Paper adventures in hi-fi. Catching up with artist and editor Niko Vartiainen

This Turku, Finland-based artist, with his work as an artist, as well as his work as an editor and publisher, is one of the key figures who have helped to develop collage and take it into new territories in the last decade. It’s always interesting to talk to Niko to find out what he’s up to, and since we hadn’t talked to him in a long time, we proposed to do a DM interview to catch up and talk about what we like most: art, projects, collage and our obsessions.

TWS – I checked and our last interview was in late February 2020, just weeks before the pandemic started. So many things happened in the last 2 years, that it seems ages ago…

NV –Yeah, 2 years feels almost like a decade …at least if I try to remember all the things what have happened

TWS – Absolutely! Especially these last 2 years…

How do you feel things have changed for you these last 2 years? Anything special to mention? Or going on the same path you were before?

NV – Hmmmm… I feel like I’m on the same path although so much has happened. I could say that the main road/path is still the same but like always in life, there have been some twists and turns, ups and downs…

Niko Vartiainen, Common Sense, paper collage

TWS – I feel the same way… Sometimes it seems that if we don’t add an extra layer of depth after all this that happened we’re wrong… but I guess we just keep on living.

NV – I think that the past two years have forced me to mature up and really point my focus on the things I want to do instead going everywhere….

TWS – Sounds like a great outcome of the pandemic. And where’s your focus right now?

NV –The whole The Cutting Chaos book project was such a struggle but same time I learned so much about myself, my creative process… It helped me to realize a certain lurking potential about myself. The whole thing really encouraged me to move my focus to the editing/curating side of the art stuff.

I still do personal art and I have goals in that area but now I want to execute all these art projects I have in my mind

TWS –That was something that you had been exploring for quite a long time. In fact in our latest interview your curatorial / editorial work was divided between your online publishing with Toombes and your zine publishing mainly with Cults of Life. But now it seems that paper publishing has taken over your life in a greater way. 

How did Sutta Press, your latest endeavour, started?

NV – I’m a DIY guy till I die. If I have even the slightest feeling that I can do it by myself I’ll do it. I don’t like to give the strings to other people’s hands… at least when it comes to art. In my past experience, that has usually meant that I am forced to do compromises. And if I do it by myself, the outcome is what I want. My wife might say I’m stubborn but… 😀

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the easiest way in the end. The downside is that if things end up shit, it’s my fault. I don’t have anyone to blame…

By starting Sutta Press, basically, I just WANTED to do things a bit professionally/officially. And when it was time to do the book, it was a natural step to take.

The Cutting Chaos, published by Sutta press and edited by Niko Vartiainen

TWS –I guess you have a very clear vision of what you want and that acts as a driving force to work hard and achieve your goals.

NV – Yeah, I’d say I’m very goal-oriented.

TWS –Yes! That’s a nicer way to put it 🙂

And how would you describe Sutta Press’ editorial / curatorial spirit?

NV – The core idea: If I have for a publication or I like the idea of the publication I’ll do it. I want to publish and showcase a great variety of collage-related zines and books.

For example, I was contacted by collage artist Erick Baltodano Bazán from Peru. He asked if he could pitch me the idea for the zine he had. I really liked his works and concept, so next we now, The UNREMASTERED zine was released 😀

TWS – I was going to ask you about that too… How do you select projects? 

The selection process is straightforward: I publish things if I like what I see. It’s simple as that. I need the like/love the work/works. I don’t have any kind of educational art background so I don’t care about certain kind of approach where you need to read the idea to feel the actual work.

TWS – Do you feel that not having this art background helps you to have a fresher / less judgemental view on art?

NV – Definitely. I can go just with my gut feeling – whether I like it or not.
I feel like it saves me from (in my opinion) pointless judging or weighing if the artwork is this or that.

TWS – And how do you shape Sutta’s projects?

NV – I have notepad where I write down all my ideas. And then, some of those ideas stay with me and then start to “haunt” me, and won’t let go until I do something with them.

Then if I plan to do zine or book, I start to process the idea slowly and I want to try to find a different angle for it. There are so many zines and publications that I don’t want to drown in the mass.

For example, the Cults of Life – the basic idea is that it’s an open call/submission-based zine. I give you a theme and anyone can submit. Simple as that. But I have to admit that I really struggled with this matter at one point when there were 100 similar zines coming out. But now for me as an editor/curator, the carrying thought of Cults is its continuity. I started it back in 2014 and 8 years later it keeps going on to showcase beautiful glimpses of contemporary collaging… and people still like it 😀 

TWS – Eight years with Cults of Life seems like a nice thing to keep up. How do you feel it has changed in its 8 years of life? if you see the first one and the last one, how are they different?

NV – Outside the first and the latest look still the same. I wanted the zine to have a simple & recognizable cover (only the cover color changes) so that the reader has to open it to see what’s going on.

The biggest difference has to be my curatorial & editorial skills. In the first couple of issues, I just put pages together. But now, the most important part of building the zine is creating the journey around the theme with the submitted/selected works. When I’m going thru the works I love how the works from different artists start to pair up, it’s like I know immediately when I see some of the works that this is going to be perfect with that one etc.

I feel like that now my job as the editor of Cults is to build a story with the given works – Artists are given a chance to play around with the theme and then it’s my turn to play with the submitted works to build a puzzle which reflects the theme as one.

I’m aiming for 10 years mark 😀 it would be so cool to have zine that has a decade long history.

Niko Vartiainen, Going, paper collage

TWS – Will collage be at the core of Sutta? Or will you include other mediums like you do at Toombes?

NV – Collage will be the core. At least for now. It’s so easy for me to act with that medium because of my knowledge of artists/personal artist background etc.

But like you mentioned Toombes, there’s a big possibility that in the future there will be also publications outside the “collage sector”. I really love photo books and zines so that’s definitely one path I’m interested…

TWS – I like that approach that you have with Toombes. It’s like a window to your interests and likes, which in my opinion is what has a great value and nobody will do it better than you 🙂

NV – Oh thank you <3

TWS – I feel is both bold and honest.

You mentioned that The Cutting Chaos was the project that made you focus on publishing in a renewed way. Tell us more about this book.

NV – THE CUTTING CHAOS is my ode to the collage workspaces. In the book, 28 collage artists around the world showcase their creative spaces thru their own eyes. 

Personally,  I like to have a relatively clean table with all tools and materials quite well organized when I start collaging. But while cutting, the mess turns into chaos and all the surfaces are covered with magazines, books, cutting tools, and clippings. So I could say that this project is fueled by my curiosity, I wished to see how or in which kind of environment other artists create their magical artworks. I wanted the book to have a quite raw and honest approach so I asked each artist to present the spaces as they see and feel them without much of an art directional dictating. With the photos, each artist had the same 7 questions to answer about the workspace or their relationship to it.

There’s also another kind of reason for me doing this book. It took me 1,5 years to tame that 244-paged beast and the whole process was such an emotional rollercoaster and it’s interesting to notice how contradictory I (still) feel about it. This might sound weird – I’m super proud of the book and it’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done, but when I started the project, I was a human wreck… The company I had founded filed a bankruptcy, and years of mistreating myself led to collapsing and struggling with very negative thoughts and even suicidal behavior. Then after the worst waves, I felt I need some kind of personal project so that I could focus on something else than my problems. And so this project got started…

I had made zines etc but nothing in this size range so working through the design process was very educational. I was forced to do and think about all these things differently than I had used to. There were a lot of errors and trials but hey, that’s how you learn…

The Cutting Chaos, published by Sutta press and edited by Niko Vartiainen

TWS – We’ve seen the launch of some new collage related editorial projects lately with different approaches and targets. Is there any of them that excites you the most?

NV – This is a good question. There are continuously happening, but I’d say these do ”the thing” for me:

* I really like the Contemporary Collage Magazine. When they launched I was ”daaamn, this is such a brilliant idea”

* Weird Show podcast – it was really cool to actually hear artists’ thoughts in their own words

* 46pgs & Plastik Comb: both hailing for the grunge/wilder styles, which is my “soft spot”.

And then there’s always a bunch of artists who are pushing the boundaries of the medium and have interesting projects going.

TWS – Where do you feel that Toombes / Sutta / Niko would like to be positioned in the contemporary collage landscape? (or outside the contemporary collage tag maybe…)

NV – These are super good questions but I don’t want to admit anything 😀

Generally, I think it’s a bit hard to say because all my projects are so tightly tied to me as a person and as an artist. All my projects come and inspect from different angles the medium but still, they reflect strongly on my personal likes/interests. 

So the actual question should be “how I’d like to position myself in the contemporary collage landscape?” and for that, I don’t have clue. I think it’s the audience that defines that. I just keep doing my things. Like a workhorse. I have to admit that of course, I’d like to leave some kind of mark of myself on the pages of the medium. Not necessarily as an artist but I think it would be cool that someday when time has gone by someone refers to me or my projects and think of me as that crazy Finnish dude who just kept going 😀 😀 😀 😀

And then, how would I like to be differentiated from the other editorial efforts? Hmmm… this really forced me to think and analyze my doings but as boring it sounds, I think the answer goes hand in hand with the previous answer: Whatever I do I want it to be connected to myself, I need to see myself in everything I’m doing. I think that’s the core thing. 

Niko Vartiainen, Looking for Something, Paper collage

TWS – It seems that your publishing practice has taken time for your personal art practice. How are you balancing both sides?

NV – That’s true, all these projects take time from making art. But like I said earlier, now I want to focus and evolve as editor&curator and learn that side of this art game. So basically it was a decision I needed to make and then live for it.

I still do collages almost daily but the main focus (focus = time) is on other things.

And I have still personal art projects I’m working on and going to execute… for example, in May 2022 I’m going to do a collage art experience in a local art gallery. It’s going to around the theme of the book (The Cutting Chaos) – I’m going to turn the art gallery into my personal collage studio. I’m going to spend a week there just doing collages, messing the place up, and living the dream 😀

TWS – I was just about to ask you about that exhibition. Collage has a very performative side, but also it uses to be quite an intimate one. What would you like to achieve sharing this space and moment with an audience?

NV – Personally, I love to see how artists work, what kind of spaces they have, what kind of creative process they have, how they behave while doing.. that was one of the things I tried to showcase through the book. To give a sneak peek at, like you said, very intimate moments. So now I want to give the opportunity to the audience to see how I’m doing it. 

And the same time I’m very curious how I feel & react to this as a collage artist – Can I work if someone is watching? How does the space etc affect my creativity? I originally planned something like this when the book came out but the final parts of the publishing&releasing were so emotionally draining that, to be honest, I couldn’t handle the thought of being in “the spotlight” for a week. But now I feel like I’m ready.

I believe it’s going to be a very interesting experience for both sides – for me and for the audience. And the fact that it goes on for a whole week, I can’t wait to see how the gallery takes it as a space.

TWS – Sounds like an amazing experiment because there’s no planned outcome. It will be interesting for both sides

NV – exactly

Niko Vartiainen, Teach Them Young, Paper collage

TWS – Is there any other future Sutta / Toombes / Niko release that you’d like to share with us?

NV – hmmmm… there are all kinds of stuff I’m working on… Let me think… The Cutting Chaos art show, four-part collage NFT series, Cults #11, another book, a few other zines… sorry but I can’t think of anything I’d need to share. There’s so much, there’s just too much.

Find more of Niko’s work on his website and instagram.
Find Sutta Press’ releases on their website and instagram

Niko Vartiainen, Price is Right, Paper collage
Niko Vartiainen, The Bride, Paper collage
Niko Vartiainen, The Decission, Paper collage
Niko Vartiainen, Trying Hard, Paper collage
Niko Vartiainen, Wisdom pt. 2, Paper collage
Niko Vartiainen, Hiding From The World pt. 2, Paper collage
Niko Vartiainen, No Rest For The Wicked, Paper collage