Erik Åberg is a Swedish juggler, juggling historian, and inventor who is known for a wide variety of accomplishments both within the juggling community and outside of it. He is one of modern juggling’s most respected thinkers, researchers, and inventors, as well as being an in-demand performer. Let’s learn more about Erik and his diverse body of work.
Can you please tell us about your background before juggling and how you got started juggling?
I grew up in the north of Sweden, in a small town called Skellefteå, and lived there until 1997. I always had an affection for things that had a hidden aspect, a secret or a cleverness to them. When I was young and on vacation with my family in Paris, I got a book about labyrinths, which had a big impact on me. At the same time I was reading about Greek mythology which is a lot about zodiac signs and in the story of Hercules, he goes into a labyrinth to face the Minotaur. I was very into mythical creatures, riddles, and magic from a design aspect, which I realized later. It was the look, the design and the aesthetics of a labyrinth or a mythical creature that drew my attention. Then reading the Belgian comic Tintin (which is huge in Europe, but seems less known in the USA), there are a lot of things such as hidden rooms, trap doors, secret headquarters under the water, secret submarines, secret brotherhoods, and all this “beneath the surface stuff,” and I was so into it. As I was getting older, I discovered ninjas, secret assassin weapons; all the ninja stuff totally blew my mind. I rented every movie I could find that had the word “ninja” in the title or a ninja on the cover.
I got a skateboard in 1987 and that was definitely a life changer. It is almost a cliché these days to say that, because so many creative people come from skateboarding, but it was true for me as well. I was in Frankfurt in the late 80s and saw something I would never forget. I saw a skateboarder ollie over a shopping cart. I could not believe it. It was as if I had just witnessed levitation or magic. The idea that a skill like that could be achieved by practice took over my life from that point.
I was always very passionate about my interests and constantly had some thing that was occupying my mind to an extreme; something I would always be thinking about it, trying to redefine it, find the secret, the code, the hidden, or the unknown. I was always about exploring and understanding more, and deeper.
School was never interesting for me. There was nothing at stake, no passion. When I noticed that the teachers also did not really care about the subject either, why would I? School was just another thing in the line of stuff I could compromise in order to get more time skating or writing. I wrote a fanzine when I was a teenager and I skipped a lot of school in order to get it done or find material for it. Back then, I had a guilty consciousness about it. I tried to be a good kid, and I really wanted to respect the teacher and the subject I was supposed to study for, but if it interfered with the same night I had to make 400 copies of my zine, and hand staple them, that was an easy sacrifice. Now, looking back I am happy I was able to make those decisions, skipping school for my initiative in an artistic field. In one way I wish there would have been someone telling me back then, this is totally the right thing, school comes in second. But I guess I still got to where I am today despite that, so it does not matter.
I was very interested in magic tricks. This was before the days of the internet and it was difficult to learn about magic, being isolated and on my own in the north of Sweden. When I was a teenager, I got into punk and hardcore music and stared a record label with a friend from Hong Kong. I moved there in 1997 to pursue a career as a music producer.
When you grow up in a small town like I did, big cities can easily get a magical feel. I think for me it’s the input, wherever you turn there is input: Information, architecture, projects, fashion, people, ideas. It can be overwhelming and inspiring, especially when you are young and have been used to knowing everything and all seems dull and old and tried.
Around 1994, a friend showed me how the cascade worked. I knew of juggling, and had been trying every once in a while to learn a shower, which was what I thought juggling was. My friend could not do the three ball cascade, but had understood the pattern and its difference from the shower pattern.
I learned, and a few years later I saw the skateboard/juggling film Caught Clean in ’97 or ’98 and that was huge. Juggling slowly took over skateboarding and I got into a circus school in Stockholm and studied juggling between 1999-2003.
What do you specialize in as a performing juggler?
My first specialization was head rolls with balls. I worked on that quite intensively from about 2000-2006 and developed a lot of patterns. When I started doing head rolls, site swap wasn’t as established as it is today, and most tricks had individual names, like Diego’s Disaster, Dave’s Dilemma etc. I treated head rolls as a technique where I tried to come up with as many variations with as little difference as possible, to maximize the vocabulary of tricks. I do not think anyone had investigated a single idea that deeply before I did (although it is possible) but I was inspired to work like this from discussing with Maksim Komaro (who was my teacher 2000-2002) and Denis Paumier, who both had many suggestions on how to research juggling in order to come up with variations. Around 2007, I visited Karl-Heinz Ziethen for the first time and he showed me the act of Ugo Garrido who had developed an entire act based on just kick ups, already in the 1960s, so that could be an exception. Ugo had learned what is now known as the standard kick up from the passing team Del Rey Brothers, and developed it for solo juggling.
My next research was with clubs, and that started probably around 2005. I figured that if I could get as many variations as I had, from head rolls, I could do the same with another technique with another prop. Perhaps even a technique I invented, because I did not invent the basic head roll (that was Rastelli). I searched for many months before I found how to swing a club with my chin from shoulder to shoulder. That became the foundation for another plethora of tricks, that I call chin swings. I have done similar research with rings and with clubs.
My next idea was to invent an object that was new and unique, and rather than developing variations of a trick, I would invent variations of that object. That research led to the GHOSTKUBE, which is different structures of moving cubes in three dimensions. This is what I have been focused on since about 2010.
What have been some of your career highlights?
I have always prioritized the artistic process first and then tools and resources for art production second. So, I would say career highlights for me are perhaps a bit boring for others, but they are things like getting a better table saw or studio space.
Jay Gilligan, Wes Peden, Patrik Elmnert, and Erik Åberg
In terms of performing I was invited to the world science festival in Moscow, and that was a great experience. Theo Jansen was there too, and a bunch of really interesting people that I got to spend time with, as well as see their work live. I have done several tours all over the world with Jay Gilligan and that has been a great collaboration.
You’re also known as one of the world’s top juggling historians. Can you please tell us about your work in that field?
In my very first years of juggling, I got a hold of the book 3 ball Digest by Dick Franco. It has a photo collection in the back, and I remember trying to imitate the poses of Bobby May. In 2007, Jay Gilligan was working in the Wintergarten in Berlin, and I went to visit him. He knew Karl-Heinz and suggested we went to speak to him, which we did. With Karl-Heinz, I got to flip through his books and ask questions about the pictures on the pages. It opened up a whole new world for me. I vowed I would go on a pilgrimage and visit every knowledgeable person on juggling history that I could find, which I spent the years 2007-2014 doing. Since about 2009 I have done intensive research in the juggler Paul Cinquevalli (1859-1918), who was the first juggling superstar, and in a sense the first juggler as far as what juggling looks like today. I have gathered over 2000 news clippings from his career and hope to write about him eventually.
You have probably seen more historical juggling collections and archives than anyone else in the world. Can you briefly tell us about those?
After spending some time with Karl-Heinz, I realized that there was a number of older gentlemen in the world that sat on some pretty significant collections and knowledge that could easily get lost. There is somewhat of a gap in the interest of juggling history. When the IJA was in its initial form, around 1940-1960, many people seemed to have an interest, but when those generations started to fade away, the newer generations of jugglers had a different approach. So I decided I would be a hardcore enthusiast of juggling knowledge and I wowed to go on a pilgrimage to visit all the knowledgeable people in the world, talk to them, and see their collections. That was a period in my life 2007-2014 I would say. The last I visited was Larry Weeks in Brooklyn, just a few months before he passed. I have visited Hermann Sagemüller in Germany, Björn Gammals and Solmu Makela in Finland, Dennis Soldati in New Jersey, and Markschiess Van-Trix in Berlin.
Erik visiting with Hermann Sagemüller
In 2013, both David Cain and Paul Bachman exhibited their collections at the IJA festival in Bowling Green, Ohio. That was an amazing experience and a nexus in juggling history, with so many props on display at the same time. Since then, I have visited David and Scott Cain on several occasions to follow the growth of their massive collection.
David Cain, Paul Bachman, and Erik Åberg
You are famous for your invention of the moving, morphing sculptures known as GHOSTKUBES. Can you tell us about your journey with GHOSTKUBES?
I researched juggling history and discovered the old time jugglers that had to make their objects themselves, because there was no juggling manufacturers or juggling stores. It was a time before balls, clubs and rings had been established as standard juggling objects. Any everyday object could be used for juggling, like coins, cigars, hats, canes or bottles. I was thinking about using that same process for a modern juggler, and that it would bring interesting results. I was also looking at sculptors and realized they could create any object or form. What if jugglers would work in this way too? These thoughts resulted in a new creative process. It has two parts. First, the research and creation of an object first, and then after, the manipulation of that object.
In this process I created the GHOSTKUBE, which is a configuration of moving cubes in a 3D structures. I found hundreds of variations. In 2014, a video of the sculptures went viral on YouTube and many people wanted to buy the GHOSTKUBES. So, I started to work on a plastic system, like a lego but for GHOSTKUBES. They are inspired by origami and can be manipulated with the hands to change shape. The GHOSTKUBE is now launched on Kickstarter.
Here is a link to the campaign: https://kck.st/2UFshxg
What are your next goals with juggling and with GHOSTKUBES?
I will first see how well the kickstarter does. But it is also interesting to share the work, I have not really showed anything for the past four years. Juggling wise, I want to do more writing and researching! I would like to make proper documentation of the four techniques I invented. Head roll patterns with balls, chin swings with clubs, ring hits (from the head) with rings, and traps with cigar boxes. I have been working on a definition for juggling for a few years, and that needs to be published. 2019 will be interesting.