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Art & Sustainability – A confrontation with the invisible

by Vera Arhippainen

Art and sustainability have a long history, but when it comes to art, the term “sustainability” can take on many meanings. Creativity and artistic activities play an important role in the resolution of the problems we are facing today. Attempts to change our societies towards sustainability is very emotional, but we are in desperate need for these intense emotions to be able to make the change. Art is a vehicle of expression. It channels and encourages emotions. It sharpens our attention and criticism, while challenging our comfort zones.

Sustainability has made us aware of the importance of the interconnections between human beings and nature. The idea of sustainability is impacting the work produced by individual artists, who are taking important steps towards fundamental change by sending powerful messages about climate change, political policy, and social injustice.

Association of Free Association
Logo made by Kai Nordfors

I’ve met with Helinä Kumpulainen and Miina Penttinen from the artist collective AOFA (Association of Free Association), who are exploring utopias and possibilities through performance art. AOFA seeks for new ways to challenge old constructions such as the admiration of on-going economic growth at the expense of nature, and patriarchal models of operating. They value ecological ways of working and want to give space for voices which are often unheard.

AOFA points out that art can make people reconnect with emotions, themselves, other beings and materials — and make them more aware of interconnectivity of everything. In their work, AOFA works through sensory-thinking and wants to create possibilities to enjoy and experience through people’s own bodies. To remember what is important and to realize what things should or could be like. Confronting the society, but also proposing what could be left out (e.g. over-consumption, toxic masculinity, neoliberalism).

“On the heteronormative path there is not much air to think, breath and take a step back to pay attention to what is happening to nature and around us. To see what is happening around our career or society bubbles. Art pokes holes in this bubble so you can look outside and breathe and find the importance of sustainability through those holes, through art.” – Miina Penttinen, member of AOFA

AOFA projects are guided by values: intersectional feminism, anti-capitalism, anti-racism, anti-ableism, sustainability, care, anti-sexism. AOFA’s work includes physical and emotional engagement. When choosing their thematics AOFA focuses on what provokes their own feelings. When one in the collective feels inspired by something they try to come up with how to do something about it and channel those feelings through art.

“We live in such an unsustainable world and the structures and capitalistic system supports this. And we have been living in this system for such a long time that it’s difficult for people, and for me too, to see other possibilities. With art you can create other kinds of worlds and new possibilities. You can propose something different, and with that you make it exist in that moment, and people can experience that something different is possible. With art you can make proposals and you can research and you can try out utopias and even radical things that are not possible yet in society”. – Helinä Kumpulainen, member of AOFA.

Many of the projects AOFA have undertaken are in cooperation with other associations, and ideas for projects have often come from outside the core group. Coworking is at the core of AOFAs practise. Their name even reflects this wish to encourage people from outside the typical theatre and art sphere to participate.

I asked AOFA to explain more in detail what their projects could look like, and here are two examples of what they have been doing the past years. Exploring Utopia and The Climate Anxiety Ball.

Exploring utopia

Exploring Utopia was the kick-off event by AOFA organized in the summer of 2018. The starting point  of the process was to explore how the internet and social media never sleeps, by working in an anti-hierarchical way. AOFA wanted to create a safer and open space for the audience and performers using the principles of giving everyone an opportunity and a place to perform and actualize their art.

To get people and associations involved they posted on social media, inviting people to take part. At this point they did not know exactly what the event would look like, but they got a lot of interest from people who wanted to be a part. The open platform aimed to connect people over the borders of interest. The concept was built upon co-working, helping and being helped by others. But it didn’t happen without challenges.

“The organizing part was hard. The thought was that people, both the visitors and organizers would have taken care of the place together. But most of the people wanted to just take part as spectators. It is not that people necessarily want to take advantage, but we have never been trained to work in a community that way, where you take care of things by yourself. Many have learned to take the role of a visitor where things are served for them, because they were not part of something from the beginning. This led us to start thinking about how to change that. How can we create a space where it is easier to participate?” – Helinä Kumpulainen, member of AOFA.

In an attempt to make the people realize the idea of helping, members of AOFA also had a performance during the event of the importance of participating and cleaning, “Saving the Utopia”. AOFA is still thinking about what structures you need for non hierarchical events to work. They are dreaming of making Exploring Utopia again, but for this they need to consider what worked, what their roles should be, and where there are changes needed.

Climate anxiety ball

Climate anxiety ball was a silent demonstration and a performative event by AOFA co-created with RARE Media. In the 3 hour long performance they built a plastic waste ball representing shared anxiety about the environmental degradation. 

“It was a participatory performance. Passers-by could come and be part of building the ball, and come together and share the emotions that come from the ecological crisis and climate change.” – Helinä Kumpulainen, member of AOFA.

Ilmastoahdistuspallo, picture by Orna Ben Lulu

The performance resulted in Finland’s biggest climate anxiety ball made of plastic waste on the stage of Laikunlava in Tampere. It was greatly inspired by the artist Mari Kaakkola’s art installation. The plastic that was used was mostly waste from a nearby farm, where it had been used to wrap hay balls on the fields. During the performance they were mainly building the anxiety ball but there were also some movement performances going on around the area. There was also a sound installation made by Konsta Leinonen and video art by Iida-Liina Linnea. Spectators and participants could also listen to recordings talking about environmental problems through headphones.

Future possibilities and collaborations

For the moment things are a bit on pause for AOFA, much due to the corona restrictions. But a core principle for the association is that it’s in constant metamorphosis. So AOFA is using the time concentrating on getting out of their own bubble. Instead of organizing happenings, they want to explore the possibilities in going out and joining others in theirs. They want to use their platform to inform about what is happening in other parts of the city or what others are doing, and being a part of bringing people together.

“Inclusiveness. The term implies that there is first something and then you include others, as if they were not here from the beginning. This has been discussed a lot in social media during the black lives matter movement. People don’t want to be ‘included’ in the white-supremacist system, they want a new system. A system with different values. But in our society it’s hard to even imagine what that would be… One idea is approaching marginalized groups, but not asking them to join us but us trying to support their ideas.” – Miina Penttinen, member of AOFA

Making visible what has been made invisible

AOFA is working on the process of being sustainable in their work, but also for themselves. Knowing and sustaining your own limits and energy use is a big part of it. Communicate and work in a soft way. Art is helping to regain focus on the interdependencies of our systems and societies. Through their performances they are making things visible that have been made invisible by society.


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