A Conversation With Romke Hoogwaerts — by Rebecca O’Keefe

 

 

I met Romke Hoogwaerts over three years ago at a house party in the East Village. We were sitting next to each other on a couch when he introduced himself. I had just started an internship at Printed Matter and he was well in to his online project Mossless.

 

Since then, our paths continued to cross as we both became more involved with the independent publishing community. When Romke told me that he would shift Mossless to a physical magazine, I could not have been more anxious to see it come to life.

 

Mossless, in its original format, was a website that published an interview with a photographer every two days. Most of the interviews were conducted by Romke himself, along with a gang of contributors. Each interview started with the artist’s age and a sentence to describe themselves, followed by four questions. Those interviewed range in age, nationality, and level of recognition for their work.

 

After about 300 interviews, Romke published Mossless Magazine Issue 1 through a Kickstarter campaign that utilized the enthusiasm of the artists he had interviewed and the readers he had gained. While Mossless Magazine as a physical publication will most likely continue to expand in a variety of formats, Mossless the website now exists as a time capsule of contemporary photography from May 2009–May 2011.

 

Mossless has mainly focused on young photographers, and some of those featured can surely attest to the impact that having an interview online can have. Many were still students when their interview was posted, and undoubtedly Mossless served as a motivator for young photographers who fell upon the site to share their work online. Out of the four photographers featured in Mossless Magazine Issue 1, one recently published a hardcover book through fourteen-nineteen, another has had three magazine covers this past year, and another shoots for Bloomberg Businessweek.

 

I’ve grown to respect Romke over the past few years, but I can’t say I really know much about him. He’s not the type to talk about himself.  We usually just talk about books we like, and our mutual love of e-mailing strangers that we admire. I was excited to chat over e-mail, typing away my wandering thoughts while he responded thoughtfully.

 

I urge you to check out the Mossless online archive, and order Mossless Magazine Issue 2. The new issue features an essay by Romke entitled, Swimming in the Center of the Earth, and features contributions from a host of talented individuals.  This issue was a dual effort between Romke and his partner Grace Leigh.  It is a beautiful piece of printed matter. To keep up with what is to come for Mossless, you can follow MOSSfull, a blog dedicated to inspiration and behind-the scenes posts.

 

Romke in his apartment / studio. Photo courtesy of Susan Patrice.

 

 

Rebecca:

 

Hi there,

 

I’m so excited that we are doing this! To be honest, it’s a bit selfish. You know that I think Mossless is a great project, and now I get to learn more about it. I’d like to start off by getting to know how Mossless began, and then later talking about how it went from online to print.

 

I was thinking about how I got to know Mossless and realized that it was from a t-shirt you were wearing once. I remember meeting you for the first time at Chelsea, Michelle, and Avi’s old apartment: I sat down next to you on the couch and I thought you were much older than me. At another party I saw you wearing a homemade t-shirt that said Mossless. I later looked it up and realized it was YOUR site, and I was very impressed. I’m not a photographer, nor will I pretend to know anything about photography, but I was meeting a lot of photographers at the time, and my best friend is one, so I guess I just found myself becoming one of those people who look at photographs on the internet a lot. Mossless was the best place for me because I love interviews.

 

My initial question to you is, how did you decide, at 18 years old, that you would start Mossless?  What guided you toward interviewing photographers, and why every other day? It seems like a lot to take on. I believe you started out with people you knew somewhat, later branching out to other photographers. One of the best aspects of Mossless for me was seeing people I knew—like Bobby, Jake, and Dave—all interviewed on the site. It elevated their work in a way that they deserved. They are talented photographers, but weren’t yet receiving much recognition elsewhere because they were still students. Later on, there were interviews with people who you only knew through Flickr, and again, I think the interviews elevated them the same way.

 

Lastly, why did you choose Tumblr as the initial way to build the site? It’s an easy way to start an online project because people can follow you, and are therefore automatically exposed to each interview. I discovered Mossless right when I started “Tumbling”, so I read almost every interview.

 

Write me back about baby Mossless, and then we can move on to the adolescent stage. It was great to see you and Grace at the fair; you guys are seriously the cutest.

 

Best,
R

 

 

Romke:

 

Those parties were really great and I miss them. We must have all been together several times a week—and with us I mean this crazy admirable band of artists. I had actually interviewed a couple way before meeting them just because I knew them through Flickr. That’s actually how many of my interviews on Mossless started.

 

I was living in Singapore at the time. Singapore’s art scene was newly blooming but it was missing something that I was seeing from those I knew online. For a long time Mossless existed only as a record of emails. Tumblr was the new thing, I had experience with all the blog formats before it and it was just way better for something visual. It also has RSS but I didn’t implement it very well.

 

Anyway, I use the internet a lot, but I used to use it even more and it sometimes felt like a home away from home. There were a few photo websites but it wasn’t enough to fulfill my craving for that stuff. I thought I could post images too! It got boring quickly so I decided to up the ante. An interview every other day just felt right, if I forgot about actually doing the interviews. They’re not too hard though. When I do it right, I look at the work for a while and write down the first few things in the works that I wish I could find out about, even strange details. I would always do them in bunches, like four or five in a good two hour session. Oh! That’s why I liked Tumblr too; you could easily queue posts up.

 

Baby Mossless! It was so good to see you this weekend. It was an amazing fair. Grace and I are totally elated.

 

Best,
r

 

 

A screenshot of mosslessmagazine.com, featuring a photograph by Jake McNulty.

 

 

Rebecca:

 

Hey again,

 

I read the pre-order booklet, and what I’d like to talk about next is why you were initially drawn to photography, and then obviously to photography blogs and New York. I know you were in Singapore before coming here for college, and you’ve had a very different and more global pre-NY experience than most people I know. Maybe you can tell me a little bit about how that may have prompted you to be looking out at the world through the internet. I’m interested in how you were connecting to artwork and people through the internet at such a young age. It’s great that you were e-mailing people on your own at first, before even putting it out in public. I even wonder how you first found Flickr, as silly as that may sound.

 

The reason this interests me so much is that when I was a teenager I didn’t have my own computer, so my family’s desktop was something I used to chat with friends and do my homework. I didn’t spend a lot of time surfing the web, because I was sharing the thing and also didn’t have much privacy. I did spend a lot of time watching TV, reading, and driving around, which I think played a role in how I seek out information. The internet didn’t come naturally for me. I’ve gotten to know a lot of creative people through books, magazines, mentors, and my solo walks around NYC, usually searching the internet later on for more information.

 

The last question I have in this area is, what was it like to come to NYC and meet some of the artists you had interviewed via e-mail in person? And how did the outreach you had with Mossless lead you to your circle of friends and colleagues? Was it surreal or weird at first? This past weekend I met Erik van der Weijde in person, someone who I have e-mailed with many times to order books from. It was strange to shake his hand and try to have a quick conversation with this person who I only know through books. I’ve had that experience many times. In fact, I met my friend Sara by asking her for books for Printed Matter, and I remember the first time she came in to the shop I was actually really nervous, which is funny to remember now. I imagine you have a lot of friends from all over the world because of Mossless.

 

I’m so happy you made the booklet. The writing was much more abstract than I expected, which is a nice contrast to the interviews.

 

Talk soon,
R

 

 

Romke:

 

Photography had an honesty to it that appealed to me in my early youth. Before I really understood the deeper concepts of art I felt that the human hand was incapable of the kind of precision you’d need to depict the world and introspective concepts without error. And it was something I was capable of trying. I could borrow my dad’s camera when we were on trips or I’d save up for a disposable. I didn’t know any other art forms that were so affordable, save the childish ones. I didn’t like childish things much as a child. I always had this hatred for adults who didn’t understand children yet still forced this cheap useless junk onto us through our hapless parents. I told myself I should write down what I’d really like… okay, I’m really drifting off here, but I’ve been thinking about youth a lot lately. I honestly believe that the developed world’s youth are cripplingly socially disabled.

 

Singapore is great: it’s entirely English speaking and it is incredibly technologically advanced. Growing up there was dope. Pretty much every other place I’d lived before that was foreign. Between the ages of two to ten I lived in Hong Kong, Italy and Spain, where I was that little white Dutch kid. The language barrier and my difficult home life turned me further inward, and I was already quiet to begin with. I feel like the solace in my youth lead me to be socially ill-equipped later in life. The internet was easy. I liked writing and reading over talking anyway, and I quickly got the hang of it. A lot of things are illegal and taboo in Singapore and back then there wasn’t as much on the internet and all I wanted to do was look into every corner. Flickr was hard to miss. God, I was even on DeviantArt. That was bad. I posted on message boards. A lot. Those were great though. I posted on Slap Magazine’s forum, which is like the 4chan of skateboarding. I was one of those superusers, one of the “Slap pals” there. As much work as it was, Mossless was all very much on the side.

 

Coming to New York and meeting a lot of these people I’d only known as words and pictures was very surreal. It feels like everything leading up to that point was all in a sandbox and priming me for this new life. What you have to know about growing up abroad like I did is that I have nothing to return to. My parents live in another country now on another continent and I don’t really know anybody there. My past is all memory. I have no old room with posters still hanging, no old familiar neighbors, no team to support and no town rooting me on. But I like to think that being so untethered helps me think objectively.

 

Best,
r

 

 

(At this point in our conversation, Romke shared with me his essay, Swimming in the Center of the Earth)

 

 

Romke at the Mossless Magazine Issue 1 launch at Printed Matter Inc.

 

 

 

Mossless Magazine Issue 1

 

 

Rebecca:

 

I read the essay, and I’ll probably read it a few more times because it feels good to get to know it better.  Writing a response has been really confusing for me.  The reason I interview people for Paperweight is because I really struggle with writing, so you are challenging me!

 

Initially, I was thinking to myself that you should publish the essay online, because then more people could read it. But the question is whether people would. Not to say that people wouldn’t read your essay. I think I may need to back this up with a little more. I remember first seeing Mossless as a physical publication and feeling so much more for the project than I did in its online form. Not everyone feels this way I’m sure, but I’m more inclined to read something in my hand, and so I often wonder how much people actually read what they view online. This could be compared to someone who has a lot of books on their shelves that they’ve never read. Do you know what I mean? I wonder how you feel about publishing your writing online. 

 

What you said about having nothing to return to was a really powerful thing for me to read. The statement put a lot in to perspective in terms of how much of a community Mossless has fostered throughout its existence. I’ve always felt that you truly care about the people you feature, as opposed to just needing them to further your social or artistic goals. What I got from that last response, as well as talking to you more on Friday, is that when you don’t have something in the back of your life to cling on to, it sets you up to be more of a risk taker and extremely dedicated to the future. And I see that in your work a lot. I mean, you really had to put yourself out there when moving to the city; to connect to all of these people you had been in contact with online. And that led you to have a ton of personal friends because of Mossless. Friends who you are very interested in helping to advance in their careers as photographers.

 

Anyway, back to the essay, I wanted to hear what you had to say in laymen’s terms about the dichotomy of the internet in terms of exposure. What I mean is, I think you say that the internet opens up a platform for artists to expose people to their work, gain feedback on it, and publish what they do in a variety of ways. However, it also expands the competition that already exists in the art world.

 

I have to say, I recently deleted a lot of my “internet presence” because I felt like I was trying to market myself in a kind of immature way. Not to say that this is what other people are doing (I’m definitely only speaking for myself here) but I felt like I was trying to categorize myself and add to some kind of resume that really isn’t ready to be published yet. So I decided to turn a lot of these outlets off—like Tumblrs for my art and visual merchandising work—and instead take a step back and think about how I might better share my work in the future, and if I even need to right now. Maybe getting a little older I’m not as impatient as I once was. I wonder what you think the pros and cons are for using the internet to promote your work, or what you like and don’t like about the way people are currently doing this?

 

At times the internet can become a passive place. Like I stated before: I believe your community is important to you. I wonder how you think Mossless harbored an internet place that was active and positive. And I wonder how you feel about all of the constant, but subtle and non-confrontational competition that I think your essay points out.

 

Basically, give me your monologue about this essay. What are the most important things in there, the ideas that you feel the most passionate about. And then tell me how Mossless relates or related to those. I know this is probably a lot to ask, so focus on what’s important to you here. But since we’re friends I’m enjoying having an honest discussion. And since you’re such a nice guy, I want to challenge you to talk about what frustrates you and what you don’t like. I think what an artist doesn’t like can be just as motivating—if not more so — than what he or she does like.

 

Thanks so much for doing this; I think the end result is going to be really great.
-R

 

 

Romke:

 

I would love to publish my essay online but I would like to do it through a different outlet. We’ll see where it goes. I’ll be sending it out to a lot of people I read and admire. But being in print allows it to be just a little more objective, just a little bit more removed from the online.

 

What you said about how my past affects my approach to working and thinking is totally true. I do feel dedicated to the future; in fact, I feel devoted. I think it’s also a little true for everyone else who is dedicated to the online because that world has no real heritage either. What’s so exciting about that is that we have so much power over the internet because every click is a vote. I have complete confidence in saying that the internet (or whatever shape it will claim in the future) will overthrow Congress. I don’t think I’m the only one who thinks that, and I think there’s plenty of people who would want that to be true, because in any case it would be a purer Democracy.

 

The internet is a difficult place though. Lil B said that the internet “is a big booster of love and peace and bringing people together, and it can also keep you away from other people, and keep you judgmental and not really knowing who is who.” He’s right but it just depends on what you use the internet for. I left Facebook because it made me judgemental and cynical about my friendships. My essay is on how having an online profile is really a tailored duplication of oneself. There’s plenty of traces left behind with us all being present online—most often with our legal names—and those traces are evident in our art! That’s just inescapable! I don’t understand why that’s being overlooked so often. I honestly feel like it’s because there has been no real term for this psycho-social phenomenon. In my essay I call it post-monovialism1 because it’s necessarily after monovial life; or life without online representation, life with a single path.

 

But there are a lot of gritty little details. For instance, we don’t have a good outlet for aesthetic or conceptual discourse online other than comments sections on blogs. There aren’t really any satisfying social networks that cater to a niche crowd like that of artists. Like I wrote in the essay, that harms the art of those who publish work online because without discourse art loses density. And it’s easy to say that the internet for artists is just a place to promote work for offline means, but that’s not really true. Each artist’s website is also their own grand white cube. It is there out of pride and for collaboration. The internet has its own life.

 

Few people stand up for the internet in a way that I can be proud of. I felt there was a bit of a vacuum there and I can’t be the only one who’s tired of the misrepresentations! I wrote Swimming in the Center of the Earth as an attempt to represent our art—and there is an inspiringly huge amount of it—in the light it deserves.

 

What do you think?

 

 

Mossless Magazine Issue 2

 

 

Rebecca:

 

Hey there,

 

That response is pretty much perfect to me. I think your writing is more cohesive than mine in terms of this conversation.

 

I liked what you said about print being a little more objective. I think I like more of what I read in print. Maybe that’s because when I read online I tend to be clicking links and Googling things to support whatever is interesting me, and therefore I’m internalizing what other people are writing about what I’m reading. But it could also just be that I don’t purchase things to read that I don’t think I’ll like, whereas on the internet I kind of enjoy clicking on links to things that I think will annoy me.

 

It’s strange for me to relate to your devotion to the future, or I guess to relate to the way your relationships have developed because of this devotion and your use of the internet. I don’t really want this conversation to be about my personal life, but I was raised a bi-racial kid in a white suburb, so I think growing up I felt much more connected to my family than to any friends or other community. Actually, maybe the internet would’ve served me well back then! I mean, I guess the silly question I could derive from that statement is, do you think that becoming a part of an internet community helped you to then branch out more in a physical one? I found my art community through working retail and gallery jobs. Obviously, I’m not really asking about personal friends here, but I guess that counts as well.

 

I don’t agree that the internet has no heritage. The history of the internet seems pretty rich to me at this point. I think what might be different is that the internet is not as historicized as everything else. Attempts have definitely been made, but they seem pretty awkward for the most part. Like when Vh1 did I love the 90s in 2004. I mean it’s never too early to historicize, but it’s a difficult thing to do.

 

Okay SO! Getting back to Mossless. I have three new questions.

 

First, tell me a bit about how Mossless developed over the course of the two years in which it solely existed online. As in, what kind of community did it harbor, and how did it serve to benefit both artists and readers. Also, you got a little political in that last answer. I hate when people use that word, because everything is political, but how does Mossless fit in to what you wrote there at the end? I mean, Mossless doesn’t seem like it was an outlet for discourse, which is totally fine. You gave people information about artists, and they could use that however they wanted and form their own opinions of the work. So then do you think Mossless was your white cube? Was it an online gallery of short solo shows? Is that a totally ridiculous question to ask?

 

Second, what role do you see yourself playing as editor of Mossless? Is it strictly an editorial one, or would you also identify it as part of an artistic practice? At this point, you’re also obviously a writer and a publisher, but I believe your degree is in photography. I ask this out of curiosity because I know a lot of people who dip in to many pools, who went to art school and then found themselves doing this other unnamed thing that they might find challenging to describe. I tell people I work in a gallery and go to school, and for my first semester back that really freaked me out. In my brain I’m an artist and eventually that part of my identity will come back to the forefront, but it’s tough to not portray myself that way. I admire that while juggling work, school, and life, you’ve managed to have this creative project take center stage. I don’t know if you realize it, but that is truly an achievement, and obviously being able to have this project exist online facilitated its creation and development.

 

Third, how did you know that it was time to pack up the blog aspect of Mossless and move on to publishing? Were you exhausted, or did it just feel like the right time to end? My inference here is that you really became involved in some of the artists lives and work in a way where I think you knew there was more that could be done, and publishing a physical magazine was an exciting direction to take it. I remember when you first told me about doing a magazine. I actually donated to the Kickstarter right before starting my job at Printed Matter, and then about a year later there we were having the launch! It’s really dorky to say, but that launch was really exciting for me because I had never done any programming for the shop and it was awesome to see those boxes show up.
I mean, it really says something that I was never involved in Mossless aside from being friends with you and people featured, but I felt really invested in watching the project get realized as a physical thing. I think a lot of our friends felt that way. Maybe I’m all mushy about it because I’m mushy about books, but it’s just another argument for the importance of physical objects to me.

 

Talk soon. Also, tell Grace happy belated birthday!!
-R

 

 

Romke:

 

The Internet has a heritage but the content itself isn’t concerned with it. Each user is just a user and their creed is irrelevant as is their place in time. That’s why it’s so weird to be connected to relatives. Those connections sometimes imply a higher significance which does not actually exist online, and it’s the generations that were not raised with the internet that most often have this misapprehension. I’m sure you feel the same! It’s just taboo to speak of it in that way.

 

You asked about our social politics—Mossless was in its own way a sort of white cube. It had a rigid format that presented each artist in a democratic light but with flexible questions. It wasn’t meant to be a place for discourse because I couldn’t figure out how to do that effectively anyway. I’m planning on building a website for art discourse but that’s a whole other dense matter. But with these things… you can’t bring in concepts from the offline. The internet is strange now because it’s done that.

 

Mossless was sort of an online gallery but isn’t a gallery just a physical art website? Writing the masthead or making business cards is only hard because I have to adapt what we do to common jargon. I chose editor but director could work too, as could publisher-in-chief, assistant designer, whatever. Why do we even need a masthead? Will the world not let us publish this on my printer if we don’t include it?

 

In Mossless I do what I can to make the result that would best suit the content. If there are things that I don’t know how to do then I take it to somebody who does and try to do it with them so I can also learn how to do it but in the end all you need is paper, ink and glue, maybe staples too.

 

I attend SVA for Visual & Critical Studies although I used to do film but that program wasn’t worth the debt it cost me. My nights and weekends are for Mossless, which really lives in spurts of energy that last days or weeks with months in between. Grace and I have this saying: the day is for making money but the night is for working hard.

 

To answer your last question: at some point I was so beleaguered from interviewing that it just had to stop. It wasn’t fun anymore! I wasn’t getting creative with my questions and it started feeling like a chore. At one point it became clear that the website had reached a plateau and it was time for a change if I wanted to keep being inspired. The paths we’ve taken since then have done just that, even if they were difficult. I was left speechless by the support for our Kickstarter and I still am with each bit of response the books get, but I like to think that happens when you choose the right artists to work with.

 

xx romke

 

 

Brea Souders’ book inside of the Mossless Magazine Issue 1 box.

 

 

Romke also explained to me how Mossless is produced:

 

We’ve used a couple of different printing techniques for the various components of our different publications, and we plan on experimenting with more in the future. For Issue 2 we used our Epson 3880 inkjet printer at home and then bound and trimmed it here too. Sales of Issue 1 and investments allowed us to buy the equipment we’re using and the sales of Issue 2 will go to equipment too.

 

 

Issue 1 was very different: we had the books printed at Magnum in Hong Kong, printed the posters at Linco here in LIC, the intro leaflet was printed on Jesse Hlebo’s Risograph and I silkscreened the boxes at my school. Jesse Hlebo does our art direction and for our first issue he was also a hands-on consultant.

 

 

The Mossless workspace. Photo courtesy of Susan Patrice.

 

 

1 —  “Our art is postmonovial: after a single path; after singular life.  Artists of our time are affected by postmonovialism even in relatively technologically developed regions. To define postmonovial artists, they: use social websites as the primary publishing and peer-review platform; communicate the desire for a connected disconnection, and; acknowledge the detachment from monovialism. I pray we end using reality as a term for the offline as it undermines the realness of our forthcoming existence.”

Posted On:

November 29, 2012
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