Mobius Fellowship report – A summer in Helsinki: my time at Kiasma Theatre

Between June and August 2015 I completed a Mobius exchange at Kiasma Theatre, a co-producing theatre at the heart of the celebrated contemporary art museum in downtown Helsinki. Much can happen in eight weeks – not enough however to speak with authority about the arts in Finland. I can offer personal reflections on my experiences at Kiasma, and living and working in Helsinki.

In the UK I am a festival producer and installation artist. I’m interested in how cultural institutions use festivals to engage with audiences beyond their doorstep. So a visit in July to Kiasma was perfectly timed. Since 2000, the team at Kiasma Theatre have curated and produced an annual summer festival of live and urban arts called URB, using the Kiasma building as a base and reaching out into other venues and sites around the city. It’s an important platform for local artists to connect with international work. The 2015 edition was 12 days across 7 sites, with 4000 visitors and participants. Helping produce URB would be the focus of my fellowship, and my thoughts below consider the festival program and how I perceived its impact.

Another good reason for the timing; it’s said there are two seasons in Finland: Winter, and July. People seem to wait all year for these weeks, and being outside is a national obligation. There was just so much outdoor activity: outdoor concerts, the Helsinki Festival, the Flow Festival. There’s a sense of urgency in the air to make the most of the summer light. You sense this urgency in the cultural programming.

Loosely speaking, festivals are governed by time and interested in place, while cultural institutions are governed by space and interested in time. Festival programming acts as counterpoint to the regular exhibitions programme and URB was no exception. I was lucky to be involved with the kesäduuni (summer project) – an initiative to engage young people who are out of work and on benefits, to be resident in Kiasma for an intensive 8-week programme, ending with a performance as part of the festival. When the young people sign up for benefits, they’re presented with several dozen choices for summer placements in all sorts of industries, one of those being at Kiasma. The government pays them to attend, from 9am-3pm, five days a week (anyone in the UK will raise an eyebrow). Ten young people applied, eight were accepted and seven completed the programme. One girl didn’t turn up after day three. She was pint-sized, covered in tattoos and devoted to her huskies, which win competitions: that’s how she spends her time. Another was arrested in week 3 for avoiding the draft: he’d forgotten about it, he said. With encouragement from one of the facilitators he smuggled a camera into military prison and filmed secretly. His material became part of the final show.

It was amazing to watch the group develop over time, connect with each other and engage in a creative process that included improv skills, deep personal reflection, physical theatre, filming diaries and getting on stage. Now the summer is over the group have gone their separate ways, without a plan for follow-up. I remind myself of the enormous range of engagement work that happens across the UK. Legacy is the buzzword, but there are many different ways for young people to engage in arts and culture. Some projects focus on skills, others on creativity. For me, anything that helps people find a way in to being more creative is a good thing.

As well as a performance, the group mounted an exhibition of visual work in STOA, an arts and community centre in East Helsinki. Their work spoke about their feelings of belonging and alienation, familiar elements in the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective hanging at the same time on the gallery’s walls. The Mapplethorpe exhibition brooded monochrome with occasional slashes of colour: a room of erotica separated by a flowing black veil, elsewhere a rush-hour crowd of celebrity portraits: Bob Dylan, Grace Jones, Richard Gere, Debbie Harry, Annie Leibovitz, Philip Glass, Isabella Rossellini, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote. Here then is the contemporary art gallery with its exhibition on floor 2, charting the urban journey of a man (and woman, with Patti Smith) through whose eyes we see snapshots of an era. Space and time. Here then, also, are a group of young people, taking the pertinent themes elsewhere into the city of Helsinki. The framework of the URB festival validates their opinions and gives prominence to their contribution, weaving threads between Brooklyn in 1972 and Itäkeskus in 2015. Mapplethorpe was 24 in 1972, a couple of years older than the kesäduuni participants. Time and space.

It might seem trivial, flippant even, to put a skate ramp outside the art gallery, and hold a competition as part of the climactic weekend for a contemporary art festival. Parents of a friend were visiting at the time. ‘Is this art?’ they said. They also said ‘Is this art?’ to Liisa Lounila’s video installation 7BPM (2013) in the Elements exhibition on the fourth floor of the building. They seem unsure about a number of things.

Skating is important in Helsinki. Big caps and high-tops are in fashion, it’s all a bit bit back-to-the-future. Hundreds thronged to watch beardy boys throw themselves up on down the ramp, the event sponsored by an energy drink and local TV on hand. It brought out the skater in a number of museum staff, and we watched as a crowd of mostly young people felt comfortable in the shadow of the museum, drinking beer and having fun. No print marketing campaign can do that.

Returning briefly to 7BPM, which charts a lightning storm in Chinle, Arizona. According to chief Curator Arja Miller, ‘Lounila’s work often involves an ironic dissociation from the sublimity of the relationship between humanity and nature that was championed in the romantic period. In her earlier work she turned hurricanes and tornados into kitschy glittery surfaces…she seeks to challenge the viewer’s experience of the sublime in nature…with a little exaggeration you might say that natural phenomena have become just another consumer article.’

There’s a thread here: Lounila’s provocation, as interpreted above, and voiced by my friend’s parents, takes form as insecurity. 7BPM is one response, the skate ramp another. To me it demonstrates the power that playfulness can bring in provoking critical and creative responses. I am not qualified to say if this is art or not, but it feels like a worthwhile conversation for an institution with ‘contemporary’ in its name.

I asked Miki Aaltonen, URB producer, what he thought about this. ‘Urban art can be thousands of things or nothing at all, it would be ridiculous to be not at all playful. It’s an invitation. We want to collaborate with many kinds of communities and people: there needs to be space for things to happen that are not totally premeditated. With the Skate Ramp, the community are running it, we are curiously following on behind.’

Aaltonen’s curatorial approach bonded the content loosely together to tell a sprawling urban story. This was interesting: it was easy for me to draw my own path through the festival programme. As a participant this is empowering – I’m not being told what to do. The contemporary art world can feel hard to access: like a cryptic crossword, the rules are beyond reach for most people. Festivals like URB give people permission to engage in their own way, and this bridges the distance between the individual and the institution. It’s a multi-sensory learning journey, and feels democratic. From the forward to the festival programme: ‘the starting points for many of the works in the festival program have been actions and behaviors of distinctly varied social groups. In artistic expression, however, they open up the codes to a wider audience, and their proposals can be shared and held as valid for all. As the works settle into a festival program they open to the public the opportunity to evaluate their mutual substantive parallels, and no doubt also to possible disagreements.’ Exhibitions, with paid-for tickets, audio-guides and interpretation, direct your experience. They don’t all tell you what to think, but it’s the standard MO, at least in terms of the visitor experience.

Speaking to Leevi Haapala, Kiasma Director, he was clear about the role the festival has in building active partnerships. It is not an engagement project, he said, it’s at the core of the museum’s ethos, building audiences by curating art beyond the walls of the building. This is an important (albeit unspecific) statement for a collection-based organisation. And sincere: the festival has its own programming budget that’s treated as artistic activity, not marketing. Of course the boundaries between engagement, marketing and curated exhibitions are porous. 63% of the URB audience in 2013 were under 35, 56% coming to the gallery for the first time, 81% local to Helsinki. Great marketing stats. A partnership with the SIC gallery in this year’s URB connected Kiasma to their hipster audience in a way that serves both organisations. Festivals, outdoor work and free activities attract different kinds of people to a cultural institution to the regular exhibitions programme. Trying to determine the exact nature of this work quickly becomes a debate on semantics; it’s all just different sides of the same coin.

The last production of the festival, Discorituaali, neatly tied up the experience for me. Two hours dancing to thumping techno in total darkness, in the modified kiasma theatre. The work, prepared by Live Arts Society, a loose collective of graduates from the University of Helsinki, began with a script, which ended ”You can trust this darkness. It has been built carefully.” Take the normal rules of a gallery and turn them on their head. But do so with the same care for the space and for the experience that a curator would take to mount a show, or an artist to make a work. I left the work with a sense of joy and catharsis. Miki said it was ‘unexpectedly enjoyable’ – this high praise indeed.

There’s a lot of talk in Finland, as in the UK, about the aftermath of digital technology, the ‘post-internet age’. The last fifteen years have passed as if in a blur. It feels now that the creative and cultural industries have recovered from the traumas of the global financial crises and have evolved to meet this changing world. A festival like URB is a barometer for these shifting attitudes, and Helsinki a nexus point on Europe’s northern edge.

I left the country with a healthy respect for Finnish culture, or at least, the working culture in Helsinki. Finnish people are often described as being reserved: I found audiences to be warm and encouraging, particularly for new work and work by emerging artists. More than perhaps anywhere else I felt a sense of egalitarianism. A fourth wave of feminism is old news, people (seem to) get over gender differences without any fuss. Of course this is not the whole story: perhaps people were nice to me because they knew I wouldn’t be there too long. Helsinki and Kiasma feel like places I can return to and feel at home. I am extremely grateful to the whole team for making me feel comfortable and welcome.



General elections in May 2015 introduced a right-leaning coalition of the largest three parties, including the populist and ethnically nationalist Finns Party, which received 17% of the vote. Across the arts sector there was a collective holding-of-breath. Direct government funding for cultural work is so small that it hasn’t registered highly in the national debate. The government is making more noise about cutting funding to education – notably to the universities – and came to power on a platform of fiscal and popular conservatism: cutting work-related benefits and curbing immigration. It’s January 2016 and I’ve returned for the Lux light festival. Outside it’s -22 degrees, so cold that your nose and lips bleed, your teeth ache. I understand now what they mean by Winter.

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