Anni Puuperä and Natalia Barua

As part of the CROWD23 residency program, we had the pleasure of hosting dance artists Anni Puuperä and Natalia Barua in Varjakka for two weeks. During the time, they discussed the meaning of rest in art, participated in community events, danced in strange locations and, in general, learned about each other and themselves. 

You have now been working together in Varjakka during the first instalment of your CROWD residencies this Summer. What are the main things you have been exploring here?

Anni: Rest, how to work and rest, and take care of each other and ourselves.

Natalia: And how those things incorporate what we do with people. And boundaries, between ourselves as artists, and it just evolved thematically to the nature here as well.

Anni: Yeah, in order to create wild art you have to feel safe, and that’s also about boundaries. And active listening, and trying to stay in the moment, not trying to decide everything that happens. 

Any highlights?

Anni: Meeting new people, starting to work with new people. 

Natalia: For me, it’s been a collection of moments, spontaneously learning. Sitting at the harbour and just having moments to watch. Many fragments of favourite things. It surprised me how even though we have a lot of differences in how we work, there are a lot of similarities in our lives that couldn’t have been known by those matching us for this residency. I think this residency has brought me back to myself in a way that, for a good five years, I’ve been working with a particular group of people in a particular place with very particular needs, and I’ve started aligning myself to only being able to do that. And now I’ve started to realign myself as an artist with many different practices and many different interests, so it’s been a good reminder, and when I go back I can keep that in mind and broaden, hopefully, who I work with and diversify a bit more..

Anni: It’s been a few years since I’ve worked as a community artist, mostly because of COVID, everything stopped. So I’ve been working as an artist in theatres and professional projects, and this is like a comeback to what it’s like to be a community artist. The thing I want to take with me is that when you’re doing community work, it takes lots of time. You have to respect the community.

This has been an open space, you haven’t had any need to come out with a product. How has that worked out?

Anni: It’s been a luxury.

Natalia: It feels like a retreat. When we came from Helsinki by train, we had to keep reminding us that we don’t have to create anything, and we reminded ourselves of that every single day. It’s happened organically. The CROWD residency allows, with the lack of pressure to create, is to go back to yourself. To widen the perspective of your work. It’s doing wider work than just what we’ve done here in Varjakka.

Anni: It allows us to dive in the process, and to breathe. 

Natalia: You challenge yourself in a relaxed way that gives you no pressure. The why and how in everything you’re doing. I notice myself more interested in making something because of the lack of pressure – it somehow feels more interesting and natural, because we don’t have to.

Anni: It reflects to the quality issue as well, through the process. Regardless of with whom I would make the piece, if it was about rest and the process was really difficult, it would show. It’s important.

Natalia: For me, quality is about a rich process with people. Also what Anni said, it’s regardless of the context – I don’t change who I am or my methods that much, whether I’m working with a group of young people or an adult, or a group of professional dancers. My values as an artist don’t change, there are adaptable approaches, but the art comes from the core, it’s driven by an artistic idea. Quality also comes from collaboration – I always want people to bring themselves to the work. It’s not just about the end product. 

Anni dances a story told by local hero Tapio Moilanen

If you are a performing artist, you become vulnerable, especially in community dance – whether someone doesn’t take you seriously, whether the process becomes wrong. When artists become together, the little things become essential for creating a process. And some artists can be quite tough.

Anni: I think I am quite vulnerable and sensitive, but also I’m trying to learn how to create my boundaries. In an artistic process, it’s imperative to be in touch with your own body and physicality, it’s what you carry with you.

Natalia: I think I’m always vulnerable. Art is something I have to do, there is no quality of life without it. To create a place to share with people, to bring people to it – I see it as inherently vulnerable, but not necessarily unsafe. So you put the measures in place. There’s a vulnerable nature of sharing the deepness of what you and other people bring into a space, but I also find that at the same time it’s one of the most empowering places for me. Depending on the people working with me, at some point the vulnerability might dissipate and I would feel really comfortable. 

Anni: This also brings out the question of empathy, working with communities and anyone generally. If you’re vulnerable and more open than others, you might be more empathetic towards others. 

Let’s move to the digital world. How do you use technology?

Anni: Practically not at all. I take pictures during, but mainly for documenting, or inspiring me during the process. Instead I work a lot with nonhuman materials.

Natalia: I work a lot with objects, and I don’t only work in digital dance. The digital aspect coming in is cameras and screens. Screen dance is a practice that came for me from interest in site-specific dance, and how we can bring the audience to that work – so screens became a multitude of sites for me. I became very interested a year ago about expanded cinema, and the works of Aldo Tambellini. But me and technology… I have other people around me so I can visualize. 

Is it about control, wanting to do everything yourself?

Anni: No, not at all, I often work as part of a collective or part of a community, or with a colleague, as well as on my own. Absolutely not.

Natalia: For me, up to this point, I’ve never had to let go. A lot of my work until now is screen or image based, and my husband is a video artist, and, well, we live together, so the nature is always collaborative. But once I had the material and he couldn’t work on it with me, and the idea of letting it go and giving it to someone else was very uncomfortable to me. I haven’t done it yet. [laughs]

Natalia performing in Varjakka Harbour. photo: Owa Barua

When you talk about setting up boundaries and feeling safe, we are talking about communication here – with the collective, with the editor, or the community, or whoever. That is a very vital part. 

Anni: It’s about not assuming things. A lot of asking: How are you doing? How are you feeling? Is this how you work? – it’s super important. 

Natalia: Communication is everything, it’s so important. All communication, not just language. 

Anni: The way we talk or write about art we usually have to talk in a general way, instead of a specific way to the art. Has the team been told that it’s OK to ask questions if they don’t understand? Language is also a way of using power.

Natalia: I find using language quite difficult, generally, despite – of course – wanting to sound intelligent about my work. (laughs) Some artists can articulate themselves so well, and others rely more on the work that they make to speak for them. I find it really difficult to talk about my work, but I know it’s something that we all need to be able to do.

And for the general public to become interested enough to come and see the piece, and learn further what you want to say with it.

Natalia: I usually need people to help me to do that, to break it down. 

Anni: I’ve worked quite a lot with those themes, for the past three years I’ve been part of the project “Working Class Background and Corporeality”, where we have had to think who we are making art for, how we invite them to the performance, and how we facilitate the artistic process, paying attention to the class background. Yesterday, when Tapio took us to the island and talked of his class background and the place, how this was a holiday place for the lords and masters, how regular workers had no business there, it felt like an embodiment of the working class.

Photo: Dannah Piol

You both come from the city, Anni from Helsinki and Natalia from Edinburgh. Was this place a culture shock for you in any way?

Natalia: It wasn’t a culture shock, I don’t only stay in cities – I go out in remote places a lot, I need to. There are aspects that remind me of Scotland, of the Highlands, going to national parks. I have travelled a fair bit as well, and it’s these kinds of places I usually go to. It was a cultural reminder, that places like this exist, where everything is a lot slower, quieter, and there is a totally different pace. There’s so much visual space, there’s space between people and where they live. You forget the world you’re constantly in, and you see and experience it everyday, it does things to your body without you noticing – until you come to a place where it’s the opposite. I completely love it here.

Anni: For me, no shock or even a surprise, I have visited a lot of places like this in Finland. I kind of knew what was to be expected – except it’s so flat!

Natalia: What you do here, your work for cultivation for the community – one almost forgets that that still has to happen. Because you take it for granted when you work in the city. 

Anni: And that’s maybe a big difference when we sit in a small place in Finland, you have art here! You have dance art, you don’t need a studio for that.

Togetherness – working in a community, or as a team. Can you be too close, or too far apart? What ideas come to your mind?

Anni: I think, when you’re working as a team, it’s important to have at least one partner, so you can reflect on your work.

Natalia: I like collaborative processes, interdisciplinary processes… It helps me, even – by being challenged, it helps me find the no’s and yes’s. I think it’s a huge part of the process, but with the acknowledgment that you might not always have people on board with you. And there has to be a level of acceptance of the fact that people come together as much as they can in any given moment, so not expecting that you’ll change everybody’s lives.

Anni: I think working together is important, but it’s always negotiating how you are going to work today: what do you do, what do you need – you have to take care of each other. 

Anni Puuperä and Natalia Barua were chatting with Pasi Pirttiaho

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