shape?

It varies per project. For the research projects I was mostly the one who started them, but increasingly guest curators set for a specific quest, for a central focus. The subjects are somehow floating in the air. Then we find people to work together with. We have a theme, then we have a way we want to approach it, sometimes it’s a specific organization, sometimes it’s just asking some crictics to write a text, or artists to come up with artworks. In the early stages Remco was doing all the design but the project became bigger and he wasn’t always available, so we had to find other designers for specific projects. Often I work as chief editor and I ask to translate texts in different ways: more poetic or politically oriented for instance. Then, check with the designer, stick to the deadline and make it happen.

Is the designer involved from the beginning?

Sometimes s/he’s part of the research, especially when Onomatopee was started, as all the programs we had on were project-wise. But now we have too much different projects going on at the same time, so we have an overall PR. At the time when PR was still connected to the projects, the one who designed the publication also did the PR for the exhibition. In addition, the designer works for the exhibition arrangement.

How long does all the process generally take?

It depends: some projects require lot of work, other are quite simple. For example our project A Task for Poetry, we made in 2009, was quite intense because it spanned various moments and printed matter: three exhibitions, three publications, three times different PR. It took basically half a year. Same went for The Form and Frame project we did last year, it was a lot of productional work because we had two editorial groups working separately. They were assembled sometimes, and we had one graphic designer who designed the overall project and the exhibition. The design matches what we did over there, but it’s in a way more accessible, more able to reach out a general audience. They feed us and we feed the masses!

A Task for Poetry 3, Ono­matopee, 2009

The design of your books is particularly taken in consideration, in fact you won the Dutch Book Design 2010 award for the Nest series…

Personally I don’t mind for the design, but many designers do and it does increase the turnover: many graphic designers buy a book just for how it looks, which could be a pity, but hopefully they will browse the book and find something interesting to read.

Nest series, Onomatopee

Sometimes the work of graphic designers is a form of applied art, while sometimes graphic design seems an autonomous art and we debate that with the designers. The overall design of the book for the Form and the Frame was, let’s say, applied design but in a very autonomous way. I liked that because it questioned everything, it was really clear about every choice. The design in that case was a narration in itself. The editorial process was also really prominent because it was the subject of the project as well. I think from this point of view it’s a totally unique book, which is not only critical about editorial design, but it also represents a reflection upon the complete sum of what the practice might be.

The Form and The Frame, Onomatopee, 2010

How do you think Onomatopee differs from the other art publishing houses?

I think there are two aspects which make us different: one on a more formal side, the other on a more ideological one. The formal side is the fact that we really try to work as an idealistic organization, as a “stichting” as we say in the Netherlands: a legal form of an organization that claims some kind of prophecy for a certain objective. We do try to live up to that mission, which is to question the designed culture. We ask: how do we design our culture? What are the strategies involved? What are the ways to bring it about? Which people are involved, which motives are involved, and how can people get access to that? We also want to subvert the system by low wages, not working commercially at all and being a kind of rebel bulwark. From a formal level Onomatopee is also different, as I said, because we are payed to produce projects and not to produce books. That’s a huge difference. In the case of Onomatopee most of the books come out from the stuff that we initiate ourself, we manage ourself, although we increasingly work with partners.

On a more ideological level, we try to develop a new kind of cultural or artistic practice. Nowadays artistic practice should not be a modernistic practice, it shouldn’t be a feticism on matter and form which respond to previous matter and form. It should deal with actual cultural production. We try to produce culture progressively. We try to see what it can be done differently. How we can use the different strategies of designers. Indeed designers are really acting on the fracture where society has being created. I believe many artists can take an example from designers and designers, at the same time, can use artistic radicality to get inspired, to bring about something relevant and not to be discorrupt assholes. That’s the force field, the tension we try to play. Looking again, looking at the motives and at the ways to execute them, every artist is in the end a designer and every designer is an artist. Our task is to mediate in between artists, designers, academics and the general audience, trying to release interesting tensions that can maybe increase awareness, participation, emancipation and so on.

This approach is reflected in our publications. We focus on the back flap of our books. We ask: what do we mention there? Why shall we publish an hardcover catalogue when we can make a newspaper and reach out more people?

You talked about “designed” culture. What do you mean by that?

The common usage of the word “design” generally refers to the slick stuff. There are more intellectual ways to consider design, in the direction of immaterial labour for instance. I like to consider design as a verb: what do you produce? Motives, expressions, communication, practices. I think this interpretation of the word is really feasible and it requires people to take responsibility from both directions. It’s a play of responsibility and imagination: how can you imagine your environment? What can you do? What can you bring in? What motivations are involved? What techniques do you have available? That’s my take on design.

How do you promote your titles both offline and online?

We have a webshop on our website, which will be updated soon, allowing people to buy our book with different paying methods. The website is a portal, and the more project we do the more people link to us. It’s like a snowball and it increases the visibility. Our expanding network and projects’ list is the PR capital that we have and that we increasingly gain.

We have a monthly newsletter as well, sometimes bimestral because we have at least two new projects and three new books every two months. We advertise on digital agendas and at times we put banners on other websites but I have to say it doesn’t deliver that much. We have a Facebook page as well.

Are you able to detect your audience?

Of course at the beginning the audience was really centered around our own network, around people we knew, friends basically. Then, we reached out the art and design world. Especially graphic designer because we made many projects related to their field. After that, we ended in a more critical realm. And now that the space is becoming known, the general audience is getting more acquainted to Onomatopee. We don’t only reach out people during big festivals like the Dutch
Design Week
, where people bump into us and forget about us the week after. Now people know where to find us and start to see us as a place where they can go, a platform they can use. That’s both the case of Onomatopee as an exhibition space and Onomatopee as a publisher. I think we’re building upon relationships. The 20.000 visitors we drew here this year will remind about Onomatopee. That’s different from the beginning and at the same time the critical realm of artists and designers is expanding. Everybody is welcome to the Onomatomovement (laughs).

This stress on relationships and network seems to re-define the meaning of publishing itself…

Again, what does the word “publish” mean? If you consider it as a verb, then to publish means to send some kind of communication to others and that’s exactly what we do, through the various channels available: sometimes we produce hardcover books, sometimes free newspaper. To publish means to use different platforms to release your ideas, to release your products, in any form they may be. This is interesting if you relate it to the current state of cultural production because it gathers all these channels.

Within this idea of publishing, can you see a specific role for the printed book?

The book can reflect what happened, it can document a certain research, sometimes in a very literal way. A book can expand things that were not on show and so on. This is what everyone knows: the factual possibilities are limited. From this point of view our books do not differ so much from other publishers’ books.

Maybe, what does distinguish us is the way we focus on the actual conduct, the fact that we experiment, test and map out the quest set at the beginning and we reflect upon that at the end. The practice is never autonomous and the reflection toward that is never independent as well. Often I say: “Practice what you preach, and preach what you practice”, because it defines what we try to do: we try to be sincere toward the people who produce something. We take up the responsibility to highlight what that actually means. We also try to not overanalyze it, something which happens very frequently in the academic fields.

It seems difficult to me to draw a line between analysis and overanalysis…

Sometimes we fall in that trap of course, but we try not to. Often you can condense the core of what you’re trying to say in four sentences which are really accessibile and tell the same thing that is written in many pages. Maybe it’s not academic, but it says the same thing. This way it’s much more effective on a general audience. Academics are able to construct new paradigms that are relevant. They should do that, but it’s up to places like Onomatopee to communicate it and to say what it’s really relevant. Therefore, we position ourselves a bit in between, trying to say things in a very short-sided way, being maybe populistic, because otherwise these things will die out.

Is this the way you work with artists as well? Do you discuss with them about their artworks?

Yes, we discuss that. You need to get inside of the oeuvre in order to understand it, only then you come to awareness and it becomes worthwhile. You should be able to pinpoint the core of it and to communicate it toward the audience. You should be able to express the oeuvre in two sentences, and these two sentences should be the ones that go on the back of the book.

Why don’t you provide digital versions of your books?

Because we’re not that technically oriented. Remco van Bladel, the graphic designer who started Onomatopee with me, is not that technically oriented, he’s more into the tactility of books. Eric de Haas, with whom I work more frequently now, is more into these aspects. I think it would be interesting to produce ebooks or digital downloads for free because it offers much more opportunities to spread the ideas, but then I think digital means can represent an interesting way to become more self-supported, to gain our own money.

How do you think digital innovations would enrich your contents?

Onomatopee could start a blog for instance. But do we have the capacity to move in that direction? At this moment I don’t think so, we’re already busy with the stuff that we do. If someone pops up at Onomatopee and wants to help us, I’m open to that. But I’m not going to consider other possible directions unless we have a clear reason to do that.

In a way our Facebook page is already a blog: it gathers relevant articles and posts about us. But it would be more interesting to focus upon the different currents within Onomatopee, the different “pillars”, as I like to call them: visual emancipation, bottom-up participation to the public sphere, mediation between general audience and professionals and so on… It would be good to connect the projects to these currents and to the people related. This idea requires graphic and editorial labour and also someone to manage the blog on a content level. Many issues should be solved. Who will I invite to write on the blog? Should it be completely open?

For example we are preparing a newspaper, which will describe the first five years of Onomatopee, because in September we will have an exhibition at the Van
. I want to include the Onomatopee movement simply by asking different people who symphatize with us to write a direct and informal letter to us, elaborating it on a specific topic. I drafted twelve questions and i want to call twelve persons to answer. That’s easy to do, but still I need to assemble the questions, to check out with the people who will write, to edited and so on. It’s work and it’s time! And time is in the end also money.

The conclusion of your projects is generally a book, which is a definite, closed form. Did you think of other ways of collecting and archiving content?

As soon as a book is published the project is over. Of course a book is more durable than an exhibition, but it represents an end, and I often regret that. I think it would be really nice to produce a search engine on the Onomatopee website that spans the different pillars I was talking about and focuses on different keywords. Onomatopee outlines a specific sphere within a specific timeframe and a specific cultural realm; if we would be able to connect these different lines and to make it visible, we would let Onomatopee become an institution.

This is particularly worthwhile if we consider the current state of museums: they hardly compete with gallerist and private owners because they don’t have much money. In response to that, some museums are claiming a cultural focus, instead of producing blockbuster events. The necessity of preserving culture is highlighted. This kind of preservation can happen in places like Onomatopee. Onomatopee can institutionalize cultural practice.

Do you think digital innovations are changing the way people experience books or the content itself?

They are, look at the market of ebooks! They’re taking over, at least to a general audience. Personally I’m not very involved in that, but you hear about it, it’s up in the air. I don’t know what it would mean for us. Maybe we’ll just put PDF’s of our printed matter online. I have no idea what’s an ebook and how you construct it.

I think digital improvements are affecting the content of the books as well: of course you have different ways of reading, you can read diagonally, from one book to another and back again. I think that’s actually part of a broader cultural change that is getting into the veins of people: a different way of communicating, and communication is becoming more populistic as the new ways of linking and reading are more and more directed by market profiles. This is highly problematic and it’s important to remain independent to a certain extent. People will always appreciate an alternative space because they are required.

Do you make more online or offline sales?

We have four main channels: our online bookshop; fairs and events worldwide – we went sold out in Tokyo! –; alternative circuits: underground bookshops and people that we know; international distributors who bring the books to bigger shops.

I think online and offline revenues are comparable: the website is going a bit slower at the moment, while the turnover of fairs is increasing and same goes for big distribution and alternative shops.

What’s your policy about licenses?

Generally we use official copyright because people feel more secure about that. Sometimes people ask for Creative Commons and we put it. I leave it up to them, I don’t mind. The texts we produce are so marginal… if someone is inspired by them it’s already a good thing. What’s the cultural effect of an edition of a thousand copies? If all the books would be sold then maybe 70 percent of the buyers will read all the text. Probably less. So, if someone wants to use it, redistribute it and so on for me it’s fine.

How do you think cuts in the art field will affect Onomatopee?

It’s difficult to imagine what will happen… As I said the heart of Onomatopee is funded by the city of Einhoven and the Mondriaan Foundation. If Mondriaan would not support us anymore we’ll have to rely on project-based budgets which means it will be difficult to provide even a very low structural income for the organization. Probably some people will leave and we will do less projects and publications. We’ll have to be more pragmatic and try to get more money with the books’ sales.

It would be possibile that some may invest more on us than on other art institutions, there are still money in the field, people with pensionships four times higher than the average. Investors may choose Onomatopee because it has an effect on society. Even from an economical perspective Onomatopee results as an interesting player: we are cheap, we are fine, we gain benefits by selling books, by developing projects, by connecting many international people. We bring a good amount of visitors, we have a blueprint for an educational program as well… We call it participation program. I think we can offer a nice package. The only thing we can’t do is lobbying, we don’t have time for that. That could be a reason for Onomatopee will be to less visible to policy makers.

Do you encourage reader involvement? Do you get feedbacks from readers?

I get feedback from press and from people interested in one specific subject or another, like you for example. But primarely from the people who visit the exhibitions and, to be quite honest, mostly from housewifes, from our mothers, because our mothers talk to everyone. I don’t get many feedbacks from the young critical kids or the young fashion victims. An avantgarde relying on housewives, why not!

We also like to hear from people who buy the books, this especially happens during fairs. There we speak with people, we talk about certain projects and maybe we start a collaboration. The personal exchange in this case is the best, face to face.

What do you see as the largest threat to your business?

The largest threat is ignorance, decadent culture. But there will always be people that you can rely upon. Climate is changing and the way we communicate is changing, there’s a huge subjectivation going on, which is good: people should emancipate and also take the responsibility to emancipate.