The visual of the word, interplay between story and form, structure and sentence, regularly harnesses my attention. See Mark Z. Danielewki’s architectural metaphysical rom-horr narratives, the typographic experimentalism of Blast – Lewis Wyndham and the Vorticist’s brief foray into manifesto-shing – Lewis Carroll, George Herbert… Or simply read the Library of Babel (Borges) for no image needed. The connect between text and sensation is inescapable.
And nowhere more obviously so than the fundamental object of literary fetish itself – the book, the pamphlet… the paper, physical printing in all its forms.
So often the afterthought of the economic publishing process, the book itself is a thing of beauty – little more than uncut pages, oversized cover, the right paper and I’m drooling – a good thing when the homogenous publishing industry rarely manages more than a little. When a book can be so much more…
But where the mainstream plays catch up, the art-book can rule. Not to mean those coffee-table breaking tomes of full page photo’s, prints, captions and insipid introductory texts – rather a domain on the fringe. That rare space where graphics, type, visual and form collide in the paper model.
In this space Estonian publishing initiative Lugemik shine.
The beguiling meld of narrative and shape strikes one immediately in the visceral of their product. The growing catalogue of Lugemik’s publications are each distinct both in content and form yet all articulate that key point – full realisation – that the two should not be separate. Whatever fills the pages should be matched by those pages. It’s never enough just to print and press…
The duo behind the initiative were kind enough to answer my questions. From the art scene in Estonia to breaking catalogue conventions, aesthetic decisions and the whole publishing process, there was plenty of ground to cover:
(note – the interview was done in July)
Who are you? What do you do?
We are Anu Vahtra and Indrek Sirkel. Anu is a photographer and an artist, Indrek is a graphic designer. In 2007 we graduated from Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Anu is still living in Amsterdam, but moving back to Tallinn in August, Indrek moved back in 2008, after a one year residency at Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht, the Netherlands. We both teach in the Graphic Design department in Estonian Academy of Arts.
Both of us mostly work in the cultural sector. Anu does commissioned works and has an independent art practice, she’s been involved in a number of collaborations across fields. Indrek mainly designs books and works with artists and cultural institutions in Estonia.
What is Lugemik?
Lugemik is a small independent publishing initiative based in Tallinn, Estonia. We publish books and other printed matter, working closely together with artists, writers, designers, printers in every step of the publishing process. We also try to “publish” in other ways, e.g. giving lectures, organizing exhibitions and events, etc.
In English “Lugemik” means “A Reader”. A reader is usually understood as a collection of relevant texts on a particular subject. In Estonian, Lugemik is primarily associated with a book meant for children, a book which they learn to read from. We liked this connection to something really simple and basic.
Where did the idea for the initiative come from?
Indrek had been working for years with a lot of different cultural institutions in Estonia, designing books, catalogues and other printed matter. It usually takes quite a long time and lot of concentration to make a book. But in many cases it seemed that when the book was finished and printed, then that’s where the process stopped. The distribution of the book stayed on a minimal level, international distribution was almost non-existent. It was depressing to see after months and months of work, that the result didn’t reach an audience.
It also became clear that the way a lot of art books and exhibition catalogues are produced today, is a bit old-fashioned. Catalogues are done, because that’s the way it has always been – there’s a show, a photographer documents it, an art historian is commissioned to write a text, the museum director writes a foreword, the designer does the layout, and the printer prints it. In many cases the artist is not even involved. But questions like “why to make a book?”, “should it be a straight-forward catalogue or an artist-book?”, “who should write the text?”, “should there be a text?”, “how should it be printed?” etc. are seldom asked.
We had been working together before, in most cases on publications, so we teamed up for Lugemik.
What is the philosophy behind Lugemik?
The philosophy is in a way really simple. We like to publish printed matter and we try to be there for the whole process, from beginning to the end, working closely together with the author/artist. We consider every step as part of the design process. Starting from the idea, why to publish a book and ending with the question how to distribute it. In this kind of thinking, the way a book looks like, the way it is printed…etc. are choices made according to the content of the book and are equally part of the process.
We think this is very common to contemporary graphic design – everything is left open and meant to be questioned. Is a book printed in offset or just Xerox copied? How many copies are produced and why? Is the book translated into one or more languages? Is there a special paper we need for the book or do we just use leftovers from other books? Should the book be priced high or low? Every choice determines the final outcome.
Why was this something that Tallinn and Estonia were in need of?
There are not many interesting art books published in Estonia. But there are many exciting young artists. To get published here one has to have a major exhibition hosted by a big institution, basically one needs to be an established artist. Even Estonian Academy of Arts doesn’t publish projects by young artists or designers, they rather concentrate on theoretical works and guide books. So it seemed that it would really make sense to publish young and emerging artists, designer, writers etc.
The other thing was the lack of distribution. There are only a couple of mainstream bookshops in Estonia and their art book sections are dominated by Taschen and other big names. Self published books as wells as books from independent publishers from abroad do not make it there. Besides, it is important to distribute Estonian artists abroad as well.
We also felt that a lot of good material becomes history in Estonia really quickly. There are only a few art periodicals and they can’t cover everything what’s going on. And almost all the exhibitions are open only for two weeks. After that a really good show might be never heard of again. In this context it makes a lot of sense to publish something together with the exhibition. Not necessarily a catalogue, but maybe a version, a continuation or a translation of the exhibition, a publication that continues existing and can stand on its own after the show is over.
What kind of authors/artists do you like to work with – or are you open for anything?
We’re pretty much open for anything, but we try to work with people who are willing to experiment. Artists who like and want to ask the same questions as we do.
Can you tell us a little bit about the books you have published so far?
So far we have ten titles. The six artist’s books (Tuukka Kaila, Flo Kasearu & Tõnis Saadoja, Paul Kuimet, Laura Toots, Neeme Külm, Marge Monko) are published on the occasion of an exhibition. In most cases the book has literally been part of the show, displayed as an art piece in the exhibition. The other two – There, Life Would Be Easy and Content And Form II – are published on the occasion of exhibitions as well but serve more as follow-up publications, contextualizing the exhibitions through a compilation of visual material and text.
The books that you have published so far feature some striking aesthetic choices – how central is the aesthetic and appearance to Lugemik’s approach? Is there a particular aesthetic ethos behind Lugemik’s output? How do you view the relation between the aesthetic and the content?
It’s interesting that you find aesthetic choices striking, maybe you could bring some examples?
As we mentioned before, in our thinking, the look of the book is closely connected to its content. In each individual case the content is different and therefore different choices are made, also considering the form of the book. The first reaction would be to say that there certainly is no aesthetic ethos behind our output, as one cannot draw a line in between aesthetic and content. On the other hand, we do find aesthetics important. We prefer the content of the book to be visible, not necessarily the design.
I certainly didn’t mean it as a criticism!
I particularly had in mind Shimmer on the Surface. The use of black paper with (or without) white text on it in a number of the books is also an effective example – the simple starkness and boldness of it…
We didn’t take it as criticism! I think it’s just hard for us to see, that something is particularly “striking” or “radical”. We’re working basically everyday, so it’s hard to see, when something is striking or not. Do you know what I mean? Of course, this sounds a bit stupid – that we almost don’t understand or are not aware of our aesthetic choices. I think we are extremely conscious of the choices we make. Maybe this sounds a bit confusing. I’ll bring some specific examples, maybe this will make it a bit clearer.
You mentioned the black pages. I think Shimmer on the Surface is a different case in the sense that this was the artist’s (Neeme Külm) artwork and a publication at the same time. He came to us with an idea to make a completely black book. Then main work went into, how to make a “regular” mass-produced book, which is completely black. There are of course many ways to do this. Soft-cover, hard-cover. To use black coloured paper, etc. Finally we agreed to really offset-print it and to bind it as a hard-cover – this really makes it a “real” book – it is printed and really bound – it plays with the archetypes of “a book”.
In There Life Would be Easy we used inverted pages (white text on black pages) as well. This came from the fact that this essay (by the type designer Anton Koovit) talks about subway signage and typography. We thought that showing this essay on inverted pages – “in the dark” – enforces the idea of being underground, in the metro.
Paul Kuimet’s photography book In Vicinity that depicts new suburban development areas near Tallinn, was bound in three covers. It’s a bit difficult to explain, but the book consists of two parts – in the beginning and the end of the book you have 6 pages of text and in the middle you have 32 pages of the photographs. The photographs are printed on regular coated paper. But the text part is printed on thicker paper – cardboard – usually used for book cover. So it’s feels that the book has three covers. This gives the book a kind of sturdy and a bit clumsy feeling; we wanted to refer with this to the cheap plaster walls (and other building materials) that is so common in urban developments and architecture. Around the cover there’s a dustjacket and on it one of the the photographs by the artist. We cropped it in a way that on the cover you see only the periphery; on the backcover the image continues and there’s a lonely house.
We also try to take care of the smallest details, which of course, are not visible, if you don’t know about them. But these still generate a visual outcome. For example on the backside of Laura Toots’ postcard My Father is Not my Hero, His Heroism is My Father, the title and the artist’s name is set in a newly digitalized font Eesti, which is based on a Soviet typeface Žurnalnaja Rublennaja. Because the artist works with material from the same era, then it was a perfect match.
Does this make any sense? … I think actually there’s much more to say about aesthetics, especially when it comes to contemporary graphic design, but maybe it would be too much here …
How do you work with the artist or writer to produce the product – how much is the final product a collaboration?
We try to work in really close collaboration. We talk a lot with the artists and try out different ideas. But of course it depends on the specific project. Sometimes the artist has a perfect idea already and we just find the means to publish and distribute it – many things don’t need any additional “design”.
You have an impressive list of international distributors – how central a part of Lugemik’s mission is it to bring Estonian art/design/experimental literature to a wider audience? Why should an international audience be interested in Estonia?
It is part of the mission, but we think it’s just normal to distribute books to a wider audience. Why should an international audience not be interested in Estonia…
Of course they should be… but I was wondering if there are any particular qualities of Estonian art and culture that you think are of special value and are interested in communicating to an international audience?
…there are no particular qualities in Estonian art that we are interested in. This for sure has something to do with the fact that we both studied abroad and not in Estonia. If we think about contemporary Estonian art and culture, then unfortunately the first things that come to our minds are the negative ones – poor funding, budget cuts, outdated or non-existent support structures, holes in education, etc. But this is probably true for many places around the world. Contemporary artists in Estonia work the same way as the colleagues in other countries.
But of course there are many interesting themes here, because of our history; post-Soviet topics, architecture, etc…
We try to publish things that maybe otherwise would get lost. The support system here in Estonia is not so good – I’m talking about magazines, journalism, publishing, etc – there’s not much of this here; a lot of exhibitions are open only for a short time (2 weeks). So, with publishing something, we try to give a project an extra life. And then not only here, but also abroad.
You describe Lugemik as an ‘initiative’ rather than a publishing company, I find this a really interesting choice of words – given your involvement with a number of exhibitions, galleries, art projects I can’t help but wonder if it is a deliberate one? If so what does that choice represent and what else does the initiative involve?
It is definitely a deliberate one. We wouldn’t say company, because it isn’t one – officially we’re a non-profit organisation. In our mind the word “initiative” is more connected to the idea of doing something independently, out of your own will, without first being requested to do so.
You have just released Sisu ja Vorm II, which it seems to me marks an important achievement for the initiative – can you tell us a little bit about this – what the origin of this project is and the exhibition that it follows? I understand it is something more than just a catalogue of Sisu ja Vorm I, what is the relationship between book and exhibition?
The idea to make a exhibition of contemporary Estonian graphic design dates back to a few years ago. Indrek had several discussions with one of the curators from the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design about the possibility to make something like this. There’s no institution in Estonia which collects and display’s graphic design. The Design Museum seemed like a perfect place for this.
In the exhibition “CONTENT AND FORM I” (Sisu ja Vorm I) we displayed graphic design made by independent and freelance Estnonian graphic designers roughly in the last 10 years.
The book “CONTENT AND FORM II” (Sisu ja Vorm II) is a development of the show, kind of a second version or a sequel. That’s why we also named it “II” and wrote in the book that it is based on the exhibition. In the book there are some works that were not displayed in the show and not all works from the exhibition are included in the book.In the exhibition text Indrek wrote: “The exhibition displays works by Estonian graphic designers who were born in the 80s, grew up in the 90s, and started their professional careers in the new millennium.”
Both, the exhibition and the book, are first steps to somehow map, document and analyse contemporary independent Estonian graphic design. The “independent” part is especially important, because all participating designers are working on their own, have their own company or run a non-profit organization. They don’t work in advertising or branding agencies.
Maybe for English speaking readers it’s good to know that we’re working on the translation at the moment. It should be done and published by the end of the summer.
Is there anything else exciting in the pipeline that you can tell us about?
On August 3 we launch a catalogue of the exhibition “Continuum_The Perception Zone” which was curated by Maria Arusoo and was on show last year at the Tallinn Art Hall. It features Estonian artists such as Kiwa and Toomas Thetloff, but also well known international artists Martin Creed, Olafur Eliasson and others. We also have a couple books in the making with artists we already worked with – Tõnis Saadoja, Paul Kuimet, Flo Kasearu. Soon the book by LeRoy Stevens, following his exhibition in Tallinn City Gallery last spring, will be out.
What plans do you have for the future of Lugemik?
We plan to open our own bookshop here in Tallinn, so most of our energy goes into planning that. We’re also developing our website and our online shop.
That’s all, thank you Anu and Indrek.
All photos, credit: Anu Vahtra