Visual Literacy in Helsinki’s Guggenheim project

The Guggenheim-Helsinki feasibility report and the way that Helsingin Sanomat (which this blog prefers to call The Usual and some just call Pravda) and a few other cronies have been hyping it up in the last few days has also yielded a good amount of laughs.

But presumably the Head of the Helsinki Art Museum, Janne Gallen-Kallela-Siren (JGKS), did not mean to have us all bursting at the sides when he gave yesterday’s interview to Channel 4 TV.

The interviewer asked him how he imagined the future museum. He had not, he said, thought about that.

Instead he had thought about 500 years of Gutenberg’s galaxy [sic].

The spoofs are coming thick and fast. On facebook … [but also commentary on the mainstream debate: “impossible to be critical of the G. without being written off as a pessimist … it’s promoted with the same sickly over-happy hype as innovation and the Aalto University” “is this a sick joke?”]

Many thanks to Creative Block for this visually articulate and verbally supported reaction to JGKS’s baffling show. For this weekend reality was indeed transformed, as his post notes. Apart from Creative Block’s fabulous illustration of the story, he provides a transcript.

”sitä olen ajatellut, että meillä on nyt takanamme noin 500 vuotta ns. Gutenbergin galaksia, galaksia, jossa painettu sana, kirjoitettu sana on ollut hegemoninen vallan väline. Ja me nyt tällä hetkellä seisomme visuaalisen vuosisadan kynnyksellä. Ja tämä vanha, Gutenbergin galaksi horjuu meidän ikään kuin takanamme ja jalkojemme alla … [Nyt] tarvitaan huipputoimijoita, -laitoksia, -instituutioita, -museoita, -taiteilijoita, jotka ikään kuin voivat ottaa tämän keskiön tällaisessa uudenlaisessa maailmassa, jonka me tiedämme olevan jo ympärillä, mutta jota me emme aina välttämättä osaa ikään kuin artikuloida todellisuutena.  … täytyy muistaa, että taktiikalla voitetaan taistelu, strategialla voitetaan sota. Ja strategian taustalla täytyy olla jokin päämäärä. Nyt meillä on ollut taktiikka. Meillä on strategia. Mutta meillä on ihan konkreettinen päämäärä, että jos kaikki menee kohdalleen, Suomeen, Helsinkiin nousee vuosina 2017-2018 museo, joka nousee toivottavasti maailman globaalien museoiden joukkoon.”

Basically, it’s something like that after these 500 years of the hegemony of the printed word, we’re now at the threshold of a new world. This requires new top talent, institutions, museums, artists and so on who can take centre stage in this new situation. He goes on to talk about strategy and tactics and that maybe by 2018, if all goes well, Helsinki will have a museum that will hopefully join the ranks of the globe’s finest.

Reproductions of JGKS’s own visual skills, as demonstrated last week when the report findings were presented, are also attracting a fair amount of comment.

Inspired by this story, I googled for that earlier silly picture. And found it. (Scroll down on this page for those snowball-throwing representatives of new talent.)

But I also found yet another spoof image of that attractive piece of Helsinki close to the water.

Finland’s state broadcaster, YLE, reports that there is something fishy about the way the whole feasibility study was drawn up.

JHJ asks: Should there not be transparency about who sits on what board representing whose interests, and should transparency not reach beyond Helsinki’s deputy mayor Tuula Haatainen reassuring the public that “it’s OK, we knew about it”?

Ripping off YLE’s image, we can safely conclude that in the fight between the Guggenheim and Gutenberg, all tactics are allowed and thus far there appear to be no winners.


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That G-report: 200 pages of buzzwords like “deep”

The Guggenheim Foundation’s feasibility study for Helsinki is out. Its 200 pages, unsurprisingly vacuous and expensively produced as they may be, should be of interest to anyone who loves Helsinki. (Yawn – there would be better things to do…)

The G. Foundation and its Helsinki friends want the franchise here. And they have the South Harbour very much in their sights (photo below). So what are the motives, impacts and willingness to take risks (on their own behalf? on ours?) of this international institution? The report (executive summary at least) reads so much like the standard bull***t bingo that’s filled planning and urban governance bumph for 30 years, it’s hard to know.

The report’s producers apparently “worked diligently … to understand how a G Museum could benefit Finland”. There is no “center of gravity” in Helsinki’s art scene, it continues. The G thinks it can help plug this gap by offering to try to attract more tourists and expand the art market.

Ah yes. This is the world that’s been made in the last 30 years: here judgements on urban and art issues are debated in business/financial terms; the needs of tourists trump everyone else’s; luxury cars sell better than ever even as crisis reigns!

In these circumstances, perhaps it’s not that surprising that so many are so willing to sell Helsinki’s family silver (the South Harbour plus the city’s limited art funding). The Usual mostly plays cheer-leader, but the uber-respectable  Suomen Kuvalehti asked about the risks two days ago, noting that the deadline imposed on the city for deciding (February 15th!!) is far too tight. In the same rag the veteran film maker and politician Jörn Donner noted almost a year ago that the scheme is part of an unwise megalomania among decision makers.

More recently then. What are folks saying? A lot. Many are stunned (by the proposed site, the timetable, the risks, the impact on museum staff and, perhaps, visual artists). Waiting for the news to be digested, our friend Arkkivahti confines herself to very few words indeed – arrrrggggggg being the most operative one.

In a clip on YLE, artist Silja Rantanen picks up some important themes from the report. It is problematic from a moral and political point of view, she notes. It means public Finnish money bolstering US-based business.

She also does not like the way Helsinki is represented to the report’s American audience: the text is imperialist, based on a stereotype of Helsinki from the Cold War era. A G “museum” on this basis, she suggested, would turn Finnish art into an ethnographic curiosity. It might provide a set of walls for pretty random travelling artworks when what Finns deserve (our interpretation here) is stewardship, including further development, of something much more precious and locally meaningful. Rantanen sees cultural imperialism also in the way that the G offers its know-how to the Finnish (underpaid, overqualified and variously motivated) museum staff.

Indeed, although the G. report includes the deep word “deep[ly]” about twenty times, it doesn’t offer anything “solid”. Instead it promises consultation, expertise, “new ideas” [sic] …

Without the massive injection of more substantive resources, the so-called Bilbao effect that those finger-pointers above are hoping for, is never going to happen (as I noted earlier here).

Elsewhere? Angry anti-elite postings against the plans, as you’d expect, online. Interestingly, some [not “many”, Ed.] Finnish artists and gallery people (said elite?) seem quite happy with the G. concept. They talk about art as if it were for the art market.

Has neoliberalism’s love of riches sunk into those folks like a hot knife into butter? That old Fifi/Adbusters image is rather suggestive. (Helsinki slang lesson: fyrkka = money).

p.s. I muse on the possibility that living next door to the Soviet Union has left many otherwise intelligent Finns blind to salient features of left and right politics – including the possibility that the community/communism has a lot going for it, and that Finland’s proverbial equality is fast disappearing into a black hole of cosseting the already rich. Provocative thoughts from the USA here.

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Wide, wide open

“Open Helsinki” is the slogan, 2012 is the year.

Which felicitous pair of words leaves everything pretty open in the (so far) delectably wonderful city of Helsinki.

Will design in the officially open city prove to be anything other than a hyped-up word that everyone will soon tire of hearing? Or will designers – everyone who designs stuff but also other things like events or policies – turn out to have moral backbone, good-enough knowledge as well as creative talent? Will they offer up innovations [sic – that word is still allowed] that make change for the better? Will we be inspired by the design gallery, as promised here? Or by challenging what Tony Fry calls unsustainability?

Or, as some of our friends fear, will design hype just give opportunities for the same old f**ts to get paid for what they’ve been doing for decades anyway?

(We like nicely crafted Fiskars scissors and knives, and we occasionally wear Marimekko, but still …)

But more important than design, anniversaries or other parochial Helsinki concerns in 2012, is that there will undoubtedly be many interesting, perhaps important, things to reflect back on in early 2013 that are far, far, far bigger than our little Helsinki.

I mean, after all that 2011 set up for it, 2012 will HAVE to be interesting.

Eurozone (as anticipated at the BBC), the various uprisings against business-as-usual around the world, not least the occupiers, those 21st-century angry young folks who aren’t afraid to call spades spades, the Finnish presidential post with a populist right winger given more media space than anyone could have guessed a couple of years ago, but also a popular greenie given deserved (we feel) exposure as well. And let’s see what the Guggenheim-story brings once more actual information is available, as opposed to speculation, very big dreams and passion! Not to mention how “tall” buildings will be defined in tomorrow’s Helsinki, winter or summer (a topic I mused on myself once).

So it would be a shame if JHJ packed up completely. However, I must let you both know that things are hectic and JHJ is not a high priority. But do keep checking back from time to time in case  there’s something here. And I always love a comment.


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Changing tempos

Latin languages treat time and weather as the same thing. At least they are given the same word (temps, tempo). Such usage presumably once captured a sense of cosmic order as reflected in a cyclical pattern of weather. Much like the last couple of years of JHJ’s blogging, where, to our surprise, “weather” was a very frequently used tag.

The beautiful colours of autumn 2009, the great snow of 2010 followed by the great heat of the summer of that same year. Then there was the even greater snow of 2011 and the almost equally amazingly warm and wonderful heat of the long summer of 2011. And then, from around early November, it’s been c**p.

We do not believe in retribution by weather gods or any other kind, but this feels uncannily like payback time.

But it also makes one think back to say, 15-20 years ago. Today’s 26 metre per second (in a snowless/cheerless) December was something I imagined happening in decades to come if the political powers didn’t do something drastic. Ho, ho, ho, I’d never have believe a Durban would be possible in those youthful days.

Now I know that the closer you get the poles the more you notice the changes in the climate. Alas, proof of the matter is undoubtedly going to remain as elusive as the mystery of the Makasiinit. And so columnists and irritating people will keep bleating on about how anthropogenic climate change is just an international conspiracy.

The relevance?

Many of us Helsinkians have left the city in search of a traditional christmas (snow). Some are already heading back into town to escape the power cuts, fallen trees and other emergency situations that the miserable mostly snowless weather conditions are offering.

(Below a real-time map of all the places the emergency services have been busy today. Notice the icon for a fallen spruce.)

It all seems to fit the mood this christmas. World = bad. Friends and people I know = good.

Must get out. Going stir crazy here!

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Keep calm!

It matters whether a cargo ship is carrying explosive devices known as Patriot missiles or explosive devices soon to be deployed at a party near you. (Just as it matters what role the Guggenheim franchise should have in our fair city’s future.)

So it’s hardly surprising that Finland’s biggest news story in the run-up to Christmas is the saga of the Thor Liberty. It features not just the longest storm in living memory to batter southern Finland, but also a heroic pilot-boat crew and a cargo-full of misnamed explosives. It appears that the story pivots around the difficulty of translating the Finnish word “räjähde”.

But we here at JHJ are minded to spread cheer, peace and calm. And so we’ll skip the never-ending bad news and note instead the unselfish behaviour of said pilot-boat crew and various other folks minded to help the distressed vessel (sailing, by the way, under a Manx-flag, whatever that might be).

And lest anyone should think that we here at JHJ have gone soppy (or had a bit too much glögi) we’ll share two more quick stories of goodwill from last week.

First, JHJ found herself pressed for time in this busy yet important season of loose-ends-up-tying and found herself in a taxi instead of a tram, on her way to meet aged relatives.

To her distress, after saying her goodbyes, she noticed her woolly hat was nowhere to be found. (And this after losing another one and then finding out about the 4.50€ it costs to track it down via HSL lost property.)

Heading out into the black, wet night of this December, JHJ remembered that unusually, she had taken the credit-card receipt on exiting the cab. Perhaps her dear beanie was on the floor of the taxi! With a quick phone call, she tracked down the owner of the taxi company. Her beanie was alive and no longer on the floor of the taxi.

The owner of the taxi (not the same guy as the driver, interestingly) volunteered to drop off the hat then and there. Alas at this point, JHJ was almost at the tram heading in a not-so-mutually-convenient direction. OK, we agreed, we have each other’s phone numbers, we’ll sort something out within Helsinki’s centre a.k.a. Kantakaupunki over the next few days.

To cut a long story short, the taxi driver – a funny man with a sideline in theatre and a nice wife – sent me a text message with the wife’s phone number and… four days later I got my hat back together with a nice smile and wishes for a good holiday season.

The story had a little bonus too. The couple live in Kallio where, as I am beginning to discover, a Helsinkian can find a number of good things, like garam masala, much more easily than in many other parts of our dear city.

Fast forward to the JHJ not-quite-annual Christmas trip to somewhere with snow almost guaranteed.

This is not that easy when one relies on public transport. But it can be done.

On picking up the keys to our cabin for the week we discover with Mr JHJ that we still, after a long day’s train and coach journey, have 500m to walk up hill. This means pulling heavy suitcases behind us. On wheels.

Now the invention of the wheel obviously did great things for (wo)mankind, but up here in the north the runner must have been just as important. What bliss to pull the cases up on a toboggan!

Until – crash! One bag fell off in the curve just as… a pair of headlights loomed up towards up from up the hill. Yikes!!! And it stopped – no doubt to hurl abuse at us for cluttering the roadway with our bags!

But no. Yet another good-hearted soul. It was driving the “courtesy car” (van) of the small company that runs this cabin. “You the folks who emailed about where the coach stop is?” he asked. And he gave us a lift (it was only another 300m but it was worth it!).

So, while all around is madness, people are still lovely.

Happy Christmas.

Or whatever your tipple might be!


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But will it congeal?

This post might have been titled “becoming renderings”.

A neat play on words, we thought. “Renderings” being those shiny architectural and planning pictures spawned by entrepreneurial urban governance. And “becoming” having at least two meanings: the verb “to become” and the adjective meaning “attractive” or something. A virtual Helsinki of pretty pictures is a reality.

Many, many more of these computer-generated daydreams can be found online, particularly on the City Planning Department’s website. E.g. here on Hernesaari. (Planning for the new, massively enlarged Hernesaari, including centrally located helipad of interest to one percent of one percent (at a stretch) of Helsinki residents, is tomorrow’s show in Laituri’s busy programme of architainment. You can go and join in should you wish).

And here are the images of the ideas competition for the South Harbour. Go check out the hundreds of “likes” for these, er, … please someone tell me this is all just one huge joke!!!

The Hernesaari images I’ve copied here are exceedingly subtle in comparison. And in least one of the photos of the suggested/ dreamed up new neighbourhood has some natural-looking waterfront. Well, natural, or unnatural, doesn’t really matter. Most of Hernesaari was reclaimed from the sea to start with. Complete fabrication yet solid. Part of my natural habitat when I was growing up, over time its artifice had congealed into the rest of the city easily enough.

So, a city is inevitable change. Bits of this. Bits of that. And bits of the other. Material. Cultural. Thoughts and ideas (even renderings!) Expectations and promises. Disappointments and scapegoatings. Money. Weeds and trees. Plans. People. Steel, copper and bitumen. All this comes together and sometimes congeals into a real place worth naming. Like Helsinki, Helsingfors.

But a city is really mostly qualities. Qualities that are hard to describe in words, even in pictures. People who have a choice about where to move understand about the qualities of a place. Nobody decides to live in (or falls in love with) a place for its economic figures. As this interesting (freely available) article about the USA shows.

Hope the autumn ends soon and turns to winter.

But even if it doesn’t a city seems to congeal in its habits. Helsinki, for example, leaves its shoes by the door even when it’s relatively dry and clean on the streets.

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Light in the dark

The flurry of icy stuff falling from the Helsinki skies last night has left little trace. Sadly. Though the promise of severe weather later today brings a slim promise of a less black cityscape.

(Which reminds us that major climate change negotiations are supposed to be taking place in Durban. Not much of them in the news though.)

Perhaps to keep minds away from such grimness, the city’s publicly accessible indoor spaces have gone a bright shade of red! Exactly like they did last year. And the year before that. And before that.

But while some things continue year after year, in tune with the seasons, other things change somewhat. For example, a few years ago it would never have seemed possible for the kind of racist diatribes we’ve heard in recent months, even from parliamentarians, to be uttered publicly.

Nor would one have guessed that so many column inches would have been devoted to whether or not Finns are lacking the courage to speak up against injustice when they see it. It was no doubt with mixed feelings that many Finns read President Halonen a month ago urging us all to show a little bit more spine!

But Halonen is on the way out. Elections are early next year.

The editorial offices of JHJ have always had a soft spot for the Green’s unconventional, intellectual and soft-spoken presidential candidate, Pekka Haavisto. But suddenly his widespread popularity has become a news item of its own.

Facebook has helped spread his good words over the last 24 hours after a pop-person, Anssi Kela, wrote a blog post about him.

The background is this. In October a Basic Finn (yes, the chap who’s routinely in the news!) quipped that homos [sic] and Somalis could move to the Åland islands, thus neatly insulting a good few minority groups in one sentence.

Some time later he personally contacted Haavisto (who is quietly, unashamedly, gaily married) to apologise. Thus was set in motion a series of events that culminated in Haavisto visiting Hakkarainen at his family-owned sawmill and his local bar in Viitasaari. He apparently also asked to see the man’s hands (looking for genuine callouses!?)

Not a bad bit of campaigning, for both men. But Haavisto in particular has earned deserved praise for his behaviour.

Kela’s text is heart-warming:

Pekka Haavisto voisi olla … presidentti, joka uskoo ihmisiin ja on valmis avoimeen keskusteluun myös oman mukavuusalueensa ulkopuolella. Presidentti, joka pystyy katsomaan tietämättömyyden lävitse ja olemaan takertumatta ajattelemattomasti heitettyihin loukkauksiin. Presidentti, joka ei näe ensimmäisenä sitä mikä meidät erottaa, vaan sen, mikä meitä yhdistää.

Suomi on viime vuosina alkanut jakautua uudella tavalla kahtia. … Netissä kurkkuja leikataan jo – missä kulkee se raja, jonka ylitettyämme hyökkäämme toistemme kimppuun kaduilla?

… Muutoksen on alettava myös valtakunnan huipulta…. Kuka sopisi polunraivaajaksi paremmin kuin mies, joka meni Viitasaarelle ja ojensi kätensä kansakunnan tämänhetkiselle sylkykupille?

Or, in our halting translation:

PH could be a president who believes in people and is ready for open dialogue beyond his own comfort zone. A president who will see through ignorance and not become caught up in thoughtless insults. A president who doesn’t see first of all that which separates us, but that which unites us.

Finland in recent years has become divided in two in a new way… on the internet we’re already cutting each others’ throats – when will we reach the limit after which we’ll attack each other on the streets?

… Change has to come from the top as well… Who better to beat the path than the man who went to Viitasaari and held out his hand to the nation’s currently favourite spittoon?


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