Tuija Kokkonen: Plants and Animals Are Lively Company

Artist and researcher Tuija Kokkonen directs attention away from human beings in performance art. She wants to create spaces where you can engage in interactions with other species.
Photo: Vilja Pursiainen

The sound of dogs barking can already be heard on the street. Two shepherd dogs are panting behind the gate of a detached house in Helsinki. They almost trip over their own legs when Tuija Kokkonen comes to open the gate and let the guests into her yard.

Kokkonen is a member of the Advisory Board of the Saari Residence, a researcher and an artist. She does post-humanist artistic research, which means researching through art humankind’s relationship to plants, animals and natural phenomena, such as weather. Kokkonen refers to these kinds of creatures and phenomena that performance art does not really pay attention to as “non-humans”.

“Performance art has offered me a place where I can investigate and question anthropocentrism, and the other living beings among us who we have excluded from the performance. I want to create spaces where people have the opportunity to interact with other species,” Kokkonen explains.

Artistic research questions humankind’s position

Kokkonen grew up in Kemi. In the neighbourhood of her childhood home, stray dogs and pigeons suited her for company just as well as other kids. A child’s conception of who or what you can spend time with was much freer than an adult’s.

“The ways, attitudes and priorities of social interaction are deeply embedded in societal structures. Even if we have the opportunity to communicate with other beings in the environment in our everyday lives, we do not make use of it. In art, you can direct attention to something other than human beings. That in itself is already an impressive and political act.”

Directing attention further than humans opens up a completely new world. The perspective broadens, your own position shrinks and the amount of knowing decreases.

“I didn’t perceive my own arrogance in relation to plants and animals before. While doing the research I have discovered how deep within one’s self human’s superiority is. I have had to question myself and my understanding of humankind very concretely.”

Kokkonen is often asked how the research affects herself. The answer is always the same.

“I am much less lonely in the world than before, because I am always surrounded by companions,” she says. Amidst countless blades of grass, insects and animals you are constantly in lively company, in the middle everything.

The Saari Residence speaks for civilization

When Kokkonen has a few moments to spare, she sits down to watch and listen to the goings-on of the world. Lately it has been one big madhouse. The artist admits to often thinking about what is going on at the moment, especially in Finland.

“Values are hardening and the prerequisites of civilization are being scrapped. How has it become acceptable at short notice to not only be arrogant, but also violent?” she wonders. When the new government programme was released last spring, she proposed founding a new party on Facebook – the Civilized Party.

The proposal answered the longing of many for upholding art and research, for example. The longing is also lessened by the Saari Residence.

“The Kone Foundation and the Saari Residence defend civilization and offer researchers and artists the space, opportunity and liberty to work on their own terms. It is work that should also be the task of a democratic state,” Kokkonen states.

“The residence is a quietly sophisticated and almost surreal-feeling place. When you go there you always think for a moment, ‘wow, does this kind of thing really exist?’ ”

When Kokkonen started doing post-humanist artistic research, there was no previous research on the same topic and thus funding was hard to acquire. The Kone Foundation was the first to pick up the weak signal.

“When I said that I want to research the relationship to animals, plants and weather in performance art, I was reacted to strangely. In 2007 the Kone Foundation opened up the first grant application for artistic researchers, and I received the funding right off in the first application. That I won’t forget.

 

Encounters arise when… people share a common object of interest.

Encounters do not arise when… you cling onto the power structures and classifications between people, which valuate and divide others.

The most significant encounters in my life… have been our two children. They have changed myself and my relationship with the world the most.

BIO

Tuija Kokkonen, artist and researcher, Maus&Orlovski performance collective’s artistic director, and lecturer of the Theatre Academy’s Ecology and Contemporary Performance MA Programme (starting 1.8.2016).

On the Advisory Board of the Saari Residence since 2014.

Lives in Helsinki with her spouse and two children.