The following conversation recollects the events of a semi-random evening six months ago. I had set up a meeting with Aapo Nikkanen, curious to hear more about his book project, which was still a work in progress back then. We had been talking about doing an interview for a good while already, yet the right context seemed to be missing. As we didn’t want the conversation to follow the obvious patterns of two friends having a chat, Aapo had suggested bringing in a third person, to play the role of a commentator. One day, I got a phone call from Aapo saying that a friend of his, Alex from London was in town, and would be the perfect person to do the job. The following day, I arrived to the meeting point, a carefully selected roundabout in Eastern Paris, with no set-up, just ready to press the record button on my phone. This three-hour recording, whose original version is way richer than written down here, extended to months of typing, deleting and typing. The book, be me – a collection of greentexts is ready and out there now. But first, let’s go back to the events of one sunny evening in May 2015.
Sini: Hey Mark, welcome to Paris! Is it your first time here?
Alex: First of all, my name is not Mark.
Sini: Oh, sorry!
Alex: It’s quite alright, and actually it’s funny that you call me Mark. It reminds me of a story, listen to this: once when I was in a bar and actually introduced myself as Mark, and the person said: Bark? And I thought, he either misheard me, or he actually thinks my name is the outer layer of a tree. Or, it was some kind of command: Bark! Haven’t seen this guy since. But I have to say, what concerns me a lot is the premise. It has to be established and clear right from the onset. The story will work, if the premise is in its place. What was the premise for you to do this interview? Does me being part of this conversation serve a specific purpose?
Sini: On my way here, there was a lot of things going through my mind: mostly, what kind of impact will your presence have on the conversation? Then I realized that I can’t have any prearranged plan since I didn’t know the first thing about you.
Aapo: I see you as the gonzo element: of not having the boring “same questions same answers” kind of thing, written in international art English.
Sini: Why did you want to invite Alex in particular?
Aapo: I just thought he was a suitable person.
Alex: And I was free and I was available: listen, pragmatism is nothing to be ashamed of! Before coming here, I was thinking about me and Aapo’s friendship, and what I came down to was basically is that I know things of a personal nature about him that he wouldn’t like me to tell. And vice versa. So there’s a sort of sensitive trust between us. I would also like to know why are we in this specific place. Do you come here often?
Aapo: I live down the street, so I pass by this place very often. When you’re in this roundabout it feels like you’re in a bubble: around it’s super busy all the time, but people come here to relax, they’re always chilling out here, drinking beer and smoking. This is a physical bubble. When everything around us is moving, there’s something very calming about it.
Sini: Do you have a hard time finding this kind of bubbles in Paris?
Aapo: I don’t think it has necessarily something to do with that. Since I got the funding for my book project, I realised I didn’t have any outside pressure on my work. However, there’s no ending to it in a proper sense: this project is not going to end up in an exhibition for instance. In this sense, I’m working in a bubble right now, without any stress – I could do this work and then just put in a drawer without ever showing it to anyone.
Alex: What kind of book proposal did you have?
Aapo: I’ve been collecting stories online since late 2010. Everything started when I found one really good one and wanted to make a work out of it, but I couldn’t figure out what to do with it – and decided to save the story for later. Then I started collecting more and more of those stories. I ended up having loads of them, and proposed to make a book based on these stories: a book which would also function as a tool of access to these stories, to make stories out of stories.
Sini: Where did you collect them?
Aapo: Almost all of them come from 4chan. For most of the people it’s a terrible site, it’s seen like the dumpster of the Internet with basically one million posts a day. When facing this crazy content, what people do, is when seeing even a mildly amusing story, they take a screen shot and post it on these image boards, like the ones where people post cat pictures, flows of visual data. And this is what I follow.
Sini: So there was already a sort of preselection?
Aapo: Exactly. Every half a year I deleted half of the stories, because there was too much of them for me to handle them, and to be honest, I’ve read thousands of really shitty stories at this point. However, I think they’re very poetic in a sense: the stories have developed their own literary genre, a statement-like internet expressionism.
Sini: What about the criterion when selecting the texts?
Aapo: Yes, I’ve spent many terrible hours when selecting them, so I had to come up with certain rules. For example, since they’re anonymous – and this is the most important thing – they should be stories that we want to believe in. And obviously we can never know if they’re true or not. With the best stories you think that they cannot possibly be true – but who knows?
Sini: How about your other ongoing work, does it somehow reflect the same themes as the book? I remember you talking something about crying instagram selfies…
Aapo: One day I saw one crying selfie online and was wondering what was it about. I noticed that this was a sort of trend: people trying to win their lost love back by posting crying selfies publicly on Facebook, which inspired me to start a collection of these images. There’s the same element present as with the stories: if the pic is good enough, you want to believe it to be true. However, for me this phenomenon represents a sociological problem that hasn’t been resolved yet.
Sini: Could you precise?
Aapo: Let’s say that if me and Alex would break up here, obviously it would be public in a way, since you and the people sitting at the bench over there would witness it. But it would never be a hyper public situation, since they would forget about it, and it would fade away. But when this happens online, it only takes one share and becomes a virtual act, and never disappears. This kind of posts are done by younger generation, people who have been familiar with Facebook all their lives, and it has thus become a normal act. In my view, there will be some social rules which will be generated on the Internet: this is already visible to certain extent for example with posts where people write content warning in the beginning, that people can hide or skip it. But this is only the first, awkward way of dealing with this.
Alex: Let’s say if we broke up here, those guys over there they wouldn’t necessarily come up here staring at my face, but online they wouldn’t necessarily press the hide button. What did you do with these images?
Aapo: I printed some of them on a thick plexiglass, perhaps half a size of an Ipad screen. The form resembles a little bit of a tombstone. By the way, I used to work for this company, who wanted to launch a virtual graveyard for rich people. My job was to translate all the content into Finnish, because they were aiming worldwide. So if you were rich enough, you had the option of buying yourself a virtual space and upload content there that people would remember you, and which could be unlocked by your children for instance. I don’t even know what happened to them afterwards: my guess is that the timing wasn’t right for them and they didn’t succeed.
Alex: You pick up cynical subject matters, do you? The work you do, can always go to both ways, either they can be super genial or pure cynicism.
Aapo: Not true. I’m actually doing a series of work on love as well, entitled What is love?, which started from a mixtape of hiphop lovesongs. I used to listen to a lot of hip hop in Finland, and when I moved abroad I had to leave all my vinyls there. Since I couldn’t bring them with me, I started to make huge playlists on iTunes. While listening to these hard core rappers, I realized that their best songs are often love songs, something that I find very beautiful: it gives an interesting vision to this very otherwise macho world. The same theme is also to be found in my book: amidst the homophobic, hateful and racist online stories found on 4chan, you can actually find a lot of love-related stories.