PRINT November 2007



JORGE LUIS BORGES, who populated many of his most famous works with fictitious Swedes (with names like Runeberg and Lönnrot), and whose interest in the Scandinavian soul was readily apparent, drew attention to the strange predicament of Nordic culture, rich and advanced yet almost unknown to the rest of the world:

In universal history, the wars and books of Scandinavia are as if they had never existed; everything remains isolated and without a trace, as if it had come to pass in a dream or in the crystal balls where clairvoyants gaze. In the twelfth century, the Icelanders discovered the novel—the art of Flaubert, the Norman—and this discovery is as secret and sterile, for the economy of the world, as their discovery of America.

Things have perhaps changed in the half century since Borges wrote this, and yet I sometimes have the feeling that the best Swedish art and literature remain remote, behind a mysterious glass wall. A case in point is the magazine OEI, probably the most extreme literary journal in the world today—merciless in its experimentalism and uncompromising as it pushes its own physical format. Many issues of OEI contain enough text to fill ten books, and some have grown into rather monstrous synthetic objects, mixing the sensibilities of Tel Quel and the Gothenburg telephone book, Mille Plateaux and technical manuals from the early days of Silicon Valley. “OEI is a journal devoted to virtual cartels and productive misreadings,” explain editors Anders Lundberg, Jonas (J) Magnusson, and Jesper Olsson in a statement on the magazine’s (all-Swedish) website. Based in Stockholm and Gothenburg, the editors come from the fields of philosophy, aesthetics, and literature. They tend to publish quarterly and have produced thirty-five issues since 1999, including double, triple, and even quadruple issues featuring CDs and DVDs; there is also a book-publishing arm, OEI editör. A few issues have focused on specific writers and groups such as Gertrude Stein, Swedish language artist Elis Eriksson, the Toronto Research Group, and the American Language poets; other issues, the most experimental ones, focus on subjects such as sound art, digital poetry, appropriation, cutup, collage, stupidity and idiocy in art and literature, and the writings of Conceptual artists. The most successful issues are not really about these things so much as they seem to embody and exemplify the themes, letting them materialize in publications that, from pretty much every point of view—not least traditional legibility— are out of the ordinary. An article would never abridge a list of referenced items, including only the first ten and then saying “etc.”—perish the thought! OEI never makes for easy reading.

Despite the presence of well-known poets on the editorial board, the editors insist that OEI is not a magazine about poesi (that’s Swedish for poetry). That would be too easy. Their philosophy is strictly materialist: Language is matter. Sounds, letters, words, and printed pages are stuff, and it would seem that the point at which concrete poetry transmogrifies into visual art (as in the work of Dieter Roth and Öyvind Fahlström) is a place of special interest. But many other such points of proximity—between poetry and sound art, or poetry and digital experimentation, say—are explored as well. And new proximities are created. If you put two things next to each other, they soon start to communicate, and suddenly they are linked. A probable source of inspiration is the mid-1990s, Paris-based Revue de littérature générale, edited by Pierre Alferi and Olivier Cadiot, which mixed experimental writing and philosophy of technology (but produced only two issues). Yet OEI’s roots go back much further, to groups and movements such as Oulipo, Fluxus, Lettrism, and avant-garde collage (as practiced, for example, by Kurt Schwitters)—even Borges. The editors also, naturally, have a keen interest in Swedish avant-gardists such as Eriksson, whose beautiful books and objects would enjoy a larger audience if more people had a grasp of his basic material: deconstructed sentences in Swedish.

Magnusson’s extra-OEI activities include coediting (with Cecilia Grönberg) a more than one-thousand-page monster of a book called Omkopplingar (Reconnections), subtitled “transcriptions, lists, documents, archives (with special reference to Midsommarkransen-Telefonplan).” Published in 2006, this compilation is a sociopoetical exploration of Midsommarkransen, the Stockholm suburb where LM Ericsson, the telecommunications company, has been based for more than sixty years. The book juxtaposes contemporary Swedish poetry and philosophical writing with conceptual readings of sociological texts and investigative journalism. The result is not only an examination of a center of technology and labor but an analysis of the switchboard itself as a symbol of connection and collage—a kind of textual über-principle, as it were, for OEI. The magazine is probably the most sophisticated and playful artistic publication that has come out of Sweden since the ’50s, when Pontus Hultén and Billy Klüver were involved with the anarchic university journal Blandaren (Mixer) and, so legend has it, had Robert Rauschenberg spill paint right into the printing press. Indeed, this winter’s issue of OEI, on “editorial aesthetics,” will include pages from the earlier publication. Extraordinary things happen when the Swedish language collides with the machine.

Until now, OEI has been distributed only in Scandinavia, but soon it will be available at Printed Matter in New York, and no doubt at other specialized bookstores to follow. However, as it is published only in Swedish, the magazine’s audience will remain small. But not everything needs to be leveled and internationalized: Perhaps the terrific ambition and invention of OEI will produce a crack in the large glass that occludes Sweden, and it might be enough for the rest of the world to marvel at the significance of the pattern produced.

Daniel Birnbaum is a contributing editor of Artforum.