lauantai 23. kesäkuuta 2018

Willing it: On Elina Minn's "Hydra"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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