Last month, “Swedish Design Moves NY” launched at the Van Alen Institute in New York to encourage the exchange of best design practices between top firms in Sweden, New York, and beyond. Sponsored by Visit Sweden, the Swedish Institute, STHLMNYC, the Consulate General of Sweden, and Architects Sweden, and hosted at the Center for Architecture on October 26-28, an interactive exhibition called “Democratic Architecture”—coupled with workshops and conversations—was open. Its aim was to discuss what democratic space can be, how to create it with the tools that are already available, and how to further develop more.
The exhibition provided an experience of Sweden’s close relation to nature and its egalitarian society—the base of the country’s democratic architecture and urban design. Conversations about nature, well-being, culture, people, public art, and architecture planning were also held and moderated by principals like: Swedish street artist Ola Kalnins; David Burney, Academic Coordinator at Pratt Institute; Claudia Herasme, Director of Urban Design at NYC DCP; Chris Larsson, City Planning Director Malmö; and Chris Sharples, Partner of SHoP.
To learn more about democratic architecture and public art, we spoke with artist Ola Kalnins.
WHITEWALL: You gave a conversation, “Democratic Architecture—Art in Public Space” on October 28 at the Van Alen Institute. What was the highlight of your talk? What is the one thing you want the world to know about public art?
OLA KALNINS: I’ve always thought public art is extremely important, but more so today than ever. We are constantly surrounded by advertisements, and it is as if the public doesn’t own the public space. It’s great to have art in your apartment or home, but it is not something that should only be enjoyed by the elite. Having art and culture in the public makes it something we consciously or subconsciously share. People need to feel a connection to our public space in order to give our society a soul. The biggest benefit of public art is that it brings a city to life, and brings people together. For example, when working on my piece in Greenpoint, I encountered so many people of different backgrounds and economic statuses, all sharing their stories about what this change in the neighborhood means to them. Some have lived in the neighborhood for 30-40 years and don’t like seeing it change, while others are happy to see the neighborhood get a facelift. Either way, art is a conversation starter that prompts people to formulate an opinion and share that opinion. We don’t always have to agree, but in this day and age especially, it is important to share ideas and hear other people’s point of view.
WW: For this occasion, you also unveiled a special commission piece that you just mentioned, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Tell us about the meaning behind the large-scale mural.
OK: This piece holds a lot of weight and meaning to me. I have a special relationship with the neighborhood of Greenpoint because it is actually the first place in New York I visited, so it is quite sentimental. Not only was creating this one of my hardest challenges (due to logistics and budget), but it is also probably my most emotionally loaded art project due to the huge responsibility I feel to to the community and neighborhood.
I wanted to create something everyone could relate to—speaking a global language, a universal, positive impression, or energy. Something people could come back to more than once, that could inspire and influence new generations. A piece that kids will remember, a mystery they will try to figure out. A fixture in their adolescence, like a painting in their living room, but bigger than just decoration—more of a feeling or vibe.
Psychedelic art on an old brick house, the windows of people’s lives peeping through the art, in juxtaposition to the fast food chains on the opposite corner. Something new at a legendary corner, the meeting of various people and businesses. It is not all divided, it is not all black and white. This is the message in itself.
WW: It took you eight days to complete, right? Tell us about your starting point.
OK: Although I physically worked on this piece for eight days, this journey started three years ago when Peter (the building’s owner) saw me street painting in Brooklyn and we exchanged numbers. I followed up, and although it took a few months, we did stay in touch and slowly moved toward making this happen. In 2017, just a month ago, we finally confirmed the budget to cover the mural. Aia had my back all the way to the end, negotiating back and forth with visit a Sweden, Malmö city, the Swedish foreign ministry, and the Swedish consulate to manage the funding. This project would not have been possible if it wasn’t for Aia’s belief in me! And not to forget Peter the landlord.
Since the building is on top of a subway and bus station it was difficult to get permits and I knew I had to do get it done in the shortest amount of time. Once all of the logistics were finally in place, I had to switch my mindset from producer back to artist. This is my most important artwork to date, but there was no time or room for doubting myself. Usually I can sketch a form quite quickly and easily because I am on my feet. This time, the sketch took longer than usual as I had to move the skylift two to three times to complete form. This was physically challenging because the skylift compromised my body language. Keeping the flow alive was difficult since I couldn’t rely on my movement alone, but in the end I managed to. I’ve certainly grown as an artist with this project.
WW: Tell us about art in public space. Where do you think needs more of it?
OK: Art by the people for the people in the public space is a must for a healthy, organic, and welcoming environment. The purpose of art, or street art, is to channel what ever emotions there is a need to express. In today’s society filled with commercial advertisement (with their only purpose to make you buy, buy, buy), the need of art in the public space is more important than ever. Its not only about street art! It’s about the freedom of expression and freedom to exist in this society we live in.
Just as much as we need glamorous and colorful art to make the streets beautiful, I also believe even less glamorizing expressions—like tags or scrabbling—have a important part in the public space. Its not only about beauty, its also about the voice and expression of the streets and society that counts, regardless if it’s considered art or not.
WW: Where is your favorite place to see art in public?
OK: From the train, bus, or car entering a new city or neighborhood. The various mix of everything—from dirty tags, club posters, and quick graffiti pieces to huge colorful murals, random independent small businesses, different styles of architecture between the suburbs and the city—has more impact on me than statues, castles, and museums.
I think South America has the best conditions for art in the public space and perhaps India where its already so colorful itself, it doesn’t even need word art or street art.
Creating art in public places in South America (Argentina, Chile, and Peru) is quite welcoming; they are not afraid of it. Years ago, I went door to door and approached different people who welcomed me in and were excited to share art with me—relaxed in trusting a stranger from a different place. Within days I felt like a local. That’s the power of public art.
WW: What was your first public art piece? How have you evolved?
OK: By the time I was 12-13, I did my first graffiti piece with a friend on some industrial wall by the train tracks in Malmö. I was very naive at this age but already knew deep inside without realizing it I was an artist. I went to every store in a the shopping streets of Malmö and asked them if they wanted art in their store. I was a little kid and people thought it was just quite cute, but I was serious. After over thirty attempts, a guy at a clothing store, The Flying A, took a chance on me. At 13 years old, I was doing an interior job for a clothing store. He gave me money for paint and I got to choose any item in the store I wanted, plus I got some left over materials for myself. That experience gave me the confidence to keep pushing no matter how many times I get turned down. After that, I showed my school the work I did and they gave me a wall in the student lounge to paint. Those were my first public art related art pieces.
I also did a lot of abstract work on canvas. Again, I went door to door to coffee shops and interior stores that looked like they could function as a gallery. The idea was to bring my art to the people. This was my way of building my resume with art shows until a real gallery would even look at my stuff. I didn’t go to art school, so I felt like I had even more to prove. However, graffiti was always my greatest passion, it kept me grounded and helped me continue pursuing my dreams as an artist with or with out galleries. Galleries are just one of many ways to show your art. Art in a gallery and art in the public are just two different things and I don’t mean to choose one way or the other. After all, I am an artist because i have the needs to express myself.
In 2013 I was hired by the city of Malmo for my first big, public, permanent job. In one piece I combined my abstract art with my graffiti style, a combination of my two worlds and a complete picture of who I am as an artist. A timeless piece that I will always be proud of.