Academy of Fine Arts alum Lauri Lähteenmäki: “Tackling the environmental crisis requires a cultural change”

Academy of Fine Arts alum and coordinator for the LuoTo project Lauri Lähteenmäki explores environmental themes both as an artist and as a Uniarts Helsinki employee. This article is part of a series where we interview Uniarts Helsinki employees and students concerning themes that relate to the university’s environmental programme.

Lauri Lähteenmäki in the photo studio.
Lauri Lähteenmäki, photo: Petri Summanen

Who are you and what do you do? 

I’m Lauri Lähteenmäki and I work as the coordinator of the LuoTo project (Luovien alojen ekologisen kestävyysmurroksen toimenpideohjelma, “action programme for the ecological sustainability transition in the creative sector” in English) at Uniarts Helsinki. The aim of the project is to promote ecological sustainability in the creative industries, which also includes the arts. The creative sector plays an important role in tacking the environmental crisis by way of accelerating a cultural change. At first, we collect and share information, skills and experiences related to environmental work by listening to operators in the field. As the project progresses, we will compile an action programme based on this information so that operators in the creative sector can have better abilities and effective chances to promote ecological sustainability. Uniarts Helsinki serves as an expert arts organisation in the project, so the message of art is spread also to other areas of society. 

Besides my work as a coordinator, I’m also an independent visual artist and an alum of the Academy of Fine Arts. Before graduating, I also contributed to Uniarts Helsinki’s environmental programme by serving as a student member in the steering group for ecological sustainability.  

Through my photography-based art, I carry out environmental research that is politically opinionated at heart. Recently, I’ve discussed the way forestry has affected Finnish landscapes. As part of this project, I published a photography book titled Vihreän kullan kuume: raportti Suomen metsien tilasta (2022), where I also examined the political discourse on forests. 

My art explores questions that most often come up in environmental and social science and politics. I’m interested in seeing what artistic methods bring to the table when we discuss the environmental crisis, climate change or geopolitics, for example.  

How have themes, questions or practices of ecological sustainability been visible in your own work or studies now or in the past? 

Environmental questions and ecological sustainability have been a guiding force in my life ever since my teenage years at least, so they’re present in a comprehensive way. Before and also partially during my art studies, I completed a master’s degree in environmental change and policy at the University of Helsinki. My work as the coordinator of the LuoTo project is a continuation of this. Also, in my work as an independent visual artist, I deal with ecological issues by drawing inspiration and borrowing from environmental studies and methods of environmental research. In my work process, I try to minimise the environmental consumption through material choices, for example. 

Why do you think ecological sustainability is important or interesting in your own work or studies? 

Questions of ecological sustainability are existential from the point of view of humanity and other nature; they’re questions that define our existence, so it would be hard not to comment on them. That’s why all areas of society and culture should contribute to promoting the ecological transition. There really isn’t anything that can be left outside of this goal. 

The fourth goal in Uniarts Helsinki’s strategy is that “art is part of the solution to the ecological sustainability crisis”. What does this make you think? If art is or was part of the solution, what kinds of things could that mean in practice? 

The ecological sustainability transition has mostly been carried out with science as the priority and with the emphasis on a certain kind of logic and rationality. Art is its own special field of knowledge and practice, and it would be important to promote change also on a cultural and artistic level. Art can, for example, create and mediate experiences and feelings, which science is rarely able to do, as its goal is abstracting reality. 

Experimenting and approaching matters creatively from various angles is also characteristic of art. We could incorporate these qualities to a larger extent as we engage in the sustainability transition as a society. 

What is Uniarts Helsinki’s role in environmental issues or what should it be? 

In the role of a university – an institution of thinking, knowhow and information production – Uniarts Helsinki should, first and foremost, strengthen the importance of ecological sustainability in teaching and artistic research. Uniarts Helsinki is a central operator in the Finnish arts sector and society, so in addition to this, I would hope that we would try to make use of Uniarts Helsinki’s authority in ecological sustainability issues to a wider extent. Uniarts Helsinki could, for example, highlight the power of art and culture as a driver of change with other environmental institutions, which is what we’ve done in the LuoTo project e.g. with the Ministry of the Environment, Sitra and Helsinki-Uusimaa Regional Council. 

What is the most essential thing about Uniarts Helsinki’s environmental programme for you? 

As a former student and current employee, the number-one goal of the environmental programme for me is probably that the university will now engage in ecological transition internally. It’s important that the programme goes through all the operational areas of the university and sets goals and measures so that we can reduce the negative environmental impact of the university on a concrete level. Consumption of energy and materials, heating of properties and recycling of waste may seem like technical details to some people. I personally think that they form a basis that other sustainability measures can build off on. We can’t have demands if we don’t take action ourselves. 

What kind of art has made an impact on you? And how? You can tell an example. 

I especially like art that is capable of diverse discussions and forming of emotional connections to societal, cultural and political phenomena on a wide scale. One example of this is work by photographer Ignacio Acosta, who has also visited the Academy of Fine Arts. Obviously, all kind of other art makes an impact on me, as well, like sound art and listening to and making electronic music. If I need to mention a specific name, let’s say Sasu Ripatti.