Satu Herrala_Hanna Nyman_BC2017

What the arts can do

I didn’t realise something like this was even possible. Now I do.” It’s insights like this and others like it, made possible through art, that drive curator Satu Herrala’s work both on the international scene and as one of the two-strong leadership team heading up Helsinki’s Baltic Circle theatre festival. The PhD thesis she is in the process of writing at the city’s Aalto University on the same topic, the ability of art to make the impossible possible, is nearing completion.

Herrala was appointed artistic director at Baltic Circle in 2015, and this autumn’s festival marks the end of her tenure there. Before her Baltic Circle years, she worked on Make Arts Policy, a collaboration with Eva Neklyaeva, Terike Haapoja and Dana Yahalom, which culminated in the Make Arts Policy Summit in 2014.

I invited Satu Herrala to talk about the arts and the arts’ relationship with activism and to share some highlights from her upcoming thesis.

I’ve realised that activism and influence are always connected to an awareness of the responsibility they entail, and there is an inextricable link to sustainability and inclusion, too. When we experience art, the incomprehensible becomes comprehensible.

Baltic Circle is incredibly well connected internationally. I’d be interested to hear whether you’ve come across any policies/structures/systems around the world that you feel really support and sustain the arts, specifically in terms of content? How do you see the relationship between social activism and the arts, and can you give any gold standard examples of it, whether they’re practical case studies or more utopian visions?

I’ve not been myself, but I like the Oslo Biennale concept. The festival runs over five years, everything takes place in the public realm and it’s completely free. You really get this sense that it’s not been set up to cater for the art market, the approach is very much concept and ideas driven, and everything’s done with the local art scene and local residents in mind.

I also like to keep an eye on the Next Wave festival in Melbourne, and I follow many of the emerging artists that have taken part in their mentoring programme. What all these artists have in common is their ability to create artworks that are both relevant and idiosyncratic, and they are continually pursuing new forms of expression. I’ve been incredibly impressed with the strong and generous collegial spirit that defines their practice. That may well be down to the lab-style working processes they use, which see the emerging artists working together for a period of two years. Everyone participating in the programme is also committed to decolonisation and promoting accessibility through their practice.

It can be difficult sometimes to know where art ends and activism begins.

The relationship between social activism and the arts is characterised by its paradoxical nature and remains under constant renegotiation. On the one hand, art can provide a valuable platform for addressing social issues or lending visibility to injustices by channelling, in an activist manner, the resources the sector has at its disposal and the media exposure it commands. It can be difficult sometimes to know where art ends and activism begins.

On the other hand, art can create a sense of agency that will ultimately deliver change. This can happen when new spaces are created that generate new information in a collective way or in a way that is empowering for people and allows them to discover new potential within themselves and others. It goes without saying that art is never an island, that it’s always bound to its own specific social context, but at times it does feel like the debate can feel a bit like a talking shop for industry insiders. Art can easily be appropriated as a tool for populist rhetoric, too; in Finland, for example, the far-right Finns Party like to talk about what they have termed “postmodern pseudo-art”.

At its best, art is located somewhere between the unknown and the emergent and has the power to catch both the viewer and the artist themselves by surprise. “I didn’t realise this was possible. But now I do,” was my response to my most important and powerful encounter with art to date.

Forensic Architecture brings together architects, artists, scientists, technology experts, journalists and lawyers to create both artistic and academic output that is activist in nature. Though their work is frequently exhibited in several different contexts, including museums, theatres, festivals and biennales, it is media outlets and courtrooms that are Forensic Architecture’s most important platforms. The group works together to produce evidence, and they have successfully lent their support to a number of legal cases.

 “Would you evoke lifeforms yet unknown? // Would you welcome what you cannot comprehend? // Would you watch gender disappear like a cloud?”

These are some of the questions you posed in the Curator’s Welcome to this year’s Baltic Circle festival. In what way can the festival programme help us face the unknown or understand something we fear or confront something we would rather avoid?

With the festival, we’re trying to create safe spaces for people to explore the unfamiliar and the unknown. Consent matters to us, and we seek it and negotiate it in various different ways. Some of our performances are designed as a sort of hop-on-hop-off events. And if you don’t feel safe, you’re of course welcome to leave any of our performances at any time. We always make sure that performances involving audience participation are clearly flagged as well. There are various degrees of participation, and it’s up to every audience member/participant to decide what’s right for them.

if you don’t feel safe, you’re of course welcome to leave any of our performances at any time.

I hope that the 2019 Baltic Circle festival performances and events will help to make the incomprehensible understandable. In Francesca Grilli’s Sparks, 9–12-year-old children will be doing one-on-one palm readings with adults in the audience to predict their lives and futures.

What is possible in art, that is not possible otherwise?”, the title of your thesis seems to point to the very essence of all artistic endeavour. And in an article on the Goethe Institut website you write about what art is and is not capable of*.  What sort of ideas and observations can we expect from your thesis?

My thesis looks at the capacity arts and cultural events have to generate political agency. I’ve chosen to approach my topic through a series of case studies, including the Make Arts Policy Summit and Vuostta¨ álbmogat (First Nations), a programme of works from 2017 curated by Pauliina Feodoroff, which were both organised as part of the Baltic Circle festival.

I’m currently focused on a third case study that relates to the world’s largest pulp mill which the Finnish paper-making giant UPM is building in Paso de Los Toros in Uruguay. I’ve joined forces with Uruguayan artist Tamara Cubas and Jussi Lehtonen, a Finnish academic, theatre director and actor to ask how art can create contexts in which the cultural and social impacts of neo-colonialism, which often remain disguised on the global economic stage, can be made visible.

TINFO / Sari Havukainen 24 October 2019

*“I believe one of the most important things art can do is to make visible what is hidden in our society and to give shape to new potential and to change. I’m not suggesting that art in and of itself has the power to change our political reality, but what it can do is help raise awareness and pave the way towards the sort of fundamental shifts in thinking that ultimately will shape the very structures that our societies are built on; the way we educate people, the way our justice system operates, the way we run our economies and the way we govern our lives.”


In a photo: Satu Herrala with the managing director Hanna Nyman at Baltic Circle Festival 2017. Photo by Tani Simberg