Text by Tuomas Laitinen
Time: At 6:10pm, between August 12th – 28th 2021.
Place: The crossing of Aleksanterinkatu and Fabianinkatu, in the heart of Helsinki.
We, the artists of Reality Research Center, go on our knees and cross the Aleksanterinkatu street. We do it eleven times during 16 days. Each time it takes us approximately two minutes. While we are engaged in this performative gesture, an audience of 5-10 people is guided along the street and their guides explain how Reality Research Center has been on all fours repeatedly since 2007, and how the audience can now witness some crawlers who are still here, on their knees. In addition to this audience, a random number of accidental spectators (pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, tram passengers) witness our journey.
It is ten past six, we get on our knees, cross the street, and get up.
1. The gesture is both humble and arrogant. We use the ancient strategy of taking a lower status by descending towards the ground, below the level of other street-goers. We retreat if viewed through an evolutionary lens, into the company of quadruped species. We are vulnerable and helpless towards threats from the environment.
2. On the other hand, we also make a provocation by using public space unconventionally. On some days we slow the sparse traffic down by 20-30 seconds. We might also remind passers-by about the Extinction Rebellion movement and their demonstrations, although we do not explicitly pronounce any cause for our action.
3. We were surprised by the aggression our gesture instigated. Cars sped up and drove too close to us on purpose. Twice a tram accelerated in a threatening manner while our knees still touched the tracks. Fellow humans encouraged the drivers to “Drive over them!” and expressed their sentiments: “I’d like to kick you.” The most mysterious insult stayed as our motivational sentence for the rest of the season: “Stupid like pig loaves!” To balance it out, the most touching moment was when I, the first crawler, was just about to embark on crossing the crosswalk and looked up at the tram driver from my humble position – receiving an empathetic nod as permission to slow him down as much as we needed to. Such tolerance!
4. The act of kneeling does not appear here by accident. Its history is rich and long, and it has been an expression of submission and respect in various cultures and religions, sexual practices, and power play. Sometimes, as in our performance, or during the National Anthem protests in the realm of sports in the US since 2016, it is used as a technique of dissensus. In the performing arts, we have respectable ancestors, like William Pope. L and Roi Vaara. We, at Reality Research Center, have always descended on our knees with political motivations. We concluded our research of 2007, when On our knees was conceived, with “There is no politics without spectacle.” The journey has always been made for someone, as a supportive action for an underdog entity or group. During several years we have gone on our knees, for example, for asylum seekers, for victims of climate change, for people with mental illnesses, for nurses on strike, for future generations.
5. This August we did it for artists. In Finland, the status of artists on the labor market, their working conditions, and income levels have been below all standards for a long time. Only rarely do artists enjoy long-term contracts, occupational health care, or a paid vacation. When an artist is lucky enough to have a monthly paycheck from the state to do their work, it is not called salary, but a grant. The grant receiver is likewise not an employee and does not enjoy the benefits that are granted to employees. The pandemic era has made things much worse in this respect. As Tarja Cronberg stated in her report Creative Growth and the Livelihood of Artists. published by the Ministry of Education in 2010: “Our social system does not recognize the work of artists.” This aspect of Finnish society has in most respects not evolved since. Thus, we go on our knees.
6. We used gloves and knee pads. Thus our intention was not to suffer. Also, our affective state, our personal feelings, were not at stake. So what was? For me, our work was comparable to other professions where the work is explicitly corporeal, like carpentry, cleaning, or cooking. Similar to these professions, the point was to use our bodies in order to accomplish the goal: a new table, a clean room, a meal. Our goal was the expression (from Latin: ex “out” + pressare “to press, push,”) – making the act of going on our knees present, visible, tangible, shared.
7. Imagine a scene: Prime Minister Sanna Marin descends the stairs of the Parliament House. When reaching the street below, she puts on knee pads and gloves. Then she goes down on her knees and starts to proceed towards the south on Mannerheimintie, passing the closed contemporary art museum Kiasma and turning left towards the railway station. The Minister of Culture Antti Kurvinen follows her, then the rest of the Members of the Parliament, one by one, first down the stairs, then on their knees. People on the street turn to witness the sight in awe. The procession moves on past the empty Modern Art Museum Ateneum and the National Theatre, its stage covered in dust, then by the Töölönlahti Bay and the deserted Huvila Tent of Helsinki Festival. As they circle around the bay, they glance at the silent Helsinki City Theatre and the cobwebs around its corners and listen to the absent voices of the National Opera. After this tour around the post-art heart of Helsinki, the humble mass returns to the Parliament House, takes off their gloves and knee pads and walks up the stairs back into the building.