11 Jul Interview with Kai von Rabenau – mono.kultur
The small independent fan-zine (DIN A5) from Berlin, with an even smaller lettering (8.5 pt), has been delighting its loyal readers for over 13 years. While some conduct an interview, mono.kultur takes the art of dialogue to the extreme with its extended question-answer game. The idea behind is simple: one issue, one artist, one interview. Right on time for the latest issue with fashion designer Iris van Herpen we met Kai von Rabenau, the driving force behind mono.kultur, to talk about the subtle art of an interview. In order to not be embarrassed in front of the master of vis-à-vis, we asked our questions à la carte. So from now on the rule is: one card, one question – following the motto ‘Play it as it lays’.
Card 1: How do you choose your interview partners?! Private preferences?! Flip a coin?! Niche?!
We always try to get the big ones, but they never want to…
Well, with names as Ricardo Bofill, Kim Gordon, Ai Weiwei, Tilda Swinton this sounds more like false modesty…
Yes and no…Frankly, this is the question we get ask most often and I never know exactly how to answer this question. In the end, it’s more organic with us. The people we have in mind for an issue are always people we admire in one way or another.
Have you been the same team since the very beginning?!
We are a group of about eight editors. Partly they are journalists, partly graphic artists or people who work in the art world. Since we often have freelancers from abroad, the constellation at mono.kultur has changed over the years. In addition, some people move away or have children – or decide to make something real out of their lives…
Do you decide democratically to whom the next issue should be dedicated?!
We never actually decide in the sense that we are voting. What we do though is fervently discuss who could be the next possible candidate. Along this process quite a few already go by the board while those who are still left will get a request. And this can take quite a bit of time. Often it is not the lack of desire, but simply a question of time. It’s quite common that we ask someone over a period of two or three years, until it finally works out. With some others, however, it all happens really quick and the next issue is done – which is in the end a matter of luck.
So the strategy would be to be brazen until it works out?!
One should definitely have a long breath. But at the same time it’s not that unpleasant if you want to dedicate a whole issue to someone, is it? We also try to cover a broad range of different people who are working within different cultural sections. To have this wide spectrum matters first and foremost to us otherwise we would get bored too quickly. The amazing thing about mono.kultur is that sometimes you choose someone you haven’t actually known beforehand and only then, discover for yourself. It’s like a piece of music you still have to grow into. But it’s not just personal preferences that play into our considerations. Niche and degree of popularity also play a role, but not so much in the sense that we consciously focus on niche. It is rather the other way round. We have to be careful not to become too niche. Otherwise we will be affected by it sooner or later. There are also people who we personally admire very much, but who are actually only known in Germany. Unfortunately that doesn’t work for us either.
Card 2: Since the noughties a lot has changed in the independent magazine scene. Much that was previously unthinkable was made possible with the advent of desktop publishing. In addition to the sunny side of self-publishing, there are also some hurdles and challenges such as sales. What advice would you give to someone who wants to make a magazine?!
Never make a magazine! Don’t do it! Stupid idea!
Did you underestimate the amount of work at the beginning?!
Yes and no. Underestimated and overestimated. To be honest, at the beginning we didn’t think about it that much. We just wanted to do it, so we started. But it was quickly becoming a great deal of work. I worked as a photographer at the time and then suddenly had two full-time jobs. Sooner or later it became difficult to reconcile both at the same time.
What about seed capital?!
This is helpful, of course, but not mandatory. We had no money at all. We were all students and went in there with zero. At the beginning we wanted to make a classic interview magazine that appears twice a year, with eight to ten interviews. The first issue was actually almost finished and the dummy issue was printed when we moved from company to company to acquire ads. Most of them really laughed us out of their office. In addition, we’ve got the cost estimates from various printing companies. We realized very soon that under no circumstances we would get the magazine financed in the way as we had originally planned it. Until then we had been working on the issue for over a year, when suddenly this huge wall was in front of us. We were so close to just chuck it all in. So we sat down again and thought about how to keep production costs to a minimum. There was this magical moment when we asked ourselves what would happen if we didn’t publish the interviews in a magazine but individually. And suddenly we realized that this was a much more exciting idea – the potential for something completely new which didn’t exist yet. The stringency of the format soon gave rise to many completely unexpected possibilities and freedoms, in design and in the way to conduct the interviews… mono.kultur was created by a total lack of money, so to speak. And a portion of luck.
Card 3: Are you noble?!
Of course! But unfortunately impoverished nobility…
What’s your secret recipe?! And would you call mono.kultur a zine or a magazine?!
Meanwhile I would call us the ultimate fanzine. I used to find the term rather uncomfortable because I didn’t want to be associated with homemade booklets… However, if you look at it more soberly: each mono.kultur deals almost obsessively with a single personality on over 40 pages. It starts with the conversation and ends with the selection of the paper. Every little detail is tailored to the artist… I guess you can call that a fanzine. But our original idea was actually to conduct long and very detailed interviews, which sometimes last several hours. I think that interviews are the most beautiful and most unfiltered way to find out more about a person and his life. With essays or portraits, in the classical sense, I always get the impression that it’s not primarily about the person to be portrayed, but often just as much about the journalist’s opinion. What the reader ultimately gets to read is radically filtered and distorted.
Card 4: Most magazines revolve around current discourses. They tend to move with the times, so to speak. With mono.kultur, I would say, it’s the other way around. How does this go together?!
Some issues with people we find fundamentally exciting and relevant are also timeless for us. Others are indirectly fed by the current zeitgeist. Contemporary topics play a not insignificant role for us, albeit not so explicitly. But many editions are indirectly a response to topics that are currently in the air. Our edition with Fatima al Quadiri, for example, certainly stems from the Trump era. Or our last issue with Francis Kéré – Africa has been very present in the media for some time, buzzwords such as sustainability and climate change are topics that have an indirect impact on the issue, even if it is not explicitly discussed. But Kéré has his own fundamental approach to architecture, and tries to think along with these questions in order to find new solutions. The connection to ‘Friday For Futures’ is not far away, and it is certainly no coincidence that we have made this issue recently, even though we are often not so aware of it beforehand.
In the course of this issue, you organized a symposium together with Francis Kéré and DAZ (Deutsches Architektur Zentrum), the Y-Table ‘We need to talk!’ It was about the extent to which architecture can and must create social cohesion. Are events like this part of mono.kultur’s philosophy or is it something that goes along?!
It was really great to get another chance to see Francis Kéré live, after we had discussed him so thoroughly in the magazine. We used to do a lot on the side. In addition to the launch party for the first issue, we organized a reading with the Israeli author Zeruya Shalev (mono.kultur #4) or a retrospective of the French filmmaker François Ozons (mono.kultur #6) in cooperation with Kino Babylon. At the opening we screened an older film by him, which had never been shown in Germany before. It had to be delivered especially for this event by diplomatic mail. With Tilda Swinton we organized the premiere of her film ‘I Am Love’ at Kino International. Such things are really nice moments and a good complement to the magazines. In the meantime, however, we do this relatively rarely – for the simple reason that we have all grown older and don’t have so much time for it anymore. The focus is now primarily on the magazine.
Card 5: To come back to the format of the interview: Who comes closest to mono.kultur?! Max Frisch, Marcel Proust, Hitchcock x Truffaut, Moritz von Uslar (‘On a breakfast egg with’) or…?!
There is indeed a direct role model: the French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles. It used to be a bit like Spex (a legendary German independent (pop-)music magazine) in those days – only with French-intellectual charm. They did exactly what we wanted to do back then – by chance, of course – very, very long question-answer interviews with big and also unknown bands, directors and writers, such as the very last interview with The Smiths. The magazine was printed completely in black and white, completely dry and with interviews over ten or twenty pages. Nevertheless, it was the most influential pop culture magazine in France at its time.
Card 6: Thought experiment: mono.kultur #100: Kai von Rabenau. What would your tagline be called?! mono.kultur is notorious for sentences that stay at least in the ear, if not in the heart. The lead singer of Grizzly Bear, Chris Taylor, for example, says “Asked a little boy what he wanted to become when growing up, Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor answered ‘a dolphin’ ”. Or for Marina Abramović “An artist should not make themselves into an idol / An artist should not make themselves into an idol / An artist should not make themselves into an idol.”
Well, someone else can do this better, I think…
Card 7: Who would you have loved to interview – but he or she doesn’t linger among the living anymore?!
Pina Bausch! We had actually asked her a few times. However, she was known for actually not doing any interviews. The only exception were short conversations for Japan. A journalist friend of mine managed to do a 10-minute interview with her. When I heard that, I immediately gave him some of our issues. She held them in her hand and said: “Mmmmh…maybe.” We should contact her again in half a year. In that half year she died… Oh, there are some. I would have liked to do an interview with Oscar Niemeyer, that would certainly have been interesting. Mark Hollis from Talk Talk – unfortunately also deceased in the meantime. Three are enough, right? Maybe Karl Lagerfeld?
Card 8: How long is the list of potential candidates in cm?!
In cm? Mmh, that should be about 50 cm.
In 8.5 pt?!
Maybe in 9 pt. No, of course there are many. We have a very long list, of which unfortunately also much lies fallow. The ones we asked for the most are Radiohead. Unfortunately, they also give interviews very rarely and reluctantly. Nevertheless we keep on asking them every few years. We are very patient. Only when they say: “No! Please! We don’t want to hear from you anymore!” Then we will stop.
What about Angela Merkel?!
We try to stay as far as possible in the cultural field, but merkel.kultur would work.
Card 9: Tops and flops?!
Tops are definitely the collaborations with the artists, journalists and designers. Some take a lot of time for us, and that’s the biggest compliment we can get. We always offer our artists the opportunity to get involved in editing and design. When artists like Taryn Simon, James Nachtwey or Tilda Swinton take this very seriously, we know again why we do it. Tilda Swinton, for example, has provided us with private photos of her mobile phone – that’s another kind of collaboration that can be very strenuous, but at the same time very satisfying if it results in something special that classic magazines can’t afford in this form. Or our issue with Sissel Tolaas, who challenged us to produce an issue only with smells. I’m still very fond of this whole process of producing an issue. The interviews and editing about how a conversation finds its own form. Or the design, of course, when it comes to putting that conversation on paper. We regularly invite external graphic designers to design an issue. Often unexpected visions come into play, you exchange ideas, think about what visual material you’re working with and so on. I also like the technical side; when the booklets run through the press, it’s always a nice moment. It’s all a very exciting process, still.
Packing boxes, distributing the zine and making bills. The whole stuff is really annoying. I think the two most difficult points are actually sales and finance. Probably anyone who does a magazine would say that. There’s no justification for the accounting. We issue 1000 invoices a year. That’s totally absurd. And even after ten years, distribution is still incredibly difficult. In the end there is hardly any money left – which was certainly a fundamental decision at mono.kultur, and never the claim. It’s actually very difficult to make a living from a magazine. It’s possible, but only with a lot of luck. But when I see the ambitions of, for example, Flaneur, it’s perhaps also a bit of a generational question.
The Internet has changed a lot. When we started in 2005, Facebook just came onto the market… I remember getting in touch with Louis Vuitton through a friend and meeting the head of marketing in Paris. I think she just wanted to meet us to understand what was happening – this little magazine without a publisher behind it, and then this miniature lettering. “That’s your name! The logo must be big!” For them it was totally incomprehensible. This kind of thinking has changed enormously in the last ten years due to the Internet and the great success of magazines like Fantastic Man and apartamento. Nobody would have thought at that time that there was any possibility that such relatively unusual formats could gain a foothold in this industry. It is easy to forget how unusual an apartamento was for that time. But even the big companies noticed that they couldn’t get any further with their classic models if they didn’t start to rethink.
Are you satisfied with what has become of it?!
Yeah, totally. The concept “one issue, one interview” is surprisingly long-lasting. We think again and again, after almost 13 years, whether it’s time for a different format. But we really don’t know how to do it better. Which doesn’t mean that we haven’t developed over the years – but the basic concept of mono.kultur is surprisingly similar to the very first edition. But a lot is also laid out in the format and concept itself, because it forces us to think anew with every new issue. In principle, every issue is a kind of relaunch.
How long does one issue usually take?!
Depends how quick we are… I would say, it takes a about three months from the beginning to the end.
That sounds quick…
In reality, it’s more like six months… It depends on many factors. The problem is that much of mono.kultur happens on the side, most of us dedicate ourselves to mono.kultur in our spare time, and work in other jobs. With me, it’s maybe a quarter of the time professionally.
Do you conduct some interviews yourself?!
Very rarely. I think I did a total of three interviews. James Nachtwey, Taryn Simon, David LaChapelle. Always the photographers… But others do it better, I find it quite difficult to do an interview.
Doing a really good interview is an art. On the one hand, you have to have a clear idea of where you want to go. We think very carefully in advance why we want to do an interview with someone. At the same time, you have to be incredibly present and open in order to perceive the other person’s mood and spontaneously respond to answers or switch accordingly. It’s always possible that something will emerge that will take you where you want to go, but quite differently than originally planned. I also find the critical questions really difficult. There is always the risk that the mood will change very quickly, and that is often not so easy to save. There’s a very fine line that you move on and it depends a lot on how and when you ask the right questions. With the American war photographer James Nachtwey, for example, it wasn’t easy. I admire his work but he hardly gives interviews. It took several years to win his trust. He is often attacked very harshly in public for depicting terrible things in such an aesthetic and moving way in his photographs. It’s a discussion that he doesn’t want at all anymore – he has found an answer for himself, but he doesn’t want to have to justify himself. Accordingly, it wasn’t easy to talk about such topics, you have to strike the right note. This double-edged thing is really an art – on the one hand to keep the bigger bow in one’s head and on the other hand to keep an eye on the watch. You have to have a feeling for where it’s okay to hook up again and when you should leave it alone. I have the feeling that my strengths lie in other areas. Rather what happens behind the scenes, without any time pressure. The others have to go to the front.