Making Books as Conversation with Artists and Practices: A Decade of Lugemik

August 30, 2019
Author Paulius Petraitis
Published in Interview from Estonia

Since its foundation in 2010 by Indrek Sirkel and Anu Vahtra, Lugemik have mapped a large part of the Estonian art field, through various publishing collaborations with artists, theorists and cultural institutions. To mark its tenth anniversary, the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design hosted an exhibition which presented for the first time all of Lugemik’s published titles, accompanied by a public symposium and an international art book fair. On the day of the opening, Lugemik, which was joined by Ott Kagovere in 2018, took a breakfast break to talk about the development of their practice, some challenges in making books, and the difficulties of independent publishing and art bookshops in general.

Paulius Petraitis: We are meeting at the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design, where several related events commemorating ten years of your publishing activities are taking place. Why did you feel that now is a good time to take a step back and look at your practice?

Indrek Sirkel: The idea of an exhibition has been in the air for several years, and ten years is maybe just an excuse to do it now. Several of our publications have sold out, so an exhibition was a good way to introduce them to a new audience. And in Estonia, graphic design and book exhibitions are quite rare; therefore, the show in a way fills this gap.

Anu Vahtra: So far, we have never shown all our books together in an exhibition. The more time passes, the more difficult it would be, as a retrospective becomes increasingly bigger. So it seems now is about the right time.

PP: How did your practice begin and develop?

IS: About ten years ago when we started, an independent publishing culture didn’t really exist in Estonia. Many of our artist friends were involved in really nice projects, but they weren’t being published. The galleries showing work by young artists usually had exhibitions open for a short time, just two weeks. This created a situation whereby projects would be ‘lost’ after a short time on show. We wanted to give them an afterlife in publication form. The first book we published, There, Life Would Be Easy, edited by Mari Laanemets, came out in 2010.

AV: I think it developed naturally. At first, we worked with friends and artists whose work we admired; quite soon we were approached by several institutions with proposals to collaborate.

IS: I guess it’s similar to other Baltic and small countries, in that if somebody starts doing something, becoming established happens quite fast.

But thinking how Lugemik has developed, and what have been the important moments for our practice, then it’s definitely the opening of the bookshop in 2013 and participating in international art book fairs from the same year.

Asterisk Summer School, performance by Will Holder, Jul 2015. Photo Indrek Sirkel

PP: Lugemik’s profile is rather unique, not only in the Baltics, but also in a wider context, in that you are not only a publisher, but you also have a physical bookshop space in Tallinn. How does combining these two profiles, publishing and selling books produced by others, work, and can you tell more about the bookshop part?

IS:  Initially, we wanted to see our books by young and upcoming artists sold next to art books by major publishers in big bookshops. That happened eventually at the end of 2012 or the beginning of 2013, but we found out that it was hard to compete for visibility with hard-cover, big coffee-table books. Our books varied in format, size, binding, etc. So after talking among ourselves, and with people from the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (EKKM), a local bookshop seemed a natural way to create a context for our publications. That meant importing from publishers with similar practices and selling their books in Tallinn.

AV: I think the bookshop is a big part of Lugemik’s identity. People often know more about that than they know about the publishing part.

Ott Kagovere: In the local context, the bookshop also works as an occasional venue for events, especially in the summer.

PP: The bookshop was originally a garage; the story of how this Soviet-era building in the vicinity of the EKKM was converted into an art bookshop seems to substantiate personal work and communal enthusiasm.

AV: It was a collective effort. At the beginning, there was a dialogue with the EKKM, who had been playing around with the idea of opening a museum-shop. Salto Architects helped us with the planning, and we invested in the construction together with the Valge Kuup collective, with whom we now share the garage space. Also, we had a lot of help from students, friends and colleagues. Basically, there was one professional construction worker, and the rest were ‘invested labour’.

IS: The building is a typical garage from Soviet times. To make sure the building was safe, we found a Soviet-era engineer who knew about constructions from that time. The bookshop is like a box within a box. From the outside, it still looks quite similar to how it looked then, but the interior is newly built and isolated. We wanted to make it usable in the winter, so there had to be heating so that the books could survive. There were also some happy accidents in the process. Neeme Külm, one of the founders of EKKM, and Valge Kuup, found some big glass doors from an old Soviet-era post office that was being demolished for a new mall and H&M store. We got them for fifty euros the pair, which for a proper door was a really good deal.

PP: It feels like a community place, which in today’s economic climate is rather valuable. Your bookshop offers a substantial number and variety of international and Baltic publications, despite its limited size. What is the process of selecting titles to sell?

IS: The original idea was to have a shop that collects all cultural publications published in Estonia, and has a large selection of books from all over the world as well. At the beginning, while we were planning the selection, we also sent out an email asking recipients to submit three wishes: the books they would like to see sold here. It was great to see what the local cultural audience, art, theatre, film, theory, design professionals, etc, felt they were missing. But overall, managing the stock of the bookshop has been a very organic process. We try to have a versatile selection, with a focus on contemporary theory and independent publishers similar to Lugemik. Among other things, you can find titles published by Roma Publications, Rollo Press, Fw:Books, Spector Books, Valiz, Sternberg, to name just a few.

One thing we have also done, is when we go to book fairs all over the world, we try to buy little fanzines, self-published work and publications that don’t have a distributor.

Construction of Lugemik Bookshop, Apr 2013. Photo: Indrek Sirkel

Lugemik Bookshop interior, Jul 2016. Photo Anu Vahtra

PP: Lugemik is a regular participant in the world of well-known international art book fairs, like the New York Art Book Fair (NYABF), Offprint, and Friends with Books. In the last ten to fifteen years, it seems that the international art book fair has become not only a platform for sales and networking for independent publishers, but also, in a way, a forum for legitimacy. How did your participation start?

IS: Applying to the NYABF for the first time in 2013 happened a bit by chance. We knew Urs Lehni from Rollo Press who was going there. At the same time, we had a book project with the Estonian Contemporary Art Development Center. The publication didn’t happen, but the budget remained and allowed us to go to New York.

AV: Since then, we’ve been there every year, and we’re so far still the only publisher from Estonia. NYABF was followed by Offprint Paris and London, and Friends with Books in Berlin. We’ve also been to art book fairs and book events in Bergen, Ghent, Moscow, Turin and Helsinki.

PP: What is the situation with independent publishing in Estonia, and how has it developed over the last ten years?

IS: I think the local publishing scene has developed a lot in the last ten years. There aren’t many new publishers, but we now work with a growing number of local cultural institutions, so there’s a willingness and some understanding of the importance of publishing and being visible this way, continuing the life of an exhibition through a publication. It’s nice to see that the Center for Contemporary Arts in Estonia has collaborated with international publishers for the catalogues of the Venice Biennale. They realised that there’s no point in putting all the budget into the Estonian Pavilion, but at the same time only publishing locally. However, there aren’t many more publishers. There is ;paranoia publishing, who are also participating in our symposium and book fair, who have been doing nice work with experimental poets and writers. Then there are our former students Knock! Knock! Books, whose publishing practice grew out of their graduation work. There are a couple of good bookshops. One is at the Tartu Art Museum, another is Puänt in Tallinn, which concentrates more on literature. When they were starting out, we discussed the viability of running a bookshop very openly.

PP: I think this aspect is interesting. To what extent is independent publishing viable today, from your point of view? I mean this in a financial sense, but also time-wise, as you all have practices and official positions, either at the Estonian Academy of Arts, as graphic designers or artists. Curiously, I occasionally hear different people from Vilnius putting forward ideas about opening an art bookshop, but also being wary of financial pressure. I remember, Indrek, you mentioned that year by year the Lugemik bookshop was breaking even, neither making a profit nor a loss.

IS: I always like to say that we end up at zero, as we don’t have to pay much on top of it, but well …

AV: I think financial pressure is the main reason for small bookshops to close down. You put a lot of work into it, it’s great and necessary, and all that. But you need to work along with it, to have a life, and also to have a bookshop. Looking at Lugemik, I agree that it’s necessary for it to exist. Somehow, it should continue. The bookshop ‘business’ isn’t an easy process by any means. Some books we take in on consignment, other publications we buy directly. And then we pay the bookshop manager and people working there, and cover the internet and electricity. I have to make some sales reports to see what the situation actually is at the moment. Neither of us is a good business person.

IS: I’m looking forward very much to a talk in our symposium dedicated to running a bookshop and what it means, with After 8 Books from Paris, Bruno from Venice, and us. Of course, these are also three very different cities with different contexts. Our friends Pieter Verbeke and Elisabeth Klement run their bookshop San Serriffe in Amsterdam, where they are able to sell fifty to a hundred copies at the launch of a book. This would never happen in Estonia, we simply don’t have such an audience.

PP: What role does support from Estonian cultural institutions play with regard to your practice?

AV: In the last few years, we’ve received funding as a publisher, but we have never asked for funding for the bookshop. They’re two different entities: the Lugemik bookshop is a business, while Lugemik the publisher is an NGO. As a publisher, we have got funding for different book projects, as well as for keeping our studio and stock running, and for participating in international art book fairs.

IS: We’ve been very lucky with funding. The problem in Estonia is that the funding given is quite small. I don’t want to sound ungrateful: I’m very grateful. But if one wants to practise publishing in the proper way, it would be impossible to pay people connected to the book project properly. It is, in a way, rather problematic culture politics. To get long-term decent funding is difficult. At the same time, we talk to publishers from New York, for example, who don’t have any cultural funding. It’s not easy for anyone anywhere in this kind of activity.

Symposium “Making Public and Publics”, Jun 2019. Photo Indrek Sirkel

PP: Let’s talk about graphic design in making books. Two of you, Indrek and Ott, work as graphic designers, which is an important part of your publishing practice. What role do you see graphic design playing in the process of making books, and what elements make ‘a good book’?

OK: Even before joining Lugemik, I really liked their egalitarian approach. It’s not an attitude where a designer gets material and puts it into readable form, but a collective work. As we work mainly with art books, the question is how to make it work in this format. Before Lugemik started making books, local galleries usually made typical catalogues, where the main goal was to document an exhibition. For Lugemik, the goal is not only to document, but also to extend an artist’s work into book format.

IS: In publishing, I found one of the main reasons for graphic design. Personally, I’m not particularly interested in many graphic design outputs. But in publishing, I think I found an output where graphic design is worth something.

That’s why I really like the title of our symposium, Making Public and Publics, which emphasises the fact that making books is really about distributing ideas. If a young artist in Estonia has a good idea, I can make it available to a wider audience thanks to my graphic design practice. This is a very important aspect: empowering artists to be more visible.

OK: I personally like expanding the idea of what a book can be. Not to think of a book as a medium, but that it can be as interesting and thought-provoking as a work of art itself.

PP: You have already briefly referred to a key focus of your anniversary exhibition, the process of translating content into the form of a book. From your perspective, what are its main challenges? What is important in making something into a good book?

AV: A good dialogue between all parties involved, and being quite open about what the book can be.

IS: Yes, in the exhibition we decided to show the corresponding artworks alongside the books, to reveal this translation aspect. I think Anu said it well, there has to be some kind of shared understanding from the beginning, being on the same page. From an art history point of view, if there is an exhibition, it is important to have a catalogue, where one can see quality reproductions of the work and detailed information. So that’s one reason. But if the purpose is rather for the artist to spread their concepts and ideas, then maybe you don’t need this art history approach. Maybe you need an approach that conveys better the idea of the work, complementing the work, rather than showing it in a traditional way. There have been various theoretical discussions about the question what is the thing conveyed in a book, is it an image of an artwork? Are these visual, or conceptual qualities of the works? And these are questions we ask ourselves. It is a process. And I’m open about this: some of our books, I think, could have be done differently, or better. Sometimes an essay or the printing, or the visual aspect, could have been improved.

OK: One of the main questions should be ‘why make a book at all?’ Often there is this idea that making a book is important simply because that’s what people do. What it comes down to, I think, is understanding that the complete translation of a work into book format is impossible. For different purposes you need different types of books.

PP: With that in mind, can you name a few particular titles from your practice which stand out as good examples, or perhaps failures, of this translation process?

AV: One of the more radical examples from our catalogue of how a work became something else in book format is Merike Estna’s Blue Lagoon / Pattern Book. It’s based on her large-scale installation exhibited at the Kumu Art Museum in 2014, Blue Lagoon, which consisted of various everyday objects, like a room divider, a bicycle, a fan, different pieces of clothing, etc, all painted over by the artist. The photos in the book zoom into these different objects, until they become almost two-dimensional and resemble a reproduced painting. In some cases, you can, of course, see the materiality and the third dimension as well. Next to the abstract details of the work, we thought it was important to show the whole installation as well: the installation view was inserted into the book as a postcard, so it would be more like a footnote.

IS: What we always stress is that we are not making hand-made books, or book-objects, although many of our publications attain these qualities. But that’s not our goal. We make mass-produced books for distribution. As Estna’s work is handmade and unique, we additionally had to deal with the translation of that uniqueness into the object of a mass-produced book. In this publication, we substituted yellow in the CMYK printing process with neon yellow. This small change gave a glowing quality to the reproductions, similar to the effect she uses in her work. It is always these small things, technical restrictions, conceptual decisions, that have to come together to make a successful publication. In this case, I think they did.

A failure of sorts that is still bugging me is the cover of Flo Kasearu’s most recent book, Flo’s Book. I like her work a lot, and how the book came out. However, I feel that I failed to design a good cover for it. I couldn’t capture what I wanted to: Flo’s practice, her character, and attitude towards art. She seems happy with the cover, but I feel that something is missing. After the book was launched, we even worked for several months to make a dust jacket or a transparent plastic cover for it. But none of those worked either. But maybe it was just me failing in my personal aims, not that the book itself failed.

OK: I didn’t know that you see it as a sort of failure. The book itself works very well at book fairs, because it’s huge with a big title. I was just thinking that maybe we should think of these books not as translations of the work, but as conversations with the work. You always add something in this process of conversing with someone else, and our practice is a very close conversation with the work, and sometimes also the practice of an artist.

PP: Let’s end our conversation with some personal highlights from your catalogue of 81 publications.

AV: I think Marge Monko’s project Don’t Wind It Up, Turn It On is very exciting. It’s a larger work of art that the publication is part of, but at the same time the book works well alone.

OK: I really like the book entitled Secret Word is Hype by the Estonian graphic designer Ronald Pihlapson. The book is very simple: he collected t-shirt designs from shops like H&M and such, and then redrew them by hand. It consists of about two hundred drawings. As there are always some personal stories related to favourite books, this also has one. A friend of mine found this book accidentally on the street while walking in Tokyo. He didn’t know it was a publication by Lugemik. The colophon page was torn-off, so he didn’t know anything about the book, until he found it in Lugemik bookshop two or three years later while visiting Estonia.

IS: One of my favourites is Anu’s book Untitled. The designer-client-publisher-printer relationship, long-term friendship: everything came together here.

One of the general highlights was meeting with David Senior in 2015, who was then the librarian at MoMA. We showed him the books we had published so far, and he bought all of them for the library. That was a really pleasant professional moment.

Exhibition “Published by Lugemik: Printed Matter from 2010-2019”, Jun 2019. Photo Paul Kuimet

Opening of “Making Public and Publics”, Jun 2019. Photo Indrek Sirkel

Exhibition “Published by Lugemik: Printed Matter from 2010-2019”, Jun 2019. Photo Paul Kuimet

Exhibition “Published by Lugemik: Printed Matter from 2010-2019”, Jun 2019. Photo Indrek Sirkel