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Finnish shortcuts

Melinda Burgess—new media tourist in Finland

Melinda Burgess’ research in Finland and attendance at E Polar Circuit was assisted by a Development Grant from the New Media Arts Fund of the Australia Council, and a Conference and Workshop Grant from the Australian Network for Art and Technology. Her site, a.land—voyage around beauty, developed from this research, can be found at http://www.subtle.net/aland

Driving through the postcard perfect Finnish countryside, I was mystified by the profusion of large roadside signage with the Apple Macintosh Command symbol and an arrow pointing down nondescript intersections. Keyboard shortcut this way?

It turns out that this is a Gaelic symbol for heritage and the sign for museum in Finland, which has the highest ratio of museums to citizens in the world. As they also have one of the world’s highest levels of technological advancement, I assumed that digital art would be very well represented in myriad Finnish museums. Not so.

For all its eclectic and funky cultural exports, ranging from the traditional favourite Santa Claus, the explicit adventures of Tom of Finland; Aki Kaurismäki’s legendary Leningrad Cowboys, retro-dysfunctional objects from Bonk, or multimedia pioneer Marita Liulia’s Ambitious Bitch, there is surprisingly little understanding and acceptance of New Media as an art form by the general Finnish public. As in most countries, the older established cultural institutions which do not support new art forms receive the majority of government funding and public and media attention; and with a population of 11 million, there is only a small dedicated national audience for hybrid arts.

Visiting Kiasma, the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, I expected this lack of new media presence would be redressed. The just opened and highly praised steel clad building is one of architectural flows, multilevel spaces, and wall touchscreen information interfaces. Kiasma is impressive, but unfortunately provides few adequate environments to show contemporary digital works—including the 4,000 video and four web works in its collection. The exhibition spaces, designed to be contiguous to encourage contextual viewing of traditional sedentary artforms, ignores the discrete pretext of much new media work which provides its own context and environment.

Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s sensitive multiple screen installation Tanään/Today—in which each character addresses the audience with a narrative that centres around the consequences of the death of her grandfather—could not command the attention it deserved with sound bleeding from installations on either side and a steady flow of visitor traffic wandering through the viewing space. The VRML avatar worlds of Conversations with Angels (http://angels.kiasma.fng.fi - link expired) by Andy Best and Martja Puustinen of meetfactory.com, was not available for viewing at all. This work, also at ISEA in September in the UK, had been presented on individual podium terminals dotted around the galleries but were knocked over and broken when viewers leant heavily on them. I was relieved to find the children’s educational room, with comfortable lounges and sturdy monitors, in which to view classics including Bill Seaman’s Shivers and Eric Lanz’s Manuscript.

The most encouraging arena for presenting hybrid work at Kiasma seems to be over the net. Pertuu Rastas, curator of Media Art, is importing ambitious projects into these ill-planned “walls that speak” having already hosted Triad Netdance, a semiotic convergence of dance, image and new media, which took place in June simultaneously in Helsinki, Tokyo and New York, with the images of dancers performing in each location mixed with electronic backgrounds and fed back onto the net. The updating Hyperdance netsite (http://triad.kiasma.fng.fi - link expired) allows the post-event net viewer (with Netscape 4, RealPlayer and high bandwidth) to move through virtual spaces and re-combine choreographic and audio visual elements of the event. Rastas has a very practical philosophy: if adequate hardspace is not available, build audiences by utilising virtual space.

I spoke at length about the incongruities in the presentation of Finnish media art with artist and critic Tapio Mäkelä at E Polar Circuit, the New Media Conference and Workshop which spans 6 weeks each northern summer at the College of Art and Media and the University of Lapland in north western Finland. According to Mäkelä, Modernism didn’t ever get a chance to die in Finland. One factor contributing to the dismal dynamic in digital art theory and practice is that the educational institutions, which house the majority of sophisticated hard and software, are heavily focused on the practicalities of Design rather than the experimentation and process of Art. Additionally, there is only one Finnish Art print publication which is firmly centred around established practice, resulting in narrowcasting of new media arts. Projects like E.Polar Circuit which he initiated in 1997—involving both international and Finnish artists and students in an environment of healthy feedback, processes, problem solving and collaboration—provide one solution to access equipment and to broaden concepts and networks for hybrid art production.

Both Mäkelä and Rastas, like most people instrumental in new media presentation in Finland, have been extensively involved with Muu Media Base, perhaps the best known independent Finnish cultural organisation. Muu (the other) was formed in 1987 with Avi/Arrki as an artist-run media centre, creating a base for experimental works in the fields of video performance, sound, light, environment and city projects, multimedia and net art. Muu produces groupware for cultural programs, and encourages hybrid projects which attempt to involve a wider art audience, like Mental Metro, an underground railway station event involving performance, dance, video, sound works, net hookups, and a site linked to a similar project in Moscow; and Ambient City Radio, which created interdisciplinary environments where architects constructed works with sound.

Membership of Muu (for the equivalent of $AUD50 per annum) provides access to a Mac lab and net facilities in central Helsinki. Muu also exhibits international work: the gallery show in August incorporated mixed media, installation and performance from Indonesia, and in October, it hosted the 4th Muu Media Festival which was open to international application. Another key organisation in Helsinki is the Nordic Institute of Contemporary Art where curator Kati Åberg (ex-Muu) can quickly orient visiting artists to the Finnish new media scene. NIFCA offers a short, 3 to 4 day international artist residency program at its centre on the fortress island of Somenlinna, 10 minutes ferry ride from the lively city centre.

Outside Helsinki there are few places to access interesting work besides artist-run initiatives like Rajatila in Tampere, and Titanik, located along the canal with a great adjoining cafe, in the ancient Finnish capital Turku. Ars Nova, also in Turku, has a standard range of sedentary work, but included two installation pieces in its Biennaali: a sound installation from Simo Alitalo, and Jan-Erik Andersson’s sculpture incorporating digital imaging and fibre optics. Twelve hundred kilometres north at Inari in the Arctic Circle is the Sami Museum which presents a perspective on Sami culture. The Sami are the original reindeer herders of Lapland, crossing the borders of Norway, Finland and Russia, whose territories and lifestyle, although partially maintained, have been compromised by the settlement and religion from of south. Although the museum is oriented more to passing tourism than critical enquiry, it does have 2 galleries dedicated to traditional and contemporary Sami art and object design.

It is evident that Finnish new media practice suffers from isolation even though geographically close to the larger European centres. The positive attitude and energy within the digital community generates prolific and challenging hybrid works. However, the infrastructure for presentation is still lagging. As in Australia, the obstacle of large geographical distances separating a relatively small population, means that communications networks are vital for this arts sector’s survival and growth. The similarities run deeper, with Finnish government funding policy favouring hybrid and collaborative work, and also recognising the need for international input to diversify new media practice. Independent cultural organisations are situated at the forefront of presentation and promotion and artists themselves are utilising the virtual space of the net as an avenue for exploration, collaboration and accessing new audiences.

Melinda Burgess’ research in Finland and attendance at E Polar Circuit was assisted by a Development Grant from the New Media Arts Fund of the Australia Council, and a Conference and Workshop Grant from the Australian Network for Art and Technology. Her site, a.land—voyage around beauty, developed from this research, can be found at http://www.subtle.net/aland

RealTime issue #28 Dec-Jan 1998 pg. 19

© Melinda Burgess; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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