The art of doing two things at a time

Lovely Taidekirppis invited me to do a Live session about my dissertation with them on Satuday the 2nd of May, here is what I said, or was meant so say, while talking and repotting my plants:

“Audre Lorde taught me that introducing ourselves matter; naming yourself, saying who you are, making clear values, cares, concerns, and commitments, matters. Each time you write or you speak you are putting yourself into a world that is shared”

That was Sara Ahmed in the introduction to Audre Lorde’s Your Silence Will Not Protect You, and I am Anna Jensen, and I am going to talk about my research, my dissertation in the process The Uncanny Soul of a Place and a Being — A Cartographic Encyclopedia on Curating, Communities, and Contemporary Art.

Thank you for the invitation Taidekirppis! I believe that every time you speak about your work, verbalize it and mediate it, it becomes clearer and you make new connections and get new ideas. I also believe in sharing things, and I miss all the encounters happening in real life. Now, because of the pandemic and the lockdown I can’t speak to you in person, I cannot share thoughts and ideas with you in person, in same space, I am using my plants to be here for me and present the energy of living creatures. And, in a way they are the perfect audience — even if they are being very disapproving and judgmental, I wouldn’t understand.

As this is a talk about my research, I, first of all, want to thank Kone Foundation for making it possible. It has made all the difference to be able to fully concentrate on it. I have been working on my Ph.D. already for a while but was struggling with the form. The old joke says that in theory there is no gap between practice and theory, but in practice there is. And I got stuck in this gap and it took a while to get up from there. My background is both in fine arts and in theory. Before moving to Aalto University, I was studying Aesthetics, philosophy of art, at the University of Helsinki, and the reason to move to Pori to do an MA in Aalto’s Visual Culture program was to combine theory and practice. The main focus of the MA program was theory and research-based and socially engaged practice, that was site-specific and usually happening outside classrooms, studios, galleries, and museums. Not only did the program teach us about all this, but it also brought us together with same minded people. We were able to collectively start exploring new ways of making and exhibiting art in different locations and often in the context of the public sphere.

So, in my artistic practice combining practice and theory has been a success: we have managed to make a large amount of artistically and visually interesting projects based on different research questions. I am eternally grateful for my friends, colleagues, and collectives: Anni Venäläinen and Eliisa Suvanto from Porin kulttuurisäätö, and all the artists we have worked with during the years. Without all the work we have done together and all the conversations we have had I wouldn’t be here and my research wouldn’t be what it is. Space Invaders, a project bringing different practices and different pieces of knowledge together, that we have realized with Eliisa since 2013 yearly in different locations, has also had a massive impact. So has Andrea Coyotzi Borja and How to Life, a project of lowering our expectations below average for the be able to cope with failure: failure, that is an essential part of trying to reach the unknown, nonknowledge, infraordinary and uncanny. How to Life happens in between what in life is organized and structured, and what disturbs and disrupts this coherence. What escapes structuring and organizing often escapes naming and conceptualizing, and is therefore difficult to capture. Studying this kind of phenomenon is like feeling out something in the dark. The process begins with intuition and takes us to strange paths. And to have the courage to go towards darkness and these strange paths requires trust, so working collectively and working with the unknown is what has made trust and friendship key terms in my research. And intuition.

Working intuitively has also brought me here today, both with the plants and with my dissertation. I have been living with both of them for years, yet I know quite little about them. I find them meaningful, relevant, and dear. They can also be uncanny: when you start digging deeper you can find things you didn’t expect. They need time, and they need care, and still, you can never tell if they are going to flourish or if they are going to die.

But back to my dissertation, and how Kone grant help to solve the form (my professor may disagree if it is ‘solved’ or turned into strange, uncanny chaos) and find out what is it that I am doing, and have been doing, throughout my, or more likely, our practice. In our practice combining theory and practice has been self-evident, in my big D, where it is supposed to be the core of it, not so much. For a long time, I was writing it in two parts: the first part, the soul, was about theory, that was about the uncanny, what escapes naming, death, as what defines our lives, and the undead as something that escapes definition. Things I find important, but that are not so evidently visible in my practice. Which, in a way, is natural, as by definition the unheimlich, or the uncanny, is something that is hidden, not familiar, not immediately visible, but more like an eerie feeling. The second part, the place, was about practice: descriptions and reflections of the projects we have done during the years. The results — even though I am a bit hesitant to use the word ‘results’ as it immediately seems to refer to this neoliberal idea of research as something that merely presents the path to the already resulted outcome, and to something stable and fixed, while results can’t be fixed in a world that is in a constant change and flux, and so the results and how they are interpreted will not stay the same either — were supposed to emerge in the dialogue between these two parts. Unfortunately, however hard I tried, the dialogue never really happened.

It was time to deconstruct and collect and revisit the bits and pieces that are my practice, and my theory.

Almost every time I talk, teach, write, present, I try to highlight how thinking and doing never happens in a vacuum, or alone: we always think and work in a network of other thinkers, writers, artists, concepts, ideas, and practices. What we consider ‘our practice’, where we think our authorship and ownership is located, is a crossroad and a rhizome of a billion different things, practical and theoretical. And, even if the tradition since cartesian dualism has taught us that the mind is more important than the body, this is not true. Knowledge and art are about experiences, and experiences have spatial, embodied dimensions. And these are all dimensions that together constitute what is my practice and my theory, that is the same thing. I started mapping different things and aspects that not only constitute my practice, but also my main thesis: that art is a collectively and communally meaningful practice that creates and mediates knowledge, that in this case is understood beyond its conventional and verbal conceptualization, and therefore art has a lot of potentials: it has possibilities, but also responsibilities. Saying this I do, to some degree, question the traditional idea of art’s autonomy — I do think art needs its independence, but as always: with freedom comes responsibility.

It is not like these questions have not been thought or discussed, but what we now have witnessed is a generation of artists taking this responsibility as a starting point for their practice. A diverse group of artists with multiple voices has been able to not only question existing structures and power relations but to produce alternative ways of doing things. Instead of maintaining the myth of the lonely (white, male) genius whose power is more often destructive than constructive, this stereotype is slowly but surely dismantled. This process opens to both ecological and ethical directions: how do we justify what we do and how we do it, do we understand the effects and consequences of what our practice has, and do we care?

For a long time, art has, maybe most of all among artists, been understood as something that is essentially and ontologically good. This has led to a situation where nature, globe, environment, and other beings, human animals, and animal animals have been exploited. Self-reflection, admitting mistakes, giving up old habits, and trying to revisit and renew one’s practice is never easy. It is exhausting, and we need support, new structures, and new approaches. My dissertation is one of these approaches, an attempt to try to collect and mediate concepts and themes and practices that are relevant today. It is a cartographic encyclopedia, meaning that it is an encyclopedia that does not pretend to cover and know everything. Instead, it tries to pinpoint things and create routes and paths. It tries to note the unknown and acknowledge that we have blind spots, even if unraveling them is impossible.

This is also a project of deconstruction. It deconstructs the canon, encyclopedia itself as a concept, research, language, the history of art, and theory. ‘Encyclopedia’ is like a monument, or a monolith, celebrating the work of enlightenment and rationalism: control, productive, hegemonic society that excludes all that is disturbing or unwanted. An encyclopedia is part of the process of making visible or invisible, a project of recognition.

As completely new is usually incomprehensible and even impossible to recognize, have we in our projects often taken something well-known and immediately recognizable as starting points, and almost as a joke, but a serious one started reconsidering the concept, ideologies behind it, and what it has caused. From biennial to world expo we have through the familiarity of the concept explored themes from private and public, sponsoring, funding and precariousness, ethics and ecologies to global and local, which I consider as one of the most important topics of our time, and how the pandemic will change the world and our being will only make it more accurate. In this context, the encyclopedia is almost an inevitable continuation and form for collecting knowledge created in these projects. It is also a possibility to pay respect and to continue the work of those before me, trying to find new tools and languages outside the masculine hegemony: Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray,Hélène Cixous, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Donna Haraway, Judith Butler, Sara Ahmed. All of them have inspired and influenced my work, they have created new ways of thinking and writing, new paths to follow.

Sometimes it feels difficult to comprehend how short our, this time ‘our’ referring to us, the non-male, written history is, the one that is not written by male authors and scholars. 1928 Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own, where she stressed the importance of money, time, education and space of one’s own in the creative process, and also how one not only needs these things, but also traveling, and role models. To be able to write, one needs to be able to see, experience, and learn. This does not only concern gender, but also class, and even less have changed on that score. Woolf also wrote about a novel, Life’s Adventure, she had been reading recently, and how there was a sentence: “Chloe liked Olivia.”: ““Chloe liked Olivia” I read. And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature.”. Until this moment Chloe, Olivia, Ophelia, Pandora, Antigone, Julia, and Pamina and all the others have been represented through the relation to a male figure. They have been sisters, mothers, daughters, wives, and lovers.

We have finally got more diversity into how non-male figures are represented, but about a hundred years is still a short time compared to how long male authors have been writing about male subjects. A lot has happened during these years, but there is still a lot to be done. Especially times like this, major global crises, are the biggest threat to minorities and those in a precarious position. But it can also be a possibility: an opportunity to create solidarity and care.

All this is the framework of my dissertation. The whyand the how. The what is a bit more than a hundred concepts miming the structure and the form of an encyclopedia, but also disrupting and reconsidering its arrangement and content. As I mainly work as a curator the what is also a mapping project about how I understand curating, as I often feel there is something I don’t understand, something that stays hidden even after all the years I have practiced this profession. Maybe it is because I haven’t been educated as a curator: maybe during the studies some secret information about what curating ultimately is about and what happens in the process is provided. For me the concept of the curatorial, and how the profession is theorized still seem to leave something important out. Sometimes the curatorial even resembles some kind of game, where you need to mention certain concepts, travel to certain places and now certain people and eventually you end up building and maintaining a similar kind of canon you were aiming to dismantle. The profession is often presented merely as critical and theoretical praxis, but an independent curator does a lot more: applies for funding, connects with people, hunts for locations, visits artists. And the problems are often something very concrete instead of philosophical. Talking about this side of the profession, struggling with, has been quite gendered, which signals that the structures still are too. I very much appreciate the openness of curators like for example Katia Krupennikova, who have raised public discussion about the working conditions.

Still, what fascinates me, and puzzles me, is what happens in the process of curating, and this is something I try to go deeper into in my dissertation through the different concepts and themes. The curatorial is built on the idea of the curator as an expert, a theorist that knows things. For me, it is more about not knowing and wanting to find out, about curiousness. For me, curating is most of all about caring and mediating, and about sharing. It is not so much about sharing my expertise or my ideas but sharing the uncertainty. It is listening, thinking together, being open to things, and then trying to find the right places and forms to explore and mediate what has been learned. This process needs a lot of trust, and this is why I think Aleksandra Kiskonen’s thesis Ystämö, where I and Eliisa Suvanto were honored to be part of as sharing our thoughts about friendship and working together, is a very much needed voice. Ystämö explores friendship in the context of curating, and I hope that it will unload the taboo that working with friends and/or partners still is at the moment: while working closely together during projects it is unavoidable that friendships and romances happen, and it would be mad not to work with someone in the future just because you have enjoyed working together so much that you became friends or lovers. Or to try not to work with someone just because you happen to like each other.

I’d rather consider working with people you like as one of the cornerstones in my practice: as the projects often are demanding and come with a lot of suspense, working with people you feel comfortable with gives a lot of comforts. These are the people you can approach the unknown together. And I have come to think that this is what curating ultimately is about: it is about trying to make sense, not sense as rationalism and reason, but sense as meaningfulness, in the world of irrationality and chaos. During my research, there have been many moments when I have lost the reason for having, among all the concepts like care, accessibility, community, and solidarity, the uncanny, the unheimlich as the main concept, research question, and if I wasn’t all against methods, maybe even a method. But I have come to realize that the uncanny is what drives me, what motivates me, what forces me to take these strange paths and care for those who travel with me. The uncanniness of our being is shared uncanniness. It is what brings us together: surviving the fear of the real, the uncanny blob lurking behind the organized structures we call society.

A curator, by creating spaces and places, exhibitions and events, texts and encounters, things that somehow break the ordinary flow of the everyday, makes it possible to come together in front of the uncanniness. These events are laboratories and platforms where the curator, the artist, the public, and the space bring come together, and all the different histories, ideas, and experiences together are the event: the individual, the collective, the local, and the global histories all impact. The curator is a medium, a fortuneteller, palpating the world and things that are still in the state of becoming and forming, trying to find the right forms and words, but hopefully also aware, that these forms and words not only represent but also build: it is not passive witnessing, but active constructing. As art can be one of the enchanting things in a contemporary world that is often considered to be disenchanted, a curator can be like a midwife helping in the delivery of the magic. Juxtaposing the traditional idea of art as something that requires individual genius, authorship, and ownership, I’d suggest it is about being open, being present, and being there for others. This is also why I see art, research, and curating parallel to activism and politics: they are all about radical care, putting visions to action, and suggesting alternative worlds. My dissertation is one of these suggestions.

List of concepts // Chapters // Titles and subtitles

(as it is at the moment)

Intro / Manual

1. Art

2. Activism

3. Abject

4. Alienation and Anxiety

5. Affect

a) Distance

6. Anthropocene

7. Anthropology

8. Archive

9. The audience, Public & Spectator

a) Participation

b) Centennial

10. Becoming

11. Being-with, Co-existing

a) Living Together

12. Body

a) Biopolitics

13. Boundaries

14. Canon

15. Caring

a) To care

b) Curiosity

16. Collectives

a) Porin kulttuurisäätö

b) Space Invaders

c) Making-with

17. Community

18. Communication

19. Continuity

a) Culture politics and strategy papers

b) Taking Over Otaniemi

20. Climate Crisis

21. Curating, Curatorial

22. (De)Center

a) Pori

b) Reposaari

c) Global and Local

23. Death

24. Decolonization

25. Deconstruction

26. Difference

27. Disturb, Disrupt

28. Desire

29. Dualism

30. Ethics and Ecologies

a) Sandstorm

31. Empathy

32. Environment

a) Landscape

b) Environmental art

33. Eerie

34. Enchantment / Disenchantment

35. Enlightenment

36. Exhibition

a) Event

b) DIY, Temporary use of space

c) Gentrification, segregation, interaction

d) Saatanan kesänäyttely

37. Feminism

38. Form / Formlessness

39. Friendship

40. Genealogy

41. Gift

a) System of giving and exchange

b) Space Invaders Cholula edition

42. Gaia, Globe, World

a) Pori World Expo

43. Ghosts

44. Heterogeneous

45. Heterotopia

a) Third Space

b) Space Invaders Matinkylä edition

46. History

47. Home

a) Sponsori

48. Hospitality

49. How to Life

a) Better, not ok

b) Not everyday, nonknowledge

50. Identity

a) National identity: The Truth About Finland

51. Intuition

52. Interdependency

53. Intervention

54. Irony

55. Jouissance, joy

56. Kinship

57. Knowledge

58. Laboratory

59. Language

60. Love

61. Mediating

62. New

63. Nostalgia

64. The Other, otherness

a) Margin, marginalization

b) Stranger

65. Ownership

66. Politics, the Political

67. Precariousness

68. Place, space, site

a) Site-specific art

69. Platform

70. Public Space

71. Public Art

a) Temporality

b) Working within the public sphere

72. Private

73. Power

74. Practice

a) Process-based practice

75. Present

76. The Pori School

a) Ideoita kaupunki Pori

77. Presence

a) Listening

78. Queer Phenomenology

a) Queer moments

79. Rationalism, reason

80. Representation

81. Responsibility

82. Relational aesthetics

a) Food

83. Resilient Species

84. The Revolution

a) Space Invaders Autotalo

85. Rhizome

86. Research-based practice

87. Safe(er) Space

88. Semiotic/symbolic

89. Soul

90. Solidarity

91. Speculative Fiction, storytelling, narratives

a) Pori Biennale

92. Structures

93. Subject

94. Sublime

95. Suburb

a) Environmental aesthetics

b) Suburb art

96. Sym-poiesis

97. Teaching

98. Tools

a) Master’s tools

99. Touch

a) Senses, sentiments, hapticity

100. Unheimlich, uncanny

a) The uncanny valley

b) Everyday and horror

c) Prosthetic hand

101. Undead

a) The Girl With All the Gifts

102. We

103. Weird

104. Work, labor

What if? Conclusion

Artists, art critic, curator and feminist working for a better world and PhD about the uncanny, everyday and community in Aalto University