Slowness and freedom of research and art at the Helsinki Collegium

We interviewed Taina Riikonen, a sound artist and researcher, and Janne Saarikivi, a linguist, to find out what it is like to work at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies.

We interviewed Taina Riikonen, a sound artist and researcher, and Janne Saarikivi, a linguist, to find out what it is like to work at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. Riikonen, alongside community artist and researcher Lea Kantonen, is the first artist-researcher to be selected for the Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Arts that is funded by Kone Foundation.  Sari Kivistö, Deputy Director of the Collegium, who is in charge of the programme, also describes her experiences of the programme’s first year. The Collegium seems to be a paradise for the researcher and the artist.

Riikonen and Saarikivi sit in opposite rooms at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies discussing matters. “We have plenty of peculiar things to say. We exchange and come up with ideas,” says Saarikivi. Talking to Janne and Taina we discover that the cohabitation of ‘traditional’ researchers and artist-researchers is going better than imagined.

“The Collegium researchers have welcomed us with open arms. We can sense that people are interested. When you spend time at the Collegium you start to question your own activities and thoughts, and your own activities start to feel peculiar in a good way. Working at the Collegium has also changed the way I read research literature,” says Riikonen. “Working in a multidisciplinary community makes you wiser as you get to see other fields at work,” says Saarikivi.

Sari Kivistö, Deputy Director of the Collegium, explains how the artists have involved the Collegium, its researchers and the entire working community in their projects. “Taina’s pieces of sound art have taught us new things about the work of a researcher. For example, she recorded a large group of top researchers chewing gum and browsing through a philosophical book, which I found very strange and intriguing. Lea’s seminar presentation shed light on a whole host of community art in the spring, and we are looking forward to her multilingual performance complete with shamans in December.”

“Artists think differently and Taina has been very open to new ideas. She also seizes my bold ideas,” Saarikivi says describing his colleague at the Collegium. The bold corridor conversations have turned into concrete ideas. For example, the Association of useless information and unnecessary research was created and Free university lecture events were arranged on the first day of the University of Helsinki’s academic year. The first lecture was held on the University’s anniversary on 26 March. In the same spirit, there will be arranged a series of lectures on useless knowledge.

“The idea is to create happiness, friendships and wisdom by holding traditional academic lectures without having to bother about the efficiency and performance rhetoric and all of the struggles related with this,” says Riikonen.

There seems to be plenty of this happiness, friendship and wisdom at the Collegium. “It’s good to actually be here, physically. You get to see and hear new things all the time. Outwardly, the Collegium is not as active as this, so in that way the type of work is a quite traditional and academic, but internally there is a considerable sense of community,” says Saarikivi and continues “Research and society have a rather poor relationship. Information does not reach decision-makers or otherwise enter the world outside the research community to the degree that it should. I consider art to be basically communication as it affects people. However, in the context of research, art is not given the role of purely communicator and messenger,” says Saarikivi.

Kivistö explains that the programme has prompted the Collegium to think about new ways of producing information and new publishing methods, such as publications not in the traditional textual format. “Comparing a researcher’s identity with the work of an artist may also work in a way that reinforces the researcher’s identity. And once again we have learned something new,” says Kivistö. “The artists have not remained as curiosities at the Collegium, as the inquisitiveness flows in many directions. Our researchers have included artistic events into their research symposiums and adopted the dialogue between research and art as a part of their own work. Art and also research aided by art have become a natural part of the way that the researchers at the Collegium study the world,” she explains.

Riikonen also praises the community atmosphere: “In common room discussions you can reflect on your own activities in relation to another person’s research. In the space of one month you might even hear presentations by up to eight different colleagues at lunch seminar events, and these are always followed by lively discussion in the corridors.”

Riikonen and Kantonen are not the first artists at the Collegium. There has been an externally funded doctoral programme in art and two other art programmes led by Kivistö: an author programme and a translator programme. “We have created a focus through these programmes where we seek various forms of dialogue between research and art. My own belief is that this way, we are not only crossing borders but also reinforcing the importance of the humanities by developing their own strengths. I hope that the artists at the Collegium are here to stay,” says Kivistö.

There is also a type of positive slowness at the Collegium. Compared with the two-and-a-half-minute encounters that take place at institutes, encounters at the Collegium are, in Saarikivi’s words, “long and flowing”. “Here there is no pressure to do anything but you can also do everything. You get paid 80% of a professor’s salary but have 0% of a professor’s responsibilities,” says Saarikivi.

“The Collegium produces theoretical laxity,” says Riikonen and continues: “Here they rely on the fact that good things happen when researchers are given freedom to do their work.”

Kivistö’s thoughts are along the same lines: “Art has strengthened the basic idea of our institute: we want to offer freedom and time for thoughts.”


Janne Saarikivi
At the Collegium Janne Saarikivi studies changes in the meanings of words, and semantic typology. He compares the words in different languages that mean, for example, hot and cold and studies the etymology of the words within a larger group of languages, and changes in the meanings. Saarikivi often considers the normal definition of a researcher to be too narrow. He participates actively in social discussions as a columnist and in other ways. Saarikivi has previously worked with artists in the Elävät kylät (Vibrant villages) language revival project, which also received funding from Kone Foundation.


Taina Riikonen
Sound artist and researcher Taina Riikonen was originally a flautist. Alongside her music studies she studied musicology and later defended her doctoral thesis in this subject. Riikonen describes her journey to become a sound practitioner as follows: “After my doctoral degree I carried out ethnographical research on an improvisation group from London who made electroacoustic and acoustic music and they invited me next to them to observe their work. It wasn’t long before I started doing my own experimenting and recording.”

At the Collegium Riikonen is working on a radiophony, a piece of sound art transmitted on radio, which will be presented on Yle 1 in October. Riikonen’s radiophony is an aural interpretation of Michel Foucault’s book, The History of Sexuality.