Photo: Petri Summanen / Uniarts Helsinki

Hannu Väisänen's speech Restless Boundaries / Uniarts Helsinki's 2019-2020 opening ceremony

Restless boundaries

Some of you may remember a song by the Finnish rock band Hassisen kone, which they recorded in Anno Domini X. The song was about restless legs, and it went like this: Feel the good, the bad fire / Feel, feel the fire within your chest / Bang your head against the wall again and again / I do that in a steady beat every day / restless legs, I have restless legs. And so on. It was wonderful to dance to the tune back then. In this speech, I have transposed the idea by Hassisen kone to all sorts of boundaries: physical borders between countries, cultural boundaries, barriers to self-expression, and generally to the anxiety that is often associated with creative work, sometimes with good reason, but usually not. However, for me the concept of “restless boundaries” only evokes positive connotations. Let me tell you why.

I am a citizen of two countries, running my daily life both in France and in Finland. In my work, I cross the physical borders of different countries many times a year, and it goes without saying that I hope that people continue to cross these borders with ease in the future. However, there are some who would like to set obstacles in my path and make the border fences higher. In many European countries, people have become enchanted by the idea of “Us first”, which seems to be an expression of some kind of patriotism and a lifeline to the waning light of cultural identity. The question is no longer about problems associated with immigration, but rather about who has the right to represent true and eternal fundamental values – moral codes on the tribal level, if you will. And, of course, national identity.

From a historical perspective, there is nothing new about this development, of course. It only signifies a return to the ideal of city states which dominated European ideals in the High Medieval Period. Siena and Florence were some of the most famous city states of the time, and in perfect harmony with the concept of city states, the two cities were openly hostile to each other, and they constantly argued about which city had the right to engage in banking, the wool trade and, of course, culture in all its forms. The two cities waged several wars, and ultimately it was Florence that emerged victorious after a prolonged siege during which the Florentines used catapults to shoot carcasses of slaughtered sheep over the walls of Siena. After bravely withstanding the stench arising from the rotting carcasses, the Sienese were finally forced to surrender due to the diseases that spread from the carcasses. This was not, however, a prelude to a lasting peace between the city states. For a long time, the two cities continued to argue about which city would get their representative to be the next Pope in Rome. Today, we typically associate Siena and Florence with their rich culture, but we often ignore the bloody circumstances which led to the creation of that culture. So, do the forces which strive for the disintegration of Europe yearn for this kind of model? Remember that a process where boundaries are created on the basis of local identities will never end. For example, there are always those who think that Finland should be divided into two countries depending on whether you use “vihta” or “vasta” when you talk about the birch whisk used in the sauna. There is no place too small in Finland, Europe or the world, which we could not divide once more and erect a border fence between the divided parts.

There is no disputing the fact that populist movements have rapidly gained popularity in almost every European country, or rather, all over the world. These movements do not only strive for the creation of new boundaries. One central theme that is shared by all populist movements concerns the purification of culture from foreign influence. I have heard people say, for example, that we should write books that are understandable instead of engaging in incomprehensible intellectual masturbation. Some also argue that the visual arts should be easily understandable, just like they used to be, whatever that means. Perhaps these people are looking back at some kind of “Golden Age of Finnish Art.” Music, furthermore, should not be made for the elite. And those belonging to the elite, the privileged few who are waving their fans at the opera, concert halls and exhibition openings, should finally be held accountable. “There must be a limit to creativity,” you may hear a tribal chief say angrily. Moreover, if you insist on awarding working grants to artists, you should at least establish a tribune of the people, who would make inquiries as to how much radicalism and subversion the common people could ultimately withstand. And how restless can we allow our borders to be? There are all kinds of dark-skinned people squeezing their way through the cracks in the system claiming to be artists! Please note that this is not me talking, but rather a French, Austrian, Czech, Hungarian, Italian or Finnish tribal chief, who is frantically waving a shepherd’s staff and wishing that they could write a new Old Testament. Whenever I hear these modern-day tribal chiefs speak, I start to hope that all kinds of borders, both those made of stone or iron and the ones that are more intangible in nature, would become as restless as possible and start to tremble so forcefully that the tribal leaders would be unable to control them with their staves. Long live restless borders! Long live shifting borders!

We all have our restless boundaries, which we like to examine, restrain or amplify. “Be brave enough to challenge your boundaries.” This adage must be placed within quotation marks. I have personally heard it so many times that I know it is only a way to avoid saying a genuine word of encouragement. It does not really mean anything, and yet it continues to be applied to many forms of culture. I think it is typically used in a situation that is familiar from the business world, where a person is “brave” enough to take a bungee jump; to let his feet be tied together with rubber cords, take a plunge through the air and accept the enthusiastic applauds of their colleagues. After doing this, you have the courage to sell, buy and consume even more than you used to. I, on the other hand, would rather hear people say: “let the restlessness move your limbs.” Or, “keep the boundary in motion.” Or ask yourself if the human wingspan is flexible or a pregiven, immovable fact.

When thinking about the field of contemporary art, I cannot help noticing that the boundaries within the field have become delightfully restless. Why is that? Because categories and limitations are being broken down at a frantic pace. I cannot remember when science, technology and a multifaceted research field would have embraced contemporary art as passionately as they do today. And I am not only talking about 3D printing, but rather about something far more wide-reaching. I also cannot remember when all the different fields of art, the visual arts, music, theatre, literature, dance, design, fashion and all those creative fields which have no muse, would have been intertwined with one another with such enthusiasm. With good reason, as well, because it is such a natural thing to happen. It is no longer extraordinary to find a so-called visual artist collaborating with a researcher whose work focuses on bird sounds, and this collaboration can result in a sound space that entices multiple senses. Nor is there anything strange in the fact that recent research on bacteria can make readjustments to someone’s visual perception. The number of visual artists who engage in writing is also increasing. Climate change, with its natural companion, the refugee issue, pose challenges to the cultural actors in different fields and make them look for forms of creativity that would be better in tune with the changing reality. In other words, they need to come up with actions that would openly undermine the boundaries which the tribal chiefs have drawn to keep themselves safe. This is also an educational challenge. Furthermore, the union systems which one encounters after completing education should also re-evaluate their rigidity. All this does not mean that I would be unable to recognize the existence of an artist who consciously wants to limit their work into something simple and clearly definable, such as a copper graver, or a minimalistic activity which intuitively seems right. On the other hand, this is also a way to question boundaries and to take control of them.

Let me now go back to Siena and Florence for a moment. Even though both cities can be regarded as communal bundles held tightly together by xenophobia, the concept of bottega was familiar both to the Sienese and to the Florentines, as it was to the inhabitants of many other Early Renaissance cities in Italy. Bottega means a shop or a workshop. In many ways, the Sienese or Florentine bottega can be thought to represent the blending of different fields of culture, which is something that I also strive for personally. The bottegas attracted all kinds of artists who wanted to learn something new, to learn from their peers. In those days, the church and the ruling noblemen of the city states were the most important patrons and customers of the artists, but this did not restrict their creativity. Indeed, there is little that was not produced in the bottegas! In addition to altarpieces, the bottegas produced mosaic floors, stained glass, new architecture, book decorations, sculptures, clothing etc. Furthermore, the bottegas produced more than just visual pieces: they created wonderful performances, mystery plays for ecclesiastical feasts, winches, fireworks and a floating paradise and hell which makes the “Gesamte Kunstwerk”, made centuries later, look like a monotonous jack-in-the-box. In other words, you did not have a graphic artist, a painter or a sculptor – you had a bottega where everyone wanted to broaden their skillsets. The bottegas were not institutions or conglomerates, which later categorised the artists who found employment in them. Indeed, those who still talk about Renaissance geniuses or Renaissance people, should immediately learn about the bottega tradition in order to understand that the versatility of an artist may not depend on the talent of an exceptional individual, but rather on something very different. Just think about Leonardo, for example. Leonardo’s skills also developed in a bottega. Indeed, when he sent petitions to various patrons, he did not boast about his painting skills. Instead, he talked about his great ability to design cannons, catapults and other weapons, to make musical instruments and compose music, and so on. Only in the very last lines of his letters he mentioned that he could also paint portraits. It is easy to forget that in those days these kinds of CVs were written by almost every bottega artist.

But make no mistake, I am not advocating the return of a master-apprentice system. I have long since rejected the myth that art can only be taught by remaining silent. Playing, singing, acting, painting, performing and other fields of intangible creativity can and should be taught. Mystifying or romanticising art education is just one way of confining artists within the walls of personal solitude.

Creativity is often associated with individualism – with creations brought about by an exceptional individual. It seems that people have a deep desire to find a hero, an idol, someone to look up to. But when will people start to notice that the creative activity also has a collective dimension? I am not talking about collaborative painting or anything like that. When we apply the romantic logic to art, we get roughly the following result: one creative individual plus another creative individual equals a conflict, a long drunken night or a group of lonely, bedevilled poets. Those who keep their boundaries tightly shut believe that it is impossible to share a creative act. In this way, the creative solitude is made into a virtue, even though it might as well be conceptualised as a plumbing problem: a jam that you will not let anyone fix.

However, in recent years there have been some signs of collective creativity. There have been both small-scale and more extensive art collectives whose members are not ashamed to use the &-sign in their works. Creative units like these are particularly relevant to the challenging of boundaries. Why is that? Because they also test our own ability to make evaluations as viewers and listeners when we encounter something different from the traditional, creative, solitary individual, whom we expected to find. Just like the division into departments in different degree programmes will become unravelled, and hopefully the outdated union systems as well, we need to become accustomed to the fact that a creative act may consist of a collective desire.

I will conclude by sharing a personal experience which is related both to the bottega and to collective creation. When I was an art student, I was asked to join the craziest group in Finnish performance art called Record Singers. Today, the mere mention of the name makes me writhe in shame, but it also makes me laugh. Record Singers was something of a children’s playground where everyone was bickering with one another, but it was also an amazing laboratory for experimenting with boundaries. The group was not planning a revolution or the colonisation of Mars, nor did it strive to create a new alphabet or a tonal system. Nevertheless, and quite accidentally, it became an immensely far-reaching monster, whom its select audience learned to trust with no reservations. If it had not been for Record Singers, and if I had not been tricked into taking a seat in its pushchair, I would not be standing here in front of you today. I have received art education, of course, and I have even been awarded degrees. But I received my true art education in the primitive wandering school that was Record Singers. The group consisted of a scrappy bunch of people who used to gather around Outi Heiskanen, either in her home or a public establishment where you could get a drink of nice, rich hot chocolate. All of us in the group had their own agendas. Outi Heiskanen always wanted to sleep in a public place. Mirja Airas joined the group in the hope that we could find her a spouse and a father to her children, which she had desired for so long. I joined the group because I wanted to finally gain control of the children’s room that I never had when I was young. I think that the only person who took part in the group’s activities with no ulterior motives was Pekka Nevalainen, who always played a bare birch tree but never complained.

We were always working on a strange project, but luckily for all of us, few of them ever came to fruition. But can you imagine that, in addition to all the other wonderful things I experienced, I have had the opportunity to fly on the ceiling of the grandest hall of the Ateneum Art Museum, wearing a glittering garment of my own design, supported by a wench mechanism which I had invented, and singing a collaboratively created piece about the future. Futura! I realise – my esteemed audience – that you may find this kind of nonsense hard to believe today. But neither did I think back then that I would someday stand in front of an audience, reading a text from a piece of paper and wearing clothes which I had not designed and made myself. But I had to do something else. After all, there was no way that I could keep on swinging from the ceiling of the Ateneum.

Despite its name, Record Singers never made a record, and the group disbanded roughly at the same time as Hassisen kone, the rock group that inspired the topic of this speech. In a sense, this was the right thing to do, and after all, the experience left me with legs that are constantly restless, legs that make me want to perform a high jump in Europe, the Americas, Palestine, Israel, at borders which some people are trying to make higher and higher. Feeling concern for those who are on the other side of the border is included in the list of creative acts, at least according to my personal values. The group also provided me with an endless childlike curiosity. People may try to discourage me with phrases like “let the cobbler stick to his last” or “everyone is the master of his own destiny”, but I will not listen to them. I want to dance along the fluctuating boundaries, thinking that their restlessness is not a cause for concern. I also hope that in the future both artistic and geographical borders and boundaries will not be made from stone, concrete, steel or prejudice, but the most flexible substance in the world. Substance whose composition we need to invent ourselves.

Hannu Väisänen
Visual artist and writer