Not too perfect

How can art bring visions of the future to life? And what are the advantages of analog depictions in a digital world? Swedish artist Anne-Li Karlsson finds the answers by using special ink to run power lines through a paper city. There is just one thing the set should not be: too perfect.

04/17/2019 Birte Mußmann (copy) & Anton Renborg (photo) Reading Time: 5 min

Anne-Li Karlsson

Audi e-tron Electric Story

“For me, rough edges are a part of life.”

Anne-Li Karlsson

Art is like a kind of calling card for its creator. What do you want viewers to take away from your drawings?
Anne-Li Karlsson:
My work falls into two categories: On the one hand, I do commission illustration work for clients such as magazines and corporations. The main goal here is to use illustrations to capture and project stories or information. These drawings fulfill a certain purpose and follow the given specifications. When I work on my own projects with no such specifications, different, mostly black-and-white drawings emerge. Images with some flaws and rough edges. I love being a bit provocative with these illustrations, challenging the viewer.

What do you find attractive about these imperfections?

I personally find things that aren’t completely flawless more interesting than ones without a single blemish. For me, rough edges are a part of life. Maybe it’s also my artistic contribution in opposition to minimalism, which is so revered in Sweden. It’s a thread that effectively weaves through everything: design, architecture, fashion. Tidy, clean and expressed in muted colors. A lot of people like this style, but it doesn’t appeal to me. I’m more of a collector. Despite that, I find the development fascinating. Sweden is a country with a large stature compared to its population size. And although there is so much space between the major conurbations, what dominates is a certain standardized sameness. But the mute backdrop lets us carve out a niche where we can show individuality - with accessories. A friend of mine wears brightly colored socks under black suits to her job. I do it my way: with the interior design of my apartment. Which is the opposite of minimalist.

You have a large bookcase in your living room. And you mainly draw with pencil on paper. You seem to have an affinity for the analog world.

Yes, that’s true. I like the sensation of touching paper and the feeling of producing a result by hand with a pencil. I also like the fact that analog depictions are not always perfect. Like when a line is not completely straight. In the digital world, the way machines work generally precludes this type of imperfection. Algorithms ensure that the results are very precise. And, of course, that’s critical in many spheres - but not in all. A picture that is too perfect can be jarring and rob our imagination of the ability to freely form associations with the perceived image. Perfect things often appear immutable and hence untouchable.

Anne-Li Karlsson in her living room

Has digitalization influenced your artistic expression?

In some ways, yes. The majority of my work is analog. Nonetheless, the digital does make its presence felt. For one, communication has become digital, whether I am contacting my agent or people interested in my art. I also have to send most completed projects to the client as a digital file. The times when artists delivered work in large portfolios or envelopes are long gone.

You started drawing relatively late. At what point did you realize that you wanted to devote yourself to art?

My first big job was illustrating an article in the Swedish magazine Darling on the topic of pornography. The rest is history, as they say. In the early days, the magazine was a trailblazer with its progressive visual idiom and a sassy linguistic style.

The paper city you created for Audi did not have to be mailed when it was done. How did you approach this project?

The entire assignment was sort of a group project brought to fruition by a multi-member team. There were people who took care of building the cityscape, while others created the lighting or tracks for the camera. Ultimately, the whole project was to be captured on film. My job was to design the city - so naturally, I had to think first about the style for designing my urban space.

What criteria did you use to make that decision?

In the beginning, I took various approaches. But it quickly became clear to me that the purely electric Audi should not be driving through a futuristic world. The move toward alternative drive systems is happening now and will be stepped up in the near future. So, I chose to place the vehicle in a modern-day cityscape. My inspiration was drawn from my hometown of Stockholm and other Scandinavian cities.

Paper, a small battery, a special pen and a miniature Audi: This is the combination you used to light up buildings and streetlamps. How did you connect the electric circuit?

The power supply for the paper city was a small e-tron battery. I used a pen filled with special ink to link the battery’s contact points with those of the individual stations - just like a utility would lay power cables. When the vehicle drives by, the final contact is made. The electricity then flows, and the city lights up block by block.

What challenges did you face with the building project?

Although the paper city is a miniature, the whole thing was very much like a large-scale project. Every single aspect had to be meticulously planned and precisely executed - the structure of the city, all the tiny details and the lines’ paths. Naturally, over the two weeks it took to create the paper city, there were things that didn’t work right off the bat. The first tests that the team and I ran were with facade prototypes. Often just applying trial and error.


Electric City Projekt

Projects like this electric city made from paper provide a glimpse of a future that people are just now beginning to imagine. Are creative, artistic projects like this the way to make this topic more approachable by adding a touch of whimsy?

I think that for people who still don’t know what to make of this issue, it’s a good way to do it. This playful approach lends complex, highly technological subjects like this a certain lightness of being. Now and then, complex issues need to be broken down and simplified so that people can begin to understand and form a mental image of them. It’s an important step toward encouraging curiosity and interest in something. They can then ask questions and discuss complex issues such as modern-day mobility.


I wish for global awareness of sustainability issues to grow more quickly.

Anne-Li Karlsson

What does mobility mean to you personally?

Mobility means different things to me. In my daily life, I rely on a car for professional reasons. I meet this need by being a member of a car-sharing service. During my free time, I enjoy getting around Stockholm on a bicycle. Plus, I love traveling and learning about other cultures and customs. Increasingly, I am becoming aware of the shift occurring in transportation in recent years. Electric mobility is a major topic in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries. Of course, support through government financing is an important aspect. We are also a country very much attuned to nature - and alternative drive systems chime with this approach to life.

When you think of mobility in the future, what do you picture?

I have a very specific image in mind. It comes from an old schoolbook. The image shows Amsterdam in the Netherlands and illustrates the problem of more and more densely built-up cities. Various modes of transportation - airplanes, ships, trains, cars - are all pictured in one image. They all coexist and meet a need in the very different situations in which they are required. This vision feels realistic and tangible to me.

And when you think about your hometown, what do you wish for the future?

Stockholm in 2040? My city will also use these variable modes of transportation. But a lot will change going forward. I wish for global awareness of sustainability issues to grow more quickly.


Anne-Li Karlsson, 48, Illustrator

The Korean-born Swedish artist was adopted when she was one year old. Stockholm has been her home ever since. The illustrator created a paper city for Audi with power lines drawn in electrically conductive ink.


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