Tag Archives: anti-immigration hysteria

Artists Challenge the “True Finns”

www.kunstkritikk.com
December 9, 2011
Challenging the Finns
By Taru Elfving

Fatmir Mustafa-Carlo, Muharremi, Muharremi, Xhaferi, Bajrushi, Xhyla, Shkurija, Hava, Nurije, Halimja, Rifadija, Faiki, Bashkimi, Besijana, Fatlumja, Marigiona, Zarifja, Valbona, Shpresa, Kujtesa, Enesi, Altina, Endriti, Olsa and Lejana, 2011

Birdhouses modeled after European detention centers for asylum seekers by Otto Karvonen. A large photographic portrait of his extensive Kosovan family displayed in the busy heart of Helsinki by Fatmir Mustafa-Carlo. A refugee camp set up at the city centre as a live action game by Johanna Raekallio, JP Kaljonen and Haidi Motola.

These artists’ projects were powerful and urgently needed contributions to the public debate in Finland this Autumn following the parliamentary elections that shook the country in April 2011. The right-wing populist party The True Finns hijacked media attention. Their election programme posited culture as the first main topic, before social welfare, EU, taxation etc. They demanded an end to the public funding of “postmodern fake art”: art should be supporting national identity. Finnish intellectuals pointed out all the weaknesses in these arguments and laughed. The party then won by a landslide to become the third biggest party in the parliament with about 20% of the votes (up from 4% in the previous election).

Otto Karvonen, Birdhouse

How have the arts responded to this party, which recently changed its English name simply to The Finns, in line with their claim to represent the “people”? The election has been followed not so much by changes in arts funding but considerable toughening of the public discourse on immigration and multiculturalism. Research recently published in the main newspaper Helsingin Sanomat shows that people are aware of increasing racism, yet it seems that many do not recognize the racism underlying their own beliefs (14% admit to racist attitudes yet a whopping 29% agree at least partly that certain races do not fit into modern societies). Meanwhile Finland continues to have extremely low refugee quota and minimal immigration compared to most European nations.

Yet not many voices have been raised in the field of contemporary art here in Helsinki. In anticipation of the election, a large cross-disciplinary festival, Rappiotaide (“degenerate art”), and the Fake Finn Festival of experimental live art gathered a multitude of critical voices this spring. Since then the debate has been mainly in the hands of individual artists who have tackled issues of nationalism and multiculturalism for some time already, such as Kalle Hamm and Dzamil Kamanger, Minna Henriksson and Sezgin Boynik, Pekka Niskanen, and Ykon group, to name but a few.

Institutions may not be able to react with the same speed, yet the anti-immigration climate has been felt for some time now. The Photography Museum did act swiftly in response to the election, when it focused the profile of its project space on multiculturalism for the year 2012. The opening of the large recurring international exhibition ARS 2011 at the Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum coincided with the election and thus gained unanticipated political resonance with its focus on Africa. It offered myriad perspectives on the vast continent with an emphasis on the interwoven historical and contemporary migrations. Take, for example, the intense stare of the young man in Ghana amidst the landscape of burning electronic waste from the West in Pieter Hugo’s photographs and videos: Seen in this context the work echoed a famous Finnish national romantic painting of poor peasants burn-clearing. Viewers were thrown between the unequal distribution of global wealth today and Nordic post-colonial myths.

The haunting encounter may well deepen the understanding of our own implication in global economy and mobility. Yet why did this, or the topical discussions organised alongside the exhibition, not enter a wider public debate? Why is it that art here rarely does?

Kiasma’s URB11 festival, Dublin 2
Kiasma’s URB11 festival, Dublin 2

The most visible of the recent art projects addressing the immigration debate broke out of the limitations of the museum walls. The weekend-long live game Dublin 2, part of Kiasma’s URB11 festival programme in August, staged a refugee camp at the heart of Helsinki, next to a busy shopping mall. It allowed the participants and passers-by to deal with the day-to-day struggles of asylum seekers through role-play. The unease caused by the privilege of play laid bare the problems of information and identification both in activism and in art.

The game touched some of the same raw nerves as the emergence of Romanian Roma beggars on the streets in Helsinki during the past few years. This has led to an outcry and calls for a ban on begging in the city. It has also reinforced preconceptions against the Finnish Romas. Of the minority groups the Roma are, according to the above-mentioned study, facing the most negative attitudes. In October, Helsinki International Artist Programme (HIAP) presented a project by the Serbian artist Vladan Jeremic, who has researched the topic across Europe and thus offered a wider perspective beyond the specificities of the local case. In a two-day seminar at the Ateneum Art Museum, Jeremic brought together policy makers, artists and activists to discuss not only the severe human rights issues concerning the Roma, but also innovative solutions for the problems facing all migrant workers in need of temporary social housing.

Kiasma’s URB11 festival, Dublin 2

The project by Jeremic emphasises how the question of Romas not merely concerns ethnicity but also reflects changes in contemporary global economic and political conditions. Art and its institutions are not untouched by these challenges, as was made clear by two lively public debates that coincided a couple of years ago: One had to do with the legal cases of a Russian and an Egyptian grandmother being sent back to their home countries despite the fact that their children lived in Finland and wished to take care of them here. According to Finnish law, grandparents are not part of the immediate family unit. This is in stark contrast to, for example, Mustafa-Carlo’s family portrait. The other case began to unfold, but quickly lost its poignancy, as an international applicant to the position of the museum director at Kiasma questioned the relevance of the museum in a newspaper interview. He did not stand a chance of getting a job interview since, according to the legislation, the director has to speak both of the nation’s official languages, Finnish and Swedish.

These two cases are interwoven in the paradoxical coexistence of the desire for internationalisation (in the arts and business alike) and the anxiety over multiculturalisation. This contradiction has been tangible also in the one-way model of the art export policies. Finnish artists are well supported to travel, but more in-depth and complex modes of exchange are needed, together with the recognition of the increasing multicultural presence in the arts and in the society at large. Otherwise the arts can hardly rise up to the challenge of the Finns.

Eero Järnefelt, Under the Yoke (Burning the brushwood), 1893
Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery, Central Art Archives / Hannu Aaltonen

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Museum Songspiel: The Netherlands 20XX

Sadly, this seems like an appropriate time to post this video…

Museum Songspiel: The Netherlands 20XX

A film by Chto Delat, 2011

This video film, whose narrative takes place against the background of Dutch politics in the year 20XX, tells the story of a group of illegal immigrants who try to evade deportation by the national authorities and seek refuge in a museum. The work is a co-production of the Van Abbemuseum, SMART Project Space and Chto Delat.

Distribution and inquiries: SMART Project Space, Amsterdam

In memory of Zoya Sitnikova, the mother of Olga Egorova

Produced by:  Tsaplya (Olga Egorova), Dmitry Vilensky, Gluklya (Natalia Pershina) and Nina Gasteva

Directed by: Tsaplya (Olga Egorova)

Screenplay: Tsaplya (Olga Egorova), Dmitry Vilensky

Music: Mikhail Krutik

Choreography: Nina Gasteva

Director of Photography: Artyom Ignatov

Set: Dmitry Vilensky

Concept costumes and props: Gluklya (Natalia Pershina)

With support from Van Abbemuseum, SMART Circle Trust, and SKOR.

_____

What Are Deportees Doing in a Museum?

 Chto Delat’s Museum Songspiel: The Netherlands 20XX is a scary film, not least because it coldly and blithely illustrates how the current democracies (whether “social,” “liberal” or “sovereign”) disappear the undesirables in their midst, the refugees/asylum seekers, illegal immigrants, and “lawbreakers.” In this sense, the film – despite its flimsy gesture toward a dystopian future as its setting (“20XX,” “European National League,” “euthanasia” experiments carried out by scientists, etc.) – is not science fiction. It is firmly situated in the present: this happens nearly everywhere almost every day, however much we would rather not know about it. (And the scary part, as the film shows, is how conveniently we forget that we do know.) What makes it “science fiction,” however, is not these stock elements from a threadbare genre, but its resort to a wholly fantastical plot premise: the deportees seek to claim asylum, of all places, in a contemporary art museum. What are the deportees doing in a museum?

The answer they give in the film (via the intermediary of the guard) is: because they have heard that “art is on the side of the oppressed.” Although the details, as hinted at by the museum staff, are sketchy, we are led to imagine that the establishment of “national democracy” in Holland and other parts of (what can only be Northern and Western) Europe is so brutal that the escapees have nowhere else to turn but the museum. But what they find there is an identification with the oppressed, with the revolutionary and critical potentials of art, that is literally canned, contained, archived, monitored, and rationed. The museum has an extensive collection of “revolutionary” art, but the chorus acknowledges what this art’s fate has been in our world: as a paragon of “timelessness” (although revolutions are only timely, or they’re not revolutions), and as a source of that most counter-revolutionary of genres – reconstructions of historical avant-garde performances and installations. The characters deliver many of their lines against a backdrop of Black Panther newspapers – neatly framed and lined up on a wall and thus not likely to provoke any nice white person’s “fear of a black planet.” “Street art” is relegated to a panopticon-like space known as The Eye, which now serves as a jail cell-cum-theatrical stage for the ever-silent immigrants. Finally, contemporary art’s “critical” mission (“our job is to wake society up”) is so precious that any soft-pedaling of “criticality” is warranted to avoid closure or budget cuts.

The impromptu performance of Victory over the Sun (refashioned as Towards the Light) is, after all, not meant to save the immigrants, but to save the museum and its staff from the untoward consequences of their intrusion. But it inadvertently shows how contemporary art and its handmaiden “critical theory” often function vis-à-vis the oppressed. These acquire legitimacy as “performers,” as “actors,” as data points in the artist’s “solo show mapping the deportations of immigrants,” as colorful clowns in an avant-garde pantomime. As soon, however, as the powers that be – the media, the “Center for Extremism Prevention” (which, by the way, is the name of a quite real branch of the police in the filmmakers’ homeland) – have tagged (and bagged) them as “criminals,” they disappear entirely from view – and from the minds of the art-loving public. The empty Eye at film’s end is a fitting symbol of the void at the heart of the liberal/social-democratic project and the blind spot in the eyes of its thinking (and leisure) classes. Art is not life, goddamn it!

In the real world, the “immigrants” have names: Derkan, Dorgija, Aurel, Salomee, Daniel, Asya. Since they’re identified in the credits, we’ll hope that everything is alright with them. In that same real world, however, “deportees” (as Woody Guthrie once reminded us) have, as often as not, no names (by definition). Museum Songspiel is thus an almost perfect little piece of art, set in an impeccable (real) museum, that tells us: Life is not art. Life is not just a matter of names, but of the people behind those names, the stories they could tell us, and the things we could do together. Leave the museum.

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