Technological Eruptions

A new book on the singular artist, filmmaker, and electronic musician Åke Karlung redraws the map of Sweden’s experimental scene in the 60s.

Åke Karlung, Generalrepetition för självmord (Dress rehearsal for suicide) (still), 1964. ©Jon Karlung.

“The spinning global communications net is becoming a traffic hazard and art is tagging along,” the legendary Swedish filmmaker, animator, artist, and electronic musician Åke Karlung (1930–1990) wrote in the prophetic article ‘Gissningar av teknologisk förtvivlan’ (Conjectures on technological despair) in 1968. “I long for a way out,” he continues, “of bitter irresponsibility and into a sense of caution, where the artist, like the ideal scientist, is not driven by financial incentives or loyal ‘I’m just going my job’-ness to generate things that are best kept in the ‘laboratory’.” (Ord och bild, nr. 2 1968)

This experimental ethos contains the core of Karlung’s ambivalent understanding of the relationship between art and technology. He raised scepticism about impractical cybernetics aficionados, and warned not to “mindlessly follow the electronic pop medial optimism.” Such positions were likely to get aggressive comments from Karlung, who saw his own activities as tentative attempts, drafts, and incomplete experiments. Art, he argued, “can still afford both magic intuitivists and analytic ruminators, with a maximal perspective both looking back and forwards.”

Åke Karlung, Figuration (xerox copy), 1980-tal. ©Jon Karlung.

This was perhaps not an entirely unique position to take in the 1960s and 70s, but in Karlung’s case the results it generated – artistic artefacts, films, anti-happening interventions, exhibitions, sound works, and a few very idiosyncratic attempts to articulate his theoretical and poetical positions in writing – are like nothing else produced in this period.

Despite this, Karlung is only mentioned in passing in the historical surveys. Teddy Hultberg’s thoroughly researched book Experiment mot alla odds – Boken om Åke Karlung (Experiments against all odds – the book on Åke Karlung)published by Gidlunds Förlag is thus much welcomed. Hultberg’s exposé covers everything from Karlung’s early years to Thálatta,his final project, which was shown at Moderna Museet in Stockholm in the summer and autumn of 1990. Accompanying the book is a Blu-ray with ten of Karlung’s restored films (including extra materials), and a CD with his electro-acoustic text/sound compositions issued in collaboration with the record label Firework Editions.

Hultberg is an expert on the experimental art and literature scene in Sweden during the 1960s and 70s. He has previously published books on Öyvind Fahlström and Elis Eriksson – two artists comparable to Karlung – and his comments on the previously unexplored connections to Fahlström are among the book’s most thought-provoking. Karlung was more critical of popular culture than his better-known colleague and never developed the same international network, but both were equally unconventional and ground-breaking. Both were also artists who wrote, explored the artistic possibilities of tape recorders and film cameras, and shared an interest in ancient cultures. They were, as Hultberg puts it, “two birds with large wingspans in opposite directions.”

Hultberg puts forward that Karlung’s marginalisation is a result of his uncompromising life choices: he made a living as a night watchman in order to focus on his work, and stayed away from art world coteries.  Although Karlung’s work shares affinities with happenings, expanded theatre, the new electronic music, and the activities John Cage introduced at Moderna Museet (Karlung took part in several of these using his own homemade cymbals), he always had reservations about what was au courant. Hultberg’s reading posits Karlung as an intermedia artist avant la lettre, even though he himself preferred terms like “mystery play” and “anti-happening.”He was well versed in the art of the middle ages, interested in the iconography of ornament, and the possibilities of new technologies; he also saw parallels between the patterns he had recorded on a magnetophone and old Tibetan prayer wheels. All of which in Hultberg’s rendering provides a new perspective on “a period we thought had been approached from every possible angle and then again.”

Åke Karlung, Homo Ludens (still), 1965–66. ©Jon Karlung.

Hultberg’s detailed exposé paints a picture of an ambitious and searching artist, who after studying the history of religions, yoga, and trance techniques – and an academic detour in the form of a dissertation on the Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf as a mystic – immersed himself in studies of standing waves, angular systems, and different structural forms. Karlung also conducted studies on the perception of visual and sonic rhythms, and performed experiments on the reception of image and sound waves on prisoners, the mentally ill, and his closest artists friends. These were attempts, as he put it, to test the sensitivity of different “layers of the population.” What he learned went into his filmmaking, which from 1960 to 1972 resulted in some ten films often building upon his own image making; a four-minute film could consist of a large number of his photographed drawings, sculptures, and objects. 

I have curated Karlung’s 16 mm films on several occasions, in Sweden and internationally, and have been struck by their force, iconographical suggestiveness, and singular ingenuity. In the films that were often cut in filming, animated sequences and single photographic images are combined in montages and layering. The audio is often noisy and intense. Social criticism and confrontational puns are presented side by side in several languages. All of this, along with Karlung’s characteristic voice on the audio track, creates a melting pot of eruptions, transitions, and rhythmic tempo shifts.

Åke Karlung, Dr Verwoerds ankomst till Inferno (Dr Verwoerd’s  arrival at Inferno) (still), 1966. ©Jon Karlung.

Hultberg’s detailing of Karlung’s attempts at expanding the possibilities of film sound is one of the most interesting parts of the book. By working with drawn animated audio tracks Karlung sought to extract new types of film sound whose “periodicity can be worked into strict choreographic relationships to the sequence of frames, cyclical animations, and image flow,” something which proved to be more difficult to realise than he anticipated. Again we are brought to the conclusion that most of Karlung’s projects should be seen as incomplete. Also implicit in Hultberg’s rendering is an incongruence between different institutions in Stockholm at this time, such as Filmpremienämnden (later Svenska Filminstitutet) and Elektroniska Studion at ABF, Fylkingen, which might otherwise have been helpful in realising Karlung’s experiments. Nevertheless, that Karlung received public film grants for several of his productions, despite the fact that critics did not understand them at all, is practically hallucinatory to imagine today.

In the early 1970s, after concluding his activities in film, Karlung sought other forms of artistic exploration. He began working with light tents, overhead projectors, and larger spatial installations. In the book’s final chapter, Hultberg discusses the exhibitions Karlung staged in the 1970s and 80s at Moderna Museet, an institution to which he was intimately tied. AlienaKadabra. Fragment ur ett pornopuritanskt misslyckande (Fragments from a porno-puritan failure) which opened in November of 1972 was a spatial arrangement comprising collage, reliefs, and Karlung’s eponymous film. We can tell from the images in the book that he worked with simple cheap materials, but still, apologist that he was for the poor man’s technology, managed to find complex spatial solutions.

Åke Karlung, Pop – Elitpop, 1963. © Jon Karlung.

The same goes for Glo-Babels torn (The tower of Glo-Babel) later shown at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The exhibition was developed in Moderna Museet’s small film room, which Karlung used as a studio from 1977 to 1979. I’m struck by how this contrasts with exhibition policies today. It would be inconceivable now, but at the time Karlung was allowed to spend the night at the museum and let his projections carefully meet textual elements, mechanical movements, a centrally placed spiral, and sculptural devices made in materials such as newspaper and papier-mâché. As mentioned earlier, Karlung’s final work was Thálatta,which he made for Moderna Museet in 1990 during a period of illness. Opening shortly before his death, the exhibition thematised a conciliatory valediction, for example in the symbolic form of a spinning lamp generating a sculptural play of light. Thálatta can be conceived as a summary of the experiences, “the relationships between the rhythms of light and images,” which had occupied Karlung since the 1950s

Hultberg’s explicit intention with the book, to redraw the map, has largely been realised. In our understanding of what was possible (and not) in the experimental 1960s and onward, Karlung’s work appears as a major missing piece of the puzzle. Karlung remained his own cartographer, tentative and experimenting right up until the end. In Hultberg – who successfully keeps the Karlungian surfaces of friction and inner tension open – he has found a congenial biographer. For as the writer posits, Karlung remains something of a clinamen, a divergent movement that can create turbulence in stasis. Now it is up to the rest of us to begin exploring this, often peculiarly poetic, turbulence.

Åke Karlung, GloBabels torn (The tower of Glo-Babel) at Moderna Museet, 1979. Photo: Moderna Museet.