Border crossings: returning to the 2017 ANTI Festival

 

by Maddy Costa

Among the rare treasures of wikipedia is a page dedicated to lake islands, land rising craggy amid bodies of water, sometimes – oh joy – recursively: as islands on lakes on islands, and lakes on islands on lakes. This is the landscape of Kuopio, Finland: a town bordered by a lake which is freckled with islands, some so small they would barely hold a picnic, some floating forests of soft green cypress, others sizeable suburbs reached by boat in the summer but in winter, when the lake freezes over, accessible by car. The lake itself is a mysterious thing: at this shore it’s called Kallavesi, but its waters merge across the north and south with at least four other lakes, their borders invisible even on a map. Because borders are artificial after all.

A walk through the city in the opposite direction leads to another lake, Valkeisenlampi: at least, I’d call it a lake, but to the Finns the lampi in the name denotes a pond. It’s neatly edged with ducks, willow and fishermen, and floating close to one corner, incongruous and hastily assembled, is a plywood shed: home for all five days of ANTI festival to Slovenian artist Mark Pozlep, although to be honest from the shore it looks barely habitable for crows. Naturally he’s called the work Island, and its presence on the pond-lake is enough of an affront to some of the locals that on his second night a group, probably young, drunk and pugnacious, gather at the banks and shout at Pozlep to come out, hurling stones and threats to drag him to shore. Daytime responses are more restrained: a glance, a smile, a shake of the head. At 2pm and 6pm each day it’s possible to chat with him via walkie-talkie. “Have you caught any fish?” a boy on a bike asks. “Have you caught any fish?” an older man asks, his wife placid by his side. “I think you are very bad at fishing,” another man says in dogged English, “because this lake has many fish and you have caught no fish.”

When I talk to Pozlep, he asks about the rest of the festival, thirsty for a different conversation. I tell him of sitting on the shore of a Kallavesi island contemplating drowning, death and decomposition; standing in one of a row of shopping malls looking at a model of how the world itself is drowning; visiting a sewage plant, and a water purification plant, and cheering as their waters meet; but also just walking the edges of the city itself, tracing the waterline, losing myself in its blurs of greys, greens and blues. By the time Pozlep leaves his Island, ANTI will be finished, Kuopio returned to normal; the stories I and other visitors tell him are all he will know of its presence.

ANTI disrupts Kuopio’s normal while at the same time suggesting another. “Place-making” is such a buzzword I’m wary of using it, especially of a festival I’ve visited only once, in a town I don’t know, but this is what it feels to me ANTI does: it transforms Kuopio, for a few days each year, and also permanently, because what is once seen and felt is always somehow known, and what is once made possible can never be impossible. ANTI does this by being present and accessible in public space and at the same time desiring a step forward to meet it; being light and serious at once in its preoccupations and how it shares them; being designed for the people of Kuopio, offering them new encounters and experiences that widen their habituated gaze, not least by being expansive in its concerns, its internationalism, its address to issues affecting humanity globally. Water is its 2017 theme, but how that reads is diffuse: the lines of connection between each work are fine and strong as fishing wire and the invitation to trace them has a casual air; how far you travel, how many borders you cross, is up to you.

The central market square is itself a kind of concrete lake, surrounded by shopping malls instead of trees. In a corner unit of one of those malls, artist Milla Martikainen has set up camp with her father Pertti, a climate scientist, to present Global Flood: a meditation on how humans are affecting the fragile equilibrium of Earth’s complex environment, and a sculptural visioning of what its destruction might look like. Hanging over an indoors pond, a neat square hewn from plywood, is a clear plastic bubble half-filled with water; more water trickles into it through a garden hose, the balance maintained by puncture holes that allow arcs of water to spurt out. This represents Earth over the past 10,000 and more years, says Pertti, multiple systems kept in check by each other. But then the volume of water pumping in through the hose rises, so quickly that the bubble is overwhelmed; water floods in, floods out, pours over it, and the weight sinks the ball to the pool below. It’s possible to check this by pedalling on a bicycle – the faster one pedals, the slower the influx of water – but unless this intervention is swift enough, strong enough, committed enough, it can’t prevent the inevitable. Milla reports asking her father: could this happen to Finland? And he laughs at her: no! Its waters are calm, distant from sea. Instead the anticipation is of an influx of human bodies: already immigration is on the rise, already refugees are a more visible presence. What is the equivalent of pedalling on the bicycle in that respect? What shifts in human behaviour are required to welcome, accommodate, shelter, tend?

Outside in the market square, Rita Marcalo offers one kind of answer, standing in a bright white T-shirt emblazoned with the words DANCE WITH ME. The body she invites you to dance with isn’t simply her own: to make this work she spent time in the refugee camp in Calais, before its destruction, talking to the people living there about their journeys, their hopes, their lives before unliveable catastrophe, and inviting them to teach her a dance to their favourite song. Some chose music that reminded them of home, some chose American pop, Beyonce; some insisted that they don’t dance, can’t dance, and yet taught her movements stiff and tentative and fond; some bounced and jiggled with abandon and joy.

It’s easy to think of refugees as an unindividuated mass; Marcalo refutes that, inviting individual and idiosyncratic encounters not only with stories but limbs, pulse, breath. To dance with each refugee requires stepping alongside their body but also inside it: as participant you are at once Marcalo learning the dance, embodying her care, her attention, and the human who once stood opposite her, in an amorphous space between hope and despair, an old life not quite ended and a new one just out of reach. The refugee is invisible yet present; and watching Marcalo’s participants listen, laugh, dance, cry with her, my mind drifts beyond the market square, past Pozlep in his temporary shelter on the pond-lake, to the people who’ve managed to find asylum in Finland, the visibility they avoid, embrace, have thrust upon them unwanted, and the people still seeking, and hiding, and travelling through shadows.

Even before the 2017 festival finishes the fish-wire thread of connections is drawn across time to 2018, with the awarding of the International Prize for Live Art to Tania El Khoury, particularly for her work addressing migrant experiences, why people might need to leave their homes, and what happens when they do. During a panel discussion with Terike Haapoja, the 2016 recipient, and Sethembile Msezane, a South African artist also nominated for the 2017 prize, El Khoury screens a trailer video of her one-on-one piece As Far As My Fingertips Take Me, since programmed for the 2018 festival. It’s remarkably affecting for such a distanced representation, brief snapshots from a work of storytelling and touch, in which an audience member doesn’t simply listen to the words of a refugee but feels them painted on their skin – a temporary tattoo that requires its recipient to decide how long to carry that story, and how to carry it forwards. Programmed alongside a new work, The Search for Power – electric, but also colonial – Fingertips will continue to unfold many of the questions related to human connection held inside ANTI 2017.

Those questions are submerged in Watermeets, a work in two stand-alone parts, one of which takes place at the Itkonniemi water purification plant, the other at Lehtoniemi sewerage plant. Both visits begin and end with the same incantation and the same ritual; different in the middle are the smells, the repulsion, the sense of danger. The work’s makers, Minty Donald and Nick Miller, are explicit in drawing connections between the water they use as their material and the human bodies it surrounds, comprises, and passes through: “We’ve been thinking,” they begin, “about what meeting means … about how and who and what we can and can’t meet.” Water is labelled – “as clean or not clean, fresh or waste, grey or black, as hot or cold or as ice and steam” – much as humans label each other; and in each case there is an effect on “how I feel”. Watermeets doesn’t remove the labels: instead it gently performs an act of comingling.

The tour in each case is fascinating, making visible the hidden processes that send clean water to the taps of Kuopio (from arrival to departure a full five weeks, if I remember right) and detoxify sewage before piping its water to the deeps of Kallavesi (more like 10 days). For each of the plant managers leading the tour, the nightmare scenario is that their two waters should meet: and yet, that’s exactly what happens in the closing ritual, a vial from each place poured together into a pipe sculpted from ice, which cracks with a satisfying snap on the touch of the warmer liquid. Participants bring their own bottles of water gathered from bathrooms, public fountains, the place they call home; the act of pouring them together becomes an emotive making possible of connection, of bonds. Wherever you’re from, whatever language you speak, clothes you wear, religion you practice, body you fuck, you’re as much made of water as the person standing next to you – and almost as much made of water as the earth you walk on. In a subtle and undemonstrative way, Watermeets renders hierarchical separations between humans, and between humans and nature, absurd.

And yet these separations, borders, exist and persist: part of ANTI’s work is to close them for real. Back in market square sits a shipping container, the kind occasionally – and often with fatal consequences – used by desperate stowaways, but here the machinery for a different kind of passage, a journey across land from periphery to centre. This is the venue for the 10-Minute Dance Parties hosted by Australian artist Joseph O’Farrell (Jof) and a group of teenagers for whom the heart of Kuopio might as well be a foreign country. While it’s evident that Jof is the central artist, a gregarious and animated master of ceremonies, what strikes me from the moment I join the queue is the extent to which the teens are in charge. They congregate around the container in a rumbustious gaggle, daubed in neon make-up, handing out glo-sticks like magic wands. Inside they are in control of the DJ booth, the microphone, the choice of songs; Jof responds with cheers, hands punching the air, stamping feet, leading the crowd by following the teens’ lead.

As I sweat and catch my breath in the tiny space, try not to accidentally stamp on the foot of the child on one side or punch the face of the woman on the other, beaming with joy as almost everyone else sings along with a Finnish pop song, it occurs to me that this is the perfect piece of community art. Before bringing them here, Jof went there, working with the teens in their home suburb of Petonen, a place itself freighted with a reputation for violence, for being a slum. The young people build 10-Minute Dance Parties for the community they know – and then, with Jof beside them, for the community they don’t. For 10 minutes at a time inside the container, but for two whole days of the festival, the market square belongs to these teens: their vibrancy enlivens it, as it ought to always.

Thoughts of exclusion – who and what go unseen within society, and how this is shaped by but also shapes ideas of freedom – pervade the three works programmed by Terike Haapoja. Only one, Gravitation, is open to all and not in Finnish; an exhibition of photographs placed with exquisite effrontery in a gallery opposite Kuopio’s austere whitewashed cathedral, it is seductive in a steely way, and I find in it a stillness serrated by uncertainty. A body of a woman, also pale white, also architecturally perfect, looms in the dark, her head obscured by a glare of light. In another image the woman’s face is hidden behind a camera; with her free hand she lifts up her T-shirt revealing naked breasts and crosshatch marks. Another body, covered by a yellow plastic mac, sprawls in a grass field surrounded by autumn leaves. A torso becomes a canvas for a child’s primary-coloured drawings; another has its nipples crossed out with black tape. Sex, death, illness (Haapoja was working in the wake of treatment for cancer), power and surrender entwine in these images; if they are expressive of desire, it’s in a cool and considered, almost medicalised way. Just as Haapoja lost agency over her own body in the context of surgery, here she considers agency in relation to sex: what is set free when one is masked, chained, restrained. The eyes of the woman might be removed but her inquisitive gaze isn’t: that shaft of light, those black tape crosses, that camera over the face hold on to privacy while holding it up for examination, wondering what is being looked for in the act of looking at.

I walk the edges of Kuopio, where they are sandy and where they are hidden by reeds, where water pools in the crevices of rocks and where it is deeper than I am tall. I am looking for rest, a kind of silence, something to calm this fever inside, burning until I peel off clothes and dip into the lake, so cold my legs tremble for hours after, firework blooms through my veins. So much of ANTI asks what it means to live, and live with others, but in Waterborne, from a suite of works by French & Mottershead that describe, in queasy detail, the decomposition of the body in different natural circumstances, the question refocuses on what it is to cross the final border into death. To disintegrate slowly, skin cells separating, veins collapsing, gasses bloating and releasing, the body returning to matter, over time deliquescing, becoming one with the planet. The woodland installment of Afterlife, programmed at In Between Time 2017, was so visceral I thought I might actually vomit; but in Waterborne the dead body’s drift with the swell of the waves, pecked at by birds, gnawed by fish, its gradual dissolve, is a more comforting journey. I lie beside the water and imagine myself pure bone. I have washed up here on invitation of ANTI, to write about the festival, an island of sorts, and my spirit has found a home.

 

Waterborne (Clip) from French & Mottershead on Vimeo.

 

With thanks to Gregg Whelan for inviting me to write about ANTI, Johanna Tuukkanen for telling me about ANTI in 2013, since when I have longed to go, and Elisa Itkonen for organising the trip; and apologies to all three for taking so long about pulling this together.

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