Writing, Curating and Lecturing on Visual Arts, Public Space and Architecture

May I introduce you – Asterisk

Interview with two young Estonian graphic designers who started their own portable independent bookstore. Laura and Elisabeth re now living in Holland and the bookstore has been upgraded into an annual graphic design summer school.

Published by Artishok, 23.08.2010. http://artishok.blogspot.com/2010/08/may-i-introduce-you-asterisk.html

Asterisk* is a portable book shop from Tallinn, popping out in places you wouldn't have expected and selling books you wouldn't have dreamed of. Gregor Taul, a student of art history, asked Elisabeth Klement and Laura Pappa, the two girls behind Asterisk*, to tell about their project for Artishok and its foreign readers.

1) Would you please tells us in a few words, what is Asterisk* ?

Asterisk* is a bookshop devoted to the promotion and production of printed matter from young graphic designers and illustrators. We call ourselves a portable book shop but it could be seen more as an event or a tiny fair rather than the conventional idea of a book shop.

2) From where and how do you get the books you sell?

Asterisk started from the lack of possibilities for distribution of our own and our colleagues' small edition publications so we created a platform to spread printed matter that we felt needed to reach a larger audience.

The majority of the books are made by students, graduates and teachers of the graphic design department of the Estonian Academy of Arts. Among those are student works that have been made in very small editions and limited resources, graduation projects that are then printed in fairly larger editions and artists’ books, art theory and critical readers in contemporary art that have been published by the Art Academy or by the initiative of the designers themselves. A noticeable amount of books in our selection are connected to the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam where Elisabeth studied. Then there are also a number of publications acquired from other small publishers or bookshops in Europe that we felt could be of importance to our visitors as there hardly is any interesting contemporary artist books or theory readers in the local bookshops.

3) How do you choose the places where you sell? You have been to Riga and Zürich, while in Tallinn you have visited EKKM, Telliskivi Creative Space, former EKA building and the New World Community. Do people invite you as well?

Let's not forget KINOMAJA and EAST gallery.

For us a very important part of the book shop is to introduce new and interesting locations or shed light on unused old spaces. We feel the situation with cultural spaces or non-profit galleries in Tallinn has really been quite sad for years. Specific spaces have their own crowds and any mixing hardly takes place so mainly we have picked places we ourselves really like to attend and think should get more publicity.
Our hosts have so far had a really good reception towards our undertaking and we are also very thankful for their hospitality.

We indeed have received invitations to attend different fairs in Estonia or be a part of other larger events but we do like to keep our independence and rather not put ourselves in a situation where we are just a booth of books in the middle of let's say a handicraft fair. Not that we don't like handicraft of course…

4) How is it with funding or do you need any money at all to keep the store going? It seems to me, that the books, leaflets, poster or postcards you sell are remarkably cheaper than, well any of the Taschens sold in chain bookstores (not to mention that most of the things you sell have a print-run less than a hundred..). Asterisk* is obviously a project for the public good.

For us Asterisk has never been about making a profit. It's what we love to do and we are therefore willing to invest all the needed resources to keep it running. As well as managing this bookshop with no address, we are also working together as graphic designers under the name Asterisk.

We have tried to keep the prices quite low so all the books, posters etc would be affordable to anyone who visits. All the books and other publications are sold with the price that is equivalent to resources needed for producing them, plus a very small percentage that would cover our expenses of things like printing advertisement posters. This is all to reach as many people possible and find prospective readers to the publications offered. Last fall we were very happy that through us a student work by Toom Tragel was published by Rollo Press and through Rollo was sold at last years New York Book Fair. (http://www.rollo-press.com/publications/baldessari-sings-lewitt/)

It's also obvious that larger bookstores have hundreds of employees waiting for their monthly salaries. When it comes to Asterisk, there's only the two of us and as said earlier – where not doing it for the profit but for spreading the ideas. That's what keeps us going. The question of funding comes in when we need to travel abroad though. So far the Cultural Endowment of Estonia, the graphic design department at EKA and of course our families have helped us out.

5) Continuing with the topic of the last question. In April 2009 me and my friend Annika opened a store called Primitiiv in Tartu. All the things "sold" there were free of charge. In order to "buy" something, one had to give something in exchange. When Primitiiv was closed in August 2009, a webpage-based newspaper wrote a story about the "dead exchange store". Within a day lot's of readers commented on the article, stating that the people behind Primitiiv are idiots, as they don't know anything about PR or just proper advertising (the problem was that nobody had heard anything about Primitiiv before). One of the anonymous commenters said that she lived on the same street as Primitiiv, probably passed the store twice everyday, but still didn't know anything about it! I didn't know whether I should I cry or laugh, but luckily another commenter residing in England replied (in Estonian) that he/she hadn't been to Estonia for years but knew about Primitiiv already before it was opened..

So what I'm asking is that, whether you feel the lack of one PR geek next to you, or facebook and a couple of posters around the town will do the job for you? And I suppose it's a question of goals and subgoals.. Whether you want to open "a real bookstore" one day etc..

Our goal so far hasn't really been about reaching the masses but more about gradually widening the small circle of people that find interest in the books we offer. It's true that we don't have large banners around the city or any advertisements in papers but we haven't really felt the need for it, perhaps the day will come for buying the front page of EESTI EKSPRESS for our cause, but for now we are fine. We like the way the word slowly spreads from mouth to mouth. Seeing more and more new faces every event means the circle is gradually getting wider already. Everyone is truly welcome.

Becoming a "real bookstore" is of course a very logical next step and something we have had in the back of our minds for quite some time. This existing in physical space definitely brings a lot of practical problems for us and until now we have been weighing the pro's and con's, but we are hoping that Asterisk will have an address at one point.

6) Back to basics. Tell us about your favourite bookstores.

We do think that at least one good book is to be found in every bookstore. Here are some that have more than one:
Occasional Bookstore (http://www.dextersinister.org/)
Motto Distribution (http://www.mottodistribution.com)
Section 7 Books (http://www.castillocorrales.fr/section7/section7.html)
TRUE TRUE TRUE (http://truetruetrue.org/)

7) What do you think about the general situation regarding the flea-markets, inspiring second-hands, art/design/book-stores in Tallinn at the moment? Any favourites? What does Tallinn lack?

What art/design/book stores? Similar to the demise of small basement shops and the never-ending sprouting of shopping malls in the beginning of the mid nineties when talking about book shops in Estonia there seem to be now only big chains like RAHVA RAAMAT and APOLLO. No specialized film, music or art book shops, only "departments" in mammoth book stores which try to stock up on a little bit of every genre. This results in a meager selection of TASCHEN overpriced coffee-table art books, some local printed matter and because of the uninteresting variety there is little rotation in the selection and most of the tomb-stone like glossy easygoing art-books end up within a year in the "sale" bin looking mangled and abandoned.

The book shop in KUMU which one could say is the only straight forward art book shop in Tallinn, does indeed have a very limited selection of artist's books and some theory readers but you reach it once you get past the the piles of tasteless tourist jewelry, postcards and KUMU memorabilia. The truth is that the shop so far was not even run by the art museum itself. We heard that now changed, but let's see.

There is though a number of good second-hand bookstores that offer a great variety of books that have been sold out in regular bookstores. One should definitely look for the ones situated outside of the city centre for from these shops you can really find some rarities and also they are less overpriced. The same goes for second-hand clothes stores.

8) Any special plans with Asterisk* for the year 2011?

The time is too soon for announcements, but the near future takes Asterisk to Berlin. We are at Motto Art Book Fair "Unter dem Motto" 3-5 of September. (http://www.mottodistribution.com/site/?page_id=6953)

9) Tell us about the Holland connection (concerning Asterisk as well as the overall Estonian graphic design)?. I know that Elisabeth is studying in Rietveld Academy. But also many other authors of the books you sell come from Rietveld Academy.

As for us, Elisabeth graduated from the Rietveld Academy this summer and is now working for the school and Laura who just graduated from the Estonian Academy of Arts is starting there this autumn, so as of September we are both residing in Amsterdam indefinitely.

But if we talk about the education of graphic design in Estonia, then the connection is that within the last seven years a generation of Estonian graphic designers have studied and graduated from The Rietveld Academy and returned to teach at the department in the Estonian Art Academy. The Rietveld is a really interesting school for studying graphic design at the moment and the department's approaches on teaching and talking about graphic design have definitely had a lot of influence on the way it is taught at the Estonian Art Academy. Also within the recent years a long list of lecturers that teach at the Rietveld have given workshops or lectures at the department. But it should be said that it's not only the Netherlands' influence, there have also been designers and lecturers coming to teach from Great Britain, Switzerland, Germany, France etc.

10) Asterisk is publishing books itself as well.. Tell us something about your "publishing house".

Officially we have published two publications, sociologist Rene Mäe's thesis "Sõltumatute Muusikaürituste korraldajate motiivid, hoiakud ja tegevuspraktikad" and Elisabeth's and Margo Niit's reader "Vikerkaar", a carefully made selection of texts published in the Estonian magazine Vikerkaar that touch upon publishing, graphic design and close subjects to it. "Vikerkaar" is also a retrospective of the magazine's legendary design by Jüri Kaarma.

It is quite easy to let words with high brow connotations like "publishing house" make things seems more serious than they are when in fact we see the act of publishing more as basic sharing. The founder of Hyphen Press, Robin Kinross has once explained the simple meaning of publishing:
"There’s something I do continually: if I see a newspaper article that I think will interest someone else, I cut it out and give it to them. Or I make two photocopies, and give one to that friend and the other to someone else. Maybe that’s the publishing activity at its most basic: perhaps it’s an instinct rather than a disease."

So for instance the variety of student works that we offer, both Estonian and foreign, that don't really spread through other channels, could be called Asterisk's publications. What we are trying to achieve with organizing this miniature "publishing house"/fair/bookshop on wheels is creating an interest in the field of production and distribution of artists' books, small-scale publications and lo-fi publishing culture in Estonia. One of our goals is also to spread the word about printed matter of Estonian graphic designers and artists in Europe and the other way around. Even though each time we have more books from abroad in our selection and we're now and then visiting other countries, we consider Asterisk entirely an Estonian endeavour. We are very much open to suggestions on interesting material that would need publishing and also to collaborations with writers or artists.

11) What about other people selling there stuff at Asterisk*? Can people come to you and ask whether you'd like to sell the cool book I printed myself?

Since the beginning of Asterisk almost two years ago we have tried very hard to keep the selection fresh. As for the student works, it used to be so that when we found something interesting and worthy of spreading, we told the author of the publication to make an edition of it for us to sell. Mostly we approach the authors and encourage them to producing more copies, but now it is happening more and more often that people come to us suggesting they produce this or that.

With every new event, the number of offset-printed books has grown but this definitely doesn't mean there's no room for laser-printed and self-bound booklets. On the contrary – the less copies of a book the more valuable it is. We are up for all offers, as long as both the content and the production are made with care and devotion. As said in our previous answer, we are very much open for suggestions.

12) Regarding books and printing in Estonia, what do you think we lack the most? For example I miss all the possible small-scale magazines. I miss the EKA magazine. I even miss the embarrasing night-life magazine Heat.

Every year there are only a handful of books published in Estonia that are well designed, thought through and respectful towards the reader and the content. Our "25 Most Beautiful Books" competition is very much a joke and while there are surprisingly a lot of books being published none of the publishers and graphic designers making them are asking themselves the most important questions like how much, what way and why to print. Right now there is still a common belief that when not printed in offset a publication is not a "real book", this leads to print runs larger than needed and eventually piles of leftover copies. Very little interest is shown towards investing in ways for publications to be made in smaller editions.

The culture of zines and pamphlets has always been hand-in-hand with different subcultures and the idea of spreading a cause. Seems that right now in Estonia the Jehowas witnesses are the only ones doing a good job of running their small scale magazines–when meeting one you'll never walk away without some printed matter. We have to agree, Heat was a truly embarrassing publication, but none the less served it's purpose well and seems that even in it's ugliness, it has left big shoes to fill.

Thank You!

For more information visit http://graphicdesign.ee/asterisk


Photos taken from graphicdesign.ee/asterisk and Asterisk's facebook page

Acts of Refusal: Barthol Lo Mejor

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