Conveyor Loop/Löpande Bandet, 2009.
Your work is incredibly research-based and covers a variety of themes spanning from the Swedish Public Dental Services in the 1930s to 1960s art in NYC. You refer to yourself as a private investigator of a kind: Where do you draw information from? What interests you in the way history echoes in the contemporary life and in the way we relate to history and time?
Information is everywhere, I try not to have any preconceived principles about what a good or viable source can be. But the search is never random or aimless, I'm always following some sort of a hunch. Obviously the internet—with its readiness, wide-ranging pathways and associative connection points—can provide not only fast news, but also very particular kinds of information (for example, access to people's unedited opinions, or documentation that would never end up in the newspaper or history books). But its aura of omniscience is very deceiving of course, and since the algorithm-governed search engines are increasingly streamlining the results to match our interests (or our predicted consumer needs), when looking for hard facts, or unpredictable information, it is necessary to broaden the scope. I often interview people for my research, which is one of my favorite things to do. I have also been digging around extensively in various historic archives. Even though I'm seemingly focusing on the past in some of my projects, the interest in specific histories and people has more to do with trying to sharpen the focus on the present. Only very specific histories become subject for my investigations, either if they are aiming their gaze toward the future, or if they can be directly traced from a current condition or behavior. At least at the moment, my interest has a lot to do with the potential of that additional vision—an extra set of critical eyes—on the now.
Your work seems to engage quite strongly with aesthetics, and especially with the dialogue between the aesthetics of the contemporary world and that of earlier models, in works like Hollywood Internet and HEXA_FLEXAGON_F_EVER. Can you talk a little about these and your research into older aesthetic models?
Since aesthetics can be an effective means of communication (or miscommunication), it would be a shame not to take advantage of it. Trying to isolate or enhance aspects and parts of reality, I usually work with recognizable elements in some way, however subtle or tweaked to fit a secondary purpose. In the case of HEXA_FLEXAGON_F_EVER, I was letting the historic connections of the hexaflexagon map out on the then-contemporary MySpace, making use of its inherent functions and limitations; for example, the fact that it was impossible to state the correct age of a dead person (life online keeps on going, at least until the platform in question becomes obsolete), or that the past and the present could be superimposed, as real people befriended and communicated with the profiles that I had created within the project. The information station, a hexagonal computer table, was actually modeled after similar computer stations used in Swedish libraries, only slightly altered to include a display case for the collection of paper hexaflexagons. I enjoy playing with layers of signs and elements of cultural references (to facilitate engagement), or with a certain displacement in context and time (or both). Sometimes, I just want to hold a magnifying glass over something. In the example of Hollywood Internet, a particular aesthetic was precisely the subject matter: the phenomenon of the internet as portrayed in movies, which seems to have evolved by building on its own conventions to a point where it no longer looks like the real internet but is just as familiar and expected. This aesthetic, which includes both visuals and sound, was dissected, reassembled, and simply displayed isolated from its source.
In your artist statement, you assert that you let the content govern the medium of presentation. The result is that one research project could be presented in a number of different formats, from video through text and up to performative presentations. Can you talk about this shift between mediums and how you see it affecting the work and the way your research is presented?
I think of my work mostly as being the actual ongoing practice, by which certain subjects and questions are explored through different research/projects and sometimes outputted as individual artworks, texts, performances, etc. I like to use video production as an analogy; the research is the filming and gathering of source material, which gets imported into the "project bin" in the editing program. This is the information bank, where all the content media is added and saved. The "timeline" is where the work is taking place and where the content can be experimented with, juxtaposed in layers, manipulated, edited. Sections of the "sequence" are eventually rendered out in different sizes, resolutions, and file formats, depending on the aim, situation, or context. The point is that the work is continuous, and one project can potentially generate many different little "pieces" of a larger pie. This way, even if the projects are super slow and long term, the manifestations can develop continuously (more as a conversation, versus as a single exhaustive proclamation). In recent years, I've also been experimenting with letting aspects of the research and my work methods be made visible within these manifestations.
Let's talk more specifically about your recent work, The Tale of the Big Computer, which was presented in text format in both print and web publications, as a performance/presentation, and is now part of Triple Canopy's Issue 13 (see here). Is this the final version of the work? Or how do all versions feed into one another? And what are your feelings about online publishing and presentation of your work, especially in relation to this specific work, that departs from a novel and is very textual.
Text pieces like the one I just did for Triple Canopy are not at all a final version of this project—they're only the beta-beginning! This research is still very much in progress, so I have to just try parts of it out to see if my hunches, hypothesis, and associations make any sense. I think online publishing (of this work especially) and making these versions public (an open beta, heh...) is a perfect way to do just that—have the potentiality of feedback and a bit of dialogue, in order to discover new connections, or unexpected leads. I do see this work ending up taking many forms that can serve different functions, but one of them will definitely be a more inclusive textual work (in Swedish, where I will explore all aspects of this material that are language- and cultural-specific). I'm also presenting part of this project as a performance here in New York early next year (organized by Triple Canopy), or as I would like to call it, a "text deluxe."
How long have you been working creatively with technology? How did you start?
I started by pure necessity. It was in 2003, and even though I had worked with digital media like video previously, I definitely had no experience or skills in technology (such as computers, electronics, or anything technical for that matter). When I decided I needed to physically realize a segment of the 1938 Disney cartoon "Mickey's Trailer," in which the trailer in question mechanically transforms itself in different ways, I knew I was in trouble. Not only did this project require building and constructing this trailer materially, but even more challenging was incorporating all of its mechanisms based on the (unreal) drawn cartoon, into a functioning sequence in reality. This meant inventing all sorts of ad hoc solutions using mechanics, electronics, and pneumatics, as well as computer programming (which could never have been possible without a few incredible people who provided their expertise and dedication). Recently, my work has dealt with technology less as a means to an end, but more as a field of interest and as subject matter. Working on technology and its cultural and societal role and effects, and only with it as a consequence, assures that the focus stays slightly more aimed on us.
Describe your experience with the tools you use. How did you start using them?
The tools can differ very much from project to project, so I rarely get to become an expert in any of them. I'm like a building's super, who is no more than a decent operator of most tools, but who can solve a lot of situations using some makeshift solution or with plain dedication. The tool with capital T, with risk of sounding pretentious, I think is the vision (something I think is true for all visual artists); a dedicated eye by which to look behind corners and under things, constantly zooming in and out. I have mentioned a magnifying glass before, it's a bit heavy-handed but why not. Another (metaphorical) tool is the litmus paper (forgive my metaphor overload). Litmus paper is a reagent strip that turns into a specific color to indicate certain things. To see the invisible ingredient, or to detect something, you need an agent to make it react with. (If you can't see something, you might be able to detect it through the presence of something else.) If by tools we can mean operational tools, I would say I started experimenting with these investigative methods as early as 2003, but I began employing them more seriously beginning in 2007 with the HEXA_FLEXAGON_F_EVER project.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I went to Konstfack University College of Art, Craft and Design in Stockholm, Sweden, actually originally at the graphic design department, before moving to New York to study art at the Cooper Union. This was back in 2002, it was quite an interesting moment to live in New York for the first time. But when the international student fees were unexpectedly raised after my sophomore year, I made the decision to buy my own Macintosh laptop instead, and go back to Sweden to finish school for free. I eventually did my MFA at Konstfack as well, including a year of post-graduate artistic research.
What traditional media do you use, if any? Do you think your work with traditional media relates to your work with technology?
I use drawing, but for purely functional napkin-brainstorms. I'm not a very elegant drawer, but I still think that the hand and pen is a faster mind-to-paper machine than the computer when it comes to quickly visualizing ideas. For me, drawing equals process. I have actually started using video more again (I assume video is considered a traditional media) after a many-years-long hiatus. I used to be bothered by how the video medium either felt too loaded historically, too much of a specific lo-fi aesthetic, or just too much of a default choice for artists. But since video has reached such a decent level of minimum quality and is so accessible, it feels a lot more neutral—using video doesn't mean you are necessarily a "video artist," it might just mean that you're interested in using a time-based medium. I don't really categorize my work in terms of media, I find it very misinforming usually, and the edges can be quite blurry. For example, the work Conveyor Loop/Löpande Bandet, derived from the investigation of the unrealized opera "The Tale of the Big Computer," and is a (silent) concert of sounds from the cultural and technological evolution through time. These sounds are displayed as descriptions one by one via slide projectors, triggering a playback from your brain's sound library. The slideshow (as first performed live at Marian Spore, in 2009) was converted to sound wave frequencies and recorded on to an old school tape recorder connected to the projectors. (The tape could then be played back into the projectors, functioning as an analog "computer program," repeating the slideshow as a loop.)
Are you involved in other creative or social activities (i.e. music, writing, activism, community organizing)?
Art making is so time consuming that I sometimes don't see how I could fit in any other creative practices, except for occasional writing (but working with text is usually inseparable from, or always somewhat incorporated into my art practice in general). I have been following the OWS developments this fall a bit, and taken part where I felt I could. Feeling more like an enthusiastic observer than an activist, I'm still very intrigued by the potentiality of this moment for a shift in zeitgeist and mentality. I might be too much of a skeptic, but right now the thought of it feels liberating.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? Do you think this work relates to your art practice in a significant way?
During and in between education years I worked classic day jobs (in Swedish we call those "bread jobs"), such as working as a clerk at a 7/11 or the Systembolaget ("the System," the Swedish alcohol store) or as a housekeeping maid at Grand Hotel in Stockholm. I do value these experiences highly, as they gave me crucial knowledge about work culture and codes (as well as insights about myself). Since I graduated, I have been able to survive on a patchwork of income sources all derived more or less directly from my art practice (grants, artist fees, freelance design work, teaching, etc.). I do however foresee more teaching as a future source of income, which I would probably not consider a "bread job" as much as an extension of my practice (so maybe more of a "meat job").
Who are your key artistic influences?
The simple answer is that that is too complicated to answer (all the fragments that make up the cocktail of influences would be almost impossible to trace). But one inspiration is my late grandfather, who was one of the most curious people I've known. A retired high school language professor, he spent most of his time reading, teaching himself new languages, and wondering about things. My grandfather went to the public library every day on his bike, even as a 90-year-old, and he had a remarkable way of noticing things that nobody else did—literally—when we were biking together, he could suddenly hit the brakes and go back for a small coin or something seemingly insignificant he had spotted. But once in a while he would actually find real gems, so it paid off to keep his eyes open at all times. Which is true also figuratively speaking: my grandfather was an avid observer and discoverer of the oddities of humanity, life, earth, space, technology, birds, it all...
Have you collaborated with anyone in the art community on a project? With whom, and on what?
Not recently, but I am about to set a new project in motion, which will require extensive collaboration and coordination, both here in New York and in Sweden. I'm organizing a festival and congress called Visions of the Now, which will take place in Stockholm next year. It's going to be a very challenging break from my mostly solitary practice, to have to pull together something on a larger scale where many people are involved. It's going to be wild.
Do you actively study art history?
I (actively) jump back and forth, I stop and enhance a little part, usually looking for something specific. I usually don't stay zoomed out long enough to be able to study the whole picture before I have to enhance another part. I just assume that eventually all the pieces of detailed knowledge will be so many that the gaps will be forgiven...
Do you read art criticism, philosophy, or critical theory? If so, which authors inspire you?
I read all the time for my work from an eclectic mix of sources, and increasingly on the internet, even though I still prefer real books. I am an expert in buying too many books, especially on art and science, that I think I'll have time to read. So far, it's a losing battle, but I enjoy having access to them though, and I'm constantly making piles where I can be visually reminded of them in different combinations. At this exact moment, I'm reading from The Politics of Time, by Peter Osborne, and recently I've been revisiting Judith Butler (after hearing her speech for OWS in Washington Square Park). As much as I find art theory and philosophy useful for critical thinking and attempting to understand humanity and even art practices, my work is not deliberately informed by it (I'm a bit suspicious of art that appears to have been using critical theory almost as a manual, it can become very excluding).
Are there any issues around the production of, or the display/exhibition of new media art that you are concerned about?
It's an interesting friction, the digital and the physical world trying to coexist on the same plane, or in the same room together…I'm interested in seeing how curators will continue to work with this challenge, as I think it represents a great opportunity to invent radically different display and presentation methods. One issue I've been concerned with has mostly to do with how to merge different audiences (the online audience for example, might not be the same as the one that goes to see shows in museums or galleries). I'm trying not to think too much about the exhibition aspect of my work while in research mode, but there is a moment later in the output process when I have to consciously step out of my inside perspective, and instead become an undercover audience member who encounters something for the first time.