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Together Alone / The Importance of the Arts in a Time of Crisis

Kati Laakso, Director of the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux in Brussels, talks to TLmag about the Institute’s unique initiative, Together Alone, created after the spread of Covid-19 to support Finnish artists during the pandemic, and how she sees the artistic community changing in this new environment.

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Text by Blaire Dessent

TLmag: The Together/Alone initiative was implemented quite swiftly following spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. How did it develop? Is it uniquely for the Finnish Cultural Institute/Benelux community or in other cities in Europe as well?

Katie Laakso (KL): The project was developed very quickly after the first lockdowns began in European cities. The Finnish cultural and academic institutes have 17 offices around the world so together we could get a better understanding of where things were headed on a global scale. The Institutes are independent non-profit organisations (funded by the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture) so we can usually adjust to current phenomenon quite quickly if needed. In this case, the need to answer to the crises was urgent, especially concerning many artists who suddenly lost most of their income due to cancelled events and projects. 

We launched the Together Alone project after only one week after I had contacted my co-directors at the other Institutes about their interest to participate. It was fabulous in that sense! We established a core task force and managed to get things forward very fast, building on each other’s strengths and dividing tasks between the Institutes. I believe it´s the first time the Finnish Institutes collaborate on this level, the enthusiasm and support from everyone has been fantastic.

I think the pandemic has already taught us the value and crucial importance of international dialogue and connections. It´s of utmost importance that we don´t turn inwards in the midst of all this but rather reach out as far as possible to come up with new and better solutions. Although we have seen that the crisis affects everyone around the globe on a very different scale, it does affect us all – and we will all be in this together regardless of how individual countries, politicians or individuals decide to react. Continuing to support international collaborations and artistic and academic creativity and freedom is crucial for all of us.

TLmag: The call for applications states that the project will act as a documentation of the crisis. How so?

KL: I believe that everyone has had to reconsider the way they work and live in the past few months. Everyone is trying to make sense of the situation, and to understand how to approach it also from a personal level. The proposals we received confirmed that out of necessity a lot of things have been moved online, and streaming and social media services are booming. 

In our Together Alone open call we stated that we are seeking artistic proposals related to the themes: “state of emergency, radical change, resilience, artistic practice in the future, and alone together”. It was encouraging to see that some of the applicants were also looking into systemic change by questioning the unsustainable ways in which some creative industries have been working for a long time. For example, the project by Paris based artist, Aapo Nikkanen, who together with a great network of international creatives is looking into reimagining the fashion industry, which in a lot of ways is unsustainable as it is now. 

Along with sustainability and issues related to climate, which many artists were already reflecting upon in their practice before the crises started, we also received applications on themes of togetherness, care and survival – showcasing ways in which we can live in these times of isolation, as well as a new or even post normal way of living.

Some interesting example of online projects that are working include, London based, Finnish artist Mikki Nordman, whose proposal, ‘World Wide Window: Agnus Mundi’ is about building an online art archive reflecting the Covid-19 pandemic, telling the story of the virus’ journey and its effects on society through the use of historical symbolism, numerical data and algorithms. The artwork is generated by an algorithm that interprets global statistics and is connected to an image bank of symbols and signs. A copy of the Spanish Baroque artist Francisco de Zurbarán’s painting ‘Agnus Dei’, from 1640, is recreated out of these symbols that relate to life, death, victory, luck, disease, health and evil. The historical symbols are being updated to emoji semiotics, as a nod to the digital network society that is keeping humanity connected at this moment. I recommend visiting the artist’s webpage.

Another interesting example is the ACROSS THE WAY WITH…  project by the non-profit arts organisation, Shimmer in Rotterdam. Together with PUBLICS, a Finnish arts-non-profit in Helsinki, they launched an online reading series about intimacy, welcoming words of artists, poets, philosophers, curators, and others around the world. Through the public readings the partners want to re-think community and how ‘we’ as modern humans in a digitized society engage in the care of one another. A new reading is published each Monday on Shimmer´s webpage at: http://shimmershimmer.org/across-the-way-with/

TLmag: Has the Finnish Cultural Institute done similar projects to help their community of artists before? Is this part of the mission? 

KL: The task of the Finnish Cultural and Academic Institutes Network is to advance international mobility, visibility and collaboration of Finnish professionals with local counterparts in arts, culture and research. At the Benelux Institute we do this by building programming around annual themes based on current phenomenon and discussions in contemporary arts and the society on a wider scale. This year the theme for our Institute was “NEW Normal”, little did we know how accurate it would become! 

We are always looking for interesting organisations, artists and projects in each country where we operate, and support them as best as we can. Sometimes this happens via new commissions, curated exhibitions and events, or just by connecting the right people or organisations to each other.

TLmag: As cultural institutions slowly begin to open up again after being shut down, what measures will the Finnish Institute/Benelux have to take in order to accommodate new safety measures required by the government?  

KL: I think like everyone else we are trying to predict a future that is unknown, while simultaneously adjusting to various governmental guidelines. The challenge for us is that we work between a lot of countries and it´s difficult to figure out what will be possible and when. Currently, we are planning on opening our touring art, craft and design exhibition “Call to the Wild”, at the Alvar Aalto designed, Maison Louis Carré, outside of Paris. The exhibition will showcase the work of the three amazing Finnish artists Laura Laine, Kustaa Saksi, and Kim Simonsson – curated by myself and Lise Coirier. We had to delay the exhibition because of the situation but the positive outcome is that due to this we were actually able to extend the duration of it, the exhibition will now be open between June 20 and November 29, 2020

Despite everything that has been and is still going wrong at the moment, I do want to maintain the belief that something good must come out of this major crisis. I think that we have to keep this belief alive collectively, otherwise things will just get back to the old normal, which actually was never really ok. Being able to share thoughts and innovations between peers has been one of the biggest inspirations for me personally during this time.

TLmag: How many artists will receive grants? Will there be any form of exhibition or online platform?

KL: We received 437 applications in total and were able to support 20 projects which we are now working with. We are building a webpage to showcase all projects as a unit but one can also find more information by using #TogetherAloneFI to find posts about the various projects on social media. Many of the artists also had a desire to do something in a physical space, when it will become possible again, so let´s see how things will move forward. I would love to showcase all projects as a physical exhibition later on. 

TLmag: How do you see the art world shifting following this pandemic? 

KL: The art world is one of the sectors that has been hit the hardest. Many artists were struggling before the crisis hit, and the after-effects of the situation will most likely be harsh. At the same time artists, researchers and creatives are used to uncertainty and possess capacities like resilience, problem-solving, and finding other truths and possibilities. A lot of changes are happening in our society as we speak, and I´m convinced many of these have been overdue for a long time already.

I hope that in the long run, a lot of things will change for the better. Despite its destruction the pandemic has also given us the possibility to rethink and re-build in a more sustainable and caring way – I really do hope we will be smart enough to use this opportunity! Now that we have seen how wrong, and how incredibly fast things can change, we should put all our efforts in fighting other major challenges such as climate change, which we have not paid enough attention to. Somehow this all feels like a final wake up call. We really do need to establish new practices and parameters to live and work by, and a new way of being in this world – in harmony with our surroundings, other people, nature, and the planet as a whole. Many forces are trying to get us back to the old normal – which mostly profited a small part of humanity – as quickly as possible. Instead, we should all be looking for a new new; a more economically, socially and environmentally sustainable way to live. 

Arundhati Roy put it beautifully in a recent essay for the Financial Times: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”



Cover Image: Press image from “ACROSS THE WAY WITH…” at Shimmer Rotterdam

Flowers for reading of Sonya Lindfors during "ACROSS THE WAY WITH…" at Shimmer Rotterdam
Mikki Nordman "Date: 22.01.20 Confirmed:555 Recovered:28 Deaths:17"
Mikki Nordman "Date:27.01.20 Confirmed:2927 Recovered:61 Deaths:82"
Mikki Nordman "Date:30.01.20 Confirmed:8234 Recovered:143 Deaths:171"
Mikki Nordman “Date:02.02.20 Confirmed:16787 Recovered:472 Deaths:362”
Aapo Nikkanen
Aapo Nikkanen
Aapo Nikkanen

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