Having hopefully conveyed some impression of the workshop programme in the below post, it seems only reasonable to try to give an impression of the pieces that we saw at the Baltic Circle festival. I should firstly point out that we were only there for the final four days of the festival so the descriptions/reviews/write-ups that follow by no means constitute a definitive account of the overall quality of the festival. In fact, I get the impression that we might have missed some of the best work that was shown.
Unlike Munich’s SpielArt festival in November, Baltic Circle seems to be much more of a grab-bag of an international festival. Where the work we saw at SpielArt - despite coming from several different countries - seemed to share a common direction of experimentalism, the work at Baltic Circle felt far more disparate, sharing nothing more than the common umbrella of the festival itself. Artistically, too, it did feel as if the standard of the work – at least what we saw – was slightly lower than that of Munich, or at least, less to the collective taste of the group. That said, it was still great to see work from other European countries somewhere other than the Barbican (or Sadlers Wells, I guess).
Miss Landmine Expo / "Can art change the world?" debate – Kiasma-teatteri
The first event we attended, following a somewhat statistic-heavy lecture on the history of Finnish Theatre (some of which I may try to reprise here if I ever get the time), was a debate on the question “Can art change the world?” This was held in the theatre auditorium of the Kiasma museum of contemporary art, where the MobileLab’s seminars were based throughout the week (the museum, not the theatre – we had a little seminar room all to ourselves and lunch vouchers for the museum’s excellent café). The auditorium was playing host to Norwegian Morten Traavik’s Miss Landmine Expo – which gained some notoriety in Britain when it was first launched. The panel for the discussion included Traavik himself, along with controversial Finnish artist Ulla Karttunen and Unicef’s campaign leader Veera Videnius. Aside from the fact that as well as working as a visual/conceptual artist Traavik is also an actor and director this was pretty much tangential to any idea of theatre; the Miss Landmine Expo was certainly not considered in terms of a performance of any sort, but Baltic Circle, while predominantly a theatre festival, does seem to have a pretty wide remit.
The Miss Landmine exhibition itself could perhaps most usefully be described as “meta-interesting” (a concept to which we shall regrettably return elsewhere). That is to say, most of what’s interesting about the ‘art’ is outside the work itself. As you might have read, the idea behind Miss Landmine was the organisation of a beauty contest in Angola (and later again in Cambodia) open only to women who had been injured by landmines. The exhibition largely consisted of huge poster-sized bright, colourful photographs of these women wearing the usual sashes and tiaras of the beauty contest beaming at the camera and generally looking jolly happy. That all the women are missing at least one leg seems hardly relevant at all. The exhibition has apparently attracted some criticism – from “feminists”, as Traavik dismissively explained in the discussion – over the use of such an outmoded trope to raise awareness of the issue. Traavik would do well to listen more carefully to such concerns.
It isn’t so much that by seeking to highlight these women’s beauty Traavik winds up accidentally objectifying them – although it could easily be argued that he does – it is more that the smiling faces and apparent unconcern rather makes the small matter of having one’s leg blown off look like a mere trifle. Certainly these women should not feel ashamed of their injuries, and seeking to present them as “beautiful” is, in many ways, a perfectly admirable impulse.
The exhibition raises far more questions than it appears to intend. The idea of beauty itself remains uninterrogated – we seem to be being asked only to accept that missing a limb need not be the end of “beauty”. This is really a point so trite that it is hardly worth making. Beyond this, the reality of the landmine themselves is curiously absent. Yes, there is the title of the exhibition, and some of the sashes worn by the women reiterate the message, but these women in their tranquil, idyllic surroundings make the weapons seem like a distant memory. The pictures serve to make the landmine seem like a problem of the past, rather than an ongoing problem. The purpose of the exhibition is apparently to raise awareness as start a debate. Unfortunately the subject of the debate seems unclear. I don’t think there’s anyone defending the motion that leaving landmines lying around is good, but these pictures and a beauty contest aren’t going to stop either the production of landmines or their use in future conflicts.
The discussion, surrounded by these huge pictures, similarly failed to even address its central question – can art change the world? Part of the reason for this was the congratulatory atmosphere within which it took place. The Unicef woman began by congratulating Traavik and telling him that his work had already changed the world. So there we go, debate over. She went on to suggest that this “art” would make an invaluable marketing tool. One idly started wondering how much money Traavik, as an artist, had made out of the pictures, and whether the models had been paid anything at all for their pains. At the very least, he’d had a nice paid-for trip to Finland while they were presumably still sitting about in Angola in precisely the same state as before they had been snapped. Plus ça change, indeed.
The other artist on the panel was Ulla Karttunen. On Friday 16th May, two days after the debate, she was due to appear in court charged with some sort of offence connected to internet pornography. The exact nature of the charges and alleged offence remained pretty opaque throughout the discussion, thanks to a combination of understandable legal requirement, the artist’s reticence, her incredibly quiet voice, and her apparent dislike of readily comprehensible explanations. As far as I could gather (mostly after the debate) she had put on an art exhibition in which she had downloaded and printed some images from “Teen” porn websites and displayed them in a gallery. She was at pains to argue (I think, anyway) that this was not “child porn” but, uh, teen porn, of the legal variety.
The nature of the charges seemed to be something between questioning whether all the participants were of a legal age to have taken part in the pictures and something to do with the fact that while it was apparently legal to view such images online, printing them out, and/or displaying them in a gallery simply wasn’t cricket. From the way she talked about the images, it sounded for most of the debate, as if she had staged and taken the photos herself, but this was apparently not the case. As such, her ‘art’ seemed to amount to nothing more than copying and pasting. Perhaps I’ve got this wrong though. She seemed pretty confused about what she’d done herself, and even more confused about why she’d done it. I haven’t heard quite so much rubbish talked by one person in a very long time. (If you're curious, and can read Finnish, there might be a more comprehensible account here)
Since the police confiscated all the images along with her laptop, it is impossible to judge the ‘art’ itself, or gauge its possible effect. Karttunen said its purpose was to “start a debate” but, like Traavik, seemed to have absolutely no idea what the purpose or even topic of such a debate might be. Her perspective on pornography was similarly unclear, although disapproval looked like it was the order of the day. Since for most of the debate, it sounded like she’d been accused of filming her own child pornography in the name of art, it was difficult to follow much in her subsequent ramblings. One hopes that those orchestrating her defence don’t let her speak for herself, although in fairness her English was significantly better than my Finnish. The debate closed without any tangible resolution having seen precious little actual debate.