In her first article for One Quart Elspeth Mitchell reviews her experiences in the exhibition The Museum of Non-Humanity. She also discusses her impressions of the Finnish art scene in 2016 from her perspective as a researcher.
‘Nobody lives everywhere; everybody lives somewhere.’¹
In 1988 Donna Haraway published her influential essay ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’ which appeared in the journal Feminist Studies.² Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, and more recently her writing on the Chthulucene (as opposed to the ‘Anthropocene’) has, quite rightly, garnered attention and gained significant symbolic capital in the cultural sphere. In her 1988 essay, however, in relation to science and feminism Haraway develops the concept of ‘situated knowledges’. This concept is used to wittily critique the assumption of objectivity in the production of scientific knowledge. One is always embodied and situated when producing knowledge. To see something, to study something, is always to see from a certain point of view. Partial, contingent and situated.
I find myself returning to Haraway’s earlier work and investigating her more recent writing during my current trip to Helsinki. Collaborations with science, non-human animals and other beings are very present in the creative practices I have encountered. For these questions the work of Haraway, but also Karen Barad and others, seem to weave their way through exhibitions, events and discussion. While I do not want to define an art scene of which I am not a part, nor homogenise the different art practices going on in one city, an attention to ecology, new materialisms and non-human others is clearly a major element of practices in Helsinki today, and has been for a long time. A desire to rethink the relation or hierarchy between humans and other living things is being addressed in different ways in Finland.
I find myself returning to Haraway’s earlier work and investigating her more recent writing during my current trip to Helsinki. Collaborations with science, non-human animals and other beings are very present in the creative practices I have encountered.
On an international platform this was seen in the Finnish and Nordic Pavilions at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, and now the recently published volume Altern Ecologies that followed the exhibition and accompanying symposium.³ The Pixelache Festival in September 2016 was thematically titled ‘Interfaces of Empathy’ and sought to shift how the human species conceives of its relationship with the the natural environment. Could empathy be a way to change practices and perspectives that ‘knowledge’ of environmental harm and catastrophe has failed to move? The Frontiers in Retreat programme, co-ordinated by the Helsinki International Artists Programme (HIAP) and the Mustarinda Association’s publications, residencies and exhibitions are also example of projects and programmes that put these questions at the forefront of art and research. These projects are grounded by the work and interests of individual artists, diverse in their practices, who bring the question of ecology and non-human others into their work. I would include diverse practices such as Eija-Liisa Ahtila‘s installations, Mari Keski-Korsu’s interventions and, in a different way again, Essi Kausalainen’s research-led performance and video works as interesting examples of this.
Museum of Non-Humanity
Although many exhibitions and events have offered important encounters for me over the past couple of months, Laura Gustafsson and Terike Haapoja’s Museum of Non-Humanity – Epäihmisyyden museo (running from 1st – 29th September) has been a particularly significant episode during my time so far. The ‘museum’ has been sited in the expansive and industrial setting of Suvilahti on Helsinki’s north-eastern shore. The website writes: ‘The museum will present the history of the distinction between humans and other animals, and the way that this imaginary boundary has been used to oppress human and non-human beings.’ Alongside Gustafson and Haapoja’s installation which I will return to below, the duo drew a number of alliances with activists, researchers, curators, writers and others. Half-day seminars were run each weekend, considering specific issues inaugurated by the expertise of those alliances. ‘Re-imagining the Future Through the Past’; ‘Over the Borders! Gender and human rights — towards freely flowing gender identities?’ and ‘Frontiers in Retreat & Zooetics: Non-human, non-animal’ give you a flavour of what concerned these sessions. The act of gathering a group of people together to present ideas and initiate discussion was, for me, an important corollary of these events and the installation. Talking, drinking coffee and eating together (the events took place in the vegan cafe, Cafe Empathy with the installation next door) over an extended afternoon allowed for more thought an intimacy than the usual event or lecture.
Although many exhibitions and events have offered important encounters for me over the past couple of months, Laura Gustafsson and Terike Haapoja’s Museum of Non-Humanity – Epäihmisyyden museo has been a particularly significant episode during my time so far.
Of the English-speaking seminars that I attended one of the strongest moments was Giovanna Esposito Yussif’s reading and discussion. Esposito Yussif’s text, which appears in an accompanying booklet, opened up an important discussion of what a museum is, or might be, in the context of its history of exclusion, nation-building and fallacies producing the illusion of a singular truth. Her seminar discussion, in conversation with Gustafsson, Haapoja and the artist Minna Henriksson, drew out some of the issues at stake in the museum, and the concept of a ‘museum of non-humanity’, in relation to feminist and decolonising projects.
Esposito Yussif articulated with strength and dexterity the issues, arguing for why the museum must be a site of continued contestation, struggle and transformation. This discussion was important in recalling the important work that has been undertaken, and is still being undertaken, in relation to power structures and oppression among people globally and locally.
Entering the Museum
Next door to this activity, the Museum of Non-Humanity was installed in a large dark space you could weave your way through. It required significant time and thought of the visitor, something not always asked of visual art audiences. Entering the space, you noticed large screens placed in a configuration that invited you to walk through and among them, but never glimpsing them all at once. Fourteen episodes emerged across an hour in the space — PERSON, POTENTIA, MONSTER, RESOURCE, BOUNDARY, PURITY, DISGUST, GAP, ANIMA, TENDER, DISTANCE, HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT, ANIMAL, DISPLAY. Each tried to approach the issues of boundaries, distinctions and hierarchies between humans and between humans and non-humans in various ways.
The success of the installation hinged on the way affective potential travelled alongside historical and textual exegesis. I saw things, read things, felt things in moments that were contingent but also durational. I was forced to acknowledge and take responsibility for my own failings to understand and comprehend everything — the most obvious example come in the abundance of text written in Finnish that was projected across the screens. I had to take stock of my partial and embodied perspective and my own position in relation to these histories and narratives. So many parts of the installation have returned to me during the weeks since I first visited. The episode ‘POTENTIA’, for example, spoke of abortion rights and the regulation of bodies by patriarchal states. This month, women and certain non-binary people in Poland are facing their right to choose being taken away. With their sexual and reproductive rights potentially being revoked with the threat of a new law people are taking to the streets to protest. Reading this news my mind returned to the Museum of Non-Humanity. When narratives of ‘progress’ are clearly delusional, we need to think and resist in imaginative and new ways.
I could go on for days about this installation. It was rich, diverse and difficult. I felt held by the installation in a way not usually experienced in the black box of gallery films but also undone by the words, images and associations. What do you do after seeing something different and important? Well, write about it is one thing. Yet, as a final word I was left wondering how much this ‘museum’ actually spoke of non-humanity (if we can even know what that word means) and how much it told us about humanity, or ourselves, instead. To be sure, this is no failure. Instead, I suggest that the Museum of Non-Humanity and its accompanying programme highlighted how much work there is to do before the universalised human subject (read: white, heterosexual, male subject) can really, truly rid itself of its own centrality and its own ego.
¹ Donna Haraway, ‘Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitaltocene, Chthulucene’, Eflux Journal, 75 (2006).
² Donna Haraway, ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, Feminist Studies, 14, 3, 1998.
³ Taru Elfving and Terike Haapoja eds, Altern Ecologies, (Helsinki: Frame Contemporary Arts Finland, 2016) <https://issuu.com/framefinland/docs/a5_altern_ecology_2016_single>