JOE ROWLEY: The loose subject for this edition of Ephemeral Care is Periphery. I wanted to talk about your time with Perfo! and what you think of the attitude towards peripheralist, how that relates to performance art and perhaps a sidelining of performance art and how it relates to a Finnish context.
KAISA LUUKKONEN: I understand in some ways why institutions sideline performance, and especially performance in the sense of the 60’s genre of performance as opposed to performative work. It is due to the fact that it is often unpredictable, often uses the organiser or institution as part of the work and is often highly critical to the power structures present. It’s uncomfortable to be in that position, I can empathise! I have worked with a performance genre often referred to in the UK as Live Action, and there is often a lot of discussion concerning what that is. There is a tendency of those coming from a Scandinavian or Finnish tradition when speaking about performance to have a very strict understanding of what it is but then someone coming into that from the UK thinks it’s something completely different. Right now it’s much more popular for institutions to invite people who are doing performative work because they can ask for something more like a script, they know what the work is going to do and they know exactly what is going to happen.
JR: Do you think it’s an issue that institutions are doing that, in terms of them doing for something that is more tightly controlled?
KL. I think it ends up sidelining performance even more. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. What seems to happen is that people who make performative work are wrongly calling it performance. At the same time they’re giving the institutions what they crave, smooth lines and clear scripts, a lack of risk and something you can very easily promote. People that are coming in with performative works and saying they are doing performance are then pushing people who are making more risky propositions further to the side.
It leads to institutions asking those making that risky work, why can’t you do this? Why can’t you give us a script?. But then, what I have also been asking myself, is what does the performance artist need the institution for? Because we are always creating our audience as we are doing our work, what do we need the institutions for? Why are we still sucking up to them? Ok there is the money game and there is the ego game, and they are the two defining things, and it feels horrible to say that, but it’s true. It’s something I have been guilty of myself. I’ve been wanting to be seen. I’ve been banging on the doors of these institutions for the past ten years of my life! But now I’m asking myself why did I waste my time with that
JR. On the flip side of that, running Perfo!, which was a performance institution - how do you deal with those considerations from an institutional position?
KL. To start with we were a very small scale institution that was very interested in the periphery. That wasn’t so much a core interest of mine but was very much Janne Rahkila’s, the founder of the organisation. It was important for him to be on the periphery geographically as well as in the field of culture and not be a part of the mainstream. I think we weren’t open or articulate enough to a wider public as to what our aims were, and articulating those different understanding of what performance art is in different places. after I came to work with Perfo!, we realised quite soon that we had gender bias selection process and we started to focus on more female artist. I think we also managed to start a discussion among the other organisers. Other organisers were saying there wasn’t a bias, that we were just working with people who do good stuff, but starting that discussion started changing people’s view on that.
JR. Yeah, I can relate. We had a similar situation in the first couple of years at HUTT where we convinced ourselves we were just working with good people whose work we found interesting and that they just happened to mostly be male. I think we have gotten better in that regard, but there is always space to improve!
KL. Yeah! Alongside that though I had my mantra which was always - Where are all the young performance artists? Where are all the young performance artists? Young and emerging artist were important to the others, Janne and Peppe, too. This led to us doing a new event called Beginners Night, which comes from burlesque, where people can apply to perform and the community is super open and welcoming. So we tried to replicate that; we had an open call, but in Finland when you have an open call you usually have to pay to play. We decided not to do that. The artists still got a very very small fee and production costs covered.. We also always had someone who was well known in the performance scene and more experienced to do some tutoring. The connections that were formed between those older artists and the beginners have proved to be quite strong, with those in the tutoring rolls often recommending those they have tutored for subsequent things over the years. I think that was our big success.
JR. The other thing with Perfo! is that it was based in Tampere, a city peripheral to Helsinki and also considering Finland and it’s position right on the periphery of Europe. How do you think that affects the Finnish art scene? Is there a feeling of peripheralism?
KL. Of course, and that plays many, many ways. I mean on the whole in Finland there is an attitude of - out there is Europe with all this magnificent art; somewhere in it there is the avant-garde. The avant-garde is always somewhere out there, never here. That is something I think started to change when we started with Beginners Night. That attitude changed. The avant-garde ended up being amongst those people that were doing new stuff there. The participants of beginners night mostly came from other cities than the capital. People in Helsinki seem to be more on board with experimental theatre, but the kind of performance at Beginners Night seemed to snare people from other parts of Finland. But I look at these people now and they have become so connected with other places in the world, all over the world, without going through Helsinki other central institutions. They are in weird parts of the world doing weird performances and I’m proud of that. Provincialism is definitely present, but that goes hand in hand with a kind of protectionism. When you write grant applications you learn this mantra of ‘our art for our people’. This, ‘I’ve come up with a wonderful performance, brought it up from the concrete of Tampere city and im going to be giving it back to the people of Tampere.’ That’s to do with provincialism
JR. Yeah I suppose that is the other side of the coin from the centralisation of everything to the capital.
KL. But I wouldn’t mix that with periphery. Periphery can be quite interesting and the peripheries can join together, they can access each other. This also joins into what you value and what you care about. Where do you want the recognition to come from? Do you need to be validated from some central thing? If we go outside of our sphere, outside of the cultural sphere, and look at what First Nations are doing in giving the middle finger to centralisation and instead finding strategies to work with each other. Maybe, we in the art world, should take a leaf out to their book.
Image Credits: Peter Rostvik
Ephemeral Care focuses on ethics, practice and strategies in artist-led and self-organised projects.