Text by Maria Säkö & Klaus Maunuksela,

Edit by Louna-Tuuli Luukka

Ice Hole invited the critic Maria Säkö and the dramaturg Klaus Maunuksela to write dialogically online about how they see the past, present, and future of Reality Research Center. They were given a two-day timeframe, some questions, and the freedom to make connections based on memories, images and imagination. Following the route of memories that included ducks, pantyhose, car rides, and physical combat their dialogue intertwined the histories and potentialities of reality research and continued to broader questions about the complicated relationship between art and politics.

En route to reality

KLAUS: I think my first experience was a performance called Circle. I attended it two or three times around 2013 when I was studying dramaturgy in the Theatre Academy. The works of RRC were referenced quite regularly l in the courses I took part in. That could have been because many former and present members of RRC were teaching in the institution, so RRC’s influence also came through how contemporary performance was taught at the Theatre Academy.

The theme of Circle, out of all of the performances I participated in, was ’battling’ (other themes were ’mating’ and ’feeding’) This meant that we as participants could walk into a circular space formed by both the artists and the audience (who sat in the same circle) , where we encountered another participant and tried to get them out of  the circle (or were  pushed or carried away ourselves). This was a highly adrenaline-inducing experience, transgressive yet mindful since we were prepared with preliminary exercises on boundaries and touch.

In 2016 I spent one Sunday with human and non-human actors of the  Non-human Island  project. We were trying to connect and communicate with other species of animals in a workshop setting; I can recall having the interaction with ducks of Töölönlahti Bay by dropping small pinches of sand into water and gaining their attention for a moment (Performance? Definitely. Encounter? I don’t know).

In 2018 I was asked to join a process that ended up being called Post-digital. Our main question was whether it was possible to work as an artist in today’s world without taking part in digital capitalism. For months we playfully experimented with ways of working, organizing and communicating without tools managed by digicorporations – that meant slowness, gaps and new kinds of practices of being together. The process resulted in two open events in a public space where the audience was asked to turn off their mobile devices before entering our post-digital happening tent with analogical programs led by invited artists.

MARIA: Oh, I have a LOOOONG history. I had been studying comparative literature and theatre research for a few years at the University of Helsinki when I realized that there was a theatre called Kallion teatteri. It was the group that became RRC. I felt something was happening, something that was totally different from anything else at that time.

Later one of the most important performances for me was Calvino 6, a series based on Italo Calvino’s book’s “etudes” that was performed in Kiasma Theater in 2003. I remember Kolina van der Berg walking onto the stage wearing old-fashioned white pantyhoses. There were many things you usually wouldn’t see on stage back then. There was something hard to verbalize, that  I wanted to verbalize. I remember scratches, the  kind of punctum that Barthes describes, scratches that break the surface, somehow break some norms or structures by just being there. Some kind of new relationship to reality existed. 

ESITYS (performance) magazine that RRC published from 2007 to 2017 was very important because it was the first Finnish platform for professional live art discourse. The magazine was significant for me for various reasons. It created this certain kind of essayistic writing about art in a manner that wasn’t academic yet  adept, not merely based on subjective opinions yet  still deeply personal. I see it establishing a frame of how live art could be discussed and critiqued, along with creating a new relationship to the practice of writing about art. As an example among  the issues that were published I would bring up Hamlet that Tuomas Timonen re-wrote using dialogues of children on issue LAPSI (child). I also planned and edited one issue called ESSEE (essay) together with Janne Saarakkala and Santtu Uuttu in 2014 – it  includes the best text I have ever written and probably ever will.

One must remember that the theater scene in the late 1990s and early 2000s was so different from now that it is hard sometimes to understand the change that has happened. 

The most significant thing about RRC I need to mention is kindness. It may sound odd, but for me, it has always been some kind of ultimately important issue in RRC. They have been some kind of softener, a certain generation whose politicality wasn’t that articulated nor distinct – it wasn’t explicitly against anything or pro something. For me RRC has also been uncool in some sense, which has been important. It was great when live art started to trend and become international but based on my first impressions RRC associated with something much more obscure, uncool, unverbalized and slightly stubborn. Something from this impression still affects how I see RRC. In the early times of RRC the vagueness was somehow total. Things were so new that there weren’t really words or categories for them, unlike now.

Politicality in reality research

KLAUS: When I read through the archive of past works of RRC from 2000-2021 I was thinking about the relationship between politics and live art throughout time. First of all the politics of art-making: in the memorial text of Kallion Teatteri group you can clearly see the antipathy towards institutional theatre. How turning towards reality –  something opposed to what theatre institutions do – is also a part of a larger democratic project that has a strong social aspect in it. Politics of this kind could be seen as both urbanist and regional at the same time: these two lines go through many of RRC’s works too, from installations of bodies in Kamppi shopping centre (Hiljaisuuden politiikka, 2007) to diverse co-productions such as Dada 99 in Riihimäki, Vapaa Lappeenranta in Lappeenranta and Rakkaudella Porista in Pori.

Pori Eetunaukio Cafe Solo 19-6-2008 Heilaklubi.

MARIA: Well, I think you already said it, but for me it is important that all these performances have true and warm relationships towards the working-class people or, in general, towards those who are not so familiar with high-brow art discussions. And, at the same time, there is plenty of contemporary thinking and theory baked inside the cake. Almost like smuggling. This is absolutely political in many ways. But it is even more political in the sense that theatre, or performance, should be a democratic place for everybody to think and to be a citizen in the frame of contemporary performance art, instead of having some kind of agenda.

You mentioned that RRC is urban and regional. I started to think that their urban works also have a very warm relationship towards the audience. I remember many, many times when I was impressed by the sweetness, was touched, was listened to, was somehow appreciated. So both urban and local have sought for, in my opinion, a very smooth relationship towards the audience. The biggest difference between these urban and regional performances is probably that urban performances are not so entertaining. It’s more about silence, silent walking, one-to-one conversations, healing, sharing energy. Maybe there’s enough entertainment in the air of the city, so the entertaining frame is unnecessary in these urban projects. In the urban space the inner dialogue of the human mind has been highlighted when in the regions the works have been more extroverted. 

KLAUS: For me, maybe the most iconic RRC work is Helsinki by Night. This and other works of the group are using public space and streets and districts of Helsinki as the  stage. Maybe this celebration and takeover of public space are parallel to the rise of urban culture and conflicts inside it: in early 2000s Helsinki had, for example, zero-tolerance policy against graffiti, which is quite absurd if we consider the situation nowadays where sociality and creativity of urban subcultures are the central part of the creative economy ideal.

MARIA: Absolument! Helsinki by Night is probably the most iconic work. I did not participate in that but later I participated in Helsinki by Skoda. It was a kind of a tribute-performance to Helsinki by Night, where the audience was on the backseat of a car and took a performance car ride in the night of the city. But then, almost 10 years later I could see the difference. Site-specific works were much more mainstream already. 

KLAUS: Forms of RRC’s works have also directly used and played with activist means, such as Kontallaan (2007) where participants were crawling on all fours in public space for a cause they could decide themselves, such as asylum seekers or care workers rights, or Julkinen lukupiiri (2007), a public reading group, where Jussi Johnsson was reading aloud texts about new work and media in the subway.

Maybe my question concerning this possible politics of RRC’s works is how politics of activism and forms of experimental performance affect each other? 

In this case, art practice and activism seem to be close to each other, in the context of early 2000s urban city culture where both were experimenting with themes of interaction, use of public space, focusing on the experience and participation, games, and virtual space as well as newly found corporeality,  – all things that were still emerging at the time.

Was it so that artists in RRC were early to recognize the value of questions that autonomous political movements had opened, that was at the time largely neglected or repressed in the public consciousness? Was their experimental performance art a means of continuing to work with these experiences that now had a name, to deepen them, to research them together? 

And what  were the impact that contemporary performance art had on the autonomous movements and the street tactics, aesthetics and rhetoric that were so central to them throughout the 2000s? Trying to tie up a shadow history that could connect these separate dots…

MARIA: You have relevant points here and you managed to crystallize things beautifully! I agree.

RRC didn’t have a political agenda, rather a will to research reality. In a way, you could see it as quite an individualistic will to dive into this or that without any particular interest in engaging with anything further, but I think RRC didn’t remain as such. I think they had dreams of a new kind of relationship to reality, like the change of the idea of humanity.

One could think that RRC softens the ground for all sorts of thinking, but when the mainstream gets interested, RRC is already elsewhere molding reality. You could see it as avant-gardism and you could also see it as not taking the responsibility that you get when making political theatre, whatever that may be. I see it as avant-gardism in some sense, but also as wanting to vibe with the politicality without committing to anything particularly.

Hah, I see a bit of the downside of that kindness here.

Past, present, future

MARIA: What has changed over time in RRC is that it now gives more space to the new artists, it makes an effort to give them a venue. In a way, they are a curator in the theater scene nowadays. Originally it was more like a place where head-strong artists went to do their own stuff.

RRC became a part of the status quo – that’s undoubtedly the biggest change. 

When thinking about the possible future of RRC I would imagine it renewing its relationship with the audience. RRC used to arrange workshops where the artists educated the audiences, but I think the next step for them could be to arrange workshops where the audiences educate the artists.

I see RRC being international in a way that will facilitate more cooperation in Europe. They will be helping live art and performance artists to find ways to be connected, be a part of a network in Europe that tries to find a relevant relationship with new audiences, especially where the extreme conservatives are gathering forces. RRC would have a lot to do there. A couple of weeks ago when I was at a theater festival in Narva, Estonia, I heard deeply conservative, almost totalitaristic views on what theater or performance were or were not. I wanted to call RRC to the rescue!

KLAUS: If we think about the next twenty years, it is certain that there will be new people instead of those who founded the group and who have been present in the group’s actions since then. In the next twenty years, these new people will have to decide what to do with RRC as an institution – the institution that is still young and flexible if we think about the timescale of art institutions. Maybe what is most stable is the name and the ethos of researching reality that I believe will resonate in the future too.

If RRC started partly as a counter gesture to the traditional notion of theatre, maybe we will see even more letting go of the frame of performance, or the frame of art, in the future. At least it would be interesting to see what kinds of forms a performance could take: what multimodal, processual, and even object forms it could absorb into itself. The concept of the body, be it the body of the performer or the body of the spectator, has been central to performing arts. It has gone through important and rapid changes as many works of RRC demonstrate: just to mention the other species of animals, digital technology, and new forms of collectivity as important factors in the process. This extended notion of the body, the presence, and the shared existence will surely affect the future of RRC, and hopefully take shape in your works. 

MARIA: I would come back to the point that RRC is political in the way that it wants to activate people to be citizens, but not the same way that activists want people to be citizens. RRC  wanted to include art in the process of people activated as citizens, wanted to make performative art relevant in that process.

Klaus Maunuksela (1993) is a dramaturg and writer working with performance, text and other mediums. Lately he has been writing essays on dramaturgy, some of them are published in Finnish as blog posts on Dramaturginen luenta

Maria Säkö (1976) is a freelance journalist, theatre and dance critic whose main area is the daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat. She is also a nonfiction writer focused on the recent history of Finnish independent/free theatre group scene. She is a chairman of the Finnish Critics Association and currently one of the leaders of a three-year project called Shine on Critique!