POSTED 01.12.2021

Text: Anna Kozonina

Editor: Dana Neilson

A new 3-year research project Reside/Sustain: Finnish & Russian experiences/initiatives/practices supported by the Kone Foundation that focuses on residency activity and its ecological possibilities started within the Connecting Points-programme. The project examines the role of art & residencies in enabling sustainable development in Finland and Russia and aims to answer questions of how residencies can provide platforms for the multiple aspects that are necessary regarding ecological action and change. 

The project consists of a collaboration between three individual practitioners each of whom brings forth their specific areas of expertise as well as connections to a wider institutional framing.

Anna Kozonina has interviewed the collaborators in the project to shed light on their backgrounds and perspectives involved. The third interview of the series is a conversation with Miina Hujala, a curator of the Connecting Points programme, an artist and an initiator of Reside / Sustain.

Anna Kozonina: For a couple of years now, you've been curating the Connecting Points programme as part of HIAP.  Could you tell us a bit more of how your background and personal interests informed your choice to initiate the Reside / Sustain project? What's the place of the topic of sustainability in your own work and field of interests?

Miina Hujala: Indeed, regarding being involved in the Connecting Points, I began thinking of what my own activity in this position entails. This is something that comes from an artist background and is very important for me: to look at ‘what I am doing’ and aim at seeing how it could be done differently, so that it benefits the aspirations that I might have. I think that constantly being observant of what one does with an added level of critical questioning is crucial as a part of one’s practice, and thus after running the programme for a few years (together with my partner Arttu Merimaa) — and also having spent time in some residencies myself  — I wanted to dig deeper into how within our work we could take notice of the urgent need to make changes, with one important aspect being to limit the effects of climate change. But inevitably it is a question that encompasses the entire mode of operation we have in place, which is involved in and connected to ‘everything’ (the things we eat, the way we interact or move). Therefore examining what constitutes the possibility for ‘sustainability’ became central in a way. For me perhaps ‘renewability’ is a better word, as I see that it is more about sustaining the ‘conditions of livability’ or vitality, and this has to be approached or ‘messed with’ from various angles and positions simultaneously. 

Alkovi Ⓒ Miina Hujala

AK: Since Reside / Sustain involves three collaborators with different professional backgrounds, during the project development many interpretations and understandings of the concept of ‘sustainability’ have emerged and gained attention. You've been trying to approach the term from the perspectives of different disciplines: for instance, economics, ecology and philosophy. Could you briefly outline these different understandings which you have been focused on during your common research? 

MH: As we are gladly still in the beginning of our project I am very happy that these different perspectives — or disciplinary framings — have emerged. It allows us to delve into the subject matter with the open attitude to approach what we feel important and interesting, as I see that these aspects and — ‘interpretations’ — are all valid and there is no need for exclusion. Our common research as it stands now has come across how ‘sustainability’ as a term evokes understanding of how the societal, personal, material realms are — let’s use the very perhaps trendy term ‘intertwined’. If I aim to separate them, I would perhaps do injustice to the purpose, but to map it out a little bit here: there is the ‘energy’ we collaborate with that is involved/related/connected to the energy used to warm the buildings we sit inside of and there is the understanding of what energy is that we navigate the reasons and purposes of our activity/thoughts. I have been reluctant myself to limit or decide in advance what kinds of sources for the research I will use, but have noticed that I follow the discussions on the art field for instance and feel this certain curiosity towards what makes a certain theoretical vein more ‘pressed’ or followed than others. I think that labeling is good only for purposes of archiving, and very problematic then as well. To make it short: economy, ecology and philosophy (and further) are cross-affecting and merged (to avoid now using baradism of ‘entangled’ even though Karen Barad's thinking of and quantum mechanics have had an impact on me, but this goes to show that the methods we utilize to present something are always part of the thing presented, a thing that the realm of art is very ‘conscious’ of).

AK: I understand this desire to ‘grasp connectedness’ rather than to establish differences of interpretation, but I will still ask: is there any interpretation of ‘sustainability’ that would have a special meaning for you and on which you would like to focus more?

MH: For me this impossibility to answer definitively what constitutes ‘sustainability’ is important. But as for now — and in terms of this project we are currently conducting — the focus is on what kind of living and working arrangements we could make that would sustain ‘the livability’. This means how we care for our habitats, ourselves and others.

Trans-Siberian trip 2019 as part of Connecting Points programme Ⓒ Miina Hujala

AK: A question which I ask to all the collaborators of the project is the following: how do you understand the role of the artist residencies in the sustainable development agenda? Can residencies be actors of sustainability, and if yes, how and in what sense? It's your turn to give an answer.

MH: The answer is: Yes, of course! My understanding of the role is the possibility of connectivity in a very broad sense provided by residencies, as they involve participants that live and work on location(eat, sleep, move, discuss) and also that is most likely an ‘international’ setting, that is activating people across cultural or language realms and also navigates these aspects at the same time as aspiring to provide context for what could benefit artistic or cultural work in ‘making things happen’, enabling work and life so to speak simultaneously. If we take this further it is about how residencies can provide ‘sustenance’ for the participants in the activity (all involved, the people running the residency as well as the participating residents and visitors). The residency that is supported supports others — the practices, aims and contributions involved. This ability to connect and contribute becomes highlighted. 

AK: One of the common features of residencies which looks important both for you, Adel and Angelina, is that residential activities and the very idea of a residency has a strong connection with the reflection of mundane, everyday, ordinary life practices. You also mention in your blog that the intellectual (or seemingly ‘immaterial’) work within a residency inevitably requires material labour and involvement of physical infrastructures. Could you elaborate a little bit on this ‘routine’ factor which every residency carries? What meaning does it have for you personally? 

MH: This is of course a materialistic approach that I have, but for me personally it is a very core thing to understand how these things perceived as routine are part of the whole. Like if we neglect the need to eat we won’t have any energy to think. The holistic approach I think could be pursued further with residencies as we constantly think about what belongs to the shared — or institutional support — like what is expected that the organization arranges and covers and what is also the participant’s wishes and needs. As it would be that when these things get examined we have a deeper understanding of what is sought after within a residency practice in the first place and does a specific organization provide a road to this.

Visit to the Ural Biennial 2019 Ⓒ Miina Hujala

AK: One of the recurring thoughts of your writings in the project blog is that together and before thinking of how to sustain something we need to ask ourselves what to sustain, or as you put it, understand ‘what really matters’. I'd like to ask this same question in relation to the residential practices of nowadays. Which practices / organizational types / working methods in the field of artistic residencies do you think are worth sustaining? And are there any features of the residencies' activity which should be left behind? 

MH: Yes, of course, residency practices that just drain everyone involved and are predatory in exploiting energies, like taking for granted that people have certain abilities and flexibilities. We should care more about how the, I would say ‘collaboration’ between different priorities involved in a residency practice all find a shared footing. This means that if a residency provides only a room to stay, it is okay as long as it is clearly stated, and it is acknowledged. 

AK: In the Reside/Sustain project, you are working with two Russian experts and, being the only Finnish-based collaborator, you're the only person having a so to speak ‘outside-eye’ position on the research dedicated to Russian residencies. It seems pretty important to be immersed into the local specificities when doing research on ecology and residencies in a certain country, but at the same time, I feel that your more ‘external’ position can bring a lot of benefits to the process. Have you been pondering on the specificity of this position?

MH: I am very grateful to have two great experts as colleagues from Russia in this project. Both of their fields of focus, Adel in the residency field in Russia and Angelina in environmental issues, are crucial and also I think both will give the very central knowledge of the field and specificities involved. My own role is to look at how we could align interests, what kind of activities we could enable, and what kind of cultural translations we could involve. I have a huge respect, when embarking in collaboration, to the partners allowing the joint and shared issues to form. I think this question of being an insider or outsider is something that I feel that lurks in some way along, but I do have my own relationship to/with ‘Russian realm’, and these conceptions that people have are also part of these translations. With my previous project ‘In Various Stages of Ruins’ dealt with knowledge formation, information distribution and tactics involved in that and also with it I looked at how the conceptions of what ‘Russia’ is are formed. It would be a huge mistake to think that coming from Finland I would know something more or better of anything, but yes, indeed I can and will have from a certain perspective inevitably an outsider’s view. But I have learned a lot during these years of aiming to support and enable Finnish-Russian collaboration and am expecting to learn more!

AK: Finland is known as a country being in the avant-garde of environmental and sustainability agendas. On the contrary, Russia, as you mention in the blog, ‘is very deeply dependent of its natural resources (oil, natural gas, and also other minerals) that hinders not only transition to more clean energy solutions, but the entire development, being not able to draw in and create initiative for capital investments for renewable energy source solutions’. We're used to the situation when so-called second world countries are learning from the European and especially Nordic countries. As a bit of a provocacy, I would ask whether your research has discovered any of the Russian residential practices which could be shared with more well-situated European neighbours?

MH: Perhaps this little bit follows and repeats my answer to the previous question, but it would be a huge mistake to think that we would be just allocating ‘our knowledge’ to Russians that wouldn’t have it. In Russia there is a lot of knowledge and understanding of also the particularities involved in running a practice in a field of operation that has very different parameters involved that us living in Finland, or EU, have. Naturally there are also a lot of possibilities in Russia as well. I see that in Russia there is a lot of incentive and action, also there is respect in some things that we might lack in Finland. To name a few, there is eagerness to find solutions in dire or even hopeless-looking situations, and also to create things from scratch. I don’t think focusing on negative aspects is needed, it is good to attune and notice differences, but there is always the possibility of learning. Finland aims at being very prudent in finding solutions to greener policy but I think we need to always collaborate, act and share thinking and understanding of each other’s situations to really be able to form alliances that matter in battling climate change for instance.

In Various Stages Of Ruins Ⓒ Miina Hujala

AK: Based on what's already been discovered within the Reside / Sustain, how do you envision the future of the project? Which directions can research take? Which goals would you like to achieve? And what are the potential challenges on your way there?

MH: This is a big question to answer, but to distill a bit: we hope to find interested residency practitioners to collaborate with, that could share knowledge and form practices that would be part of the practice of running a residency program. I hope that we can look into mapping the possibilities as well as limitations that each practitioner has, as well as look at the field of operation more broadly to map out some suitable solutions together. It is also about seeing what kind of support for thematic thinking alongside the practical one a residency can provide. There will be hopefully shared visits and we could also collaborate with experts from the sustainability field. In Russia this means of course how to reach local actors and to what extent the discussion will be led by the thoughts and issues brought along with them. I think this is important that the research remains always alive, as we work in a very different field in arts, where the possibility to discover something new or unexpected is always very much involved. Challenges remain to be encountered.

[NOTE: The interview was conducted in 2021. Reside/Sustain project is still ongoing, but its parameters changed due to the war in Ukraine and current context. You can read more about the changes and activities on our website.]