sunnuntai 17. joulukuuta 2017

FEMINIST FORUM (FEMF) GROUP EXHIBITION CURATED BY RAMINA HABIBOLLAH AND NAYAB IKRAM, 20-21 OCT, CABLE FACTORY, HELSINKI



Feminist Forum exhibition, installation view. Courtesy the artists. Image: Kimmo Modig
Feminist Forum exhibition, installation view. Courtesy the artists. Image: Kimmo Modig

LOCAL?

"not only is contemporaneity about the engagement with the urgent issues of the moment we are living out, but more importantly it is the moment in which we make those issues our own. That is the process by which we enter the contemporary."
-Irit Rogoff: The Expanded Field

"I don’t believe there are enough good people in the art world who speak on a level and think about legacy/about policy/who go to council meetings and have a worthwhile presence and do something without prioritising their own gains of being a Gap Yah-type, look I work with Real People in my art-type dickhead”, wrote the White Pube recently. Later on in the essay(1), they recommend art institutions to have obligatory local advisory boards: "With such boards, art spaces of all scales might be responsible and accountable then; social, local, good. their activity would be considered, wanted, attended, and shared. yep ok thats the art world i wanna see. can I have that for christmas please."

If I wish for art to make sense locally, it’s worth to ask for whom art is usually made, then? Most shows I see are targeted for other artists & art pros, like the ones I’ve done myself because I have no idea how to talk to anyone else. Attempts to cater for larger audiences usually fail, as essentially no one (=”laymen”) cares enough to see something new, or perhaps, and most likely, the work was not really made with any understanding of any other audience than your peers.

But I know so very little of audiences and communities to begin with. In this case, my point of view is that of a  professional-seeming(?) art worker(?) who goes to see shows and then talks about them privately with their peers.

And I wonder why most of my friends say they don't feel anything when they see art. The art we witness in Helsinki and elsewhere is almost always about showing that you can make “an art thing”. It is proof, as I’ve claimed elsewhere(456). There’s rarely any entrance into the work because the work is made to be acknowledged, not experienced.

All this I say so I can lay the foundation for discussing the exhibition mentioned in the title of this post so hold tight.


MUSEUMS? (AGAIN...)

Also, and by way of reminding you I don’t hate museums, although I doubt you would care if your snap judgement on my snap judgements is balanced, and not that I was talking about museums this time, but anyways let’s set the record straight: no, it's not that museums should solve all the problems of art+audiences. Quite the opposite imho, I would love them to have the ability to focus on fighting forgetting, that is, doing archiving work (which then would allow you to dissect the ideologies guiding such enterprises, something that is way more urgent than to talk about being depressed by what’s on).

For some reason, museums have been burdened with the task of being the main place you go for all things contemporary art here in Helsinki -maybe because this is such a small place and there is no discourse that would enable more analytical takes on the roles of different institutions, so it is very hard to avoid talking about museums when you talk about contemporary art.

Or actually it is very easy to avoid talking about museums, just look at something else, like the FemF show I am slowly getting to here.

---Which is so weird, that bit about having to talk about museums, because museum shows here very rarely have anything to do with the issues and ideas me and my colleagues deem pressing. No, we don't decide what is worthwhile in general, of course, but I am depicting my reality, so that you would understand where I'm coming from with this and how it potentially visualizes a larger contemporary art discourse. I don't see most museums and their personnel working with the same questions with me, whereas with my precarious colleagues who are critics, technicians, writers, whatnot, I feel a connection because it is based on a situation, a position, instead of a genre.

THIS IS WHERE WE DIFFER

And also why do Helsinki-based art institutions collaborate with each other when it's pretty obvious that the actual_people_working_in_these_institutions have vastly different, even if unpronounced aims?

Why do independent, fiercely critical festivals, galleries etc. want to work with bigger institutions when they are looking for very different things?

I mean, go to a bar with people who work for any highly visible and/or cool independent art org, and listen to them bleed their hearts out on how disappointed they are with these seemingly required collabs, and you will bloody well learn what the differences are.

I must admit one reason I was positively surprised by the Femf group exhibition was there was no mention of the usual suspects Frame, Kiasma, University of Arts, Taike, Kone Foundation, etc. I mean of course I am not saying this was from the organisers’ part an act of opposing or turning down offers, how could I know, but merely am pointing this out as a visitor who reads the handouts and looks at the Facebook event texts and regards this sort of info as part of the experience.
This fact made me feel hopeful, although I could just as well imagine the people doing this show wouldn't mind the collab/access because it means money and other resources, so obv this is not a clear-cut issue that somehow got "solved" here, or that there wouldn't be structural racism and the like in Finnish art institutions and everyone can just "choose" whether to collaborate/take the money or not.

And lastly, this was an exhibition to go along the Feminist Forum that had a lot of other programme from talks to workshops within it, and from what I understood the Forum is produced with voluntary work. But what I saw was not just something on the side, a fringe event, but one of the most compelling exhibitions in a very long time.

I've recently been reading a book edited by INCITE!, titled “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded - Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex” and I guess that has influenced me quite a bit in terms of understanding how support structures co-opt ideas and movements and energies and what sustainable alternatives are out there.

What this collabo-reflex means in practice is that representatives from the same institutions are present in almost all of the boards, from festivals to artists' associations, to residency and grant juries. Because, you know, it’s “good” for networking to have someone from that museum or this money-laundering business amongst us. Everyone has to be ready to play ball with each other, leading to uninspired, numbingly polite-yet-eerie-cold atmosphere, where any issue gets quickly taken over by the formal, hegemonic production methods (and thus knowledge and value systems).

INCLUSION?

As Grace Kyungwon Hong has explained(9), inclusion is leverage for the capitalist, or any hegemonic system to protect the power balance, not to change it. By inviting a "suitable", acclaimed individual in, we can stop to think about literally everyone else who is still left out because now we have a visual representation from a given repressed minority. (This is way more clumsier put than how Hong phrased this but maybe you know what I mean.)

On the other hand, "we" have this myth of supposedly needing to pull together, as some afterthought from art-as-nationalist interest that no one sincerely believes in, save for evangelists of entrepreneurial credo such as designer, artist Paola Suhonen(4, in Finnish), but it's still lurking very heavily everywhere in the Finnish intellectual scenery, nevertheless.

But no one needs to pull together on everything imo. Save that for large-scale issues, like fair pay, human rights, and fighting fascism. I think it is crucial to know the difference between when and where to join forces, and for what causes, and when not to, because empty, habitual collaboration simply muddies the waters and makes it impossible to understand what we or you or I or whoever was trying to do in the first place.

I want to find ways to cross over the limits of the cultural-economic boxes the neoliberal reality wants us to stay in, and find out larger societal connections. That would be brilliant, yes, instead of the aforementioned people-with-degrees-and-invites playing the game of performative inclusion. This I want, instead of watering down one’s agencies into a soggy compromise based on contrived locality forced in place to suit the needs of some puny grant the Arts Promotion Centre is wrangling in front of you.

The mere fact that two things exist in Helsinki does not mean they need to collaborate, as much as we like to "meet to have meetings."(5) This kind of thinking comes from the same tainted well as measuring everything by audience numbers, treating institutional collaboration as an ends to itself, and the fantasy of knowing what’s going on because "Finland is so small you quickly get to know everybody"? Really, you know everyone? Who cleans your office and what was it that you said about actor-networks? When was the last time you saw art made by someone who doesn’t have 50+ FB friends in common with you? I am asking this from myself, as well, and I need to keep asking it ffs.

But yeah so, more standing apart when it comes to doing your own thing and more coming together when it really matters we show the power in numbers.

It is why sometimes the cost of making compromises is the losing of the impossible, the radically different way of that which does not figure in the current neoliberal logic or in your organisation's strategy. Hong brings up affect as on opposing force, quoting Kara Keeling in how it “points toward the ways that whatever escapes recognition, whatever escapes meaning and valuation, exists as an impossible possibility within our shared reality.”

OK SO THE SHOW ITSELF FINALLY

What does impossible look like? Does it look like the exhibition curated by artists Ramina Habibollah and Nayab Ikram, which seemed at first glance a familiar affair with its removable white walls, photographs, few installations, a book on display, paintings, and videos? Finding the time and energy to open up to anything is hard, I feel, so you look at the simplest visual cues and make a quick categorisation and move on to think about eating something soon. I think I spend maybe 2 hours in the show, and around the second hour I started to overcome and leave behind my learned taxonomies and other preconceptions, as much as that is even possible, or desireable.

Nora Sayyad: Finding Forgiveness, 2017 (photobook). Courtesy the artist. Image: Kimmo Modig
Nora Sayyad: Finding Forgiveness, 2017 (photobook). Courtesy the artist. Image: Kimmo Modig

For only two days, mere hours really, with the first day filled with performances I sadly missed, and the second day hosting talks by some of the artists, the exhibition was open at one of the spaces at Cable Factory in Ruoholahti, an eerie area of south-central Helsink, populated by successful IT companies, with apartment blocks scattered around the channel built there in the 90s, when the area started to be transformed from a warehouse area into a residential zone. I never enjoyed visiting Cable Factory: it feels like someone is cementing an idea what artistic labor should look like.

When I went to visit the show on Saturday morning, it was still quiet (it got busier later on), and then a colleague showed up. We chatted a little. They were very impressed by the choice of videos and were hoping the curators would put together a screening later on (which they did because, well, isn’t it the right thing to do. Go see it, it's at Third Space in Punavuori, until Saturday 23rd of Dec 2017). The entire runtime of the videos was hours: I am not sure if it would've been possible to see them all during the weekend.

That the show cannot be experienced at whole drives home an important point about knowledge and objectivity: You cannot have the full view. First sign of the impossible? This was similar in spirit with having Nora Sayyad's thesis or graduation work (opinnäyte), with photos of Sayyad's father and his family in Palestine and research on multicultural families at large, on display amongst the other pieces. One wouldn't read the thesis there and then, and I merely glanced it while running around trying to see "everything", but it felt like a useful thing to have there, like this someone could surely use this for something, this is real, lived knowledge. It managed to do that thing people seem to try to do with placing books in exhibitions: the suggesting of another piece of knowledge, to be experienced elsewhere, but accessed partly from this space, like a wormhole, or the echo of a refrain from another song.

Man Yau: Planet HER-BB, 2017. In the background: Kuralay Kin: Woman Dancing, 2017. Courtesy the artists.  Image by Kimmo Modig.
Man Yau: Planet HER-BB, 2017. In the background: Kuralay Kin: Woman Dancing, 2017. Courtesy the artists. Image by Kimmo Modig.

Aside from the videos, shown on two spots in the show, there were lot of drawings, photographs, and paintings. As much as I enjoyed looking at them, I couldn't stop hanging out with Man Yau's porcelain sculpture "Planet HER-BB" (see pic above), which was like an oasis of mutating visual references I couldn’t quite place, or, say, study materials of a biology class from the year 2158. Having in the middle of the exhibition turned into a command center from which you navigate.

Carmen Baltzar's video piece "GYPSY", from 2016, depicted white Finnish people talking about their preconceptions of Romani people. Sadly I didn’t have the time to see it in full, only for few minutes, but what I saw stayed with me: the casual ways you, if you belong to the/a norm, let yourself judge other people outside of this norm while seeing yourself as merely observing the world, the inherent violence of this rhetoric coming through on full force in Baltzar’s video piece.

Even something as fleeting and easily unnoticeable as paintings from a workshop Globaalinuoret & FemF had organised together felt compelling, because the piece was swimming amongst the other, more "refined" works (as in, I imagine the workshop was a short one, perhaps not made to produce art only, whereas the other works I guess were made by practicing artists, but rly I don't know anything about the workshop this is just how I read it), exchanging some of the resonance of their immediacy for the gravitas of the more pronounced pieces.

Those made-up juxtapositions between workshopping and working made (and makes) little sense as an interpretative device, something that become apparent with Shieko Reto's drawings, one of them detailing what seemed like a demonstration against Finnish government's necro-policy of forced sterilisation of transgender people. Reto’s drawings felt at the same time as just a thing one does on the side, and like a work that has been coming up, and lived through, for years. Earlier this year there was an eye-popping window painting by Reto in Kaisaniemi(1000).

Shieko Reto: HelzPride, 2017. Courtesy the artist. Image: Kimmo Modig
Shieko Reto: HelzPride, 2017. Courtesy the artist. Image: Kimmo Modig

I rarely experience shows through singular art works, but instead as an immersive encounter with multiple modalities, so I won’t usually write so much about specific pieces. And it would be exhausting to go through even half of the pieces in the FemF show.

Additionally, very rarely an aesthetic enters my body with such decisiveness that I cannot do anything but fall in love. And I don’t even think that phenomenon as some applaudable feat, more than simply a sign that me and the artist have similar class/race/gender experiences or taste or something something. We all need to hear the chorus sometimes, of course, so like anyone else I enjoy those moments of deep (or shallow) resonance. I like that feeling but there’s very little I could say about that, or?

This time, I wasn’t even thinking about this whole did-I-felt-it-in-my-stomach -trope so much, because the FemF exhibit was one of those shows that make all the works in it shine brighter (meaning the works didn't have to compete for your attention if that makes sense), instead of dimming their power in order to hammer home some savvy curatorial concept.

Not that there wasn't a concept. It was clearly spelled out that the exhibition displays works made by racialised artists (or artists of color). I understood the curating had been done by combining different approaches: there was an open call, and additionally they handpicked some of the artists, especially friends whose works they wanted to show, plus there was some collaboration with Koltuor, an "Instagram based gallery where we want to highlight and celebrate non-white artists, writers, poets, performing artists and filmmakers mainly in Scandinavia", who did the graphic design.

It was possible to think to whom this show was for and what it set out to do, but this info was put forth in a way that allowed the exhibition to do other things, too, and people experiencing and visiting the show could then set their coordinates accordingly in relation to where the show was located on an intersectional map.

This exhibition, for me, was also an example of how the method in itself doesn't dictate the potential of the results (I could complain about open calls in general for weeks on end) but how you implement it, and what you are trying to do with the method you’ve chosen or found yourself working with.

What a joy it is to stroll around in an exhibition that trusted its artists while having a very clear, and stated, agenda governing it. Maybe the most important thing to get right really is your reasons for doing something.

---OK so yes I am using somebody else's labor to further my own claims. That's what I tend to do with art, which in all honesty has no intrinsic value for me (I think?), only use value. Art works almost always mean something to me only after I have figured out how I can use them (or vice versa), or understand how they are being used by someone. So for example this exhibition became a companion piece to some stuff I’ve been thinking about and going through lately.

Obviously I wasn't getting something out from all of the works, but why would that matter? What is that even, like sitting comfortably on each sofa at a furniture store? In my mind, the show would have not been better or worse had you change one work for another.

I think the curator is always the only person who loves everything in the show they have put together, while the rest of us like what we like.

Why do I say some other work wouldn’t make the show different? Because the curators and everyone involved in the FemF show managed to create a temporary situation, a system*, really, in which everything placed in it became enforced with vitality.

The thinking, energy, and lived experiences that goes into making a show is what protects it and gives it its aura. And if this protective ritual fails, then there’s nothing an art work, press release, installation pics or online hype could change.

EMOTIONS

This is what happens when I live through an exhibition: My emotions measure the distance between what I want and what the show seems to be. Then, I need to either accept the show or deny it. I can then either carry it with me to future situations (accept it), or try to leave it behind (deny it). But the latter is sort of ruled out at this point, because the show, like any experience, refuses to be left behind without strings, or slime, or threads, or cords attaching it to me.

Whatever happens next in my life, the show hangs on, usually through negation, or as a shadow, or a ghost, because I was there already, I can not not be there anymore. But if I accept it, then I endorse it, protect it, or maybe wear it out so as to make you think it’s been with me for a while, like a denim jacket.

Sometimes, the distance between myself and the show is too big, and I don’t even try working at it. I walk out, I forget it, only a very feeble thread hanging loose from my mind.

In the FemF case, the distance I needed to travel to accept the show varied, but finally the way in was provided by artists whose work I already knew, as is often the case. The first thing I did was I sat down to look at an engaging documentary video about the activist-artist group Mahoyo and their travels & projects, which was kind of advertisement-y as in selling something to me, but that was precisely what I found curious and nicely conflicting and kind of real. Then a video by artist Sepideh Rahaa followed but I thought well I like Rahaa's work already so let's see what else is there and moved on to look at paintings and such, deciding to carry this show with me where ever I'd go next.

Mahoyo: The Mahoyo Project, 2015 (video). Courtesy the artists. Image: Kimmo Modig
Mahoyo: The Mahoyo Project, 2015 (video). Courtesy the artists. Image: Kimmo Modig

“We will follow any hint of energy, at least for a little while. When something happens, we swarm toward it, gaze at it, sniff it, absorb its force, pour over its details, make fun of it, hide from it, spit it out, or develop a taste for it. We complain about the compulsion to participate. We deny its pull. We blame it on the suburbs and TV and ourselves. But we desire it too, and the cure is usually another kind of swarming, this time under the sign of redemption: a mobilization for justice, a neighborhood watch committee, some way of keeping our collective eyes open. Something to do.” 
-Kathleen Stewart, “Ordinary Affects”

HAVING THE ENERGY

One particularly enjoyable thing about this exhibition was its size. Even though it was a group show with a set concept, it didn’t require tons of intellectual-emotional-physical labor to go through it -not to say the works would have not been complex or worth diving deep into, or that I "got" it all, but that everything was not overly complicated merely for its own sake.

I mean it is the dark season in Finland, 24/7 cognitive capitalism reigns over everything, and everyone I know is tired. When you create a show, the amount of info/triggers/cues you put into it for viewers to digest tells us what kind of life (diet, schedule, abilities) you expect the audience to lead, you know, in order to have the surplus energy and cultural capital necessary to take in your vision. Maybe that should be spelled out at exhibition entrances?

--But like this is coming from a person who just wrote a long winding freewheeling text so---

In general, not having chairs while showing long videos is a way of saying you must be healthy enough to stand here for 30-60 minutes to watch my art without losing your concentration. But since the videos in this show were shown as collections (and there were a few chairs there), I didn’t feel them imposing a certain kind of spectatorship onto me. It was more like a YouTube a playlist, like here are the names, take the handout home and look them up, or alternatively see what you have time to see now, and then do what you want. And the fact there is now a screening of those work is great news.

Jon Ely: People who deserved to be on the Swedish hundred-crown bank note instead of Carl von Linné, 2017. Installation shot. Courtesy the artist. Image: Kimmo Modig
Jon Ely: People who deserved to be on the Swedish hundred-crown bank note instead of Carl von Linné, 2017. Installation shot. Courtesy the artist. Image: Kimmo Modig 

Jon Ely: People who deserved to be on the Swedish hundred-crown bank note instead of Carl von Linné, 2017. Installation shot. Courtesy the artist. Image: Kimmo Modig
Jon Ely: People who deserved to be on the Swedish hundred-crown bank note instead of Carl von Linné, 2017. Installation shot. Courtesy the artist. Image: Kimmo Modig
Artists in the FemF show: Aka Niviâna, Ana Gutieszca, Carmen Baltzar, Caroline Suinner, Crystal Z Campbell, Diana Soria Hernandez, Ding Yi, Dzamil Kamanger, Elise Mattisson Chue, Jay Mar Albaos, Jon Ely, Karoline Montero Araya, Kemal Koçak, Kuralay Kin, Lolo Arziki, Mahoyo, Man Yau, Mona Eid, Müge Yildiz, Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro, Nora Sayyad, Razan Abou Askar, Saadia Hussain, Sabah Ejaz, Sepideh Rahaa, Shieko Reto, Vishnu Vardhani.

1 = http://www.thewhitepube.co.uk/local-advisory-boards
4 = https://areena.yle.fi/1-4158535
456 = http://kimmomodig.com/themes/
9 = Grace Kyungwon Hong - Death beyond Disavowal: The Impossible Politics of Difference (introduction + chapter 2)
5 = https://youtu.be/Z0ndtYaCRO0?t=4m58s
1000 = http://shiekoreto1.blogspot.fi/2017/01/genderhuman-jan-25-march-2017.html
* = for more on how exhibitions could be understood as systems, see and interpret Reza Negarestani’s essay Frontiers of Manipulation as a piece on that topic, if you want, albeit it talks about material organisation and conceptual modelling but I think it could apply for what I am saying here, but maybe it's worth to elaborate on a wholly other review.