Ilja Karilampi is a Swedish visual artist currently living and working between Berlin and Gothenburg. Through his variegated practice, Karilampi explores different social and cultural phenomena, mirroring them simultaneously against his personal background and childhood memories. We set up a Skype-supported exchange between Berlin and Paris, and he told me about his past hoods, current tempo and upcoming projects.
How did you discover art and creative practice? Did it have something to do with having access to video recorder as a teenager?
I come from a creative family, so I was surrounded by arts since my early childhood. Mentioning a video recorder is a pretty spot-on observation, I actually started using one when I was thirteen our fourteen. At the same age when I started exploring my hoods through the lens of a video camera, I found the local graffiti scene. This context was pretty influential, the urban context where I grew up provided a lot of inspiration and possibilities to do graffiti; there was a lot of old trams and so on… Moreover, the people in that scene were super interesting: not only hip hoppers, but I got to know a lot of people with different backgrounds, I mean, some really weird guys as well. I learned by asking a lot questions to them, which was a really positive experience. Later I started my studies in arts at Gothenburg’s Konstskola.
You currently divide your time between Berlin, Gothenburg and New York. I couldn’t help noticing that on the video The Chief Architect of Gangsta Rap (2009) you constantly shift language between Swedish and English when narrating. What is your relationship towards these cities and languages, do they affect differently the way you express yourself?
I don’t really live in New York that much any more, haven’t been there since last November, although I still have a strong connection to the city: New York is constantly in my mind. It definitely offers a tempting scenario and inspiration for my work, both literally and conceptually. Right now I’m spending most of my time between Gothenburg, Berlin and Stockholm, even though I don’t have a flat in Stockholm for the moment. I’m starting to work more and more in my home country again however.
Changing language between my mother tongue and English is a conscious gesture. For me this video work was important because it was made in Stockholm, but I couldn’t find the voice to do it completely in English. At the same time it would have been weird to talk about LA in Swedish. I think we’re all bilingual now anyway, so why not to do a work reflecting this idea? Obviously the use of slang and its understanding forms an important part of my work, so the linguistic differences in this sense are also something that I find interesting.
Recently you participated to a group show entitled The Catwalk at Komplot in Brussels, with your series of painted wood panels with UV-lights. I really like this series, and guess working with UV-lights has become an essential part of your work: you started with wall paintings and later worked with adhesive vinyl. Where did the idea originally come from?
I guess it was like a process for me, the first time exploring this technique was probably for a show in London in 2012. I discovered this way of using fluorescent paint, to create another level of the piece, especially in terms of light. UV-light seemed to me something different and new; it felt like a thrill and it was definitely exciting to experience with it. It’s been an ongoing thing ever since, but obviously there have been different variations in the process as you mentioned.
In the video work hOOdumentary (2011) you explore the hoods of your childhood in Studiegången, Gothenburg, and the ones of Biljmer, situated on the outskirts of Amsterdam. It’s a documentary with a very personal signature: at the same time when you narrate your childhood memories, the video composes a general silhouette of hoods as a cultural and social phenomenon. Why did you decide to mirror particularly Biljmer against Studiegången? When revisiting your childhood suburbia did you find some surprising elements that you weren’t expecting?
Obviously I found it pretty dull, when I went back there… Before it was considered to be quite hoody, but actually nowadays it’s not that bad: it’s basically a middle-class area surrounded by villas. At the turn of the 60’s and 70’s, it was popular to build this kind of units with a social and political project in the background. I think it’s quite important to ask whether this project was really a failure, as it is often thought to be the case. A similar kind of public project took place in Biljmer in the 60’s: in the beginning it was supposed be a kind of a dream or a utopia, then all of a sudden, due to certain circumstances it became something else, a really dodgy area. But now actually the same thing is happening over there as well as in Studiegången, it’s starting to be a pretty good place again.
I discovered the hoods of Biljmer some years ago when I was there at a festival, I found it somehow tropical and really enjoyed it. I was seeking for a residency via Stedeljik Museum Bureau Amsterdam (SMBA) and was already pretty connected to Amsterdam, so the choice seemed natural for me.
Hendrix incident (2013) and The Chief Architect of Gangsta Rap (2009) unfold your interest towards icons of mass and popular culture. Do you think that the idea of celebrities has fundamentally changed in our days, or is it the time span that makes them more fascinating?
I guess it’s always easier to look back upon something, something that has already happened. If we look at our days, it’s harder to see and to grasp the bigger picture of what is going on and what kind of movement is taking shape or not. But yes, there are definitely some interesting figures for example in music that I follow, and I´d like to get more involved in collaborations, like booking them. So I’d say that there are some potential candidates, who are interesting to follow right now.
New York Minute (2012) is a one-minute long video condensing your experiences of one year in the city. Does it reflect somehow your feelings about the pace at which the art world is moving forward? You’re currently preparing a lot of different projects: do you feel like the experiences are somewhat scaled down due to the fast pace?
The work is about experiences or input through the lens of one specific year, and it also took one year to make the work at the end. The intensity of the pace was definitely the motivating theme behind the work, and obviously the fact that the events took place in New York, made the speed even more intense.
This new way of looking, living and experiencing things and the rhythm of it, I don’t find it negative – on the contrary I think it’s something pretty cool. We’re adapting to the way we take information.
When preparing the interview I discovered that you’ve also published a novel, The Hunter in the Armchair (2012), and later directed a theatre piece based on the text. How was this experience? You’ve also directed some music videos in the past, what is the major difference compared to the world of theatre?
The events take place in New York, and the narrative is about a person who could be either you or me: anyone stumbling through the city during five months. It was definitely a personal experience that guided me through the whole writing process, so in that sense it was an autobiographical story and based on true events. Even though real stories are sometimes too good to be told, at the same time I really enjoy books that are written as if it was a real scenario. My personal experience of that period is strongly influenced by music, which is clearly visible when reading the book. There are five chapters, and the text is written in a very spontaneous way. I see the book as a kind of a mixtape of the city: it’s about meetings, experiences and travelling. Another book is going to come out in a year or two from now, which is going to be more about Roland Barthes kind of approach with free philosophy and theory, mirroring the society in which we find ourselves.
Right now I’d like to work more with music videos, but it’s pretty hard to find independent musicians to collaborate with, because they can be even more complicated than artists. And if they’re not working for big labels, their budget can be quite limited. But I find the format of music videos really cool; I mean we grew up with MTV, which I find a fascinating context. About the theatre experience, the result was very satisfying, but it was a mad amount of work, I mean like way too much.
What’s next for you? You will have a solo show at LISTE in Basel with Sandy Brown, could you tell something about this?
I’m going to show large scale aluminium pieces, engraved and laser cut, with a light from behind; continuing the exploration with fences and logos, while closely studying the iconography and even Egyptian-like hieroglyphs. This is going to form the narrative framework for the pieces – an attempt to materialize all these things we talked about before.
When interviewed by the producer Faze Miyake for Dummy magazine and asked about music, you said “Rhythm is rhythm, and it takes different forms in life”. I really like this phrase, however, I was wondering if there is a particular way of self-expression, with which you feel the most comfortable at the moment?
I guess that in the future I want to continue in the same path that I’ve been following in recent years, just making new work, whatever may be the concrete medium. Maybe I will make another movie, but definitely through a new angle.
Different creative practices resemble a lot of one another, whether it’s music, art or movies. I think it’s very important to be open for different kind of practices – I mean, who cares about definitions and labels at the end?