Making space in the centre
Artists Geoffrey Erista and Isa Hukka have been invited to convene their own working groups to create new shows for the Baltic Circle festival this upcoming November. TINFO met up with the acclaimed artists for a talk on artistic practices, disjointed timelines, normative work structures and politicized bodies. Forging a place in the centre means moulding it according to your own needs, challenging existing structures and sometimes even asking the audience to stop and be present as the Coming Stage is being built.
As a starter, how would you describe your individual artistic practices, and where would you place yourself within the Finnish theatre, dance, and contemporary performance art scene?
Isa: My artistic practice revolves around cripness which refers to critical, queer-feminist notions of disability. I take a critical disability point of view in my artistic work. It’s theory, it’s activism, it’s literature. It can be many things, but the term crip* is the keyword here. My background is in theatre, I’ve done writing, directing, producing, and performing, so in that sense my practice is firmly rooted within the performing arts. I’m interested in many things, but I like collaborating with people with different expertise. I’m also a poet, but poetry of course can take many forms as well.
*Crip is a term that was historically used to stigmatize and oppress disabled people but has been reclaimed, re-purposed and developed further by disabled people to refer to a diverse and heterogenous community. It is only to be used with permission from the community or person who is being referred to, or when discussing theories such as “crip theory” and “crip time”.
Geoffrey: I graduated as an actor from the University of the Arts Helsinki's Theatre Academy in 2020 – the best possible time to graduate, right (laughs)? But I’ve been fortunate to work during the pandemic and after the COVID-19 restrictions. I tend to shift between theatre, dance, and contemporary art, on many levels. Although I trained as an actor, I also work as a dancer. I have done that before graduating and have kept doing it since. I would say that my artistic practice combines theory and physical expression.
Because of my background in dance, I’m excited about using bodily language in my art. In addition, I enjoy making site-specific performances, films, and installations, where the output is not produced in a traditional way. As well as combining documentary and real life footage or other material in my performances. I would say I’m very passionate about the politics of art and finding beauty in activism.
It can be many things, but the term crip is the keyword here.- Isa Hukka
Isa, would you characterise your artistic practise as activism?
Isa: That’s a good question. I was thinking about this while listening to Geoffrey. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the word activism. Activism implies that someone else is passive. So, if I state that I’m an activist… this is an open question for me. I don’t know how to answer it, as I’m currently grappling with it. I would however say that I’m doing political art. Political art can mean so many different things. I want to organise better structures and create spaces in this world that are better for us.
How about you, Geoffrey?
Geoffrey: Now that I think about it, I don’t consider myself an activist, because I don’t really do activist work. I’m an artist, and everything displayed on a stage is political. Particularly as I’m living in a body that is political and, in an environment, where, when I step onto a stage my body immediately becomes a political gesture. Even if I don’t identify as an activist, I am really interested in exploring socially relevant topics and, like Isa said, in finding ways to bring more diversity into the arts which are still pretty homogenous.
Isa: I really identify with what you said about having a political body, but from a different angle. That’s something we share, and that is what the Coming Stage project is about.
The Coming Stage project strives to make Finnish stages more diverse and to establish more sustainable practices in the field of performing arts. The artists involved in the project are committed to questioning norms relating to the body, to (dis)ability, to language and to experience and strive to strengthen marginalized communities with their practice and work in close, dialogue-based collaboration with the Baltic Circle festival. Based on your personal and professional experience, what urgency do you see the Coming Stage project as having within the Finnish performing arts field in terms of diversity and sustainable practices?
I’m living in a body that is political and, in an environment, where, when I step onto a stage my body immediately becomes a political gesture.- Geoffrey Erista
Geoffrey: At the moment, most of the stories told at institutional theatres in Finland are still told from the point of view of straight, white, non-disabled, cisgender men, who speak Finnish as their native language. We need to be honest and say that it’s a very narrow world view. This is what the Coming Stage project is addressing by facilitating me and Isa to convene working groups for Baltic Circle and supporting us in producing works for the festival. I personally wanted to convene a group where every artist identified as being in a minority – be it in terms of ethnicity, sex, or gender. I wanted to make sure that the stories and the experiences that are usually being pushed into the margin are now in the centre, within the context of the Baltic Circle international theatre festival.
Isa: This is something I think about a lot – when we say we’re marginalized, are we also perpetuating the margin? I like the thought of saying that we’re in the centre – at least we can be, for example now as we are cooperating with Baltic Circle. And in terms of urgency, it’s an interesting choice of a word, because some crip and disabled people share the understanding and experience of “crip time”. Our timelines don’t run parallel to the timeline within capitalist, neoliberal societies.
Much of the time we cannot do things at the “able-bodied”, “nondisabled” pace. I guess urgency in this world of climate crises and many other crises is enhanced. I know there’s an urgency but working within crip practices I would like to say STOP and work with the different timelines that exist and have always in some forms existed in this world. If urgency was my starting point, I could not stay grounded in my work of addressing the inaccessibility of the arts. The Coming Stage project is an important opening within the Finnish art scene because it gives us space and time to work.
Geoffrey: … and not only work as an artist who is funded to specifically do works on minority issues, as is often the case. We’ve got stories to tell on subjects large and small, general and particular. We don’t daily think about how it’s like to live in a society that discriminates against us. We’ve got other things to think about as well, not just discrimination, racism, colonialism, imperialism – or disability. We might carry these experiences with us on account of who we are, but we’d like to tell other stories as well.
Isa: Well said.
We don’t daily think about how it’s like to live in a society that discriminates against us.- Geoffrey Erista
Isa, do you have something to add to what Geoffrey is saying?
Isa: Let me think for a second… I’m working with an international group of artists that have never worked together before; our working group is called “rampa associations” [rampa is the Finnish word for “crip”]. We’re getting to know each other, each other’s practices, and perspectives. The artists in our working group have such unique ideas and points of view on how to connect with certain audiences, for example. We also take care of each other in a very different way from how we would be taken care of in a production that was not disability-led. Us working together has allowed us to be interested in things that truly interest us, in addition to of course dealing with crip topics. In this project, our starting point is on crip practices: on working structures and models, on how to create access and how to reach audiences, as well as on how to practice together.
As a part of the Coming Stage project, the festival invites three performing artists to work at the festival for two years. Each artist brings together a working group that is offered an artistic residence, two production spots in the festival program, a producer and support on communications, marketing, and content during the two years. Geoffrey, you were one of the three artists given these resources last year. What was your experience of the process and of the resources that were made available to you?
Geoffrey: Last year, I convened more than 20 artists together for UNDERTONE – a Proposal for Legal Loitering, an event that only took place for one night from 8 pm to 5 am on the closing night of the festival. The event interfaced between the club and the performance, but above all it was a tribute to electronic music subculture and the ballroom tradition as well as the historical significance of these as creators of safer spaces.
We found ourselves having full artistic freedom to create our event, but rather than resources, time proved to be an issue and a hurdle. I was quite busy last year going back and forth doing different performances in different cities, which is why we ended up having just one event during the festival. This year we’ll have a performance that is presented several times.
Isa, two years ago, upon your debut as a poet, you said in an interview that you see writing poetry and writing for the stage mainly as a means of talking to your own queer and crip communities. What does this positioning allow you to do as a writer?
Isa: As a writer, I work a lot with questions of identity, emphasizing and exploring the difference between identity and experiences. I’m not using any mobility aids myself that would make it apparent for others that I’m a crip. However, many other crip people can see if I’m in pain or what I’m going through. I think ‘cripness’ for me has been about verbalizing something that has been completely shoved aside and made invisible and then sharing that with my communities.
I am writing for anyone who might share those experiences. People identify in different ways; I’m striving to find a shared basis and solidarity. Cripness is not any one thing, it’s many things, and I’m trying to write and make visible the ambiguity and complexity of it.
You’re now taking part in the project for the first time, Isa, and have called together a group of international artists. Upon being invited to Baltic Circle, what possibilities did you see with the project, and on what basis did you select your group?
Isa: When Hanna Parry from Baltic Circle first reached out, I was really excited. Suddenly, I had all these resources to hire other people, to include others in this artistic work and to explore something new together with them without a predetermined outcome. It’s very rare, and something I really appreciate. As this was the first time I’ve been responsible for recruiting others, I’ve had invaluable support from many people, including my mentor and work counsellor.
During the pandemic, many non-disabled people were for the first time forced to deal with some of the isolation and inaccessibility that sick/crip people are dealing with.- Isa Hukka
My aim was to gather a new group of artists internationally, but practicalities, like time differences, helped narrow down the recruitment process. But it was important for me to find people that came with different experiences and viewpoints. Usually within these structures there’s a built-in pressure to produce a certain kind of outcome within a very tight time frame, which can make certain projects inaccessible for sick or crip artists. We’ve been able to instead question how we work and what is possible for us.
Geoffrey: Something that’s very interesting about your process is that, whereas in theatre there are a lot of rehearsals where everyone comes together, in your case you’ve been going against this norm.
Isa: Yes, we’ve mostly been working on Zoom, although Aku Meriläinen who is also based in Helsinki has been a great support outside of Zoom as well. For many sick/crip people, life before COVID-19 was isolating. During the pandemic, many non-disabled people were for the first time forced to deal with some of the isolation and inaccessibility that sick/crip people are dealing with. It has been challenging for me to balance between these different worlds: connecting with people and building whole communities online, seeing the isolation and then as I haven’t been completely isolated, also seeing the side of a non-disabled Covid experience, and how these realities didn’t converge. It’s been alarming, scary, and sad. Through our event at the festival, we can hopefully bring together some crip folks in Helsinki.
Geoffrey: The way you’ve been questioning the practice of rehearsing together in the same space for 6-8 hours daily with your working group is quite revolutionary. To have such a long rehearsal period on Zoom, and then putting everything together only a week before the premiere is mind blowing to me.
Isa: This has been on account of our artists’ needs, as well as the fact that we live and work in multiple geographical locations. We’re also doing a hybrid event to provide an opportunity for people that cannot be present for the live performance. There are three different ways in which you can take part in the event: you can come to Viirus theatre on Friday and/or Saturday, join a live stream watch party in Pasila on Friday, or watch the live stream on your own device on Friday.
Geoffrey, as you’ve now had the opportunity to gather a working group once again, given your experience from last year, what were your goals this time around?
Geoffrey: The first big obstacle was to convene a large group of mostly freelancers, most of whom were already booked. My creative partner Eric Barco and I wanted to convene a group of dancers, or people who had a dance background. I also wanted to continue exploring the theme of surveillance society, that was one of the themes we worked on last year and decided to expand on this year, particularly surveillance as part of totalitarianism, of dominance and control. What we’ve created is a combination of installation, contemporary theatre and dance.
Do you see touring potential for these works, or are they specifically tailored for the festival?
Isa: For now, we’re focusing on the festival, and we’ll then see what happens and if we’re going to develop something similar or something completely new for next year. That’s what I love about this project – that there is room to move around, experiment and try things out and then continue working on what works.
Geoffrey: We’re also taking one step at a time. Ours will be a site-specific performance that will take place in a unique venue: an old office building with long empty hallways. It’s very white and clean, futuristic almost. We’ll move the audience around during the performance from one space to another.
What else will you be working on this season? Can you tell us?
Geoffrey: I’ll be taking part in the Moving in November festival next with a performance called Feijoada. The performance premiered earlier this year in Brussels, and this will be the first stop after Brussels. The group, convened by Calixto Neto, wanted to invite two local artists to join them to have local narratives and local points of view in the performance. I’m lucky to be one of the two performers who was invited to join the working group.
Isa: I’m slowly working towards my bachelor thesis in philosophy on cripness, disability, and identity politics. A book published by Frame Contemporary Art Finland, Rehearsing Hospitalities Companion 4, for which I interviewed the amazing artist Johanna Hedva together with Jemina Lindholm, will be published this week, and we will be attending some events connected to it.
What change or difference, however slight, do you hope your works will have created by the time the festival has finished?
Isa: I hope that the people we are especially inviting and trying to reach have had more space to just take it easy for a while. Rest and being surrounded by community are our basic needs. If you have those you can also dream of another kind of reality, of other social realities and of systems that are sustainable. I hope people will come together around these themes, and then we’ll see what’s next.
Geoffrey: Since technology will play a large part in our performance, I would hope to remind people of the importance of live interaction. There’s a lot of good things technology can do, but we need to be cautious in a capitalistic society about the premises on which technology is developed. We might be showing you a dystopian future, but at the same time there is hope that we, or our children, will change the world. Although the live art performances often remain detached and their effect is short-lived, I believe that they can spark the brain and bring change.
Isa: Oh, one more thing. In order to be able to imagine something different, I need to see some examples of it. I hope the way rampa associations practices, and how we organize this event, can offer one kind of an example. I want to move towards a field of arts that is radically more just; and in order to address the current conditions together, crip and sick artists have to be able to participate equally. We need crip structures, resources, access, and support.
Isa Hukka is an artist and student. As an artist their works are focused on crip practices and radical access in a variety of different media, from contemporary performance to poetry. Hukka is one of the founding members of the Crip Student Organisation, Just Another Crip Group and Crip Care Network Helsinki. They are the convener of the rampa associations working group presenting “inventing precarious perspectives” at the Baltic Circle festival.
Geoffrey Erista is an actor, dancer and live art maker working in a variety of media. Erista’s solo performance N.E.G.R.O. – Nhaga & Erista Growing ‘n Reaching Out (2019) was featured at Tampere Theatre Festival. He has since performed in several productions, including the Zodiak Center for New Dance and TTT-Theatre. Erista is the convener of UNDERTONE Creative Associates, the working group presenting Traces of Imminence at the Baltic Circle festival.
Coming Stage 2021–2024 is a project funded by Kone Foundation. The project creates a continuum for the Black Lives Matter movement as well as an institutional desire to dismantle power structures, transphobia and ableism. It reflects the Baltic Circle festival’s commitment to making its structures less discriminatory and more socially equal and sustainable. The festival, which takes place 18–26 November 2022, will feature a total of eight premieres as well as Arctic and European guest performances. The festival program focuses on building togetherness and exchanging information.
TINFO / Linnea Stara, October 6, 2022
Photo by: Eric Barco