tiistai 23. tammikuuta 2018

DO YOU REALLY DO YOUR BEST THINKING IN BIENNIAL FORM

image of a pizza with text overlay: Finnish for curators: tosi kiva (in any situation)
Tosi kiva = nice, good

ok so a new biennale is coming to Helsinki, beginning in 2020 (couldn't find an English link to the news sry but here it is in Finnish). I wrote about biennials and international guests already on Facebook 

It's a project that was seemingly proposed to attract more tourists to Helsinki. And if you compare it to the city's new cool strategy website, it swims (sorry) along those lines pretty well.

things i have heard about this new biennial/biennale: 30-60 artists, xxxxxx target number of visitors, and that it connects to the fact that Helsinki is on the sea and there are islands there and it's nice to walk by the water. So basically we are looking at a bunch of "internationally legit" contemporary public art in close viscinity to one of the world's most polluted seas, the Baltic Sea.

before i share my opinion on this whole thing, let me describe you a situation which is telling of Finnish art scene.

Juha Huuskonen (we've known each other for ten years or so), the director of HIAP international residency programme, an org that excels in bringing tons of talent to Helsinki, wrote a public FB post asking how is it possible the city has not consulted with any of the grassroots agents of the local art scene who have lots of experience with all that goes in doing stuff like this, albeit in a smaller scale. Executive Director of Helsinki's Culture and Leisure Sector, Tommi Laitio (who recently visited an organisation I am in connection with) responded very reasonably that they will do workshops and talks to include such orgs and peeps. The Director of helsinki art museum (HAM, in which i had my solo show at their non-curated gallery space) Maija Tanninen-Mattila, who works under Laitio's office, said that HAM is leading this as the city's expert art org, but that this could be a chance to make the scene stronger and more well-known. and yes workshops yes. Raija Koli, who directs Frame, the import/export foundation for Finnish contemporary art, said something similar and added that shouldnt we let HAM do some planning first, like, they know what theyre doing.
Others, like Hanna-Maria Anttila who runs AV-arkki, the Distribution Centre for Finnish Media Art (I’m their board member, and Anttila in turn sits in Frame’s board), commented that people just want information, communicate more/better. Artist Kari Yli-Annala, who just received the AVEK prize for media art, i was on the jury, and AVEK also supports AV-Arkki etc you already get what I mean, said that Harakka island's artistic community is planning a 30-year celebration exhibition which would provide a good way of stepping outside of the star artist -format of biennials, and with this comment made the first public offer for collaboration. Artist Lisa Roberts called this maritime theme kitsch, but Suvi Saloniemi, curator for the Design Museum, defended the theme and saw it as a promising setup. After being kind of cornered by some, Huuskonen stepped back a bit and said of course we all want a great art event to take place in Helsinki, and everyone was like yes yes let’s do biennial, let’s workshop and take everyone’s opinions and expertise into consideration.

firstly, this is what you miss when you don’t speak Finnish in Helsinki art scene. And most of my colleagues here speak English instead. 

i mean sure i guess at some point this info will ”trickle down” and everyone can get, mmm, involved, but much of the connections are made in these informal situations such as facebook threads, and art associations’ and institutions’ boards have, to my knowledge, very few English-speaking members although so many of them work internationally, like AV-Arkki, Frame and I imagine HAM too.

Hopefully my explanation of the links between people shed a little light on this web. I included explanations of my own relations there so you'd know where I stand in this, not because this relates to me in any particular way.

When you look at who knows who in Helsinki, you begin to understand how collaborations on a higher level happen and how impossible it is to break into these systems if you a.) dont speak Finnish, b) didnt go to Aalto or Uniarts (or their former versions), or c) studied art history in which case you can go and run the museums and defend modernist ideas of autonomy and the artists' right to be horrible to everyone around them.

Disclaimer: it's good to understand that when we talk about money and art, the money is relatively small so even the highest level I mentioned there is still peanuts compared to other areas of society.

(cutaway: in theatre, the people running the theatre houses are oftentimes artists themselves, ie. directors, playwrights, actors, which sort of gives this we’re-in-this-together feel to working in theatre, since everyone there knows what it means to run a small company and clean its floors and apply for funding to pay your own salary, whereas in museums there is a stark division between the curators/executives, technicians, and artists in how dependent they are of such knowledge...I wonder how this scene will change if we finally get curators, who studied curating instead of art history, and ran galleries or were artists, to run museums)

(another side note: i try write this in a way that would be as close as possible to me telling this to you at a bar)

ok so here’s my hot take: i don’t think in biennials. I don’t speak biennial. I feel nothing when I think of that format. I could talk about whether hockey+sculptures is a suitable concept to push forward in Helsinki 2020 instead. To my ears, beginning to plan something with such facts as 30-60 artists, x audience target, and maybe at these locations, with ”sea-ness” as starting point, sounds so anti-art, because all of those things are so mind-numbingly interchangeable. Why 30 artists, instead of 5 or 100? Why this, not that audience target? why have this maritime backdrop, why not...ok that one is simply a question of the city branding itself nvmnd.

Sure it can lead to exciting results and most likely this is how you sell an idea to the city council and some vampires who run the show, maybe everyone who is enthusiastic about this knows this and I'm just an obnoxious child.

Let’s be absolutely clear: I have nothing against someone doing a biennale, and I have no need to cry over the hundred of thousands of euros (or millions) that will be spent on it, at all.

It’s a project meant to attract tourists and to forge stronger relations in and create more visibility internationally to the Helsinki art scene. But these basis confuse me: I don't know what's particularly great about the scene, like I'm not saying it isn't, but no one ever bothers to state what they actually are excited about. Furthermore, I can't see what good things international recognition might bring to art.

I get tourism though, that's super interesting, and marketing makes total sense to me too and I have nothing against it because I do it for living, but could we think about these things in a way that would both compliment artistic thinking AND branding strategies? Because I feel that the current discourse diminishes art's creative potential to a monolithic facade, and the artists are left with the job of bringing in "vibrancy" to an otherwise uninspired project.

Maybe this is so because artists are usually a little scared of and opposed against the commercial world, especially here in the North where grants come and go like Volt orders, and where art professionals want to hold on to the idea of art being an end to itself ("it says so in my master's degree certificate"). As I recently said, it's ok to want power! This want is in line with, well, over 100 years of revolutionary histories.

So yes, I believe it's absolutely possible to do a little branding, promote the city's interests, and create exciting art all at the same time. But that requires we want something and talk about these desires, instead of just nodding along to seem we're playing ball. If we don't speak up, the most boring, mindless version of things will always win.

In Helsinki, as I wrote last year (see: "This is Where We Differ"), everyone will collaborate with everyone, unrelated to what each party really wants to do, because to not collaborate is seen as act of war in this consensus-addicted Nordic city.

dear peers: do you seriously feel like a biennale is a good platform for your thinking? have you heard good things from small orgs collaborating with such things? do you think it will be a useful way to spend your very limited energies? is that what you want to do in life? if yes, cool, totally nothing wrong with that, just checking, hope you score some €s and get to do what you feel needs to be done.

and you know, sometimes i do visit biennials and it can be fun, just like the zoo if you can live with witnessing exploitation masked as conservation.  Personally, I don't feel it’s the same field in which i work and think and feel. I'm not into creating cages to show precious things to mass audiences.

Let's end with a proverb: Museums and biennials are to the kind of art I'm into is like alcohol is to hanging out with friends: we might enjoy the former within the latter, but it should by no means the reason why we come together or if we do then it's just sad.

bonus: this article by Ann-Derrick Gaillot about Vine stars moving on to new platforms explains the relation between form and content pretty well, check it out.

screenshot from wikipedia, an image of an illustration for fables by Gustave Dor'e depicting a cat with a bell, titled "Who will bell the cat?"