Will PUBLICS make clubbers fall for art?

Finns are used to seeing contemporary art in museums and galleries but not in clubs. In September, PUBLICS, a contemporary art organisation, will organise a multidisciplinary festival at the Kallio club complex in Helsinki. It could be the beginning of a union of the contemporary art and club cultures, writes Heljä Franssila, Kone Foundation’s head of communications, in her interview with Director Paul O’Neill and Programme Manager Eliisa Suvanto.
Eliisa Suvanto & Paul O'Neill. Kuva/Photo: Annukka Pakarinen

Clubs and art in New York City have been inseparable since the late 1970s, when two clubs arose around the same time and made nightlife history.

The nightclub Club 57 was established in a church basement in the East Village in 1978. In addition to being a venue for music, it also became an art gallery and hosted experimental theatre, film and performances. The Mudd Club was launched in TriBeCa as a venue for gigs, featuring mostly no wave bands, but it also hosted all kinds of other performance art. The writers who read their texts on its stage include Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Emerging fashion designer Anna Sui made the club her catwalk.

Artist Keith Haring designed flyers for the events held at Club 57 and curated the Mudd Club’s gallery space. The clubs were frequented by numerous rising stars, such as Grace Jones, Nico, Debbie Harry, and Jean-Michel Basquiat with his girlfriend at the time, Madonna.

In New York City today, the connection of contemporary art to the music and DJ culture has gone mainstream, with large art museums seeking new audiences swimming comfortably in the various scenes. In fact, this summer the courtyard of the MOMA PS1 museum has served as the weekend venue for the Warm Up music club. The New Museum has partnered with music and fashion brand Maison Kitsuné to present its Sunset Series club.

So far this model has been missing from Helsinki, as the club culture has long remained faithful to the DJ and gig tradition. In recent years, however, club culture seems to have become somewhat more multidisciplinary. Festivals in particular have begun to augment their music-based programmes with contemporary art. And while, fortunately, the art doesn’t seem like mere visual decoration, it is nowhere near on equal footing with the music.

This year the Flow Festival in Helsinki spearheaded its art programme with Pink Space, which included poetry readings, performance art and video installations. The Ilmiö Festival in Turku included some twenty artists in its programme: it had a van where one could watch video installations, and various other installations were scattered around the festival. The greatest success was probably stage poet Nihkee Akka’s performance, which ended with an enthusiastic audience demanding an encore. Over the last year, Club Kaiku has included more performative shows in its programme than ever before.

Many clubs bring in audiences that, based on the gateway theory, could be expected to happily find their way to the sphere of contemporary art, if only someone would offer to guide them. Contemporary art organisation PUBLICS could act as such a guide and trendsetter. In September PUBLICS will organise a three-day, multidisciplinary art festival named as Today is Our Tomorrow at the Hämeentie club complex.

“We will explore how various ‘alter-futures’, such as Black, Afro, Asian, feminist, queer, non-binary, post-human, and how many non-heteronormative imaginary futures are being enacted in present day cultural practices. We want to engage with, and to celebrate these urgencies today rather than in a distant time,” says Paul O’Neill, director of PUBLICS.

It is the end of June, and in front of me at restaurant Mashiro in Vallila are two art professionals in need of a summer holiday, sipping ramen soup.

O’Neill and Programme Manager Eliisa Suvanto have sought partners and funding for their festival both in Finland and abroad. The exact content has not yet been finalised, but the event will include works from artists such as Artes Mundi-awarded media artist Yael Bartana, Leah Beeferman, Tony Cokes, Mette Edvardsen, Hlynur Hallsson, Honkasalo-Niemi-Virtanen, Anni Puolakka, Karmaklubb and the Karrabing Film Collective.

Partners from Barcelona, Stockholm, Oslo and Riga will be involved in the festival, and its Finnish partners will include the Academy of Fine Arts, Baltic Circle, Globe Art Point, IHME Helsinki, Kohta Gallery and Museum of Impossible Forms.

The model for the event was not sought in New York, which O’Neill is very familiar with, but in the Netherlands: it was inspired by the Other Futures Festival, which is based on the vision of Curator Brigitte van der Sanden and which first took place in Amsterdam in 2018. It combines music, performance, literature, film and visual art with the aim of constructing alternative futures for narratives of power.

“Eliisa and I visited the festival a year ago in order to benchmark it. We thought we could do something similar but, instead of the future, we decided to focus on the present and not to over-programme the event,” O’Neill says.

Avoiding over-programming sounds reasonable, especially as the event will take place in Helsinki where people are not used to going to clubs for art. But as I look over the PUBLICS event calendar for the past 18 months, over-programming doesn’t seem like an incongruous word. The organisation has not held back on its activities.

 

The PUBLICS offices in Vallila. Photo: Annukka Pakarinen

Art has moved to Vallila

Let’s first ask: What is PUBLICS? The name is unlikely to ring any bells for many, but its predecessor is better known. PUBLICS could be defined as a metamorphosed version of Checkpoint Helsinki.

Checkpoint Helsinki was established in 2013 when, following a heated debate on the Guggenheim museum project, the City of Helsinki granted a group – consisting mainly of artists seeking funding to create international, public contemporary art in Helsinki – an alternative to everything the American museum was said to bring.

Checkpoint Helsinki produced several public works of art and even exhibitions but was criticised for its slow start and low profile. At the end of 2015, the City’s three-year funding was coming to an end, and the organisation was prepared to put the project to rest if new funding could not be found. The opportunity to continue came in the nick of time when, in December 2016, Kone Foundation granted the organisation half a million euros in funding for a period of three years.

The funding provided the opportunity to redefine their direction. In the autumn of 2017, Paul O’Neill was selected as the new director of Checkpoint Helsinki. Before moving to Helsinki, the Irish curator had been the director of the graduate programme at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies in New York state.

Partly due to the negative connotations attached to the word “checkpoint”, the organisation was renamed PUBLICS. Eliisa Suvanto, who had managed Turku-based artist organisation Arte, joined O’Neill at the organisation.

PUBLICS was assigned five missions, which were largely the same as for Checkpoint Helsinki. In essence, the organisation’s task is to forge international connections and present works of public art.

In early 2018, the mini-organisation moved to Sturenkatu in Vallila with the idea that a street-level space is more approachable. Numerous talks, lectures and book releases have been held at the office. Various curators visiting Finland have been invited to speak at PUBLICS or have been specifically brought to Finland using O’Neill’s networks. Some events have been implemented by lending the Sturenkatu space to partners. Helsinki’s contemporary art audience has rewarded the organisation’s activity by showing up in force, at times filling up a hall with space for 100 people.

“We want to be really flexible. At times our space has acted as a kind of venue for an exhibit, while at other times it has been a workshop, theatre or a performance hall. Whenever we have a foreign guest, we also try to think which local art professional’s work would be a great match for the guest’s work to get even more out of the visit,” O’Neill explains.

Last autumn’s hit visit was that of American writer Chris Kraus, who rose to international fame with her novel I Love Dick. Kraus’s primary reason for coming to Finland was to work at the Saari Residence for artists, which is maintained by Kone Foundation, but PUBLICS was more than happy to organise events to capitalise on her visit.

In addition to lectures by Kraus, PUBLICS presented a retrospective of her films, which was quite the cult act. After the screenings in Helsinki, O’Neill and Suvanto organised a tour of the films to neighbouring countries, as they had not previously been shown in the Nordic or Baltic countries.

At this point, having observed PUBLICS in action, Kraus stated that in just a year, the organisation had achieved something that would normally take six years.

Community artist Jeanne van Heeswijk in Helsinki. Photo: Annukka Pakarinen

A four-day performance by Jeanne van Heeswijk and her team took place in Vallila in June. Photo: Annukka Pakarinen

In June of this year, together with Dutch community artist Jeanne van Heeswijk and Helsinki-based media culture association M-Cult, PUBLICS launched a community art project which – if all goes well (i.e., funding can be found) – may continue for years to come.

Van Heeswijk is known for her long-lasting projects, some spanning ten years, which arise as a result of listening to the community. The Rotterdam-based artist is a big name in community art, one of her longest works being the 2Up 2Down/Homebaked project, which originated at the 2010 Liverpool Biennial and involves the revitalisation of the residential areas in Liverpool, which were under threat of being demolished, in collaboration with local residents, architects and other urban planners.

For each project, Van Heeswijk specifies key questions in performance-like events named Public Faculty, which last for four hours at a time on four days. During these events, Van Heeswijk and her working group position themselves on the streets and talk to people about what is important to them. Such a four-day session was conducted in Vallila during the midsummer week.

In the performance inspired by the Vallila cliffs, the performers supported the cliffs, leaned on them or, via the rocks, on each other. At the same time, they chatted with the passers-by. The topic that emerged as most significant was people’s anxiety about climate crisis and the destruction of biodiversity.

And that’s not all. When he moved to Finland, O’Neill brought with him his collection of 6,000 books, which has recently been catalogued online. The books are available to read and borrow from the public library operating in connection with the office. It has provided a natural means for building cooperation with students from the University of the Arts Helsinki and Aalto University. For the time being, the library is open one day a week.

After the festival, O’Neill and Suvanto plan to focus more of the programme around the library, with events such as book clubs and workshops.

 

The office space serves also as a public library. Photo: Annukka Pakarinen

How to survive for 20 years

Paul O’Neill admits that they are going full steam ahead, even though there is no guarantee of future funding.

“The big question is how to turn a project that’s being run on foundation funding into an organisation with a lifespan of maybe 20 years. PUBLICS may also have to grow for our mental health,” O’Neill says.

In O’Neill and Suvanto’s vision, PUBLICS will have steady, long-term funding, and the organisation would have a larger team than at present. There could also be a bookshop and café in Vallila.

So far, the organisation has received meagre public funding from the City of Helsinki and Arts Promotion Centre Finland. O’Neill would gladly see public funding increase to 50% of the organisation’s budget.

But why is it important for PUBLICS to establish itself in the field of contemporary art? Aren’t there already enough small players around who are struggling with funding? How does PUBLICS differ from Checkpoint Helsinki, which started as a protest movement?

When looking through the avalanche of talks and the stream of visitors PUBLICS has brought to Helsinki, and to perceive what exactly it is that PUBLICS has achieved with all this, it seems that its accomplishments so far arise first and foremost from revitalising the Helsinki art scene with the trends of the rest of the world. Another important accomplishment is the climate of solidarity that it has succeeded in creating among contemporary art professionals.

The work of artists and art experts outside art institutions is, as a rule, precarious toil, with an uncertain livelihood and a future based on non-existent terms and conditions of employment. Of all the fields of art, visual artists have traditionally had the worst income: their median earnings have remained at an annual level of approximately 16,000 euros throughout the 2000s. When the possibility of making a living from your work is low and constantly at risk, the result is insecurity and hopelessness.

“It definitely seems that in the past 18 months, there has been much more discussion about the support structures and balance of operators at the grassroots level and freelance operators than before. Before PUBLICS there were hardly any platforms for such discussions that were not linked to exhibitions in one way or another,” says Eliisa Suvanto.

Suvanto and O’Neill explain that they started their work at PUBLICS by meeting with various art professionals, ranging from choreographers to performance artists, and listening to their views on what was lacking in the art industry and Helsinki in general. One common response was that Helsinki offered no venues for performances or for meeting other professionals. People who are prepared to start such debates are few and far between.

“We quickly learned that there was little interaction between big and small organisations, and by far not all operators knew each other,” O’Neill says.

The field of contemporary art in Finland is lagging behind other Western countries, according to O’Neill and Suvanto. There is no Kunsthalle tradition, i.e., independent art gallery operators, in Finland, nor middleweight organisations. Art professionals are accustomed to doing their job without proper compensation or for free, which prevents the industry from developing, Suvanto maintains. She adds that she does not know how well cultural sponsors understand these problems, as they don’t have to live their everyday lives amidst similar struggles.

In O’Neill and Suvanto’s view, PUBLICS’s role is to fill the grey areas in the field of contemporary art: there is a need to create other contemporary content alongside museums’ exhibition programmes, to make Helsinki more international and diverse by working with foreign curators and to continue to merge internationalism and locality. We need facilities and structures to allow small organisations to work together and better conditions than the current ones to allow them to produce large-scale productions.

 

Photo: Annukka Pakarinen

The festival is a test

The PUBLICS spring season comes to an end with a summer party held at the restaurant Tanner in Kallio on the last Saturday of June. Some twenty people who are regularly seen at PUBLICS events are there to listen as artist Martin Beck from New York talks about the oldest club in the world that is still running: the Loft, which was started in New York on Valentine’s Day in 1970. Founded by David Mancuso, the club was based on the idea of a house party, with attendance by invitation only. The club made it possible for sexual and ethnic minorities in particular to get together without being harassed, but the high technical quality of the music was also key.

After the Tanner kitchen closes, the restaurant becomes almost empty, even though DJs Douglas Sherman and Takaya Nagase, who also have entertained audiences at the Loft, are just about to start their sets. Around midnight, the restaurant begins to fill with people who might be coming from Pride parade after-parties or perhaps from the long queue outside neighbouring restaurant Siltanen. In any case, it is quite certain that they have not heard about PUBLICS or the exceptionally fine programme planned for the evening.

On the disco floor, PUBLICS’s next challenge becomes apparent: written in its name with block capitals is a promise of publicity and community, but the people in the city know nothing about PUBLICS and therefore do not expect anything from it.

Making the public aware of its existence was never a priority for the organisation, and it would be unfair to demand it after only 18 months in operation. PUBLICS’s strength is, above all, unity: bringing together its own tribes of contemporary art, they speak a common language and share the same struggle about the insecurities of their work.

Now that its own three-day festival in the city’s number-one club is on the way, maybe it’s time for PUBLICS to reach out to the audience outside of its own bubble and tell them why the art produced by PUBLICS is worth experiencing. Museum visitors should also be told that contemporary art can be found elsewhere. The acid test will take place in September.

Heljä Franssila

The Today is Our Tomorrow festival takes place at the clubs Kaiku, Kieku, and Stidilä from 12th to 14th September. See the programme on the PUBLICS website.