My presentation at the ESA-Arts 11th midterm conference (Online) — THE SOCIAL EFFECTS OF ART, parallel session “Presentation and mediation of contemporary art” on Thursday 11th March 2021
In my dissertation (in the works) “The Uncanny Soul of A Place and A Being — A Meandering Encyclopedia on Curating, Communities and Contemporary Art” I study art as a place for mediating and producing knowledge beyond the traditional conception of knowledge. Art, as I see it’s task, should take ethics as a starting point. And still, it should be more than merely social practice or an instrument. I consider art as a collective entity with responsibilities and possibilities, and subversive power. This is where curators’ role is crucial: what kind of narratives are told, where, and how. Is the project supporting existing, possibly oppressive structures, or challenging them? Is it proposing alternatives? Who is included and who is excluded, how is the project made accessible? As examples, I use projects that I have realized together with different collectives during the past eight years, often in public or semi-public places outside art institutions, and often outside city centers. One motivation in these projects is the idea of practice as rooted and local, where it can then act as a platform for global and international art and theory. And, I believe, art today, especially the art of universities, institutions, and academies, is fundamentally global.
In contrast to this, local has been kind of a trend the past few years, but my question is if it is just a buzz word for international events and curators, a new land to conquer for organizers, or if the so-called local events are really connected to local environments, agencies, and practices. Globalization made the world shrink and the national borders almost to disappear, but the pandemic has again expanded it and made us very much aware of all the borders. Still, even when we cannot travel like we used to, or maybe especially because of that and all the events taking place online and therefore being accessible for everyone all over the world, there is no going back to “local” or “national” art practice. In Finland, the concept of “international” is highly appreciated, but I think that what is often meant by it is outdated and does not mean anything anymore. The concept of “international” is also linked to the idea of the grass being greener on the other side, and we need to rethink global and local also for the sake of understanding our surroundings better and increase the sense of meaningfulness in what we have near us. Instead of only watching National Geographic from the television, the world around us should be available and interesting. Finnish ecologist Ilkka Hanski writes how the images we have of our habitats have a great meaning: “…our notion of habitats may differ enormously from what really exists in nature. Our images of habitats have great significance, since the crucial politics related to the future of real habitats is constructed on them. People’s notions of the environment may become distorted or habitats may be forgotten for many reasons. Then there is a risk that they disappear in reality, too.” (Ilkka Hanski, 2007, 255) And this, I believe, is one of the strengths locally rooted art practices have: we can make our local environments visible, experienced, and meaningful, and this will also help in protecting them. When Porin kulttuurisäätö organized Sandstorm exhibition (2019) on the protected Yyteri dunes in collaboration with local authorities and ecologies, aiming for both increasing knowledges about the fragile nature of the area but also making it known beyond the mere beach area.
Working in the periphery, locally, provides freedom like this. We can create new ways to collaborate, find amazing new locations, and make more things possible for the artists: everything is cheaper, so we are not as dependent on funding, sponsors and markets. Working locally and in peripheries provides opportunities to rethink art’s relation to capitalism.
Working like this has also challenges; how to mediate the project for those who can’t visit in person, how to document them so that the experience of the works and the place is accessible?
New locality means new ways of working: for me, this means process-based collective and communal practices, but it also means mega-events and large biennials happening in the local context. Local practices mean engagement with different communities and audiences, but also biennalization and the periphery being exploited by this. Instead of merely visiting new places, I would want to see a curator as an anthropologist: not about conquering a place but learning it and getting to know it. Working locally creates possibilities to contemplate how to act against the fast circulation of events, goods, and ideas? Hou Hanru describes the twist between a new locality and globality in Towards a New Locality (2006): “Ideally, the concept of the locality should be culturally related to the local tradition but innovative and open to international exchanges”. We also need to be aware of different understandings of “international”: if it is the shiny biennials or the multicultural suburbs. Jan Verwoert: Forget the National: Perform the International in the Key of the Local (and vice versa) (2007): “the international usually arrives, not from the centre, but from the margins it inhabits, that is, from urban spaces”
I studied in Pori, a smallish town in western Finland when Aalto University had their international Visual Culture’s MA programme there. Our collective’s practice is also rooted in Pori and strongly impacted by our education: diversity of expertise professionals from different parts of the world brought in, collaboration with local practitioners, institutions, and authorities, and taking art, research, and teaching out of the academy, studios, galleries, and classrooms. Everything happened at an intersection of global thinking and local settings. We have started, half-jokingly, to call this Pori School, and you can read more about it from the book Intervention to Urban Space — Experimental Intervention as a Tool For Artistic Research and Education (2018) that we wrote together with Taina Rajanti and Denise Ziegler.
“osloBIENNALEN FIRST EDITION 2019–2024 opened on May 25 2019, launching a new biennial model. Its five-year evolving program of art in public space is supported by praxis and infrastructures aimed at fostering and facilitating art practices that engage with the contingency, latency, flux, and vulnerability of public space and the public sphere. In this way, osloBIENNALEN has brought two traditionally distinct art fields together: the biennial and art in public space. “
Oslo biennale has been a brave attempt to break the expectations of a biennial as a hyper event happening every second year. They have expanded the duration for five years and taken the biennial to public space and everyday locations. As an experiment, it is very interesting. They have, however, also faced the common problems: international artists have mostly only visited Oslo shortly before realizing their works, the event has remained obscure for the local public, and the local actors have, at least in some cases, felt left out, even if involving local practices and knowledge might have been one of the goals.
Our collective Porin kulttuurisäätö has organized Pori Biennale since 2014. The event is based on site-specificness, collaboration, and flexibility, which became crucial in 2020. When we started the biennale was supposed to be a one-time gesamtkunstwerk studying the concept of a biennale and the city, but it proved to be too good of a tool for researching and deconstructing the idea of an exhibition: what and how is presented and where. Throughout the years we have been thinking about the multiple aspects of accessibility and environment, collaborations and experiences created: the value of a place is sometimes worth fewer visitors, and when working in a fragile environment too many visitors can be a threat. Also, the locals are visitors too — a fact that sometimes seems to be forgotten. But how to mediate the project and the experience for those who cannot join in person, and, on the other hand, how to respect and care for the environment and the local community?
The fourth Pori Biennale, Not to Sing Like a City Bird Sings, was supposed to open for the public in June 2020. The focus of the biennale was to open up the archive of artworks, acts and interventions realized in Reposaari over years by master students of Aalto University. The core was to highlight research-based practices and site-specific art, this time in Reposaari. The main location was set to be an old environmental research center, once operated by the University of Turku and where many of the Aalto courses took place, whilst the rest of the biennale was planned to spread to the unique nature from forests to beaches. But like for many others, the ongoing global COVID-19 crisis forced us not only to re-evaluate these plans but also to react. And having already thought a lot about mediating and documenting it was not easy, but possible to change the format. It was, however, heartbreaking, as this project summarizes many things I have learned about local practices: how knowledge is created during years and years of practice, visiting and revisiting, and how these years provide knowledge about the impact a place has on art realized there. I have seen similar forms and gestures appear year after year, always by new groups of people. Visiting the place once or twice would have offered a completely different prospect.
RADIO STATION and T.E.H.D.A.S. ry
As an example of an interesting and quite remote local practice, I present T.E.H.D.A.S. ry, Radioasema &Veistospuiso (sculpture park): long-term funding and support are needed for long-term impacts. In this case, the city and collaboration are making things possible. The collective and organization were given this old radio station for them to develop and maintain. It is placed next to a suburban area with a bad reputation, where many (short-term) communal projects have taken place. Over the years the collective has created a sculpture garden and organized annual exhibitions that have a very strong unique appearance. However, this uniqueness can also be alienating and create problems with connectedness both to local agencies and to the global art world. They could be a good example of local practice if people would know about it, the local inhabitants and the global art world. Also, they would probably learn a lot from other similar initiatives if they were more open to practices from the outside: a distant place might need a bit more noise.
MALTFABRIKKEN AND MALT AIR RESIDENCY
Last autumn I was in a residency in Denmark, in Maltfabrikken: “The Malt AIR residence is located in the heart of the small town of Ebeltoft. It is part of the new cultural center in and around Maltfabrikken. The three institutions: Maltfabrikken, Kunsthal Aarhus, and The Danish Art Workshops have collaborated to create a high-quality residency for professional international artists with attractive living and working facilities, and promoting the development of a broad network within the Danish art scene.”
Maltfabrikken is a good example of a local practice happening in an international context: the old factory was bought by locals and turned into a multidisciplinary cultural center: there is a library, restaurants, studios, and a residency, and it is collaborating with various institutions, for example, Kunsthal Aarhus and The Danish Art Workshops.
Space Invaders is a project run by Eliisa Suvanto and myself. Since 2013 it has taken place in different empty or partially unused spaces. It can be observed as a micro example of the questions related to local and global: are we actually working with and for the local community, or against it? Are we speeding up the gentrification process and creating surplus value for the big companies, instead of creating possibilities for artists and new audiences, who benefit from the work we do? As we haven’t had much funding it has been built on already existing resources and collaborations with different cities and universities, and this has provided us valuable information about each location. But still, there are always surprises. Failure as a method refers to the fact that failing creates knowledge and we should not be afraid of it, even if it is not nice. We have learned that even if we think bringing art to different neighborhoods is a good idea, the inhabitants may hate it; we can’t predict how our projects are perceived but the feedback is always precious, and sometimes even created new projects.
Instead of concluding things, at the moment, I seem to have more questions than answers. Many people seemed to have, already at the beginning of the pandemic, comprehensive views and opinions. I am not one of those people. I have no idea what will happen, or even what is happening right now. How this will change the art world, how the pandemic changes our conception and how we perceive “local” and “global” and how do we mediate and exhibit art in the future?
How do we maintain the networks created when we do not accidentally meet when we do not come together in the same rooms, seminars, conferences, symposiums, and events? Where do we find inspiration when the magic of art, experiences, and encounters does not feed our curiosity and imagination?
Hou Hanru & Jan Verwoert: Situation. Documents of Contemporary Art. (2009) Ed. Claire Doherty. The MIT Press & Whitechapel Gallery.
Malt AIR is a collaboration between Maltfabrikken, Kunsthal Aarhus and The Danish Art Workshops, and the programme is…