Researchers and artists break boundaries

Submitted on Mon, 01/18/2016 - 10:58
Arja Rosenholm ja Anni Kangas
Arja Rosenholm and Anni Kangas also challenge their own way of conducting research and producing knowledge. They want to learn new ways of doing things in joint workshops with artists. Photograph: Jonne Renvall


A new research project is challenging the East-West divide. Researchers and artists are taking apart the divide in a new research project led by researchers at the University of Tampere.

“This is an experimental project. We are interested in what researchers and artists can learn about knowledge production from each other,” says project leader Anni Kangas, a university lecturer in international relations.

Finnish and Russian researchers and artists will meet in workshops in order to produce performance art, paintings, literature and other works of art. The project is planning to organise thematic weeks and events in Finland and Russia. A group of students from the University of Tampere will also join the events.

In December 2015, the Kone Foundation granted EUR 64,440 to this project as one of its Bold Initiatives. The themes of the project include migration and multiculturalism and the politics of gender and sexuality.

Researchers will also become artists

The roles can be switched so that the researchers, too, can end up doing art.

“We also challenge our own way of doing research. As researchers of literature and culture, we are often concerned with end products. In this project, we enter the same process as authors,” says Arja Rosenholm, professor of Russian language and culture.

As yet, Kangas and Rosenholm do not know what kind of art they will do in the project. In her role as a researcher in international relations, Kangas wants to examine the role of art in world politics.

From Stagnation Era statues to the everyday level

Art in the Finnish relations with the East brings to mind the Era of Stagnation, the socialist realist World Peace monument in Helsinki and the Finno-Soviet film Luottamus (Doverije) from 1976, which depicted the role of Lenin in Finnish independence in 1917.

“The art related to East-West relations during the Cold War tended to highlight the difference between the two. The grandiose statues, for example, reinforced the power relations, which we want to dismantle in this project. We are trying to stimulate the critical potential in both societies, not just take the current status quo for granted,” Kangas says.

The project will not look at Russia or Finland separately but at the common characteristics of these two societies.

“The situation has changed since the peace statues even though new divisions are already being set up. Our project challenges these divisions,” Rosenholm continues.

Finland is not equal either

The feminist discourse in Finland boosts old divisions if it reproduces the idea that Finland has achieved gender equality and Russia has not. The researchers also want to take a critical look at the Finnish society.

“Finland is equal on some level, but we still have problems. Even though things are different in Russia, some of the artists there are very radical in questions of gender and sexuality. The Russian questions about equality and sexuality may also touch upon our own weak spots. Saying that the Finnish society is equal and the Russian not is an oversimplification that just does not work,” Kangas says.

The refugee crisis has highlighted questions of the politics of body and sexuality. Arja Rosenholm has noticed that at present political decisions are very easily being sexualised in the Finnish debate on immigration and Finnish values.

“It is also worth noting what kind of political, moral and ethnic meanings are included in the talk on rape and sexual harassment. We cannot say that we do not have sexual harassment in our own country, and we should not be creating new contradictions when we are discussing these things,” Rosenholm says.

Anni Kangas is surprised by the recent communications from the Family Federation of Finland, which seem like a cry for help for the traditional heteronormative couple. At the same time, the Russian artists in the project are producing short films that question the gender and sex roles of couples.

“In Finland, the current debate around families is conducted with terms that reiterate clear female and male roles. We can look for a critical angle in this debate and recognise our own blind spots.”

Traditional funders would not sponsor this project

The project is so different from traditional research projects that it is unlikely it would have received funding from traditional channels. The researchers praise the Kone Foundation without which the project would not have materialised.

“I do not think that the Strategic Research Council of the Academy of Finland would fund anything like this, and we know this because they always publish their project criteria before the application process. The Council’s aim is to respond to the needs of decision-making and business life,” Kangas says.

Rosenholm adds that the project will bring a critical element to the scientific debate and the preconditions of conducting academic research.

“If we must conduct applied research and benefit the business world only, we would not be able to raise funding for a project that tries to rethink social processes and find different ways to produce knowledge by using critical perspectives. Without alternative sources of funding this topic would remain completely in the dark.”

Researchers should not hide behind walls

The project also makes a critical comment on academic knowledge production, which usually serves the small readership of international specialist publications.

“That is why we are organising different action weeks; we want to make these ideas public in a different way. If we write articles according to the standards of academic publishing, which are then hidden behind paywalls, the texts will not be available for comments. Artists may be more prepared to make their creations public, and we would like to learn from that,” Kangas adds.

Rosenholm says that because of the nature of their work, artists and academics have the privilege of taking a step back from the world and investigating phenomena from the outside. The aim of this project is to make the results jointly public for all to see and discuss, and to bring attention to how knowledge is produced in different ways.

Publicity, commenting and asking questions are a part of the project. The aim is to act in public, not seeking publicity for publicity’s sake.

Text: Heikki Laurinolli

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