At the Well blog


HARMAA work group extends the boundaries of philosophy and visual arts

The image is a part of Pauliina Mäkelä’s installation Oculotopia (2022).

Writing in situ, responding to images, polyphony, experimentation days – in addition to its academic endeavours, the HARMAA work group develops different forms of philosophical–artistic expression. Indirect philosophy resists the shouting culture of the post-truth era by making way for personal thought processes and tolerance of uncertainty.


Erika: I initially became interested in non-mainstream forms of philosophy when translating a selection from Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies (1405). This was for a collection of texts by early feminist thinkers, edited by Martina Reuter (Miesvaltaa murtamassa, 2021). It struck me that Christine’s ironic and dialogic style of writing affects the reader very differently from direct argumentation for or against a specific position. Even if Christine had to consider the moral and religious demands of her time, her writing feels incredibly free and funny. As I was translating, I reflected upon the seriousness of academic philosophising and its possibilities to make an impact in the so-called post-truth era.

Around that time, I was also reading Nietzsche, finding his literary experiments intriguing. I was particularly fascinated by his indirect way of influencing the reader. In Thus Spake Zarathustra, the protagonist at times presents ecstatic visions and at other times questions his own claims, laughing at the reader’s desire to take them seriously. Pulling the rug from under the reader’s feet like this, Nietzsche pushes them towards independent thought. This resembles, of course, the basic Socratic point of departure in philosophy. Yet the professional philosophers of our time seem to rarely question the form of doing philosophy. I myself set out to find ways of writing and thinking in which the reader is invited to participate in the movement of thought but is not necessarily given the “right answers”. I named this form of thinking “indirect philosophy” – echoing Kierkegaard’s “indirect communication”. As for the name of the work group, “HARMAA” (“grey” in Finnish), it reflects the space between the “right” and “wrong” and the “black” and “white”. In the beginning of the project, we clarified our thoughts about this space and about our general goals in a manifesto of indirect philosophy

Jaakko: I, too, was interested in something like “indirect philosophy” already before the beginning of our project. These reflections had to do with the themes of writing and literature and with the questions of how we practise philosophy and what we want to express with it. The poet Teemu Manninen once spoke of the idea of the “perfect book”. The perfect book is an ideal towards which we strive, but which changes shape after each completed book. In other words, there is a “whole” that is unsayable and unattainable, but which we nevertheless always and repeatedly seek to say.  Similar ideas about the book and writing that is always developing, building itself up fragment by fragment, and still striving for perfection, can also be found in the history of philosophy, for example in the thinking of Friedrich Schlegel. I am not an expert on Romanticism, but these ideas fascinate me and fit the description of “indirect philosophy”. A philosophical “idea” and its articulation can thus be pursued by combining different registers of language and literary genres. 

Ira: I find it fascinating to work with concrete life situations and people’s stories. In my research I have analysed interviews and diaries as well as drawings and collages, through which women who suffer from chronic pain tell us about their life. The style of my blog posts is inspired by Latin American literature, particularly by the works of Jorge Luis Borges, who skilfully combines philosophical writing with mysterious storytelling. From my perspective, the non-linear temporality and intertwining of textures of experiences are among the most interesting aspects of his works.

Pauliina: I have worked with illustrations, the visual arts and comics for over a decade. I have always found working together with different kinds of people inspiring – it nourishes my creativity. During this project I have frequently thought about Harold Pinter’s 2005 Nobel lecture, in which he said that as a writer he accepts the vacillation of truth and lies but as a citizen he cannot do that. As a citizen one must ask: What is true? What is false? Through art, we can deal with difficult, ambivalent issues and perhaps recognise some hidden thoughts and feelings.

Vacillation and ambiguity are always present in my works: they are finished only in the mind of the viewer. I seek to create images that leave space for wonder. I am inspired by analogically created illusions, transformations and conjuring tricks, which can be found in old-time magic lantern shows. A kind of magic and supernaturalism fascinate me. For some reason I often think about Kafka’s character Odradek whom Jaakko discussed in his blog entry “Hämärä”. I am inspired by Kafka’s ability to create out of an insignificant thing, fluff, such a strong character that it haunts my mind constantly. Here, too, we can see the clash between the real and the imaginary, which functions like a mirror, revealing hidden fears.


Erika: From the very beginning we had the idea to be an experimental group that deals with post-truth issues on the blog. As it happens, the group has been able to respond quite quickly to current events like the covid pandemic or the war in Ukraine – we haven’t had to do five years of research on a topic and then, if at all, publish something in popularised form. It has taken some learning to adopt a shorter and simpler writing style, but now it seems that once the taps have been turned on, they can’t be turned off!

Illustration and animation: Pauliina Mäkelä

Jaakko: I have been writing for a very long time. At the turn of the millennium, I started out writing poems for my own pleasure. Later on, I had several blogs, which twenty odd years ago were still called “online diaries”. I also worked for a while as a journalist.  I still like to take notes by hand, to collect them together and type them up, print them out and make handwritten notes in the margins. As I see it, writing can be a way of thinking in itself. On the other hand, it is also a kind of handicraft… In the context of the project, it has been liberating to have “the permit” to write in a way that is not strictly academic for the project blog – but also for other publishing platforms. Academic research articles start to resemble each other very quickly when people write in a language that is not their mother tongue. 

Ira: For me it has been particularly liberating to be able to write out the reflections that have accumulated over the years without a space from which to emerge into the public sphere. Like Jaakko, I first write on pieces of paper. It comes in a very spontaneous and often chaotic way. I combine writing with drawings on margins. Some thoughts are first expressed in visual images and then they take form in words. Working in this project, I discovered a new approach to experiment with non-academic writing: I often go into different social environments and I write in situ, like in a Migri office for refugees and asylum seekers, hospitals, or a police station.  

Discussing my texts with the other group members, I have gradually adopted a simpler way of writing, avoiding heavy philosophical phrases and making my texts more accessible for different audiences. Generally speaking, I have started to think more about the reader. Writing short texts has become for me a way of social participation and interaction. I feel more visible and even heard.

Pauliina: Things that are done differently, diverging from the norm, have always appealed to me. For example, I have gone to experimental music gigs for a great part of my life, exposing myself to more or less challenging, surprising or exhilarating performances. Currently I also perform in the experimental duo Kultapalmut (Golden Palms), in which I create live visuals on an overhead projector. Experimentality means for me a state of mind and a way to approach things. As I see it, one of the themes that cuts across the project is tolerance of uncertainty. It feels crucial to deal with this topic through an approach that is experimental and in itself at least partly undefined.

Erika: For me it has been really liberating to have the dimension of the visual arts and Pauliina in this project. Somehow it has been much easier to think out of the box, when there is someone in the group who is not so set in academic patterns. I myself do have some background in the visual arts, as does Ira, so in that sense the presence of the visual arts has not felt exactly like a “new” thing, but more like a return to an old and dear way of doing things. 

Ira: Working with the visual dimension does indeed bring a lot of freedom into creative thinking. Often Pauliina’s images give us another perspective on our ideas, opening a parallel “text” to the verbal one. I have enjoyed writing in response to current topics, giving a voice to different experiences, and engaging with visual images made by Pauliina.  One of our experiments is to use an image as the beginning point of our reflection, and to create visual–verbal narratives together.

Pauliina: In the spring of 2022 I made an installation called Oculotopia for the urban art event Olohuone 306,4 km². It continues my analogical experiments in the form of peep boxes. The boxes are anaglyphic, which means that they present 3D image based on colour filtering. It was my first time to create an interactive installation for urban space. Experimenting with new techniques and materials, I had to deal with my own uncertainty, which in itself felt important and relevant in the context of this project. Experimentality can in the best case be a truly liberating state of mind. It can be compared to the gay weightlessness of playing, which can reveal a field of new possibilities. I asked Ira, Jaakko and Erika to write something based on my idea for an installation, and it was really interesting to see how, writing in this way, the texts became different. New forms of expression can be found merely by changing the work process.

The Themes of the HARMAA Blog

Erika: In the beginning of the project, we wrote more traditional philosophical essays which Pauliina illustrated. My first blog texts were based on a research article of mine (2020), which dealt with the theme of self-deception in Agatha Christie’s detective story They Do It with Mirrors (1952). I had been reading Christie during my summer holidays and realised that there were a lot of existential themes in her books. When the project started, I wanted to highlight the same themes in my blog posts. You cannot cover too many things in one blog post, though, so I ended up writing several. I thought this would be a light way to deal with heavy issues. The result was the Agatha Christie Series. The serial quality of these blog posts became even stronger thanks to Pauliina’s illustrations. Through Christie, I have addressed numerous problems of the post-truth era: Why do we hastily adopt a position on one thing or the other rather than acknowledge our uncertainty? Why does the blame always seem to lie elsewhere? Can nostalgia be harmful? Can we blame the writer for the opinion of a fictional character?  

Jaakko: For a long time I have been wondering about the reasons that drive people to extremism. After all, different forms of extremism seem to characterise the post-truth era. In a way, this question has been present in my doctoral work, in which I deal with the experiential nature of depression and melancholia. Melancholia is a form of extreme thinking: a certainty that there is no future, that the world is doomed, and that “I alone understand this”. In my long blog essays – although they are, in form, rather highbrow literary essays – I have tried, between the lines, to deal with these rather personal or existential feelings of futurelessness and despair.   

Ira: I guess we all approach blogging in different ways and with different inspirations. In my own blog texts I try to reflect upon marginal experiences, which are easily ignored, such as solitude and being ill, education during the covid pandemic and loosing future, the right to a home, near death experiences and the impossibility of being near your loved one who is dying. I, too, am interested in the topic of melancholy. In the future I will probably write on melancholy and how we experience time in melancholic states.  

Pauliina: Most of the layout and illustrations of the blog are my handiwork. I wanted to make the blog as appealing as possible, so that it would be interesting both visually and in content. The illustrations are not meant to be merely ornamental – they should bring something more to the table. I have been able to use the blog images in other contexts, too. For instance, a part of the loop animation was exhibited in my Illustrator of the Year 2021 exhibition in Turku and in the Ways of Being exhibition at the K. H. Renlund’s Museum in Kokkola.

Erika: At the outbreak of the Ukraine war, Pauliina asked us if we should create something related to it. So, we got down to business, and the texts and the image were published as planned a month after the war broke out. I myself had by then written two academic texts on the covid pandemic, and in that context I had given a lot of thought to the resemblances and differences between the outbreaks of wars and pandemics. In my blog post, I dealt with the shock caused by such sudden changes and the experience of “falling into bad times”. I drew from Alice in Wonderland’s imagery of falling down a rabbit hole. I tried to articulate these feelings of distress I went through in the early days of the war.

Illustration: Pauliina Mäkelä

Ira: I lived for twenty-five years in Minsk, capital of Belarus, and many of my relatives live nowadays in Ukraine. That is why I felt personally engaged in the situation of war in Ukraine. It has been important for me to speak about topics like being at home, losing terrain, becoming a refugee and the right to speak one’s mother tongue.  

Erika: When I was translating Ira’s text on speaking Russian into Finnish, we talked a lot about the linguistic plurality in the so-called Eastern European countries, and I realised how little we Finns ultimately know about them. It is as if we, as a nation, had voluntarily directed our gaze away from them, towards the West. Evidently there are numerous reasons for this. Due to our history and the geographical location of Finland, however, it is easy for us to understand the emotional meaning of Russia’s attack. Related to this, I have written about why a catastrophe located in a specific place muddles up your life, whereas it is easy to block out the news about a disaster that takes place elsewhere – and why somebody else does exactly the opposite. Such experiential contradictions can feel devastating. That is why I think it is good to deal with them not only in research but also in more accessible texts.

Working in a group

Pauliina: When we started in the spring of 2021, the covid pandemic restrictions did not allow us to see each other immediately face to face. I did not know the other group members in the beginning of the project, and getting to know them in video conferences was challenging. Now that we have more than a year behind us, we have become welded together as a group and know better each other’s thoughts and ways of working. That has given a depth to what we do and made a more experimental approach possible.

Erika: A lot can be achieved via remote connection, but even so, physical presence and spending enough time together make developing experimental forms of expression much easier. The group members live in and around Helsinki and Turku, which is why physical presence will not automatically arrange itself even after the covid pandemic. For this reason we started organising what we call experimentation days at the Chamber of the Kone Foundation. During those days, we work together on a given theme. The Chamber has been for us a safe place in which to brainstorm and develop new ways of working together in peace and quiet.

The HARMAA work group consists of Jaakko Vuori, Erika Ruonakoski, Pauliina Mäkelä and Irina Poleshchuk. Photo Pauliina Mäkelä.

Ira: I very much like our creative and innovative days of working together. Sometimes the ideas do not appear at once, but the other team members give me time and are very patient when I try to express something that does not yet have a form.  I enjoy our free collaborative style, putting everything on the table and giving time for our ideas to take shape. Moving towards experimental dimensions of intellectual critique has been for me the most precious part of the project.

Pauliina: From the start, the atmosphere has been compassionate and considerate in our group, which has been important for working in a multidisciplinary setting. The weekly meetings have helped me to stay on schedule and to feel that I am an equal part of this group.

Erika: A weekly meeting does not sound like a groundbreaking idea, but in our case it has definitely been the basis for everything else, most of all the experience of being a group. Usually we start the weekly meetings with a round, in which everybody says what they have been doing during the past week. Thanks to this, everybody has a general idea of all the things that have been on the others’ desks.

To be sure, not all days are sheer bliss of collective creativity, but it’s been wonderful to get feedback on my own work quickly and to have a little community of our own, who are aware of what I am doing and with whom I can decide that we’re going to do this thing by such and such a date. Things are not left hanging in the air in the same way as when you work alone. It’s so nice to see what the other people in the group achieve and to feel proud of it. In this team, I have also learned the joy of getting things done together. In the past, I was more wrapped up in myself in my research. 

Ira: I also have felt less lonely in doing my research. What is more, I have felt much more freedom in expressing spontaneous ideas and sharing them. This doesn’t happen so easily, when you do your own research without the support of the team.

Visit the HARMAA website: