Otto Karvonen

Otto Karvonen, Wobbly Prospects, 2008. Photograph by Alex Wolkowicz

Otto Karvonen, Wobbly Prospects, 2008. Photograph by Alex Wolkowicz

Otto Karvonen, Wobbly Prospects, 2008. Photograph by Alex Wolkowicz

Traffic signage sits somewhere between the universal and the particular. A predominantly pictorial language, it is clearly intended to be universally understood; yet local variations in pictograms often reveal more about the character of a particular country than their traffic regulations. Representations of the ubiquitous ‘green man’, for example, can range from a calm and confident stride to an Olympic sprint, and he has even been known to appear, on occasion, as a woman. The result is a semi-universal code recast in a multitude of local idioms.

Otto Karvonen's (b. 1975, Helsinki) installation for Liverpool Biennial 2008 explored precisely this slippage between the universal and the individual in our experience of the city. In a series of signs distributed along the MADE UP route, Karvonen crossbred personal observation with the formal language of street signage which in turn revealed the cityscape as a series of overlapping and modulated realities. He was keenly aware that the experience of a city depends on personal history and identity as much as the bricks and mortar which define the physical limits of a place: ‘When I'm staying abroad in an unfamiliar place I start to automatically look for resemblances and draw parallels between places, apparently in order to locate my own identity in relation to the new surroundings. We carry our places of importance with us in memory and longing, and always project something of them onto the new places we visit and inhabit.’

Karvonen’s signs mixed the instructional or directional with the emotional to create an experiential guide to the city. The familiar signing of a major junction was refigured as a tangled morass of roundabouts and turnings, each leading not to a destination, but to a choice of behaviours, from ‘dignity’ to ‘compromise’. His reworking of the ‘men at work’ sign showed a small figure with a shovel standing at the foot of a mammoth mound of earth. This may have captured how many of us feel on our way to work, but it could have equally referred to the building work dominating the city centre, largely carried out by a growing population of migrant workers from Eastern Europe. Based in part on interviews with individuals who offered different perspectives on reality (from foreign nationals to people with mental health problems), Karvonen’s signs suggested the myriad realities that make up a city.

Karvonen has used the language of street signage in earlier work to reveal the unspoken codes governing our daily interactions with one another.  Please Act Like Nothing Happened (2002) is a permanent sign, styled and placed to look like a street name sign, which playfully endorses a frequent if unacknowledged form of behaviour in public space. In Nothing to See (2003) a conspicuous construction made of security fencing and luminous ticker tape is prominently labelled ‘nothing to see’. As ‘artworks’, Karvonen’s signs are easy to miss. Yet in speaking the language of urban life so fluently, they gently encourage us to see what is right under our noses.

Otto Karvonen at Liverpool Biennial 2008

Wobbly Prospects
, 2008
A series of signs distributed along the MADE UP route
Commissioned by Liverpool Biennial 2008
Public realm

Supported by

Northwest Regional Development Agency
Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
FRAME Finnish Fund for Art Exchange
Embassy of Finland, London
The Finnish Institute in London