Underground with Ilja Karilampi


Walking through a nondescript door, on a small side street in the center of Stockholm, visitors descend a ramp littered with plastic crates and wood pallets, entering into a makeshift bodega. At the end of the popup store (which is stocked with everything from beans and water to obscure items like canned lamb’s feet and their boneless heads), a bamboo curtain hangs, painted with a kitsch tropical sunset. Behind the bamboo lies interdisciplinary artist Ilja Karilampi’s President Room—a fully functional multimedia installation that transforms what is usually a parking garage into a collaborative Absolut Art Bar and performance space.

“I wish I could run this place as a nightclub, an artistic venture, every weekend,” the Berlin- and Gothenburg-based artist tells us of the two-night only venue. “Like an illegal members club.”

Karilampi’s Spätkauf—the late night convenience store—gives way to a two-room bar, illuminated with black lights and adorned with his signature neon signage. Carved aluminum wall pieces hint at Karilampi’s background, including his ongoing radio show “Downtown Ilja,” but also act as extensions of his previous two-dimensional works. Karilampi uses these flat surfaces, along with videos and sculptures, to explore ideas of collective memory, pop culture, and societal issues, frequently referencing figures and symbols from contemporary culture by naming exhibitions after specific DJs and including logos, like the Nike swoosh, within works.

This past Saturday, the day after President Room‘s opening night when Swedish rapper Joy performed, we met the artist in the bar. The ensuring conversation addressed not only the installation, but also his interest in music, language (he speaks Danish, Swedish, English, and German), and working around the world.

EMILY MCDERMOTT: What was the inspiration behind having the convenience store at the entrance?

ILJA KARILAMPI: I actually started this in New York—I had a studio in Governor’s Island in 2011 and I wanted to build a dive bar, but as a sculpture. I was interested in the look and feel of it, and how to recreate it in art. Where I come from, these shops are by the dozen—small Lebanese men having a deli, but they always have this room in the back. So what’s going on in that back room? In this case, you have the President Room in the back room of the convenience store. I though it was interesting, like a sculptural narrative, to move through this subspace. It’s also an homage to [the fact] that in order to reach the inner room of Stockholm, the glimmering core, you have to enter through the hoods, through this Spätkauf. So it’s like you take the journey from low to high.

Then we have Hassan, the 70-year-old guy [who sits at the counter], and my video works screening on the tele. You know, sometimes the shopkeepers watch Real Housewives or some Pakistani movie—that’s the feeling we wanted.

MCDERMOTT: Why the name “President Room”?

KARILAMPI: I did a show in Torino, Italy also called “President Room.” I found a sign from a North Korean hotel and one of the suites was called “President Room.” People throw “president-this” very lightly these days. There’s one place in Berlin called “Obama Room” and it’s an African nightclub, which is actually a very sad VIP place. You have to buy bottles to sit there, so there’s, like, two people sitting in this large room alone. The rest of the people are partying normally. So I guess it’s claiming you being president. It can also be presidential, in a sense, like how do we entertain ourselves? It’s also like a lot of what I do with symbols—take it, grab it, and claim it. I can do what I want. There’s also a Senior Executive corner, and a couple of new [wall] pieces, too. They’re illuminated aluminum signs… This project is also cool because it’s not about money, which is crazy. The thing about realizing this project goes to show [that] with some funding and support you can pull off stunts, big time. As an artist, you have big dreams but you usually have to meet halfway somewhere.

MCDERMOTT: Growing up, how did you first become interested in art?

KARILAMPI: I found I was artistically inclined, just drawing and making pottery. It was always accepted to do something creative. I painted graffiti, which is kind of a secret, because I don’t like to mention graffiti in connection to contemporary art and what I do now. Once, in Brussels, this gallerist was like, “Your art is a bit like street art and graffiti.” I was like, “Fuck no. Don’t ever mention street art in relation to what I do, because I hate street art.” It’s a whack art form. There’s some good gestures and techniques in it, but I don’t want to be associated with it. It’s a good start because it makes you take initiative and you can paint whatever you want, but from then on, I graduated five years ago and I’ve been growing up, I guess.

MCDERMOTT: What is the process like for you? Where do initial ideas come from?

KARILAMPI: A lot of times I’m listening to Rinse FM and they say something like, “Oh, you get me, though?” They use expressions I’m picking up, tendencies, or artists names—like Faze Miyake. I named a show after him, and now he’s playing tonight. So the circle is closing in some way. But I’ve used a lot of logos and bands, and I’ve never had any copyright claims. This is petty stuff, so I believe if you have a good intention, it’s a good vibe to start with, and that mirrors back. [The artist] would contact me like, “Wow it’s amazing that you used our band. That’s really cool,” because, maybe, to them it’s a similar pocket of culture. It’s a pretty small, niche of contemporary culture where there’s music or writing. To me, it’s all equal in some sense.

MCDERMOTT: And you’re based between Berlin and Stockholm. How does each city influence you?

KARILAMPI: Berlin is good because you can really hide out. It’s a quiet place, where I live. I studied in Germany as well, so I have a lot of international colleagues, friends, and schoolmates. But then in Berlin you can go out. I could be in Gothenburg hiding in my mom’s basement for a few days working on pieces, but then I come back and go meet 30 people—all my friends from New York or L.A.—all at the same place. It’s like boom boom! I like that a lot.

But, no offense, I’ve been in Germany almost 10 years now and I’m getting a little bit tired of some aspects of German society. So this [installation] is like a homecoming. Now, when I’m older and have my shit together, I can make things like this work with the gallery [Belenius/Nordenhake] down the street. It’s also good to be traveling; I don’t have a regular job, so you have to entertain yourself. I’ve been traveling so much the last three or four years, I need to have that tension.

MCDERMOTT: Why did you first move to Germany?

KARILAMPI: There was this art academy called Städelschule, [Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste]. It was supposed to be a very small and experimental art academy. Daniel Birnbaum, who was the director [of the school] and is now [the director of] Moderna Museet, was perfect. I went there and it was really good; I wanted to leave Gothenburg and become an artist proper. So that’s where I’m at—I stayed around Germany, moved to New York for half a year, moved to Zurich half a year, and now I’m in Berlin and have a flat.

MCDERMOTT: Your studio was on Governors Island. How did New York influence you?

KARILAMPI: A lot, a lot, really, a lot, because with the movies in Sweden, New York and the U.S. has a strong cultural presence. My flatmate [in Sweden] was also subscribing to The New Yorker and I used to always read them. There were some words that never translated. Like, they always write coöperate—it’s kind of a snobby style—but there were also some German words, and I was studying German. I tried to find out what it meant, and I actually found it was Yiddish, that some Yiddish words had made their way into the vocabulary of New York, and you should know what these words mean. So I started studying Yiddish just because of the literary aspect. When I finally got to go to New York to work, it was a blast.

I wrote a book, also, a paperback novel called The Hunter in the Armchair. It’s a first person perspective over five months. It has this style of a diary, but it’s based on a “true” story, so it’s like a little scandalous thing you read on the subway. We made a theater play based on it, also, in five acts, like five chapters. So I keep coming back to New York as a literary space, but I don’t think I would ever move permanently. I’m European, it’s too much hassle—maybe if you marry there or get a job there it’s easier, but otherwise I can come for 10 days, get the good stuff, swag out, and then leave.

MCDERMOTT: You’ve used neon paint and black lights for a long time. How did that start?

KARILAMPI: I was doing a show in London and at the moment the expression “trill” was really on; things were “trill.” I was thinking about R&B and trill music, and then I wanted to tweak things into a different dimension, so you would look at things in a different light, literally. Maybe it was more my imagination of R&B music, the most extreme UV piercings and tacky stuff. That’s how I started and it’s been an ongoing thing. I’m really just drawn to it.

MCDERMOTT: You host a radio show, “Downtown Ilja,” too. Can you tell me about it?

KARILAMPI: Originally it was because I lived in downtown Frankfurt and we tried to make it feel cooler to live there. Then, when I lived in New York, obviously downtown and uptown is an expression. Now, I live in downtown Berlin. When I started doing a radio show, “Downtown Ilja” was the obvious choice. It was weekly for over a year, now it’s bi-monthly because I don’t always have time to bike to the studio. I always play the newest tracks from everything from grime music to stadium house techno, black music, African music, whatever.

MCDERMOTT: Where do you find the new music?

KARILAMPI: Here and there—a path has been beaten and you know where to go for sources. I listen a lot to Fuse radio channels and magazines that I tune into. I follow artists themselves and see what’s on their channels. It’s consuming music really fast. Also, I work a lot with my voice, I’ve been doing my own voiceovers, and I enjoy that aspect. It’s nice to once a week just blabber. It’s a bit of a talkshow, like [uses radio voice] “Hey, it’s Friday afternoon.” I think it’s healthy. And it’s a really small audience; it’s not FM, so instead of having truck drivers, we have three- or four-hundred listeners around the world really following it hard. That makes me happy. Hopefully it’s fueling what I do—I mentioned to my gallerist that “afro-infusion” or “ethnic-infusion,” meaning that some of this music even if it’s not classically ethnic, would fuel my art. He’s like, “Yeah, it’s more like ethnic-confusion.”