(scroll down for bio)
I am on Suomenlinna Island in Finland right now, doing a curatorial residency at Helsinki International Art Programme supported by HIAP and FRAME Contemporary Art Finland. The island is a short ride from Market Square in Helsinki and this is a daily commute for the people who live on the island, often across the foggy Baltic Sea. it’s an interesting commute.
There are hardly any vehicles on the island, except for bicycles, and trolleys are needed to get luggage across the cobbled streets of this ancient fortress island. Here is Miina, from HIAP waiting to welcome me with the residency trolley.
On the first morning of my residency I explore this mysterious foggy Island, and its fortified remnants of many conflicts over Finland’s territory.
Straight into my residency I am taking part in the Radical Relevances conference at Aalto University, organised by artist Pia Lindman. This is a an extraordinary gathering of artists, environmentalists, biologists, geographers, anthropologists and activists. One of the themes is the non-human, and appropriately the first workshop is given by a horse, Finnhorse Kristoffer, with his human collaborator, Riika Latva-Somppi
Performance artist Kira O’Reilly looks on – she is here in Finland running an MA in Ecology and Contemporary Performance (MEACP) at Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts in Helsinki. Her recent book Untitled (Bodies) has an essay by me on her work – Falling Asleep with a Pig. I am here to give my presentation Bicycling on Mars – Thoughts on the Future of Transportation, first given at Mobile Utopia in Lancaster and also appearing as a visual essay in Makery.info here
I’m in a panel called Hybrid Ontologies and quite appropriately I am speaking alongside the Department of Seaweed, a project by Julia Lohhman. She set up this as a playful intervention intervention into the museum structure at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The conference is quite an informal setting. On the last day, we abandoned the formal conference routines and made a collective performance led by artist duskin drum. You can see tweets from the conference here.
At the conference there was also an update on the ongoing trans-European Frontiers in Retreat project, given by Taru Elfving, artist Bartaku and others.You can read a review of the conference in Makery.info just pubished in French here. Click on EN for English.
While in the conference I also visited the brand new Biofilia Lab – Base for Biological Arts – the first dedicated and equipped biological art lab in an art school. Here Lab Manager Marika Hellman (left) is showing conference participants including artist Margherita Pevere (centre) some genetically- modifed tobacco being analysed by schoolchildren.
There was some interesting reading material lying around the lab which gave some idea of its antecedents.
Unconnected to Biofilia, but also extremely active in Helsinki, is the Finnish Bioart Society, director Erich Berger, who was also at Radical Relevances, and who I will meet later on in my residency. I attended one of their workshops after the conference where they are out on a nearby lake, collecting biological materials to construct a Winogradsky Column from pond mud and other materials, led by Kira O’Reilly. It was a beautiful day to be out and about, despite the cold wind which persists here in Finland.
Back in the lab they are mixing a witches brew of micro-organisms that they hope will become active while not smelling too much.
On the way back from the lake we encountered this extraordinary Wendy house in the grounds of a writers residency.
A few days ago it was VAPPU, the uniquely Finnish celebration of the day before Mayday, when everyone wears these white student caps and goes a bit wild. Here are some revellers on artist Tapio Makela’s sea-club boat, Merikerho on Vappu night.
Listen to My Techno Weighs a Ton, playing at Merikhero here
Just behind the club is one of the two coal-fired power stations here in Helsinki, with an enormous pile of coal. Normally these places are outside cities but here they are right downtown.
This inspired the artist group HeHe to famously project a responsive green laser beam on the Salisaari power station’s emissions, varying according to Helsinki’s power consumption, exactly 10 years before my visit, during the 2008 Pixelache festival, also curated by Juha Huuskonen, in Green Cloud or Nuage Vert
There are many interesting artists here right now. Rintaro Hara (below), another HIAP resident, has just closed his exhibition ‘Ascending and Descending’, which features small spheres, a bit like planets, circulating the gallery powered simply by gravity, at Forum Box Gallery. You can see the video here.
I also met Axel Straschnoy, an artist from Buenos Aires based here, who showed me his attempt to meet the challenge of designing performance art by robots for robots. He is currently collaborating with a group of Finnish Amateur Rocketeers
Minna Langstrom showed me rushes of her new film about Mars Rover drivers and the way in which imagery of the Mars landscape challenges our thinking not only about photography but also the way in which our human senses are extended into the spacecraft and rovers operating on another planet, through the personal viewpoint of a rover driver Vandi Verma (below) who helped build and now operates the NASA Curiosity rover.
First time to the beautiful Kiasma building, where everyone has told me I should see Karel Koplimets’ ‘Case No. 13. Waiting For The Ship Of Empties’, an Estonian artist who collected cut-price Estonian beer cans via social media to construct a catamaran and sail them back to Estonia. It’s a great idea, although it’s a pity such a dynamic project is reduced to a static museum object. It’s part of a selection of recent works from the Baltic called There and Back Again.
This is just two doors down from my studio here in Suomenlinna!
It’s an indoor growing lab by Raimo Saarinen, who is doing a one-year residency at HIAP. He is growing these extraordinary and enormous suspended plants which can be seen along with their entire root structure. When I ask him how he does this he shows me the large mould in which he starts these plants growth, which he keeps at the entrance to his studio.
Back on the mainland, in the Cable Factory, I visit another HIAP artist Sejin Kim, from S. Korea whose ‘Night Worker’ focuses on the hidden lives of city dwellers and labour. It is an interesting co-incidence that her studio is facing the actual power station chimneys used by HeHe in ‘Green Cloud’. Here, she is making a new work about nomadic Sami people whose traditional tent-pitching places are being attacked by local authorities, even to the extent of setting them on fire.
Helsinki, traditionally isolated, has now become an important crossroads between Europe and Asia. Passing through town is Taiwanese curator Hung-Fei Wu, founder and curator of Nature More, ‘an enquiry into the intersections of art and ecology’. the title taken from the Byron poem ‘I love not Man but Nature more’. We have an interesting conversation about Taiwan, the work of Nature More, the exhibition I curated there (see bio below) and the Bamboo Curtain project.
Titanik Gallery, on the River Aura
Off to Turku to meet curators, artists and investigate the River Aura. First stop Titanik Gallery to see the exhibition, including enormous heavy pillars of salt by Kristina Sedlerova, and meet newly-appointed Director Elina Suoyrjo who has also been a visiting curator at HIAP, and hear about the gallery’s future plans. Later I meet artist in residence Denton Fredrikson and we discuss Cixin Lui’s Three Body Problem trilogy, which we have both read, him during a recent residency in Shanghai. Then off up the river to check out some kayaks for a performance with Leena Kela, artist (below left) who is doing a one woman, one year daily ‘protest’ performance project as well being Director of New Turku Performance and running an artists residency programme.
We go to meet Kari Immonen, Director of Turku Art Museum, an extraordinary ‘National Romantic’ edifice on a hill. It’s an unusually warm day in Turku, when used to the cold winds of Helsinki.
As well as having a great conversation about artist-sailors in Finland, the very-helpful Kari directs us to the difficult-to-find Turku Rowing Club, on the Baltic Sea. Visiting rowing clubs and thinking about how to combine art and rowing is one of my missions here so I am very happy to find this place.
Here, we encounter the very different world of rowing clubs and speak to a rower who has just come in from a beautiful scull on an almost mirror-smooth Baltic sea. I realise, only now, that there is no tide in the Baltic! I have been travelling on it every day, and never noticed. There are 3 rowing clubs in one here, I am hoping to come back and scull with one of them.
We go and look at a potential place for a performance on the River Aura and travel backwards and forwards discussing logistics on this amazing hundred-year old city ferry, a symbol of Turku, which used to carry dock workers back and forth.
A great visit and thanks to all my friends and new friends in Turku.
Off to Vitvy to visit Tapio Makela and his upcoming Future Lake Residency on this lake. This will be a unique interdisciplinary international research residency and probably one of the few to be founded by an active artist.
Residents will have an entire forest and lake to interact with. I hope to be able to row some kind of vehicle, maybe a locally sourced single scull, sometime in the future, or even build an new purpose-built vehicle with local boatbuilders. Time to get my proposal in!
Tapio (below) recently bought this amazingly vast former old peoples home from the municipality at a reduced price. It could host 20- 30 artists or a mini-conference, when the work (and there is a lot) is finished on the project.
Back in the Helsinki area I seek out the second ever Futuro House, designed by Matti Suuronen, to be built, hiding behind EMMA, the Espoo Museum of Modern Art. It was closed to the public the day I visited, so I had to clamber down the hillside behind the museum to get this shot. This Futuro house opened the day before I leave, so you can now visit it here.
Out to visit the studio of Antti Laitinen, the inspirational Finnish artist famous for a number of things including living in a forest naked bringing nothing and trying to survive for 4 days, eating and clothing himself only with natural found materials. He’s also famous for ‘It’s My island’ and ‘Voyage’ where he rowed his own island, complete with palm tree, across the Baltic and even up the River Thames in London.
Here is one of his ‘Broken Landscapes’ on the land out of the back of his studio.
Here is an unfinished work in his garden, experimenting with forced growth of plants.
Later we swim in a local lake. It’s my first dip in Finnish water and pretty cold temperatures, but I survive. It’s good to be close to the water.
So what am I doing here? I’m researching and thinking about a new exhibition/event/research project, codenamed ‘Close to the Water’ trying to process the multiplicity of artists floating projects – artists working on the water and building boats, rafts, rowing and sailing – and form some sort of coherent strategy for a future where rising water levels and moving populations will quite likely dominate the way we live. I have written a visual essay for Makery. info called ‘Artists On The Water’ here. Hopefully the point of such a residency is to question previous thinking on the subject and similar to my previous picture from Biofilia, here are a selection of books I am reading and re-reading, piled up in my studio overlooking the Baltic sea. Thanks to Juha Huuskonen and his team from HIAP and Taru Elfving from Frame for getting me here…
Thanks also to Jaakko Nousianen of the Finnish institute in London for his advice in advance of my visit.
Bye bye Suomenlinna and Helsinki! Looking forward to coming back soon…
Opening of No Such Thing As Gravity, National Taiwan Museum of Fine Art, Taiwan
Rob La Frenais is an independent contemporary art curator, working internationally and creatively with artists entirely on original commissions. He believes in being directly engaged with the artist’s working process as far as possible, while actively widening the context within which the artist can work.
From 1997 for 17 years he was based at The Arts Catalyst where he developed an ambitious artistic programme and was responsible for some of the most innovative art and science exhibitions and events in the world. His last major exhibition with The Arts Catalyst, Republic of the Moon, happened in 2013-14 at FACT and London’s South Bank. Since leaving The Arts Catalyst he has curated several major projects and his recent work can be seen in Current Projects above.
Tania Candiani’s sound sculpture for listening – Exoplanet Lot 2016. Photo Yohann Gozard.
Before becoming a curator in 1987 he founded and edited the influential contemporary cultural journal Performance Magazine in 1979, editing and writing criticism internationally during the eighties. He is currently developing a contemporary project and website about Performance Magazine with Live Art Development Agency.
He was also the first curator ever to experience zero gravity, with a group of artists, at Star City in Moscow in 1999 and went on, with the Arts Catalyst to enable around 50 artists (and scientists) to work in an environment previously only experienced by astronauts and space scientists.
In White Sands Desert launching Thomas Saraceno’s ‘Aerocene’, the first human solar balloon. See the video here
His recent exhibitions as an independent curator (2014-16) include: Aerosolar/Space Without Rockets and ‘Aerocene’ by Tomas Saraceno at the Rubin Center, University of Texas at El Paso and White Sands Desert, New Mexico, When the Future was About Fracking, Centrespace at Dundee Contemporary Arts, and Exoplanet Lot, Maison Des Arts Georges Pompidou, France and sites thoughout the Lot Valley, SW France.
He is a visiting fellow of Bournemouth University, visiting curator at the Maison Des Arts Georges Pompidou, Cajarc, France and visiting curator at FACT Liverpool. He runs the 3-year Future of Transportation project at Srishti Institute, Bangalore. He is a regular writer for Art Monthly, UK and Makery.info. France.
HeHe’s ‘Centipede’ running on the railway line between Cahors and Cajarc in ‘Exoplanet Lot’ 2016.
His last major exhibition ‘No Such Thing As Gravity, opened at FACT Liverpool in November 2016 and toured to the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Art where it will ran until June 2017.
Still from ‘Time You Need’ by Sarah Sparkes who made a new work for ‘No Such Thing as Gravity’
The magazine Rob founded in 1979 and edited until 1987, Performance Magazine, has launched online. Read all the back issues, read the essays and see four films about the magazine here: