Publishing Art Writing: A Connective and Collective Labor
Brad Haylock and Megan Patty in dialogue with Astrid Vorstermans
After being confined to home and studio for several months, the question arises: how do we connect to each other? I do not mean the deep human condition to see, touch, smell, feel, hear and love each other, but connections in a more abstract manner, in the networked labor relating to art writers, artists, editors, translators, printers, critics, academics, designers, funding bodies, distributors, booksellers, readers, and audience. Luckily, many things went on during the lockdown as they did before: email, video conferencing, telephone calling, exchanging via digital means. But this new, confined situation produced gaps and cracks that, bit by bit, show their consequences. First of all, a deep insecurity: what will the world look like in a year's time, or further into the future? Several systems are under pressure and might crack—or are they colliding already? In priorities of life and society, how will art position itself? And what will be the effects on art writing, publishing, exchange, and discourse?
COVID-19 is real, but it is also a metaphor, a “butterfly effect.” Can a butterfly flapping its wings in New Zealand cause a hurricane in Spain? Perhaps a return to simpler gestures can open up the cracks to nurture social change and find new connections.
- Astrid Vorstermans, Amsterdam, December 2020
As founding director of and publisher at independent Dutch publishing house Valiz, Astrid Vorstermans is deeply engaged with art writing and the discourses surrounding art and design. Valiz, founded in 2003 and now co-directed by Vorstermans and Pia Pol, centers on publishing critical texts and engaging in discussions around art, politics, and social matters.
BH / MP It is now almost two decades since you founded Valiz. In this time, what changes in art writing and discourse have you experienced?
AV Art writing is a very broad field, from artist’s texts, to journalism, to exhibition reviews or art reviews or writing on art market developments, to poetry, to speculative essayistic texts, to deeply researched academic texts. Academic texts, art criticism, and journalism have always been embedded in institutional structures, from universities, art schools and academies, to (art) newspapers and other “institutionalized” platforms. These texts are peer related, perhaps not always officially—not with the formal peer review “stamp” or process—but they are published in a context of peers who relate to them, react to them, or use them as a source. This flow of texts, reactions, and cross references forms a certain discourse.
In a good quality general newspaper that contains an art section, art essays will be read by a general non-professional audience. Even here there is a “peer standard,” formed by colleagues and well-informed readers. In other words, readers and writers are aware of certain lines of discourse, and they know how to position them within a wider field.
What has changed is that there are now more forms possible, many of which are not (yet) embedded in these institutionalized contexts. More and more, there are artists and designers who are writing, often in a speculative way, exploring their own voice and tone, feeding back into their own art practice. There is a long history of visual artists who write, such as the Surrealists or the Futurists, but I think it is now more common to see artists who use writing as a means to explore and investigate their other interests.
Further, in art schools there is a growing awareness that language can be a parallel universe, existing alongside visual work. For instance, at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, there is the recently formed Image & Language department, in which writing goes hand in hand with video, painting, sculpture, photography, or whatever visual discipline the student chooses to work in.
Another change that links to this is self-publishing, which has become a common practice for art students, graphic designers, and many others. Since there are so many people who publish their own booklets and writings, the parameters of art writing are changing. These writings are often part of the artist’s or student’s own universe, and so are not meant to reflect on art in a wider context. Although this can be rather introverted, I imagine that it does open up other ways to look at art, and modes of using language and art writing other than what we are used to, which in turn can expand more “conventional” art writing.
BH / MP A democratization of the means of publishing is not new, but self-publishing and independent publishing have indeed seen a dramatic resurgence in popularity in recent years. Have the changing ecologies of publishing today caused you to shift your practices as a publisher?
AV: I see the two as interlinked. We are an integral part of these changing ecologies. Valiz is an independent publisher, so it is impossible to extract our practices from these developments; one defines the other, and vice versa. It is difficult to position Valiz within different “scales” of publishing. In the big, commercial book world, Valiz is a grain of sand, but in specialized, independent art book publishing, it has a recognizable place (I hope …).
Self-publishers, and other smaller and bigger independent art book publishers, have the distinct quality of being singular, perseverant, and distinctive. They are content- and socially-driven on their own terms, whereas a commercial publisher is stepping into existing systems, from editing to distribution, marketing, and sales, mainly propelled by profit and the market—all this is very generously expressed.
From the beginning, Valiz has been content-driven, and it is wonderful to see that there are so many other individuals and small groups who put their questions and explorations first, and then find ways to pay for editing, paper, printing, design, etc., or do all of this work themselves. I am convinced that these explorations bring in new economic and distribution models, as well as other ways to collaborate.
The art book fairs worldwide are wonderful hubs where we can discuss and exchange our projects, and see the diversity, idiosyncrasies, singularities, etc., of our practices. Very often, these places are meeting grounds for helping each other, exchanging, linking to new and fruitful contacts, or setting up a collaboration. Let’s hope that the fairs can go on again after the pandemic.
Looking back, I have tried to find common ground intuitively or naturally, but in the last ten years this is an attitude and a way of working that we, Pia and I, are more conscious of. We try to nourish this attitude wherever possible, and also address it in our program, both in publications—such as Design Dedication (2020), Commonism (2018), Design Struggles (2021), Mobile Autonomy (2015), the trancityxvaliz imprint on the public domain, and other titles—and in events that we organize.
On the other hand, we also use existing book trade systems, especially in distribution, because we need to sell our titles properly, in bigger quantities, to be able to survive. I think the changing ecologies keep us sharp, prompting us to critically scrutinize how certain well-trodden paths can be refreshed, and forcing us to develop ways to follow these systems and tweak them at the same time.
BH / MP Let’s go back to art discourse, recent histories, and art writing. Are there other developments you want to address?
AV: Another change, as I see it, is that art writing no longer confines itself to the art world, and it relates to much more than art history. Bluntly speaking, when I studied art history in the late 1980s, art writing was very much formed by modernism, looking at changing formalistic tendencies. Of course, there were already other starting points: John Berger’s Ways of Seeing came out in 1972, feminist art criticism also started in the 1970s, and, much earlier, the Frankfurt School addressed social matters, including art. Plus, there were many others who sought to link societal matters to art. But I think this way of linking art to its context to look at the role of art in society, to explore conditions of artistic work within a broader background, has become more natural and common in art writing. In that sense, art writing has become more political and more activist. This comes as no surprise when looking at urgent movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and Occupy, and the knowledge that the problems in the world are growing with an uncanny speed.
BH/MP Are there specific publishers or titles, whether on Valiz or by other publishers, that you would deem to be important examples of political or activistic art writing, or are there certain art writers who are doing particularly important work?
AV: In our program, I consider Pascal Gielen a crucial and creative author of political art writing. He is a Belgian sociologist who looks at culture and art as driving forces for society at large. He analyzes how art is an indissoluble part of the fabric of society, what conditions are set and how they function, and he looks at its effects on changing structures and working conditions.
A couple of years ago, Gielen set up a research program at the University of Antwerp, the CCQO (Culture Commons Quest Office), which delves deeply into the possibilities of setting up ways of commoning across different levels in society, all informed by artists and other creative and cultural practices. In his research group, there are not only artists, or art historians, or sociologists, but also an economist, a legal specialist, etc. All of this is meant to make their work more impactful, to start from the arts and culture and try to make it work in the real world, solving practical problems along the way.
There are more Valiz authors who have a significant voice in art writing, such as Wouter Davidts, a professor of both architectural history and art history who is very creative in connecting subjects in new ways, and often invites visual artists to contribute to his academic writing. Or academic Jeroen Lutters, who has a holistic view of creativity and of what art means to society and to individuals. They are both less political—or, let’s say, less explicitly political—but they change our ideas on the role and effect of art.
Then I think about other publishers who have a great program. I admire UK-based Zed Books, which publishes radical books on politics, identity, decolonization. Their starting point is politics in its broadest sense— Zed is not a specialized art publisher, but their subjects link oftentimes to the arts. Similar to Zed is Zer0 Books (now Repeater Books), with great titles by Mark Fisher and other good radical authors. Mark also contributed to a couple of Valiz books; he was a very sharp and radical writer on the conditions and intertwinements of art and capitalism, and it is sad that he died at such a young age.
Another inspiring publisher is Occasional Papers, initiated by graphic designer Sara De Bondt and her partner, curator/researcher Antony Hudek. It is completely different from the other examples above; their program is not about art writing or politics per se, but it does address art historical and graphic design subjects, and regularly covers forgotten figures or developments.
It is great that this question makes me realize that I love writing that is playful, essayistic, or speculative, and perhaps a bit “off.” It is fluid and I cannot define a top ten. I like a pluriform landscape of art writing that does not need to be defined by big names or “hot” critics or philosophers.
BH / MP Valiz often works on projects with partner organizations, such as art institutions or educational academies. What is the significance of working in these contexts, and how might these contexts affect art writing and the books you publish?
AV: There is not an easy answer to this. There can be a huge difference between projects, even within one institution. For instance, this year, 2020, I worked on two books (Design Dedication and IN/Search RE/Search) that were both initiated by the Sandberg Instituut (the Master’s program of the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, Amsterdam), and the way of communicating and defining what each book should be, and the space for me as an editor and publisher, was completely different between the two.
If I need to look for a common denominator within these and other institutional projects that Valiz works on, I would say that it is the already existing context and audience. As a publisher, you try to stretch that and look beyond that initial zone, trying to widen it to a broader discourse, and an even wider audience.
Working with an institution—and again, there are huge differences between an art school, a university, and an art gallery—has its obvious advantages and disadvantages. A disadvantage might be that an institution can be too focused on its own implicit rules and standards, linked to its organizational culture. Sometimes this means that a book needs to mirror or affirm their mission, which might not always be consistent with the message of the book. I think it is a publisher’s task to open up that discussion, and try to see the book as an autonomous medium that should have its own critical place in the world, not defined by what our partner (the institution) wants to address but by how it can be compared to and contrasted with other ideas that are out there in the world. Good cooperation allows for controversies that generate discussion, and from there the book can become stronger.
I hope the significance for an institution to work with Valiz lies in that critical questioning and in trying to find a precise line of thought, structure, content, and design, and how these are going to communicate the book’s message. Pia and I are trained by experience, after working on so many titles, with so many partners, over many years. We are continuously in contact with writers, editors, designers, booksellers, distributors, and other “book people,” and we bring in a specific intermediary knowledge about ways in which content can be refined and made stronger, what effect structure and design has on this, and what that means for the outside world. Of course, you want each book to find its readers—not just the people of the institution itself, or their peers and colleagues, but readers in other fields and places.
For Valiz, institutional cooperation is significant in many different ways. First of all, we can of course say no, which means we only work with institutions (and individuals) we find interesting and who understand the dynamics of exchange, so we can value each other’s expertise. Each collaboration is a learning process that brings in other content, and variations of how to deal with that content, with a new group of people and their own specific working processes—this can be hugely interesting, and satisfying, and it can give insights into organizational structures. More and more, I see these institutions as part of our loose “constitutional community,” an ecology that feeds content, knowledge, and viewpoints, and also international friendships, conviviality, support, and new ways to deal with differences.
How does this impact art writing? I think I am too close to the processes to say how this influences art writing in general. What I do think is that art writing becomes more interesting when it finds a challenging context. On Valiz, we have set up several different series of books that explicitly try to make a platform for specific strands of art writing, such as the link between art and society (Antennae), or different and creative modes of art history and art writing (vis-à-vis), or discussions of art and intersectionality (PLURAL). Each book that comes out relates to these families and to the Valiz program as a whole; these books “dialogue” with each other. I hope the diversity invites readers to find and develop new insights by jumping into titles that they were perhaps not immediately looking for, and that it challenges writers to commit to what they are doing, and that they feel encouraged to join.
BH / MP This is not a question about art writing per se, but we can’t resist asking about publishing processes. You’ve mentioned being “trained by experience,” and that cooperation is a learning process. Could you tell us more about your experience of learning-by-making as a publisher?
AV: A publication is a collaborative effort, a priori. There is an author, an artist, an editor, sometimes a translator, a designer, a printer, and a publisher, and thereafter a distributor and a bookseller, all involved to bring in their specific expertise. Although this all starts with the author’s (or artist’s) creative work, the book is the outcome of all of these people’s energy, knowledge, and time. They have to understand each other and each other’s roles in order to bring out the best possible synergy and result.
The publisher is the intermediary person who connects these skills and human rhythms. Several colleges offer education where you can learn how to edit, or how to market a book, or how to guide the technical aspects of book production, but I am not sure that there is a course on “the collaborative practice of making a book.” It would be preposterous to state that I know how to do this. It is an ongoing process, learning by doing, each time with unexpected angles, emotions, moments of pure frustration, humor, and fun.
An attempt to be more concrete: it all starts by trying to dive as best as possible into the other person’s role to understand what they are doing, what is required, and what we are heading for, and sharing many moments of assessment along the way. It works best when the makers get to know each other in the very early stages of a publication, to discuss the image each person holds of what the book is to be—a core concept needs to be defined and agreed upon.
If an author (or editor) comes to Valiz with a plan, we always ask them to write the concept down beforehand so that it can be shared, criticized, and all collaborators can relate to it, and it can then be adjusted, get better, change. If the plan is developed by Pia or myself, we also share it immediately with the other makers so the same happens: it will be discussed with the author, editor, and designer, and examined from all sides. It is best to be aware of any differences, and to use them intentionally. It is important to not sit on another person’s chair—in other words, one must be respectful of the specific knowledge and expertise somebody brings in. Not everyone is good at this, and that can cause frustration. Somebody who brings in a project—it can be an author, an editor, or someone representing an institution—might have the idea that they are going to define the structure and the design, but the project would then miss out on the additional and different insights of the other contributors.
Pia and I see it as our role, as publishers, to steer this, to bring ideas and people together, to continue communicating about the process and goals, and to go back to the core concept whenever needed—to keep that as a spine to develop the book further and to fill in its parts and its design. We have an agenda as well: to make the book topical, urgent, as clear in its communication as possible, and to stick within the budget and to the time schedule.
Working together in such a way again and again—encountering all these different temperaments, paces, and characters, each time inventing new perspectives on how to explore subjects, how to solve problems, and how to align to each other’s singularities and qualities—makes it a process of learning-by-making.
I am sure there are publishers who work completely differently, but this is how we go about it!
BH / MP In your view, what is the publisher's role in shaping art writing and discourse? Is this view demonstrated in your commissioning process?
AV: I recently read a beautiful text by Danah Abdulla. She is a designer, artist, and writer-cum-activist who addresses decolonization in design. What impressed me in her text is the exploration of what she calls “minor gestures,” namely how each—smaller and bigger—decision can define or nurture social transformation.* Reading this was an “aha” moment. The analogy to publishing is striking. I see publishing first and foremost as a practice, a daily labor, or a mode of working that evolves, engages, explores, addresses, solves problems, and all in all can be very mundane. But it is also a collective and connective labor, to which many individuals bring their specific knowledge and singularities.
When you ask how a publisher can shape art writing or discourse, it is through these “minor gestures” that, bit by bit, we can engender change. The authors or artists do the “major gestures”: they come up with the core ideas, they work really hard on their lines of thought, they position their work in the field with others, they refine their vocabularies, and they have the stamina to pull all of it together. They are the informed specialists who know how to carve their way into difficult subjects. A publisher is more of a generalist with knowledge across a wider range of subjects, but a priori cannot carve as deeply as the author or artist.
The publisher’s minor gestures are in believing, trusting, connecting, contextualizing, sorting out, bringing together, being patient, and having long-term faith in authors and in our own work. One of the minor gestures is to take good care of ourselves, to be able to read, breathe, exchange, connect, rewind, rethink, and imagine other scenarios. Beyond that, we can only exist when the books find their audiences, so it is also necessary to remain focused on how to distribute and sell them, because these activities nurture the whole. Being able to pay the bills seems far removed from the question of how a publisher can co-develop art writing, but it is obviously one of the conditions needed to be able to sustain a good relationship with authors and others. Writing and publishing are too often characterized by precarity, so it is necessary to counter-balance that with trust and long-term commitments—this is all based on minor gestures.
In many publications, especially anthologies, the commissioning process is one of “filtering”. Often, there is a concept by one person (an author or artist), and then together we find out what the core idea is that they are trying to delineate. And, perhaps most importantly, what is the topicality or urgency of this subject or research, and how might we best communicate that? So, the critical questioning or dialoguing steps in again, which is why we have developed a list with core questions that try to tackle as many aspects as possible, in order to articulate what the book basically wants to address. From there, we brainstorm which people might fit that subject, and we discuss themes, other possible contributors, and further contexts.
BH / MP How do you know when a book has found its audience? Does the book tell you, or does the audience?
AV: There is a simple or pragmatic answer to that: when we have reached the expected sales target (typically seventy percent or more of the total print run). So, book sales can tell us. But the more evocative answer is: by the feedback we receive internationally from people—at book fairs, or via email, booksellers, distributors, etc. It is great to receive emails from people and places we don’t know already, people who react to specific books and who explain how these books influence their practice or thinking.
BH / MP What do you think is urgent today in terms of publishing writing about art, and in art practice?
My response to this is straightforward. The world is burning, open exchange and democracies are under threat, diversity and otherness are not being dealt with in a healthy way, many people no longer feel part of a wider community, solidarity is lacking.
My strong belief is that the arts are able to bring in new imaginaries, which can lure people into looking differently, discussing, exchanging, and dealing with others and otherness. If this is the role of art, then art writing should build a diversified platform to investigate these ideas—to understand and give meaning to what art is doing and how it counteracts specific developments in the world; to be able to disagree with each other and formulate arguments, meaning, substance; and to bring oxygen and vitality into the arts themselves, especially into the discussions that the arts are tackling.
— Art should be embedded in society, and art writing should critically assess that position;
— Art writing can be poetic, contrary, smooth, easy, or difficult, it can have many tones and rhythms, but, in the end, it should be urgent and topical;
— A publisher has the role and the obligation to amplify the message as best as possible, and to try to spread and distribute ideas as widely as possible—to let them find roots, to allow many people to engage with them, to open up the discussion;
— And a variation on the previous point: a publisher should find or build strong contexts, and make unexpected connections, so authors, readers, and creative makers will find fertile ground to connect to content and to each other.
* Danah Abdulla, “Disciplinary Disobedience: A Border-Thinking Approach to Design,” in Design Struggles: Intersecting Histories, Pedagogies, and Perspectives, ed. Claudia Mareis and Nina Paim (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2021). Abdulla explains that the concept of minor gestures is a work in progress that Pedro Oliveira and she are still working on; I have liberally adopted the term.