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The Gentle Torpedos

As I walk off the boat that took me across the Oslo Fjord from the suburb where I live, I have seven minutes before my date with Torpedo. I curse my constant optimism. My legs are much too short to justify such confidence in my own speed. I never get anywhere fast, something I should know by now.

The rain says: «Open your umbrella»,
but the wind whispers: «Oh no, you don’t.»

I’m supposed to meet the duo at the Library Bar at Hotel Bristol. The sophisticated, old hotel is located near one the most important publishing houses in Oslo. I’ve only been there once before, when a friend was promoting her book. My mind naturally makes the link to how Torpedo is also a publisher, albeit a small independent one. Focusing solely on art books, running a small bookstore too.

I’m walking as fast as I can, while trying to stay warm, when I realise I’m not entirely sure whom to look for when I get there. I envision an awkward moment when we all look at each other inquisitively to suss out if the other is the one we’re supposed to meet, like on a blind date (although there are probably no more blind dates anymore with Tinder). So I fish my phone out of my buckled bag (a consequence of having my phones stolen out of open bags not once, but twice!) to look them up online when I see an sms: «The Library Bar was full, we’re going to try Fuglen. Elin & Karen.»

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A few minutes later, I walk into Fuglen, the hipster coffee shop with a branch in Japan. The dark wood interiors create a cosy atmosphere for coffee lovers on this cold and rainy Thursday. I sneak by the narrow walkway that connects the bar to the back lounge, not quite managing to avoid the backs and bags of the people sitting there.

And there I see them, just settling in at the back of the café. Somehow we recognise each other straight away, and my worries had luckily all been for nothing. They are both dressed in dark, delicate fabrics. Elin reminds me of Chloë Sevigny with her long blond hair and serious demeanour. She has already started on a cortado and a scone. Karen has reddish brown, curly hair and her eyes are beautifully lined in black. She is getting ready to get her coffee, so we head back to the bar and order her a cappuccino and scone.

I expected them to be far younger and infinitely hipper than I am. But of course they are friendly, completely normal and, it turns out, five years older than me. I’m surprised to find them a little shy and apprehensive; uneasy about being interviewed.

It’s not the first time I encounter someone who is uncomfortable being interviewed. That’s relatively normal. But I expected these two to be tough, not afraid of a nice little writer like me (which is how I like to think of myself). They’ve accomplished so much, gotten so far in a challenging field – I really hope they’re willing to open up to me.

Elin Maria Olaussen and Karen Christine Tandberg met while working at the art bookstore at The Museum of Contemporary Art.

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Elin: We found ourselves working together in the process of closing down the store. It was regarded at that time, by the museum, to have an educational value more than a commercial one, and wouldn’t meet the income requirements of the new institution that was to be the National Museum of Art. So it was closed down, and we thought it was such a shame. There was still a need for a store like that. We grabbed a beer after work one day and realised both of us had thought of starting our own art bookstore. I think we both felt responsible for this bookstore and making sure it was allowed to live on. We both thought it would be nice to be independent, not tied to an institution. We realised that we could do it ourselves, and that we could make it into something bigger. We wanted to create a space for meetings and social gatherings where we could invite friends and artists to do projects, while building a bookstore. We actually started collaborating before we became friends. We had no idea that we’d still be doing this now, 10 years later. At the time, it was just something we were doing. We actually got that first space so we could have some peace and quiet. But the opposite happened.

Both Elin and Karen grew up in the Oslo area. Karen got her master’s degree in Art History from the University of Oslo.

«It’s fun to work with others’ art and facilitate and produce art in book form, and showcase other artists’ works through those.»

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Karen: It took a long time. I really didn’t think it was going to happen. But it was only because we were so busy with Torpedo, which is a good thing.

Elin, on the other hand, has a Visual Arts degree from the Bergen Academy of Art and Design. After graduating, she worked at the National Museum for a number of years.

It makes me think about repressed artists, «Shadow artists» who work with, or for, artists instead of making their own art. This is a theme I’ve been exploring for myself over the last few years. A process that has taken me from communications worker to writer. But still, I often write the ideas of others. I should probably be writing a novel right now, but this is fun. Or is that just something I am telling myself? Am I actually writing about artists because I secretly want to become one? Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between what we really want and what we tell ourselves we should like.

So I come right out and ask: Don’t you want to make your own art?

Elin: I may have wanted to, but when I graduated I realised how hard it is to make it, especially alone. So that’s one of my favourite things about meeting Karen and working with her: having someone to share ideas and develop projects with. I suppose we could have been an artist duo as well, but it’s fun to work with others’ art and facilitate and produce art in book form, and showcase other artists’ works through those. I thought the space in Hausmannsgate would function as my studio while Karen finished up her master’s thesis, but then we just got too busy, so there hasn’t been any space for that in my life. But maybe someday.

I keep prodding her, not entirely sure if it’s okay:

How do you feel about that? Do you wish you were doing more of your own art?

Elin: I miss studio life. I do. Working with a project over a long period of time.

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Is it too hard, being a visual artist?

Elin: Of course it’s tough. You have to want it badly. Maybe I just needed to do something different. But I do feel that we are getting a lot done through Torpedo. I mean working closely with artists and art production and such, which is exciting.

Start-up life is tough. We all know that. Non-profit art start-up life must be near impossible.

Karen: We are able to make a living this way. We have other income though, as curators for koro (Public Art Norway), and other freelance work, but we mainly make a living through Torpedo.

Over the course of the first ten years they’ve published around 40 books.

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Karen: It’s very irregular how often we publish a book. But it’s anywhere between zero and five a year. We spend a long time on each book. We are very thorough because we think that if we’re going to publish something, and release it into the world, it will live for a long time – so we want to be sure it’s quality. We don’t rush into publishing a book. We try to be as finished as we can be before we start the presses.

Elin: That’s why we don’t publish catalogues or those kinds of things that have a shorter lifespan.

Karen seems less talkative, but as I want to include her more in the conversation, I ask her to tell me a little bit more about what drives them.

Karen: When we started out, we wanted to be a space in Oslo that could sell books from smaller publishers. There are more places like that in Oslo now. It’s some kind of idealism that drives us still. It’s not the best business idea, so money is not a driving force. As technological development accelerates, you might think that e-books would take over, but it is clear to us that the opposite is true. We see an increasing demand for what we do. We see a new awakening similar to that of the sixties and seventies, when art books publishers are popping up everywhere and an increasing number of artists are experimenting with art books as an independent part of their artistic expression.

I did some reading up on the duo before our meeting, and I learned that they started Torpedo 10 years ago in Hausmannsgate, one of Oslo’s roughest areas. They were evicted in 2010, and were invited to move in with Kunsthall Oslo in the brand new Barcode area near Oslo’s pride and joy: the marbled Opera House. But now Kunsthall Oslo has moved into a new place without Torpedo, who is currently without an office space.

Elin: But we still have our outlet at Kunstnernes Hus. It’s nice to work from cafés, but it’s harder to deal with the distribution side of the business now. We will however move to a new space in Barcode in 2017.

I – along with many others, I will learn – was surprised to find out they were located in the Barcode area. In my mind, the stern glass and steel atmosphere seemed like a poor fit.

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Karen: It’s a strange area. We moved in there in the early days when there was little else going on. It takes time for people to get used to a new section of town. There is a lot of resistance towards that area. But we stand out, and we actually find it interesting to be a different kind of player on that stage.

Elin: It was a big change for us when we first moved down there from Hausmannsgate. It was as extreme as one could go within one city.

Karen: It’s a great neighbourhood for us though, in part because of Kunsthall Oslo with whom we’ll continue to collaborate.

Elin: It’s partly financed by the Norwegian Arts Council, but we also get a special deal on rent, so it’s a form of sponsorship from the developers.

In the days before the interview I had already exchanged a few e-mails with them on their one account called «Torpedo». Like an old couple, they share an e-mail account. Like TheJoneses@hotmail.com or something.

Elin: We’ve often thought that we’re a lot like an old couple. Joined at the hip, for sure. Especially in the beginning, we didn’t really have a life outside of work. It takes a lot of time, starting up something. The first five-six years we also travelled a lot. We took part in a lot of international fairs and slept in the same bed. I’m sure some people maybe thought we had a romantic relationship too. We collaborate through Torpedo, but we work together on other things also. Like with koro (Public Art Norway), where we have worked together as curators on a number of projects. So this seems to work very well for us.

I wonder what it’s like to collaborate so closely with someone over such a long period of time. Sure, there are marriages out there that have lasted longer, but for many people it’s the romantic aspect that keeps them going though all the difficult times. Torpedo seems almost too good to be true, so I wonder: Surely, there must be some challenges?

Elin: Sure, we get frustrated at times. Spending that much time together, being so close, a relationship can’t be completely free from friction. But I think a certain amount of resistance is healthy in a professional relationship.

Karen: There have been very few confrontations. I think we complement each other well. We’re similar in many ways, in the sense that we agree on a lot of important things. We often send work back and forth between us, each of us contributing and controlling the quality at the same time.

Elin: But it’s not just the two of us who collaborate; we’re always working with other people too. And there are more people involved in Torpedo on a daily basis as well, Julie Leding has run the bookstore since 2008, but is currently doing her thesis in Art History at the University. Each project we do, like publishing a book, is a collaboration. There is the writer, the graphic designer, and the artists. It’s a central part of how we work.

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So what makes them such a good fit?

Elin: Karen is more thorough than I am. That’s a good thing. We complete each other’s sentences, but of course we are separate people with different personalities. Still, there’s always a dialog between us. It’s going surprisingly well, having worked together for such a long time. I’m a little more impatient. I can easily get carried away by a new idea, but Karen will take it very seriously and think it all the way through.

Karen: Sometimes we get energy from different parts of the project and can play ball.

Elin: I think we often agree professionally, we have many of the same values. But we’re probably quite different personality wise. We’re both introverts, though.

Karen: Yes, we are. And that can be challenging. It would have been good for one of us to be an extrovert at times.

Elin: For example, in New York, where we’ve been participating in the Art Book Fair every year. Even though we’ve done really well there, I think it costs us a lot to muster up all that energy, and do all that networking. This year we didn’t make the trip ourselves. We got help from a very sweet extroverted girl who lives in New York.

Karen: We are so well-established in New York, we’ve been there since the fair first started. It’s not as important that we be there ourselves, as it used to be.

This newfound appreciation for delegating work has freed up some of their time.

Elin: We’ve started to understand that it’s important to take time off. It used to be that we didn’t go home from work at all. We had lots of events and shows, lots of travel and busy nights with meetings. Work would bleed into our free time. We’ve gotten much better.

I’m curious as to what they do with all this newfound time.

Karen: I prefer being by the ocean. That’s what I like doing, sailing and such.

Elin: What does one do with spare time? I don’t know… watch TV? No. I really don’t know. I guess I hang out at home with my boyfriend. Reading. Spending time together.

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The two women have a lot to be proud of. I mean, they have showcased Norwegian art that has ended up at moma in New York. But I still wonder what they themselves see as their greatest accomplishments.

Karen: Probably the fact that we’re still going strong. I’m also proud of the seminar we organised to celebrate ten years. It was an international event where we invited guests whom we had met at international book fairs through the years. Guests from New York, Milano, Toronto, London, Paris and LA came to Oslo to talk about art books and distribution. It was an interesting event with a sense of community.

Elin: Yes, it was good. And it produced some new relationships for the future. One of the things that came out of it was that we are now going to move in with a Norwegian/Danish design studio called «Eller med a». They’ve also run a similar bookstore in Copenhagen. We’re also going to strengthen our collaboration with Section 7 Books / Paraguay Press in Paris and Archive Books in Milan.

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It sounds amazing, but still, I have to ask them: What is the best thing about running Torpedo?

Karen: For me personally, it’s the freedom.

Elin: Sure, because we call the shots. There is freedom in that. We get to plan our own days pretty freely. We decide which direction to go in, but at the same time we’ve created something that requires upkeep. There’s a lot to do, but it’s amazing being able to manage our own time like we do.

Torpedo just received funding for another three years, so what are your plans for the future?

Karen: That security is huge for us. Normally, we don’t know if we will be around the following year. I think Torpedo is only relevant as long as there is a need for us.

Elin: We’re planning to give more time to each project, dwell on it. And we want to start some new discursive activities in our new space. I think that will set the tone for the next three years. Slower and deeper into each project. 

They seem fairly relaxed on the matter of funding, and I wonder if there is there anything they’re afraid of.

Karen: A scary thought would be to get a nine to five job.

Elin: Yes, I would hate to just go work for a big corporation of some sort.

I couldn’t agree more. Exploring our own ideas is where it’s at. And art gives flavour to life.

Back out on Oslo’s gray streets, I wrap my scarf around me and head home, content with how our conversation evolved. My constant optimism hasn’t gotten me in any serious trouble yet. Everything works out in the end.

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