torstai 30. marraskuuta 2017

111X & JOHANNES EKHOLM & MAN YAU at SINNE, HELSINKI, Oct 14 - 29, 2017

Image from Sinne gallery, courtesy of artists, pic by Kimmo Modig

Last month, I sat down amidst vintage Artek chairs, Genelec speakers, and a selection of house plants, all enclosed in a room-inside-a-room at Sinne gallery. Fluorescent lights above me were occasionally flickering in sync with the audio, trying their best to animate the makeshift, deadened space. A 90-minute dystopic-utopian radio play, taking place "fifteen minutes from now", in the vein of the British TV show Black Mirror, was playing.

Afterwards, a staff member at the gallery was happy to see I stayed for the full length of the piece. I imagine 90 minutes is a lot to ask for most, but then I was there to write this. Work work work. To be honest, I wasn't there all the time, but went online to vent my frustration. Aargh. I don't have a smartphone but I had my computer with me and it had Sinne's Wi-Fi stored in it from the time our band played there a few months ago.

Whereas Black Mirror -and no I won't drag this comparison throughout- looks at how technology influences (mostly white, middle-class) social relations, "There Is A Light..." imagines the desires and potentialities of Helsinki-based precariat after the current order has gone up in flames in an activist uprising.

The exhibition itself is two-fold: there's the sound piece, and then there's everything else, which is credited to artist and sculptor Man Yau. The broken-beats, post-club bass-heavy music in the radio play is produced by 111X. In a puff-cum-interview(1), the artists said the visual setup should remind audiences that the fictional world of the radio play, in which an actress is receiving a state award while the parliament is being taken over by protestors, is not unlike ours. Choosing audio as the primary medium is an apt choice, as it frees you from having to come up with a visual stand-in for all the ideas. The way out from the muddy waters of representation is through the immersive, physio-hallucinogenic medium of sound, perhaps.

OK so I have no idea how to say this other than like: it seems as if the exhibition wanted us tell ourselves that we, both the audience and the creators of the exhibition, know what is wrong in the world, and that this exhibition exists in that same world. The nod, the wink.

What is it about artists or our working conditions that make us put things into space and will them into meaning what we think they should mean? And if I, as a spectator, subscribe to this meaning, for example by reading the handout text and deducing that the beat-up BMW must symbolise crony capitalism, what does this process do to me exactly, apart from granting me cultural access to a set of symbols & concepts, and before that, making me desire for that make-believe access in the first place? What would happen if I wouldn't agree to accept the presentation of design furniture as a sign of anything else but, I dunno, a successful partnership with the companies mentioned in the thank you notes? As proof of labor? Artists & co always say you're free to interpret the work to your liking but no one ever tells you how you actually can do that, and what doing so would mean to the discourse we're in.


Should we categorise "There is a light...", jarringly, as political art, then how is it different from the works of Jani Leinonen and Riiko Sakkinen, for example, whose works have gathered vast amount of criticism (if you're not aware of these events unfolding in Finnish art, perhaps cut a few paragraphs)? This might seem like a calculated rebuttal, but risking that I still think the comparison is one that must be made in order to clarify these terms so we understand what we are talking about here. What is the difference between this and that kind of art, if they both borrow their momentum and raison d'être from the political (for lack of a better term)?

As a tactic, it reminds me of highbrow music journalism. Pop music thinkpieces seem to be based on the notion that since they tackle globally worshipped, mega-successful artists, the writing must be important, too.(0) Of course, most of the time it absolutely is not meaningful to anyone outside pop criticism believers, as is the case with art and its priesthood, as well.

Obviously, this is not about the merits of pop journalism: it's just that the topic you choose does not elevate or justify your writing per se. People might care about object A, but it does not follow they care about somebody talking about A. The talk in itself is simply another object with which one needs to create a relationship, or not.

Referencing political events or struggles won't add to the weight an art work has in the cultural sphere, then (something the Sinne show doesn't exactly do, though the script contains a lot of quotes from activist-friendly literature etc). Although it kinda adds. What can happen is that the theme itself creates a certain type of aura around your practice: you might have better chances at getting grants, be featured on serious panels, people perhaps deem you as a person worth considering seriously, all that.

Also, no one ever criticises such works unless they're blatantly ignorant, as has been the case with the countless numbers of "refugee-inspired" art made by white Finnish artists touring the topic in their careers. But when, for example, an artist makes an informed work about, say, fascism during a specific period in Finnish history, the cultural sphere ceases to address its aesthetic or artistic merit. It becomes a monument for being right, and for a shared leftist/liberal/critical values (which I share, too). And since this monument is categorised as art, not science, for example, no one will check if the sources hold, there is no peer review system, and so on. We are prone to think the artist is right and so we simply salute the effort, instead of analysing it critically. (But I can't help but to add we need these monuments sometimes, you know, just to have something?)

Still, nothing stymies discussion as combining poetic license with morally proofread topics. Again, no, I am not saying one shouldn't do such works, or that they couldn't work just fine in some cases. What I am trying to argue for here is how so-called political art is being received, and what the choice of content might mean to their reception and cultural mileage. This goes back to the earlier remark about putting a thing in an art space and forcing meaning onto it. We must be able to look beyond that gesture, to see what really happens when the work goes out into the world, and gets mixed up with worldliness.


Though why wouldn't the act of providing information be enough? (ok so this is a tangent way removed from the Sinne piece already just fyi)

Can't I just accept that a move like that is a smart, cold-blooded hijacking of the medium of art for saying something more pressing? And why would I even care if someone does use art to simply disperse some intel?

I mean, I have no desire to "defend" art from anything. I also want to see our current world order up in flames, and art is, as Man Yau and Johannes Ekholm pointed out, complicit. But then I've almost never learned anything from art that that informs me. If I've been made to do so, I've forgotten all the facts on my way home, just like how my tears inflicted by the narco-optics of a Hollywood flick dry before I've managed to exit the cinema.

So I guess if you do appropriate art for something else, then you have to go all the way in, and change not just the content but the conditions of its production, and not simply commit to the tried exhibition practices, artist careers, accepting of group shows, keynotes, and awards, maybe?

In order to set the stage for a meaningful analysis, artists need to recognise similarities between their activities, so we can understand what these concepts mean, as I stated earlier. As much as more in-the-know artists like to set themselves apart from the ones they hate, I can't see any real difference between, say, Alfredo Jaar's empty slogan-heavy posturing and that of the celebrated, intellectually more "mature" artists with up-to-date vocabulary, themes, and subjects. I'm talking to myself here, as well. I want to learn to understand similarities so I can defend the making of a difference.

Just as I feel that criticising the instrumentalisation of art, most recently by Anna Tuori and Aleksis Salusjärvi(2), rings a little hollow, because using art to get things done is not the problem, at all. If you need to stop an environmental exploitation venture by a predatory company and the museum can be of help, of course you do it. Art spaces and workers are real things living in a real world, so of course it's ok to act accordingly. Instead of defending autonomy, I'd like to talk about how you can instrumentalise your practice in a meaningful way. Wouldn't it be healthier to start from the fact we are always complicit, subjective, subjected, and operating in a web of connections, dependencies, and agencies, than to try to defend some 20th century avant-garde dream of autonomy which really ever made sense if you were the heir of a rich family in Italy, driving fast cars and being high all the time?

The problem is never the media and forms in themselves. I think we should look at the institutional execution of the work, ie. how it is embedded in and entangled with its own context, from the salaries of everyone working towards making the work happen, to the affective-intellectual connections it draws, and what are the values it either consciously or unwillingly furthers. Who do you work with, who are you talking to.


Narrowing my interpretation of the work at Sinne as politically mindful but ultimately ineffective miming routine is a disservice to the work. The audio piece comes off as engaging, fun, and refreshing, when you forget this political art label bs I've gone on about here.

First of all, the play is not trying to be well made. It's overarchingly exuberant, and as asuch breaking from the tradition of "good work", something I salute. Sure, the artists are connected enough to get well-known actors &co to read the lines, and they are showing it in Sinne. More so, it's hard to imagine any Helsinki-based art institution saying no to this trio (this was, I understood, a commissioned piece by Pro Artibus, the association/foundation funding Sinne), but I'm sure that has happened and will happen too, sobecause nothing in this faux-meritocratic nightmare neoliberal art world makes sense and everyone is always going way down or up without a second's notice and everyone is paranoid of everyone else, while some of us have decided to judge anyone who dares to complain about these velocities, ultimately denying the intersectionalist power of tears.

But anyways so the work is dirty, the sound design is sometimes very tongue-in-cheek (there's a lot of eerie industrial wind-ish ambience), the acting is all over the place, the text too goes to places without worrying too much about narrative credibility or anything, really. I just needed to relax a little first and take off my usual pair of POLITICAL ART IS SO PROBLEMATIC AAAARGH glasses. It just that everything is politics already, everything is capitalised so I might as well enjoy myself experiencing this work.


OK I'll rage about political art some more now. For most parts, it feels like campaign rhetoric familiar from elections. And just like in politics, in art it is the actions that (should) count. But then, what are real actions in art? I feel my take on this is patchy, and I haven't really grasped this in any particularly deep way, but my gut feeling says art's political potential is in dealing with the politics of art itself, stealing art as a platform in its entirety for completely different means, or working along other non-art-related actors in the long-term, but isn't that pretty standard? I will leave it here to show where I am at. ++I'll try to follow up with this real actions gambit next time when I will hopefully write about a group exhibition that was on for two days as part of Feminist Forum.

So were the actions "real" in this show at Sinne? For me, the answer lies in the space: did the work gain any vitality from the context of a gallery? That's a boring question. Let's try something more suited for the times: did I feel something? If I didn't, is there something wrong with me, should I learn to feel more, or differently?

Is there any way under late capitalism to write a blog like this as a gesture of friendship, or are these things always about envy, belittling another artist, competition, or accelerating knowledge production to keep this machine called art world in motion? What does anticapitalist criticism look like? Is it an act of solidarity to take something seriously and go out your way to write about it, or is it always just careerism? What happens when I meet Man Yau or Johannes Ekholm again in Helsinki? Do they think I'm any less scared or tired than they are? Do I? Am I?

Do you? What makes you want to stand on the side of the ring reading this? What should an anticapitalist spectator do? Should we all just go back to the evasive, invisible, yet deeply political artistic practice of David Hammons, who for all their life has done the most etheral-but-super-concrete, unsellable-yet-totally-sold-out, mysterious-but-pedestrian, hobbyish-yet-professional, silly-tho-political art that I am (made) aware of (what made me know these things, what are the conditions guiding my references)? Negri & Hardt, two philosophers who have written books that you shouldn't feel like you should read them ---screw it live your life, have argued for the abandonment of institutions such as museums, so should we? Why isn't this audio work being played to audiences from car stereos at a parking lot? What do the artists want from the gallery? Or from us, the gallery goers? To wake up? To see you and your knowledge?

How is this show any different from my own show at Helsinki Art Museum's gallery, which was an exercise on entry-level conceptual art? Should we raise or lower the standards? I think, don't I, that we should all be hobbyists and stop doing any kind of art that requires support, gallery spaces, or any other compromises towards the white anti-queer hetero matrix called the normative society, in which art plays the role of the moderate joker so "everyone" can feel they're all right and nothing is too subversive, personal, or weird. I wish it would be that easy. I wish "no" was less expensive.

This I think is true: either you believe that the site of contemporary art (museums, galleries, etc) is worth fighting over, as Irene Campolmi argues, following Chantal Mouffe and sort of counter to Hardt&Negri(4), or you don't. If you don't, then working in art begins to feel overtly pointless. Then the solution is not to insert so-called political content into the art works as a means to signal that these are the real issues that are more important than aesthetics and whatever. For if you do that, it's such a nihilistic, un-beautiful act that I will leave the room, because while it's easy to point out the other, more urgent things we should work on than the politics of the exhibition space, then I as a viewer can't help but to think "then why are you here? And why did you invite us?"

In the end, this had little to do with the exhibition in the title, as often is the case. But the radio play is now in Soundcloud(5), go listen to it, I think it really is wonderful, but it took me three listens to get into it, ie. I am not busy.

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