WRITTEN BY JOSH RAY – NOVEMBER 2016
With their new book, ‘The Odditorium: The tricksters, eccentrics, deviants and inventors whose obsessions changed the world‘, David Bramwell and Jo Keeling have made another step in the collective effort towards weaving back together a countercultural narrative that’ll hopefully help create the new one we desperately need in this present situation.
A veritable feast of eccentricity and idiosyncrasy, ‘The Odditorium’ draws together an assortment of creative misfits and pioneering thinkers, who were often too cutting edge for their time and only fully understood in later years. In the foreword, former QI researcher, John Mitchinson explains that it’s important to embrace the obsession that drove these fringe characters, because it’s all too easy to dismiss and repress it in this post-Freudian world. He regards the book as being significant because it demonstrates that the ideas which came out of these obsessions were responsible for great human breakthroughs. It’s important to have people in society willing to flirt with madness and reach places no one has ventured before.
David Bramwell and a group of like-minded cohorts set up The Odditorium about a year ago with the intention of creating “a portal into the fringes of culture; its mavericks and pranksters, adventurers and occultists, artists, comics, eroticists and even the odd chef.” Recording live talks that take place across the UK and releasing them as podcasts, The Odditorium now boasts two series’ worth of leftfield discussions that you can check out here.
We went down to Brighton in the summer for an event hosted by The Odditorium called ‘Adventures On The Edges of Culture’, which featured Daisy Campbell, Melinda Gebbie, Shardcore, Greg Wilson, Kermit Leveridge plus Alan Moore and John Higgs. You can check out the interview between the latter below.
The talks generally revolved around a countercultural theme but drew in a range of topics including music, feminism, subversive art and synchronicity. As well as hosting the event, David Bramwell gave a talk about the fascinating Damanhur, an elaborate, esoteric temple built into the mountains close to Turin. It’s definitely worth checking out some pictures.
Building on stuff John Higgs, Daisy Campbell and more recently Alan Moore have added to the pot, David Bramwell, journalist Jo Keeling and a range of contributors – including Mr. Higgs, amongst others – have helped bring these wild eccentrics to wider attention, whilst also putting them in a wider context that takes in their cultural significance. It’s another step towards forming a countercultural mythology to inspire the long-overdue next wave.
To give you a little taste, we’ve picked out a character from each of the book’s five categories…
TRICKSTERS & SUBVERSIVES
The emperor of America.
Way back in September 1859, a man named Joshua Abraham Norton declared himself Emperor of the United States of America through a letter to his local San Fransisco newspaper. He was embraced by the open-minded West Coast community and allowed to eat and travel around the city for free, using his own currency. The eccentrically dressed character became a symbol for the city and even started attracting tourists. Caring deeply about the plight of his fellow man, Norton used his fame to campaign for the fair treatment of minority groups in the States. When he died, the city’s flags flew half mast and an estimated 30,000 people attended his funeral procession.
“Everybody understands Mickey Mouse. Few understand Hermann Hesse. Hardly anyone understands Einstein. And nobody understands Emperor Norton.” ~ Greg Hill, ‘Principia Discordia’ (1979)
BARONESS ELSA VON FREYTAG-LORINGHOVEN
The woman who was the future.
A woman who embodies everything ‘The Odditorium’ book is about, Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven was someone who gave birth to many of the cultural phenomena of the 20th century by stretching her eccentricities to their very limits. She was completely misunderstood in her own time, but her significance is now beginning to be recognised.
Born in the Pomerania province of Poland, then in the German Empire, Else Hildegard Plötz moved around avant-garde art circles in her early years, leading her to New York where a short-lived marriage to a Baron adorned her with her title. She wore cakes for hats, stamps for make-up and a bra made from tomato cans. Soon after her marriage, she met Marcel Duchamp, who described her as ‘the future’ and picked up on her ideas, which he used to shift the art world’s focus from technical to conceptual.
WILD AT HEART
The journalist who flew into the cuckoo’s nest.
In the winter of 1887 a woman who goes by the name Nellie Bly found herself subject to humiliation and an ice-cold bath as she entered New York’s infamous lunatic asylum on Blackwell Island. She wasn’t insane however, she was a journalist. Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran to a wealthy Pennsylvanian family, she found her way into journalism through a biting reply she wrote to a misogynistic piece written by a famous journalist of the time, landing her a job at The Pittsburgh Dispatch.
With the paper restricting her revolutionary agenda, she moved away and found a job at the New York World, however to prove her worth she had to write a piece on the Blackwell asylum – no one had anticipated her level of commitment however and the story she told from within led to a complete reform of the institution. After that she travelled the world fearlessly fighting her way through patriarchal systems and reporting on groundbreaking issues.
PIONEERS & INVENTORS
The Dymaxion man.
In 1920, Buckminster Fuller was contemplating suicide on the edge of Lake Michigan when he began to ponder if he even had the right to kill himself, as his life wasn’t just his own, it was part of humankind as a whole. From that moment he decided to dedicate his life to the betterment of mankind. Pioneering the term, ‘spaceship earth’ he was way ahead of the curve with globalisation, and he reasoned that there was enough resources on the planet for everyone to live comfortably, if governed properly.
Driven by his principle of ‘Dymaxion’ – a portmanteau of dynamic, maximum and tension – Fuller sought to find more pragmatic, futuristic alternatives to things like transport and accommodation and although he never found the adequate funding to fully realise his visions, a giant geodesic dome he constructed for the 1967’s world fair still stands in Montreal.
EXPLORERS OF THE MIND
The Great Beast.
“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’ is the maxim of the paradoxical character, Aleister Crowley, also known as Master Therion, the Great Beast 666. The paradox stems from the fact that it’s very difficult to like him as a person, given the fact he lived his life in a moral void, but you can’t get away from the fact he was an incredibly insightful thinker who laid the foundations for the spiritual revolution of the 20th Century. He was named the 73rd most influential Briton in a 2002 BBC poll and he even appears on The Beatles ‘Sergeant Pepper’s’ album.
He wrote ‘The Book Of The Law’, supposedly dictated to him by Aiwass through his wife Rose under the Egyptian God, Horus’ instruction. Published in 1904, it became the core text of his Thelema religion, which promoted the concept of individualism that would take hold as the century unfolded.
If you want to discover more creative mavericks like the ones above, you can grab a copy of ‘The Odditorium’ here.