Jan Svenungsson


July 24, 2018 – "Books"
I moved all my art books from one room in the apartment to another. Teenage son needs more space. It wasn't even all art books, as I have more scattered in Sweden and Vienna, but my general library of books related to individual artists, started in 1977. The idea has been... never to throw one away, just like in principle I keep all photos (although here some culling does take place, but it's a small percentage). You never know when one book (or photo) will show itself to be useful... and then one day there are 15 meters of them. Most of them obviously not very useful, except as a cumulative mirror to one's life. Please excuse the mixed metaphor. To experience the mirror in a physical way is educative.

June 14, 2018 – "Bio"
In Vienna I have become good friends with Ingeborg Reichle, who, among many things, has a specialist interest in BioArt. Two days ago she the artist Reiner Maria Matysek to present his work, an event I attended. Afterwards there was a group of us continuing to talk for a couple of hours, over lemonade and Apfelsaft gespritzt on a terrace. It had been a very interesting lecture which inspired a wide range of arguments, and not just about art. For now, I just want to make a note of one observation (new to me) and one argument (which I have thought about for some time), both which continue to percolate in my mind. The observation is simple but fascinating:

– if one life form chooses to make art (an activity not necessary for survival) using other life forms as material, this is a colonial practice.

The argument is, at least at first glance, much more dramatic:

– if one day there is a proven breakthrough in bio-technical research (very well funded and the focus of a lot of interest) making a substantial extension of the human life span possible through some sort of therapy, then democracy is doomed.

Think about it.

June 12, 2018 – "Fox"
Today, I'll quote Nicholas Kristof:

There was also something frankly weird about an American president savaging Canada’s prime minister one day and then embracing the leader of the most totalitarian country in the world.

“He’s a very talented man,” Trump said of Kim. “I also learned that he loves his country very much.”

In an interview with Voice of America, Trump said “I like him” and added: “He’s smart, loves his people, he loves his country.”

Trump praised Kim in the news conference and, astonishingly, even adopted North Korean positions as his own, saying that the United States military exercises in the region are “provocative.” That’s a standard North Korean propaganda line. Likewise, Trump acknowledged that human rights in North Korea constituted a “rough situation,” but quickly added that “it’s rough in a lot of places, by the way.” (Note that a 2014 United Nations report stated that North Korean human rights violations do “not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”)

Incredibly, Trump told Voice of America that he had this message for the North Korean people: “I think you have somebody that has a great feeling for them. He wants to do right by them and we got along really well.”

It’s breathtaking to see an American president emerge as a spokesman for the dictator of North Korea.

June 10, 2018 – "Norms"
I wake up to the news that the American President has de-authorized his signature on the G7 document, from his plane on the way to Singapore. In other words, he has broken with the US' closest group of allies, the leading democratic countries of the world. Now he is on his way to a one-on-one negociation on June 12 with the leader of the least democratic country in the whole world, the murderous dictator Kim Young-Un. If you simplify somewhat, there are two possible outcomes. The most likely is that they come to no agreement whatsoever, alternatively that the American president is first led to think they have an agreement on something (which he trumpets) after which it quickly falls a part. The other possible outcome is that they actually make a historic agreement, which does not immediately fall apart.

The result of the first outcome will be a heightening of tensions between two nuclear powers, with unforeseeable consequences, as the two thin skinned leaders move to compensate their loss of face in front of the world (one of them, the more obviously incompetent, having said of himself innumerable times that he is a master deal maker, which he will then have proven twice wrong on a worldwide scale, in less than a week).

The result of the second outcome will be just as unpredictable and very possible: worse. It will state that the United States of America is happy and willing to work with and trust the worst bad faith dictatorship in the world while sabotaging all efforts to negociate forward looking policy and agreements with its hitherto closest group of good faith democratic friends.

In my native country Sweden, for the last ten years or so, well meaning, good faith efforts to achieve equality between individuals: between men and women, between people from different ethnic backgrounds, with different sexual identities, etc, has sponsored discussion everywhere in society on how traditional "norms" are detrimental to true equality and must therefore be changed. This is all very well and valuable. However, Sweden being a highly consensus oriented culture with a high level of trust in authority, "norm criticism" (a direct translation from Swedish, a quick google search revealed there is no immediate parallell in English to the terminology now used in Sweden) has also been decreed in various state frameworks for pedagogy, cultural politics and politics. This is dangerous – because we need norms.

The American president has been teaching all of us a master class in "norm critical" behaviour ever since he first started his campaign (when he was not taken seriously by most) until now, when his continuing disregard for "norms" is growing ever more radikal. Democracy is a norm which should be supported, not undermined. Showing respect for your good faith friends, is another.

Anyone with imagination should be worried about what could take place in Sweden after this year's parlamentary elections if there is an upset (which doesn't look completely impossible, given the present political chaos) and the nationalist Sweden Democrats enter government. Imagine how state imposed "norm criticism" will look when government is radically right wing.

June 8, 2018 – "Words"
I have been working with Chris Barber on the final tuning of the text I started to write already last summer. I never spent such a long time being involved with the same text. It's a great experience, you have the chance to ponder every word. Not under pressure, allowing the process to play out.

Today, returning from Vienna, I see that Anthony Bourdain has died. It feels sad, I remember reading his book not long after it came out, and that I liked it. I read about him now in the airport, and I learn that he got his first break as a writer (instead of as cook) when he sent an unsolicited text to the New Yorker. It's highly unusual they would publish something just sent in, but here it happened. I look this first text up, it's called "Don't eat before reading this" and it was published in 1999. I read it, and it is absolutely brilliant. About food and cooks and restaurant shenanigans, of course, but it's greatest asset is the way the words follow upon each other and the way they rhyme with each other, and basically just create a symphony of different sorts of "sense". It's very inspiring. How sad that he is gone.

June 4, 2018 – "Metal"

I saw Babymetal in Music Hall in Innsbruck.

May 21, 2018 – "Psycho-"
In order to illustrate and feed the anxiety I expressed in the post below, go to New York Times and read this article. Then continue with your work. There is no other way.

May 18, 2018 – "Mapping"
Two nuclear powers. One enormously powerful is led by an old president who doesn't read or listen and is unable to distinguish between his own fragile sense of self and the independent reality surrounding him. The other, utterly poor in every sense except the existence of the bombs, is led by a young hereditary dictator, who has surprised all observers by his cold and murderous ruthlessness in securing and manifesting power. These two are supposed to meet in less than four weeks. The old guy has trumpeted success in advance. The younger one has been prepared for the task over three generations, and conceivably cannot – under any circumstances – give the old one what he wants. But he can make it look that way, for a while. What will happen when the old man realizes he has been played? Meanwhile, in my studio, I am busy mapping the development. Psycho-Mapping East Asia. The outcome is unclear.

April 13, 2018 – "Scare"
I had to get up really early, to take a red-eye flight from Vienna to Paris. My dear friend Anne was going to defend her PhD thesis on the writings of Walker Evans, the photographer.

When it comes to text, Anne is the most exacting and demanding person I know. She is simply incredibly precise. And she never gives up. Which was a reason for worry, when she told me some years ago that she had signed up for a PhD and was going to do it on Evans' writings. The choiceof subject was a little bit surprising, as it used to be Robert Frank who was her number one photography interest. Yet Walker Evans originally intended to be a writer and this made him particular in this context.

The session took place in a very un-romantic teaching room in Université Paris 7 Diderot, in the 13 arr. I was going to stay only one night in a hotel by Place Italie and had only my rucksack, with computer and a change of clothes. I brought it all with me to the defence, which was scheduled to take up to five (5) hours. When I had first read this on the invitation I thought it sounded crazy – and it made me really curious. There were seven experts involved, four professors in the room, one on audiolink from Rennes, one head of photography at a famous American museum on videolink and another American professor at Yale, also on videolink. The two latter, major experts on Walker Evans.

I had never been present at a French doctorial defense before and didn't know exactly what to expect. Lots of words, I assumed. And indeed, the French experts each gave very lengthy statements which were primarily concerned (it seemed to me, but of course I may have missed nuances) with creating their own rhetorical beauty... I was not very surprised. Yet the two American participators (the first one of them actually French, though transplanted) had another approach. They adressed the matter in a more direct way, it seemed to me. One of them, who had been responsible for the Walker Evans show at the Pompidou last year, for which Anne had also served as a consultant, said that with this thesis Anne has proven herself to be France's foremost expert on Walker Evans' life – and that there is actually no one in the US who knows more, either. Which in this context should mean... the world. Not bad! And what a monumental effort it is. The thesis consists of four volumes, one of them 800 pages... in that volume alone almost 3000 footnotes.

After more than four hours of intense listening, the process was finished and the verdict proferred. We all had a glass in a room nearby and then split. I was completely exhausted, having not had much sleep the night before. I drifted slowly in the direction of my hotel and stopped at an italian pizza place "au feu de bois". My expectations were not high but I was served the most exquisit pizza Regina, with a perfect balance between all parts. With a glass of Saumur Champigny, which I like to order when in Paris. It was so nice. Just so right. What a beautiful evening.

Then I asked for the bill – and couldn't find my wallet. First I took it easy: my rucksack was over full, it must be there, somewhere. But the more I looked, the more worried I got. Yes, I got REALLY worried. Alone in Paris with no money and all my cards and papers lost somewhere in the big city. Not fun at all.

Finally I called for the manager, to say I couldn't find my wallet and couldn't pay. He switched from friendly to implacable in one go. I can't blame him, but it certainly wasn't nice to be on the receiving side in this moment. I would have to organize the money, leave my telephone as a forfeit if I left my table – and it was not his problem. I wanted to call the police. It was not his problem. He was just waiting for his money.

It was such an uncomfortable situation to be in. It made me see the fragility in the way we live our lives and what we take for granted. I was sitting there quiet and desperate, surrounded by other guests, all minding their own business. Just like I had when passing those beggars on the street earlier. My only option was to call Anne although she had deserved to be left in peace. Yet I did and she declared she would come to bail me out (Paris being big, that would be an hour perhaps). I then made a final desperate dig in my overflowing rucksack, and... found the wallet.

March 21, 2018 – "Facebook"
If you read Swedish, I suggest you read this rundown of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal. It's a succint point by point analysis, with links, of the different aspects of the unraveling data disaster. Then leave Facebook. If you feel you can't, stop liking. Stop feeding the monster.

March 18, 2018 – "Freedom"
I am finishing the manuscript for my book about printmaking. At least that's what I hope. I mentioned it here for the first time in July last year. I never before spent such a long time on one text, I think. It has not been a continous writing process and I have been led off on various tangents through books which I've come across and felt inspired to read. That in itself, has been a good thing, of course. I can only hope I will be able to convey some of it to my readers eventually (publication is set for 2019). In a book I recently read, by an author I had never encountered before (I have already forgotten what led me to it or her), I read:

There is a real investment made by many of us today in the idea that artistic practice was liberated when judgments of both taste and politics ceased to be the criterion for (good) art. But there has been a price, and it is artists who pay it — although the opposite might at first appear to be the case. The contemporary art world values artists, not art. No art objects are necessary. No social or political usefulness is required. Artistic practices have been deregulated. They are strategies chosen by artists themselves as an expression of their individual and uncensored freedom. Artists are iconic embodiments, almost advertisements, for the slogan (if not the reality) of 'freedom of speech'. I say not the reality, because to a significant degree it is the museum, the curatorial decision, and the biennials that legitimate the artists, and on which they (un-freely) depend.

One page later, Susan Buck-Morss continues:

In short, artistic 'freedom' exists in proportion to the artists' irrelevance. Whereas in Dada, meaninglessness was located in the artwork in a way that reflected critically on social meaning itself, now meaninglessness is bestowed upon the artist, whose critical and creative powers are kept isolated from social effect.

The task we have, in all simplicity (it is not simple), is to fight the meaninglessness that is being bestowed on us.

March 13, 2018 – "Busan"
With all eyes on North Korea I will return to the South in September, for the first time since 1998. A few days ago I was invited to be part of the Busan Biennale. I will work with psycho-mapping. It's fitting.

On the one hand it's quite a short time for preparing a major biennale work. On the other – given the crazy world we live in right now – it feels like a very long time until September. Anything can happen.

March 12, 2018 – "Aura"
I have been doing office work at home the whole day. Paper, computer, paper. At one point my eyes fell on an object so familiar that often I don't see it: an old fashioned flat iron, with traces of a line of tacks, which once were glued to its flat surface.

I found and bought this object in Aix-en-Provence, I think in 1979. As soon as I was home again, I glued the tacks to it, and voilà: I now had a very convincing Man Ray: "Le Cadeau". Fantastic! It was even exhibited in a Man Ray exhibition once, at Lunds Konsthall 1986. Juliet Man Ray was present: she liked it. I thought: how brilliant it is, that this artist could conceive an idea which anyone can do, and they will all enjoy the aura of the original.

At some point, the tacks fell off. I glued them back. Then one day, maybe after a move, I didn't. It's a long time ago. It doesn't matter. The aura remains. Genius.

March 9, 2018 – "First Aid"
We wake up to the news that the American president will meet with the North-Korean leader. It never happened before. What should be good news, does not convince, due to the nature of the two figures involved. What will be the reaction of the American, when he realises he is not getting what he wants (and not getting the press he craves)? When he starts thinking he is being played? When it is clear to everyone that he is being played? Which is the most likely outcome, given the personality and diplomatic incompetence of the person.

Music is more important to me right now, than it has long been. I move from one favourite band to another, spending an intense period of infatuation with each one, until the next beckons. Since summer I have been though three: a contemporary Swedish indie band with an early 80s feel followed by another Swedish group, this one masked and satanic, and currently I'm all in for kawaii metal. Don't ask. One can always come back to a favourite band, even if it has been superseeded. Deep friendship stays. An album is announced, or a tour, usually both. It gives rhythm to the every day.

Last night K and I went to see First Aid Kit in a sold out Columbiahalle. The two sisters and their band of three bearded men were brilliant. So in command, so cool, so musical. Singing like goddesses. They even make me like country & western. At one point Klara was given a Telecaster by her guitar tech and suddenly she was playing angry garage with a feminist message. Totally in command. Johanna now plays bass guitar instead of basslines on her keyboard, like she did until recently. It's a great development.

Change is possible. Believe in it.

March 5, 2018 – "Veil"
I avoid talking about students' work here. It's not the right place, because it is my place. However, no rule is good which doesn't sometime have an exception. I visited the St. Michael's Church today, at Michaelerplatz in the heart of Vienna. This is where Adolf Loos built his a building at the beginning of the last century, chocking the good burgers in this baroque city with a facade without ornament. A huge scandal – and a building which became an inspiration to modernism. In the 800 year old church... was held Mozart's funeral, during which his Requiem was performed for the first time (the parts which had been finished). And now, until the end of Lent, is hanging a Lenten Veil in front of the baroque Altar. It was painted by Zhanina Marinova in January, on the floor in a cold temporary studio space. She had ten days. It is 11 x 5 meters. It is absolutely fascinating to look at. And for me to consider: how did I become involved in this?

February 18, 2018 – "Wall"
Since three days I'm in Gothenburg, Sweden, where I am assisting bricklayer Dan Ahlgren in building a huge image as a wall of acoustic bricks, with inlays of mosaic and ceramics. It's a public art commission for the canteen of a new school building. It's the first time that I have the possiblity to work with bricks in a non-tower context. It has allowed me to learn about acoustic bricks (a condition for the commission); to find a brickworks (Janninhof, in Münster) which could glace their bricks in different colours; to be able to have mosaics produced for me for the first time (by comsomusivo in Berlin) and also to make ceramic/porcelain parts myself, in the university workshop in Vienna. Now Dan and I (we got to know each other at the Uppsala chimney site) are working long days to make the plans reality. So far, reality is looking real good. And we are having fun, listening to music a lot: Ghost, Johnny Cash, First Aid Kit, Shonen Knife and Babymetal.

February 14, 2018 – "Clear"
Today I listened to an interview with one of my intellectual heroes, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The way she talks... the way she strings words together, one after another, is so utterly sharp and clear and easy to follow – and with her particular combination of pride and humour – that I come away feeling there is hope, after all. Really smart people are easy to understand. They speak when they have something important to say. Chimamanda does. She is on a stage with David Remnick (who is rather smart as well), you can hear 19 minutes here.

Soon after, I was sent a link to an interview with a German filmmaker, Sebastian Schipper (who I didn't know before). It's about the #metoo debate, which in Germany and Austria hasn't got very far. Schipper is super clear, as well. Another pleasure.

January 17, 2018 – "Adulterated"
Last spring I was invited to write a text for an anthology on the future of Artistic Research, to be published by the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki, where I taught 2007-2009. I'm not a fan of the mainstreaming of this discipline, yet I agreed. I always feel curious what will come out, when I accept a writing assignment. Some time later I received, along with the other writers, a set of seven questions written in IAE.

My attitude towards Artistic Research is critical, although I have been reluctantly involved with this scene for more than ten years now. Back in 2009, I published a text in Art&Research called "The Writing Artist" where I warned of the risk that, given a certain development, "the rest of the university will increasingly see artistic research as a joke". Well, there has been no "all clear" sent so far. Having said that, every once in a while there is interesting stuff coming up. But these efforts risk remaining hidden between other texts which seem not to having been read closely, even by the people who wrote them.

Thinking about what to write for the anthology, I thought about the self-confirming character of the questions. I decided to make one of them the focus of my text, in order to point out how important it is – especially now, in the era of Trump – to be careful with how you use language. I wrote my text "Alternative Knowledge" in a rather high-pitched way. I weighed every word, while analysing the question I had chosen.

In order to keep control of my text, written in English, I commissioned the brilliant Vienna copy editor Christopher Barber to correct the final draft. As anyone reading this self-edited "Talk" column will know, I don't write English without fault. Chris helped to polish my text to perfection. I emailed it to one of the editors, explaining that its language had already been fine-tuned by a professional. "Please don't change anything", I wrote.

Some weeks ago I received the book, titled "Futures of Artistic Research". I had so many other books going, it first landed in a pile. Today I felt like reading my own text, to see how it holds up. The first thing I notice, is that my name has been misspelt in a striking way. I then see a totally unmotivated word has been added to the first sentence, destroying it. A similar addition to the second sentence destroys it as well. Later in the text a sentence has been re-written by somebody adding a grammatical horror.

This done to a text on the necessity of being precise with language! It's awful. The problem is, I think, and have already stated, that very few people can be bothered to actually read texts of/on Artistic Research. Is it too much to ask of a book's editor, that they do?

Now, for those of you who may want to read my text in its unadulterated state, it is available here.

January 8, 2018 – "Start"
A few days into the new year, my father's funeral took place. That's where I have to start, this time.