Mona Wallström of Konstepidemin in Gothenburg, Sweden

 

If there is one thing I noticed about Sweden and specifically Swedish art projects during my two months as an artist in residence there, it’s a certain ‘do it yourself’ attitude that tends to lie behind these projects. Often, what might seem on the outside like a big institution was started by a couple of artists, a cool idea and the willingness to do the work and get it done.

This can definitely be said of Konstepidemin, a cultural hub in Gothenburg, the second city of Sweden. Konstepidemin is located in an old epidemic hospital, a set of beautiful old buildings spread out on a hill, filled with artist studios, but also a gallery, a restaurant, many cultural activities and guest studios that can be rented by artists to come live and work a while in Gothenburg. The name Konstepidemin-loosely translated as epidemic of art-is well chosen, not just because of the history of the building but also because that’s exactly what they do, spreading the ‘virus of art’ through the city.

I came through Gothenburg on my way back to Stockholm and met up with Mona, an artist who has been at Konstepidemin for a while and we had a great chat about Konstepidemin, the guest studios and what it’s like to work as a guest artist in Sweden. It made me want to apply for a studio right away and I hope you will similarly be inspired!

If you want to read more about Konstepidemin, this is their website.

 

Can you tell a bit of how Konstepidemin got started, and was the guest studio always part of it or did that come later?

Start from the beginning..this was an epidemical hospital and it was abandoned in the beginning of the eighties. The hospital had moved and there was less and less activity here. At that time, there was a part of the town that was very torn down, not taken care of very well. The city wanted to restore the buildings, there were a lot of artists living and working there because it was so cheap. There were two artists that saw this area and all the possibilities and they asked the city, couldn’t we start something here? It was a good alibi for the city to leave the artists in here because they knew the artists would have had all these protests if they had to leave, that’s how we do it here. So it was easy for the city to say, of course! Hospitals at that time were run by the state, now they are run by the region, but the buildings were owned by the state and the land was owned by the city. None of the parties could make any decisions so they were like..oh, let the artists have it.

Now, everything belongs to the city and the university is creeping closer and closer but we are 130 artists, I think we would be able to put up a fight for our place! That was the story of how it got started. Artists started to move in and the actual organisation started in ’87. In ’89 the first guest studio opened, as the first international guest studio in Sweden. Then there were only two, now there are five. The organisation wanted to spread art as well, so the gallery and guest studio were part of the idea that this would be a cluster of art that would affect the environment in this place.

 

In the beginning, did you get mostly guest artists from Sweden?

At the start, they got money from Nordic funding so it was for artists from Nordic countries. I remember one of the first really big events here was an exhibition of Nordic textile artists who were on a tour and it was so beautiful. There is quite a lot of funding you can apply for when doing things for Nordic artists, so it’s a good way for newer residencies or guest studios to try it out. I think it’s because we have the language in common, it’s not exactly the same but we understand each other well enough.

How long do guest artists usually stay?

In between one month to one year, maybe a little bit more. It depends. We had some artists who came from Japan and they stay a year, they said it’s actually cheaper to rent the studio here than in Tokyo. It’s not just that though, I feel like artists from Sweden and Japan have a good visual connection, we’ve always had artists from Japan come to stay.

I think if you come all the way from Japan you might as well stay longer.

Yes, if you come from Europe you can stay for one month or two, or from the States. If you’re from other countries it might take a bit longer to get aqquiented. To get around, the language, the food..you need some time to get used to it.

 

Do the guest artists usually work towards an outcome like an open studio or exhibiton?

It differs. Some come just to come to a different place, to find inspiration, looking at exhibitions, meeting people, taking photographs. Some people mostly come to do collaborations with people here, or some people come here to really concentrate and get work done.

Do you feel that that is the biggest benefit of going to a different place for a while, being able to concentrate on your work without distractions of daily life?

Yes, I think it is.

Have you been on residencies yourself?

Yes, I went to Malaysia. I did that exactly for that reason, because it’s so different from here. I was working on an exhibition and a book so I had to go away to concentrate on writing. It’s not my main medium, so going away to concentrate on the hard thing, that was really good for me.

 

The application process is pretty straight forward. Is that a conscious choice, to keep it so open and approachable for people?

We feel this is the best thing to do, yes. We also cooperate with funding programs in Sweden and they can recommend artists to come here, that goes through committees in Stockholm, you can’t apply for it directly, you have to be suggested. Some people can get that, we have two artists a year who come through there. Then we have one artist who works through a special program in the suburbs, and a program with Nordic funding where we can suggest an artist. So we have many ways through which people can come here, and that is why we keep the direct application process so open.

When people write their applications, do you feel it’s important they include in their motivation why they specifically want to come here?

Yes. Sometimes artists might want to do a collaboration with an artist here, sometimes we can help them connect with other artists here. We had a photographer from Panama, in his application he said he wanted to go to a place he had never been to before but still had traditional photography. We have a school of photography here and we have the Hasselblad camera that started here and that has a foundation here. There is a connection here for him, but it was also a new place for him, and I think he had a really good time. We’re not a big city like New York where everyone wants to go, Gothenburg is the second city of Sweden and there are a lot of artists here but everyone also knows each other. So working here as an artist is very different from working in Stockholm, we have four artist run galleries, not that many private galleries and not that many state run institutions. It’s a different kind of art community here.

 

That the local art scene here is so artist run, do you feel that is something that draws the guest artists to Gothenburg?

Most of the people don’t know, they find out when they come! In Stockholm, there are the state institutions and if you don’t have that you do things yourself, like we do. But I feel it’s also the city, because in Malmö, the third city of Sweden, they don’t have that many artist run places as we do here. I think it’s also how the city supports these artist initiatives and here in Gothenburg they do, they support artist run initiatives. In Malmö, the city doesn’t support the arts in the same way, so of course it’s also political. I think Gothenburg has seen that these small initiatives are so important for this place, we have been here for thirty years but most artist run places run for five to ten years and then they disappear and there’s something else. It’s also this change, the connections, it’s a way of renewing the place. There are always new things happen. It’s interesting how a city can create an environment like that.

I read about the new residency project, Angered, can you tell a bit about that?

Yes, if you come for that you work with people in the suburbs. Now, we have a performance artist from Croatia. She’s working with women connected to a school where you can go as an adult to refresh and update your knowledge of your field if you’ve been out of the workforce for a while. We have a lot of refugees here, so many of these women are refugees and she’s working with them on a performance project, with a lot of storytelling. Last year we had a couple who made comic books and they were working with youths in that area.

Do you feel that as a cultural hub, which Konstepidemin is, it has a kind of social responsibility?

I think the art communities overall in Sweden do projects like this, where they collaborate with groups of people or communities to work through things by creating art. Artists don’t just stay in their bubble but they reach out and connect to the people around them. Also, that way you try different art forms. There’s even state funding now for projects like this, artists have been doing this for a long time but its now even getting funded, which is good.

I’ve also done a kind of residency where you are an artist in residence in a Swedish company, I’ve done that two times now,  you go into a facory, work in the space and you do something called art with the people who work there or connected to the building. It’s very interesting, working with people and creating work with or about them.

How is the dynamic between the guest artists and the local artists who have permanent studios here?

It depends also on the artist that comes. You have always the possibility, there’s an international coordinator and when artists come she takes them for lunch and invites them to things at the start and then you have to work it out yourself. We always try to connect people. There are often openings on Friday night so people can go there, if you want to meet people it’s easy, we always run in to each other. If you want to have lunch here, you go at 12:30 because then the other guests are gone and the artists have their lunch and you meet everyone. The restaurant is very important to meet each other! Sometimes I need some materials for a new art work and I think, where should I have that made and then I just go to lunch and ask people and I always get so many suggestions, it’s so easy to Google but it’s better to go down here and talk to people so they can recommend things.

How long do you feel is the best time to stay?

It depends a bit on which time you are here. In Sweden, everything is closed from about end of May to August, even here, if you come in July you will not meet that many artists because they are in their summer houses. From March to June is very nice and then from September to November in the uutumn is very good too, lots of things happening and you can be outside or inside. I think Swedish people are very happy in the summer time and in the winter we go inside! We have less applicants for the winter months, December and January are not always full but I think that’s mostly because of the holidays, because people still come in February. Now we started this performance festival which is this year the 5th and 6th of January..so now we are full! It’s really the darkest period here, it’s not that cold though because we’re close to the sea. It’s not -30 here.

Do people sometimes come back for a second period?

Yes, very often. But it’s also a problem because there are people who apply almost every year and we want to prioritise people who haven’t been here yet. If we have many applicants we prefer people who haven’t been here before.

 

Do you have tips or advice for people who go on their first residencies, maybe specific to Sweden?

Dare to talk to people. People are nice and curious and helpful and you might not easily make friends but you can always get people around you to have a nice time with. Swedish people are shy, so don’t be shy, you have to take the first step. They notice a lot, they’ll notice you, but they are shy.

How do you see the future of this place and the guest studio?

The place is thirty years now and it will be here for thirty years more, I think and I hope. Right now, what’s happening is a kind of generation shift, many older people are moving out or taking their studio home and younger people are coming in. Of course things will change but this kind of atmosphere will stay. About the guest studios, they are very important for this place that new people are coming. Maybe it will develop  further, we could also get residencies that are connected to the gallery or we might develop our own funding so we can invite artists to come here, although that’s hard from a bureaucratic standpoint..but we are now so stable I feel that we should now do that, it means that you can work towards the future. We can also develop more themed residencies, like the project in Angered.

We do so many things that it’s sometimes hard to explain what we do exactly. We don’t have one leader, you can’t call our place and ask for the boss because there is no boss. For some people, Konstepidemin is the place where you take your children for a workshop, for others it’s the little jazz club one night a week, or people who just come to their studio and that’s it, and that’s fine. Konstepidemin is all of that. It’s like an amoebe. When something is needed, it will grow in that direction and then when something is not needed it will shrink. It will always move out to where it is needed.

 

I think that last bit that Mona said perfectly describes Konstepidemin and what felt very special about this place, and it is something I noticed myself about being in Sweden as an artist in residence. Even though I was only in Sweden for two months and I was in a residency in a remote area, I still felt like I could influence things and start new things. Looking at projects like Konstepidemin, but also other Swedish projects and residencies such as Tomma Rum, Not Quite and RudAIR, this artist run, do it yourself, open and democratic way of setting up projects comes across to me as very Swedish. It was a great experience to be a part of that, even for just two months, and I understand why guest artists keep wanting to return to Gothenburg and Sweden.

 

Thank you Mona, for this interview, it was great seeing Konstepidemin!

If you are interested in reading more about it, here is the website of Konstepidemin, here is their Facebook page and here you can read more about the Angered project.

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