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Sticks & the City

Echoes of EARN Gathering at KuvA, 27–28 Oct 2022

It started with five approximately 4-metre-long lengths of wood neatly laid out on the floor and the table in room K-218. No, actually it started the day before when three of us went down to the woodworking rooms at the academy and carried these five planks up to the second floor and K-218.

Next morning, the planks were waiting for us.

There were five tasks; each was introduced to the workshop participants who had to choose one. The instructions for Sticks & the City required them to explore a site using the five narrow planks. Working in pairs they were to take one length of wood and go somewhere in or near the Mylly building. By placing the ‘sticks’ in the landscape they were invited to make connections between humans, the surroundings and the ‘sticks’. There was 20 minutes to complete the task. On returning to room K-218 they would have the opportunity to share something about their exploration with the other groups.

It was cold and grey outside, so the decision to stay inside was easily made. I only knew one other person in the group and tentatively formed a pair with someone I didn’t know by taking hold of one end of a plank; the other person took the other end. There were seven of us so we made two pairs, each with one plank, and a threesome with two planks. It was decided that we should stay within sight of each other, or at least in sight of the planks, but aside from that we didn’t make any other adjustments to the rules.

My partner and I managed to negotiate our way out the door, past the people in the other groups who were getting themselves organised and we headed down the corridor. At first, we moved uncertainly, not knowing what we should or could do, and not knowing our partners (at least I didn’t). In our small groups, we trooped up and down the stairs of the spacious atrium, doubling back and walking past the other planks, often glancing at each other. At this stage we were three separate entities. Then we all came down the wide main stairs, negotiated our way past another group doing something with red yarn and together as a larger group made our way through the passageway to the theatre academy part of the building. As I walked through, with my partner just a few steps ahead of me, a girl (not part of the EARN gathering and therefore not knowing what we were doing) walked towards me. I realised that by swinging a little to the left I could block her path and even started to. But even though this is a theatre and art academy and therefore such occurrences would not be out of place, I hesitated to involve her. This is after all a public or at least semi-public space and even though it might be amusing for me, it may not be for her. I swung the end of my plank politely out of her way and as we passed each other we exchanged a smile.

As we all moved into the large airy space of the theatre academy atrium, we became bolder, positioning the planks so the others were forced to step over them, or bend down to pass under them. Some of us ended up with our end of the plank perched on our backs and we moved around in a hunched position. By now the five lengths of wood had been combined into one whole, with ends resting across other planks. Two people, now without a plank to hold, had become spectators. We negotiated our way onto and over a low stage, managing to keep the planks from falling before turning around and making our way back through the passageway and into the dark section of the corridor back to the art academy. The planks moved with a scissor action through what seemed to be an ever-narrowing corridor (but maybe it only seemed narrow because it was dark). By now our 20 minutes was nearing an end. Instead of taking the ‘sticks’ back upstairs we made our way to the woodwork room where they had originally come from. With our newfound scissoring expertise, we made our way along another narrow corridor, and even managed to open the door and successfully pass through it into the woodwork room. We then laid the lengths onto the stacks from where they had originally come. All very neat and tidy, as if nothing had happened. The wood was returned to its inanimate state, stacked in a woodwork room ready for the next time someone needed it.

At the start of the task the large open spaces of the art academy vestibule and atrium didn’t pose many challenges to our movement; the planks moved quickly and even somewhat pointlessly. In retrospect I feel this was an easy ‘get-to-know-each-other’ introductory phase. It was later, once we joined forces and negotiated the narrow corridors that a single entity, one with a sense of purpose, began to emerge.

During the whole task no one really spoke much. Decisions about where to go or what to do and how to do it were communicated with body language and simple utterances of “let’s go up here” or “let’s follow them”, though in retrospect I think that many of these verbal communications actually occurred in my own head and were not spoken at all. There seemed to a fluidity and ease to the progression of movements and our decisions. Everyone was agreeable and seemed ready to follow, not just the others in the group but also the ‘sticks’ themselves.

Although I had walked through these spaces the day before, this task with ungainly long ‘sticks’ caused me to experience the building in a very different way. I now have a physical embodied sense of the narrowing and opening out of spaces, the height of the ceilings, variations in the dark and light in the different spaces. It wasn’t a performance, although at the point where we moved onto the stage someone commented on it being like a performance. Nor was it an art event, although we could call it that if we wanted to. What it was, was a different way of walking and moving and being in a place. We did something out of the ordinary, one could say we were making things strange or unfamiliar[1] and it was not unlike Timothy Morton’s encounter with the supermarket floor. He writes how we don’t notice ordinary, everyday things but how they “kind of disappear – they are merely there; they don’t stick out. It’s not that they don’t exist at all. It’s that they are less weird, less oppressively obvious versions of themselves. […] Things are present to us when they stick out, when they are malfunctioning.”[2] And here I would add that they become present also when they are ‘made strange’ by an artist, or in this case a group of people at an academic gathering exploring an idea. Morton describes how running to hurriedly get your shopping done you slip on the supermarket floor. As you “slip embarrassingly towards the ground, you notice the floor for the first time, the colour, the pattern, the material composition – even though it was supporting you the whole [time] while you were on your food shop mission.”[3] In the same way the stairs, floor and walls of the art and theatre academies had been there the day before, but in a non-observed and unexperienced way. Now I felt their physical presence; I was aware of the hardness of the concrete as I held my end of the plank and tried not to fall as I came down the stairs. From climbing onto the stage with my end of the plank balanced on my shoulder I have a distinct sense of the height of the stage. And after coming out of the narrow dark passageway into the theatre academy atrium I can still feel its spaciousness. We had freedom to move, and in any direction we liked.

One thing I liked was that we started out as individuals, then became pairs, and finally ended up as a united group in service to a multi-limbed plank creature. I knew the name of only one person at the start and at the end I still hadn’t learned anyone’s name but I felt as though I had met them and knew them.

While we stood next to the stacked planks in the woodwork room at the very end it was pointed out that this exercise inside the academy was quite different to a previous iteration where the planks had been carried through the streets to an outdoor site. That time the participants had entered the clearly public space of the street, and this had its own impact, but not having taken part in that I can’t comment. My experience of this indoor version could be summed up as a meeting; I met other human beings, I met a building, and I met some ‘sticks’. The walls and floor of the building were straight, smooth, hard and unrelenting. In contrast us seven human beings and our plank creature, which had in the beginning been merely five separate stiff planks of wood, became fluid, organic and adaptable. As we laid them back into their stacks at the end I felt as though these planks had been on an outing, maybe even some kind of weird party.

Ulvi Haagensen, 2022


[1] Viktor Shklovsky, ’Art as Device’ in Theory of Prose, trans. by Benjamin Sher (Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991) [Accessed from https://doubleoperative.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/art-as-device.pdf].
[2] Tim Morton, All Art is Ecological, (London: Penguin Books – Green Ideas, 2021 [2018]), pp.8–9.
[3] Tim Morton, pp. 9.

KuvA research activities

This blog highlights the activities of the research unit and doctoral programme at the Academy of Fine Arts Helsinki | Tämä blogi esittelee Kuvataideakatemian tutkimusyksikön ja tohtorikoulutusohjelman tapahtumia ja toimintaa | I den här bloggen presenteras verksamheten och evenemangen vid Bildkonstsakademins forskningsenhet och doktorandprogram

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