keskiviikko 22. toukokuuta 2019

SIGRID VIIR - FALSE VACATIONER, EKKM, TALLINN, 27.04.-16.06.2019

The EKKM building, formerly part of a coal plant complex, has received a fresh coat of paint and is now sporting stripes, which might or might not be the look of Summer 2019. Inside, people aren't working to produce energy for Tallinn's 430 000 consumer-citizens anymore, but to satisfy the needs of mostly European professionals of the contemporary art industry. 

This target group is neither big nor influential, at least in comparison to the energy industry. And unlike the latter, the members of art industry spend most of their time talking about itself, like I'm doing here. To make amends for this closed-circuit discursive bubble, which is supposedly immoral and thus not a great look, the professionals work very hard. 

Sigrid Viir's exhibition, spread across five rooms in two storeys, is breath-taking in its scope. Literally, I feel exhausted after witnessing the full exhibition. In the best precarious-worker fashion, I feel bad for not putting in the effort to see and hear everything. There's a 10-minute audio piece made by the curator, as well as a second audio guide. 

a screen shot from a mobile phone depicting EKKM's web site in which you can listen to the audio guide for the show
the audio guide online

Upon entering the exhibition space, you must choose between Work or Holiday (I chose the first one, of course), then pick up a pair of headphones, jack them in to your phone, go to a website, and press a number in accordance to the number in the room you're in. Some of the audio tracks are longer than others, and I run out of things to do in few of the rooms, which can make the listening feel more of a task than an aesthetic experience. But the narrator is a perfect fit: English with Estonian accent, ie. international art, but with the nation-state bleeding out from the cracks. 

So many things have been produced for the show: an actually functioning carousel, a single-channel video loop, fake sewers from where the voice of the curator can be heard, sun decks made out of wood, a fake column with a microphone and speaker include inside so as to amplify the sound of you knocking on it (something the audio guide encourages you to try out), a room painted from floor to ceiling in red-and-yellow stripes, and a mind map made on found porcelain plates, just to name a few.
A gallery room with yellow and red stripes with a carousel in the middle and a series of photographs depicting pieces of a column running on the walls
Installation shot. All pics by me.

So many things. Where will they end up? In Henning Lundkvist's book ”Planned Obsolescence”, the Copenhagen-based protagonist looks at a Pelican storage building that resembles a minimalist serial sculpture, and wonders if that's where their friends put all the artworks that didn't get sold (ie. all of the artworks) after an exhibition is over.  

Lundkvist writes also about the p2p file-sharing culture that took place some 20 years ago, and muses if our insistence on filling your hard drives with thousands of films and audio tracks were the precursor for this planetary mess we're in, where people and corporations produce and share copious amounts of things for which nobody wants to pay any money. 

Isn't it striking we artists do this as well? Fill our small sublet rooms with our art junk, in a capital city of our liking, eventually renting a Pelican storage box for said junk, and finally burdening our loved ones with our oeuvre after we pass away. Why have we accepted overproducing and senseless working so willingly? 

Titled ”False Vacationer”, Viir's solo show ruminates on the pervasiveness and endlessness of modern work by building a monument for it. Like visiting a palace from past centuries, you can't help but to think of the human energies that has gone into erecting it. I shudder from the idea of having to do all that work. 

There's something very powerful in the exhibition's totalizing vision. The upstairs space, an eerie spa, is perfect for letting the concepts of the show sink in. When I enter, there are three friends hanging out for a long time there. Some rest at last. 

the author, resting on their knees, in the exhibition space that resembles a swimming pool or a spa, with pale blue and yellow coloring
Installation shot from upstairs.

The column, mentioned earlier, doubles as a returning metaphor and a material object. You could take it as a symbol for our attempts to keep both the historical significance of art and our personal-professional lives together. It makes me think of the HBO show Barry, where a hitman in LA finds a new beginning in amateur theatre group. The people there really want to believe in the fairy tale of arts as an elevating force. But Mount Olympos seems to be closed for renovations indefinitely. 

EKKM is known for very physical production of exhibitions. Each show usually means not just a fake column or two, but almost a different architectural floorplan for the whole space. I've marvelled at this before, this mix of immersive exhibition-building and hands-on attitude. I wish a Finnish art institution would have a director who can actually do things with their hands. 

And if you're thinking that's an unfair comparison, you're partly right. Maybe sometimes it's good not to have any skills, and de-skill your way around making an exhibition. It can provide for a more relaxing, and less sweat-inducing experience for the artist, the institution hosting the show, and the audience doing the work of seeing the show. OK never mind there's no perfect solution here either way. 

a big mind map that shows different aspects of contemporary work, with references to various authors
Mind map

The exhibition truly lives up to its name: this is nothing if a false vacation. You could compare the strategy of making the exhibition to method acting: In order to make a film about a raging bull, the actor must become one. The method has been criticised for how ripe it is for directorial abuse. Also, doing a thing doesn't turn you into an emotional-aesthetic author on a given subject (not that Viir is claiming anything like that).
And finally, maybe seeing someone faking it gives us much more surprising viewpoints than the real thing. Maybe a false vacationer shows us things we never thought to think about the city, in which they are tourists, but we must live. 

Is this Viir's artistic mission? To exhaust themselves and their resources in order to depict how futile it is to find meaning in hard work? But what if it's not: What if you like working and can't relate to endless seminars and workshops in the contemporary art industry where people talk about their burn outs and make a career out of providing ”softness” and ”care” for whoever is paying? What if you just like it hard? 

The exhibition, naturally, doesn't provide me with an answer. Or maybe I missed it. Perhaps I should've listened to the other audio guide, spend more time in the carousel-and-column room, or just worked more for the experience. Am I lazy? Is this what peer pressure feels like? And most importantly, who has the chance to do easy shows, or take holidays? 

When you find something you don't agree with in an exhibition, or decide to project your frustrations onto someone else's work, you become part of it. Tristan Garcia has described how the frustrating thing about things is that if you count something out as not being a thing, you just make it even more of a thing. “Things have this terrifying structure: to subtract one of them is to add it in turn to the count.” 

installation shot from a room with a semi-circular table or stand for photographs and sun decks made of wood, painted yellow
installation shot.

That's how contemporary art works, too. All your feelings and thoughts about it will immediately become part of it when you share them. Like modern work, contemporary art will not rest until it has colonized every last bit of your life, once you've let it enter. Viir's exhibition is a point in case. It deals with work, looks at its logic, and ends up copying that very logic. And when you experience the show, the logic is copied onto you, on top of the copy you already had. As it says somewhere in the audio guide, you already know all this. 

Visiting exhibitions today means revisiting your hatred, frustration, desire, and addiction towards the contemporary art industrial complex. It will always-already fail you, because you have failed yourself by letting yourself be defined by such a system. You know what you're doing is not good for you, but you don't know what else to do. 

It's so easy to mix 1. that what was supposed to be symbolic critique with 2. your life. And then you're not sure anymore if making and witnessing exhibitions is your life, or if it's something you do in the meantime, when you're not living your real life. 

The vacation might be false, but the burnout will be real. Happy holidays. 



perjantai 19. huhtikuuta 2019

NIKO HALLIKAINEN: LOW INCOME GLOW. KUTOMO, TURKU, 18 APR 2019

As the performer backs away from audience, circling and pacing while reading a poem about hooking up with someone from class or two up from the protagonist, an aeroplane flies through the blue sky outside. It is traveling to the past, from right to left. The performance is taking place in an old industrial building, and its windows distort the image outside. The aeroplane twirls and stretches, remiscent of effects on an image editing app. A mixture of emotions emerge: fossil nostalgia, socialdemocratic depression, and directionless longing.

It's after 8pm and still light outside. There's forty of us sitting at Kutomo, which is space for performing arts located close to harbor in the coastal city of Turku. The space is impeccable and white and clearly a labor of love. I seem to be in this space, year after year, either performing myself or watching colleagues do so. This is my life. I compare this feeling with the spirit of Low Income Glow. In the piece, I suspect, personal experiences have been transformed into material that becomes life once again as it is performed for an audience. Hallikainen's performance seems to deny the use value of making such differences. There really is no outside. The work of life works in art, too.

Niko Hallikainen is the performer, writer of the poems, and composer of the brooding ambient house music we're hearing. They keep reading text after text from the iPhone they're gripping along with the microphone. Finally, they either run out of energy, or of things to say. Which one it is I couldn't tell. 

Most of the things in Low Income Glow resonate between performed gestures and character traits, or setup and honesty. These are categories made up by my spectating mind. Late into the one-hour piece doubling as immersive poetry reading, Hallikainen asks us if one of us would like to say something, but no one steps up. ”I've worked so hard on this -by the way I re-write these texts every time”, Hallikainen quips. It's impossible to say if it's a symbol of an artist struggling with fear and wanting to be liked, or actually just that. 

Somehow Hallikainen manages to transform these tired questions of authenticity. They create an on-stage persona that feels to me easy to live along with and criticise in your head, both at once. After the performance, I feel a little agitated and short of breath. But as I'm writing this, the sensation has changed into gratitude, calm, and introspection. 

Both the performer on stage and the protagonist in the poems make the "right" kind of bad choices in terms of narrative fuel, ie. they arouse your interest. The work seems to suggest that these are not really decisions, but logical conclusions from one's class identity and upbringing. Class relations are made visible in everything: In your toast preference, health, style of performance, the things one pays attention to. We are made to see how where we come from and where we ended up in dictates our point of view. 

Although in Hallikainen's poems, which are in English, relationships and lives never play out that simple. This is not Finnish theatre potraying poor and rich people as static images there to make sure everyone gets how concerned the playwright is about, well, stuff. 

When the upper-class hookup takes the protagonist for post-coital kebap at Döner Harju, onlookers at the restaurant see father and son with a peculiarly deep connection, heartfelt laughs and all. But they really are two strangers enjoying an intimate moment in time. Döner Harju is an apt location as the emblem, or stereotype, of how food can be gentrified: Add some white staff & fresh coriander to charge more than the pizza places traditionally run by immigrants.

Some of the lines of poetry are beautiful. A mother telling her child how it's hard to say who from the family will die first, and how in the child's ears this sounds more like a promise than a threat (or was it the other way around). Hallikainen plays with the threat/promise dichotomy twice. Lots of other things repeat, too, like the name of the color of your underwear, the abrupt remark mid-reading that ”this actually happened to me”, the looming death, and the sudden flashes of desire intertwined with consumerism, class anxiety, boredom, body image, and value speculation that covers every aspect of our lives.

Hallikainen's performative style relies on what you could think of as offer–deny dynamic. It is familiar from the kind of performances that ask about the conditions of the situation, and the expectations bestowed upon the artist. 

This asking never reaches the audience, though. We are left in our roles as witnesses, as a given backdrop, similar to the always-already-outside-while-lured-inside -position of the first-person character in Hallikainen's poems. 

Another stylistic device Hallikainen utilizes as a performer is distance. Again, it's push and pull. We're invited in, only to be told to stay out, although where is that exactly. This distance swapping gets repeated enough times that the fourth wall doesn't exactly disappear, rather than change color. It becomes a prop-cum-talisman, akin to a body lying next to another body for few hours in the night.

And my audience position is put into question, afterall. It is not addressed in the performance. Instead, my experience gets tainted by a sort of affect made up of insistent, non-optimistic nowness coursing in the veins of the poems. And so the performance begins to seem more like a hookup than a cultural event. We shared something and now it's gone. The threads from the experience keeps us connected, until they get mixed with the tapestry of everything else. Then once again you lose track, change lanes, get lost in the familiarity of the relations and the iconsolable hierarchies. 
  
To say that a thing like redemptive violence is a myth is not to say that it’s like a bad dream you can wake up from or an idea you can talk people out of. It’s more like a strand in the netting that holds things together. A conduit for bits and pieces of political beliefs, networks, technologies, affinities, dreamed-of possibilities and events.
It can take many forms. It can be a mean pettiness, a dissolute rage, a habit of self-destruction, an overcharged and swollen will, a body in a state of alarm.” -Kathleen Stewart, ”Ordinary Affects”

It dawned on Fukuko that they weren't really laughing about Utako's family at all, but rather about a certain complicity – an understanding that they had come to about relations between the four of them” -Taeko Kono, ”Night Journey” (1961)

picture of handout from the performance with coffee cup

maanantai 28. tammikuuta 2019

ALMOST THERE: MARJA KANERVO AT AMA GALLERY

So much to disagree with, so much elbow room to disagree in: Compared to other exhibitions I've hung out in recently, Marja Kanervo's stands out for the sheer amount of fresh air.

1.

I'll begin with a second-person narrative of my experience visiting the exhibition. You can think of it as a 3D rendition. I visited the exhibition on a Sunday afternoon in mid-August, 2018.

*

You open the door and close it behind you so as to not make any unnecessary noise. You studied sound design; these careful movements feel like second nature. Upon arrival you get anxious, not so much you'd leave but enough to make you put on a role. You don't know what your role is exactly. Your body feels tense. Maybe you're an athlete, or a guard. Compete or protect. Make art or curate.

There are handouts on your right. You don't grab them just yet, but notice the prices. You remember reading in a book called Front Desk / Back Office how, in the 90's, the city of New York tried to enforce this practice of displaying prices, hoping it'd make the acquiring of artworks more fair. It was rescinded because of the outpouring opposition from the art world that loves to keep the profound and the sacred apart.

You are convinced you remember it wrong but try to forget the whole thing and concentrate on being here. This is not New York.

On your left, there are various objects on wall-mounted, white pedestals. Each object looks pristine. You were already aware the show features objects from the artist's studio that they had no need for anymore, and anyone visiting the show can photograph or draw any of the objects before taking it with them, as long as they leave an object here in return.

It's like a Facebook swap group, you think, and wonder if it will eventually be filled with baby clothes and USB chargers.

You turn around and look at a work called Lopullinen (“Final”), made of photographic basecoat and beeswax. It looks like every other white-surface-with-scarce-marks type of painting you've seen. Such works always make you think of Malevich and how ignorant you are for not seeing the legacy, the variation, and the potential in the tradition of emptied surfaces.

You are not a visual artist. To feel more at home here, you think of a bold campaign proposition for a yogurt brand where this kind of empty field style of paintings could be utilized: Two images, one of yogurt with bits of jam scattered and another of a Rauschenberg or a Kanervo painting.

You sometimes work at marketing but now you are here because you also sometimes work at the art world. Right now, you're not working in either. Is it weird to hang out at the office if you're not being paid to be there?

Facing the gallery office you turn around, take a few steps back towards exit and the window surface with handouts, and turn left to enter the main room. You notice the floor features white objects that resemble bags of clay. They are made of clay. You understand this is conceptual humor, or you think you do, and just as you notice a couple visiting the gallery, you imagine yourself laughing out loud and cursing a lot because you've suddenly become a brash man of letters in your search for a role to help you get through another art-related social situation. That audacious, masculine laughter is your sonic idea of both New York and historicized conceptual art.

You like the carelessness of the objects. Perhaps neat, clear-cut concepts have begun to suffocate the artist. But the objects also remind you of the artist's work in Ateneum a few decades ago, where they had cardboard boxes on the floor.

In the 90's, art looked more like a holy mess. You have only seen pictures of said work in Ateneum. You were born in 1981. Your parents didn't take you to museums so you didn't see any shows in the 90’s.

In the main room, next to the clay bags, there's a table placed diagonally. It looks like a minimalist designer's desk. It reminds you of the pictures in Front Desk / Back Office, of the back rooms of commercial galleries with the same modernist design chairs by Eames, Jacobsen, and Rams. The table and chair here are not high design, but most likely from Ikea. This is more social democratic than liberal in ethos.

Marja Kanervo, main room at AMA gallery, installation view. Pic by Jussi Koitela.

At the table, you can draw an image of an object you took from the show. In the walls, there are photographs and drawings of the objects. They are below your natural line of sight. You think of how men always seem much taller than you, although you're tall yourself. You still seem to think in terms of men and women although you are not either one. You would like to look at this show and not think of anyone's sex.

No matter how white the walls, the categories appear if you scratch the surface, like Kanervo has often done. You remember reading from a Pori Art Museum publication how Marja Kanervo shows you the marks and signs of labor, such as residue plaster on the floor from having cut a piece of the wall off, while casting their self out from the view.

You cross the main room to reach the doorway to a kind of hallway. On the right, you witness the work Oksidipunainen (Oxide Red). On a miniature shelf, there is red pigment lying partly in a bag and the bag has leaked the pigment down to the ground.

It is what it is. It is not for you, not today. Looking at the work makes you show your back to the whole show, like you're saying no to all the playfulness of exchanging objects and the artist revisiting their oeuvre, and instead devoting yourself to this altar of modernist sculpture-rupture. And even though this is not for you, you recognize the kind of person who finds this work to be the only proper one in the show. This work is here so all the artists in Finland having a knack for Orthodox mysticism can feel OK about this show. The sacred is secured. You feel bad for being so petty.

You turn around and peep into a very small room that's on your right. There are paper planes made of old art magazines and catalogs, presumably from Kanervo's collection. The work is called Henk. Koht. (“Personal”), materials used are paper and bronze cast. You forget to look for the latter material.

If this is not a work that smiles wholeheartedly at all the serious words written about an artist then I don't know what would be, you say to yourself, half-audible. The title of the piece, Personal, nudges you to ask: personal to whom? Can an artist create intimacy without being intimate? Can you reach from a distance?

Having walked full circle, you have returned to the entrance room. You look at the objects again, and wonder why the artist would have such stuff in their life in the first place. What were they planning to do with what looks like a roll of paper made of copper? Why hasn't anyone picked that up yet? It must be valuable. This is a solution to the problem of having stuff. But it's not, because there's the exchange which means the artist will get new stuff in return. It's not KonMari. What will Kanervo do with the materials people give in return?

And what about the photographs and drawings of the items, altogether tied into a single work titled Jatkuva (“Perpetual”), filed under “mixed media” and costing 18 000€. Is the price a conceptual joke, too, and will I get a slice of the money if I bring an object here? A price for a new artwork is strange because you're essentially paying for what took a lifetime to make. And that's why criticism is weird as well. You are at the gallery only for some minutes more, while the land underneath will not even notice the building ever existing unless our understanding of energies and connections is fundamentally flawed which is a real possibility.

You retreat to a corner in the main room and read the text curator Jussi Koitela has written for the show. You realize Jussi has seen what you are seeing, that this is a life's work and a kind of culmination for an artistic practice that has been too often interpreted through the dictum of minimalism and conceptualism.

Jussi writes “Life, economy, and work constitute the dialogue of the body with the material world”, referring I assume to Kanervo's life, economy, and work, but also to ours. You consider if you want to be in dialogue with all of this, and whether you'd like to donate an object. You only have some gum with you -is that offensive to give? You decide you will not fulfill the exchange, although that copper paper and also that sturdy rope up there look really appealing and something you could sell for cash.

You consider once more the painting-looking object made of beeswax, and the altar-looking assemblage, and the clay casts. These works bother you the most in their traditional art objecthood-ness.

You try think about those three not as things having been made from something, but as non-manipulated as the objects offered for exchange. They are not a result from a kind of experimentation with other materials, but rather a thing onto themselves.

Every object is an independent object? Is this material realism?

You don't want to go deeper into this, but you are happy having founded a way of looking at those three works not as art finely crafted, but as happenstance, as tapestry of material collisions that took place when you weren't there. Now this new collision between you and one of the objects emerges without the earlier collisions. Or is that even possible, isn't these relationships you're having with the three works made possible by all your (respective) past relationships?

Your brain dissolves like fried banana. You are beginning to like the show.

You realize the three works that “look like basic art” are catalysts forcing you to think harder and feel more.

The exchange of objects seemed easy to grasp at first, but now it feels ridden with complications. The exhibition creates problems for itself. The dynamic creating these problems is made of the following parameters: modernist traditions, relational-material practices, questions of authorship, the city and the gallery as interfaces, and your expectations of art.

For a second you grasp what's happening here but someone enters the room and you panic, and you stop thinking and go back to performing a guard, or an athlete.

You are ready to leave. You're trying to crystallize your experience into words. Something like “How to live with materials, when they are ripe with expectations? Kanervo's solo exhibition On Materials illuminates how the legacies of material investigations in contemporary art can run parallel to and cross paths with more personal ruminations, which for Kanervo seem to be one and the same thing. The artificiality of the exchange lends the show a deadpan look, like the existential slapstick character who already knows she'll slip on the banana.”

You close the door gently behind you.

2.

Ama is located close to the city's most fabulous public library, the one on Richardinkatu, a stone's throw from the more busier parts of central Helsinki, with cobbled roads all around, making a stroll in the area physically distinct.

A geological publication from 1975 by Maija Haavisto and Esa Kukkonen depicts the history of the soil under my feet. Over 4000 years ago I would've been awash in the Littorina Sea, a less salty precursor to Baltic Sea, like phone calls are to Internet. I imagine glaciers, the ultimate in bleak and monumental sculpture, sailing around me in the world that was here even before Littorina, some 12 000 years ago. Some of us might get to see Helsinki being taken over by water once more.

Today the area is known as Kaartinkaupunki district. It is characterized by slopes and dips, perhaps shaped by postglacial land uplift. That's a term I picked up from that publication above.

These geological concepts feel as distant to me as the Minimalist and Post-Minimalist rhetoric, utilized by Finnish art historians to box in Kanervo's practice: The artist traveled to New York in 1981, saw Eva Hesse's work and some exhibitions in derelict industrial sites, and thus the origin story was born and repeated in catalogs texts up to this day.

Is the New York postwar art scene with its dematerialization and other such strategies the Littorina Sea to Kanervo's style? The simmering batch from which the gutsy 80's and 90's Finnish art was set off by the gradual “Westernization” following the fall of Soviet Union, rise of EU, explosion of cheap flights, and the advent of internet?

With the Ama exhibition, Kanervo chose not to follow the worn path set out for them by art history. It's no wonder the show was greeted with confusion, for example in the Finnish-language Taide magazine.

Is Kanervo trolling? Where are the ultra-reduced, sleek spatial interventions? How do you fit this mix of works to Kanervo's oeuvre? Truth is, their work has often strayed from a deterministic lineage. Kanervo has made clothes, montages, and of course those slick wall texts.

The roads going up and down make walking in Kaartinkaupunki a more exhausting enterprise than in the flatter parts of the center. The area of Kallio, taken over by creatives, is another home to many ascends and descends. I wonder how that affects one's life or creative energies.

The galleries from which contemporary art museum Kiasma, I’ve understood, seems to buy most of its works are all located around a pleasantly flat square in Punavuori. If you go there from the museum via Mannerheimintie and then turn to Bulevardi, you're in no time at Anhava and Helsinki Contemporary. Shopping made easy, like one expects it to be in the city center.

The aforementioned publication from 1975, titled “Quaternary deposits in the Helsinki map-sheet area including sea bottom”, explains how the land in Helsinki is originally comprised of clay, but in the central area it is mostly been removed or covered with more sturdier landfill, in what is only a temporary compromise in planetary time between urban and geological agencies.

In Kanervo's trademark works, comprised of etching off plaster from walls akin to Gordon Matta-Clark, or of materials degrading throughout the span of an exhibition, the viewer is made to think of other temporalities besides the present one. It is really time that Kanervo paints with, after all.

Maybe this exhibition is not that different from the other ones, then? Time shared, time away, time left (as in the artist’s more ecologically minded oil pieces), and the effects of time made visible are some of the main concerns of Kanervo's work in my eyes.

When I studied documentation from Kanervo's earlier works, those past pieces usually gave out their concept immediately: ascending steps filled with oil, mirroring surfaces in nature, cardboard boxes filling the space, or checkered squares, in the style of Carl André, taking over the floor. But there's so much more, too: Works that absolutely deviate from the lineage of conceptual art: trials, experiments, perhaps mishaps, but most of all the joy making objects and creating spaces.

This is not the story of an obsessively rigid designer-y artist repeating the same form endlessly, but of one’s who is dedicated to boundless experimentation.

Whereas in the 90's, Kanervo's artworks were usually interpreted either through the canon of postwar conceptualism or overwrought explanatory symbolism, today we can look at Kanervo's artistic output for what it is: materials and conditions in dialogue. You can still take the works to reflect anything from humble spirituality to the grief of the Nordic soul, as critics (and the artist) have done in the past, but there's no reason to redeem the works by overwriting them with symbolic tapestry. We have no need for the landfill anymore: the bare earth at last.

3.

In the mid-1800's, a shoemaker had its shop opposite where Ama resides in today. Today, the stores focus more on luxury than necessities, helping their customers reach peak Maslow. The buildings here in the southern bit of Kaartinkaupunki carries the august patina of being one of the oldest urban areas in Helsinki. It's a highly typical setting for a commercial gallery, although in Finland the difference between artist spaces, for-profit galleries, and museums is hard to locate.

It's usually pretty quiet in Kaartinkaupunki, since only a thousand people live here. A tenfold number of mostly white-collar workers come in everyday, but their hours and mine do not overlap.

The relative quiet of Kaartinkaupunki is the muteness of old wealth, of having no need to gather attention towards your power. It is the opposite of the young, user-cum-influencer's hunger who is trying to make a(nother) career in social media.

I wish to not compare Kanervo to old wealth or dismiss Ama for its location, but am instead depicting the environment in which the exhibition takes place. Concerning the young influencers, I imagine Kanervo doesn’t have to be online to find work and attention, but how could I know. I am fighting for the same opportunities with colleagues 10-40 years younger and older than me. Roads rarely lead anywhere nowadays.

While getting closer to Ama, I stop to stare at the grand buildings stocked with copywriters and financial consultants. The buildings reek of opportunity, potential, and power. I can feel the desire for all such things take over me.

4.

Art has always taken a liking to soundless money. Having a silent partner is the ultimate dream in running a gallery. Someone who pays the bills, doesn't mind the content, and disappears to the background.

The money that is being made in the online epoch prefers to make noise. Microsoft has a start-up incubator named Flux nearby Ama in an expensive-looking, old-guard residential building turned into office spaces. It comprises of one whole floor. I go there sometimes to write or play Magic:The Gathering, because it's free to enter and there's complimentary coffee & soft drinks, provided you can bear the aspiring slogans and general can-do, start-uppity attitude abound. The bathroom mirror doubles as digital screen superimposed with latest tech news. Last time, it informed me about an upcoming Apple product launch while I was gathering myself to face the entrepreneurial world behind the bathroom door.

Selfie at a high-tech bathroom.

In November during my morning wandering, months after the Kanervo exhibition had closed, I am walking towards Ama from west, as I would do normally after visiting the galleries in Punavuori first, although I should really be hunting for work instead than doing these rounds.

It's 9 am so the gallery is closed. I try to peep in from the windows but mainly see the reflection of the opposing side of the street, where the shoemaker once toiled away. Squinting my eyes, I can make out there are paintings, of standard sizes, on the walls. I imagine a film crew preparing to shoot a scene there. I think of a set designer who has made the gallery space look like a gallery space. My fictional actors are looking at their social media feeds on their mobile screens, sitting in for the gallery personnel who will take over the inattentive staring exercise after the crew has disappeared.

Richardinkatu descends towards the eerily empty square of Kasarmitori that is now home to one of the most aesthetically insulting works in recent history, a national memorial for Winter War. It is painfully literal. It is comprised of a 5-meter or so human figure full of holes. A collection of war-era photographs depicting stock Finnish history have been placed in a windowed room that doubles as the statue's plinth.

To compare it with the cool subtlety of Kanervo's memorial for the victims of Finnish civil war 1918-1919, found on a quiet off-site in Suomenlinna island goes to show how history can be recounted in dramatically different registers. I discovered Kanervo's memorial piece from an eloquently written book by Marja-Terttu Kivirinta (see list of sources below).

Whenever I visit Ama, from the inside, that is, I tend to stroll around the space once or twice. There's a narrow, shy hallway in the back with a small room on the side opposite to the wall of the main room. The hallway connects the office area, entrance room, and the main room together. After making a full circle, I usually find myself settling on the farthest corner of the bigger room, next to the row of windows, so I can take in a kind of general view of the exhibition.

During Kanervo's, three months ago, I visited only once, spending around 30 minutes in the space, which is diminutive to the lifetime it has taken for the artist to come up with the works in question. Paradoxically, Kanervo's more well-known works feel almost hurried, experientially, in comparison to the spirit of the Ama show, because this exhibition demands more time from you. There's very little to take in at a glance, and there is none of the effect of Kanervo's interventionist works, where just being there inside the site-specific installation counts as experiencing the work on full.

The Ama show is not only an intellectual exercise, either, but one that makes sense only if you care to consider its many aspects. There's no snappy effect here. This show would look tiring in Instagram.

Marja Kanervo at Such Gallery, Helsinki, 2015.

5.

Jussi Koitela, who has written the handout text, used to run a vitrine gallery called Such with me, in another wealthy but even more quiet area of Helsinki called Töölö, a few kilometers from Ama. I had contacted Kanervo already in 2013 to propose a one-day exhibition in Sorbus, but that didn't pan out due to timing.

Then in 2016, we managed to get Kanervo to create a new work for our vitrine. A small, rustic painting frame was placed inside our human-size, vitrine-as-gallery. A covering tape was attached to the glass, with letters carved out that spelled KYVYTTÖMYYS. Translating to “inability” but also “impotency”, it was a striking message in an old-fashioned, bourgeois residential area. A former President of Finland lives next door.

I try to read Jussi's text. It's challenging to read standing. I picture myself sitting on a mush passenger seat in a train traveling from Cologne to Brussels, taking in my dear friend's thinking, while in the corner of my eye the train crosses river Meuse and the world outside looks just as colorless as Helsinki, or modernist design chairs at a gallery's back room. The European visual information from the window of the train is reminiscent of failed clickbait, or of bot-like online ads, as if I'm back at Microsoft Flux staring at the hi-tech bathroom mirror. The travels of a creative rarely seem to take them anywhere.

I wonder if Kanervo's aesthetic is born from such travels, and from the heady-but-tongue-in-cheek tradition of central European conceptual art (no clear idea what I'm referring to, but I'm sure someone knows what I mean -think of design but also excrement), and the precise but plain serial installation style that is prevalent on the rows of images circling the walls at Ama.

Kanervo's strategy of writing words on institutional (and sometimes other) walls is an act of handing out information one doesn't necessarily need, so that the experience leaves you confused, unsure if the word was meant for you, or if it was just a byte from an endless feed made by the artist over their lifetime instead of an algorithm? Can you be site-specific when everywhere feels the same for the middle-class art consumer? Is an installation at Venice any different from one at Helsinki?

Looking at images from catalogs and other publications, there's a loneliness in Kanervo's practice, in going around doing things that are directed to no one in particular, created by a bodiless non-presence. This lonely feeling is hidden so deep behind the walls of elegance and craft that when I reach it, I feel fraudulent.

I remember what Kanervo said about the ambience surrounding the forming of the legendary performance art group Jack Helen Brut, and how they all felt so beautiful and omnipotent and young, like such groups always do in the beginning, and how, subsequently, Kanervo dropped out because acting or being seen that way was not a good fit, and how Kanervo's career has, after that, kept the image of the artist away from the works themselves.

Can we say things without being there to say them? It's such a basic yet fundamental question. It has haunted me whenever I've done exhibitions myself. Why do we invite people to look at what we've done without being there in person?

At the Ama show, I feel Marja Kanervo is almost there. The instructions on how to interact with the exchangeable objects read like a note left at the kitchen table by your Airbnb host dreading of human interaction. It’s as if the world, and especially the people in it, are so unreliable that Kanervo wants to be in charge of how, and if, an exchange should take place.

The exhibition keeps my mind busy. There are so many connections, modernist baggage, heaps of materials asking different questions, and piles and piles of histories, practices, and trajectories waiting to be excavated. I haven't wrestled with a show this much perhaps ever before. I've worked on this text for six months, and it's still nowhere, but I need to go somewhere else now.

I'll end with a quote from Antti Saarela, writing for a publication about Kanervo's exhibition at Pori Art Museum in 2003.

"It is possible the artist discusses the power that signs hold, the issue how an anonymous subject may have a voice but not the power nor the capabilities to name the public or even his or her public domain."

*

Marja Kanervo: Materiaaleista ("On Materials") was on display at gallery Ama, Helsinki, between Aug 10 and Sep 2, 2018. Coincidentally, my first blog post was about a solo by Alma Heikkilä at the same gallery.

Sources:
Marja Kanervo catalogs and exhibition publications:
- (Dis)appearing. A Museum of contemporary art Kiasma publication 138/2013
- Oulu City Art Museum 9.10.-19.12.2004
- No Name. Pori Art Museum publications 68, 2003
- Artist of the Year. Helsinki Art Hall 1992
- Joensuun taidemuseon julkaisuja 1/1990
Marja-Terttu Kivirinta: Yhdeksän taiteilijaa, WSOY 2007
Maija Haavisto, Esa Kukkonen. Geological map of Finland, Quaternary deposits, Helsinki. Geologian tutkimuskeskus, 1986
Front Desk / Back Office. The secret world of galleries in 39 pictures and two texts. Fucking Good Art, 2010
Taide-lehti, 4/2018

With warm thanks to Miina Hujala for insightful comments.

sunnuntai 27. tammikuuta 2019

THE CIRCUIT I NEED: TALVI, A CHOREOGRAPHY BY LAURA JANTUNEN


Witnessing the performance Talvi by coreographer Laura Jantunen, at Zodiak centre for contemporary dance in Helsinki, meant the (or a) world to me. Or, these are the kinds of artworks that give me that essential, life-affirming energy.

For some time in the beginning, I was not sold. I wondered if the artist had went for a monotonous movement exercise for no other reason than to get the job done. Watching the two dancers, Jantunen and Pauliina Sjöberg, doing repetitive circles as if imitating birds, or being high as kites and floating about, the always-reconstructing Westernized brain was malfunctioning: How to interpret this, what does this mean? Why do they commit to those movements? And what is this static that seems to increase in volume? And what should I make of the two monolithic objects on both sides of the Zodiak stage, not unlike the alien rectangle in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey? Why does Jantunen sport a sweatshirt with a opal side split, while Sjöberg's clothing shows the same color flashing at waistline?

In a word, I was anxious and unforgiving. I wasn't ready to take everything in. I was trying too hard to make sense. My mind was on the lookout for literal and symbolic cues. This surprised me because I've seen works by Jantunen before that traveled in similar terrain. Perhaps the formality of Zodiak got to me, or whatever fear of the day I was dealing with, like the influx of familiar faces at the lobby before the performance, causing a near panic attack.

After 15 minutes or so, as the dancers' looping movement patterns begun to fall out of sync, all these considerations faded out. Instead, I marveled the piece for its more fundamental characteristics: The relations between things. 

The monoliths reflected light beams that in turn were synced with the sound. I am assuming there was a sub-bass speaker that caused the reflective surface to vibrate and thus create light reflections around the space, but I didn't ask. After the performance was over, I had no need for additional info.

The sound increased and the light flickered. Finally, it reached its peak, and after that the space fell almost silent. The dancers continued on their looping paths, but without the hand movements. They were just walking. It's as if you're stuck on your pattern but without the content that makes you you. 

Now there was a before and after. I wouldn't blame anyone for reading this as a post-apocalyptic scenario, in which unforgiving conditions hit you with amnesia, and there's nothing left to do but to barely exist. 

The sound came back, and the dancers found their gestures anew, this time more elaborate with their heads gently swinging. What was once monotonous repetition was now re-staged and taken back with joy. The body rejoices.

But more than a forced narrative, what pulled me in was the mathematical alchemy of dynamics, equations, and energies. On this later part, the piece folded on itself, forgoing its own rules and giving birth to a singular logic. And then it all made sense to me. I took the work in and it made me understood relations between rhythm, repetition, binaries, micro and macro in a wholly new way. The work touched me on an affective level. Today, the dynamics of the world feel different due to experiencing Talvi. This is what art can do, and does best.

A friend said they were suspicious of the binary of two's: two bodies, and sound and light. I must disagree. This binary setting was simply a safe beginning from which to take off to more adventurous constellations. Also, sound and light is not a binary. They are but a one thing, which I felt was at the core of artist duo Destroyer2048's spatial design. It's all vibrations, after all. 

In the choreography of rhythms and its rules-and-non-rules, the work seemed to nod towards dance music and clubbing. There's the feeling of leaving the party at early hours of the morning while the world looks alien but extremely potent, just like your body, and that feeling can nourish your curiosity and thinking-living for days, or decades.

Art is at its most political when your understanding of what's possible in space-time mutates. The bodies that leave from an aesthetic experience with a corporeal proof of the beauty of non-binary thinking, and of worlds that defy the patriarchal one-two logic, are the kind of bodies that can bring that said logic down. This is art that gives you energy to believe in new systems of being and beings. This is science-fiction embodied.

You can reach people with words, but you can also reach them with affective dynamics. An increase in volume, a body that trips, a fabric cut to show and hide at once, a break, a descending note, the chaotic flicker of light, a multiplicity of contracts between different materials that defy causality and correlation while playing with them: Such affects are felt in the body and they reach us in the now.

For me, Talvi gave a sneak peek to art that strives to create new affective logic. What do I mean by ”affective”? I'll quote Kathleen Stewart: ”Ordinary affects are public feelings that begin and end in broad circulation, but they're also the stuff that seemingly intimate lives are made of. They give circuits and flows the forms of a life.” (Ordinary Affects, 2007)

Could it be that art deals with inordinary kinds of affects, the ones not yet named and circulated to exhaustion? Maybe. My fellow artists, I urge to create and cherish the circuits and flows you need.

----

Talvi. Concept and choreography by Laura Jantunen. Space and sound by Destroyer2048 (Ilmari Karhu & Tatu Nenonen), costume design by Hanne Jurmu, dancers: Pauliina Sjöberg, Laura Jantunen. Premiered at Zodiak, Helsinki, 22nd of January 2019.


black rectangle, no image
This black rectangle bears no relation to this text or the performance, but blog posts fare better when an image is included

perjantai 7. joulukuuta 2018

ARE YOU A GOOD ARTIST?

1.

How do you know if you're a good artist? I don't mean good as in ethical or empathetic or nice, but creating good work.

How could you possibly know that? The mirror in your home presents a question mark, nothing more.

First, you want to look at what's being unsaid. Don't people tell you how they remember a work of yours from yesteryear? Haven't you received heartfelt feedback from your students? Won't your more successful colleagues ask you to collaborate? Do people talk about nice, not deep things in your presence?

Then, try not think what's being said. When you're being introduced to someone and they tell you they know you, it means you're hot shit, not that your works are good. If people write about your work without saying anything specific about the actual pieces but concentrate on your personality instead, probably you are not even doing art anymore but trading in hype. And if older artists mention you as an exciting new name, consider what they want from you, because they sure aren't interested in your craft.

If you are good-looking in a normative way, if you come from money, or if you're easy around people, you'll never truly know. A recipe for paranoia you might think. But you can't be too paranoid. Only if you're dead and there's afterlife, you might get to see if people say good things about your artistic practice in earnest. Even so, you'd be right to suspect you're being canonized only because a dead artist is a safe bet for admiration. The work might still be bad.

Kim Modig: Mapping (2017), a digital image
Kim Modig: Mapping (2017)

2.

Why do you have time to wonder if you're good or not? Don't you have work to do?

We both know this is the work. People say most of our time as artists now goes to applying for things, updating our resumé, or promoting ourselves in social media. But what about doubt? How much time does doubt take per week?

It eats your time especially if you had to fight hard to come through. You will always have more work  to do, because people see you had to break sweat to be here: No one likes visible effort outside sports so you drudge up the past labor. You put in extra hours to the the work of looking effortless.

If you're taking it easy, you probably have less work to begin with. When the day is done, you don't face the laundry pile of racism, sexism, or ableism. No one talked down at you today, misgendered you, or made you concsious of your body's unfitness to the rigid norms of this world. You never doubt if you are able to do something or not. You, as the adage of our times goes, just do it.

3.

If the axis of good or bad seems as repressing as any other dividing line, you may want to search for life outside its influence.

You become a hobbyist, performing your most convincing carnivalesque laughter at the fools who still grind away in the binary reality, begging for legitimization. When everyone else is hard at work proving their value, you do what pleases you. These things are done for the sole reason and wanting to pass the time in a pleasant way. There's no sense of getting better. Nothing goes anywhere because everywhere would be the same.

This is the small town aesthetic. Its downside is social control. Trying too hard rewards punishment. You won't be celebrated but shunned for your victories. Progression is off limits.

Music scenes often work like this, as well. One could say it's not a weakness, but a strength that makes it easier for everyone, for newcomers and veterans alike. Doing your thing is enough, as long as you're OK with unspoken rules and social norms that are reified as nonchalant clothing sense, rugged instruments, aimless songs, and, more often than not, copious amounts of alcohol.

4.

So you move to a bigger city, or look for a more competitive scene because you want the very best in the exchange of ideas. You want to take art seriously.

You meet a master who tells you they don't have any idea if what they do is good or not. The audience, or some random event like a critic defending the work to no end, will make or break the work regardless of your hopes and fears.

The master tells you about intuition and energies. Nothing else to it, they quip.

They don't need to think about good or bad because they're in a position where other people will do it for them.

In art, we like to place some people at positions where they can do exactly what they want and make other people follow their instructions to the t, because we think this is how quality gets made. When the chosen ones bore us, we give their seats to someone new, someone as audacious but who sings a different tune. The number of seats seem to never increase. It must be we like to know who is the best and who are the not good ones.

5.


Even when there are no prizes to be won or seats to fill, why do some people end up worrying if they're good artists when others don't?

If you've been encouraged all your life and told you can do everything and nice-paying opportunities have appeared from thin air, it might have never crossed your mind to question your abilities. That is the gist of privilege.

Strong self-esteem and being presented with opportunities also feed each other. You believe in yourself because people tell you so; but they say you're good because you radiate self-worth. This feedback loop gives famous people who release cookbooks, direct films, start cosmetic companies, star in everything. The doubtful recognize the good.

The people who worry about their worth will do so even at the top of the world. When doubt comes knocking, it moves in and never leaves. The only way to keep it at bay is to be around the good ones. But eventually you need to go back home.

5.

Are you a good artist? What do you think?


An image of art-related books ordered by color (red)
Books (pic by me)


maanantai 12. marraskuuta 2018

WRITING ABOUT ART TODAY MEANS BEING WRITTEN ONTO

1. What to say with an exhibition?

I used to believe the following to be true: The medium of art exhibition is an ineffective way to share information to viewers.

It's true in the sense that I don't usually go into exhibition spaces in order to learn something. But these sorts of jaded rules are meaningless in reality. What is information, or learning, anyway?

Things are also curiously hard to keep apart. You deal with your breakup in doing your performance piece and the other way around. And if you're an artist who's given an exhibition space and, coincidentally, got stuff to say, why wouldn't you voice it through your exhibition?

You know it's not ideal, but nothing ever is. So many other things play out in the process. An exhibition is the outcome from the crude equation of Life divided by Conditions times Chaos. You already know from the get-go how small your influence over the end result might be.

When writing about a show, should I try to suss out the formula I mentioned above? Should I be aware of what were the conditions of production? I should, but sometimes I wonder if that isn't taking away the power of the artist to present us with the works, without needing to point toward interpretative devices lurking somewhere next to them, the institution hosting the exhibition, or the world at large?

Or is there another formula at play, one in which your need to say “I did this, not some imaginary community” derives from an equation of Privilege times Ego minus Urgency plus Charisma? OK I admit this is getting a little fuzzy.

Privilege allows you to think you're doing it all by yourself. Those least vulnerable are the ones least dependent on communities. On the other end, there are those who are too scarred by past trauma to be amongst other people again. And why would you want to rely on such a messy thing as other people if you really don't have to?

The white cube with its modernist autonomy might be problematic, but I bet many artists long to be left alone and show their work in the way they want to, independent of who they are. Another question entirely is whether or not society should support these activities of self-expression.

Being able to control your creative output and own it are crucial aspects of artistic work, especially when it's the only thing under your control, as Olivia Laing, in their book The Lonely City, makes clear when writing about the artist Henry Darger who was alone for most of adult life, creating a visual world of drawings, paintings, and text, only unearthed posthumously, in a cramped apartment with very little means.

Perhaps that's why legendary recluse artists such as David Hammons (or any of the artists presented in Martin Herbert's book “Tell Them I Said No”) refuse to open the proverbial door when fame comes knocking. It would lead into other people stepping all over your process.

2. Community and art

Rejecting all communal notions from one's practice cuts to the core of the history of Western modern and contemporary art. It is carried by the idea of autonomous works that happen in a kind of vacuum, devoid of outside world.

It's a political project, as well. Independency is Nordic welfare society at its utopian best: everyone is taken care of and given equal opportunities so no-one is dependent on their friends or families.

But then this is reality for less and less people, all the while art is becoming more and more the place where rehearsals for community-building take place. This happens partly because conservative austerity politics need a band aid (UK art institutions give a deeply unsettling example of this), but also because contemporary art practices are changing from within.

Public has become the primal form of new art, and exhibition the secondary one. The word public here acts as a placeholder for assemblies, collectives, public gatherings, non-patriarchal familial constellations and so forth.

It makes sense that the latest Helsinki-based art organization born from the ashes of Checkpoint Helsinki (which, fittingly, came into existence to oppose the building of a museum) calls itself Publics, produces mostly talks and hosts events, and seems not to be putting up exhibitions anytime soon.

Another new local enterprise, Museum of Impossible Forms, is operating on a similar vein while referring in its name to the concept of museum, which the art historian Camiel van Winkel calls the end destination for all things avant-garde.

What was once the fringe program (talks, workshops) is now the headliner. When I look around, I can see some people having not really realized this. Others are angry, even. “Why is art about the other stuff nowadays?” This is another way of saying “I''m white and feel like I can't get enough exposure.”

In addition to how petty such statements ring, it's mindless to get riled up for all the retreats and workshops & complain how art itself has been forgotten. These events are what art is today. It's not about some limp relational turn anymore, but moreso that art is now being done by people who might possess different needs from those who came before, ie. basically white privileged men. Although in most cases this change hasn't reached the highest offices of art power.

The point is obviously not to say that what all non-white artistic practices add up to is some delightful communal picnic, but that art in the West is getting a reboot. And in order to do that, you need to retreat, take stock, plan, discuss, build a strategy, gather the troops, care for others and stay warm.

The shock that well-off, liberal white people are currently channeling by accusing identity politics, which has come to mean “not white hegemonic culture”, is the direct result of feeling like outsiders in the plethora of communal activities taking over (especially the local nodes) of the art world.

It follows that no one might need the kind of formalist-modernist, theme-led exhibitions we are mostly seeing today, made by curators and artists who received a similar education in taste, class, and thinking.

3. Will anything change?

Change never comes at once. White male painters following the macho-mythical abstract expressionist credo still seem to sell just fine, and formalist exhibitions will be a thing for decades to come in some form or another, be it by artists of any identity.

And people in leading positions don't give up their power without a fight. Since old institutions are unwilling to change their practices, from hiring to bathroom policies and from curatorial thinking to their relationship with the state, new institutions will pop up, as perhaps could be said was the case with Publics and Museum of Impossible Forms.

The fruits of modernism are still edible. But if we think about the leading critical discourse, the most on-demand artists, or the most talked-about art-related books currently published, then in that realm doing exhibitions today is getting close to proclaiming you're a Cubist. The performance of professionalism today requires you organize a retreat.

In a country like Finland where considerable support for art abound, the community-building in art can result in a group of well-funded (and -meaning) artists creating images of how such an activity might look like, usually for an institution who wants to be seen as Ethical.

Art becomes a rehearsal for life, removed from any other agency than art professionals' need to seem like they're renewing themselves to suit the times. But perhaps this is needed. They are stories and we live from stories.

Many of us might feel disappointed after attending to these social art-gatherings. They are followed by another one, on a different topic, and then again another one, all the while we try to keep our own lives afloat.

We might do less modernist exhibitions, but we still have busy, precarious, and very modern lives. That's how art happens today to the people who live it: through an endless, drowning stream of deadlines and unmissable events. The difference between a retreat and a corporate team-building exercise can seem non-existent at times.

Unfortunately, art will most likely always be exploitative in some way. Artists won't be paid, producers and directors will, or vice versa. Only selected few will succeed, even if the selection criteria changes, and the many left behind should shut their traps and be happy that at least someone is finally getting that extra funding.

There's nothing so ethical and urgent that we artists couldn't turn it into blatant careerism. And you can't really be angry at that. As I said earlier, life is not ideal. Rent is rent. We do what we can, under circumstances we can't fully control. Good intentions vs. needs we can't surpass, all that.

Managing a nuanced perspective on things becomes particularly vexing when you're feeling overwhelmed by the extreme, life-destroying urgency of climate change, for example. You don't want the many shades of truth, but just the one. An artist has gone through these motions only to realize that, say, flying to biennials is bad for the environment and a grueling way to live, too. So they turn their own realization into a dictum and hold everyone up to this standard of their own making.

This is grossly self-centered, and uneven, because everyone has different reasons for doing what they do. We can't force each others as individuals to do things in a different way just because that way fits us and our abilities. Universalism and essentialism are not needed here, either.

Conducting change obviously requires listening, and a cool head. Mostly nothing about the art world caters for such qualities, which is why we have the kinds of lives we do. We are finding ourselves in a paradoxical situation: Artists are engaging in new kinds of thinking in settings that are, at their core, hostile to the idea of sustained attention. Infrastructural change in art couldn't be more urgent: the structure of doing things is in direct violation with what most of us would like to do.

What is perhaps not always understood is the magnitude of such change. Most art institutions think, in Finland at least, that they can go about their business as usual just as long as they cherry-pick a more “diverse” set of artists for their events. But you cannot include people, aggressively marginalized by the state and white patriarchy, into the inner sanctums of art and expect them to not turn around the very structures and ways of doing art. It's not only a matter of who is doing the art, but under what terms, and for what end.

This much is clear to most people working in the lower confines of the art world, where everything isn't about pleasing your donors or Ministry of Culture. But understanding something is not the same as changing it.

black and white image with following text on each four corners respectively: for the content and to be social, not for the content but to be social, for the content not to be social, not for the not to be social I need to be here. In the midlde a bigger text: "why did you come?"
Kim Modig: Social Anxiety Matrix #2 (2017)


4. Whose standards?

I argue that, collectively and unconsciously, we still regard the solo exhibition, or the museum group show, or the inclusion to a big biennale, or the star guest visiting your insitution or city, to be the gold standard. The archetypes haven't changed yet. This is why we all still talk about museums and refer to them in titles and texts, although a growing number of us artists work in a way that has little connection to what happens within those walls. When will we cut the cord for good? And can you survive outside?

Everything is still in relation to the old models, or simply just made in the same way but with a different topic, which means that a way of life an exhibition tries to depict is not really meant to enter the building. Think of it like this: Exhibitions about queer art should be presented in a way that is inviting to queer life.

Consider also how European Futurism and Surrealism looked like white boys with rich parents fooling around. Art is how you live. So what would art spaces look like if their very infrastructure would reflect some other lives? What if those spaces wouldn't look like the lives of upper-class people, with designer glass at the museum café, expensive jewelry at sale in the museum shop, and the exhibitions spaces made to look immaculate? But contemporary art has never been about class revolution, but the cementing of its horizontal power structure while adding a new coat of paint on it.

Before depression hits, let us return to the question of reading a show, and to a compound issue, that of subjectivity.

5. Everything affects everything

Do I look at the artwork without any “external” explanation? And is it really a matter of either-or: Either I look at the works only, or I take into account everything else? It's not. Things bleed and stick to each other. I find it impossible to take anything apart from another thing, without at least a thread hanging between them, holding up a connection. You can try it yourself. Imagine a box with a lid and try now to remove the lid.

Is the name of the artist in the title of an exhibition the perfect example of the fact that we are still simple creatures who cannot think in fluid ways about object-subject relations and multiplicity of agencies?

Or, we can think about them, you know, pick up a Karen Barad book and quote it, but we're still seemingly far from such boundless thinking managing to change the way our world works. It's little like the situation above with exhibitions and the much-needed modes of producing and experiencing art.

Even though we know it's not the artist who, in this multi-actor sense, does a show on their own, we still insist on placing the artist's agency above anyone and anything else's. And this is why our whole thinking must change if we want to get rid of the long shadows of modernism and colonialism in art.

Is there a threshold in having an agency in something? What still counts as influencing a work of art? The line is impossible to draw. I'm thinking of Iggy Lond Malmberg and their solo performance Boner (Baltic Circle, 2014), where Malmberg said something like perhaps we perform Hamlet so often because the crown in the storage of a theater wants us to do so.

Free, individual will is getting to be a thing of the past, and perhaps this mythical freedom has been unfathomable to almost everyone except for the ones who came up with it, ie. the men in charge. So how should we begin to write about shows under this new sun of intra-agencies, where we are constantly pushing and pulling each other unknowingly, blurring the lines that used to separate me from you or from a thing?

It's not new. This stimulating yet confusing problem of multiple agencies simultaneously in play has always existed in our attempts to say something. When you try to express yourself, you end up bringing in so many other things to the forefront. Our bodies emit all kinds of data from smells to affects, and our words and actions carry infinite interpretative possibilities.

Let me return to the question of information from which this text begun. Maybe the exhibition is not at all any worse a communication platform than, for example, talking to another person. To write about an exhibition is to unearth both what I assume the show is trying to say, but also what it's saying regardless its makers' best attempts. This is the case with any human communication.

Here, we need to make a decision. It's up to you whether you want to believe the human, or the artwork, in front of you or not. If you don't, you can read them in the worst possible way. Sometimes that's healthy, sometimes violently cynical.

You could say noise is always there, surrounding the signal. The receptor can, by all means, concentrate on the noise only and deem the message meaningless, or to excavate the signal out from the static and consider its intent. Again, the noise is at times more exciting than what is being communicated, so the choice is not so clear-cut.

In informal art discourse, née bar talk, née the talk that actually molds our attitudes much more than any seminar or book can ever do, we often look for problems in something we've just experienced together. The show was horrible, the talk was sub-par, the event was pointless, the commercial galleries in our home town are all crap. This is how many of us talk (kudos to you if you ever don't!), and this is how we connect. We congregate around faults.

What is it in the structure of our art worlds that make us retort to this conscious amplification of noise and diminishing of signal? I think it's a question worth pondering. Is it the precariousness? That we're all scared for our livelihood and/or legitimization, and so we want to drag other initiatives down to level the playing field?

5. Aftermath: writing?

These, I feel, are the two main trajectories at play in art today: The fundamental change in the very forms of how art is done, experienced and presented (for whom and by who), and secondly, the revolutionary expansion of agency, which will sooner or later change our understanding of authorship and creator-mediator-spectator dynamics.

But all of this is not simply a matter of disseminating information, like I said in the beginning, but of, well, I'd like to leave that part open. I'll end with a rumination on writing.

To understand how those trajectories play out in our practices, we can think of how to write about art today. One tactic could be to think more about who is this for. If this is not for me, what am I doing here? Furthermore, if this thing here leaves me cold, why wouldn't I go somewhere warm? And yet sometimes it might prove wise to test different climates. But for one last time, all these maxims become meaningless in life, where choices are rarely binary. And sometimes there is no choice. You just are somewhere.

I could also propose we start from an understanding that being in the same space with artworks is not a one-sided affair. When entering an exhibition, you might want to ask yourself: Who is this "I" that is hanging out with the exhibition here today and what does this I do to the exhibition, and vice versa?

The chameleon once again faces the choice between a reflexive urge to fuse in with the surroundings, or a Promethean obsession to challenge your environment. You are marking the space with your energy. Is it healing, antagonizing, wobbly, or dry kind of energy?

This unbound and always changing multiplicity is who I am, and it's what an artwork with which I'm spending time, has to deal with too. And how the work conducts that dealing reverberates back to me. I am not only writing criticism about artworks: The works are writing on me.


Published subsequently in Sorbus Gallery's upcoming publication, 2019