We are used to the story of the young phenom by now. Brands and media outlets depend on seasonal crops of fresh young things to ally themselves with and promote in order to appear young and relevant themselves. Elise By Olsen, now 17, is all too aware of the ways youth culture is exploited, misrepresented, and misunderstood by the people in charge of some of the most influential fashion labels and magazines. This fall, By Olsen is closing the chapter on Recens Paper, the semiannual print magazine she started at 13, about youth culture generated by youth culture, with plans to launch a new fashion journal Wallet with Geir Haraldseth, director of Rogaland Kunstsenter in Stavanger, Norway.
Recens Paper found both an audience and a community, with its seven issues featuring contributions from over 500 youth from around the world, nearly all of them under 25. But By Olsen wants to make room for new young voices to emerge and continue to define their culture on their own terms. On the horizon, in addition to launching Wallet, this fall, By Olsen will be in residence at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris, where she will curate a project that celebrates the innovative ways young artists use technology and art, in a partnership with the 89+ initiative. During her first trip to the United States, By Olsen and I talked screen teens’ desires for tactility, art fair baby sightings, and her professional goals as she turns 18.
Rick Herron: Tell us about the evolution of Recens, from it being an online community to a print project.
Elise By Olsen: I started blogging when I was 8, I was very into online publishing. Because at home we didn’t have newspapers, we didn’t have printed publications. No sort of cultural project was a thing in our house, so I became very curious and I started going to the magazine shop after school.
Recens’s mission was to be a platform to showcase, involve, and build young talent. But also to be able to make a youth magazine, that is actually made by and for young people. I wanted to advance it from an online magazine to print magazine because I had a personal interest in creating value for young people through a physical product.
Over 500 people have been contributors to Recens. How many copies of the magazine do you print? Has it increased each issue? Have you increased your circulation with each one?
We started out with a thousand copies of the first issue, and that was massive. It wasn’t really so innocent to start out with a thousand copies. But yes, we have increased. The first issue was 100 pages, now it’s 270 pages, and we print 3,000 copies. Which is still quite a small number for a physical publication.
The mission and the focus of Recens is a celebration of youth culture generated by youth culture. But your next project, Wallet, has a different mission. Can you talk about your motivation for this project, and how you’re working differently with this format?
Doing six issues of a magazine you get into this routine, and it’s very easy to do stuff. I’m always looking out for new content and stuff is coming very easily to us and the team.
I turn 18 this fall, and I’m moving a little bit away from the whole youth thematic. It’s still very close and everything, but I feel like it’s not really my position or my job to do this anymore. There should rather be someone who’s younger or someone with more insight, again because that’s what Recens is about. It’s by and for young people. I do envision a change of power in Recens.
Wallet is a fashion criticism magazine, which is also something that I highly care about at the moment. I feel the need for strengthening the political dimension of fashion. Wallet will be more like an experiment for me, sort of like a way of learning about the fashion industry as a system. But also because I think the written word and criticism in fashion are more important now than ever.
The world premiere is themed “Admins of Authority” and is a dialogue between people with authority and power in the industry. Through a sharp pen and a critical approach to relevant topics, Wallet questions and creates a dialogue between people and the reader. It’s pocket-sized like an actual wallet — a part of one’s essentials, something highly personal, and a bearer of capitalist values. Your wallet is a reflection of who you are and of the context in which you live.
I think to reinvent a product is just healthy. It’s also about realizing that you’re no longer suitable for the position. I guess it’s pretty radical to do something like that. We’re always striving for our moment to arrive, and it will never arrive because it’s everyone’s moment. That’s a very important approach to have. That’s also why I am urging to find someone else to fill my position and to keep running Recens with the idea that it’s all about reporting on youth culture from an insider’s point of view.
Other so-called youth culture magazines like i-D or Dazed are reporting on that culture from an outsider’s point of view. They’re too old to see. Older people are idolizing youth culture and earning shit loads of money on it because it’s clickbait. It’s gold for all these businesses.
What does the over-25 industry get most wrong about youth culture and the issues that are most important to youth today?
I am generally critical towards older people trying to understand it. It’s a fact young people don’t listen to their parents. We listen to each other. I still believe in the power of children, teenagers, and young people.
I think it’s very important that over-25 people try to understand our point of view. It’s the matter of understanding it and involving youth instead of exploiting youth.
Which reminds me of my @babyartcritics project, realized during Frieze in New York. That Instagram is a celebration of kids and their behavior in art surroundings. It’s an exploration of the future art market and target group – and a personal observation of me not being the youngest at an art fair anymore.
You started Recens Paper and you published your first issue in print at 13. How many years ago was that?
That’s four years ago now. It’s insane.
And well after e-publishing began. You’ve grown up your whole life with digital media blogs, e-readers, all being very popular. Can you talk about the importance, for you, of printed matter in general and where your interest has been in investing youth in printed culture?
We haven’t yet seen a big boom of printed matter, but it’s definitely coming in a few years. Again, from growing up with digital media and mass-produced digital content with a short lifespan, you definitely seek the physical and tangible product. Also, there’s a lot of senses that come into play with the physical product. You never pay full attention to a product anymore when everything is so instant and digital, and it’s all scrolling.
How do you decide who to work with when people are approaching you for collaborations? How do you negotiate what feels appropriate and not exploitative?
I’ve been asked many times to be the face for that season of a shoe brand, or a clothing brand, or model, or be a face for this and that. I’ve said no every time because it doesn’t feel right. I said no to Vogue who wanted to do an interview but it didn’t feel right because I had done too many mainstream-media interviews already. But also, when it comes to money and stuff, we have to have some money to print the publications. It’s very expensive to print and produce everything.
When it comes to advertisers, I’m mostly interested in the big brands because they have the biggest marketing budgets anyway. It’s better to take their money and do something good with it.
Also, there’s a difference between visibility and authority. I want visibility because that’s the only way to gain an audience and also make more voices heard.
Who are the folks outside of the youth culture that seem to get things right or have a perspective that you really value?
If I was supposed to point out one specific person I find inspiring right now, it would have to be Vivienne Westwood. But again it’s all impulses and inputs and impacts.
How would you describe your relation to your work, and what have you learned about yourself throughout the creating process?
Well, I’m always in a transition. Just this week in New York, I’ve grown so much and learned so much stuff. That’s because I’m open-minded and curious about different stuff. I think it’s important for me to travel because I get all of these new inputs.
That’s what I transfer into my work somehow. I digest everything and filter out everything, then there’s something left that I transfer into my own work.
I think that in order to do this, you need to have breaks. You can’t be distracted. That’s why, I guess, it’s good that I’m going home to Oslo now to digest a little bit. I’ll have a little bit of a break and be able to work and work with all the material that I have. And then I can come back when I’m hungry again.
You want to build on the energy that you’ve worked so hard for.
I guess I have to, It would be a shame if that’s going to waste.