In conversation with Janne Saarakkala
text by Pilvi Porkola
In 2007 Pilvi Porkola and Janne Saarakkala led a one-year-long research project about politics and art at Reality Research Center. The project included workshops, public interventions, and the first issue of Esitys magazine. The main outcomes, however, were two performances: LURE Exhibition of Infinite Possibilities and Portrait of a New Worker. Both performances were part of an international collaboration @WORK Network that culminated in a festival in Copenhagen in 2007.
Now, years passed, I am sitting with Janne at his studio talking about the performances we did and the working life. In 2007 the project began when we started to reflect on art and politics by asking ourselves what politics mean in the context of art. What is political performance? What does it consist of? And what kind of role does art have in society?
It is noteworthy to mention that in those times, circa 15 years ago, politics were not widely combined with artmaking like it is nowadays, at least in Finland. For sure there were political performances and artists who considered themselves political, but still, the atmosphere was quite different from what it is today. Politics was understood more as a limited area of political parties, and artists, for the sake of freedom and autonomy of art, did not want to engage with the tricky games of politicians. Some of us understood the politics in art more broadly: it could be a societal statement or an attempt to change the conventions of art, it could manifest itself at the level of content, form, or aesthetics. It could be everything from a demonstration to body politics, from context awareness to personal experience. For our working group, art was political because it was always based on worldview and values – focusing on and framing something that artists find important. We manifested: all art is political!
The subject of work came along with the international collaborators, and we were happy to concretize our ideas through it. Quite soon after we started to work on work, it turned out that everyone in our circle of freelance artists was a workaholic. When we interviewed our colleagues, ambitious young performing artists, almost all proclaimed their love and passion for work. Even sex had not interested them so much – or rather, the work was like sex! So, work as the topic was more than welcome.
The Infinite Possibilities of Working Life
As a part of the project, we did some research for the performances. We read Paolo Virno’s thoughts on the changes in a working life where all workers were performing artists because the value of the work was based on their performance and virtuosity. We were also inspired by how Jussi Vähämäki described precarity: the world where the work is based on permanent temporariness, permanent substitution, and continuous discontinuity. We adopted the definition of old work – something that you did in a certain place for certain hours and could easily describe what you did for your work. On the contrary, new work was something that did not belong to any fixed working place or fixed working hours. It is not easy to explain what your profession is, because you do so many things at the same time. Freelance artists readily recognized this new work structure.
I directed the first performance called LURE – Exhibition of Infinite Possibilities. It was a one-hour-long performance with three performers (Jussi Johnsson, Janne Pellinen, and Janne Saarakkala). The form of the performance was an exhibition of invisible artworks. When the audience came in, they met a guide (Saarakkala) in an empty exhibition space. The guide asked them to imagine artworks that related to the concept of new work.
Later in the performance, the performers (Jussi Johnsson, Janne Pellinen + Saarakkala) discussed the notions of seeing and to be seen, and the agency of a performer being on the stage. Janne interviewed Karl Marx about his thoughts on the changes in the current working life. At the end of the performance, the performers danced with the painted tools.
When thinking about the performance afterward, I see a situation where a familiar phenomenon, such as work as we are used to it, slowly loses its meaning and turns into something else. For me, the performance was a commentary on that transformation, and showed the alienation it evoked.
Janne says: “I think the idea was to frame the unseen and point out that new work can be anything – in a similar fashion as an artist’s work can be anything. The title was connected to the fascination that new work oozes. It’s sexy yet elusive. There’s something luring in it, something you’d like to dive into and, possibly, become someone notable without doing anything. Good framing is all you need. Like we pointed out in the performance, framing is the essential act in new work.”
Panda and other statements
In the second performance, Portrait of a New Worker, Saarakkala wanted to go deeper into the topic focusing on the worker themselves and finding out what the new work is doing to us. Saarakkala thought that a freelance artist was a great example of a new worker since they have been coping with multiple projects for so long in an environment that expected them to be flexible and constantly ready to explain their usefulness.
At the beginning of the show, an actor, Jussi Johnsson, was presented as an artwork – a flexible multi talented but not widely known actor living mostly on unemployment benefits. Another character, Enrique Calafat, was a movie star who got it all; he had been everywhere, worked with everyone, and lived a glamorous life. There was a clear socio-economic contradiction between Johnsson and Calafat and also a difference in rank as actors.
The third character of the performance was Panda performed by Saarakkala himself. Panda had a pale face with dark circles under his eyes, he was working all the time, but was not actually doing anything. Panda was a symbol of new work, fully embodying the idea of it: it is all performing.
During the performance, it turned out that Enrique Callafat was not really a famous movie star but a fantasy character created by Erich Weidle, a Brazilian immigrant living in Finland doing odd jobs without a residency status. His work opportunities were on the lowest level of labor hierarchy. To make a living Weidle was ready to do almost anything, even a plastic surgery, except for the Panda’s ultimate request: to kill himself to prove that Paolo Virno was mistaken when claiming that ”the living body of a worker is the platform of labor-power which, in itself, has no independent existence.” Panda believed he had extrabodily existence.
Janne recalls: “One memorable moment in Portrait of a New Worker was the death of Panda in the end. The other performers, Pellinen, Weidle, and Maria Nuutinen washed Panda’s mask away and revealed to the audience that I played Panda and I died of karoshi (overwork). So they held a funeral for me with candles, hymns and speeches and it was outrageously funny and extremely moving. Ever since I’ve kept this fake death of mine as a warning to myself.”
Work 4.0 and some bread
The topic of work has troubled and inspired many Reality Research Center members ever since. In 2016 there was a one-night show, Work 4.0 – The Launch of Future Work, arranged in a historic Astoria hall in Helsinki. With a glass of bubbly, the audience was invited to explore The Exhibition of Extinct Work, consisting of objects and performance pieces depicting what the artists’ thought was under extinction (manual work and workers, learning things by heart) and what they wanted to get rid off (pointless training programs for unemployed, cotton shirts manufactured with ill-paid labor, futile company meetings in the new unintelligible self-monitoring systems). After a lot of hoo-has, the future of work was presented. It was an empty stage with a message: we have lost faith in work. As an epilogue, the artists and a group of children stated what their future work should be and what they are willing to do to achieve the goal.
In 2017 Janne Pellinen convened the members, Saarakkala among others, for the next step: Work 5.0 – BREAD. It was a real bakery set in a gallery space – a live installation, and a participatory performance at the same time in Helsinki Art Museum. The group took time to learn how to bake rye bread from sourdough. The central idea was to give the audience a chance to bake bread with the working group and to discuss working life with invited expert guests.
Janne speaks about the background of the performances: “We were all frustrated by the amount of abstract brain work in our duties and by the ambivalence of freelance reality. We wanted to do something tangible and go back to basics. Bread is something you can touch and eat, so our work was to produce something useful, to bake bread. That’s the next step, we believed, after all the futile and harmful work people would return to the basics. That was our message. I think it was very media- and audience-friendly work. But perhaps the connection to working life was not fully crystallized because we got very little media coverage. Nevertheless, 440 people baked bread with us and we had more than 4000 onlookers.”
Beyond New Work
When we talk about freelance work and our situations nowadays, it seems that not much has changed. “Ever since I have been working even more,” Janne says and sighs. “I am still a workaholic and like a factory slave. Everything is a project. I am hopeless, I guess.”
Besides artmaking, I have been working in academia these past years but a shift from a freelance artist to an academic temp has not changed much. The contracts are still short, the competition is hard, and the future is still unpredictable. No matter how many projects you have done, or you are involved with, no matter how much you work, you never know if there will be any work next spring.
Janne says: “The utopia of work is not freedom in the sense that it’s an endless holiday – that would be boring – but we really need to go back to the basics; what is bearable for the body and for the earth, and what is indispensable and reasonable. In a way, when I think of the precariat, exhausted and lonely freelancers and entrepreneurs, we need to learn from the old workers’ movement and start protecting ourselves. And never forget that besides being reasonable we need room to go beyond reason, to set ourselves free, to explore, to express, to dream, to squander that what can be harmlessly squandered. That’s what art is for.
By the way, I saw Panda hanging out in Helsinki some weeks ago. He was still performing the work, having even darker circles around his eyes. He still knew everyone, chatted with everyone on the street, and was as flirty as always. It seemed that the pandemic did not really affect him; he was jetlagged, coming from New York, heading to the new European art biennales. However, there was a pinch of nostalgia and a new kind of sadness around him. We had a drink together and talked briefly about the perspectives of working life. Panda foresaw that in the future people would understand the distinction between work and leisure time – so-called life – because that was the only way to survive. However, I got a feeling that Panda himself would not be a part of the next transformation of working life. He was just an old bear, a kind of relic of the era when we mistakenly thought that endless development and performance was the only solution to working life.
Performance artist and researcher
Referenced Reality Research Center’s performances:
LUMO I – esitys uudesta työstä / LURE
LUMO II – esitys uudesta työläisestä / Portrait of a New Worker (2007)
Työ 4.0 – Tulevaisuuden työn lanseeraustilaisuus / Work 4.0 – The Launch of Future Work (2017)
Työ 5.0 – LEIPÄ / Work 5.0 – BREAD (2017)
Pandan kanssa kuoharilla / Bubbly With Panda, Esityskioski / Performance Wagon (2021)