sunnuntai 2. syyskuuta 2018

GO DIRECT YOURSELF


Directors in theatre - why are they there?

Recently, a theatre play titled Turkka kuolee had its premiere here in Finland, surrounded by considerable hype. It's based on the writings and interviews of people who were in the orbit of one of Finland's most sadistic and notorious theatre directors. As much as I learned from listening to those stories, I found myself hoping the creators of the play would've looked into the root of the problem, which is the education offered in Theatre Academy and the ideological basis for the role of a director.

People, especially journalists, like to wonder out loud how it was possible for one person to acquire such unchecked power. It's like asking how Trump can do all those horrible things. The answer is simple: the system was designed that way. We simply trust that elected people or art school professors wouldn't take advantage of their position. Put differently, we sort of rely on luck. But to paraphrase the infamous Jenny Holzer line, abuse of power should come as no surprise. 

The laws and regulations also restrict what should and can be tolerated at any workplace. But sadly, more often than not, making theatre with a group of people is more akin to hypnosis or religious cult than a day at the office (but then, isn't all work like that?). Without dwelling too much on the theoretical or spiritual root of theatre, the need to believe takes in not only the audience of a play but its makers too. 

There's a way of talking, taking place between theatre professionals honing together an upcoming piece, that I haven't witnessed anywhere else. Every gesture, scene, object, word, is forced to carry extra meaning, which gives for an especially pompous rhetoric. 
All the stage actions and tryouts during a rehearsal can be analysed endlessly, usually to prove yourself to the director (something sound/light/set/costume/etc designers are inclined to do) who then decides whether your interpretation is correct. A great deal of belief in telepathy is needed to convey the ideas of a director into reverberant sound effects, dramatic backlight, epochal dresses, or the quivering movements of an actor. Or, if you zoom out a little, the day-to-day operations of a theatre house at large.

All of this is ideal breeding ground for sectarian autosuggestion. What follows is paranoia: am I not part of the in-group? What are the director, dramaturg, and video designer rattling on over there? What if I'm not deep enough, like my co-actor who everyone says transcends the script?

People have vastly different experiences from working in theatre, too, of course. What I'm aiming at here is some sort of generic idea that seems to always lurk in the background when people do theatre. It's the relative of the ghost that keeps appearing when paintings are hung: are these worth something? What if the painter really is talented? Am I not getting it? Is this image very deep but I'm not?

Almost all the major theatrical productions I've worked in, or rehearsals I've visited, have included shouting, belittling, and/or other behavior gone entirely unredeemed save for the "you know I'm under a lot of pressure" hail mary muttered as an afterthought during a break. This behaviour is almost solely coming from the representatives of one profession alone: directors. And usually no one wants to stand up to them. This will all be over soon, they are just having a bad day, it's nothing serious, we're all tired today, we tell ourselves.

But why do we have directors in the first place? Surely there is no god-given blueprint for how theatre must be done? Having said that, it's worthwhile to remember our theatrical tradition was founded by a society of men who favored slavery and strict hierarchies (OK I have no business lecturing anyone on Ancient Greece, so take this with a barrel of salt).

When I was studying sound design in Theatre Academy, in Helsinki, I constantly wondered why actors and designers needed someone to tell them what to do. You have the text in front of you, the stage is there, don't you wanna figure it all out on your own or with your friends?

And how is it possible that we still buy the line, often repeated by our professors in the academy, that you can't really do theatre without someone in charge? During my time (2003-2009) there were of course collectives or (a word I prefer over the former one) working groups making works without a director, but these were always dismissed in school as "experimental", "fringe", "artistic", and thus not Real Theatre.

In my decade of being an artist, I've never had the need for a director personally, as in I've never worked on a performance or whatever and thought if only there was someone here giving me stage directions and texting me in the middle of the night with notes. I haven't really seen any basis for their existence, ever. 

I used to be more nuanced about this for the sake of some sort of perceived civility, as in "of course there are many ways to do art and being led by a director is one possible way and I'm sure it's a good thing." I'm tired of saying that. I've been doing this now long enough that I can say this with at least some sort of experience: directors should for most parts be a thing of the past, or at best a marginal profession.

Everyone has ideas. Anyone can tell other people what to do. A director is validated through the labor of others. Yes, you can do beautiful things from that position: you can make other people shine and help them find their strength, you can see what's going on in the stage and where the problems in the dramaturgy might lie, you can handle all outside pressure, you can bring people together to achieve something. But we could all do that to each other. There's absolutely no need to institutionalise this role. For all its issues of abuse, ie. its dangers, the directorial model should be a marginal mode of working, not the primary one.

Here's a more black-and-white way of stating it: If you wanna help a group of actors and designers, then help, but don't take credit for it. If directors would be called assistants and paid accordingly I wouldn't have any beef -or I would, because I don't believe in that sort of hierarchical justice either, and I'm not here to punish anyone by turning competitive workplace games against them.

Don't tell me what to do

In June, I was visiting a workshop that consisted mostly of dancers. I talked about my survival strategies in art and shared my stories. We were talking about our experiences in the field when one of the participants said this thing that left a lasting impact on me. The way they said it was matter-of-fact, yet kind, and very reflective. "I don't understand why a choreographer should tell me what I must do with my body." 

There you have it. What does it say about our values, ethics, and worldview, that we have created a system in which one person (typically/historically a masculine man) tells others (typically feminine people, plus less-paid staff and technicians, latter being usually working-class men) what they should do? 

I get having someone in charge makes sense during a catastrophe or, say, surgery. There are situations where having a director for a play is appreciated, perhaps when one works with a group that benefits greatly from overall guidance, say, with children. In general, I can see it also comes useful in a factory, or a battle, too. But why have we copied this system into art, which is a fun human act that can literally be anything? 

Why settle on the most uninspiring model, even or especially so because it's the one that "drives home the results"? Why should making films or theatre be modelled after military regiment or industrial labor? 

You could say that if artists do not want to work with directors they can go and do what they want. That's cute, but the funding of stage arts here in Finland is based on established theatres getting most of the money so they can pay salaries. The financial system in arts upholds the traditional hierarchy of labor. If that's not enough, the unions will make sure this system stays intact. So really we're married with this system, and only way to bring it down is to tore it apart on all levels, from education to funding. 

Full disclosure: I am sitting on the board of Trade Union for Theatre and Media Finland, which is funny since I strongly oppose this static division of labor in arts. That being said, I'm always interested to hear other views, and one reason for my joining the board was to understand theatrical work better from inside a system that protects this division. Another reason is to be able to slide in a discussion about basic income, but that's another discussion.

Where does this anti-director hyperbole leads into? 

Of course, you can't make "Apocalypse: Now" if you don't have unchecked power and you're not on a narcissistic bent fuelled by drugs or whatnot to turn the world onto your own image. Is the world worse off without works of art that only an unhinged director can produce? 

These works are very important to a lot of other people, but take stock: do you find it impossible to think you would've loved something else if those works would have not existed? There's no need to stop loving those works, but there's also no need to repeat the formula that created these masterpieces of megalomania and resulted in abuse in so many cases. Why make art with a tool that's bound to hurt someone?

We all understand that works of art are, in a fundamental sense, of both equal and incomparable value: a short poem is not less or more meaningful than a 2-hour symphonic composition. As a society, we want to archive the big, popular, well-known works, as well as the so-called folk art that's meaningful for a given community. 

Furthermore, if we would cease to produce, for example, video art, we would do something else. Art as phenomenon wouldn't really lose or gain anything by video art's extinction. In terms of art's meaningfulness, there are no better or worse ways of making art. You can create great things by a multitude of ways that are in no way tied to any material pre-requisites.

The issues we should consider are the conditions in which artistic labor takes place. Who has access, who decides on this access, how are people or other living beings treated within a given production, just to name a few possible and very real concerns. 

These are tricky issues, because such concerns are also endemic to controlling artistic expression as a by-product of advancing much-needed workers' rights. This is precisely what unions do, even when they don't want to -by fighting for substantial pay, they end up reinforcing certain ways of working as fundamental to artistic practices. 

This leads to a situation where people are being educated in a theatre school to become actors, set designers, sound designers, directors, and so on. A production becomes something where everyone sticks to these roles and learns to speak as the representative of their profession. 

Additionally, this is why I've found it hard to defend certain core contemporary issues in art, from more funding for arts, to artists' associations' demands for more professional conditions for their members. I absolutely understand and respect these needs and have fought for them, but more and more, I see them reinforcing a hierarchical system where being an artist is a prized position instead of a fundamental right and a source of joy, and where artistic work is being kept in a petty, middle-class zone of harmless symbolic decor by placing artists in the creative class. 

But if I'd utter such things, I'd rub backs with some questionable people and political parties who are doing what they can to privatise the cultural sector and get rid of any kind of subsidies for artists. 

Directors keep on being directors

What happened with this one sadistic director in the past decades in Finland is not an exception to the rule. I've heard similar stories multiple times, and the accused of these stories are currently running city theatres, holding professorships, and acting as respected members of their artistic communities. I've heard people explain away the sexual misconducts of their actor peers as "actors simply being that way". My designer friends in theatre take constant shit in the form of slurs, shouting and now-I'm-your-friend-now-I'm-your-boss type of erratic, arbitrary behavior models when they work for directors. People who sign off are oftentimes cast either as privileged, preppy, or weak.

And it's not that you couldn't ask other people to help you in the actualisation of your artistic idea. Of course you can and quite often you should. I've worked as an assistant, stagehand, designer, co-creator, and in other such roles successfully and I've enjoyed a bunch of those experiences. 

I'm not saying, either, that a directorship is some cursed profession that turns you instantly into a monster. But how come we let this system stay afloat when it's entirely based on luck, ie. let's hope this director is nice and doesn't abuse their power? 

Afterword

Perhaps the idea of a director is tragically tied to the idea of infinite growth. We can always do bigger, greater things! More cowbell! More everything! Push it to the limit! When I think of the sickening projects I've been in where the director tried to "save" the piece by demanding we work longer days, rehearse more, do more of everything, this theory does feel right to me. 

What kind of worldview we are feeding with such a method of making art?

***

Lastly, I am sending much love to all my dear friends who are directors. I'm not against you, I just needed to say my piece. This is not a closed text, it's too full of holes for that, but a conversation starter, if anything. If you're a director and felt a sting, remember you are more than your assigned role. We all are.


the author lying on stage
Image description: the author, wearing blue pants and a shirt and sneakers, lying on the floor of an almost empty stage, with a coffee mug close to their body. From documentation shot by Christopher Hewitt. New Performance Nights, Tehdas Teatteri, Turku, 2016.


lauantai 23. kesäkuuta 2018

Willing it: On Elina Minn's "Hydra"


image of a vegan sushi meal
Image: A plate of vegan sushi that has nothing to do with the article. From Makimaki, Münster.














A dozen or so people are sitting in a rehearsal room in Theatre Academy, Helsinki. I'm here to experience a performance of which I didn't read a line of information beforehand. I simply wanted to see what a friend of mine is doing nowadays. As usual, I'll try to find that out by going to see them work.

Hydra, which premiered on the 5th of June, is dubbed in the handout text as a "speculative fiction about future bodies", which I can attest to is true. Hydra is directed, written, and performed by Elina Minn, and realised together with a group of artists and designers, who are all sitting in the ring with us.

One of them is Markus Lindén, perhaps one of the most adventurous sound designers I know. Every time I go see a performance they are part of (which I have done all too seldom), I am expecting to be taken to a ride, and I was not disappointed this time either. 

If somebody would turn a theatre festival into a catalogue raisonné of Markus' works, it'd be pretty amazing; to trace that one journey. I say this also because I am saddened by the amount of work we all do, only to see all these performances disappear without anyone tying them together onto their many histories and lineages. To borrow a sound-related concept, we don't generally need more premieres, we need longer sustain times.

After the performance, upon walking up to say hi to Markus, who looked exceptionally focused behind their gear, I noticed that the trance-y, percussion-led techno we've been listening to post-performance was not them jamming on their computer, as I've thought, but a Youtube clip of a Finnish DJ playing. I found it extremely hilarious and spot-on. It works so why not.

Elina Minn, whom I've known from early 2010's onwards when we both lived in Turku, addresses us wearing an octopus-shaped, funny-looking hat, courtesy of designer Pauliina Sjöberg who also acts as a guide of sorts, along with set designer Eeti Piiroinen, whose holistic vision has stayed in my head ever since. It might be the first instance of me longing to return to a set, like a tourist, unless Half-Life 2 counts as a stage.

The way Elina wears the octopus hat could be best described as uncanny yet mundane, as if the world has permanently given up on obsessing over reason. This, to me, might be the undercurrent of their artistic practice. The funniness of the hat is the sort that makes you grin like you're at a party surrounded by people alien to you & have no idea what's going on, but decide to nonchalantly enjoy it nevertheless. 

Elina's presence is very calming, even grounding at times. To be precise, it isn't them addressing us sitting in the room, but a hybrid life form from the future who was just borrowing Elina's body for the occasion. Before long, we are escorted to another room to try out inter-cellular existence in groups of threes.

The second room is strikingly beautiful. I immediately begin to hope the school's technicians would never take down the set. This is what a space for radical learning must look like. What on other days passes as a lecture room had been transformed into something magnificent and powerful, yet calming and approachable, like a yoga center doubling as martial arts training site for queer resistance. 

With its printed stone patterns covering the sides of small, makeshift water basins, the pale-shaped drapes and exercise mats, the place reminds me of the post-internet epoch. It was actually pretty great in terms of aesthetic appeal. And now, after everyone has stopped caring about day-glo installations combining Nike shoes, Axe spray, and climbing gear, we get to enjoy the aesthetic without the sickening sarcasm and the all-encompassing twin shadow of self-importance and self-hatred, emanating from the very real need to be successful.

Seven or so years ago, Elina was my link to the Anglo-European post-internet art scene that lurked in Facebook groups, Berlin, hard drives of displaced artists endlessly uploading visual tropes online which then more successful Western artists could exploit for profit, and artist-run, DIY galleries. 

I saw Elina perform for the first time in Stockholm, at a gallery of the aforementioned type. The place was called Detroit (I will chance it and guess that the space had nothing to do with Detroit). In there, they gave a hilarious monologue in front of an anxious, young art crowd. It was about a Seinfeld episode titled The Marine Biologist in which Jerry claims falsely that George is what the title says.

Fast forward to 2018, and I'm being gently touched and taken care of two other audience members -or just people, really, since the performance is as practical and no-bullshit as attending a yoga class. As they feel around my legs, hair, arms, and torso, they both feel very careful and concentrated. I've long forgotten this is art I'm experiencing here. 

Next to us, on a suede cushion pile, there's a text by Donna Haraway available for reading and an iPad with headphones, should one of us participants feel like not doing the group exercises. As with everything in Hydra, this option is explained to us in a perfect balance of dignity and muted mirth.

Nothing in this space seems symbolic: everything is real, which makes the exercise -an attempt to feel the similarities between sea sponges and the cells in our bodies, so as to get an understanding of the future where species are all but hybrid- feel like a walk in the park. This is normal, this is how we spend our time. Cut the bullshit and co-exist. 

I can't overstate how much I appreciated the care which was put into making Hydra a kind experience, and how giving it was, instead of draining one of energy, which usually happens when I'm expected to just forgo social power dynamics during a performance and convince myself to be equal with the artists and other audience members as if by a wave of a magic wand.

After the performance, or the exercise, is done, we talk about our experiences within the group of three of which I had been part. It seems we all enjoyed it. There would've been ways to communicate mixed feelings during the haptic exercise (which once again were offered in a very clear way), but none of us did so, which of course doesn't mean everyone felt OK in the end. I did have a feeling everyone found it exciting yet soothing. 

We keep talking for a bit, say hi to friends, drink some homemade kombucha offered to us by the working group, and leave. On the way home, I become more aware of my body in relation to the world and its many layers and materials.

At home, I look for a recording I made of Minn's performance in Stockholm back then. I do find the file, but the audio quality is weak. You can barely hear what is being said. There's lots of nervous, knowing cackling. Somebody is shouting from another room. I can recognise the laughs of people I used to know. 

On the recording, Elina seems jumpy, just like anyone who is sort of riffing on a subject and wants to keep their bit more or less informal. The piece is only 6 minutes long. The performance consists of Elina going through the content of the episode. It's entertaining to hear the storyline explained, as it's arguably one of the most memorable Seinfeld episodes.

In the episode, George says: "So I started to walk into the water. I won't lie to you, boys, I was terrified! But I pressed on – and as I made my way past the breakers, a strange calm came over me. I don't know if it was divine intervention or the kinship of all living things, but I tell you, Jerry, at that moment – I was a Marine Biologist!" 

Elina recites this passage to the audience, along with some information about the production of the episode, available in its Wikipedia page. Minn draws a connection from George's epiphany to how it feels like to be an artist: You simply just believe in the fact you're an artist. Elina says thank you. Everyone claps enthusiastically. 

Indie pop of the day begins to blast from the speakers in the gallery space, which leads to my recording clipping. People chat intensively. The distortion of the recording makes it seem like it's the 70's and I'm listening to my parents having a good time.

What has changed since Stockholm? On the other hand, we're back in the water, attempting to understand sea creatures, while trying to expand the notion of what we can be. But we're not pretending we have a job. Who wants to work anyway when we can rest together, as we did in the Hydra performance.

What has stayed the same is that art is still seen as being about a kierkegaardian leap of faith. Ultimately, it works if I believe in it. But this time around, in Hydra, the transformation was real and not a comic relief. I left the performance changed. No one laughed knowingly;  most of us smiled in understanding.

After reading an article by Minn about ecosomatic practices, published in the Mustarinda online magazine, I realise how my fleeting experience is far from the deep knowledge they've reached with these methods (that I haven't explained at all here). 

The article is an interview of somatic activist Satu Palokangas who teaches and does research on ecosomatics. Palokangas explains how ecosomatic thinking and practice for them is "asking about yourself in relation to ecological, social, and political events, which are highly acute. How do these events affect us mentally?"*

Later on in the article, Elina describes how "my body is the most intimate part of nature", which, along with the final line uttered by Minn in Hydra, "Lastly, we will practice an important future civic skill: resting", are lines I want to keep with me. They are now my lifelines.

*all translations from the Mustarinda article and the performance by me.




torstai 31. toukokuuta 2018

YOUR COLLEAGUES ARE THE PROBLEM



If there's a rule I think applies to all creative work, it's this one: don't be part of a scene. 

If you do, or you're being put into one because you're X or live in Y or whatever, you shouldn't be the one who affirms their beliefs. We all need affirmation, but consider if that's something you want to deliver & what's the price you pay for labouring away on it.

No one who's in a scene would ever say a bad thing about it (publicly). Its practitioners will tell you how dismissing a whole medium is such a lame opinion, and how you should check out this or that artist. 

They say these things because they need to say that. Their justification for their practice stems from the practice itself which is a somewhat problematic point of departure for any kind of creative endeavour. Obviously there are situations where you need to conserve a practice, but for the sake of argument etc.

The people running an artists' association need to be into all the nauseating art done in the name of the genre or medium they are representing. Artists following the doctrine of the day will always be lumped together in group shows with other such artists, which in itself makes it harder to make anything worthwhile since you're now stuck making sure your work doesn't say anything that's outside the norm.

A lot of it has to do with reputation. You want to make sure people take you seriously. Serious behaviour is being highly regulated, as our understanding of truth is dependent on us taking each other seriously enough to trust one another, something I derived from philosopher Gloria Origgi. (Here's a nice podcast about their latest book.) Reputation is an avatar you tend to with your life.

Reputation leads pretty quickly into informal consolidation of acceptable gestures: How to say things, and what things. We check each other to see what passes today.

This leads to every musical sub-genre producing infinite amount of identical tracks. It explains why we always already know what we're gonna see when there's an exhibition done under a given topical theme. And it lends itself to understanding why the most visible artists are all raving about the same cultural objects, from books to TV shows.

You could say that's a good thing: It's delightful to see art that reflects its times. And it kinda is. That's how you'll know what's going on. But there are so many other ways to feel the tremors of the day. Like by living today? Maybe we should make sure everyone can do that?

Art mirroring its times is the trope by which vanilla art becomes histrionic: it's the stuff that's most exciting for future researchers who try to decipher a time long gone. It's just extremely rare that those historical works would carry any ideas worth exploring. I can still remember how it felt to be shoved tedious Dadaist art down my throat without anyone explaining why those works should mean anything to us anymore, other than that they "reflected the tumult and promise of the new century." I must add that being forced to attend an intonarumori concert should be a police matter.
venn diagram showing how very few artists do groundbreaking work while adhering to given ideals
image description: venn diagram showing how very few artists do groundbreaking work while adhering to given ideals.
Courtesy of my Instagram.


























Is art pointless then?

Doing art is selfish. Reconciling for this fact with political flag-waving will never produce anything I want to see. Exciting ideas do not equal nice ideas. 

I haven't seen almost any art or entertainment that truly grabs me and infiltrates my worldview, my attitudes, my way of being in the world, while serving the goals of a given community. Although when that happens it's profoundly moving. But in most cases, if anyone cares about most cases, the creation of resonating work requires some sense of disengagement. 

This doesn't dictate what you should do as a citizen, by any means. This is not some backhanded way of defending inexcusable bad-boy behaviour in art, or saying artists must be narcissistic assholes by design. What I'm after here is charting my own experiences as a spectator, without mixing the artist and the work.  

If you feel that making art is pointless and you should spend your time helping others, you're probably right. All the culture we produce as a civilisation is based on plunder and exploitation. That same plunder makes possible both ice hockey matches and critical performance art. And doing the latter doesn't make the imbalance tip back. It doesn't mean we should give up, either, only sober up, and be real about the effects and ineffects of our activities.

Can you name a useful idea from the past 20 years that originated in art and become widespread? I couldn't come up with anything. Then, I'm not too educated or experienced. Still, I have never witnessed any proof that ideas in art done in my time would have traveled into the mainstream, or almost into any other realm, save for fringe parts of humanist studies. Maybe they have and we'll notice it later. 

And maybe, in general, it's better to see yourself as part of a grey mass than as some key individual who will save us with their latest art project. The fact that art is so drastically rooted in the personality of a singular artist is one of its key obstacles in inflicting any kind of change.

I've stopped going to art-related talks and lectures with pressing political themes in their titles. Those conversations are exactly what art anyways is: artists talking to each other, with an affirmation-hungry, educated audience watching from the sides. 

Lastly: there are, of course, artists deeply embedded in community work. I don't think it's a stretch to say they're doing that although they're artists, not because of it, as such work goes against the fabric of the art world. You could change those foundations, possibly. But then we're back at institutional critique as I wrote earlier.

INTERLUDE: badmouthing

Here's some paranoid subtweeting for you all: I could name people from the Helsinki scene who, if they'd read this, would chuckle and think "oh my god Kimmo is so clueless have they not heard about this-and-this Soviet-era art movement in Eastern Europe that, really, was so bold and transgressive." No, I haven't. No-one else has, either. I can see how unearthing such stories can be empowering and exciting. I love reading about that stuff. But make no mistake, no one outside our circle of colleagues will learn about it.

What do we experience?

Art has changed me tremendously but it has never taught me anything. That change has taken place in a hard-to-map, structural, even molecular level. My outlook has changed. 

You could say it's particularly interesting when artists tackle real-world subjects with poetic license, or meld art with science. But why would I want to listen to an artist talk about science? Like, what, you completed a PhD on the flight over here? 

I do want to see the foundations of Western scientific knowledge being interrogated, but I have very little hope that we'll get anywhere with that by curating group exhibitions about epistemologies.

It's just that I hear all this talk about all these issues, and all these names of authors being thrown in the air (season 2014-2018: Karen Barad, more on that here), but no one seems to catch them when they fall. I've been chasing that space of reflection literally all my life. I really wanna talk about the experience of coming together and what happens there. 

But the situation of art as a site of knowledge is rotten at the core: someone is always getting paid or advancing their career by organising the event or being vocal. The agency is always hijacked before it is set. So I've given up.

What happened there at the event at the gallery you just went to? Did you really experience intra-agency or was it just a mess of materials splattered across the space that everyone tried their best not to touch? Do I feel closer to other species after imagining I'm an amoeba for the duration of a performance, or could it be that such cognitive transformation would take hundreds of years? 

As we all know, it's way more complicated than the snapshot I'm giving to you here. I admire shows that make me face this problem in an inspiring way, like this show did.

Obviously, if an art event about co-existing with plants makes you feel the things you wanna feel, that's amazing, and I'm genuinely happy for you. It just hasn't happened to me yet. 

I have good reason to believe a lot of people silently feel the way I do. We are not getting anything out of this apart from learning to signal we sort of get it. Hence art is like social media: I am afraid I won't get the references if I step out. But maybe talking without reference anxiety is a goal worth pursuing?

Nice people

Scene-cultivation and reference nit-picking will only hold us down and demand we follow the party line. Of course no one really demands anything because we're all nice people with manners. But no seriously, your colleagues are the problem. Hanging out with other artists makes you produce the kind of work that you think people would like to hang out with. 

I'm too scared and tired of trying to disagree in public so I'd rather withdraw and do my work in stealth mode and deliver the goods when the time comes. When you can afford to choose it, being aside has nothing to do with a romantic loner pose. It's a strategic move.

***

Lastly, I wanna thank everyone who has read my blog posts and commented IRL or online. I would not do anything without those fleeting moments of affirmation and exchange of ideas. Here are top 5 most popular posts so far (note: only one exhibition review made the cut)
screen shot of my top 5 blog posts by pageviews
image description: with 1775 page views, this blog post has been most popular so far.


torstai 3. toukokuuta 2018

ART TODAY EXPLAINED

Today, there is

1. art that's directly tied to real issues, thus equipped with urgency and agency, and
2. everything else, ie. empty representation & bandaid for liberal capitalism.

Unfortunately, almost all the exhibition spaces and art institutions follow the logic of category 2, so even when they show work from category 1, it will mean or do nothing.

=

What is needed are art spaces with urgency and agency, directly tied to real issues.

maanantai 9. huhtikuuta 2018

THREE QUESTIONS TO PEOPLE DOING EXHIBITIONS UNDER CAPITALISM


Exhibition spaces, from tiny galleries to major museums, all fail under the same basic conditions. I've outlaid those conditions here though three questions. If an exhibition can't give a meaningful answer to these questions, it's doomed.

1. Who loves this?

Museum exhibitions rarely response to this most fundamental question. If no one who did the show loves the show, why would anyone else want to see it?

You could consider the concept of self-love or self-care here, too. If an exhibition space doesn't love itself, ie. care for itself, why would we? Although it is usually we, the audience, who is made to perform the labor of care. 

This self-lovelessness leads to emotional labor on the part of the body visiting an art space. I have to partake in its activities to make the space seem alive, I have to talk about it because its directors don't want to engage, and it is I who must find something worthwhile in the art works as if experiencing art is an emotional riddle akin to a confusing Tinder date. 

The latter point comes out pretty clear on art world related ad campaigns and PR talk where the idea "all interpretations are equal" is always being cherished. This is not inclusivity, but irresponsibility: we don't know what we've done, tho maybe you like it? This is how male privilege also works: You just do stuff and other people are forced to make sense of it, but they are not rewarded for the meaning that arises from their work; you are.

Sometimes artists don't love themselves but hope that curators would, with the chorus from Evanescence's "Bring Me To Life" ringing in artists' heads (or if it's 2015, in their video works). 

Just like art spaces, artists are not sure if what they do is valuable to anyone, but because they have their MFA degree and their exhaustive run as a tireless go-getter networker, they can't stop to contemplate how they really feel about their own workings but keep on offering it on autopilot to curators and directors and journalists to suss out. 

Self-love is not only self-care but respect towards other people. if you show us things you don't love, you're asking us to do the work, to carry your problems, to do your dirty laundry. 

2. Why here?

The second point is made of two equally important words. Sometimes the "here" part boils down to nothing but random professional reflexes. This art is here because I, the director, met someone at a bar during my trip to an art fair and they gave me an offer I couldn't refuse: Say, a dirt cheap touring exhibition by a celebrity artist or a famous dead painter. 

Or maybe it's just capitalism. You need to produce something all the time, and there's never any time, so you're left to operate on your survival instinct, a peculiar state for producing something (art) that fundamentally does not need to exist in the same non-negotiable way as nutrition or clean air. 

We humans are great at putting ourselves willingly into situations where we feel we don't have any other options. Art can be literally anything, but artists, or anyone working in the art industry, tend to produce work that requires way bigger budget than the one they have. 

When a government official, usually completely unaware of the more exciting avenues of contemporary art thinking and doing, instruct directors of art institutions to provide meaningless data or perform cuts or adhere to a new neoliberal trope such as participatory art or ecological art or art and science or artists as entrepreneurs, no one ever declines. We just tint our CVs to match the job description. We think the hoop-jumping is worth it, but six months later it's all we talk about to each other, complaining about the exhaustive, maze-like policies in which we need to navigate.

We never form a front and work collectively to say no, but simply leave each other to deal with the ever-changing, neoliberal, austerity policies on our own. Best of luck & see you in Venice if you still have a travel budget.

We could begin by asking why: Why are we committing to a series of perpetual compromises to secure funding for something that will burn us all out? You could say "because of our livelihoods", but I'd rather not begin this discussion by encouraging everyone working in the arts to find a new profession. 

Instead, we could talk about what could be done differently. The answers are highly different for everyone, depending on the country and context you're working and living in. This could provide an ample opportunity to say no to each other, too. If an artist suggests something ludicrous, maybe our first instinct is not to find a way to accommodate their ideas, but to ask why would you want to do that. 

Now we can move to the "here" part of the second question. If the "here" equals an art space belonging to the official contemporary art world (ie. able bodies having gone to prestigious art school proving themselves to each other), it means that whatever is shown there, it will be experienced through passive consumption as part of a larger economy targeted to exploit our desires and leisure time. 

You can show the most jaw-dropping, ultra-critical work, but if it's shown in an art space, it will only mean that you & your institution are now seen as "progressive" or on the right side of a symbolic battle that is rhetorically tied to concrete battles, while being made possible by capitalist logic itself. And the same goes for the audience: by witnessing highly political work, I am rendered political. There is absolutely no initiative to do anything. Art could thus be renamed to lip service industrial complex.

People like myself, the privileged ones who have time and resources to think about things and the power to choose how to spend their time, know so much yet do so little. It is true of experiencing art, as well. Imagine you see a politically charged work at an art space. You see it, greet it with your emotions, and move on. It can have a temporary effect, but without repetition, it is as memorable as a one-time ad campaign on the metro. Nothing really happens "here".

For example, as undeniably important as the work of Forensic Architecture is, I'm not sure if seeing the documentation of their cases in an art space is any different from seeing neon-colored plastic poles laying diagonally in a stack on the floor because some artist couldn't think of anything else to do and so decided to cherish their confusion as a guiding principle. I dislike saying this because I admire their work so much, but when I saw the FA show at ICA in London, I couldn't help thinking about the gruesome flattening effect of the exhibition space, or any art space. 

It's not the fault of anyone really, that's just how these venues function: more often than not, it seems to treat everything as same. These spaces or display practices strip objects and actions in them powerless. 

You could argue that maybe this requires pack-of-wolves style anarchist thinking, in the style of Federico Campagna's The Last Night, ie. FA is using the resources they have to gather more attention and thus funding for their work which then leads to them being able to take in new cases, and sort of bypassing the question of artistic merit. In this case, the exhibition is a showcase or an ad campaign, which is a more sober approach than the wishful thinking exhibition-making usually is tied with (ie. let's hope these objects together magically mean something to someone). And I think that's 100% legit tactic, as well.

disclaimer: I do feel like I'm looking at this the wrong way, but for better or worse I wanted to explain how I feel about these things, for what it's worth.

Before I carry on, it's worth sitting on the idea of repetition and its power for a bit. 

Art today is broadly based on the idea of individualism. It means every artist has to do their own work and then copyright protects other artists from continuing the work of that former artist. Since there are a limited number of things you can do to stand out, it has been decided that the best way to stand out is to be yourself, ie. turn your unique identity into a brand. This logic is then scaled to fit institutions alike. 

For this reason, nothing in the art world resembles what an international boycotting campaign or a general strike does. The latter two bring people with wildly different opinions together behind one shared cause, then a form of action is chosen and the activity repeated to use the power of mass and repetition against, say, a corporation, or a state. 

By design, artists and people in the art world can not do that, as long as they adhere to the basic tenets of modernism: individualism, autonomy, objective taste. We can't repeat a message because our careers and existence is based on the idea that we all have an individual message in the marketplace of ideas where we compete for attention. 

So if we want to change things, there's no way around it: We need to change the conditions under which we experience and produce art. It's not a matter of what kind of art is being shown if the prevailing logic of display stays the same. And yes, this change would mean that we can't just be producing work independent of each other, coming together only for a thematic group show.

Homo sacer

Think of the ancient Roman concept of Homo sacer as made popular by Giorgio Agamben. Homo sacer is a man who cannot be sacrificed but can be killed without consequences. This is what art means in society: its funding cannot be entirely cut to serve some other purpose, and we cannot sacrifice its freedom of speech, but the ideas it spawns can be killed immediately by anyone. 

At this point, those ideas don't even need to be killed because nothing art produces lives long enough to impact anything. Which is why we need to churn out new concepts, themes, and trends season after season, only to replace them with new ones as soon as everyone has lost interest with whatever it was we were talking about last Fall. 

And to add to that, just like Homo sacer was first banished from society and then labelled as sacred, artists are respected as special creatures whose actions do not really have any real meaning in the society other than to perform the role of something sacred.

So why is this here? Is this the place where these ideas will generate most impact and resonance? Should we really be here in the first place? What happens when we are here, in an art space? Rather than beginning with thinking about what kind of art and artists you want to show in your space, consider this first: How does this space works and what could & should be done in it?

3. For whom, by whom?

This last question is tied to the previous one but highlights a more broader issue: Who has access to this show? People running exhibition spaces are usually nowadays aware of physical access, so they inform visitors about stairs, bathrooms at use and other such issues. Still, we never talk about mental or societal obstacles. 

I could think of who is able to be aware of my blog, and then read or listen to this text, and finally to make sense of it. While making an exhibition, one could think of the same questions. But for some reason, we show contemporary art as is, as if you could just "get" it, simply by coming in.

We won't tell people that, really, you should've read at least three Sternberg Press releases, seen a handful of exhibitions showcased in Contemporary Art Daily, and gone to a university to study art history if you want to get something out from this exhibition. And of course you need to speak English and have the other capacities and resources required to having consumed tons of culture.

This issue is very hard to address. Which is way the art world has chosen to talk about how everyone's interpretation is as correct as someone else's, as I mentioned earlier. This is of course as far from the truth as possible. 

Contemporary art, for most parts, is made for other people in the art world, and the non-art people who come to witness an exhibition is regarded either as collateral or a force of nature one needs to deal with, even though we'd rather not. 

Just like everyone else, most of us working in art-related jobs would rather be just left alone to do our thing with like-minded people. And just like every other human on the planet, for most parts, we drag ourselves into the world to deal with other people so we wouldn't seem so selfish. This is a caricature but I trust you understand what I'm after here.

Artists who have figured out the repressive structure of art-making usually end up choosing more intuitive approaches, or working with spiritual concepts, or whatever feels like the most suitable way out from the exclusivity that informs one's becoming of and being an artist. Even if you start making work that doesn't require those things I mentioned, it's still taking place in a context that is fully informed by such logic. 

Such transcendent approaches might create hope and offer a place of rest for both the artists and the (professional) audience, and I've truly felt that hope myself, too. But we can't not to note that for an artist to be able to make such choices, you usually need a considerable amount of funding and career pedigree to feel like you can exchange career survival for a more laidback position.

And since we live in predatory capitalism, any practice with the best of intentions can be co-opted and turned into a careerist format in a split second by someone willing to do so, as happened with relation aesthetics in the 90s. 

Lastly, since art is about individualism, usually all practices and gestures get "trademarked" in an unspoken way, as in burning candles in a gallery "belongs" to the artist most visibly and successfully practicing it. Which is why none of our aesthetics approaches ever have any real power because no one else can't pick them up lest they be guilty of imitation.

Maybe if we begun from admitting artists are just as horrible as anyone else, and our motives are just as low as other people living under capitalism, we could get rid of the idea that art is inherently good, because this aura of righteousness that surrounds art also stops it from having any real societal power. 

The fact that art is deemed good by default makes you seem good by simply consuming it. It's akin to the problem of ethical consumption: people who buy an expensive "CO2-neutral" electric car are said to then fly carelessly because they've done the good deed already, ie. I saw an exhibition dealing with a real issue, I'm now aware of the problem, so please leave me alone.

Capitalist realism

Art still comes down to "something by someone special to someone less special", and it's this line that provides us with the real challenge. Can we change that formula? We badly need new narratives and relations, since everything we do now falls under the grinding logic of capitalism, where all our activities are measured and then turned either into profit or loss, ecstasy or guilt, inclusion or disavowal, heroes and losers, makers and consumers. (pls don't mention prosumers pls)

Of course, I can't or wouldn't want to say for certain whether this or that exhibition is "doomed", as I claimed in the first paragraph, it's just how I feel nowadays when I visit any kinds of exhibition spaces. There are no better or worse exhibitions, since all art today is capitalist realism, just like all art under Soviet rule was socialist realism (unrelated to Mark Fisher's use of the term, or might be related, I don't know tbh, unfortunately I haven't read the book by the same name).

Even the most transgressive, critical work simply provides the state, or some other entity that is allowing for art to happen, with a license to carry on the wars for freedom, to destroy everything that is not bending to its ideology and will. Maybe the only way to fight against this hegemony is to challenge the very foundations of our production of knowledge ie. what is meaningful, what is "good", what is worthy, what must be seen and what will be made invisible. Or even better, to think of new things to desire for.

I don't know how to do it but I'd love to do it with you since today I am still failing and I'm alone.


p.s. A friend referred to me this thoughtful piece by Lucinda Bennett, and I truly recommend you all read it. Whereas in Finland the problem sometimes is the lack of love due to our love of bureaucracy and empty representation originating in nationalist self-image paranoia, it's good to remember that oftentimes the idea of "loving what you do" is greatly exploited to justify precarious working conditions.

an image of a beetle sculpture sitting atop a square pedestal, with the text Culture is a curse sprayed on the pedestal
Graffiti somewhere in East London. pic by me.

sunnuntai 11. maaliskuuta 2018

WHEN YOU DON'T CONNECT WITH YOUR FRIENDS ANYMORE


a statue of a body that is cut from its pedestal

This blog begun from my desire to write reviews of art exhibitions. I wanted to write in a way that would be honest to my experience. My rules were these: 1. not shying away from academic references since I like to read that stuff, while still striving to 2. use non-native, easily understood, sub-standard, non-rich English, 3. steering clear from personal descriptions of artists themselves, 4. always using they/them unless I knew that someone whose work I'd write about preferred otherwise, and 5. aiming to show how the political in art is very much in the presentation and experience of art, and less so in the content. 

But most importantly, I did and did not want to believe the artist. You try your best to understand their work but also look past the facade they've built. 

After I had written about a few shows (this has been my personal fave so far), I had ran out of steam. There's nothing to add, although I wasn't sure if I managed to say what I was after. 

Only thing left was to criticise the celebration of certain minds, cognitive capabilities, education, and bodies over others. But the more I thought about it (for example, criticising every show in a museum or a gallery in Helsinki based on who they want to, literally, show), the more inadequate I felt in putting it into words. 

But it wasn't just that. What happened was I had lost my interest in pointing the faults of the art world. Their fights are increasingly not mine, and their aims are so far apart from my targets that the risk of a fatal ricochet begun to run high.

Not that I'm out of that world: I am currently in Liverpool for a residency at FACT, and the artist duo I'm in, Biitsi, does shows and other things in galleries, museums, and so forth. But those spaces are simply my equivalent of an office, and people rarely care for their cubicle that much. I do love the people we've had the chance to work with, and feel gratitude for being able to work in the creative field (I don't differ between, say, graphic design and art), all of its problems notwithstanding.

*

The arguments I've made about art's failings could be directed towards the projects I'm involved in, as well. Basically, those failings consist of either representation of worldly problems to advance your career & look cool/clever, or claiming you have a universal right to do art that is uninviting for everyone else (you do, but why should we come see it?).

Art's also just work, albeit the kind I usually enjoy doing. But I don't feel any connection to people anymore just because they're artists, too, or work in the arts.

I used to, though. Having always been an anxious traveler who would shy away from any sort of interactions with basically anyone local, I found art spaces everywhere to be approachable. I'd ring the doorbell of a private apartment, because someone told me there's a show there, without the slightest sense of panic. 

Initially, I thought this was so because of a belonging to a tribe of artists, but later on it became evident I've witnessed the manifestation of the same-same logic of capitalism's global nature. The connection could've been anything.

Almost all of us live in the same consumerist world, unless or until we can't afford to be in it (anymore). The sort of connection I felt is not a sign you're carrying the torch for the History of Art, but a learned reflex that is being supplanted and tightly regulated by arts education, art writing, and other artists, just like any matter of taste (think of pop culture or subcultures) is prone to be, under our current way of the world.

This is connected to aforementioned pitfalls of contemporary art: its political quality is, for most parts, a show put on for other "active citizens", who are able to participate in these showings that usually refer to the troubles of those who can't be there, save for when they've been transported by an art institution for the photo-op at the opening. The connection I described is mostly a sign of shared class position, or of both you and your art world peer having access to the same cultural capital. This issue is way multifaceted than this but anywaysssssssss

There are exceptions (and things does not have to be perfect to be effective -messiness is a given). All of the expectations I know of seem to treat art as a highly practical-yet-potentially-poetic-as-life-truly-can-be instrument for change, not as your art-degree backed chance to drain the energy from others to shed light on your personality and thinking. Which is what I've done for most parts, and so has literally every artist I am aware of in my circles, let's stop lying hooray!

*

It wasn't only the secret handshake between artists when visiting art venues in foreign cities I had lost. It was also the connections back home that got disconnected. Or more precisely, it's not art that connects me to other artists anymore: it is other things in life. Showing my sympathies feels forced for art-related struggles, as in whether a gallery receives support to keep running things exactly like they've always done, or if a sea-themed biennale happens or doesn't.

Saying this probably just alienates me even more from you. Those who want to think of me as a self-absorbed twat can surely read this in a way that serves that purpose, while those who project their faltering hope on my supposedly offhand remarks might interpret my words so as to encourage them to continue fighting the lost (?) cause. 

I love everyone nevertheless (aside from the ones I hate), and I am not trying to say please don't talk to me. Quite the opposite, I want to encourage us to look beyond the need to represent a professional face and instead talk about, I dunno, "money and blood", to quote Grace Paley, or feelings, to quote most of the people I relate to. 

And I still love art, too. It will take a while before I manage to reconfigure it, but in the meantime, I keep doing it, ditto. There is no stop button, unless you can afford one. 

I might not be coming to see your show, and I would never ever feel hurt, not in the slightest, if you wouldn't come and see mine. But if you need help setting it up, or with something else, I'm (more) interested.

P.S. I asked someone "so what do you do" a few weeks ago and I still regret it so much. If you're reading this, please accept my apology. The situation caused me to panic and then overcompensate by talking too much.