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Questions We Ask Each Other: Collective Witnessing at the lumbung of Publishers

Insights into the lumbung of Publishers by Halik Abdul Azeez

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This July, I attended documenta fifteen as a member of the lumbung* of Publishers, a gathering of independent publishers and book makers. We came from various disciplines including art, activism, comic books, fiction and more. “Lumbung” is an Indonesian term for a community rice barn, used here as a metaphor for collectively pooled resources that are then distributed among stakeholders as needed. Over a week of organized and informal programming at documenta fifteen from 6 to 10 July 2022, the 22 members gathered to process our various practices, looking for ways to collaborate in the future.

After months of meeting exclusively online, the lumbung of Publishers finally came together physically during documenta fifteen at Kassel. The logistical complications of getting nearly 40 people (from 22 independent publishing entities) hailing from Europe, Africa, South America and South East Asia into the same space at the same time were significant, and many participants were delayed due to travel complications. But as we started to slowly trickle in, we began to practice Nonkrong**, hanging out and sharing space as we allowed ourselves to slowly get to know each other in person after months of virtual encounters. 


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The principle of Nonkrong doesn’t necessarily call for concrete action plans or visions to develop, preferring to allow affinities and trust to form in order to see what emerges out of it. And for many it was a welcome if rather curious provocation. As Camilla Gonzales Simon from the Chilean collective Hambre said “It is very strange to get an invitation to basically do whatever we wanted to do”, adding “in many things in this world we have limits of time and energy. To receive an open invitation to self organize, to get to know the publishing ecosystems and territory of others and even where they are located on a map is something new”.  

Camilla and their colleague Daniela led one of the more interactive participatory workshops as they took everyone to a public marketplace and split us into small groups of two to three people. After handing us a few coins, each group was tasked with buying a little food that could be brought back to the group. We returned to see our sparse contributions transformed into a simple but sumptuous meal which we shared together. Hambre’s metaphor of a collaborative publication following the same process as the preparation of a collective feast with few resources was something that stuck with me. It is an apt way to underline how many of us work; supplementing sparse resources with the invisible synergies generated through communal settings.

Organic ways of working within networks of friends can be hugely generative and be the very reason for collectives to come together. The majority of collectives in the lumbung have no formalized structures or ways of working. But for all its artistic and communal benefits, working in collectives is difficult business. In a common refrain, Di Liu from Shanghai based BOLOHO Reading Room said “the way we organize ourselves has a lot of improvisation and spontaneity, we organize ourselves in a natural way. We work with friends who have similar values. Working together (for us) just happened naturally”.  

Within the group, finding new ways to sustain collectives organizationally without having to resort to structures that threatened the spontaneity, mutual care and generative flux of organic working methods became a theme of discussion. The lumbung of Publishers itself took place in a context already given to speculations about collective approaches to making work in today’s world; a major theme in documenta fifteen. Speaking to some of the ideas that initiated it, documenta artistic team members Indra Ameng and Frederikke “Fred” Hansen both emphasized creating an environment of mutual exchange and care. “The lumbung idea is not to create one big global collective, it is to create a collective of collectives that can share resources,” said Hansen. In this light, documenta fifteen was “only a resource” that would kickstart a process that would reverberate into the future.  

Simply the act of sharing the inherent problems of independent publishing work allowed affinities to develop. For many, being an independent publisher allows one to be free from the norms of the book industry which, as Carmen José from Rotopol put it, “is a big monster that eats up everything”. For these publishers gathered in Kassel, mainstream publishing generates waste and tends to give importance to only certain kinds of books and forms of cultural output while independent publishing often results in smaller print runs and incorporates organic, playful and unorthodox ways of approaching the book form.  

However, not having access to the economies of scale of big industrial publishers means that logistical difficulties are an overarching issue. Many self-publishing and independent outfits produce far less quantities than your average big publishing house. This also increases costs of shipping per book which sometimes can even exceed their original retail prices. A panel organized by Egypt and Jordan based publisher Kayfa-Ta, which introduced Berlin based bookseller Siddhartha Lokanandi from Hopscotch Reading Room to the group, discussed some of these concerns. 

Participants shared stories of complicated deliveries that often involved passing a single book between multiple friends and colleagues in order to get it across to an interested buyer in a foreign country. While these stories had everyone laughing in commonly shared pain, figuring out sustainable means of global distribution is a pressing issue for everyone. Together, the lumbung of Publishers is now looking at alternative means of distribution that will utilize its nascent global network, even if it means simply transporting books in each others’ suitcases to start with. 

The six days at ruru Haus and elsewhere in restaurants, clubs and the streets of Kassel resonated with many other topics of interest such as translation, funding, long-term sustainability and artistic process which were central to how many of us function. Public sessions involved readings, participative performances and panel discussions including one with Contemporary &, which framed key aspects of independent publishing for a captive audience of the general public.  

The final day saw a book fair where each collective set up tables laid out with our publications. This was an opportunity to not just share work with visitors to documenta fifteen, but to also generate income through book sales. In many ways, the festive air of this final day was a celebration of the emergent spaces of common interests developed among these 22 entities. In the months to come, the network will go back to meeting online. But this time a few concrete goals will start framing a new network of global publishers as we hope to create a collective publication, test new methods of distribution as well as explore the translation of each others’ works. Nonkrong, of course, will continue as an ongoing practice. 


 * Translated from Indonesian, “lumbung” means “rice barn.” In Indonesian rural communities, the surplus harvest is stored in communal rice barns and distributed for the benefit of the community according to jointly defined criteria. This principle stands for the living and working practice of ruangrupa, the curators of documenta fifteen, and is used for an interdisciplinary and collaborative work on artistic projects. Adapted from documenta glossary. 

**Nongkrong is an Indonesian slang term from Jakarta and means “hanging out together”. Casual conversation and togetherness, but also the sharing of time, ideas or food are anchored in this term. For ruangrupa, but also for the majelis of the lumbung members, nongkrong is an important practice, from documenta glossary.

Author: Abdul Halik Azeez

Abdul Halik Azeez is a visual artist, independent researcher and writer based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He is a founding member of the Sri Lankan collective «The Packet», itself a member of the lumbung of Publishers.

All photos (c) Abdul Halik Azeez

The lumbung of Publishers:

David Kaiza , Kenya
N’fana Diakite , Mali

The Publishers Lumbung at documenta 15 is supported by Pro Helvetia with the aim of facilitating and strengthening exchange between independent publishers, book-makers and artists in Pro Helvetia’s global network.

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