Oslo Editions

Alex Klein and Mark Owens discuss the lecture series and book Contra Mundum

Left: Oslo Editions logo. Right: Cover of Oslo Editions’ Contra Mundum I-VII (2010).

This month sees the release of Contra Mundum I-VII, the inaugural volume from Oslo Editions, a new publishing imprint initiated by artist Alex Klein and designer Mark Owens. The book gathers edited transcripts from a series of talks held at the Mandrake bar in Los Angeles last year, and it includes contributions from seven artists and critics. In addition to being distributed by RAM in North America, the book will also be available at the Ooga Booga booth at the New York Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1, November 5–7.

THE INITIAL invitation to curate a lecture series came in the spring of last year from Justin Beal, who asked us to put something together for the Mandrake, an artist-run bar in LA. The title Contra Mundum comes from Brideshead Revisited, the 1945 book by Evelyn Waugh, which follows the relationship between wayward aristocrat Sebastian Flyte and aspiring artist Charles Ryder as they retreat to Flyte’s family manor, Brideshead, to spend the summer alone together. They refer to this period of their friendship using the Latin motto “contra mundum,” or “against the world,” and in this space––away from institutional, familial, and societal frameworks––they experience a kind of aesthetic awakening. We were inspired by this idea of building your own world, and although in Waugh’s novel contra mundum is a temporary phase, we wanted to use the talks and the book as a kind of proposal: What would it mean to inhabit such a state as a subject position?

Right away the series gained momentum in the extra-institutional, ad hoc space of the Mandrake. The talks were held in the back of the bar on the first Sunday of every month in the early evenings, and each was accompanied by a DJ set, which the speaker or an invited guest would curate, so that the lecture format would give way to a more informal discussion. The idea of world-making really came through in the first talk, by artist Rupert Deese, who was a furniture fabricator in Donald Judd’s studio and who still makes furniture for the Albers Foundation. Deese talked about building your own world—as Judd did in his building at 101 Spring Street and in Marfa, Texas—and then living in it: So, for example, not treating a Judd chair like a museum object but rather thinking about what happens when a piece of furniture is used to reorient the coordinates of lived space, including the geometries of the earth itself.

As the series progressed, the topics began to complement one another in unexpected ways, which you can really see in the book. Following Rupert, artist Anthony Pearson, who spent a period in the late 1990s as a successful record dealer, discussed Private Issue New Age, a subgenre of rare records created by solitary musicians in the late ’70s and early ’80s that has seemed to elude commodification. Next, artist Elad Lassry discussed animal photography and the animal as subject in Hollywood, foregrounding the idea of the herd v. the individual set against a sublime natural landscape. Later, this dialectic of the individual and the collective returned in critic Evan Calder Williams’s talk on zombie films, which worked really well alongside historian Matthew Taylor Raffety’s discussion of pirates and piracy. All of this complemented Frances Stark’s discussion of Mark E. Smith, legendary vocalist for postpunk band the Fall, which closed the series.

For us, the fulcrum or pivot of the series was a talk by poet and critic Aaron Kunin, who discussed Molière’s misanthrope and the trope of self-banishment in Shakespeare. He brought up the idea of the misanthrope as a figure whose retreat from the world creates a society of “association without relation,” which seemed to us a productive model for what we were trying to get at, a kind of collectivity that isn’t attached to categories of identity but rather approaches something more universal. It’s less about warm and fuzzy ideas of community and more about what the series itself ends up being: a room full of strangers sharing a space, coming together against the world. In the end, this amounts to a deliberate rejection of dominant notions of networked relations, but without reproducing sentimentalized ideas of “the personal” or “togetherness.”

That said, Contra Mundum was a no-budget, self-financed project—all the speakers and DJs volunteered their time, intelligence, and energy, and the Mandrake gave us the space—so there was a real sense of generosity underwriting it. The Oslo Editions imprint was something we had been talking about for a long time as a project we could work on collaboratively. In addition to being an artist and a designer we are both writers, and we wanted to create a platform to present material across a broad range of interests. Contra Mundum I-VII is our inaugural publication and consists of edited transcripts of all the talks with images from the slide shows alongside the accompanying DJ sets. We already have plans for a number of future projects, including a follow-up to this first installment in the Contra Mundum series, and it is our hope that Oslo Editions will be able to reach multiple audiences, both within and outside the art world.