Tuija Kokkonen: Freedom of art and research is the prerequisite for democracy and civilisation

According to Tuija Kokkonen, freedom of art and research requires time, ability to engage in self-directed research and a chance to be quiet. However, it is important for artists and researchers to participate in broader social debat, in addition to discourse within academia and the art sector.
Photo: Vilja Pursiainen / Kone Foundation

Artist and researcher Tuija Kokkonen was elected a member of the Kone Foundation’s Board of Trustees in November 2018. Having served on the Saari Residence Advisory Board for the last four years, Kokkonen is familiar with working in a positions of trust for the foundation. Kokkonen expects the Board of Trustees to engage in constructive debate on safeguarding the freedom of art and research.

An artist and researcher, Kokkonen is also Professor in Artistic Research at Uniarts Helsinki’s Theatre Academy, where she is in charge of the doctoral programme. She is also compiling a book based on her doctoral thesis. It deals with performance in the era of ecological catastrophes and particularly our relationship with the non-human – especially other species – in the performance event.

When asked how she became an artist, researcher and professor of the Theatre Academy, Kokkonen mentions curiosity as a key element.

“I haven’t really consciously aimed at anything in particular; rather I’ve followed my curiosity and the questions emerging from the world around me. Curiosity has led me along like an Aboriginal songline. When you start singing the path appears in front of you.”

Kokkonen’s work belongs to the field of ecological and posthumanist performance research. However, she points out that she was interested in these subjects well before they were bundled under the concept of posthumanism.

“At the turn of the millennium, I started wondering why performances only feature people. Why have the other creatures on earth been excluded from them? Or rather: why are we not where they are? And so I started making art and later also artistic research that focused on these questions.”

Along with people, Kokkonen’s works have featured dogs, ants, birds, trees, rocks, clouds and weather phenomena, to name a few.

Free research responds to challenges

Kokkonen resists any kind of pidgeonholing and instead emphasises the importance of self-directed research. As a free artist and researcher receiving grants for her work, she has been able to focus on what truly interests her.

“It has been a great privilege, and it should be possible also for young artists and researchers today,” says Kokkonen.

In what Kokkonen says, freedom emerges as an opportunity to get interested in things and as questions about the freedom of art and research and safeguarding this freedom. She explains that she is constantly considering the forms and means of action that help keep democracy afloat. This is strongly linked to the role of art and research in our society.

“How do we safeguard the freedom of art and research when it is the prerequisite for democracy and civilisation?” she ponders.

In Kokkonen’s view, the first precondition for the freedom of art and research is time: to concretely allow people time to make art and conduct research.

“This is precisely what the Kone Foundation and other foundations are doing. But also, and above all, we need direct, free core-funding from the state, which unfortunately is low in the field of research in Finnish higher education. In comparison, the proportion of competitive research funding is high, as evidenced by the international comparison carried out by the Academy of Finland in 2010.”

The second precondition, according to Kokkonen, is the ability to engage in self-directed research.

“In the current situation, strategically directed research is a very strong trend. In the above-mentioned comparison of the Academy of Finland, the proportion of thematically directed funding in Finland was higher than in the other countries involved. This trend has only intensified over the last ten years or so.”

Although Kokkonen considers thematic funding sometimes necessary to ensure the study of important issues, she believes that, in broad terms, autonomous research is more likely to meet current and future multi-level challenges.

Furthermore, Kokkonen maintains that the freedom of art and research is also associated with the current culture of visibility and competition, which is manifested, for example, in the indicators used in academia and the criteria for valuation used in the world of art.

“The requirement for continuous visibility, merits and quantifiable ‘results’ may lead to churning out performative publications – texts, events, collaboration, updates – which, over time, will dilute art, research, political decision-making and our understanding of the world and ourselves. Working at a deep level – including imagination, ethical understanding and listening to complex environments and oneself – requires peace to work and a chance to be quiet and focus on the work itself,” Kokkonen says.

At the same time, it is important for artists and researchers to participate in broader social debate, in addition to discourse within academia and the art sector.

“Of course, the greatest impact occurs through daily basic work in art and research. After all, art and research form the basis of our life as a society and also influence our future. But debate by artists and scholars is particularly necessary right now, because it contributes to the continuous rebuilding of the preconditions for democracy – starting with changes in the way we see the world.”

It is brave to notice those that have been ignored and make space for them.

It is not brave to refrain from questioning problematic issues, even if there is social pressure to keep silent.

BIO:

Tuija Kokkonen, artist, researcher and Professor in Artistic Research at Uniarts Helsinki’s Theatre Academy (since 1 August 2018).

Member of the Saari Residence Advisory Board from 2014 to 2018. Member of the Kone Foundation’s Board of Trustees since 2019.

Lives in Helsinki with her spouse and two children.