Silent messages across the city

A ‘new’ way of communicating was put into practice during this year’s IHME in Helsinki, when Mirosław Bałka engaged the locals in his project.

Semaphore Flag Signaling in Punavuori, Helsinki. Photo: Veikko Somerpuro

Semaphore Flag Signaling in Punavuori, Helsinki.
Photo: Veikko Somerpuro

IHME Contemporary Art Festival has presented a major art project in Helsinki every spring since 2009. This year’s event was Signals, a project by Mirosław Bałka, in which semaphore signalling — appropriated from 19th century sailors — served as a means of communicating concerns or questions raised by the participating communities. The piece took place in eight different districts of the city where volunteers had signed up to learn the signals. They had also agreed on a theme they wanted have a public discussion about, which formed a central part of the work. (Read more about Balka’s project here.)

Signals also plays on the thought of communication free of electricity. How would we communicate in the event of a major energy crisis? Surrounded by sea, and with the country’s waning telecommunications industry, Helsinki seems the perfect spot for the work. In a vulnerable Europe, this project gives rise to community. In Bałka’s own words, it is about a we.

How should relational aesthetics be approached, then? When Nicolas Bourriaud coined the term in 1998, he regarded the history of the genre as too short to critically examine projects. Claire Bishop later argued that antagonism should be at the core of social practice, one of its essential characteristics.

While the art world is indeed only starting to have the body of work — by, say, Bourriaud’s examples Santiago Sierra or Rirkrit Tiravanija — as a backdrop for examining new work, there are other social practices to look at. Paulo Freire (1921–1997) insisted on dialogue as an epistemological necessity. The idea of ethical criteria as a means of assessing social practice has been presented by Grant Kester, but examining what relational aesthetics mean for knowledge production seems to have received little attention. Social projects, when successful, often mean new insights for everyone involved. Mirosław Bałka himself says: ‘If you know the outcome beforehand, why make the artwork?’

1.Semaphore Flag Signaling in Herttoniemi, Helsinki. Photo: Veikko Somerpuro

Semaphore Flag Signaling in Herttoniemi, Helsinki.
Photo: Veikko Somerpuro

In Signals, the semaphore signalling is in itself visually striking. Carried out with red flags and in silence, it is breathtaking to follow. The slow rhythm follows the signaller’s breathing, on instructions from the artist. Formal aspects are, however, secondary. The participants have learned to master a new language originating in industrial times and used it to create new connections. Few passers-by stop to watch, but a couple of boys able to interpret the signals happen to come across the project at Punavuori. This unexpected reading gives depth to the work: though largely forgotten, semaphore signals are universal.

Every district’s message is communicated through a chain of volunteers and written on a board at the final destination. Discussion of the question or issue presented can then begin. Districts are paired together for a total of four events. An example of the issues addressed is a former working class district near the city center, which is at risk of losing its diversity as a result of gentrification started long ago. Suburbs built in the 1950s and 1970s are concerned about being on the periphery, while others fear becoming sites of new housing or look for ways to activate citizens.

Several voices are heard, sometimes accompanied by image presentations, followed by an open discussion. The choice of presenter Minna Joenniemi, known in Finland from culture programs on TV, as a host for the discussion events sets a warm but professional tone. While politicians and architects provide insightful views on the issues at hand, some of the spontaneity in the initial messages runs the risk of being lost in translation. Urban planning and social sciences dominate some discussions, while others are richer in perspective. Expert analysis is needed for meaningful exchange to take place, but works best when accompanied by the memories of older residents, which span decades. It is in these instances that the piece best succeeds in being site-specific.

4.Semaphore Flag Signaling in Pasila, Helsinki. Photo: Veikko Somerpuro

Semaphore Flag Signaling in Pasila, Helsinki.
Photo: Veikko Somerpuro

An artwork and a programme
Signals is put into context through IHME days, an ambitious programme of lectures, debates, film screenings and workshops with a focus on participation. Brilliant guests such as Nato Thompson from Creative Time New York have been invited to speak about participatory work of extraordinary scale. The question of whether art can change society is the theme of debates, artist presentations, and films in the programme, which includes a documentary on the re-enactment of the ‘Battle of Orgreave’ (a clash between police and picketing miners in England in 1984) by Jeremy Deller.

The programme thus provides insight into the context surrounding Mirosław Bałka’s work and places social practice on a global scale while engaging the local scene. Workshops by choreographer Hanna Brotherus bring a bodily aspect to the theme of community, while Otto Karvonen’s sign workshop takes over a part of the city space opposite the hysterically yellow sales signs of a large department store. Bałka’s artistic practice is presented in a documentary produced by Tate Media, followed by a discussion between the artist and curator Juan Vincente Aliaga. The background certainly gives more meaning to the work at hand.

3.Semaphore Flag Signaling in Punavuori, Helsinki. Photo: Veikko Somerpuro

Semaphore Flag Signaling in Punavuori, Helsinki.
Photo: Veikko Somerpuro

Mirosław Bałka’s Signals is perhaps more relational than any previous IHME work. If Anthony Gormley’s sculpture project in 2009 collected individual expressions in clay to one vast landscape, and Christian Boltanski’s heart beat archive in 2012 celebrated the unique individual, then Mirosław Bałka has created a framework that can live on long after the IHME festival has ended. When an activist during one of the discussions asked the artist if the flags and semaphore signals can be used for a protest in the near future, the answer was a definite yes. Others related experiences of finding new friends and acquaintances, united by the shared environment.

A societally transformative work like this is most welcome in the series of IHME festivals and sets a new standard for the future. Signals is not just an event; it carries the potential to be a starting point for something new, something with the gleam of antagonism in its eye.

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