Gustaffson/Haapoja, Museum of becoming, 2020, courtesy HAM, Helsinki/Sonja Hyytaïnen

'Art as a practice of vulnerability' - A Conversation with Terike Haapoja of the artist duo Gustafsson & Haapoja

Issue no1
feb - mrt 2021
Diaspora dialogen

Talking to Terike Haapoja about Becoming, her latest work about the relation between humans and animals, made in cooperation with writer and artist Laura Gustaffson. Coming Friday she'll give a lecture at the EARN conference at BAK in Utrecht.

—Alice Smits As you know I have been following your work for quite some time – both writing and curating on your work – and within the now widespread focus on multi-species relations I am particular interested in your insistence in working through the values around living and dying which are expressed through our institutions as well as your insistence on animalization as a deeply political and colonial process that is not about a simple opposition between humans and animals but a specific form of continued state terror that includes people as well that have been animalized throughout history such as woman, slaves, refugees etc.. Can you say something about this?

—Terike Haapoja 'One of the main concerns in my work is what a community without exclusion would look like, what could be the interspecies focus of such a community. In modern law and governance, most beings are excluded from the community of language users and thus also barred from entering the political stage. This arrangement has been challenged on many different fronts recently. Rights of nature approaches often emerge from places with strong indigenous presence. Animal rights theory, in contrast, promotes for acknowledging nonhuman individuals as persons who can hold fundamental rights like right to life. Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka argue in their book Zoopolis that we could include nonhumans to the political community by expanding the concept of citizenship.The connection with these initiatives and social justice is that the figure of the human at the center of western political theory is already entangled with animalization. The figure of "the animal" is evoked as a binary opposition to "the human" in order to exclude, oppress, discriminate and exterminate both human and nonhuman beings. Naming someone as animal constructs them as killable. So the figure of the human and the nonhuman are not just species categories but moral categories. Animal, nonhuman and subhuman are different facets of the binary opposition of human in white supremacist, western imaginary. So the question of the animal really is also about the organization of our institutions, language, legal systems and who can be a part of them.'

Gustafsson & Haapoja, Museum of Nohumanity

—Alice Smits You ended a recent talk at Sonic Acts saying “The world of climate justice has to be a world without cages”. Which presents a strong case to put ethics at the core of considering climate crisis a fundamental crisis of culture. In relation to this you discussed the necessity to extend human rights discourse to that of animal rights, can you talk a bit more about what could form the basis of this?

—Terike Haapoja When animal rights theory starts from placing certain human like characteristics as the foundation of rights – like intelligence, consciousness, language – it implicitly repeats a hierarchical notion of humanity where a rational, independent etc person is considered to be the normative human. But like many scholars point out, most humans are not like this. We are born dependent and we are differently abled throughout the course of our lives. So instead of forefronting independency, rationality etc as basis for who has rights and who doesn't, we could think of vulnerability as a baseline. At its most basic, vulnerability means simply that one experiences life as something, that there is a good or a bad situation for them. This mere fact of vulnerability should be enough to protect it. And instead of thinking of independency as a norm, we could think of interdependency as a norm. Freedom in this view could be understood as freedom to form relations and communities rather than standing alone.

—Alice Smits Can you tell me something about Becoming, the work you and your collaborator Laura Gustafsson will be presenting at the Bucharest Biennale (if it can open in May). It seems that Becoming takes a bit of a different path in the series of works you have been doing together these last years on human-animal relations. Rather than deconstructing our current anthropocentric condition, in Becoming – as the title seems to suggest already – you take a more upbeat positive approach looking at the possibility of future alternatives of cohabitation.

—Terike Haapoja 'Becoming is indeed less about deconstruction and more forward looking then our work sofar. In this video we explore where the spaces and voices are where we can grow new things. We were also ready for something more positive. The Museum of Nonumanity which we worked on these last years was a deadly serious exploration of concepts of animalization throughout history. We started our thinking process with the title Museum of Becoming, which now is the title of the exhibition in Helsinki. A Museum of Becoming as a paradox – a museum is always a collection, an archive that preserves and we wanted to think through that paradox. A Museum of Becoming can not be objects, it has to be immaterial. Then we wanted it to be a feminist multitude of woman and people of other genders who are critically thinking and working through issues resulting from the eurocentric, white supremacist world view. The video installation Becoming we will be presenting at Bucharest Biennale came out of this idea of a multitude of voices.'

Gustafsson & Haapoja, Becoming, 2020, still

Gustafsson & Haapoja, Becoming, 2020

—Alice Smits People seem quite isolated as individual voices in the landscape. How does this relate to the idea of a multitude which you mentioned before and of collective practice?

—Terike Haapoja At first we wanted to interview well known people, but finally we decided to speak with people who are close to us and whose practice and work we admire. Of the 37 people we talked to most are Finnish, amongst which a few Sámi people, some people are from New York where I live, some people were recommended by other people. We wanted to get a diverse set of people that represent different areas of becoming otherwise, not only in terms of disability rights, racial justice, sexual and gender equality, but also different kinds of ways of thinking or working in areas that start from challenging that the norm is white heterosexual, gendered and autonomous. It is very much an intersectional eco feminist approach. We were looking for people who could point us to pathways to live otherwise at this very moment. Accompanying the video installation is a book called Bud Book – Manual for Earthly Living. The central question for editing the book was: “If you start the world over what kind of manual would you have for that?” We developed a series of questions such as how to live, how to love, how to travel, how to exist, how to be with trees." The interviewees of the project got this list and could choose questions but also propose their own. People were so brilliant and beautiful, they gave us so much precious knowledge which makes us feel really responsible not to screw it up.'

—Alice Smits In this three channel video projection people are interviewed in very specific landscapes and locations. Did you pick those or did the people do this?

—Terike Haapoja We asked people to choose their own location where they wanted to be filmed in, such as a café in the harbor or in Sápmi, the Sámi land up north. Only after we finished shooting we realized we presented people quite isolated in their environments, whereas our starting point was this idea of multitude – which is where we can defy the capitalist system with its insistence on the individual – and for most people presented in this film collective practice is at the core of their work and lives. But we hope because of filming so many voices together in a sequence this idea will still come across. But that still remains a question – how to represent the collective - we will keep working on this.

—Alice Smits The landscapes which seem to feature quite dominantly, seem to be given a role in the work. Given your work on interspecies relations in relation to the quite dominant choice of language and text in this but also much of your other work, I wonder whether you also have thought of other ways of articulation of a place?

—Terike Haapoja The landscape is indeed very important here. In the final edit we enter these landscapes and then we meet the people and move back to the landscape to move to the next person. With every person we are present we create the spaces where they feel connected to. We worked together with sound designer Pinja Mustajoki and indeed these other articulations we find in the landscape itself are very much present. There is a lot of talk, thinking out loud, some people contributed songs and poems, there is a rapper that wanted to meet in the cat shelter and is rapping to cats.

—Alice Smits How does your collaboration with writer Laura Gustafsson works out, do you each stay in your own area of expertise or is there a more shared practice?

—Terike Haapoja In our collaborations we both work out of our comfort zone. Starting from The Museum of the History of Cattle and the more performative work of The Trial we both made quite a radical shift from the work we did before. Perhaps as a visual artist I bring in more of the aesthetic choices and Laura is good with language, hence the strong focus on language, but we conceive of the ideas completely together. Our collaboration is really about friendship. This is also how it started, the project became an excuse to hang out more together. The very first thing we did together was the creation of this blog. We dressed up as animals that camouflaged as humans, called ourselves Mr. and Mrs. Smith and would go into a bar together trying to get a vegan menu as an interspecies project. Or we would create chains for humans as the ones you find in a cow barn. This was distributed via a blog and sometimes at festivals. Our first serious work, which was presented at many major art institutions, was The Museum of the History of Cattle. Two people working together creates the energy of four people, you get so much more done.

—Alice Smits In your lecture at Sonic Acts – which impressed me because of the erudition of knowledge coupled with a vulnerable personal approach which is rare to encounter in academic discourse – the question of art as a training ground seemed to come up. I wa stouched by your idea about art as a way to train our senses for a more open and emphatic relation to other forms of life. I was touched by your emphasize on fragility and vulnerability, which you not just speak about but also practice in your talk in a very sensitive way. Could you say a bit more about this?

—Terike Haapoja 'The focus on Becoming relates to this search for alternative and more meaningful ways of living. We are interested in the ability to think otherwise, eat differently, relate differently. It is a training in microscale ways, an expansion of a sense of community. Really a training in openness which always should start from where we are at the moment, not in some future place and time. Audrey Lorde writes that rationality is a dead road if it does not come from somewhere and leads to somewhere. This “somewhere” is embodiment. What's hard to grasp is that there's radical equality of life, every attempt to develop quantitative or utilitarian approach to ethics is violent in some way. So to live ethically is, in my mind, to carry this awareness of this radical equality of life and that in spite of this we have to make decisions that might include killing.'

—Alice Smits You mentioned to work on an interspecies language school for your next project with Laura. We have been talking about it as a continuation of our cooperation at Zone2Source. Can you tell me a bit more about this next step in your work?

—Terike Haapoja We are now exploring ideas of an interspecies language school we call Baaa-bel. The idea is that we would do a language course of animals to humans, tutors would be her dog, it would involve animals and children. It continuous our interest in thinking through human and animal relations, but with a lot more humor than in our previous projects. The fundamental question of our time is how to be human in a way that is more worth living. We are living increasingly impoverished lives socially, communally, spiritually. We need to develop different value systems and skills of listening which focus around the central question of what we should grow in our cultures.

Gustafsson & Haapoja, Becoming, 2020, still 

Gustafsson & Haapoja, Becoming, 2020, still 

—Alice Smits This notion of training and knowledge production one might couple to the emphasize these days on artistic research and art science collaborations. But in your talk you made a specific emphasize of not identifying with the current emphasis on artistic research but identifying as an artist. Could you elaborate on this?

—Terike Haapoja 'Art is not just doing and making but also way of being. It presents a certain openness to the world that is necessary to the practice. Relationality is present in art practice as an ongoing dialogue with the world, allowing for a space to be vulnerable to the world and to be moved by an encounter. This is not exclusive to the artist, we all have a need to exist artistically. Not to achieve mastery but to achieve a vulnerable relational way of being. Art as way of being, as a practice of vulnerability, a space to be otherwise: more than doing and making but a way of existence in the world.'

[question Alice Smits] In Becoming you do this through a documentary style where you seek inspiration in the voices of people who are seeking and finding different ways of living and acting. Yet in your other work you seem to give a critical role to fiction and speculation in the role art can play in imagining and practicing with alternative futures?

—Terike Haapoja 'We need to start with creating alternative fictions to those that the world is currently run by. What kind of world do we need for another kind of humanity to be.The creation of imaginary institutions implicitly criticizes the current ones. It calls for a new kind of subjectivities based on different value systems that inhabit these fictions. What should be cultivated here and now for another world to emerge?'


Coming Friday 29th of January Terike Haapoja will give a lecture at the EARN confrence , BAK Utrecht, at 18.00 hrs, free on Zoom 

Alice Smits
curator Zone 2 Source Amsterdam en kunstcriticus

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