A celebration of the impossible
… And finally we manage to manoeuvre the tables so that they form one long table, so all of the participants of the performance can find a space – about thirty people. Success! We congratulate each other and laugh. Now we need to serve up our creation quickly. In ten minutes, other teams will bring cheeses, toppings and the centre piece of the show, polenta, the ‘yellowcake’ of freedom.
Once the food is in place and the glasses are filled with wine, everyone takes their place at the table and we switch on the recording. It is an audio recording, made in 1978 at the height of the protests against uranium exploration in Upper Seriana Valley in Italy, where the local population fought for five years against the encroachment of an energy company onto their lands.
We already know that we are embodying the artistic project of Tea Andreoletti, whose mother took part in street protests – but the details of this protest movement, its anatomy, isn’t yet known to us. My imagination transports me beyond the walls of this fishing cottage on the island of Honkaluoto, where we find ourselves, to 2026.
At that future time, Tea wants to run for Mayor of her village, and today’s research is part of a long-running project to determine the character of her reforms. We are sketching out a future which has become a shared dream, through this communal performance.
You see, this article is meant to be a critical overview of the Baltic Circle Festival in 2022. But I can’t imagine how it’s possible to be a detached expert and critic of the arts when the world is living through another nuclear crisis, and people everywhere are actually preparing for a life which was previously known only through dystopian films. Under the circumstances, it is simply not possible to write a normal review. The only dignified way out is to celebrate the death of art criticism – and the rebirth of the essay.
So this is an essay. It is written in honour of another “festival of the impossible” – a festival of performance art in 2022. When you think about it, festivals as an institution are committed to providing and maintaining a contemporary market of performance art, in an attempt to return to a pre-pandemic world. It is self-evidently problematic to have dozens of living bodies in the same space at the same time. The war brought new restrictions, making it impossible to plan more than two-to-three months ahead, and corrupting any sense of a viable future, and that’s before we even start speaking about queer utopias. That’s why I see this year’s festival as an attempt to bring some level of normality to our reality – to offer the experience of bringing artists, communities and audiences fully into the present. With their effort of presence, their energy and talent, people must not let each other fall into the past, postponed by the humanitarian catastrophe, or the indeterminate future. Against that backdrop, the input of every participant, and every organiser, is – without exception – unbelievably valuable. The fact that this text will only address some of the works in the festival can only be explained by the limitations of my knowledge (pure Donna Haraway).
I would like to consider several important questions raised at the festival. These questions may help us to find renewed strength for balancing above the abyss,1 which is the main demand on how we all expend our energy nowadays. And the key question of the festival is – WHAT CAN WE DO TOGETHER?
This question was embedded in the ‘body’ of the town, in the performance of Yellowcake
. Isa Hukka
) asked this question through a series of sleepover performances. In I was living in a strange place
by Henriika Himma
and working group, I ‘read it between the lines’, observing the transformation of the space at the abandoned RTI (Radio and Television Institute) office building. This building is my peer, or in fact it is slightly younger, and having learnt about its looming fate, I feel responsibility for it.
I believe this is, in part, the question raised by the group of creators behind Venus, whose work on stage speaks so clearly to the vulnerabilities of young women in a patriarchal world, and the need for everyone to do something about it. Co-inhabiting the shared spaces of these very diverse shows, we all sought answers to that question, behind which rose another, possibly even more important one: HOW CAN WE TAKE ACTION TOGETHER?
In the case of Venus
, a gentle and vivid performance created by choreographer Janina Rajakangas
with four young actresses (Mea, Seela, Natalia, Volta), the answer to the first key question might be: to trust your body, sing and dance. The most moving experience for me was, of course, the very form of the storytelling itself – the extremely physical method of advocacy by the young women. The show doesn’t have any obvious narrative, it is an elastic composition with dancing and vocals, interwoven wonderfully to allow for a multiplicity of interpretations. For me, its potency arose through the constant clash of the girls’ innocent discourse with the discourse of the ‘male gaze’.
Four girls are foretelling their futures by candlelight but then, a few minutes later, twisting into poses for Instagram. They giggle, cuddling up under a blanket, the way children do – but before long, they’re coldly asking spectators a question, characteristic of abusers – “Do you want to be my sugar baby?” Did any of the audience consider how often today’s girls hear that question? From the moment of its formation, the female body is extremely vulnerable and highly objectified – an object of lust as well as cyber and real-world attacks. The show’s creators are asking: how can women escape the authority of the male gaze? How to find enough power within to become oneself – and not the version which Instagram wants to see? They search for an answer to that in movement and sound.
The girls’ dances are choreographed such that we do not see anything resembling Venus – that idealised form of beauty and harmony in European culture. They guffaw, shout, play, fool around crudely, ecstatically, shrilly, lightly, magically. Ah, youth! I wanted to sigh. “Forever young I want to be”, they sang along with the audience, as if trying to hold on to this moment of freedom. The performance gave a jolt of empowerment and hope, a sense that all is not lost – even for those without youth on their side.
I was living in a strange place is an exquisite collage, combining lecture, sound performance, philosophy, documentary history, theatre of objects and the RTI buildings – which are in themselves performers wonderfully co-existing in the space. In fact, the space itself here merits a critical analysis. What type of space do we find ourselves in? Can you enter a book, the same way you enter a building? And how can you take someone there, with you? Perhaps you can enter a book only when entering a building? Is the journey, in turn, defined by music, light and your personal experience of who is next to you? Music grows out of an act of destruction; the light appears when all the lamps are switched off; contact occurs when you seem to have become totally lost.
I am bewitched by the possibilities opened up by the optics created in this ‘strange place’. It’s as if they’ve drawn new paths in silver paint over a lithograph by Maurits Escher, showing new ways to orient ourselves in this strange world. Everything appears to connect to everything else, and the heroine’s traumatic experience of being in a hospital, which we learn about from reading the on-stage text, is a reflection of how she’ll later ‘read’ architecture. The lecture about a hospital in Oulu – is also a result of her personal experience. It’s possible Kaisa wouldn’t have read that lecture and we wouldn’t have learnt that the hospital and RTI buildings are the same age; and then this hospital wouldn’t have become part of my personal experience, in as much as I was already related to the RTI, as a peer, and now I don’t want it to be demolished. The same way I don’t want myself to be seen as ruins.
The performance’s creative team is telling us: the RTI building may be re-used. The idea of recycling architecture is a strange and new idea to me but actually – why not? Isn’t a performance or a book simply the recycling of human experience? The practice of alienation from daily realities; re-thinking routines; and a shared experience of these new perspectives synthesized (‘palimpsests’ as the performance creators call it): these help to reflect on the possibilities of alternative futures – not only for the RTI building.
Alternative futures are a point of tension and utopia – and that’s the leitmotif of the two-day project inviting precarious perspectives by the international group of crip artists rampa association. ‘Dreaming is still mandatory’ is repeated in the performance but this little word, still, asks whether there is enough room left for political imagination? My point of entry into the performance was Isa Hukka’s suggestion to respond to each other from a horizontal position.
The bed is a central image in this piece, both as stage design and conceptually. Truthfully, the bed is more than a bed – it is the altar and torture-table of our times, strewn with pillows and soft toys; the final refuge of the most vulnerable. Incidentally, the bed is also a refuge and a place of such intimacy that another is permitted only for a short while. Isa allows herself and us to be horizontal. To act from the horizontal. To search for the most ecological route of co-existence from a lying position. All of the group’s performance are built around this proposition.
I was fortunate enough to take part in a shared dinner: a guttering by Sal Reix Trouxa & Ar Utke Ács. It was prepared with maximum ecology in mind (even the flowers were second-hand). I was fortunate enough to share Sunna Maaret’s ASAP – As Slowly As Possible; to witness Isa Hukka’s sleepover / yökylä. Finally, for the first time in my life to witness a porno photo-shoot – a project by Nakurampa, Daydreaming about Porn.
Even though I responded warmly to every suggestion by the creative team, the whole piece filled me with contradictions. For instance, Isa asked us to make the space of Viirus Theatre our own, but that turned out not to be so straightforward. The stage was set up for rows of spectators, albeit in circles and with soft cushions, rugs and cosy floor lamp (or chairs for more conservative audiences).
We were in masks, and not allowed to drink in the auditorium, although I was desperate for a hot tea. You could leave at any time, but only after handing in your ticket, which would be returned later on, and so on. I’m writing in such detail about this to make sure I’m not mistaken – did I miss an opportunity which would have allowed me to co-create a shared space with the performers? Perhaps I didn’t try hard enough but my own personal thinking, and traumas, didn’t allow me to do more? The rules, set out by the creative team, allowed me to hide in a corner, but they never offered me the chance to come out into the light.
The performance’s subject of research was, of course, the performers’ experience, which they spoke about extremely honestly and in-depth. I could only touch it, be a spectator or, in the case of Daydreaming about Porn, be a voyeur. (I was witnessing a porn photo-session for the first time, which turned out to be unbelievably inclusive and considerate). Aku Meriläinen considers porn as the most ecological and safest way of receiving pleasure. The photographer suggested to the artist to think of the camera as an eye through which an audience is watching. But the artist refused, wanting to achieve pleasure in complete solitude, dwelling solely in their own fantasies – Isa speaks about this same idea from their bed – their experience is so complex and unique that nobody can share it. The bed remains empty.
The search for the most safe method of communication is the subject of a mountain of theory – about which and through the prism of which the performers speak, and which I confess to not knowing. Mountains of pills. Titanic efforts of the performers. And still such a profound loneliness. What can I do in this situation? Remain a spectator? Then what can we do together when so much energy is needed to maintain our borders? Can we STILL do something today? Alas, I can’t suggest any alternatives; I don’t see any other methods; nor did I find them in the performance. It’s more like I was left with frustrations and questions.
Isa asked an exhilarating question, yet another question of this festival: HOW TO TAKE A PART IN CHANGE? And I encountered one of the possible answers in Yellowcake, the culmination of which I described in the opening paragraph, above. That performance works for the benefit of the future. Not in the abstract, but very concretely for the future of Tea’s homeland. The artist sees the potential for the development of her valley coming from the uniting of the villages – which exist at this moment separately, and (because of that) they are suffering from economic decline. How could they unite? She searches for the answer in history and finds that residents of those areas experienced true solidarity during their resistance to the construction of uranium mines in 1978 to 1982. Basically, the performance studies those experiences and, as participants, we bring our modest but clear contribution to the future of Upper Seriana Valley.
The structure of the piece is simple. Audiences divide into five groups, each of which receives a particular task (to prepare the food; to care for the space; to study the social context of the historical events – around which the action is constructed, as well as to study the personal experience of several participants of those events). At the finale, the groups meet at the communal table and share what we have discovered in our group work. The framework for the piece is the preparation of polenta, ‘yellow cake’. It is a porridge of corn flour: a cheap, healthy and ecological food, popular in Northern Italy. Polenta helped the protestors to hold out for a full five years against the government machine. But ‘yellow cake’ is also the name of the chemical powder, the basis of uranium ore, which the government was hunting for then, and now, at a time of energy crisis; the search for sovereign energy sources is back in the news again.
During the performance, we were immersed into the anatomy of the protests, investigating the strategies of the participating church members, shepherds, teachers and young people. We discovered for ourselves, to our delight, the importance of care work in the protest movement and the role of music. After several hours of discussions, we understood that we had only touched the surface of this historical moment, but even so it had become a part of our own lived experience and hopes. Wonderfully, our research from the gathering in the fishing cottage turned into the practice of performance history (Freddie Rokem) – the re-creation of a collective identity. Each of us gained the possibility of feeling – within our body – the experience of solidarity as a joint labour of care.
Our group carried tables from one place to another for an hour and a half. My God, I have never been so interested in carrying tables! We tried to find the only true way of creating the space so we would all be united. In other words, we were answering to the politics of the space in this performance – forging a shared unity and equality. The purpose gave meaning and energy to our actions.
For the last seven years, before the war, I made socially engaged art in Russia. We built utopias, an alternative space of freedom and equality in conditions of Putin’s thickening authoritarianism. The war showed that art won’t stop people who have access to the red button. The experience of Yellowcake allowed me to understand that there are too few utopias today. Art has the power and instruments to become a real facilitator between civil society and powerful institutions in the battle for a fairer future. As a minimum, it can give the experience of revealing oneself as an actor in history, and the desire to make that experience last.
Translated from Russian into English by Noah Birksted-Breen
1 This metaphor came to my mind as I recalled the words of a Russian philosopher and artist, Nikolai Rerikh (1874 – 1947). He asked: How to voyage through life? And replied – As if on a string over the abyss: beautifully, carefully, quickly. An association with ‘the abyss’ arises naturally now too, but the experience of the twentieth century and the repetition of this experience in the twenty-first century shows that crossing life ‘beautifully’ will certainly not be achievable. To cross it somehow, anyhow, I think, will be enough – without knocking over others who are passing by.