Courtesy of Onomatopee.

Onomatopee Projects is an exhibition space and a publishing house based in Eindhoven. Exploring contemporary cultures through means of art, design and criticism, the platform seeks to devise tools with hybrid sets of competencies to develop connections and expand through common tendencies. Mediating through different constituents including artists, designers and researchers, the programs are developed through both hosted and self-initiated projects with a transdisciplinary approach. The following piece is a conversation with Freek Lomme, director of Onomatopee, around the idea of cultural production as both artistic and technical practice, the question of sustainability in relation to material and immaterial labor, and alternative organizational structures within the cultural domain.

I’ve come across Onomatopee through Instagram and been following in distance since then. It has a specific approach to publishing and exhibiting that brings together different forms of knowledge production and experimentation. In this context, what does the organization prioritize, and how does this affect the process as well as the engagement with the people involved? 

There is not really a prioritization, but there are different intentions, different objectives with different players. Meaning lies in connecting, and projects can be produced through and result in a more expert or public engagement basis. There are also different platforms and media to anticipate the needs of projects and therefore, disseminate in different ways. Different ideas inspire formats and bring opportunities in different ways –which also depend on the partners, the people with whom you work, where the money comes from and goes to in the end. 

What we are also trying to do with Onomatopee, on a deeper level, is to become a little more independent from funding. With public funding, you often get money for temporary services, and there is a definite political/public interest as well. For instance, the monetary focus would be on Dutch culture and Dutch (based) makers, which poses a limitation within our current cultural economy. Once that project or task is done, there isn’t much left from which you can build something. Meanwhile, with publishing, we may lose money on some projects, we may just reach the balance in terms of expenses, or we can also get a positive result and then reinvest that. In this sense, we approach publishing also as a means to become more independent, of either people paying us to do a project, or public funding that supports us, simply by taking risks knowing that we will have returns. Publishing has strengthened our position as a commissioning party. For instance, through our investment, we enabled the realization of the publication of the Istanbul Design Biennale. Evidently, there are also non-financial returns in the growth of a network, of following and developing mutual respect for our work, through which resulting collaborations lead to other commissions, co-productions and co-creations. We have different types of distribution that offer different channels for different ambitions. You can have the ambition to do something DIY with a small-scale distribution in a smaller print run, possibly printed at our Riso workshop, or you can do something high-end, make a large print run and sell in quite big amounts worldwide through major distribution channels. I like that range and variety, it brings different attitudes together and makes us distinct in a way, as a place, as a brand, or whatever you might want to call. At the same time, as everything is political, this semi-commercial activity is also a political positioning. 

It is often the case that the publishing sector is not really income-generating, at least in my experience. Or there are many components in terms of labor, licenses, fees that are not covered. On the other hand, it is an expanding field that can open up new possibilities to collaborate and co-operate with different actors in the culture field. In this regard, how do you position publishing as a means to become more independent? 

When we started with Onomatopee, we just initiated projects and made publications on the side, we were basically self-publishing. Right now, we are also a serious publisher, so it has professionalized in terms of the content and the economy we produce. But as I said before, it can still be more DIY or it can be more institutional. We came to the awareness that books are goods, not services. If you deliver a service –let’s say you make an exhibition in Eindhoven, in a cultural periphery of the Netherlands– and if you want to make something locally, more democratically or horizontally, then you need funding. And that funding is always temporary, it’s difficult to get something long-term out of that. Publishing as a good offers an opportunity to see if we can really enter into a market and become a bit of an entrepreneur ourselves in a way. 

Evidently, as you were saying, there are different aspects in the economy of publishing, for example in terms of budgeting costs and benefits. There are material costs, labor costs, publishers’ costs, and so forth. There are costs that you cannot avoid, and there are those that you can reduce if needed, especially when it comes to labor costs. Often, it is the case that the artists or the initiator would give in. That could also turn into an unhealthy situation, in terms of who can afford to spend extra time. Recently, I made a book where I did some editorial work for half a day. I just knew that those hours would never be returned, but then, I can decide for myself to spend or lose my time to support a project, Onomatopee cannot do that. And I’m not going to pay myself out of Onomatopee for a project that will never be returned. So, where does it begin, and where does it end? Most of all, with engaged teamwork. When you have different voices onboard, you can establish a good conversation and reach another level, but you also have to make some choices. Fortunately, with Onomatopee, we are also in a position where we can invest money and offer support for a project if we can indicate break-even or financially positive results. Our objective is not profit-making but to get a positive outcome that flows back into other projects, so that we can offer more financial support to people involved in a more sustainable way. With every book we make, we sign a contract with the partners, crediting the investment made by everyone involved and acknowledging opportunities leading up to royalties. In this way, books that do sell also bring money, and books that don’t might just be there simply because we want them to exist and be available, which might not correspond to the hours spent for that work. So, it’s a question of balancing, and it’s interesting to see how we can turn this into a sustainable situation.

Photo: Courtesy of Onomatopee.

What kind of changes have you witnessed within the artistic/cultural context of Eindhoven since Onomatopee started in 2006?

Quite a lot. When I started, there was no one calling themselves a curator in a radius of hundred kilometers. Now, suddenly there is a curatorial MA at the Design Academy. I have no idea what all these people are going to do, but that’s an example of change. The biggest change is really in the city itself and in the economy though. Eindhoven was known as an industrial city, made out of Philips factories. There has been some technological knowledge and experimentation with an industrial base, but it’s all about startups now, with new products, or new whatever. Before Eindhoven was seen as the underdog, as a failing city in a way, and now it has become an important economic engine here. There is a kind of new pride, but it’s a weird mix of new conservatism and resentment or ignorance. Also, there was a particular type of artistic practice in the 80s, and space for quite large works and performances. That has shifted a lot towards design. In that sense, what happens culturally at large is very much linked with the changing landscape and demographics; the city is scaling up and getting more cosmopolitan. Onomatopee responded to this shift towards design and technocracy, if you will, critically and independently, rooted in a stance wherein we foster, empower and disseminate cultural and visual literacy. But Onomatopee has also become way more international, so my focus might not always be here anymore. I think Onomatopee has developed a progressive international outlook, which looks into the ethical components of a more technocratic material basis. At the same time, we are locally inspired by all these shifts –the way we deal with design, for instance, is very much part of that.

Can we say this idea of self-organization is a motivation to work in a specific way, or a result of navigating between different disciplines or practices in a way that given models often fall behind? 

You must self-organize if there is no body of support. Self-organization is a kind of grassroots for that matter, almost like a civil initiative if you consider creative or cultural practices like ours. But self-organizing needs ways to get people together, to enable better results and spin-offs. Nobody knew about us when we started with Onomatopee. It is self-initiated really. And I come from an interdisciplinary background in arts and sciences. The way we work with people from different backgrounds in different frameworks allows us to make experimental settings and play with different kinds of organizational structures. I think that has been typical for and a bit informative of Onomatopee’s way of operating. Many people we collaborated with, for example, already knew that the way we dealt with design would be in line with how they wanted to approach something. This is also connected with a practice-based research approach and practices involving (critical) writing, which almost became a standard over the last decade.

Of course, in self-initiated projects, you have way more liberty to be site-specific or context-specific, to use poetics or artistic vocabularies, styles, disciplinary means for certain political ends. For example, we had an exhibition in which we used installation art to envision different kinds of set-ups for a creative city, discussing the engineered basis for these political ends. Employing and devising tools for political debate and practical envisioning is what we have been practicing. This is not to mystify ‘art’ and practice, but to demystify and activate. In that sense, we are also a little critical towards the art sphere which often dwells into its own aesthetics or poetics or relativism. We can be more activist at times, or progressively informing when it comes to grassroots mappings and gathering different kinds of information. It’s nice to have the opportunity to be your own commissioner, so to say. But again, this is a question of balancing, and it’s also really cool to bring different people together and become larger than yourself. Onomatopee is a foundation, it’s not owned by anyone, so it should be larger than us. At the same time, it’s also good for Onomatopee if we’re still able to initiate projects ourselves and stick to a critical basis. Right now, it can get difficult as we lack funding, while publishing is getting much bigger, which might lead us to lose focus a little. These are all different phases in the business that we need to adapt to. 

CriticALL!–(un)professional everyday design criticism installation view. Courtesy of Onomatopee. 
CriticALL!–(un)professional everyday design criticism installation view. Courtesy of Onomatopee.

This seems to bring a different mode of/motivation for communication as well, in terms of activating a network. 

The ability of marketing and PR itself depends on where the money comes from or where you can find means to do this. Projects and productions should inform the means of communication. Meanwhile, the most pragmatic way to communicate is through people that we work together within actual projects. I think much of Onomatopee’s name and fame and connectivity, so to say, is built out of all these people that we’ve been working with. Every time we do that, we reach out to different people, and our network grows. That’s a value, and what’s nice about having a foundation, a platform. It’s not a person but a tool or a place that people can utilize together. 

What do you think about the current shift towards online and digital platforms in terms of the content you produce and its engagement with the public? 

For publishing, I have to say that I like printed matter. I think there is always a different kind of value to that. Of course, you can make notes in a PDF as well. We have done a few digital publication projects, and it’s something that we could explore, but it’s just something else, the content of the book migrates differently. It might be an opportunity for us to consider, but we haven’t discovered much yet. The market is also very much different; it’s a different business. For public programming, digitization does open up opportunities. When we first started, the focus always lied a lot in the local program here in our exhibition space, where we have invested much time and effort. At the same time, we grew internationally and started to host events in hybrid formats to connect different sites. And this connecting of audiences may lead to new collaborations again, within and beyond Onomatopee. I find that interesting because it brings Onomatopee as a kind of “glocal” space, so to say. That’s also why we invest quite some time now in making a good set-up for this hybrid environment. I think it brings a lot to Onomatopee in terms of the program and its conductivity.

Photo: Courtesy of Onomatopee.

Through the experience of self-initiated practice becoming an organization, or a platform organizing cultural practices, what kind of support structures or alternative sources can be developed to become a more self-sustaining entity? 

I think the biggest stability for Onomatopee now is simply the platform itself. We have a certain position by our track record, network and productive capacity, which constitutes a solid basis. That will keep us going and make us less vulnerable within an economy of fluctuating funding, ongoing corona crisis, increasing real-estate prices, and so forth. Public funding or institutional support is always only temporary, especially for a place like Onomatopee, because we will never get funded with the certainty of a museum for instance, though local museums can also be cut from funding. If we can make the overall business more sustainable regardless of these opportunities, simply by using the engagement of people willing to take a stake in Onomatopee, then we can reach quite far. And hopefully, we can also have a more permanent team to support this.  

This parallels what Silvio Lorusso describes in Entreprecariat* which he published with us: the idea of entrepreneurship and the precarious push. How can you make something more viable and sustainable within a constant state of uncertainty? What we do is not demand-driven, we create a supply. We are not working for people who already like us. Or, we are working for people who might start to like us while we try to bring something different. It’s not something evident within the market. 

And what are the main challenges along the way?

Of course, you never know what will happen to the economy or the book market. There are different dynamics to be taken into account, and there could be so many unexpected things that change the industry. The resin cost is an interesting example. For instance, delivery times for producing a book have increased tremendously, because there is such a shortage of paper as everyone is ordering stuff online and much more paper goes into boxes. Look at the oil prices, for example, oil and paper are something similar, they are resources. What if the range in paper stock changes, if a book as an object cannot be that particular anymore because it just gets too expensive? Again, making a book work is a financial question as much as a design or an editorial one. They are all crossing each other and blending together as part of every project. 

* Silvio Lorusso (ed.), Entreprecariat. Eindhoven: Onomatopee, 2019. See also the research project “Do or Delegate” [May 11-June 23, 2019] curated/edited by Silvio Lorusso and “Precarious Permanence” [ed. Channon Goodwin] book launch [October 23, 2019], hosted by Onomatopee.

Ezgi Yurteri

Ezgi Yurteri (Ankara, 1992), kültür-sanat alanında çalışıyor, yazıyor ve editörlük yapıyor. Koç Üniversitesi Ekonomi lisansının ardından NABA Milano’da küratöryel çalışmalar üzerine yüksek lisansını, Türkiye güncel sanat ekosistemini İzmir, Diyarbakır ve Çanakkale’de etkinlik kazanan sanatçı inisiyatifleri odağında inceleyen teziyle tamamladı. Çalışmaları sosyal ilişkiler çevrimleri olarak ekonomi, sanat pratikleri bağlamında yerel ekosistemler ve alternatif ekonomiler etrafında şekillenmeye devam ediyor.