From 19-21 August 2020, the annual Aboagora symposium took place in Turku, Finland. Apart from the main event, it also included a two-day pre-symposium for doctoral candidates and art students (17-18 August). PUTSPACE members Silja Laine and Aleksandra Ianchenko took part and here they reflect on what was in many ways an interesting and memorable event.
Aboagora 2020: Coming together in times of social distancing
By Silja Laine
Aboagora is one of PUTSPACE’s associated partners. It is an annual event which aims to offer a forum for researchers, artists, and the public to establish new dialogues and new forms of collaboration. The event has always been experimental and creative, and dialogue with the audience has been at the core of the program planning. In August 2020, Aboagora’s theme was WATER.
I have been in Aboagora’s organising committee for three years now. Event planning can be stressful sometimes, but with a good group, it is also very inspiring. Aboagora is the fruit of collaboration: it is a joint effort by the University of Turku, Åbo Akademi University, the Åbo Akademi University Foundation and the Arts Academy of Turku University of Applied Sciences. Our meetings are always exciting and ambitious. Maybe one of the reasons for the success of the events lies in the democratic spirit: we do not have a leader and everyone is allowed to use their own language which means that we speak Finnish, Swedish and sometimes English.
The event has an organising committee and an advisory board. We in the organising committee had to think very carefully about this year’s event given the rapidly changing circumstances and restrictions to public events following the pandemic. However, we did not consider this very long. We had already planned the program and we had good funding. As artists and people working in the cultural field have been financially hit by this year’s cancellations, we wanted to pay the people who had already put their time and energy in planning their performances and presentations. Moreover, we thought that if we have a history of being creative in organising events, this is surely the time to put that creativity to use. We were prepared to organise the symposium live, online or hybrid, which meant there had to plans a, b and c. In addition, we had to be prepared that if anyone, presenter or organiser, was to fall ill, we would have to improvise.
Quite soon, we understood that we would be organising a hybrid event, where some people would be present, but most of the audience would follow the symposium online. By August, we were all accustomed to joining ordinary seminars and even traditional conferences in Zoom, but organising a hybrid event with artistic elements was quite different.
One of Aboagora’s partners is the Sibelius Museum. The museum building, designed by architect Woldemar Baeckman in 1968, includes a concert space, which has been at the core of the program planning of the symposium. Instead of a functional seminar room, the museum offers a space which is at the same time intimate and open and, of course, a perfect setting for music and other artistic performances.
This year the question was really about how to mediate this unique atmosphere which is about so much more than just giving papers. In earlier years, we have recorded the keynotes (which we call “Agora Talks”), but this year we decided to stream all the workshops and performances too. This took quite a lot of time and energy to plan and a lot of work when the actual symposium took place. We were lucky to have professionals to manage the whole event. We also had student assistants so we could, for example, hand the microphones to the live audience, so that the online audience could hear their questions.
The streaming was in general quite successful, although to anyone planning an event we would say that pre-recorded talks work better than live talks. Due to the current situation, the international guests were not able to come to Finland and they had to deliver their talks through Zoom. This was a pity, because Aboagora is so much about discussions and engagement. But, all in all, we did manage to create dialogues online as well. For example, the Israeli author David Grossman and his translator Natalie Lantz had a very touching and insightful discussion about Grossman’s literature under the title “Stormy Waters: Secrets Inherited and the Creation of the Family”. They knew each other beforehand and the discussion was well prepared. Presenting online is not very good for improvising. Nuances, humour and communication are often lost, but with careful preparation and prior communication, it is not impossible.
We discovered later that streaming music performances is a very demanding task. One of the absolute highlights of this year, mezzo-soprano Marika Kivinen’s combined talk and concert on lied music’s colonial heritage (“Waterways – A Concert and Talk on the Forgetting of Colonialism”), lost some of the magic when it went online. For us, who heard her stunning performance, the experience was unforgettable, but it proved difficult to transfer subtle nuances and the singer’s charisma. Classical music is one of the last forms of music that is performed without technology. For the audience present at the museum the concert (combined with analyses of the songs) was a luxury. After months of listening to music mostly through headsets and screens, a live performance reminded us of music’s innermost capacity to touch and move the listener emotionally, bodily and intellectually at the same time.
Our greatest challenge was to organise the technological part of the event so that it would not disturb the performers and the atmosphere of the event. Looking backwards, there are a few things that can be done better in future events. Digital technology is of course rapidly developing due to the pervasiveness of distant working and online events at the moment, so organising an event means following closely the available options in order to choose the most suitable one. An important thing is that we could have paid more attention to the chat. Instead of being a passive onlooker, a chat host could be actively raising questions to engage the audience online. This entails that the chat host should be quick and familiar with the topic and, again, that preparations should be made beforehand.
While we, the organisers, were a bit stressed about the extra work that the organising of the hybrid event brought with it, the audience seemed to be happy about having the chance to participate online. We do hope very much, that next year we will have the chance to have a live event, but at the same time, we acknowledge that streamed events are probably here to stay. For a good-quality event, it is, however, not enough to put Zoom on. Time has to be devoted to the planning and there has to be good equipment and skilled people behind the mixing table.
From 2019-2023, Aboagora’s program is organised according to a five-year thematic plan under the title The Five Rings. The title refers to the book The Book of Five Rings, written in 1645 by Miyamoto Musashi (宮本 武蔵, c. 1584–1645). The Book of Five Rings (五輪書, Go Rin no Sho) is divided into five books each examining a different element of battle in much the same way as life is thought to consist of different physical elements in Eastern religions. The five Aboagora symposia delve into these elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Void.
In 2021, Aboagora’s theme will be FIRE:
Fire, if uncontrolled, can rapidly cause massive destruction and devastation. On the other hand, even disastrous wildfires can leave behind better conditions for new life and, when carefully harnessed, fire provides warmth, power, and a useful instrument for numerous purposes. The control of fire radically changed the course of human evolution hundreds of thousands of years ago, but to this day, we have not been able to master it completely. Fire has a dual nature in a figurative sense as well. In terms of personality traits and emotions, it can be equated with inspiration, zeal, and fervor, but also rage and fanaticism.
Aboagora 2021 will explore fire as both a literal and a metaphorical element. The symposium will bring together viewpoints from psychology, political science, cultural studies, natural sciences, and the arts to tackle questions related to, for example, warfare and firearms, political turmoil and activism, as well as passion and obsession – at times indistinguishable from one another. (Source: The Five Rings – Aboagora 2019-2023)
PUTSPACE is already planning an exciting session for 2021. Stay tuned!
Report on the Aboagora Pre-Symposium, 17-18 August 2020
This summer I was happy to participate in Aboagora’s pre-symposium for doctoral candidates and art students that took place on the island of Seili in the Finnish archipelago. During two days, me and five other participants were engaged in inspiring discussions facilitated by the curator Taru Elfving. We discussed different aspects of water as a substance and symbol, touching upon such topics as transnational water bodies, cinematic experiences and representations of water, spiritual practices of waterscapes and many others. Our diverse backgrounds enriched these discussions with various perspectives and unexpected insights.
Our time on the island started with an excursion and an introduction to the Archipelago Research Institute by professor Ilppo Vuorinen. This was followed by a talk by artist Lotta Petronella who has made a documentary about Seili’s long and dramatic history. In 1619, the island became home to a leper hospital which two centuries later was turned into a mental asylum for chronically ill female patients. The asylum was closed in 1962 when the buildings were given to the Archipelago Research Institute. Today the island is frequently visited by tourists who are offered accommodation and guided tours. This multifaceted history as well as the unique biodiversity of the island attracts practitioners from different disciplines and enables integrated approaches from arts and sciences. That is why the pre-symposium convened participants whose practices are evolving on the intersection between academic and creative researches.
After Lotta Petronella’s talk, my colleagues and I gave short presentations (in pecha kucha format) explaining our fields of interest.
John Björkman presented his current PhD research about sacral and magical places in southwestern Finnish folklore. Furthermore, he shared his own experiences of visiting such places where trees, boulders, and other natural bodies are thought to have sacral meanings. Similar observations from mystical nature sites were reported by Ulla Valovesi whose doctoral research uses ethnographical approach to study Northern rock art. She showed examples of rock paintings placed right above the water surface as if they were meant for viewing by creatures from an underwater world. Artist-researcher and writer Kari Yli-Annala introduced his ongoing study of cinema and relations between atmo- and hydrospheres. The cinematographic theme was continued by Aleksi Rennes who presented his current doctoral enquiry on the concept of utopia in early cinematic space. Finally, arts practitioner Selina Oakes shared her artistic explorations of the notion of borders and edges from the various perspectives, including animals and plants as well as humans.
For my part, I presented some of my projects devoted to Baikal, the massive lake in Eastern Siberia, not far from my hometown of Irkutsk. I showed the video Obereje (2017) which was filmed on the shore of Olkhon, the biggest island on Baikal, and based on the idea of care as the fundamental principle of treating nature. This idea is conveyed literary by simple household actions such as sweeping the sand beach, washing stones and pouring water from the basket to the lake. Olkhon was also the topic of my installation Island (2018) in which chemical Petri dishes filled with water and sand assembled the map of the island. At the end of my presentation, I spoke about a performance I have made on Zoom in which water is used as a container for mental information.
The rest of the time on the island our group continued discussing and exploring the territory. We made short walks and described body sensations, ideas and thoughts they evoked. The notion of atmosphere as a way to grasp the specificity of the place was recurrent in our discussions as well. Although we did not reach any final conclusions, the time on the island gave each of us lots of thoughts and impulses for new investigations. These considerations were also presented during the workshop we held in the Sibelius Museum upon our arrival back to Turku.
The workshop titled “The Sense(s) of Seili – Reflections from the Pre-Symposium” started with a re-enactment of my Zoom performance mentioned earlier. Thanks to the support and enthusiasm of my colleagues, the performance turned into a beautiful collective experience and gained new meanings.
Based on the seemingly useless action of continuous pouring of water from one glass to another, the performance exercises the presumable ability of water to record mental information. The process of pouring, despite how simple it looks, requires concentration and, like a meditation, can put your mind into a specific mood that might be captured by water. In other words, one can ‘charge’ the water with positive thoughts and later utilizing them by drinking it. Besides this hardly justifiable assumption, the process of pouring shows how water visually changes its structure becoming more viscous because of aeration. As one of my colleagues said, water can come to look as if it wants to be poured from one vessel to another.
Performed collectively, with the sound of pouring water amplified by microphones and the magnificent acoustics of the Sibelius Museum, the event also turned into a musical piece. The sonic aspect as well as the simplicity of the action reminded us of some of the experiments made by Fluxus artists. For example, George Brecht who in Drip Music (1962) made the sound of water dripping into an empty vessel a performance on its own. By placing such a mundane action as pouring water in a glass at the center of the performance for a large audience, we also looked to emphasize the importance and preciousness of pure drinking water, something all of us often forget.
Finally, I want to thank all the participants of the pre-symposium, including our curator Taru Elvfing and professor Ilppo Vuorinen, for the unforgettable experience of being on the island and our work together. I also wish to thank Liisa Lalu and the whole Aboagora the team for the outstanding organization.