“Lil Wayne is a million times more radical than Arcade Fire,” says Jaakko Pallasvuo over a cherry Coke Zero, the first I’ve ever seen. The Finnish artist, currently but not always based in London, is spending his afternoon in a greasy spoon with me in Peckham, the one café we could find because the hip one up the road is closed.
Oddly, I recognised Jaakko at the tube station where we met, even though his videos confuse his identity, often using different actors to play himself, his actual face sometimes scattered among the debris of decontextualised images, fragmented thoughts and self reflexive spoken word. I can’t show you what he looks like, a collection of readymades arranged by Jaakko from the bits and pieces at our table stand in his stead, but I can tell you that he’s 26-years-old and comes from Helsinki. He abandoned painting at a reputable art school there for Berlin and has been moving around, displaced, ever since.
If you’ve seen the videos, there’s a powerful element of critical discourse and analysis that runs through them, while being obfuscated and obscured by non-linearity, collage and a strong element of the surreal and the absurd. There’s a confessional narrative sequence revealed in a toilet in ‘Icarus’ (2012), a demonstration of two legs in knee high socks attempting to keep balance on some blocks of ice cream in ‘Low Epic’ (2012) and a topless man, who may or may not be Jaakko, looking at his computer screen while a voiceover speaks Finnish in ‘Reverse Engineering’ (2013). It’s fascinating work from someone who talks about the merits of Rihanna, Skrillex and the mystery that is Lindsey Lohan at one moment, art as “the ultimate neoliberal model” and the devaluation of the image, at another. It’s the same guy who’s video work is influenced by the Left Bank essayistic film of the likes of Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda, while complimenting the casting of Harmony Korine’s Springbreakers and dismissing contemporary ‘art house’ altogether. Because, as he says, there’s “immense power in being dumb” and he’s got the dread-locked ice cream sculpture, named after a 2004 sci-fi thriller, to prove it.
Sometimes I think art can be really superficial, in a way. It’s as if the critical discourse around the work has become more important because art itself has become so abstracted. What do you think happened that it’s gone that way?
I think it’s just getting so big. The art world is really, really big right now and it just means that it’s going to get fragmented into these different genres. Maybe in music it’s a bit easier to accept somehow. Where there are people who are trance DJs. They do beats and make trance and then they make money on that and then some people are doing some experimental trap somewhere in South London and no one even sees it as the same thing.
Then, with art, it’s somehow that everyone is equated or that it’s the same job but I feel like, with most artists, I’m not doing the same thing. Of course, I’m critical of the art system but I also have accepted that it’s like this. Some people make work for art fairs, for example. Their main medium, or their main audience, is rich people who go to these fairs and that’s totally fine. That’s the trance DJ version of being an artist.
For me, it can’t be that easy somehow, and if I do it, it has to go through these weird twists and turns. I want to have this really difficult life and make things difficult for myself.
It’s interesting that you make those distinctions between different approaches to art making because it lends itself to that idea of the expanding art world and its absorption of different media, like film and writing, into the gallery. Compare that with ‘late-capitalism’ and how it also appropriates and commodifies cultures to create new markets and it’s as if art functions on exactly the same model.
Completely. Art is the most neoliberal field there is. It’s exactly in the middle of that. But what I find really empty is there are people that are completely nihilistic that will just make stuff that they want to sell and then there are people that are really critical, who refuse to participate. But they’re participating, just by being critical of the other end of the binary. I feel like both of those positions are really unsatisfying. There must be something in the middle. That’s why I don’t really believe in institutional critique, necessarily, because it takes a lot of agency away and it’s basically saying you need the world to be perfect before you make anything; you can’t make art before the art system somehow becomes fair. That’s not going happen. It’s clear that it’s not going to be like that so I see it as a dead end.
Are you conscious of being a part of that system of appropriation as an artist; as culpable for working within a Tumblr aesthetic?
No. I don’t really use found material and I see it as if I was really into soccer and then I was also an artist and made art about soccer culture. Tumblr came first, or not Tumblr, but I was already on deviantART and LiveJournal when I was 16 or 14 or something. I was part of that culture before I was an artist. My art history was totally informed by that but not the other way around. It’s not like I was, ‘oh, I’m going to appropriate, or get introduced to that’, think that it’s cool and then take that. It’s more that I was into that and then I happened to get an education or find a structure to support what I’m already doing. When I stopped painting, I started using Tumblr but it’s not like my new art strategy was going to be Tumblr or something.
But unless you’re a trend forecaster, it doesn’t happen deliberately but it does happen.
Yeah and I also think, for example, this thing with Rihanna; people claiming that Rihanna stole seapunk or something. I think the people that complain about that, it’s ridiculous. It’s like, when you put these really shallow visual tropes, that you yourself appropriated from 1995 video games, online, really publicly, because you want to get followers and ‘likes’ or whatever, how naïve do you have to be to not realise that the mechanism would be there for someone to go and find it and then use it?
If you think of an aesthetic as a virus or something, that this is that ‘look’ or this is this ‘feel’ that wants to spread itself, this imagery wants to spread, then the Rihanna thing is just really good, it worked. Seapunk worked because seapunk circulated really well, so what’s the problem? If you wanted it to be underground and if you wanted it to be just among your friends, then don’t’ upload it every five minutes.
For me, I get these people ripping off my style but I would be really stupid not to expect that. Of course it’s going to happen. That’s also why I’m writing more because images are really… there are so many images. All images have the same value for me. It’s so easy to make an image and then recreate or take a style and remake it. All the styles also get old really quickly; all the things that were cool six months ago are totally dead now. So, for me, what has maybe happened is this more general devaluation of images but it’s this massive macro historical trend that no one has control over.
Maybe the solution is to not be a visual artist. I don’t feel like a visual artist anymore. I feel like how I am, how I talk with people and how I write, that’s the core of my practice and maybe that’s a bit more difficult at imitating. Although I’ve also seen that imitated successfully.
That’s an interesting point because the general consensus seems to be that language is devolving into communication through imagery and symbolism, which seems really primitive, but perhaps it’s eating itself. As the value of imagery decreases, that of literature increases.
Yeah, I think this massive flow of images also reveals how limited images are. Images are always in the present tense. I read this really funny thing that models have to be really thin because they have to fit into two dimensions. And I think that’s something really funny about images. They’re really thin objects. They’re not objects, they’re so thin that they’re not even objects. I’m not very optimistic about it or I don’t have a lot of faith in images, in a way.
But I think image production can be interesting as performance. Like, the The Jogging works really well because it’s not really about what the images are. It keeps changing all the time, so they’re totally devalued, but they devised this interesting model, or script, that anyone can use, which is to take an image of something really underwhelming and write this really pretentious title for it; assign a medium to it, like a sculpture or something. The script is really great and then they have people participating in that and have ten thousand followers, that’s an interesting work. The images are a less important part of the whole work.
Susan Sontag talks about that in On Photography, that the context and the caption of an image determines its meaning, and then you’re also playing with that idea with your own identity by confusing it. Even The Knife do it by not revealing their faces in press.
But I think, with them, it’s a little bit too precious somehow. It’s based on this idea that someone cares, or that their faces are really sacred. I kind of feel like that too but I also think that’s a really primitive fear. There’s too much information online and there are so many exposés on everything.
I also think that revealing everything is really mysterious. Lindsey Lohan is really mysterious. No one knows what she’s really like because there’s so much information about her. It obscures her even more.
That’s like the web generally, there is so much information that it’s less about how much is available and more about how you filter it.
With my work, it’s a lot about this. At some point I was really stressed out about privacy. I was a very private person and really careful about how much I shared with people about myself. Then I just realised that this confessional, or this autobiographical, text really obscures me. People have a very obscure idea of who I am. Like facebook, you fictionalise yourself. When you’re there, it’s not like you are there. Everyone creates a fiction about themselves anyway and if you’re going to participate in that, or if you’re going to be a content producer where you have to be that, then why not just fuck with it? Why not take it to the next level and make it this live action role-playing? Think about it as World of Warcraft. You’re your own avatar. You’re level 15 and you have 9 points of charisma. You can game-ify this whole thing.
That’s also a way to subvert it from the inside. Facebook is based on sincerity or something. Your content on Facebook works in a way that they need you to provide accurate information about what you’re like and who you are. Then they can use that information as something valuable that they can sell. But if you become this really inconsistent, insincere, crazy game character then your content gets fucked up because the information you provide is not something they can value. When you become obscure, or you become ironic, they don’t know if you’re being ironic. It can’t handle it and it ceases to be data.
There are many artists that seem to be playing with this idea of identity, ‘hiding in plain sight’. I wonder if that’s an attempt at abandoning the ego.
For me, it’s definitely not about abandoning the ego. It’s about expanding it. It’s a bit like fashion labels, like Christian Dior or something. There’s the person but then there’s the expanded empire, or realm, of the person. I thought at some point that it’s about me being tired of being me, or exhausted as a person, that I don’t want to be a person. But I realised that, actually, I do want to be a person but I want more power, I want more influence. Or I feel like I want to be in several places at the same time and I wanted to be more flexible. I don’t want it to be this serious thing, this biological body that makes these gestures, these direct one-to-one gestures that are unique. It has to be more like a million players in its own matrix.
You’re subverting and harnessing the insidious power of Internet culture.
Yeah. I don’t want to be a Facebook user. I want to be Facebook. **
Jaakko Pallasvuo is an artist from Helsinki, Finland. He is currently showing at «Flex-Sil Reloaded»: A Homage to Roman Signer at Kunsthalle Sankt Gallen, Switzerland, running May 25 to August 4, 2013.