Last April I had the opportunity to meet with Helsinki-based curator, Jenni Nurmenniemi during the Anthropocene Curriculum: Technosphere Issue at the HKW in Berlin. Nurmenniemi and I met towards the end of the conference, after having attended a number of different workshops and Anthropocene-related events. In the following conversation she and I talk about curating, particularly the work that she has been doing with the Helsinki Artist Program, and its largest project Frontiers in Retreat.
Caroline Picard: What is the Helsinki International Artist Program?
Jenni Nurmenniemi: HIAP is one of the largest residency centers in Nordic and Baltic Region, hosting up to 100 per year with an emphasis on interdisciplinary practices. We have two locations: one is on an 18th century fortress island, Suomenlinna—not too far from the city center, though it feels quite remote. It’s visually interesting as a mix of Slavic and Scandinavian influences. And the idea is that living and working space are combined, so work is entangled in a nice way. Our other location is very different. It’s a former Cable Factory. We have three studios there. That site is very urban and industrial—a nice contrast to the otherwise picturesque island location.
CP: Frontiers in Retreat is specifically interested in ecology and art, is that right? It’s part of HIAP?
JN: HIAP runs several projects, of which Frontiers is the biggest one. It actually occupies quite a lot of our physical space and mental capacity at the moment—or until 2018; it’s a five-year engagement. HIAP has a few other thematic programs and maybe one really interesting to mention is Safe Haven; it allows people who are somehow persecuted in their home countries—under threat of human rights violations or their freedom of speech is suppressed in their home countries. HIAP is part of a residency network that allows these people the chance to kind of take a break and come for residency for a longer period of time to rethink their situation.
CP: In those cases, do you find that you have to coordinate with different government bureaucracies?
JN: Absolutely. It has been a very challenging residency program. Ethically, there are so many questions, and I actually am not the best person to talk about it in detail because it’s run by another group of people. Questions about what happens when the residency ends raise questions about ethical responsibility; sometimes people need asylum, to establish their lives in a new context. What’s the responsibility of the residency and art center then and what are the constraints and possibilities around how we can support these people? I think that relates to the art and ecology residency in a sense that when you’re running a project with local communities (which is often the case with Frontiers residencies) the question of continuity and support comes up again. Like, what happens after the artist has left? Will their processes and initiatives continue or will their work just vanish as if it never happened?
CP: People often bring that up in relation to Social Practice projects—like if an artist wants to come to a community and build a green house, but then nobody takes care of the green house after the artist leaves and it ends up just falling apart…
JN: I might have to say more about the Frontiers structure. We have seven locations and some of the ecosystems are quite fragile. If an artist wants to make an intervention, that will obviously have some consequences, influencing the balance of its particular system. For example, a Berlin based artist, Tue Greenfort, wanted to work with mushrooms. He came to Suomenlinna island and he started researching what kind of mushrooms grew there, whether they could actually provide solutions for food production. He often works with mushrooms, but in this context, he wanted to cut down a huge tree on the island in order to make it into a mushroom For cultivating protein for the island’s human residents.
I think the most interesting part was the negotiation with the chief gardener of the island who explained how important this tree was, even though it might look dead—trees like that facilitate a tremendous amount of biodiversity. Removing it would be very bad for more-than-human kinds on the island. The conversation was rather speculative, but removing one tree might have interfered with the island ecology drastically. All in all, there are twenty-four artists working within Frontiers.
CP: Do most of the Frontiers projects take place in nontraditional exhibition spaces?
JN: Yes and no. I think people move nicely between gallery or museum contexts and their field work, as well as at the intersection of theory and practice. We wanted exactly that. To form a platform that allows people to move between rigid categories that usually structure how one navigates the art system.
CP: I think it’s amazing how much invisible work there is to curation—boring paper work, bureaucracy, administration, as well as hosting and facilitating. What is a curator to you?
JN: It’s a question that I think about pretty much everyday. It’s a lot of invisible work as you said especially now and especially because I’m a bit weary of imposing trending theoretical or conceptual frameworks on my approach. Every six months or so, there is some key concept that people start to obsess over. I’m wary of that. I try to construct open platforms where things emerge organically or slowly, and then engage deeply with the artist work over a long period of time. Taking time, recognizing artists’ capacity to mediate between different forms of knowledge and different disciplines. They can cross those boundaries and I try to support that potentiality.
It’s a lot about hosting. It’s a lot about listening and being super sensitive to nuances. We somehow set certain loose parameters, follow what emerges, and then try to tease out meanings. Meanings in plural because I don’t feel it’s possible to construct a coherent or singular narrative around art and ecology. That topic emerged here at the HKW many times. It’s important to allow space for complexity and select epistomologic multiplicity that generates difference.
CP: Today there was a related critique that “The Anthropocene” is problematic in that it represents a single totality. Maybe it’s better to say the Anthropocenes, so as to allow for multiple timelines or extinctions, multiple experiences, types of experiences, and various relationships to our ecological times.
JN: I’m really fond of imagining history as a web—interconnected webs or networks, a network approach to history instead of maybe kind of the chronological timeline and drawing from different cultures as much as it’s possible, recognizing that, okay, I’m situated.
One project I thought a lot about during the Co-Evolutionary Perspectives Seminar has to do with mining or the extractiveness, in extraction industries. I’d like to bring up this project by Serbian artist, Mirko Nikoli?. It started last year and now it has had iterations in different locations. It’s called “We Heart Copper, and the Copper Hearts Us.” Mirko is looking into what kind of ideas and meanings humans attached to copper. He set up this site, WeHeartCopperCopperHeartUs.com—a data mine that sources everything with a hashtag copper from across the world, from different social mediums. He uses this as a study of kind of what it signifies to humans in different context. Then, actually there is also a physical DIY data center which Mirko is going to take to different mining sites in Southern Finland this spring.
CP: And it exhibits in a gallery space?
JN: It’s a good example how we exhibited this last summer, the prototype out here at the Gallery Augusta as part of the group show titled, Excavations. This year, it’s going to be activated and it’s going to be instead of hanging from gallery ceiling, it’s going to hang from trees. The idea is that Mirko can fold it, put it on his shoulder and somehow cycle to a different mining site or…undiscovered deposit. Ironically maybe, I love the word “deposit” in this sense, but kind of a site which has not been excavated yet or extracted yet.
He’s been researching into ancient mines in Finland and then ongoing mining projects and then future mining sites. This is kind of reaching the different timelines or historical moments together and putting emphasis on how much we rely on copper. We don’t really often think about it although its been a subject in the art world for quite many years now but how its conductive properties actually allow us to use our technospheric devices and build this whole network that we articulate as technosphere.
CP: I also keep thinking about the Joseph Beuys reference to the I Love America and America Loves Me. I can’t figure out if you or maybe it’s just not that I can’t figure out, but in sort of game kind of way. It’s like, “Oh, is the coyote the copper?” In some way, I think of Beuys’ coyote as a nexus point for all ecological, political, historical narratives. It’s sort of funny to think about precious metals that way. Of course, they’re embedded in so much of our experience but we don’t think about them.
JN: Exactly, that’s well articulated. Through Mirko’s work I’m always led towards dissolving the hierarchical binaries of Western dualist thinking
CP: You mean like the nature/culture binary for instance?
JN: Exactly. But also, the division between material and immaterial, animate and inanimate. For instance, the idea that data is somehow immaterial. Mirko’s project has an undeniable material aspect. It has the website of course but then you can see, for instance, Mirko works in copper mines himself in Serbia. He really engages with the material, both extracting it and putting it back to the earth. There are all these sediments and layers to his project that I find fascinating.
CP: I was also suddenly thinking too that it seems like one of the things you had also negotiate is these labor structures that are similarly embedded…
JN: Absolutely. Here, another Frontiers artist, Bart Vandeput, or Bartaku, a Belgian mastermind. He also conducted his artistic research in a mining city in Serbia and was very interested in labor structures and the fact that actually there are not that many miners left.
CP: I was wondering if you could talk about the Anthropocene, ecology, and the words that we choose to work with when looking at our ecological times? Do you think the Anthropocene as a term is a fad?
JN: I like how you mentioned that it might be a good idea to talk about the Anthropocene in plural. It’s also about language. It’s hard to translate sometimes from Finnish to English, but I think the term provides an umbrella term to recognize that humans are influencing most if not all ecosystems in this biosphere. But I want to know how to go beyond that acknowledgment. There, I think we need more specific concepts. I’m very careful of what I impose upon the artists whom I work with. At the same time, I realize that they also need critical dialogue and input from curators. What we’ve tried to do with Frontiers is to build a glossary that allows this different epistemic frameworks or multiplicity.
This interview was conducted on behalf of Bad at Sports and the HKW.
An exhibit showcasing the Chicano arts collective ASCO, which was active in Los Angeles throughout most of the 1970s and 80s, is currently touring the North American continent. Unfortunately, it wonâ€™t be coming to Indiana any time soon, so I have had to make due with the thick catalog from the show, â€œAsco: Elite of the Obscure.â€ Fortunately itâ€™s a beautiful book. Ascoâ€™s artwork ties into a lot of my ongoing pet concerns – kitsch, the foreigner, the â€œas ifâ€ artwork â€“ in dynamic and interesting ways, so I thought I would share some thoughts on this arts movement. But most importantly, the images are utterly beautiful and hilarious. I can’t help myself: I’m fascinated, I keep thinking about these images, this movement, which may seem very far removed from my own life in Indiana, but yet seems very relevant to me.
The name â€œASCOâ€ is itself interesting. To begin with, like the famous forbearer â€œDada,â€ it is a foreign word (itâ€™s Spanish, meaning nausea) that is both strange and catchy. It â€œworksâ€ in English as a kind of brand name (Iâ€™m gonna get som Asco at the corner store? Have you gotten the latest Asco yet?), but the Spanish adds a layer of obscurity, of a sense of something hidden. This combination of the kitschy and the hidden is in many ways emblematic of a foreigner aesthetic. Iâ€™m using the word â€œforeignerâ€ to conveniently include here both actual immigrants and ethnic minorities. I know thereâ€™s a difference but thereâ€™s also a similarity: a presence that troubles the dream of homogeneity.
In U.S. culture â€“ whether â€œhighâ€ or â€œlowâ€ â€“ the foreigner is often a figure of kitsch: s/he is a fake version of the real thing (â€œthe Americanâ€), lacking the interiority of the American Subject. That is, the foreigner is thing-like. S/he has no soul. In this regard foreigners are a lot like Art. Everything we touch becomes art.
Ethnic or minority or immigrant cultures are often very conservative in trying to avoid this kitsch label, insisting on a kind of authenticity of their culture. America often finds that very attractive as well: â€œthe old worldâ€ of authenticity as opposed to the modern America. This is another form of kitsch, â€œauthenticity kitsch.â€
[Some Swedish kitsch…]
A while back I got in a heated discussion with a Latino poet who claimed the Latina writer Sandy Florian was not a Latina writer because she did not â€œwrite about the Latina experience.â€ Her writing was too â€œexperimentalâ€ â€“ ie it called attention to itself as artifice, rather than (as his own poetry) seeking to document the stuff of the Latin â€œexperienceâ€ (whether food, customs, family traditions). In other words, art gets in the way to this â€œdocumenting.â€ Authenticity becomes a conservative aesthetic. Ethnicity becomes an aesthetic. Paradoxically, all things aesthetic are of course artifice.
In this insistence on art that â€œdocumentsâ€ the â€œreal thing,â€ this conservative aesthetic reminds me quite a bit of the discussions in â€œPerformance Artâ€ where it seems to me (I admit it, Iâ€™m not an expert in this field) important that the real art is the performance, not the â€œdocumentation.â€ Sometimes Iâ€™ve come across these spats in performance art discussions where people get accused of turning the â€œdocumentationâ€ into the artwork.
For example, Joseph Beuys was often accused of this. And that definitely seems true. My favorite work by Beuys is his long-running series of photographs â€œArena: Where would I have got if I had been intelligent,â€ which consists of photographs of art objects, regular objects and performances by Beuys. Except, the divisions are immediately blurred. The montage of photographs of artistic relics/souvenirs from the performances renders any object he might put in the show into a relic; the montage sets up an equal sign of sorts; it tells us: these are photographs of relics. Everything is a relic, a souvenir. The art cannot be contained.
Likewise, itâ€™s not clear if all the pictures of Beuys himself are from actual performances, or if any picture with him is a performance, if his life is a performance. The â€œcutâ€ between photographs are too far apart to be â€œsuturedâ€ together into a montage. Art has redefined itself, redefined â€œlife,â€ There is no longer an â€œoutside.â€ Thereâ€™s an atmosphere that leaks out surrounding everything, turning everything into Art.
Conducted at the same roughly the same time, the ASCO artworks play with a similar dynamic in their â€œNo Films,â€ which consist of fake film stills from non-existent movies, starring â€œbario stars,â€ an ethnic version of the â€œsuperstarsâ€ of Jack Smith (whose film stills from the 1960s is probably the most direct predecessor of ASCOâ€™s work) and Andy Warhol. This connection suggests another important connection: that between the foreigner and the homosexual, between the immigrant and the queer.
As modernist poet and constant immigrant (from Russia to Finland and later Lithuania) Henry Parland put it in his diary: â€œI am always a foreigner, no matter where I go.â€ To be a foreigner is to be a kind of drag version of the native, the foreigner introduces Art into every dimension of life. Some people â€“ such as the Latino poet who could not find the â€œLatina experienceâ€ in Sandy Florianâ€™s work â€“ would try to deny that the reified â€˜immigrant experienceâ€™ is itself kitsch, made up of costumes, objects, food, customs, a recognizable cast of characters, etc. Others, such as ASCO, would use it to produce their Art.
What strikes me in these would-be B-movie promotional stills is the use of cheap trinkets, the kitsch: disco-aliens with platform boots attack a bum with a huge fake axe, a woman is taped to a wall, a dolls is burning. These trinkets and human figures are posed around very mundane parts of Los Angeles; but their make-up, their trinkets both call attention to the mundane Los Angeles and turn it into something ridiculously glamorous, a kind of kitsch glamour. In this way it seems to opposite of the Hollywood idea of Los Angeles: The ultra-rich heart of spectacle culture that can create every exotic locale within its studios. Here the shitty glamour brings the â€œstudioâ€ out into Los Angeles, which finally becomes visibleâ€¦ as Art.
The other thing is that this shitty glamour is actually circuited to ethnicity. You can see this connection very explicitly if you look at some of ASCOâ€™s artwork â€“ such as â€œStations of the Cross,â€ where they dressed up in Day-of-the-Dead-inspired garbs and carried a cross to the draft station used to sign up Chicanos for the Vietnam War. Once youâ€™ve become aware of the political and ethnic dimensions of that protest, you can see the connection between the kitsch and the ethnic-inspired matter in the No Movies.
Let me return to the name ASCO, the name with its dual meaning of kitsch-brand and foreign, obscure word. Who was afflicted by this â€œnauseaâ€? When asked in 1983 where the name came from, Gronk (one of the members) said:
â€œThat was generally the reaction to a lot of the work that we were doing, when we first started doing work, is people would say, refer to our work as giving them, â€œUuhllhh!â€ asco. So we said, â€œThatâ€™s a nice title,â€ so we applied it to ourselves. A lot of the stuff early on was like real bloody and used a lot of different things, like dead birds and bones, and anything we could get our hands on. So the reaction by the community, or by different people that would see the work, was that it was giving them nausea. We liked the word.â€
So in this definition, their artwork is named after the reception, after the effect their art has on people. But this is not the only explanation the group has given for its name. As C.Ondine Chavoya and Rita Gonzalez point out in their article â€œAsco and the Politics of Revulsion,â€ another member, Harry Gamboa noted very early on: â€œLast year at this time I was very active in the affairs of my community. I was deeply bothered and disgusted with the condition of my community and the Mexican American people. I learned to distrust and dislike everything that was pro-establishment.â€ Along the same line, Gronk also said â€œa lot of our friends were coming back in body bags and were dying, and we were seeing a whole generation come back that werenâ€™t alive anymore. And in a sense that gave us nauseaâ€¦ that is Asco, in a way.â€ The group also stated that they were â€œattracted and appalled by the glitter and gangrene of urban reality.â€
What I love about all these definitions â€“ seemingly seeping out of a very basic yet foreign word â€“ is the contradictions: the nausea is a negative response to the artwork which is a negative response to the political realities and or the kitschy â€œglitter,â€ which may be a disease in itself. In Julia Kristevaâ€™s famous definition of â€œabjectingâ€ as vomiting out the abject in order to maintain the self. â€œThe abjectâ€ is that which troubles boundaries. And here the nausea is both in the viewer and the artist, both inside the artists and outside of them. The glitter, the kitsch is the disease is both a source of fascination and nausea. Asco doesnâ€™t expel the kitsch, they harbor it, they are fascinated by it; this fascination doesnâ€™t heal, it seems to permeate.
Like the element of the un-sutured montage, the nauseating atmosphere of Ascoâ€™s work permeates the city of Los Angeles, blurring boundaries between inside and outside, fantasy and reality, Los Angeles and â€œLos Angeles.â€ Perhaps the most strikingly political aspect of this aesthetic can be seen in the stunning photograph â€œDecoyâ€. The group sent this picture of an apparently dead man in the middle of a street in Los Angeles to newspapers and news shows as evidence of another Chicano riot gone awry, and these news-outlets promptly broadcast it as evidence.
And this is where I feel like a lot of my concerns in this essay come together: the anxiety about proper documentation is totally undermined by the very beautiful fake documentation, the ethnic â€œdocumentâ€ becomes the imaginary trace of violence, the nausea pervades everything â€“ from the disenfranchised Chicano artists to the corporate news shows. Glitter and gangrene, glitter and gangreneâ€¦.
In the spirit of the holidays, I thought I’d post something a little on the playful side: a comic I recently revised while thinking about the relationship between text and narrative, how we propagate myths as a society and (even) how drawing can be a kind of dramatic reenactment.
There is a fox in the museum. It is the only thing that moves in the whole space: is this why the fox’s presence is so striking? Because it alone is unpredictable within the camera frame? Because it might do something to the paintings? No one else is present. Nighttime is inferred. The title of this work The NightwatchÂ suggests some kind of threat. Perhaps we are witnessing footage from anÂ apocalypse. More likely, the museum is just closed. The stillness of the room adds to the potency of our fox. It passes like a shadow through the National Portait Gallery â€” the only representative of flesh and blood. It doesn’t notice the fine work hung on its bounding walls. And why should it? It has no relation to these figures, or at least it didn’t before it entered the museum. It stops and pokes its head through what might be a fireplace. Looking for a way outside? When one discovers a mouse in a high rise apartment, one imagines an unknown, or secret, exit. One, perhaps, not built to the human scale. In the case of our fox, the artist is the entrance and the exit. This is the fox of Francis AlÃ¿s â€” the man who ties magnets to his feet and walks around Mexico City collecting metal. He has similarly pushed a giant block of ice around until it melted to a nub the size of a stone. There must have been a crook in his back by then. He also chases tornadoes and has lead a flock of sheep around a city square like a Pied Piper. The Nightwatch Â was one of seven works commissioned by London-based Artangel, wherein AlÃ¿sÂ was asked to make work in response to the city. I saw a striking video at PS1 last summer that was part of this same series, in which AlÃ¿sÂ videoed the English guard marching, at first alone, though the deserted city, and then slowly finding one another, growing every more comfortable as their number grew. The sound of their feet grew louder and louder, echoing through the empty corridors. Yet, I am most interested in his fox at the moment.
The fox articulates a non-human space within the cultural architecture of humanity. It is not simply that the museum was built by human enterprise, but that it functions as a temple of sorts, a house for historical works. The museum is a proper place, full of oil paintings and serious faces, poised with solemn and practiced grace. These works have survivedÂ the test of time. In that respect their presence is partly due to chance, for it is likely some have travelled great distances, across the sea for instance, barring wreckage, flooding, fires and sunlight. They hang now, like static vampires in gold frames, very much preserved. They are representatives of posterity: examples one might find inspiration in. The fox disrupts their solemnity, destabilizing whatever authority they might possess. The animal is so dynamic by comparison, trotting around with speed and self-possession. What is that statistic? In a matter of weeks the jungle would encroach upon New York City if human kind were not present to fend it off. It would take so little time to be gobbled up by trash, vines and rats â€” and then the larger beasts would come to sniff through our bodegas.
Joseph Beuys brought a coyote into a gallery in 1974. The interaction between Beuys and the coyote became a work of art, the performance of a developing relationship. It illustrated the process of equilibreum as it was discovered between a four-legged beast and a human being. Between two cultures, one wild, the other civilized. The coyote, of course, is endemic to American mythology â€” a trickster, a mirror, a scavenger. AlÃ¿s’ fox, on the other hand, is closer to English lore. There are any number of pubs named after it. For Sunday sport, English gentry used to set out on horseback to hunt it. But foxes are also tricksters, though these (apparently) can sometimes climb trees. InÂ Nightwatch, the artist is absent. Instead the fox interacts with the object of art-space; that physical space becomes a conduit for history, not, as in the case with Beuys, the artist and his props.
AlÃ¿sÂ began his project with the idea of using CCTV footage from surveillance cameras all over London. While it is legal for any member of the public to watch the footage, it is illegal to use it for some other purpose. AlÃ¿sÂ adjusted his plan and focused instead on the National Portrait Gallery as a site. They have state of the art surveillance cameras. To test this, to engage our interest in the strangeness of animals, he set a fox called Bandit loose in the museum at night. What is it that we are looking for when we watch this fox? Go here to watch an excerpt from this piece.