by Hannah Horten
At the end of September 2015, for 10 days, if you were lucky enough, you could have been riding the tram through Helsinki when all of a sudden, as the tram rounded a bend, the sounds of an accordion rang out. As you continued to ride, different notes would have been played as the motion of the tram compressed and released the sound from the instrument tucked within. A normal commute – to meet friends, go to work or home – would have been momentarily disrupted. During those tram rides, all who stepped on board were transported for a moment into a reality where music was a part of the regular commute and passengers were made very aware of the large vehicle they were travelling on. Perhaps more aware even of the physical nature of the route they traveled than ever before as the terrain and city shaped the notes accompanying them on this special ride. This accordion installation was built in collaboration with the Pixelache festival in 2015. The event was called Gaming the System and put on with the artist collective These Animals. Gaming the system brought together many interactive exhibitions throughout the city of Helsinki.
The photo to the left was borrowed from Pixelache member Anastasia Artemeva’s website where she writes about this collaborative event. This event put together art pieces that made the physical environment filled with more elements of play. They invited people to think about and interact with the places and infrastructures that filled their lives. The photo briefly describes two other projects that were held in addition to the musical tram.
Digital media and activism
Pixelache is “an association of artists, cultural producers, thinkers and activists” based out of Helsinki that has been operating since 2002. The organisation started in response to the increasing presence of digital media and technology available to us in our lives: from the inconspicuous, such as Metro-card readers, to the demanding small screens we carry with us in our pockets. Pixelache events, workshops, and galleries aim to generate space for cultural production that draws attention to what is often overlooked. Some areas of interest include the intersection of art and science, alternative economies, environmental change issues, and social sustainability. Though it initially focused on how technology and media can be used in cultural production, it has since broadened its scope to include other means of interaction and mediums in its projects.
The group has a large membership base and currently around 25-30 active members. The members pay a yearly fee to help maintain the office space where the group can meet. Once a part of the group people tend to stay, though the activity of individual members can fluctuate based on when they have time and interest in on-going projects. In addition to the members of the group, Pixelache also has a board comprised of yearly elected members to take on a larger role in helping the organisation run smoothly, though these members do not have a larger say in deciding which projects should be taken on than the other members.
Part of the collective
I was able to speak with one of the current active members, Anastasia Artemeva, about her experience in Pixelache. Anastasia joined Pixelache in 2017, a couple of years after first collaborating with the organisation as part of the artist collective These Animals. She explained to me that Pixelache members decide democratically during meetings and via digital tools about which projects should be put on and how these different projects meet their collective goals, while also creating a space for collaboration. Since there are so many members, it is quite natural for subgroups to form around projects with the people who have agreed to work together.
Anastasia has continued working with Pixelache over the years and participating in new projects. In 2017 she got involved with a workshop series, Empathy as Resistance, after the previous member heading the group had to temporarily step away. Empathy as Resistance “is a project which explores how empathy can be employed for constructive, direct political and social action”. The group met five times throughout the year to discuss what this phrase “Empathy as resistance” meant to them and how they find it resonates in their lives. This event stretched both within the collective and into the larger community; it opened a space to have conversations about how to better support one another and find strength and resistance through each other.
Inside – Outside
Creating space for community is an important ethos carried throughout Pixelache projects. In fact, many projects try to find ways to bring together people in order to participate in cultural production. In a more literal example, one of Anastasia’s ongoing projects, a collaboration with another artist Arlene Tucker, Free Translation, is an amalgamation of two projects: Prison Outside & Translation is Dialogue (TID). Free Translation creates a platform to bring together people from inside and outside of prison toencounters issues of justice and incarceration. The main aspect of the project is a gallery for art and poetry sent in from people inside and outside of prison. The gallery is mostly online – though sometimes physical – and displays the work that people have shared. The art exchange is open to all people and the project, as she explains, is not meant to be a support group for the prisoners. Rather, the focus is to open a larger conversation with people on the outside and to break down stereotypes about people who are or have been incarcerated.
The online gallery consists of the original artwork sent to Free Translation. The illustration here is an example of art which can be found in the gallery. The gallery’s key feature is its ability for people to respond to artwork and add their own interpretations of the work below the original. This interactive aspect is unique to the project and provides space where communication between artists and interpreters can take place. Cultural production requires a participating audience and this gallery invites the viewer to engage in art and thought.
The impact of this project, as with many events hosted by Pixelache, focuses on opening discussion. The format offers new ideas to change how people think about or engage with the world and other people. It is about disrupting what has become ‘normal’ and calling into question these patterns of thought. The spaces often offer perspectives that center community, equality, and sustainability. Cultural production sometimes happens without much intention and this organisation focuses on ways to intentionally create culture and engage the participants.
Maintaining momentum and interest is challenging for any organisation. Especially in response to COVID-19, which has pushed us all a bit further out of our communities. It is hard to curate events that center around community and people during this time. For Anastasia, Corona restrictions have made it especially challenging to contact people in prisons, though the gallery is still fully operational and it is possible to organize events with people outside of prison. For many members of Pixelache, being a digital media focused group means many projects already have an online presence and were able to continue without much interruption.
As a whole, the group is focusing on the future and the next Pixelache festival, which is scheduled for June 2021 and will be held at The Central Library Oodi. Such a large space will hopefully gather a larger audience, which is always what their events try to do. Anastasia emphasises that attracting a large audience is not about fame or recognition, but bringing more people together to share ideas as events are most impactful when there are many people participating. Participation of non-Finnish born artists in the events and activities organised and commissioned by state institutions is still comparatively low, Anastasia reflected to me, and Pixelache is comprised of many non-Finnish born artists. Looking to the future, the event at Oodi is a big step towards finding a larger audience and connecting again with the community.