Astrid Helen Windingstad: Susanne, since 2019 you’ve been the Editor of The Norwegian Art Yearbook (Norsk kunstårbok), which is an annual publication about Norwegian artistic life that includes art reviews, artist profiles, and interviews. You have previously been a literary critic and have written three non-fiction books. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you became an art critic and editor?
Susanne Christensen: I find that things have grown quite organically over the years, and this is also a method I have great faith in. That’s why I haven’t applied for many jobs in my lifetime, even though the pay has been – and still is – the same as a minimum wage job. Community, friendship, creativity and joy must be at the center of what I do. I want to understand work as a life practice, and it is something I have prioritized over other things in life, like establishing a family for example. This can quickly become a long story, but I came to Bergen in 1999 to attend the writing academy Skrivekunstakademiet. I met the current editor of the magazine Vagant, Audun Lindholm, the following year while attending Forfatterstudiet (a creative writing school) at Høgskolen I Telemark in Bø and became part of his various indie literary activities. A that point it became clear that I was going to stay in Norway for a longer period of time. We had some fruitful years in the early 2000s where we knitted together a foundation for an art-and-life practice in a very creative and generous environment.
As a result of some of these activities, I was invited to review literature for the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen in 2003. I was referred to as a critic after that, and that was it. I took it very seriously! I pursued a Master’s in Literary Studies at the University in Bergen with a strong interdisciplinary approach, and I was already starting to cross over into art history and mix things together with a focus on historical avant-garde movements. There was an art critic drought in Bergen and in 2009 Jonas Ekeberg and Mariann Enge invited me to write reviews for Kunstkritikk.no. Someone then called me an art critic and I once again took this label very seriously.
Curiosity is what steers my ship, not the urge to make a reputation for myself in the eyes of others. My value as a writer and editor lies in my unfolding of ideas, and this only happens if there are things I wonder about. I have to mention my elderly engineer father who turns 80 in December. Without getting too sentimental, I guess I got my curiosity from him. He was always teaching me about the lives of other creatures and how things are built, whether furniture or bridges.
I became involved with The Norwegian Art Yearbook in 2011 when Ketil Nergaard and Marie Nerland invited me to contribute. In 2019 I saw an open call for the editorial position and applied. I then went to Oslo for an interview, and was invited to start immediately afterwards. The book publisher PAX then announced that they no longer wished to continue the collaboration with The Norwegian Art Yearbook. It was an ammicable split, but then came Covid-19. That was a crisis of epic proportions, but I believe and hope that things are turning around. We are now very happy to be working with the Oslo-based publisher Uten Tittel.
AHW: The Norwegian Art Yearbook has a 30-year history, with the first edition published in 1992. You have focused on this history in the 2021 edition in an interview with the founding editors Olga Schmedling and Elisabeth Tetens Jahn. Can you tell us about that connection and how it influenced your work? Why did Schmedling and Tetens Jahn start this yearbook project and what motivates you to continue the tradition?
SC: In the summer of 2020, I was finally able to travel to Bergen again and borrowed all editions of The Norwegian Art Yearbook from the library. It would be dishonest to say that I read everything, but I did take note of a few things. My conclusion was that The Norwegian Art Yearbook was in the midst of a huge identity crisis. The publication was created under very specific conditions in the 1990s when there was a need for communication in English about Norwegian contemporary art. Back then, nearly all artist organizations wanted a piece of the pie, and you get the impression that as an artist, it was very important that The Norwegian Art Yearbook wrote about you in order to receive future opportunities. The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs bought some of the books and distributed them to embassies around the world. That could potentially mean that a biennale in São Paulo suddenly learned about your work and invited you to attend.
The artist organisations pushed for a section for ceramic art, a section for photography, and so on, and at the same time Olga and Elisabeth wanted to introduce conceptual art, land art, and other postmodern trends. The Artists’ Information Office (Kunstnernes Informasjonskontor), where Olga was employed in the late 1980s, undertook the enormous job of collecting and distributing information about artists to exhibition spaces in Norway. In 1992 she and Elisabeth ventured out and created The Norwegian Art Yearbook, a bilingual publication. Then the internet came, artists took over their own promotion, and OCA (Office for Contemporary Art Norway) was founded in 2001. The Norwegian Art Yearbook sailed on, but its importance as a publication declined. The project needed new collaborations – that was my conclusion. The Norwegian Art Yearbook needed a new mission, but you can’t change things overnight. We’ve pumped some new energy into the old lady now, and we’ll see where she wants to go.
Getting in touch with Olga and Elisabeth was crucial to understanding more about The Norwegian Art Yearbook’s history and thus also trying to glimpse its future. The Norwegian Art Yearbook’s value lies largely in its archive created by some of the best art writers in the country over the past 30 years. It would be a travesty to throw all that work out the window. Furthermore, I feel strongly about essayistic art criticism. Criticism is a genre that we must keep alive in order to save our brains and to strengthen the ideals of a democratic public. Nothing less.
AHW: Amen to that! It is clear that you have a strong commitment to criticism as a format and you specify that it is essayistic art criticism that you are talking about. What do you think art criticism should and should not be — description, critique, or an independent work — and how does it differ from literary criticism?
SC: As an editor, I cannot micromanage the writers, I cannot order experimental art criticism, but I can order – and help craft – good, readable texts. A writing style should not overshadow facts and clear communication, but should rather include different layers of facts, collage-like fragments, and surprising juxtapositions – all techniques I myself work with as a writer. So if you are wondering what I think about criticism as a genre and what I think it could become, you can look to Leonora’s Journey, my book about Leonora Carrington from 2019, as an example. I’m not sure if Chris Kraus immediately comes to readers’ minds, but her writing style – her way of combining art criticism and essays into a novelesque format – definitely guided my writing process. In the literary world, the assumption seems to be that experimental writing means being subjective and eschewing facts and reason. It’s idiotic to assume that experimentation must come at the expense of facts, or that it is conflated with more subjective, emotional language. The use of first-person point of view in a text can open up an artwork, and may just as easily be used by a fact-based writer who works scientifically and is also able to articulate herself sensuously and emotionally.
AHW: The first issue of The Norwegian Art Yearbook that you edited was in 2021, which was characterized by a world affected by the pandemic. The 2022 edition, which is actually the 30th edition, is now being launched. What is the focus this year?
SC: I was initially hired to make three editions of The Norwegian Art Yearbook. If there is one current that will be present in all three books, it is the interest in what is happening outside the capital, especially in Northern Norway. I have discovered a new axis of art criticism from CAS in Stavanger to Art Scene Trondheim and Hakapik in Tromsø, and we try to collaborate in various ways. By definition, a yearbook summarizes the year and what’s been going on. In the newest edition, we included four texts on what we call “new professional communities” about various artistic environments outside the capital: The start-up of a Kvensk Artists’ Association (people of Kven/Finnish descent in Northern Norway), Maddi Kunsthall in Tromsø and the fight for a Sami museum, an article about Bodø which will soon be the European Capital of Culture, and Ringebu where the Center for Ceramic Art has established itself.
I visited the Lofoten International Art Festival in 2019 and became very interested in their way of working with site-specific art in the shadow of the climate crisis. No intellectual abstract concept can be more important than the urgent work that is contributing to the visualization and shaping a new sustainable future. As part of our anniversary celebration of the book, two former editors Anders Eiebakke and Jørgen Lund draw some lines between the 1990s and the present. The “Bypuls” column is regional reports from the 2021 art year. Joni Hyvönen has read through the ambitious online magazine Subjekt’s art criticism in 2021 and contributes with some reflections. Carina Beddari offers reviews of three of the year’s best art publications. In other words, it is a feast. A cornucopia. The crises do not end, unfortunately, but it is a cautiously hopeful outlook after the past few years.
AHW: The first edition of The Norwegian Art Yearbook back in 1992 was also published in English. There has been a long period of time when it has only published in Norwegian. Could it be time to publish it in English again?
SC: I am probably most excited to announce that the book will be bilingual again! This means a slightly more voluminous Norwegian Art Yearbook with around 70 pages more than last year. An integrated English language translation of all texts was at the top of our wish list, and this desire was shared by our publisher Uten tittel, which often collaborates with international book fairs. It was always meant to be bilingual, but the book hit some hard times financially. But now we’re feeling motivated and we might try to invite a couple of international writers for each future edition. We are simultaneously becoming both more local and more international. We might do a section that addresses art debates and events outside Norway that involve Norwegian artists and Norwegian biennales, for example. I am a proud editor who can send the book out in the world and see what it might return to us.
AHW: What do you think about the future of the The Norwegian Art Yearbook? Do you see any challenges ahead?
SC: We unfortunately still have a very tight budget. The publisher Uten tittel has made it possible for us to complete the English translations this year. It should be a book that is of interest to everybody, especially for all Norwegian artists and art institutions. It is do or die for the book. I hope that a larger audience will pick up on the importance of this project and help keep it alive. We hope to receive feedback, and for a wave of new subscribers, advertisers, and readers!
Susanne Christensen (b.1969) is the Editor of Norwegian Art Yearbook. She studied at Skrivekunstakademiet in 1999– 2000, holds a Master’s in literature from the University of Bergen with a specialization in the historical avant-garde movements, and worked as a literary critic in Klassekampen from 2003 to 2018. She has written three books of non-fiction for the publishers Flamme and Oktober, most recently Leonoras reise (2019) about the British-Mexican surrealist Leonora Carrington. She has also contributed to Vagant as a columnist and co-editor (2006–2010) and works as an art critic for Kunstkritikk.no with a particular focus on art in Bergen.