At the northeastern shore of Harakka Island at 5 am in the morning, watching the sky slowly turn red, waiting for the sunrise, freezing in the brisk wind (+ 4 degrees Celsius, but feeling colder) I tried to calm the Canada geese couple nesting nearby, close to the spot were I had placed my a tripod. I waited for sunrise; the official time was 5.17. Impatient I started my camera at ten past five, to have some extra material. And then, to my horror the camera started to warn: change the battery pack. For a moment I considered whether running up to my studio to fetch a new one would be an option, and then decided to wait and see how far the battery would last. And it lasted until 5.16. Fair enough for a start.
This was the beginning of a new experiment, or perhaps I should call it an exercise, Mornings in May (working tittle), that I decided to do now, when I have to opportunity to spend some time here. Most of my work on Harakka Island has been recorded in the afternoons or evenings. The Year of the Rat, for instance, was documented once a week before sunset, and Year of the Rabbit in the afternoon at three o’clock. Now I decided to focus on the mornings, but only for one month, at least to begin with, the month of May. In May the sun rises early in the south of Finland, earlier every day until midsummer and the first of May or May Day, which is a carnival here, is a good day to start.
Early spring is a beautiful time out at sea, when everything changes slowly at first, because the sea is still cold, and then bursts into bloom. Especially the old bird cherries here are amazing when flowering at the end of May. From the spot I finally chose at the shore you cannot see them, though; I wanted to have a clear view of the sky and the sea, and no foliage to hide the view later this month. The bare branches in the image are of small aspen, I think, more slow to grow than the birches, which have tiny leaves already. The aspen, too, will have big leaves soon.
I am not sure if I can make an image every morning, since I have some trips to do, but my aim is to have enough mornings to see how the spot where the sun rises moves towards northeast. It is actually rather hard to determine where exactly the sun rises, and ordinary calendars indicate only the exact time at each location. There were some clouds on the horizon this morning, but I think the sun was a little to the right in the image. That means it has space to move to the left, towards northeast.
The outcomes of the Year of the Snake can now be viewed in my solo show at Muu gallery 3–25 May 2014 and in the group exhibition Vesikuvia [Water images] organised by Harakka ry 30 May – 19 June 2014. A taste of what is to come you can have from a miniature video Year of the Snake –Swinging (mini).
What do we see in the image? The movement of the swing catches attention and the swinger, someone like us, will perhaps awake our interest. The assemblage of a swing, a tree, a scarf and a swinger can be looked at as an homage to the swing, a small machine that enables a piece of wood and two plastic ropes tied to the branch of a tree to enable movement. What about the tree? A small aspen provided the setting and support for a swing, and showed in its foliage the shifting seasons and weather, without receiving credit for this enforced contribution. This type of hierarchical and utilitarian approach is illustrative of our relationship to vegetation. It also shows, however, in a very literal sense, our complete dependence on plants.
During the year of the snake, beginning with the Chinese New Year on February 10 in 2013, I fastened a small blue swing into an aspen that grows on the western shore of Harakka Island, next to the remains of the stone base of an old sauna. More or less once a week, I videoed myself swinging, wearing a light blue scarf, while keeping the position of the camera on a tripod and the framing of the image as constant as possible. On the same occasions I also sat next to the stub of another aspen that once grew nearby ¬– it used to be possible to fasten a hammock between them – looking out at sea with my back to the camera. And in another image I sat on a small pile of rocks looking at the expanding Helsinki harbour on the opposite shore. Thus I tried to produce “souvenirs” of what the landscape looked like during this year on the northern shore of the Finnish Bay.
“Year of the Snake Swinging” is the last part in a series of twelve one-year projects performed for the camera on the same island, exploring the question how to perform landscape today. The series, which I began in 2002, is based on the Chinese calendar and its cycle of twelve years, with each year named after a specific animal. This way of working is based on the traditions of performance art, video art and environmental art, moving in the borderland between them. Each year I have chosen a new perspective on the landscape, a new aspect of the environment and a new kind of relationship between my body and the place.
This year I focused on the movement of a small swing, a manmade element added to the landscape. Although a swing can be an impressive sculptural element, as in the works of Monica Sand, for instance, this swing is on a child’s scale. The aspen on the shore is small of stature as well. It carried without problems, however, the weight of all visitors. I experimented with sharing the experience of swinging and changing the performer in the image, by inviting colleagues from the island as well as temporary visitors to swing for a while. These performances I documented on video and in a tri-lingual blog, adding a still image from each performance, either of the visitor or of myself, to each blog note. Sharing an activity like swinging, I chose in order to end the series, with its focus on showing the passing of time, on a more light-hearted note. I took the swing with me on my travels, too, and tied it to trees growing on various shores.
A short visit to a windy Harakka Island for the April session of the remake of the Year of the Horse revealed a familiar landscape. The surroundings looked almost the same as at the end of March, with one audible difference, the birds had arrived. Not only were the sea gulls sitting in pairs on the cliffs, screaming every now and then of the sheer joy of spring, I guess, but two geese couples were strutting on the slopes of the old fortifications, trying to find something green to eat among the dry grass of last year. Now they are relatively calm, but soon, when more of them have arrived and started nesting, standing on the path on the hill will feel like a dangerous adventure; the birds will be fiercely protecting their territories from intruders, and humans make no exceptions. The wind felt extremely cold and I was reminded of the fact that spring is always late by the sea. When the birches have leaves in the parks of the city, the ones on the island are still struggling to overcome the stiffness of winter.
I am reading Karen Barad’s important (and partly quite incomprehensible) book with the beautiful title Meeting the Universe Halfway – quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning (Duke University Press 2007) trying to understand what agential realism might mean in practice. Building further on the explorations of Foucault and Butler she maintains that the forces at work in the materialization of bodies are not only social and the materialized bodies are not all human, which makes sense of course. “According to agential realism, causality is neither a matter of strict determinism nor one of free will” she writes, “intra-actions iteratively reconfigure what is possible and what is impossible – possibilities do not sit still.” (p 234) She explains: “The world’s effervescence, its exuberant creativeness can never be contained or suspended. Agency never ends; it can never ‘run out’. The notion of intra-action reformulates the traditional notions of causality and agency in an ongoing reconfiguring of both the real and the possible.” (p 235) She emphasizes that agency is a matter of intra-acting, an enactment rather than something somebody or something has. “Particular possibilities for (intra-) acting exist at every moment” and they “entail an ethical obligation to intra-act responsively in the world’s becoming, to contest and rework what matters and what is excluded from mattering.” (ibid.)
Fine, I can agree with that. And I like the notion of intra-action, instead of interaction, which assumes that the entities interacting pre-exist the interaction, while intra-action suggests that bodies or agents or subjects are created through intra-actions. But in practice, despite my attempts at improving our intra-action, I still dislike the geese, for example, or rather their behaviour, based on previous experiences, and I anticipate many minor conflicts during the coming months. And to be honest, I am not so fond of the wind either, because the waves are scary while rowing in a small boat and cannot help having a preconceived idea of a causal relationship between the wind and the waves. So actually only intra-action with the grass seems unproblematic to me at the moment, and there is not much grass on the island at this time of year. Well, at least I could try to (intra-) act responsibly, I guess, and finish the book first, before complaining that I do not understand it. Especially since I have a feeling that Barad’s ideas are really important, so I will keep struggling…
As part of the ArsBioarctica Residency at the Helsinki University Biological Station in Kilpisjärvi, organised by the bio art society, I am writing some working notes on their blog, here. In the following I summarize only some of my experiences, briefly.
When I prepared for this visit I planned to create a video work documenting a day and a night, in the same manner as I have done on Harakka Island, in connection with the series “Animal Years” (see days and nights). While arriving here in the afternoon April 2, I realized I might have to revise my plans due to the amount of snow. I could not move freely in deep snow and would have to find a place near the house. I learned to use snowshoes and even tried skiing yesterday, but nevertheless opted for an easier solution. Why stay up all night when everything interesting happens at daytime? Documenting a day and night would be more fascinating when the sun stays up all night in the summer.
There is plenty of light already, however; the days are long. Today, for instance, the sun rose 25 minutes past 6 in the morning and sets 5 minutes to 9 in the evening. Most of the interesting changes that take place are caused by the weather, which can change in an instant, like on the Atlantic coast, where the clouds roll in and bring rain every other moment. We are only 50 kilometers from the Arctic Ocean, on the Norwegian side, and that makes the weather unpredictable. The altitude is less than 500 meters in the valley, although they call this the only mountain village in Finland, since the surrounding mountains, the fells, are high. Saana is officially 1029 meters and Malla Fell, in the North, is 942m or 738m; there are two of them. The geographical coordinates of this place, the village of Kilpisjärvi, are 20.4 degrees East and 69 degrees North. That is rather far up north, really. The amount of snow is exceptional this year, they say, at the moment 150 centimeters.
My first attempt was to video Malla Fell across the frozen lake towards north, from a spot on the shore, every two hours. I tried that on Thursday 3 April from 2 pm onwards and the changes were fascinating, so I decided to make a full day, from 8 am to 8 pm the following day, on the 4th. That day, however, the weather was more constant, and more bad, too. Grey skies, snowfall, bad visibility. The small changes in the landscape were nevertheless interesting and I made an image every two hours from the same spot, leaving my tripod by the shore in order to maintain the same framing easier. During the last session the snowfall was so heavy that I missed the framing, somewhat. In any case I have now one hour, that is, one tape (I still record on DV tapes, because of my old camera, and because I like to archive them) of material and will probably edit it into a five or ten minute piece.
Although Malla Fell is the protagonist, I am figuring as a tiny dot on the ice as well. The first time I walked out on the ice it seemed like walking very far, so I stopped and stood there, leaving my footprints in the snow, to find the same place during next session again. Later ski tracks and the tracks of snow mobiles crossed here an there around the place, and I realised it was very close to the shore. By that time I could no longer change the spot, of course, but returned to my first footprints in the snow. As it turned out I had placed myself fairly centrally in the image, almost too centrally for the composition. So in the last image, where I again returned to the same spot, but where I had missed the framing slightly, my position thus moving further to the right in the image was actually more interesting, although clearly “wrong” compared to the rest of the series.
There is still time to make some more attempts, and if the weather becomes clearer I would like to try to find a spot further up on the slope, with a slightly different view of the area, and make a series from there. But how could I find another action to accompany the landscape, instead of standing still in it with my scarf? Sitting in the snow? Lying in the snow? Walking into the landscape and slowly disappearing in the snow? I can only try…
As it turned out I made a new attempt very near the place of the first attempt, starting 7 am in the morning and finishing 9 pm in the evening, videoing the material for something I now call “A Day with Malla”. When it is edited, I will add a link here.
My attempt at re-creating “Year of the Horse” (2002) on Harakka Island in 2014, albeit once a month rather than once a week, was almost stranded before it started due to unlucky circumstances. During my first session, in the first days och February, snow covered the island and most of the sea as well. The winter was exceptionally short this year, and the ice soon turned unreliable to walk on or impossible to row through. At mid March when the sea was finally open for boats, I was away travelling. In order to continue this “calendar” I finally made it to the island at the end of March. The jump between the first two images, however, is almost two months rather than one month. Now there was no more snow in sight, if you really looked for it you could find a few remains by the rocks on the northern shore. The first sound of birds filled the air and the sun felt warm, like spring.
Speaking of re-creations, I read Kirsten Pullen’s article “If Ya liked it Then You Shoulda Made a Video Beyoncé Knowles, Youtube and the public sphere of images” (in Performance Research vol. 16:2, 2011, 145-153) made available free online to celebrate the World Theatre Day. She is discussing the many professional and amateur recreations of Beyoncés “Single Ladies” on Youtube, viewed by millions, as well as the material that inspired the piece in the first place. She suggests that performance studies scholars should not only use youtube for examples in teaching, as consumers, but to participate as producers, too. I vaguely remember reluctantly participating in her “Psingle Ladies” at PSi # 16, from the back row, though, and that is not the version that has attracted the milloins. Obviously there are re-creations and re-creations.
Beyond re-creation there is the repetition. Repetition and variation are relevant for artistic research as well, as Mark Fleishman writes in his article “The Difference of Performance as Research” (in Theatre Research International vol.37. Iss.1. March 2012, 28-37). For Fleishman performance-as-research “is a process of creative evolution. It is not progressivist, building towards a finality; nor is it mechanistic in the sense that it knows what it is searching for before it begins searching. It begins with energy … that is then channelled, durationally, through repetition, in variable and indeterminable directions … It expresses itself through a repeated, though flexible and open-ended, process of ontogenesis.” (Fleshman 2012, 34) He suggests that repetition is a way of slowing down in order to see the differences, in order to feel and live the intervals between the stable points of action. Well yes, I completely agree. My work is all about repetition. It is as if repeating things is the only way to become aware what actually takes place. But what about this kind of obsessive returning to old works, old places, old strategies for performing landscape? What actually is the difference? Is there a difference that matters? – At the moment I do not know…
Faro Maspalomas is a classic tourist resort on the south coast of Gran Canaria, next to the phantasmagoric dunes which spread out between Maspalomas and Playa del Inglés. I visited the place for the first time in 2007, during Christmas time, while staying in Puerto Rico further on the coast, and searching for interesting environments to perform for camera. The dunes at Maspalomas were an ideal place to work in, at least compared to the environment around Puerto Rico, and I spent a few days with my camera on the dunes. – This visit, six years later, happened coincidentally; I booked a trip to Gran Canaria without knowing where I would end, wanting to escape the renovation going on in my house. And so it happened that I now stay much closer to those same dunes.
On my first visit, during the year of the pig, I had with me the grey woollen scarf, which I used in all images during that year, and the grey pebbles in between the dunes in some places corresponded to its colour. Back then I used my customary technique; with the camera on tripod, I chose the framing of the image and the site where I tried to place myself, turned on the camera and walked into the landscape, stayed for a while, returned and turned off the camera. While editing I usually remove the movement in the beginning and at the end. At that time, while I was looking at the material I realised that the movement away from and back towards the camera really showed the proportions of the dunes. Thus I edited two versions of the work, one with stillness only, and another one with the movement included. In the exhibition on Harakka Island called Year of the Pig I showed them both, first the static one with the silent figure sitting immobile among the dunes, and then the real-time version, where the construction of the images was made apparent by the action of going and returning. Later I even wrote an article comparing these two approaches in terms of reflexivity. An English version is included in the collection Performing Landscape – Notes on site-specific work and artistic research in 2011, in chapter 9.2. “Notes in Sand – Landscape, Movement and the Moving Image” (pp. 254-264) and it is available online, here.
Today I am in Maspalomas again, without a scarf, and with no pressure to create any images. Or rather, with the pressure of creating some other kind of images. And I do have a scarf with me, although an ordinary one. I thought about it on the plane and realized that I could use a dark blue skirt and a thin dark blue silk scarf as my costume if I would like to experiment with something. And I actually did. The experience was rather confusing, though. I thought the dark blue might make a good contrast to the yellow dunes, and it did. But the long dress and the scarf whirling in the wind also made the image absurdly romantic, gothic and pathetic. I experimented with walking into the landscape and disappearing behind the dunes, but it looked rather awkward. Then I tried climbing up the steep slopes, and stopped midway when the effort was too much for me, and then just stood there, with my feet in the sand. This felt somehow meaningful, watching the sand slowly glide down the slope as a result of my movements and letting the wind do the job of moving my skirt and scarf. It felt dramatic, since it took some effort to remain immobile on the slope. Unfortunately the images did not look very interesting or beautiful. A small dark figure among the dunes was nice as an idea, but not so fascinating as an image. For the effort and movement to have some impact the camera should have been much closer. But then again the landscape would disappear into the background. At the moment I do not know what to do, but I will make a few more trials. Right now I am much more interested in the pieces of rubbish thrown in among the bushes or in the sand. As always I do first and think afterwards, or perhaps it is more fair to say that I let my unconscious self do the thinking.
Images from the video Sitting in Sand (2008) See video work
Some details from my attempts today:
A few words the following day: I think I succeeded in making some possibly usable images today, here…
Witches’ Brooms are peculiar outgrowths caused by the fungus Taphrina Betulina that grow on some birch trees. One such specimen I worked with on several occasions during the years 2006 to 2008, wearing it on my back as something resembling weird wings in performances for camera as well as live. At the moment I am writing an article for the new online journal Ruukku – Studies in Artistic Research about the specific materiality of this kind of entity. I was inspired to reconsider these works after reading the book Plant-thinking by Michael Marder (2013), where he analyses the way western philosophers have understood the special characteristics of plant life and proposes notions like vegetal democracy. With all his admiration and respect for the dispersed and divisible, participatory existence of vegetation, he in a strange way forgets the crucial role plants play through their photosynthesis in producing conditions for all forms of life on this planet. Plants are the real creators of our world.
The Witches’ Broom is not a plant though, but the result of a plant disease, that resembles and exaggerates the forms of ordinary twigs. And it does not engage in photosynthesis; even when alive, growing on a birch tree, the twigs of the outgrowth remain without leaves. Thus this entity is a form of parasite, living on the tree and of the tree, but somehow indistinguishable from it, causing a decorative deformation on it. Now, hanging on my wall, or lying on a table, as in the image, this tussock produced by the fungus and the birch in collaboration, as it were, has a strange materiality. I guess it is no longer alive, or perhaps it is alive in the same way as a piece of wood is. Despite the capacity of some plants to start growing from a branch, I would not expect a birch tree growing out of that heap of twigs. But is the fungus still alive? Could it move over to another birch and start growing there?
While performing with the Witches’ Broom and fastening it on my back with rubber band, I never thought of it as a living thing, any more than I would consider a branch of a tree living, although strictly speaking it probably is alive. But in an other sense this entity had a life of its own, since it became a decorative deformation on me instead of on the birch, albeit temporarily. While performing with it I could take turns with it, sometimes carrying it on my back, sometimes leaving it on a podium alone, with small earphones spreading out. Through them you could hear a one-minute long spell or incantation, whispered in Finnish, Swedish and English, spoken by me, a description of the knotty lump, but somehow also as if the heap of sticks could speak for itself.
What interests me with these works is not only the specific materiality of the Witches’ Broom combined with the materiality of digital video or recorded sound, and not merely the idea of working with an element of the landscape, a detail, a representative of the environment, but also the idea of variation as a method. I created new combinations of these elements in performances and installations, and also made new performances for camera with the Witches’ Broom to use in new versions of the work.
But now I am writing about the work here, instead of working on the article I am supposed to be writing! Perhaps this is enough, so I willonly add two images, video stills, to illustrate these variations. The first one was made for the live performance in the Amorph! festival in Helsinki 2006 and the second was made for for a durational performance at Esitystaidehalli (performance kunsthalle) in 2008.
When I first took an interest in recording the changes taking place in the landscape by returning regularly to the same place and placing my video camera on a tripod in the same spot, attempting to keep the same framing and entering the image in the same position, I worked for a few weeks, sometimes twice a day. To focus on the seasonal changes rather than changes in light and weather, and thus more specifically on time, I decided to record one full year, approximately once a week. And I chose the easiest place possible, the stairs on the slope towards southwest just outside my studio on Harakka Island, off Helsinki. And to have some tension in the image, I chose two positions, one very close to the camera, hiding half of the view with my shoulder, and another further away in the landscape, sitting on a rounded boulder next to the path. This was actually an exaggeration of the two different versions in a work called Windrail II, where I explored the difference between guiding the viewers gaze into the landscape or posing as the central figure embedded in the landscape. In this exaggerated version the human figure is literally blocking the view.
This was way back in 2002, twelve years ago. To return to the same place after twelve years would certainly be more dramatic were I not walking on that same path almost on a weekly basis. To try to recreate a version of the first year, as a monthly calendar only, is actually I way of softening the shock of coming to the end of this project which has occupied me fairly regularly for these twelve years. It is also a way of closing the cycle, as it were. So today, in brilliant sunshine, I decided the moment was right for creating the February image. I remember the first image of the Year of the Horse, with the sun sending two dazzling swords to hit the snowy ground. By the time I stood in front of the camera the sky was cloudy and a soft pinkish hue was colouring the sky although there were several hours to go before sunset. Of course my camera was different, too, originally I used simple DV and a 4:3 image, while I now work with HD and a 9:16 image. The dark blue scarf was the same, and so was the rock I was sitting on. The only notable difference in the landscape is the small windmill, fastened with wires to the ground, and I deliberately framed the image to include a part of it, to show some change. I remember being very unhappy for the framing of the original image later in the year, since the rail of the wooden stairs is visible in a monitor, although the camera screen would not show it. So this time I was careful to leave the horizon lower, to be on the safe side.
The technique of showing an old photo and then a contemporary picture of the same place is often used. Today there were some images in Helsingin Sanomat, the main newspaper, to commemorate the bombing of Helsinki on February 6 in 1944. Next to the black and white image of a ruined house was a colour image of the contemporary view with a new building from the fifties or sixties in its place. Compared to these dramatic demonstrations of time, my documentation of changes in the landscape is modest indeed. Even the trees on the cliffs seem to have grown very little. They grow slowly in the wind on the dry cliffs, I guess.
To celebrate the Chinese New Year of the Horse, and especially the end of the year of the snake I write a few lines here, although this site is still under construction. By the end of the year of the snake my twelve-year project of performing landscape came to an end. The last part of the project called Year of the Snake Swinging is documented in a blog, which you can find here. http://aa-yearofthesnake.blogspot.fi That blog ended with the year of the snake, but the works. performances for camera on the western shore of Harakka island, will be shown this May in gallery Muu in Helsinki. More about that later, but for now it is worth simply stating that it is about time to do something else….
This page is under construction, please be patient, I will come up with something soon…