Marja-Liisa Honkasalo

Cultural researcher

What I’m looking for during my time at the Saari Residence is the space and the peace to work on the core themes of my research. I am trying to find links between the questions that have arisen and developed over the course of my most recent work.

I have studied experiences that are at the borderlines of scientific research and that elude scientific verbalisation, such as pain and symptoms, as well as uncanny, strange experiences that defy everyday understanding. Perhaps my main finding has been that I can’t get very far by scientific means alone. Scientific methods are not sufficient; we also need artistic means and dialogue between the arts and scientific research. This may also help both sectors to learn to understand themselves better.

In our project funded by Kone Foundation, ‘The Body and the Other’, the group of artists and researchers involved have defined the uncanny as a lived impossibility. As a phenomenon and experience, the uncanny we talk about refers to sensory experiences, such as prescience, hearing voices without a visible source, encountering a deceased person or a doppelgänger, or seeing visions. Our definition of the uncanny refers not only to an experience, but also the possibility of studying the impossible. In short, the uncanny is the object of research and the impetus for research and artistic work, as well as the methodical prism through which we can ask, in what way is the obscure, the alien, the heterogeneous a way of knowing? What about the body; how is the body in its uncanniness the Other and at the same time in a relationship with the world? These are socially burning and topical questions and relate to our ideas about the limits of knowledge. They lead to a reassessment of knowledge through corporeal processes which cannot be accurately defined, yet which change our experience and relationship with reality and what we can hold to be true. They also reflect a widely expressed dissatisfaction with the cultural categorisation used in research between normal and pathological, and the control of people and groups stemming from it.

In art, uncanny and alien issues are treated as part of the artistic process. This requires focusing on the interface between science and art, on the exact qualities that science and art share and the qualities they find odd in each other. Working together with artists is vital to me, because a different way of knowing comes from the tension between making art and scientific research.

Another reason that makes working at Saari Residence important to me is working with sound artists and performance artists. Performance art is closest to ethnography, the research method I use as an anthropologist. Participating in performance art has taught me how, as a researcher, I can step into the territory of the non-verbalised and, surprisingly, still operate on the methodical logic I have learned in scientific, ethnographic work. This connection is immensely important and I want to go deeper into it. I’m also interested in the uncanny as a multisensory phenomenon: hearing voices without a visible source. In psychiatry, this is still classified as a hallucination or a symptom of a mental illness.

Hearing voices without a source perceived by others has most often been studied as a symptom of mental illness, a delusion or a hallucination. The experiences of the people who hear the voices have rarely been taken into account. However, it’s important to examine the hearing of voices not only as the internal processes of the mind, but also as an auditory, heard and linguistic experience within a soundscape in an intercorporeal space and in the context of social interaction. Cultural factors obviously have a significant impact on how such voices are perceived and interpreted. Anthropologists have highlighted the importance of ethnographic approaches in studying how experiences of hearing voices are interpreted and even generated in various communities. However, in addition to inner speech and linguistic expressions, the voice heard and received by the hearer is specifically an aural phenomenon, an acoustic, auditory and physically resonant experience and event. People have different ways of applying sounds and voices, and acoustic experiences shape the hearer’s relationship with themselves and their surroundings.

There will be artists who work with soundscape at the Saari Residence at the same time with me. In soundscape research, sound is seen as a field that also incorporates the social and historical aspects of the sounds or voices that the person making them or the listener are occupying – I argue that this also applies to the person who is assumed to hear voices only inside their own head.

‘Hearing voices’ is a decidedly nondescript and passive expression for an experience that still remains largely unexplored. As well as hearing, voices are also actively listened to when a person tunes into an auditory space where important connections for interaction are created. Also in their own accounts of such events, hearers describe listening as well as hearing. Experiential issues related to listening are at the core of the research of sound art and music.

On my walks in flood meadows and groves of oak trees, I have come to the conclusion that the way I work is best described by the phrase ‘being receptive’. At Saari Residence, I will strive to be receptive to the works and ideas being birthed by the others and also by myself. To sum up, I will quote psychoanalyst and philosopher Wilfred Bion: I am learning to be adrift – or to tolerate being adrift. This is how meaning can be found if it can be found at all. This is exactly what Saari Residence is giving me a chance to do.


Marja-Liisa Honkasalo is a cultural researcher. In her ethnographic work, she has studied the experience of illness and pain, as well as vulnerability and people’s ability to build social bonds between each other. In recent years, she has focused on experiences at the borders of the mind that are difficult to verbalise in the language of science. She has been in charge of the Academy of Finland’s research project Mind and the Other. Today, she works in the University of Turku’s Department of Clinical Medicine and Kone Foundation’s project at the University of the Arts Helsinki.

Some new publications:

Virtanen, Pirjo & Honkasalo, Marja-Liisa. 2020. “New Practices of Cultural Truth Making: Evidence Work in Negotiations with State Authorities.” Anthropology of Consciousness, 31(1): 63-90.

Honkasalo, Marja-Liisa. 2020. Vieraan outo tuttuus. (The Strange Familiarity of the Familiar, available in Finnish). Psykoanalyyttinen Psykoterapia 8: 16-26.

Honkasalo, Marja-Liisa and Päivinen Teemu. 2020. Eletyn ja esitetyn välissä. (Between the Lived and Performed, available in Finnish). Näyttämö & Tutkimus.  Teatterintutkimuksen vuosikirja 8. (Currently being printed).