Frontiers_Excavations2015_Mirko Nikolic

Frontiers in Retreat: Mirko Nikolic (2015–) ‘We heart Copper and Copper heart Us’, data copper mine as part of Excavations exhibition. Photo: Matti Tanskanen

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,—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.

 Frontiers in Retreat: 'Excavations' exhibition at HIAP (2015). Photo: Salla Lahtinen

Frontiers in Retreat: ‘Excavations’ exhibition at HIAP (2015). Photo: Salla Lahtinen

Caroline Picard