“Huh? Did you say free?” Many people found it hard to believe that the customer ever gets anything free, but this really happened in 2011, when the Danish artists’ group SUPERFLEX arrived in Helsinki: stalls at the Helsinki Market Square and Hakaniemi Market Hall, as well as the record shop Digelius Music and the Ruohonjuuri eco-store, were turned into free shops. In 2015, it was Jeremy Deller’s Do Touch that took city dwellers by surprise. Museum objects left their glass cases behind and made their way into the hands of random passers-by in shopping centres, a sports hall and a health centre. “Feels magical,” commented a man, holding a 3-billion-year old meteorite.
People have often encountered the IHME Project without any prior warning as, throughout its 10-year history, the Festival has “ambushed” people with art. From the very beginning, engaging diverse audiences has been one of IHME’s main objectives.
Something in common: art
“Community participation was chosen as a priority for our activities. We wanted the commissioned art project to be somehow connected to Finnish society and to different communities within it”, says Tuula Arkio, who played a catalytic role in setting up Pro Arte Foundation Finland and the festival framework. The aim was to make contemporary art more accessible to diverse audiences – in Arkio’s words, to move the focus of the art world “away from record-breaking prices at auctions, the glossy radiance of fancy exhibition invites and object-centred thinking” and redirect its gaze towards social relations.
While encountering some of the IHME Projects may have been a matter of pure chance, there have also been projects that have required a deliberate decision to participate. Martin-Éric Racine, a Finnish Quebecois, decided to take part in the 2014 IHME Project, Yael Bartana’s True Finn, after running into a producer he knew. The participants chosen for the films, Finns of different backgrounds, spent a week living together. A utopian experiment was created, followed by negotiations on Finnishness. “In an interview, the artist said that she had expected that it would all escalate into something highly volatile and was then surprised that, at least momentarily, the utopia seemed to have come true. It took me by surprise too that there was so much open-mindedness and curiosity between us – after all, some of us were deeply religious and some were members of minority sexual orientation groups“, Racine says, looking back to the filming four years ago.
Bartana’s IHME Project is an example of a work that was not produced for an existing community: rather, the community was created around the artwork. “Art doesn’t just connect those who think alike and value the same things. An artwork can gather together a group of people who only have the artwork in common”, says Paula Toppila, the curator of Bartana’s project and Director of IHME.
All about outreach
Since 2012, the Festival has been running an outreach programme, the IHME School. Art education projects that are staged with the visual art education course (Master’s degree) at Aalto University and the City of Helsinki Youth Division have been bringing contemporary art into classrooms and youth centres.
“Collaboration has offered the Festival an opportunity to extend the programme towards schools and given us a chance to experiment and explore the pedagogical possibilities contemporary art has to offer in various school environments. In principle it’s a win-win situation,” says Marja Rastas, a lecturer at Aalto University and the long-time teacher-in-charge of IHME School projects. “IHME Projects have been intersecting people’s everyday lives, and I’ve seen something similar, albeit on a smaller scale, happening in the classrooms too. Young people’s artistic activities have been boundary-blurring for the community at school,” Rastas says. She gives an example: “In one school’s staff room there is a time capsule containing documents chosen by the pupils. These are related to their own and the school’s history, and include their present-day and future dreams. The capsule was inspired by Jeremy Deller’s work and will be opened ten years after it has been sealed.”
The collaboration between IHME and the City of Helsinki Youth Division has also been going on for six years. The project leaders are artists, but youth-centre leaders and a Youth Department producer are also involved. Jonna Kalliomäki, producer of five of the IHME Workshops, has been the artists’ link to the culture at youth centres. “IHME has been bold in giving young people the means to influence their surroundings through art and to be artists,” she says. “Sometimes the challenge the workshops are faced with is their brevity. Youth centres bubble with energy and, in order to succeed, IHME Workshops need to feel the pulse there. I have to say that sometimes the tempo can be rather intense.” During her years as a producer, one of the highlights for Kalliomäki was the party that concluded the 2015 IHME Workshop: “It was the first rap act ever in the history of the Finnish National Museum. This is what IHME is at its best, bringing something completely new to a place where it hasn’t been experienced before.”
However, IHME’s outreach programme is not limited to projects for school children and youths. “To me, the whole programme that runs parallel to the IHME Project is part of our audience outreach,” says Päivi Matala, who coordinates the IHME School at the Festival. IHME’s Festival Programme has offered a platform for the exchange of ideas and other ways to participate. “For the last ten years, IHME has moved the discourse on public art forwards,” says artist Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen. “At the 10th anniversary it is of course prudent to rethink certain formats that have evolved. Are keynote lectures and panel discussions the best formats to share and create knowledge on public art, for example? But I trust that IHME will continue its experimentation with regards to both creating public art works and the related production of knowledge.”