Valiz: Publishing about Art and Society for 20 years - An interview with Pia Pol and Astrid Vorstermans
For their twenty-year anniversary, I have decided to interview Valiz, an Amsterdam-based independent publisher that focuses on bringing to light the positionality, critical, and discursive aspects of art, design, and architecture. I was warmly received by Astrid Vorstermans, co-director and founder of Valiz, and Pia Pol, editor and co-director.
E: So tell me, what’s the story? How was Valiz born and what was the vision behind it?
A: At the time I started Valiz, some twenty years ago, I’d had a long career in publishing and bookshops already. I was working in Rotterdam, at NAi Publishers where most of my work focused on art books, mainly monographs. I had been doing this, albeit very nice job, for a while and I could potentially envision myself doing it until my retirement but I craved for more, I needed more freedom, more choices, the ability to work differently, to interact without the constraints of traditional publishing. Through my work at NAI Publishing, I was in dialogue with a lot of museums all over the Netherlands, who, at the turn of the millennium, were reconsidering what publishing meant to them; if it only comprised catalogues and monographs or if it included a more discursive way to look at art. These discussions influenced my decisions I think. I left NAI and thought about freelance work, editing, and being an agent. However, it was actually after being approached by a few people I knew, asking me to publish their books that, bit by bit, Valiz was born. At first, I had no definitive idea about what it needed to be, we kept publishing monographs of course, but progressively we developed this positionality, the relationship between art and society. I think it was around that time, four or five years after I started, that Pia came.
P: Indeed. I joined Valiz at a pivotal time, one of reflection and change. We were considering how to adopt a more reflective perspective. There were a lot of questions but the weight started to lean more towards these critically effective books. When I started, you [Astrid] had just made two books This is the Flow and World Art Studies: Exploring Concepts and Approaches and these truly marked a new beginning, for us to start doing a different type of art book.
A: It’s always easier to see decisions and lines of thought with hinsight but it went organically; a decisive moment in Valiz's history for example was when we were approached by a couple of very critical and political Flemish authors.From the outset, we had been publishing in English, and bilingual books. Some of these authors, like Pascal Gielen, were incredibly influential in making Valiz what it is today. Pascal has been seminal in bringing content, discussing at length with us about strategies, and initiating conversations between us and others like him. Our work with Pascal led us to create the Arts in Society series, our first explicitly political and discursive series of works. This is when Valiz’s publications started to question how we see the world, what should change, and how the arts enact this change. We were the first in the Netherlands to create this type of content.
E: Getting to know Valiz, one thing that piqued my curiosity was your funding. As you’ve mentioned, you wanted more freedom to pick your subjects and explore different opportunities than the traditional publishing industry but how do you sustain these wonderful but not market-driven projects?
A: Well of course part of it, is through the interest that our work generates, the sales of the books. But one of our particularities is that we don’t have any sort of structural funding. For each book we find some sort of specific funding for that project; sometimes it’s state funding, for instance, from the Creative Industries Fund NL, or individual sponsorships, or collaborations with universities and dedicated institutes. Of course, we also invest our own stakes and that forces us to be extra critical of which risks to take, and how to spend our time and resources wisely. Not to say that we are frivolous when an outside party is involved..
E: What is Valiz now? What are your current projects and publications? What kind of struggles did you face?
P: Our most recent endeavour has been the Vis-à-Vis series. Contrary to our previous publications like the Arts in Society, this series focuses on creative writing in the arts while still maintaining our trademark reflective perspective. And we’ve had some wonderful contributors such as Mieke Bal and Ernst van Alphen – to mention only two. We all wanted to bring these reflections to a new audience, and not confining it to the academic scene. It is crucial for all of our society to reflect upon the themes included in Vis-à-Vis. And our authors are always sincerely happy to see their work in places where they might not always appear.
A: One of our strengths now is that we really have a strong and trusting relationship with our community. We don’t need to focus on conventional marketing strategies like traditional publishing houses. We really focus on the subjects and the content that we deem important and we know that it will appeal to our readers and artists. It’s a community that we have built slowly over time but it’s one that has helped greatly in shaping Valiz as well. Of course, those twenty years have not been without struggles, we’ve had our ups and downs. Working for months on end juggling multiple projects, we face a lot of pressure. There are a lot of contributors behind every project, each with complex dynamics. Managing all these people and relationships on top of extensive administrative and financial responsibility takes a lot out of us.
P: I think both of us actually spend around seventy percent of our time just keeping things running on the administrative side. The whole distribution system, for example, is extremely time-consuming but it’s essential to the good functioning of Valiz.
E: How do you see Valiz growing? What is the vision? What are the core values that you want to infuse and invest in for the future of Valiz?
P: We have a lot of conversations about where we’re going, not only in terms of content but also about Valiz as an entity, as a platform and I think we find it very important that we keep to our values, of creating content and listening to our artists, continuing to work within and support this community.
A: Very concretely we have been talking about creating some new opportunities. For us, publishing is about making content available to the public which we often do through our print publications however, we have been thinking of ways to approach content in a new light, creating a different platform. For example, we have been doing many events, lectures, and performances, which tend to take a secondary space, always sort of squeezed between our other projects, but what if we looked at them differently? As an entity in and of itself? What would that need and how could we position it in a way that is unique to us? How to make this content available in a different format, a different medium than the book? We have also been thinking about becoming a more nomadic platform, one that would meet with people to talk about the projects and bring our specific knowledge to them.
P: Another vision that we keep considering is about changing the format of Valiz itself. As of right now, we are co-owners of Valiz but we have been debating on making it an employees cooperative, or maybe not just a cooperation between employees but perhaps also involving members of our community who would contribute to bringing content and further shaping Valiz. I believe this could strengthen our link with our (potential) community and also, in a way, give them back something, for all the support they have shown us over the years.