Working with everything from digital media, music, and drawings, to installations and workshops, Max Ronnersjö is a hybrid artist in the true sense of the word. We met with the young creative at a botanic garden in the outskirts of Stockholm to talk about collaborations, Wikipedia, and dead magpies.
If you look up Death on English Wikipedia and scroll down to the section about Senescence, you will see an image of a dead magpie lying in the grass. A dead Eurasian Magpie it says, with the words Eurasian Magpie taking you to the entry on the black and white bird. That image is the work of Swedish artist Max Ronnersjö. With the Internet and Wikipedia at the core of his artistic practice, Max Ronnersjö wants to make the world more unclear. More poetic, you could say. By imposing unexpected links between things, he aims to establish new kinds of knowledge and new modes of thinking.
A hybrid artist in the true sense of the word, Max Ronnersjö works with everything from digital media, music, and drawings, to performances, installations, and workshops. Born and raised in Stockholm, he holds a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Art from Umeå Academy of Fine Arts, and a Master’s degree in the same subject from Valand Academy in Gothenburg. Part of the three interdisciplinary studios and think-tanks Martini, Revenue, and Press, he often works in collaboration with others, hosting various exhibitions and events, producing art, or working as a curator. In addition to his multifaceted artistic practice, or rather, as a part of this practice, Max is also working part-time as a runner at Stockholm restaurant Farang.
At the artist’s own suggestion, we meet at Bergius Botanic Garden in the outskirts of Stockholm, where a couple of greenhouses and a well-tended outdoors garden aims to, not unlike an encyclopaedia, gather and structure all human knowledge, bringing together plants and herbs from all over the world.
Do you see yourself as an artist?
– Yes, I do. I’ve understood from others that it is quite a big leap. But I’ve chosen to call myself an artist. I guess I could also call myself a musician, DJ, or photographer, but I think that artist is the most suitable definition. That’s the approach I have to everything I do. I think art is the most boundless realm you can work in, where you can make the most diverse things. That suits me.
Do you have a theoretical approach to your work?
– Well, both yes and no. When put like that, it suggests that you’re only working with texts, and that nothing needs to look nice.
So how do you usually work?
– I do whatever I feel like at the time. To me, that’s essential. It might be something theoretical, like a text, but it could also be something funny, like doing a somersault as a performance.
You have an extremely interdisciplinary practice.
– That’s my ambition. If you consider the classic ways of making art, some of them are more represented in my artistic practice than others, but I want to work within every field. Including music, for instance.
What comes first, the idea or the medium?
– It can be either or. If I see a flower that I like, I try to find out what kind of flower it is. Then maybe I feel like painting it, taking a photograph, or describing it in some other way. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an illustration. It doesn’t have to begin here and end there, he says, illustrating with his hand. It might as well begin in the middle. Or at the end.
Even a landscape painter probably Googles landscapes
You’re a part of several studios and think-tanks, often working together with others. How important is collaborations to you?
– Super important. I think that’s the most fun way to work. I see this interview as a collaboration too. At the same time it’s really difficult. When working creatively together with others, people will always want to go in different directions, and you have to try and meet somewhere in the middle. It’s a freedom to do things as a collective though, not being the only one behind something. Ideas often pop up naturally when discussing things with others, and then you can just jump on them together.
What is your relation to the Internet and digital culture?
– Well, I know it’s an inevitable question, but really, which artist could you not ask that question today? I mean, even a landscape painter probably Googles landscapes.
– But sure, it’s super important to me. One of the most essential parts of my artistic practice is Wikipedia, and seeing as that is an encyclopaedia on the Internet, I guess it’s hard to get around. The Internet is still made up of texts and still and moving images, though, the same media we use to express ourselves in reality. I always try to communicate that there’s no real difference between the Internet and Internet art. I mean, a website can be art. Sure, there is a certain aesthetic around the Internet, but I think that’s secondary. What I’m most interested in is the linking and the interactivity. How Internet is linking together information and images.
When did you become interested in Wikipedia?
– I got access to the Internet around 93, 94, and began programming and working with websites. Before Wikipedia there was this programming language called wiki that you use to make a website that anyone can edit. There were several websites built with that programming language, way before Wikipedia was launched. One of them was the Swedish website Susning. It was made as an encyclopaedia, but it was very uncontrolled, and something of a ploy thing. When Wikipedia was launched in 2001, I immediately jumped at it. The first entry I worked on was the one on Bloodletting.
– I can work on any subject, really. As soon as something pops up in my head, I look it up on Wikipedia. If the article doesn’t exist I might create it, otherwise I try to improve the existing one. At the moment I’m mainly working with the photographs illustrating the entries – it connects to the linking that I’m interested in.
– Here, let me show you an example.
Max takes out his iPhone and looks up Death on Wikipedia, scrolling down to the piece on Senescence.
– Senescence, that’s when animals and plants die, he explains. Here I’ve added a photograph of a dead magpie, with the caption A dead Eurasian Magpie. The link between death and magpie, there’s something very poetic about it. As I see it, knowledge is built on links. In order to understand something, the brain links various things together, brain cells, memories, and so forth. Take the colour green, for instance, you might connect that to leaves or a green car. It’s when you link those two together that you begin to understand the concept of the colour green.
He looks back at the dead magpie on his phone.
– To understand what death is, you also have to understand what a magpie is, and that a magpie can die. That’s a way of using art to make Wikipedia more poetic, more bewildering. Trolling, you could say. I think trolling is interesting.
– Borghes, a writer I admire, talks about the endless encyclopaedia. Ever since humans began to walk upright, we have tried to understand the world through encyclopaedias, drawings, archives. That is exactly what Google and Wikipedia are trying to do with the Internet, gather all the information we’ve come up with so far. I find that so exciting. When Wikipedia first launched, I thought that ‘this is how the Internet should be, this is what the Internet should strive for’.
– When Wikipedia first launched, it was very uncontrolled, but now they are talking about it becoming complete, trying to focus on improving the entries by adding sources and references. It’s starting to look more and more like a classic encyclopaedia. The interesting thing is that you can still add images, which is what I mostly do. There are those who arrange writing workshops as well, where they teach people how to write and edit entries. I’ve been thinking about doing that as a work of art.
To understand what death is, you also have to understand what a magpie is, and that a magpie can die
– Now that Wikipedia is getting tightened up, my hope is that people will understand the importance of the magpie image; that there needs to be room for this type of knowledge in this context. If an encyclopaedia is to reflect the world, there needs to be space for art. Not just an entry on art, but art in the entries. It would be so cool if people understood that obscurity is also a part of Wikipedia.
Does it matter that most people who read your Wikipedia posts don’t see it as art?
– Nah. I just think that’s funny.
How would you present it to an audience?
– I included this is in my graduation show in school, and then I just printed the ten entries I had edited last. I discussed it with my professor, though; ‘why print them when they exist on the Internet?’.
– I don’t like it when art takes too many turns. If I want to depict a flower, do I want to show it as it is, or take a photograph? Should I make a drawing? How should I present the drawing? There are so many turns to take, just for having found a flower that you liked. In this case, I printed the entries, as I thought it was the easiest way to present them.
You have also done the opposite, documented performances and installation through photographs and uploaded them to your website. What are your thoughts on this translation within art?
– That’s always a problem. The Sistine Chapel has been repainted like ten times, so the current painting has nothing do to with the original artist. But I don’t really have an opinion. If there’s no other way to present a performance than through a photograph, I don’t see the problem with it. As long as you can bring forth what it is you want to say, that’s good. Even though I don’t think it should take too many turns, as I said before.
You’ve had exhibitions in a variety of contexts, like clubs, galleries, and on the Internet. What is your relation to the audience?
– I like to bewilder. Make things a little unclear. Make the whole world a little more unclear. I don’t make any distinction between spectators; I want my parents to like my art as much as an artist, a critic, you, or anyone else. My audience is everyone. I hope.
Are you selling any of your art?
– I have done, but not much. At the moment I make more money producing exhibitions and events than I do selling products.
– The best deal I ever made was when I sold a series of paintings of the Taxfree logo. When I make physical pieces they are often related to economy and the art market, or rather, how art and the art market are related to the current political situation. The Taxfree paintings derived from this idea I have about airport shopping, where they want this brand to be associated with luxury, when it’s really the other way around. I exhibited these paintings through a collaboration between Valand and this Gothenburg high-end department store called Nordiska Kompaniet. It was Global Blue, the company who owns the brand Taxfree, who bought all the paintings. They wanted them for their office.
That’s just like an extension of the piece.
– Oh, yes. It was almost surreal when they called. I don’t know if they understood the project, but on the other hand it’s perfect, that’s where I want the art to be.
The earth and nature are just
like giant computers
What does the place where you work mean to you?
– At the moment I don’t have a studio in the traditional sense. I work a lot with my iPhone, taking notes and photos. So I can work anywhere really. If I am to exhibit at a gallery, I might need a place where I can work with physical pieces, but then I’ll just work something out. When I have the opportunity to make things without having my hands paint stained, I might as well do without.
– I’ve also started seeing my job as a runner as art. Polishing glasses, for instance. I can see that as an artistic expression. That means that the restaurant is a kind of a studio as well.
Why did you want to meet us here, in a botanical garden? Is nature important to you?
– Yes. I’ve always spent a lot of time in nature, ever since I was little. But I don’t know, it might also be because the Internet is so present all the time, with all these virtual worlds layered on top of each other. In nature, the impressions are more direct in a way.
– I think you should keep everything that is positive with today’s technology, and use all of our capacity to find out what the meaning of life is. At the same time, I think we should return to the Stone Age, when we lived together in small, self-supporting communities. We should embrace human spirituality, but combine it with contemporary technology, like the Internet, and CERN. I mean, the earth and nature are just like giant computers.
Max Ronnersjö is currently working on a graffiti workshop at an elementary school in Skälby, and Culpture, a culture school that will be held at Stockholm restaurant Taverna Brillo from March. Together with Revenue, he’s also working on various clubs, and from March 3 he can be heard on soon-to-be-launched radio channel Radio Skanstull. Follow Max Ronnersjö’s work on here.
Photography by Fredrik Andersson Andersson.