MOBIUS is a fellowship program for visual arts, museum and archive professionals based in New York, the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and Finland. The program enables transatlantic mobility and collaborative practices and supports long-lasting professional relationships. MOBIUS is a three-year pilot program organized by the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York (FCINY) and the Finnish Institute in London.
FCINY focuses on new organizational models of institutions and curating, supporting independent and institutional visual arts professionals alike. Finnish Institute in London focuses on museum and archive professionals.
I was invited to become an inaugural fellow of the MOBIUS programme, living and working in Helsinki through the Summer of 2014. My resulting research article can be downloaded below. During this time I also worked closely with artist Jani Ruscica, developing the project ‘Appendix‘ which later launched within Ruscica’s solo exhibition at KIASMA in 2016.
‘(The Experience of) Nature in Helsinki’
- − Helsinki through Research
‘Research’ is a buzz-word on the international art scene. People everywhere are now talking about ‘the artist as researcher’, never mind curator, and debating how research in art relates to academic research. These discussions more often than not revolve around the legitimization of research in art within an academic framework and it is primarily theoreticians, not the artists, who are driving them. During my MOBIUS Research Fellowship in Helsinki, I was not – as I am not in my day-to-day work – attached to an institutional or academic host, rather I was working from an artist guest studio of HIAP (Helsinki International Artist Programme) on the former military island of Suomenlinna. I decided to try and approach my time in Helsinki and the phenomenon of ‘research in and through art’ from the perspective of the visual artist and the prism of living through the surprisingly active ecumenical summer break in the city.
Although I did of course meet with curators and programme directors of institutions, this seemed to rather be beside the point, and so most of the actors of Helsinki’s art scene that I met and spent time with are visual artists, themselves directly contributing to both local and international activity whilst being best placed to talk about and paint a picture of the past, current and potential future state of issues such as arts funding, opportunities for artists, approaches to making work and the decision to make their work in Helsinki – an often geographically isolated part of the global art world; all concerns I share being a native of the North East of England and continuing to practice there.
The exceptional thing about research in and through art is that the making and the thinking go hand in hand. The phenomenon of research in art is nothing new. The idea of art-as-research flows from art itself, in particular from the conceptual art of the 60s onwards. Conceptual artists oppose the view that art can be viewed in isolation from history and politics, and they assert that art is unquestionably perceptual. In the post-modern era, reflection and research are closely interwoven with artistic practice. In some cases the research has become the work of art itself; subject matter and medium serving as an instrument in the research or ‘thought process’. Artists are increasingly positioning themselves in the societal and artistic field as researchers.
My own research in Helsinki aimed to explore various points of departure for learning more about the art coming out of the city, the intention was to take inspiration from artists to undertake a critical reflection on my own practice, to study and be better able to promote awareness of artistic praxis.
‘For research to be research it has to be debated in the public domain’, as Sarat Maharaj remarked at a symposium about research in art held as part of Manifesta 8 in 2010. This leads me to a key finding early on in my fellowship in the city: nature is never far away. Of course before undertaking my residency, I was acutely aware of great names such as Alvar Aalto and ‘Marimekko’ and had an idea that Helsinki was a great model of urban design and public space. However I had not really understood just how ingrained in the lives of every Finn their land and public space really is, and of course this revealed much about the art and design famously exported from Finland, additionally opening up a whole new line of enquiry.
- − Nature, Public and Social Contexts
Perhaps as a Northerner of an island, I feel very strongly that location is a key issue and its something that is very important in the projects I have worked on and developed with artists. I feel that a large part of what I do requires a regular re-examination as to what it is that my role as a curator is; what do I do?
I don’t think that anyone really knows what a curator does, it is an indefinite and assimilated role. There is a constant re-writing of what a curator is and what their role is or could be – it is evolving, it is changing and it lacks definition. I think one of the jobs of a curator is to create and make a space for an artist to develop all sorts of relations in that space, which at the same time is a space that is always closing down. I think the other consistent job of the curator is to try to develop relationships between objects, artists and audiences, and to try and figure out how that changes and evolves. Very often for me, the central issue in terms of curating a show is location. Where is it? What kind of space is it? Where? Where do we find ourselves? Why does this work travel well from one place to another? It is about understanding where you are and developing a relationship with the space, and the place, and with the people who come and see and spend time in that space and place. I’m greatly interested in artists who take responsibility of where they’re going and for what happens and what the implications of their work may be when they get there.
Early on in my time in Helsinki, talking to artists I realised that a prevailing issue that was never far away from the agenda, albeit to varying degrees of concern, was the much publicised proposed arrival to the city of a Guggenheim franchise. The other thing that interested me was the relationship between artists, objects, architecture and space. In this instance, space tended to bewell planned public space, full of nature, or just simply nature that had been left to it’s own devices and built around. I realised that what I wanted to research in Helsinki was just this; the closeness of these things that seem so current and important in terms of today’s discourse around contemporary art and architectural practices, and yet here felt so natural and established.
In terms of the Guggenheim project, this led me to look more closely at the existing infrastructures, culturally and architecturally, and wonder ‘what constitutes the community for whom this building is being built?’
The pairing of nearby and nature can strike people as a paradox. The word nature is usually reserved for areas that have been unaffected by human impact, that have trees and vegetation, and cover considerable expanse. What is nearby for most people, most of the time, could hardly be described as lacking human impact and is unlikely to be expansive. The failure to recognise the satisfactions and benefits that the nearby-natural setting can offer has important consequences. It means that all to often landscaping within city planning is considered merely an optional “amenity”. Having green things nearby is undeniably pleasant but is often deemed less essential than all that is subsumed by “infrastructure”. Architectural monuments rise in the cityscape, but funds run out before the landscaping can be done. In Helsinki, there often seems to be a curious situation in which this doesn’t appear to be the case – at least from the perspective of a visitor it could almost be seen as being the reversal; where in the UK we are scrambling for an all too late injection of ‘pocket parks’ between and within countless private developments in order to pack our cities with gestural green space, Helsinki looks to be viewing the next step in its development as an International and European destination city not to be forgotten about to be just the opposite, with it’s impressively spacious city’s lay of the land, the development of a new and expensive Guggenheim building in an instinctively culturally rich city is understandably divisive.
In fact, it becomes quickly evident that Finnish artists, designers, performers and filmmakers are largely working with a shared commitment, empathy and exploration of their surroundings, their urban, spiritual and physical make-up, their community. Of course this is not to say that everyone is making work about landscape or architecture in Helsinki, but the influence of their natural and designed surroundings, the former loaded with folklore, on modern and contemporary cultural practices and vice versa is something that in the UK would be far-fetched at best. The support for art projects to happen in Finland is strong and admirable, and clearly comes from a recent history in which artists and architects themselves are seen as fundamental to the make up of a community, combined with a sense of pride.
During my time in the city, Helsinki City Art Museum was closed and undergoing renovations, at the same time, Kiasma – the main Contemporary Art Museum in Finland – was readying itself for a six month renovation. This struck me as an impressive sign of commitment from the state. In 2015 to be delivering such a programme of work whilst also announcing an international architectural competition for a major new art museum gives an instant impression of dedication and support for contemporary art that is striking in its scale and ambition. I was interested in how this translated into grass-roots organisations, artist run initiatives and supportive structures for artists in the city. I discovered that arts funding is generous in its entirety, with artists receiving ‘working grants’ for extended periods of up to five years. Initially this seems ostentatious, and it is. Through talking with both curators, gallerists and artists, I understood the art system in Finland to work more or less on the basis of the artist being funded, and in turn supporting the galleries through supplementing the cost of their exhibitions themselves. The exhibitions still carry the kudos that a gallery show of an artists work would carry anywhere, only here it is hard to draw a critical line – to understand when an artist has been supported and shown by a gallery for their quality of work, and where the artist simply has enough track record to command the financially limiting system of showing in the countries gallery’s and associations.
It is of course exemplary to support artists to this extent; enabling relationships to grow and work, research and practice to flourish. There is a strong emphasis on production, and in international export, and import of curators. Organisations and advocacy bodies work hard to support the counties creative talents and to communicate with the rest of the art world, and successfully so. But I can’t feel that the system of artists essentially often paying for exhibitions in institutions and numerous ‘association’ galleries is the most successful way of creating a programme of current and globally topical artistic activity in the city itself. With museums presenting large scale survey shows of headline artists, it is down to the surprisingly few spaces that would be recognised as ‘artist run’ initiatives to present a programme of contemporary art that gives room to an emerging and younger group of artists that feels more recognisable alongside the discourse and content of the latest contemporary arts journals and art fairs.
Although the proposed Guggenheim draws many strong and often opposing viewpoints from the cultural actors of Helsinki and the foreign critics of the art and architecture press, something about the idea of introducing a new space for art does sit comfortably and idealistically within the Finnish approach. When successful, art gives (space, time, inspiration) to those who subsequently witness it. A work of art is inexhaustible. It is always the same and never the same. Architecture is not art, but many of us wish it could be, and in Finland it feels as close as it ever will. Architecture is too tied up with the world. It is not the product of a single self, but innumerable authors, each mediated by exterior forces (money, politics, function, nature..). Buildings must also be logical, it is the buildings job, literally, to abstract the human from nature, to place us in a room of our own making.
Perhaps, as architecture becomes less strict as it veers closer to the art object, it can become gift-like. A memorable piece of architecture creates real space, of course, but also new pace in our memory. The space created by seeing something beautiful, interesting or strange. Great architecture is effusive, like art, though it often has to work much harder to give much less – or is perhaps just less noticed. And there is also the literal way in which a building is a gift. We give a building to the future, where we know it will be (for a while, at least). Those after us can come to it and see things we did well and the things we got wrong.
This period of research and time spent in Finland – talking with artists, producers, historians and inhabitants, looking at the many art programmes and support structures in place – has led me to believe that what is needed in contemporary art production is the potential of short-term and durational projects to be realised as part of a longer-term incremental relationship with artists which recognise the process through which small-scale audiences converge for a limited period of time around particular projects. This would require the rejection of the peripateticism and overproduction that has characterised art commissioning in Europe and the UK in the last decade, in favour of committed, embedded practice for emerging curators, commissioners and artists, alongside commissioning and funding opportunities that are committed to longer lead-in times and fewer prescribed outcomes.
While diverse in their objectives and outcomes, all the artists, designers and projects mentioned and that I encountered – whether first hand or through historical presentations – have presented a longer-term view of the ways in which curators, artists and the public can respond to a specific situation by considering art as a co-operative production process that is neither autonomous nor over-regulated.
By taking account of participation with and in art, as an unfolding and longer-term accumulation of multiple positions, engagements and moments registered in what we account for as the artwork, we may be able to move beyond the individual participatory encounter of an eventful exhibition moment. This leads us to understand participation not as a relation or social encounter with artistic production, but as a socialised process necessary for art’s production. Such a shift in the perception of participation must acknowledge the different duration-specific qualities of art as something driven by ideas of public time, rather than space, so that we can begin to understand the complexities of artistic co-production within the logic of progression, continuity and sustainability rather than discontinuity in a unitary time and place. Durational projects could be considered as ‘discursive exhibitions’ that evolve over time, but, instead of prioritising the moment of display, or the event of exhibition, they allow for open-ended, accumulative processes of engagement. Such projects necessitate a shift in our consideration of the curator-producer from an individual focused on the unearthing or endorsement of an existing historical sense of place.