International art juggernaut Jacob Felländer is about to release his biggest, most ambitious work yet. The Great Escape is a multi-dimensional project including photography, painting, sculpture, fashion, music, and education, all connected through an augmented reality app. But behind his ambitions is a wish to disconnect himself from his art. We sit down in his studio and discuss the need for technology in art, the frustrations from the pandemic, and his search for freedom.
Words KONRAD OLSSON Photography & styling HEDVIG MOBERG
Jacob Felländer has a unique sense of scale. A few days after this magazine hits the shelves, the 46-year-old artist from Stockholm will unveil his biggest and most ambitious work yet. A multi-media, multi-expression, multi-dimensional project that serves as both a summary of his career so far, and a script for the rest of it. Titled The Great Escape, the work will span photography, painting, sculpture, fashion, music, and education, all connected through an augmented reality app. On paper, it sounds like the definition of overreaching, but Jacob seems undeterred by such notions.
— I have a black belt in doubt and worry in life in general, but when it comes to art, for some reason, I don’t worry.
Perhaps it’s this worry-free approach that makes his work look so effortless in its grandiosity. Jacob Felländer talks with complete confidence about adding layers and layers to the photographic art that once made him an international superstar. It started with his signature multiple-exposure works that could capture five different continents in one single print, and attracted the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton as collectors. From there he began painting on the prints, and then transforming them into virtual reality-experiences, from which he has extracted sculptures that he 3d-printed into the real world. And now he is repackaging his own artistic process into an educational programme aimed to raise the creativity level of the next generation. All the while he is designing a clothing line for h&m, which draws on the same photographic aesthetic, but also invites the consumer to create their own versions of Fellenderesque prints through a special AR-app.
Sounds overwhelming? I understand the feeling. It’s one I felt myself when Jacob first described The Great Escape for me 18 months ago.
In the beginning of March 2020, I met Jacob in his 300-square-metre studio in Hammarby Sjöstad to discuss doing a story for the first issue of Scandinavian MIND, due out in May that same year. Since then, we’ve both seen our work being cancelled, postponed, and reworked. We’ve kept in touch throughout the pandemic, updating each other on our projects. And by following his journey, from cancelling the original show in Berlin in the spring of 2020, to planning the opening in his native Stockholm, I feel like I’ve gotten to know him more than any other person I’ve written about.
That’s why I wanted this story to be as raw as possible. I wanted to do something that went beyond the obvious — albeit true — success story about the athlete who aimed for international golf stardom but ended up an art world juggernaut. About the young Swede who came to the US on a golf scholarship and found photography at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. About the lifestyle artist, who still manages to spend several months abroad with his family (his wife, the actress Eva Röse, and their four sons), focusing on surfing, golf, and the good life.
What follows is a two-part conversation about art and technology. The first interview was conducted in his old studio in Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm (pictured on these pages), and the second in his new headquarters in the up-and-coming Slakthusområdet (”meatpacking district”). The conversations were in reality much longer. Hopefully, once you read this, we’ll have published both conversations in our podcast.
First interview. Old studio. 24 March 2021
Let’s start with the basics. When and how did this idea of The Great Escape come about?
— In 2018, I had a large museum show at moca, Miami Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami. While talking to the museum directors, they asked me about a public programme. When they asked that question I realised that I had been 100 % focused on my own artistic journey for 20 years. It came to me in an instant, ”OK, I’m one of those narcissistic artists that believes that the fact that I make art is enough contribution to this earth world.” I felt ashamed.
— When you have the fortune to become successful in the art world, you end up making art for rich old men in Switzerland or Germany or in the Hamptons, which is not really the intent from the beginning. If you look at the music industry, it’s much more democratised. It used to be that in the salons in Paris in the 1860s, art was for everyone and everyone was involved. Everyone came to see it. Everyone discussed it. It was a part of society. Now it has a decimal role in society, especially compared to gaming and music and movies. The gallery world is a part of that, but another part is that the museums haven’t been able to integrate art into society.
It’s become elitist.
— Museums have become a place where art comes to die. That’s one factor. The other factor is that artists are not a part of society either. I strongly believe that artists could have more to contribute to society, myself included. While the climate crisis and pandemic and poverty is happening, it can’t be that I’m in the studio alone, contemplating two shades of turquoise. That’s a nice life, but it’s not enough.
— At the same time, I feel like we need to find new solutions to old problems like poverty, conflicts, pandemics, and the environment. If we’re going to reach, for example, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we need to raise the creativity level of the next generation. If you look at how AI is affecting the future, taking over many of the human tasks, creativity and human skills like empathy and creativity are going to be more important. If we’re going to raise the creativity level, who should take the lead on that? Should it be the schools and the teachers or the politicians, or should it be the artists?
I’m guessing all this didn’t come to you from that conversation.
— Almost. The first conversation was, ”OK, so do you have a public programme?”
What does that mean? Public programme?
— Is there something we can do for the community here? Can we bring schools here? Then I realised yes, we need to democratise art. That’s a big task. What if I start with democratizeing my art? Then again, if you’re a starving mother of three at a refugee camp in Syria, do you really need more blurry photo art? Running that through, I realized that I really do have a specific way of approaching creativity. I have a method, and it’s simple. It’s easy to explain, I can teach it. What if I, instead of democratising art, would share my own creative method?
What is that method?
— The method is different tricks to end up in a place you didn’t know existed before. If you and I are supposed to create something new for tomorrow we can’t know about it today, because then it’s not new. It’s the opposite of perfection. Perfection is like, ”Tomorrow I’m going to make a perfect triangle.” Then we go to work, and all we do is we aim for that perfect triangle, which means we rule out everything else. I’ve tried, believe me. The reward is not very great. You have the perfect triangle, but the possibilities of failure are infinite, and that’s usually what happens when you’re 11 years old and you’re in school. You just need that instant confidence and release that makes the devils on your shoulder shut up.
It’s a system of sorts?
— A very simple system of open-ended questions like, ”What if? Why? How?” It turns out that my way of multi‑exposing images is a very easy way to start, because it starts with imperfection. When I multi‑expose an image it doesn’t look like the real world, it looks like something else. You can’t judge if it’s good or bad, so it’s a good starting point. From there you can go, ”OK, what’s this? Is this a dream, is it a movie, or is it a video game? OK, what’s in there?”
You still use your art as a starting point? So it’s not like you deviate totally.
— The exhibitions I do now, they all tell my artistic and creative journey from the beginning. Then it ends with the viewer being able to imitate my initial steps and start their own journeys. It’s almost like giving away the way I make art.
Like keys to the kingdom?
— Exactly. So far, it’s been a very rewarding journey. It’s been tried in over a hundred schools around the world. Some schools like Skapaskolan and in Huddinge in Sweden, they use the method in all subjects, like in social science, math, and physics. Of course, in art and music, but they can use it in all subjects.
Your method before was using old cameras, and you wound the film a little bit to multi‑exposure. So now that’s an app? Now you can do that on your phone?
— Right, or an iPad. They end up with multi‑exposed images that look like something else than what they expected. They work with a few open‑ended questions like, ”What is this?” ”Well, it’s someone’s dream, or it’s a computer game.” Then from there, they quickly start building stories, podcasts, theatre plays. They build cities. They have governments. They have discussions in English and Swedish, and they write papers. It’s a quick method to involve all the subjects. The challenge has been to take this method and write into the normal course plan of a regular school in different countries.
This goes out globally, and you’re using schools all over the world?
— Yes. I’ve been helped by Apple’s Education Department to reach schools in all different continents.
Ok, so we’re talking now about your upcoming exhibition. Let’s break it down. There’s this educational programme. There’s an app. There’s fashion collaboration. There’s a music collaboration.
— There are four parts. There’s an exhibition. It’s an inside and outside exhibition with pretty much everything. It’s photography, painting, sculpture, fabrics, VR, AR, holograms, and then there’s an outside part, which is AR. That’s the first part. Then there’s the education part. Then there’s the music part, which is music collaborations with musicians who have written music for the art. Different art pieces play different types of music. Then there’s the fashion collaboration.
Was it important to have all these aspects of it in the beginning, or has it grown during the process of working it?
— True to the method if I’m just following the energy and the methods ended up here. It’s not like a plan. It’s more like this is where I ended up because the next step is also architecture, poetry, and movies. It’s just where this way of working brings me.
”While the climate crisis and pandemic and poverty is happening, it can’t be that I’m in the studio alone, contemplating two shades of turquoise. That’s a nice life, but it’s not enough.”
It seems like your work is not about producing anymore… The end product is not the canvas or the exhibition because now it’s opening up to everything. I’m curious about your internal process of taking that on. It must be a leap of faith because you’re losing control in a way. Also, I’m assuming you’re opening up to all kinds of criticism. Society is not generally kind to people who do many things. If you’re an actor and you start doing music, they shame you. Now you’re this educational guy. You’re this music guy. You’re this tech AR, VR, AI guy. Was that a problem for you, or was it just like letting go?
— What you’re talking about is the marketing and communication of making art. It’s not a problem. It may be a problem for someone who is worried about my brand, which I’m not. The whole method is about being able to work without taking in the fact that you might be criticised for it. It’s almost like living and knowing that yes, we will die one day, which is a trick as well. The method is about not hearing or thinking about other people’s opinions.
…or even your own opinion about it.
You have mentioned before that you yourself is not the important part of it. I guess you can say that the method is art.
— Evolution is the thing, which might be an answer to your previous question. Because if evolution is what I’m looking for, then sharing the method so we can evolve is less of a problem. I do have a narcissistic big ego that at times protests loudly. It’s not like I’m free of that. I’m just making sure that the other part is in the driving seat most of the time.
The exhibition, this indoor‑outdoor thing, is that like a manifestation of the concept, the method?
— I use my own artistic journey as an example, and as an inspiration, ”Here’s what I’ve done. Now you can try it. Now you can start your own journey.” It’s a way of describing something. Pretty much like what you would do in art class. You would go to a Monet exhibit and then you would go back and paint water lilies.
You give the audience some kind of tool. Can anyone use this method and download the app?
— Yes, it’s free and that’s that.
This will be the end result you’re talking about. At the end of the exhibition, will you be able to go home and take this further yourself?
Can you say anything more about the setup of the exhibition?
— The exhibition tells my artistic journey chronologically from when I started to where we are now. At the same time, the app uses an interactive tool with VR. The exhibition comes alive even more if you have the app.
Using AR technology?
Is this the first time you’re doing that?
— I’ve done it before, at moca in Miami.
Back then, you extracted physical things out of the images…
— I have a parallel VR universe where one can travel into my images. Since the shapes in there are 3D, I can extract them and 3D print them like sculptures. There’s also an AR element where the image can come out into the room. It’s almost like you can walk through the images and through the different layers. Which means that you’re walking through my process and the images made with a hundred‑year‑old camera, charcoal, and paint. It’s a combination of everything, of old and new technology, of time, space, and dimensions, and virtual and physical.
How does music play into this?
— I don’t have a clear answer to that yet, but I’m starting to suspect that music is the base of all of this. Everything I do has some musical base. It’s almost like nothing happens and then I either listen to music or play music or become affected by music, and then the wheels start turning. It’s easy with music to get out of your brain and into your body. I suspect that that’s where I need to be for my art to happen.
— I also have the privilege of knowing some fantastic musicians. I’ve made backdrops and scenography for Moneybrother and Lars Winnerbäck, and then I’ve made fantastic collaborations with Anna Ternheim and Christian Kjellvander. The music part is natural and exciting. That led to the fact that I do a lot of talks. Now I’ve combined the music and the artist’s talk so it’s a stage show. It’s like a ted Talk with live music and big projections and holograms.
You play yourself as well?
— Yes, I do. I´ve always been a singer and I started playing instruments when I was 15, 16.
The way you described the process, it’s about adding layer upon layer upon layer. It correlates to how I think about AI. How AI can grow exponentially out of control. It learns from what it has and creates something new. You mentioned that in your 3D world, you could apply an AI.
— I am working on it.
How does that relate to what you said in the beginning, that with machine learning and AI, we need human creativity more than ever? It seems like you potentially will prove that we don’t need the humans. That the AI can do all this by itself.
— Right now they can’t. My creative process led to using this AI in this way. For coming generations, obviously accounting and calculating debits and credits can go to AI. Then, there will be other numerous skills that will also. I think that empathy and the creative endeavours, the selection process that comes with them, will be the last to go.
”If it crashes and everybody hates it and it’s awful and people throw tomatoes at it, that’s not failure.”
But it will go?
— I don’t know. I have no answers. I just explore things. I just ask questions. My method is to try things and see what happens.
It’s not that hard to imagine a future world where all the tools that you have built, and all these steps of the process, can be automated such that someone at home can just open an app and just… Maybe not even take the pictures themselves, just give some kind of input and start this process, this Jacob Felländer process of documenting the world, putting it together, making a 3D version, going into the 3D version, expanding it, extracting physical things, and then constructing buildings out of it.
— … which I am in the process of making. It feels like that would be a part of evolution. The only thing that has happened since the Big Bang is expansion and evolution. It turns out that everything that is not in line with evolution and expansion, like dinosaurs or whatever, disappear along the way. When I feel in line with evolution, exciting things start happening. If other people help out, all over the world, and AI as well. If we all help out with evolution, we will obviously go faster.
Is there a part of that in the app? Can you collaborate?
Interesting. Basically, you are god.
— I am a small speck of dust in a very large universe. And God. [laughs]
Why was it important to have that fashion collaboration as a part of the work?
— If I have a method that is worth sharing and democratising, we need to spread it outside the art world. The art world is not enough. Yes, we can work in music, we can work in gaming, which I’ve started already. I can work in applicable tech, and spread it through the App Store. I can also work in fashion. Fashion is a normal creative expression for many people. If I asked ”What do you think of this piece of modern art?” Most people would say, ”I don’t know anything about art!” People have no confidence in their own feelings.
You will be able to extract things from the app and print them on clothes.
— The collaboration is two parts. One, a full ready‑to‑wear collection, about ”What happens if you wear these paintings?” What happens if they are all AR‑enabled, so if you point the app to the clothing, that art starts streaming out of you and the music that is written to the art starts playing. You can pretty much become your own cultural festival. Then we will take over stores, and in this store, you can print your own T‑shirts. You can create either with the help of the images that I have, or you can make your own images through the app and then send it to the printer. It’s another way of helping people start their own creative journeys.
It has scale. You mentioned these four pillars. You also mentioned architecture. Is it a coincidence, or is it the fact that these four were able to be realised?
— There are ten more that I’m working on, but these are the four that I’m able to realise right now. I have a few more years to realise the other ones.
Second interview. New studio. 17 June 2021.
OK. We’re now less than two months until the opening of The Great Escape. I thought we could talk a little bit about that process of bringing this all together. Obviously, there’s been a pandemic. That’s been a factor, postponing it, finding new dates, changing the city to do it in. When you look back at this process, has there been any moment where you’ve thought that this is not going to work?
— Yes, because this whole ecosystem is, obviously, invented by me, for me, and then for the rest of the world to enjoy as well. It is everything I love and think that I am meant to do. But it has been postponed 10 times. It’s a massive administrative process just to postpone something once. The last time we got postponed was in May. It was supposed to be released May 1st this year. When it was postponed after that, I felt that I’ve now spent way too much time being a project manager. Somewhere in April, I felt completely worn out and dead inside because I had been in the wrong place.
Was it because you felt like this could not be eventually be done? Or was it because your heart was not in it anymore?
— No, my heart’s in it. My role in it became not the role that I wanted. It’s also really vague to work towards a moving target. Until I know the venue and the date, then I know how big I should make the painting. That reflects every aspect of this. I would say that there’s a big risk in taking on an exciting project because the project will pull me away from being an artist, although it’s an artistic project.
I feel like your work is dependent on this massive scale. You have the art, the exhibition, the fashion, the AR, the technology, the education, the music. I would imagine down-scaling is minimizing the art. Am I thinking about it the right way?
— Absolutely right. Down scaling feels very wrong. It feels like I’m not giving the art the credit it deserves. But that’s about the impact. I want it to be brutal and large but close and intimate at the same time, which is the big challenge. If it becomes too large and too big, there’s a risk of losing the connection. You have to always balance those things.
What would failure look like to you?
— Failure would look like something that’s just average. Not massive. If it crashes and everybody hates it and it’s awful and people throw tomatoes at it, that’s not failure. Failure would be more like, ”Yeah, it was something…” Failure to me would be not to go all the way. Just to get comfortable with mediocrity. That would be a failure.
Have you ever felt the risk of that, during this period?
— Always. That’s where you end up if you don’t push yourself with a whip every day.
It’s interesting that you use the term project manager. The way you do art is really, you’re working with organizations, AR programmers, fashion houses, musicians, real estate companies. You’re saying you don’t want to be this project manager, yet you are creating a situation for yourself to be just that.
— The managing part is intellectual. The other part is intuitive. Probably what makes me miserable is when I’m too much in my head and too little in my body or in this world.
You’ve decided to make the whole process art. Extrapolating the aesthetics you have into something new. When does it become art?
— The word art doesn’t serve its purpose anymore. It’s not a useful word. If I say art, you don’t know what I mean, and if you say art, I don’t know what you mean. I don’t know if you mean a watercolor of a seagull at sunset or if it means showing your boobs in a church in Russia. They can both be art. As a term, it doesn’t fulfil the requirements of the word. At the same time, that makes it open. It’s a good general description of something where you can act freely.
Do you worry at all about any ramifications, in terms of doing a collaboration with one of the biggest fashion brands on earth?
— I don’t worry that much when it comes to this. I have a black belt in doubt and worry in life in general, but when it comes to art, for some reason, I don’t worry.
Is that part of why you’ve been successful, do you think?
— I’ve obviously been successful in finding a way that makes me worry less. I don’t work with handling other people’s reactions. That’s not my job. I’m here to do what I do, and then the reactions can be whatever they are.
You’re somehow able to not internalize that?
— Much more than in other parts of life, where I’m a scared, nervous wreck.
Can you give an example of another part of life where…?
— Every other part of life.
Like parenting, or surfing, or…
Is there ever vanity involved in what you do?
— There’s vanity involved in everything I do, except art.
— I would say that I can generate a lot of energy from vanity. Obviously, when it comes to what shoes to wear, vanity and pride is definitely a big flaw in my character. Again, while I’m involved in making art, it’s like another system is operating and that doesn’t have time for vanity. While I’m making and even showing art, it’s like that part of me is not present.
Is that why you like it?
— Of course, yeah. It’s an escape from everything that has to do with self‑criticism or doubt. That’s why the project is called The Great Escape, because it’s an escape from everything that is awful about being human, the insecurities. Even the fact that we are now living and we will die, which is an awful thought.
While doing research for this I saw photographs of you in an awesome looking suit in Miami opening an exhibition. It was an image of a successful artist doing his thing on the world stage. Did you have that image prior to starting your career?
— There’s two parts to that question. The one part is, yes, the image of the successful artist in a suit in Miami. There is the exhibition. I have to be there. Which means that I as a person will impact the exhibition. What type of role do I play in the exhibition. For me, to fit in as a piece in the exhibition, which I am when I’m there, it’s fairly easy to choose a role for that.
You think of it as a role.
— It’s definitely a role. When it comes to dreams and roles, I dreamed my whole childhood of becoming a world champion athlete. From skiing to tennis to golf. The dream of being a world champion athlete was strong for a long time until I discovered art. But I didn’t have any role models as world-class artists.
Do you still play golf?
— Yeah, a little bit.
I know you have this history of sports. Every time I visit your studio there are surfboards laying around. But there’s also family. I’m curious about the way you’ve chosen to build the life you have. You’ve somehow managed to spend a lot of time in warmer countries during winters. It seems to me you’ve made conscious decisions to design your world in the way you can.
— It’s been a conscious and unconscious decision at the same time, which makes it really strong. It’s a default mode. Why wouldn’t I do it? Obviously, it doesn’t make any sense at all to live full time in Sweden. Why would I live here all the time when the world is really big and there’s great places to visit? There would be limitations. Like, it’s expensive. Well, it’s not that expensive. The kids have to go to school. Yeah, there are schools everywhere. What if we miss an opportunity? I miss opportunities all the time if I’m in Sweden. It just makes perfect sense.
What I’m aiming for here in a way is that the way you do your art is kind of a limitless thing. You do it at a grand scale. It’s bigger than the last thing you did. It seems to me like you consciously just expand. There’s a sense that anything is possible through the way you approach life?
— I’ve had so much evidence to the fact that everything is possible. If I didn’t understand the fact that everything is possible, I would be dumb. To me, it’s been evident living life that everything is possible.
Do you think people are stuck in their limitations?
— I’ve had my mail come to 27 different addresses through my 46‑year‑old life. I’m sure there’s a diagnosis for that. I might just be a nomad who’s always on the run. I don’t know if this year in Sweden will change that. But ever since I can remember I’ve been dreaming about living in San Diego, which I have. The world is so small. It doesn’t make any sense to not explore it.
What sacrifices have you made in order to do what you do? Have you had to give up on friendships or family?
— Not really. The first time I travelled, right after high school, I travelled to get away from everything. It was an escape from the beginning. There’s so many limiting factors in the role that I see myself playing here in Sweden with the family that I come from and the city that I’ve grown up in. I think every member of a family picks a role and continue to play that role. The very first minute that I put my foot on American soil, those roles vanished and I was totally free.
When you moved there for school.
— Right. The freedom that I didn’t have to play these roles anymore. I could just relax and see what enfolded and who I would be in that situation. It was addictive and fantastic. I think without that, I wouldn’t be anywhere near doing what I do now. The same day that I was awarded the scholarship to go to Florida, I also got accepted to the business administration program at Uppsala Universitet and I was seriously considering both options.
”I have a black belt in doubt and worry in life in general, but when it comes to art, for some reason, I don’t worry.”
Sliding doors moment.
— Very sliding doors moment. I went to Florida on a golf scholarship. There was a layover in New York. I flew over and I sat next to a Swedish businessman and he asked me what I was going to do. I said I’m going on a golf scholarship. He said, ”The competition is really hard, right? How many pros are there that can live off it? It’s good that you also get an education at the same time because then you always have something to fall back to.”
The Swedish reasoning.
— I changed seats and for some reason, although I was long-haired and 18, they upgraded me to business class. I sat next to an American businessman. He asked me what I was going to do. I said I’m on a golf scholarship to Florida, somewhat excusing that. He said, ”Really! That is amazing! I may be sitting next to the next Arnold Palmer. I can’t believe it! What’s your name? I have to write it down! I’ll look for you in the future. That’s great. Good luck! That’s incredible.” Then that changed my view of the world.
That’s a great story… I’m curious about your process of doing research. Does that come naturally to you?
— Yeah, I’m a compulsive researcher of things that interest me. I’m always reading four books at the same time. About art or politics or golf or biology. I’m generally a curious person.
Are there things you’re learning right now that you can see are going to be part of your art in the future?
— I’m not intellectually involved in with what’s going to be part of my art in the future. I leave my thoughts out of it and trust intuition. But what if I could leave my thoughts out of my life?
What do you mean by that?
— The thoughts in my head. That chatter. That gets quiet when I’m doing art. Can I transfer that into life in general?
Have you found anything, any technologies?
— Not yet. Art, surf, golf, and sex are good practice grounds. But what if I could open up to every moment so that the energy channelled through me in art can be channelled through me in my whole life.
It almost sounds like you’re trying to escape consciousness.
— Escape to consciousness. If consciousness is the opposite of the shatter. If consciousness is the part that can observe the thoughts, then maybe consciousness could turn them off as well. At the same time, it’s what’s behind all of this that’s the most interesting. Who is observing the thoughts coming and going in the head? Who is observing the emotions that you and I feel? What is the guiding force that helps me know that this painting should be more or less turquoise? All I know is that that force is strong and powerful.
Do you want to unveil the intuition?
— No, I don’t need to intellectually understand it. I just want to live there more, if that makes sense. To me, it feels so much more powerful than what my intellect can come up with.
Is that freedom to you?
— Yes. That’s where the great escape into art has led to. It’s freedom.