Jussi Koitela: Arts institutions must offer alternatives to nationalism
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20 January 2016

Nico Feragnoli, Huib Haye Van der Werf and Maria Hlavajova discussing at the ‘Pilot Encounter: Institutions – Between Body and Machine or Art and Management’ event.

In ”Feminists, go ahead, be the spoil sports”, her interview in Finnish magazine Image, Professor Anu Koivunen names liberalism and nationalism as the two dominant ideologies of our time, to which feminist critique can present critical alternatives. Feminism has certainly been, and still remains, a critical framework that has facilitated the emergence of many new forms of identity politics – identity politics, which in turn can help to liberate marginal identities from the oppressive power of nationalist and neo-liberal narratives. Arguably, however, in emphasising the importance of individual identities, the identity politics have also served to effectively bolster the neo-liberal agenda, the current dominant brand of liberalism, much to the detriment of possibilities of contemporary class struggle.

I have been thinking about alternatives to neoliberalism and nationalism as I’ve followed the recent political and social events in Finland as well as the arts sector here and in continental Europe. My time on the De Appel curatorial programme has also allowed me to engage more closely with my own role as a Finnish citizen and a recipient of Finnish funding.

Nationalism, and its close bedfellow, fascism, currently appear to enjoy the protection of many European political elites fearful of their electorates. Mainstream social and ideological currents are now more accommodating to speech that seeks to downplay the threat they pose. It is difficult to envisage that even just a couple years ago the Finnish president could have to condemn anti-fascist demonstrators during Finland’s Independence Day, while opting to make no mention of a nationalist and fascist protest march that also took place.

What makes this so painful for someone like me, who is engaged in the arts sector and society more widely, is that I remain dependent on these same structures underpinned by nationalism and the nation state.

My work at the De Appel curatorial programme is supported by the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux through a Finnish Cultural Foundation grant. This funding was made available for one Finnish curator, subject to a successful outcome to the De Appel curatorial programme application. One of the aims of this funding, presumably, is to build a narrative of the successful Finnish curator, actively engaged on the international art scene. Indeed, a grant funding system focused on generating Finnish narratives of success has become such an entrenched part of the country’s arts scene that it is now almost impossible to imagine an alternative to it.

In his article Kansakunnasta kansalliseen kilpailukyky yhteisöön – Suomen kulttuuripolitiikka suhteessa globaaleihin ideologioihin ja kulttuuripolitiikan virtauksiin 1800-luvulta nykypäivään (From a nation to a national competition community – Finland’s cultural policy in relation to global ideologies and cultural policy trends from the 19th century to present day), researcher Olli Jakonen writes that, in a competition state, the public sector assumes a new role, facilitated by its economic policy, to implement outcome-centred, free market mechanisms across society, including in the education and cultural sectors.

This is perhaps not an entirely fresh observation or a new phenomenon to those engaged in the arts and culture sector but it serves as an important reminder of the types of political forces that we are all faced with.

Another tool in the competition state’s box is to appropriate the ”successes” of anyone carrying its passport into the nationalist-capitalist narrative and harness it to drive up competitiveness. Seemingly, the political forces engaged in this also include the Finnish “stands” managed by the Frame Visual Art Finland in collaboration with the Helsinki-based galleries at ARCOmadrid and Untitled Miami art fairs in 2014. For the political elite, the media visibility and art sales generated by their participation were a validation of Finland’s competitiveness in keeping with the competition state narrative.

This now poses the question whether alternatives to these cultural and political narratives are possible and whether institutional, curatorial and artistic practices can influence the arts organisations and structures, whose existence is currently geared towards the national ”interest”? This past autumn, I have come across two inspiring glimmers of hope, that to me appear to point towards new opportunities for alternative thinking. Both of them offer narratives that reach beyond the nationalist and neo-liberal logic.

The first is the Laboria Cuboniks collective’s xenofeminist manifesto Xenofeminism – a Politics for Alienation. The manifest seeks to update feminist politics and thinking in an age of accelerating technological and economic abstraction. For me, one of the key assertions made in the manifesto is that we cannot cling to the locally-oriented, geographically-specific framework provided by the nation state in an era when our social relationships are determined by the ever-accelerating abstraction of capital and technology. The philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato has described this idea in his book Governing by Debt. In it, he argues that current financial capital is a social relation generated by human and non-human technological engagement.

Another supranational narrative was served to me by Maria Hlavajova, artistic director of the BAK contemporary art institute. Speaking at the Pilot Encounter: Institution – Between Body and Machine or Art and Management discussion event at the De Punt in Amsterdam, she said present day arts institutions would do well to remain aware of three developments currently underway globally.. In her view, our prevailing belief in progress has been replaced by a focus on survival and criticism is being eschewed in favour of critique, generating new alternatives. In addition, she calls for a re-think on the prevailing western attitude of distinguishing between nature and culture as two mutually exclusive concepts.

Rather than continuing to perpetuate the nationalist and neo-liberal narratives, arts institutions based in Finland and in receipt of Finnish funding could perhaps commit to long-term collaborative relationships with other arts sector professionals and organisations engaged in generating critical supranational narratives in a world that finds itself in the grip of an economic, social and ecological crisis.

Read Aleksi Malmberg’s response to Koitela’s text here.

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Jussi Koitela

Both an artist and a curator, Koitela has previously studied at the Tampere University of Applied Sciences, Aalto University’s School of Arts, Design and Architecture, and the Helsinki Academy of Fine Arts. His areas of interest include artistic responses to economic discourse and economic systems as well as cultural policy


Julia Thurén, ”Feministit, olkaa ilonpilaajia” (Feminists, go ahead, be the spoil sports), Image, 16.11.2014

Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux De Appel funding call

Olli Jakonen, Kansakunnasta kansalliseen kilpailukyky yhteisöön – Suomen kulttuuripolitiikka suhteessa globaaleihin ideologioihin ja kulttuuripolitiikan virtauksiin 1800 -luvulta nykypäivään (From a nation to a national competition community – Finland’s cultural policy in relation to global ideologies and cultural policy trends from the 19th century to present day), Suomen taidepoliittinen käsikirja (Finnish arts policy handbook), ed. Jussi Koitela, Baltic Circle and Checkpoint Helsinki, 2015

Frame Visual Art Finland ArcoMadrid 2014 and Untitled Miami 2014 background information

Xenofeminism – a Politics for Alienation

Maurizio Lazzarato, Governing by Debt, Semiotext(e), 2015

Pilot Encounter:
Institution – Between Body and Machine or Art and Management

Foto © Asep Topan

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