Songs of Freedom and Love
TALK IS CHEAP
Discussion between Minna Henriksson & Mika Hannula
For the publication TRIBUTE TO C-CASSETTE,
Catalogue of the exhibition SONGS OF FREEDOM & LOVE
Mika H: Songs of Freedom & Love at Platform, in Istanbul. What is the main motivation why you want to do and curate this exhibition?
Minna L. H: I have never curated anything before, but being curious about different possibilities of acting in the field of visual art, and having the possibility to learn something new - not saying that I would want to be a curator, but also not saying that I definitely am not interested in that - I wanted to find out how it could be.
Also, to work with someone like you, who has a lot of experience in curating exhibitions, but also knowing that you are a very straightforward person and easy to get along and work with, I saw this as a possibility of becoming an interesting or even rewarding process.
Another reason was the excuse of doing something in Istanbul. I am very attracted to the city, and I would want to find a way of setting one of my feet there one day. To stay connected to there I see as a move into the right direction. Also, I know that the art scene in Istanbul needs inputs – more so than many other places. And I am very happy to bring this group of good artists and good people from Finland to Istanbul, most of who haven’t visited there before.
One more reason for making this is that the Embassy of Finland in Ankara expressed interest in being part of an exhibition of Finnish artists in Turkey. That is actually how the whole process got started.
This is not the first exhibition you are curating in Istanbul, but some years ago with Kari Immonen you made 'Stop for a Moment - Painting as Presence', exhibition of Nordic painting at Proje4L in Istanbul. Now if you look back at that, how rewarding was it, and why do you want to continue working in Istanbul?
Mika H: Yes. This is a kind of opening that leads to many directions. It is a truly cruel situation, but beneficial nonetheless, to demand an answer to the question why do you do what you do. But I think your answer mainly covers most of the corners in a nice way.
Regarding what I have co-curated previously in Istanbul, it is obvious that I got seriously hooked. The city, and the contemporary art context in Istanbul, is very tempting and also very inviting. It is, of course, a completely different question and picture if you look in from outside like we do, or if you look from inside in the site of Istanbul like the so-called locals do. But I would not be so worried about that discrepancy. It is always there. More importantly, Istanbul, more precisely, Beyoglu area and Platform, are a very fascinating location to do something at - and with.
But why? Well, perhaps this is a bit wishful thinking, but I see it as a very energetic site that still has maintained enough open-minded curiosity, something that allows things and acts to collide and clash in a productive and meaningful way. A site that has not become a spectacle or too predictable.
But let me re-track a bit. The question about whether our previous effort was rewarding. Yes, it was, and it was due to the constellation of the whole project. It was very much like the construction of our current show. It is predominantly a group effort. Something that is discussed and done through the shared passion and wish to generate some kind of a positive and challenging effect. Curating can be very rewarding if you can do it in a very close and intensive working relationship with others. I would never ever curate anything alone. Too much ego in da Spiel, and simply too boring. I am basically a writer. And that is an activity you do alone. And when I want to do something else than writing, I try to seek myself into a collective - hahahaa - a collective groove, that is.
Then, yes, my question back to you: Do you think it is problematic to be involved in an exhibition process that has a rather clear geographical background?
Minna L. H: A year or two ago I would have been very passionate about this topic, and opposing any projects, which could be categorized as national or regional. But since then I have also got my hands dirty - I have come to notice that in order to get things done, one just has to follow certain rules, and loosen up on others, and when it comes to funding of projects, most often where I stand now it is relatively accessible for me from Finland or the Nordic countries.
But that is not to say that one cannot do something critical with that also – that one would have to make exhibitions, which support and strengthen the already existing stereotypes of some particular geography. Anyway, this kind of exhibitions of national representations are happening less these days, at least with Finland, and also other, more interesting and relevant connections and themes can be found in the exhibitions.
There are, and there will be some categorizations with the funding bodies, which are determined by the geography, as the money usually comes through the foreign or cultural ministries, whose main interest often is to promote their culture abroad. But the situation is not as bad as it might first seem. For example, what we are trying to do, and also doing here is an exhibition, where the money comes from a country called Finland, and some rules are immediately implied into that, although they were never underlined to us. But other than the geography where the artists should principally come from, we do have the freedom to make and say more or less what we want to within this frame. And with this exhibition at hand, we are not claiming that we, all living in, or coming from, Finland, would be representatives of some collective identity, and that there would be some undercurrents in our works to do with where we happen to be from. Our exhibition is about something much more general.
But then more specifically to think here about a possible Finnish-Turkish link – what is the point in bringing this particular exhibition to this particular city and country? I would like to think that this is an exhibition of artworks by young and contemporary artists, who are from a country, which is located somewhere in the north, in the outskirts of Europe. The exhibition then being in a country in another end of Europe will perhaps have some relevance to its audience and create a dialogue already, and also, through the shared concerns to do with the geographies.
I hope you agree with some of this. And my question to you goes: What do you think of the Finnish movie director Aki Kaurismäki?
Mika H: Yes, I do agree. Basically I think it is ridiculously childish to keep up the illusion that we are not attached to this or that nation-state, city, institutions, context etc. Furthermore, I think it is really sad and self-defeating to deny where you come from. That said, it is as obvious that even if we all come from a specific site and situation, most of us don't need to stay and remain there. What this, in fact, implies in a discursive sense is the responsibility to take part in the making and shaping what it means to be, for example, a Finn, a woman, or a volley ball player. In other words, because every identity, especially collective ones, are never solid, natural or stable, but they are constantly constructed and contested and conflictual, it is your responsibility to provide alternative ways of defining concepts that are important to you.
To quote on old friend of mine, philosopher and artist Carl-Gustav Lilius who passed away a couple of years ago:
“A person who loves his/her nation can demonstrate this well by being critical about that very entity that one comes from and one loves. It is to show that where you are from or where you live is of such vital importance that you want to take part in the ongoing discussion about what kind of a nation it is, what it could be and what it should be.”
("Ihminen joka pitää omasta maastaan, voi osoittaa sen erittäin hyvin juuri kriittisyydellä. Osoittaen sen maan olevan niin tärkeän, että hän osallistuu jatkuvaan keskusteluun siitä, mikä on tämä maa, minkälainen se voisi olla tai sen pitäisi olla")
But to your question. Aki Kaurismäki? Who is he? Never heard. Is he some figure skating guy? Or did you say movies? You mean like nature documentaries or what?
Can't you ask something more sophisticated? Something more intellectually valid?
Like, why don't you ask me what I think about Mika Häkkinen or Kimi Räikkönen or Ville Valo, the singer of HIM?
Which brings me to my question: how would you relate to and define the concept of quality in terms of contemporary art - both as an artist and curator? In other words, what is quality in our practice?
Minna L. H: Quality – if you know what it is, and how to get there, please tell me too. I certainly know that it is something that is a rare encounter in the art field these days. Too rare. The speed, that we produce art works and exhibitions with, leaves little time to think about a thing called quality. We get by with very little of it. And we are not even demanded of it much. We all know very well how to disguise the lack of it in another thing called quantity - the volume, the spectacular, the more in all the dimensions, which will save our neck until the next project, but leaves the viewer with not much anything but an empty feeling to take home.
I guess that quality in an artwork, as well as in an exhibition is something to do with the intentions, motivations and generosity of the maker, and the attitudes of pursuing for the result, which is to communicate that something to the viewer. But it is not easy, as even if you spare all your sweat and tears over an artwork, there is no guarantee of quality. It takes a little luck too, and sense of the situation. It can also be something small and modest. But genuine it has to be.
But striving for quality certainly is something that is keeping me in the art business – something always to try to reach to. And if it wasn’t for the quality, I don’t know what there would be left to go for. It is something you cannot measure, but something that leaves a gut feeling in your stomach when you have encountered something possessing it. And it stays with you for a while.
Question to you: what brought you into the art field in the first place, and what is it that is keeping you there?
Mika H: Lost and found - or lost and never found, or always found. Yes, the question of ones background: where do we come from? I guess there is no common background for any of us. I did not study art, or art history, but something else. That something else was philosophy and political science and I did it exactly during the times when most of the old answers from the establishment were tumbling down and it became very evident that the old regime did not have the imagination to move towards asking the new relevant questions. The Berlin Wall came down, an entity called Soviet Union ceased to exist. During these dramatic changes, I was still within the closed up walls of the university. I remember it very clearly. All those fabulous changes around you, and your professor demands that, in order for you to have any right to say anything, first you must read a small library full of books by someone who never ever left his hometown - this is herr Kant. Thus, it just seemed such a waste of time to go the usual insular and highly specialized route of an Academic.
Thus, I went somewhere else. And that somewhere else was both journalism and writing with art in a more essayistic way. Not about it, but with it. I have no explanation, but from very, very early on I enjoyed enormously being in art museums. Of course, and this I say without any irony in fact, it was a perfect place to take smart and beautiful girls into - but also a perfect place to spend time alone.
I guess the reason - besides being a professional semi-captured by ones profession - why I still remain active in the field of contemporary art is that in comparison to other areas of society, it really does provide at least a chance to seek for alternative ways of thinking and perceiving who we are, where we are and where we might want to move towards to.
In other words, it still has at least little room in it to move and manouvre so that what comes out of it is not a product you must buy, play and then throw away. This chance for thinking through alternative ways of being in the world might not always be visible, and not that tall, but it is still there.
Then we bounce back to my question to you: Give me an example of an artwork that has meant something special to you? And why so?
Minna L. H: Sure. I would like to relate my choice of the artwork to the city we are working with here - Istanbul. The story about this work is also something I like to tell whenever someone has the time to listen, as I like going back to remembering it. But here I try to keep it short.
It dates back to the time of the Istanbul Biennial, but the one in 2003. It was a Biennial, where very little excited me, and perhaps that is part of the reason why this work then stood so much out. It is a piece by UK-artist Michael Nelson. It was not in one of the main venues of the Biennial, but as a public space project in the Sultan Ahmet –area in a place called Büyük Valide Han.
One sunny day I went to see it with a friend of mine, a local, from Istanbul. He more or less knew the area where it would be on the basis of the address given in the Biennial listings. But we took the taxi just to be on the safe side.
Still we had to walk the street up and down, as it appeared to be a busy bazaar street on the Sultan Ahmet –area, and we could not see the usual Biennial banner anywhere. Instead, on the third time passing the same street, a man came up to us saying ‘Biennial?’ and we followed to the direction that he was pointing at, to the dark passages of an abandoned looking craftsmen’s workshop. In the end of the corridor, on the second floor of the building we saw some dim light, which we followed to a semi-open door of a china-workshop. It turned out that they knew a thing or two about the Biennial, and also had the key to the stall opposite, where Mike Nelson’s piece was to be seen.
What we saw, once inside, was a situation as if someone had just left their darkroom in a big hurry, and everything was left unfinished. There still were photographs in the developing liquid, and a picture of Ataturk hanging on the wall. Once my eyes got used to the darkness lit by a single red light bulb, I saw hundreds of black & white photographs hung to dry on strings suspended between two walls. The photographs were taken on the streets, where I had also just moments before been walking, when thinking of being completely lost. The installation continued with a steep and narrow staircase into an almost darkness, where there was another room full of photographs hung on lines of strings, also images of the surrounding area. It was a great temptation to take a photo from the line as a little souvenir, as it seemed that someone else had also taken one as a couple of the clothes pegs were hanging empty on the line.
After leaving the installation, which actually gave a creepy feeling in your stomach, as somewhere in the back of your mind you were still doubting whether it was all just staged, and an artwork, or if something violent had really happened there just moments before. But the more confusing thing actually happened, when we left the space. A man from the workshop next door appeared and offered to show us the sights from the roof. He didn’t speak English, so the presentation of the historical buildings of Istanbul was not as interesting to me as it was just to look at the view from the rooftop. Afterwards he took us to his workshop, where he showed us how to knit rugs. I took a photograph of him, and he gave me his business card, so I could send him a copy of the photo when back home. Then I noticed that on the wall there already were tens of photographs taken at the roof, with different people posing next to this man. The photos were accompanied with thank-you –letters, obviously from Biennial-tourists just like me.
What I liked about this work was that it was apparent that Mike Nelson had invested a lot of thought in the research and execution of the work, and on the context of it – the city and the particular site. The work was everything but easy to access. In order to get there, you had to be somewhat alert to be able to find it, and you had to be able and willing to communicate with the people, who were to show you the way and open the doors – you had to confront, and interact with, the 'real' city. But all that effort made it a rewarding, and also a special experience.
In the installation it was ambivalent where the work starts and where it ends. You don’t know how much of it is coincidence, how much is designed and controlled by the artist, and how much is intervention by the people, whose everyday working environment it is. Most certainly, hours later, when you leave the place you feel stunned, confused and impressed, and maybe also guilty because of the photograph in your pocket that you nicked from the installation.
And a similar, but very different question back to you: name one group-exhibition that has made an impact on you, or influenced you as curator, and explain why?
Mika H: Minna, that was a very good answer - and a fantastic piece. Damn, it makes me jealous as hell. Damn and triple damn on top of that.
But to your question. Ha haa. I wish I could answer the last Istanbul Biennial, 2005, but because our exhibition takes place in one of its sites, it’s way too close to home. Would smell baaaad.
Thus, I need to go backwards a bit. What has left perhaps the most lasting mark on me is to have had the chance to see from a very close distance how the Finnish curator Maaretta Jaukkuri works. She is a curator at Kiasma, Contemporary Art Museum in Helsinki, responsible for ARS 2001, and this summer doing the biennial in Lofoten, Norway. It is also in Lofoten where she did this amazing and unique site specific exhibition of over 30 art works located in very remote places and villages in these far away islands on the north of Norway.
My admiration to her work is not so much based on the actual results of the exhibitions I have seen her done, but the way she relates to both the artist and his/her work. You sense a deep commitment and a sense of respect that comes about very seldom. It is crystal clear that for Jaukkuri the priority from 1 to 212 and counting is the work of art - and how that is then mounted - in a white cube or an a small island - depends completely what that works wants to say, how and with what kind of nuances. What I respect most in her way of working is the fact of how much time and energy it really takes and consumes to take these responsibilities and commitments seriously enough.
And yes - my question back to you. What if we change the sides. Can you give an example of an artwork that left you really disappointed - or even angry?
Minna L. H: Huh, this is a tricky question. I don’t see much point in using this publication as forum for simply saying that I think that someone’s work really sucks, so I will not drop any names here.
But what comes to my mind first when thinking of an art work, seeing which would, and often does, really irritate and frustrate me, and also make me angry, would have to be something, which is merely supporting and confirming some false ideas and stereotypes, but not fulfilling any critical, constructive or other purpose. It would present something, which is part of my reality, but it would be obvious that the work was crafted to fulfil the expectations and demands of the Western star-curator. It would perhaps consist of some blonde people, women, naked, dancing in the forest, swimming in the lake in a summer’s night or doing something as poetic as that in the idyllic Finnish nature.
And then the question: What do you think of the efficiency, approachability and accessibility of the gallery space – is the white cube the ideal exhibition format for contemporary art, which often aims at addressing different audiences and deals with other than just aesthetic issues?
Mika H: Hahaa. What's wrong with naked people swimming in a lake during the mid-summer night? Well, hahahaa, just about everything if and when its framed as art.
But to your question: white cube? I kind of tend to be rather diletant with this issue. For me, white cube is a vehicle that is potentially good and interesting for many ways of taking part in the production of knowledge and communicating that knowledge within contemporary art and visual culture. In other words, at the best of times it serves as a white page. It is very flexible, and can be turned into so many different things. It is a starting up position - and then you really have to do something with it. Take it somewhere, twist it, trash or caress it.
At the same time, it is evident that white cube cannot serve all purposes and potentialities that contemporary art might have or enjoy. But this bounces it all back to the main question: what does one want - and why? Where you show depends what you are after, as it is also clear that what you find depends very strongly on what you are looking for. Thus, in the end, I believe white cube is better than a yellow cube, not to talk about a brown cube.
Continuing with the questions: What time is love?
Minna L. H: It's KLF, I remember, and a rather irritating tune.
But in an ideal world, love-time would be all the time. Here, where I am living, I must say it is not – people are not spreading too much of it around, at least not in professional relationships. But it certainly would not hurt to do that. Even, and especially to those, who piss you off. Of course, you cannot love everyone, but what you can at least try to do is not to take things too seriously and to be extra sensitive and protective about your own positions. Ideal would be to be able to live in some kind of a loving conflict (as you might say) instead, and to spread around some good will and empathy. At least I could do more of that, and in fact, now could be a good time to start.
Do you think that the environment in which you are living in Finland is more normalising and restrictive than the one in Germany, Berlin where you are mainly living now?
Mika H: Yes, your question reminds me, for some strange reason, of an early 1980's song by the one and only Olivia Newton-John. Our dear Olivia was singing how she wished that she and someone else would do the thing: Lets Get Physical, Physical...
Now you might wonder, what does this sad but true song have to do with normalisation? Well, perhaps the link is the thought as a fact that we should always recall from a man called Foucault. The fact that power is always a productive force. It produces effects - and then these effects can be of any value, worth or agony. Thus, normalisation is a productive force. And it can be a beneficial force to go against - if you have the means and the energy to do so. In other words, I still kind of need and also enjoy those forces in both locations. They give me a clear case of being against something. They make me feel alive.
It is difficult to compare Finland and Germany. This is so because basically there is no one unity of Finland or Germany. That said the main problem with this kind of a comparison is that normalization is a force with local colours. The way it functions might have the same name but its content vary dramatically from one cultural, political, economical and social background to another. And yes, the demons are just different from one place to another.
Anyhow, let me link back to your previous answer, and ask you with a help of a riddle. Did generosity kill the cat, or was it curiosity that killed the cat or was it really in the end phlegmatism that killed it? And what is this "cat" that are talking about?
Minna L. H: Why I asked you about normalisation, was because here where I am right now, Malmö, the south of Sweden, it is very topical a term in the local art agenda - just like a little more than a year ago it was discussed in Istanbul in relation to exhibition series at Platform, and sometime earlier in Zagreb. Words go around, and how, and whether, they get the local colours, as you say, is something I am curious to see here.
But the riddle, the cat. You gave me a hint that it refers to my previous answer, so it could be a relationship, a love. But you tell me.
And then, maybe you can also answer another question. What does the word freedom mean to you and stand for?
Mika H: Well, yes, words go around, and yes, the one thing that you can be sure about it is that when the buzz hits the art world with a concept such as normalization, things have already gone very badly or just moved out somewhere else, far away. The quality of the trendy art discourse is like the quality of the "normal" taxi driver. The moment they start to talk about how to make money with stocks you know they’re gonna crash in 22 nano-seconds.
Then we got two questions here. The cat. Yes, love is a very good answer, so is hate. Both of them four-letter words. Something you can easily set on a T-shirt and make millions and millions selling them.
But freedom. Yes. Reminds me of that classical saying by Mahatma Gandhi: Eye for an eye makes two men blind.
But freedom. We got freedom to and freedom from. The other one makes things possible, and the other shapes the space that nobody can interfere with. The other is, for example, freedom of speech, and the other one protection of private property.
But freedom is a personal sense. When it really comes down to it, for me freedom is about the ability to keep on keeping on. It is about the ability to see that what you do has at least a small chance of making things around you little more meaningful and better. When I say freedom, I see hope. And when I say hope it means freedom.
Huh huh. We are getting very deep down and dirty here. But lets continue.
Moments of resistance. Where is that for you? How would you define for you a meaningful sense of a critical positioning?
Minna L. H: It is clear that it is impossible for me to form enough of a genuine critical position to, and make work about, something that I see on the news at the BBC-world. That is not to say that I wouldn’t want to support some others, who I see as being on the right track against the global currents, and whose views and methods in doing that I agree with.
But for me it has to be something more intimate, something that is going on in my immediate surroundings and I experience more or less first hand, but I also feel that I have something new or a little bit different to say about. Sometimes the trigger could already be that no one else is doing anything about something that I feel important to point out and resist.
Saying that it has to be something intimate, doesn’t mean that it would need to stay as my personal or local observation, but it can of course become something that deals also with some general and global issues. And some level of universal readability is of course a quality in an artwork. But it has to have its starting point in the urgency towards the topic.
And a simple question: Can art change the world?
Mika H: Yes, sure, a lot of different things can and do change the world: sports, caricatures, space shuttles and why not painting on a wall. This question also again reminds me directly of a song. That is David Bowie and his Changes, the song where he plays with the beginning of the letter of the word singing chchchchchchchchchchanges...
But I believe art has a great potentiality to allow us to think through in a critical but constructive way who we are, where we are, with whom - and where we are from, and where we want to move towards to. But the question is how. And this how is only possible within a personal and direct experience. It might be first of all a personal encounter and a potential change, but because that must be the first step, it does not close out that this change within a person has effects on his/her surroundings and other people.
Finally, the fact remains: in order to achieve some (any kind of change, indeed) you must first be able to imagine this chance.
Now I steal a mirror from our neighbour who is watching the Olympics (curling, how superdupersexy) and turn it towards you: Can art change the world?
Minna L. H: It has done it for me, on the professional as well as on the personal level. But I am not sure if that counts as I am working in the field, and sadly enough, in one way or another, I spend most of the time in a day with it. And I realize that it could be something else that I found meaningful to devote my time to, even to build a space shuttle, and that would then change my world.
But being on the mission to change the world for others too, there are advantages to do that as artist - it is easier to enter doors and subjects, which would otherwise be closed from others than the specialists of a particular field. Artists have certain freedoms. This could already be in comparison to other professions in the art field. If, for example, an artist makes a group exhibition, which is usually the job of the curator, they are not expected to, and don’t need to follow the conventions of exhibition making, but they can do something radically different. If a curator does the same, it is immediately linked to the whole tradition of the field. As artist you can step into a role with not even claiming to master it.
But freedom walks hand in hand with responsibilities, and here they are those toward the audience. I would like to think that being an artist indicates that I am aiming at changing the world, and have to believe in the capacity of art doing that. But then, what I have to offer to someone else, is not necessarily a body of new and radical knowledge, but maybe a little something, which is based on my experience, and which together with many other similar kinds of little inputs can potentially move someone to a direction, which makes them experience their surroundings, and themselves in it, in a different way.
I hope I somewhat answered your question, but went roundabout, as I pretty much agree with what you said there before, and figured that I would have good chances in getting caught if I copy-pasted your answer.
And question to you, continuing and concluding with the same topic of wanting a change: Give me a song, which would characterize the conversation we've had here, and why did you choose this particular song?
Mika H: First one is of course Love Me Tender, Elvis himself, and then comes to my mind Personal Jesus, Johnny Cash's version, and then I kind of seem to move towards Marvin Gaye's I Want You - but no, I still need to choose something else. It is a song called Emotional Hooligans by Gary Clail & On-U Sound System.
And why? This is about the real thing: opening the window, reaching out, falling - and enjoying the fall. Emotional hooligans.