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Saari Residence

16.12.2021

At Saari Residence’s Summer Well: Leena Kela

Photo: Ilkka Saastamoinen

What new forms of activity have been introduced during the pandemic at the Saari Residence? In an interview with Irmeli Kokko, Executive Director Leena Kela talks about the solutions that have made it possible for the Saari Residence to continue its residency activities almost fully.

  • In the home residence, an artist does not physically travel to the Saari Residence, but works from home instead during their residency.
  • Hybrid residence refers to a residency during which some of the residents are physically present at Saari, while others work in the home residence.
  • The residence’s online platform is a communication tool and workspace that brings artists in residence together, no matter where they are, and allows them to exchange and share ideas with each other.
  • In distance mentoring, the artist and mentor meet twice during the residency. The mentor supports and encourages the artist being mentored in their artistic work, in developing their artistic thinking and in other professional matters.

In the spring of 2020, artists’ travels and, as a result, international residency activities came to an almost complete halt. Leena Kela, you are an artist yourself and also the Saari Residence’s Executive Director. International arts residencies have played an important role in enabling mobility and artistic work, especially for visual artists. What changes have taken place during the pandemic?

Just like everyone else, we found ourselves facing a completely new situation at the Saari Residence when the COVID-19 pandemic started. In fact, our international artists in residence returned to their home countries in the middle of their residency. We continued our operations in the form of home residences. Since then, we have implemented residencies in hybrid form. Artists who are unable to travel or are restricted in other ways due to the pandemic work in home residences. Other artists and researchers in the same residency are physically present at the Saari Residence. We have weekly joint online meetings, in addition to which we encourage residents to keep in touch and share their ideas and thoughts on the residence’s online platform on Slack. At the end of each two-month residency, we collect feedback on the residents’ experiences and use it to improve the hybrid residence. Among other things, we have focused on getting acquainted with each other and forming groups at the beginning of the residency, because this doesn’t happen the same way in a hybrid residence as it does when the residents are physically in the same location and able to share their daily lives with each other.

Right at the start of the pandemic, we decided not to cancel residencies already granted. In some cases, especially with larger groups, we postponed the residency until the following year at their request. Because we were able to offer home residence as an alternative to being physically present at Saari, we were able to continue to operate almost fully. This autumn, we launched a service design project for home residences to allow us to better identify and respond to residents’ needs. When the coronavirus pandemic eases up – hopefully soon – and international activities become possible and reliable once again, we will probably continue to offer home residences to ensure that those who are unable to work in another country for physical, family or political reasons, for example, will be able to participate. Home residences are a way for us to strengthen the accessibility of the residency.

For many, a residency in the midst of the pandemic, whether physically at Saari or remotely at a home residence, has provided a respite, however small, and the opportunity to interact with colleagues while being surrounded by all the uncertainties the pandemic brings. The significance of the work grant included in the residency should also not be underestimated in a situation where many people have had to cancel work gigs and tasks for an entire year or even two.

It is important to us at the Saari Residence to provide a peaceful working environment and support for artistic work and research. We have brought together a number of mentors – long-term professionals from various fields of art – who provide the residents with distance mentoring during their residency. This has also served as a means of networking, especially during periods when opportunities for physical encounters have been limited.

Now that travel is becoming possible again, what will the future of residencies look like in your opinion, as an artist and someone working for a residency organisation?

For many westerners like me, international travel has turned from a self-evident and quick way of getting around into a more complicated and questionable issue. I’m answering your question on the first day of the Glasgow Climate Change Conference during a three-day train journey to the Cove Park residence in Scotland and I can’t help but think that change is more necessary than ever also in the international residency sector. The importance of internationality and residencies will not fade – on the contrary – but sustainability thinking in different sectors is also part of the future and survival of arts residencies. For example at the Saari Residence, we have been supporting slow travel for our residents for a few years now by reimbursing their travel and accommodation expenses, encouraging stops along the way and offering a work grant if their journey to the residence takes a week.

In my own artistic work, the stopping and travel restrictions caused by the coronavirus are evident in the changes to the way I work. I’m a performance artist and my works have mainly always taken place in front of a live audience on international stages. After the performance cancellations, I started a series of video works, which I have found to be a really inspiring and meaningful change to the way I work. Over the last couple of months, I’ve also been able to return to live performances. It’s been wonderful to stand in front of a live audience again, I feel so empowered by it!

For me as an artist, reducing flights means less international travel, but hopefully even more meaningful and well-thought-out international projects and traveling to them by land whenever possible. Besides, a train journey offers plenty of time for reflection and developing new ideas.

Irmeli Kokko