Creative Conversations: Olli Keränen

Olli Keränen exploring Williamsburg around Newtown Creek.

Olli Keränen exploring Williamsburg around Newtown Creek.

Visual artist Olli Keränen finds inspiration from post-industrial, partly collapsing landscapes. Keränen is a current artist-in-residence at the International Studio & Curatorial Program in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, until the end of June. We met Keränen at ISCP to discuss his upcoming graphic novel and to explore the surrounding industrial neighborhood.

I guess you really like New York as you are going to spend half a year here now?

Definitely. The art scene here is unique. There are so many artists and projects that are not getting the recognition they should. The sheer volume of things happening outside the bigger institutions is a massive inspiration. It’s really worth going around looking for treasures outside the white cube, too.  

I’m also hoping to have more peer-to-peer conversations as it has been a while since I graduated from art school. It feels like my art practice is at a point where I would benefit from critical dialogue with other artists and curators to figure out new ways to develop, and also question, parts of my practice. My first visit to New York took place in 2009 when I did a two-month long residency here. I was really shocked but also really impressed by the place back then.

Olli Keränen,  Fount  (detail), 2017.

Olli Keränen, Fount (detail), 2017.

What shocked and impressed you the most?

I was overwhelmed by the scale of poverty and richness you see in Manhattan, where we were staying at the time. I also made the mistake of watching too much TV in the evenings, too many political tv shows especially, and I got a bit depressed. Apart from that, the residency provided a great opportunity to see many interesting exhibitions. The two-month stay really affected my art practice. For this reason, I yearned to return to the city.


How did your artistic practice change after your first residency in New York?

I became aware of the need to strip down the amount of ideas I had. I was trying to do too many things in one artwork: it does not have to have 20 different ideas crisscrossing it. I also discovered that a work of art can have a relaxed coating of boredom over it. This does not mean that the work is boring. Rather, some ideas and works benefit from an atmosphere of muteness. When I plan my works, I want to imagine them being on a pedestal or in a space. That helps me to crystallize the idea. After experiencing New York for the first time I started to tell myself that this pedestal should maybe resemble an anonymous street corner rather than an art gallery. I returned to Helsinki with the realization that your most immediate surroundings and environment affect the way your works end up looking like.


Olli Keränen,  Guide (Woods) , 2017.

Olli Keränen, Guide (Woods), 2017.

How are you planning to spend your time here this time around?

I intend to work as much as possible but also to see as much as I can. I probably need to have a long summer vacation after this! I try to embrace the reality of the place. To experience things, shows and performances and stuff that happens in the street; even things that are not my cup of tea. I want to remain open to be surprised by something that I have earlier decided to dislike. I’m also keen to make new connections with freelance and institutional curators. Together with seven other artists I’ve been running a gallery called SIC in Helsinki for 5 years. It would be also fruitful to find new artists to exhibit at SIC.


Olli Keränen,  Ware (Crystal),  2017.

Olli Keränen, Ware (Crystal), 2017.

Have you already seen something impressive?

I really liked the performance piece by Alexandra Pirici at the New Museum. The work consists of live performances and a hologram image. It has been a long time since I got emotional in an exhibition: whenever that happens I’m very thankful. I was impressed by the way Pirici had managed to make a gimmicky thing like a hologram feel so natural. Furthermore, the acoustics of the space worked really well with the voice of one of the performers.

And what are you working on at the moment?

The end result of my residency period at the ISCP will be a graphic novel. It is a story of a representative of a tribe from the countryside coming to a city and exchanging objects with people in an abandoned pizzeria. Secondly, I’m making a prototype for a pedestal or a bridge-like object that can be placed in different terrains. Together 20 or more of these objects make a pathway. This is probably going to be a part of a larger body of work.

Installation view,  Fount , SIC, 2017.

Installation view, Fount, SIC, 2017.


You wanted to show me some industrial landscapes here in Williamsburg that you find inspiring. Why do you find this neighborhood so fascinating?

The area around Newtown Creek is a kind of post-industrial, partly collapsing landscape but it is still fully functioning. The businesses are running and trucks are driving back and forth. The neighborhood has a functionality and bareness that I find interesting. I ride my bike through the area quite often, and I see stuff happening there. There is the huge road salt mountain and the train tracks that split the area and give you the sense of something big and undervalued being processed here. It is a place where you can see stuff gradually turning from distinct everyday objects into used and fragmented landscape. But I do have to remind myself that the lure of the place must in some part come from the fact that I know I am just a tourist there, and that I also have the privilege to leave the area whenever I want to.

Interview and photos by Liisa Jokinen