Dance artist Silja Tuovinen has been a regular guest in this Summer’s Warjakka Art Lab where she has been conducting research, particularly on grief.
Silja is doing a Masters Programme in Choreography at Stockholm University of Arts. She has a Bachelor degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from Malmö University, has studied contemporary dance and choreography at Tanzfabrik Berlin and is currently engaged in the project De Structura inspiring young artists to express themselves.
In and around the Konttori building on the island of Varjakka, Silja was researching grief, peace and conflict, building bridges between the artistic experiences within the community and academic circles.
This TaikaTalk is about the important things that give us peace while taking it away in the same time – and how this paradox can be converted into art…
What is the turning point for you to become an artist?
I grew up in Oulu, dancing as a hobby in the commercial dance school called Citydance. I was very young when I started competing – in jazz, show and disco dance. I was happy growing up with the dance – and it was quite early when I became interested in being a professional. Yet I was also interested in other things: in high school I was part of an organisation called European Youth Parliament which dealt with societal issues that were coming in… It’s never been clear what I wanted to do with my life and I still struggle with it – it is difficult to choose the path, especially when you’re young.
Can it ever be easy?
True. But also if we speak about dance and art, there’re no institutional structures as clear as in medicine. In art nowadays you deal with hybrid forms, the very profession becomes the hybrid of several. In 2015 I decided to study Peace and Conflict Studies in Malmö University. At that point I left dance completely, I was more interested in documentary films, as part of my degree I was also working with documentary festivals…
Was there a conflict that had the biggest effect on you – between countries, families, consumerist society and the civil one – the conflict that especially touched you so that you came to science looking for answers?
I’ve rather had an interest in social formation of knowledge, the history of war in Finland and the experiences of women. What is silenced? What is being commemorated and how? What is being remembered and how? And how it actually constructs our thinking of the future and realizing the now. Climate change is one of such big issues – that could be analyzed from the historical perspective. Or the ‘refugee crisis’. Who even called it a crisis? It’s not a crisis for us who receive those people. It is a crisis for those who are departing their countries. There is a lot in these wordings of how we construct the so called truth based on which we then make actions.
When you’re young you want to make sense of things, get answers on why certain issues are happening. And how you solve them. That’s when this passion for studying emerges. And that might seem a bit naive…
Or just natural. This is again the wordings, pressing us to consider it ”youth-accompanying naivety”.
Maybe this is exactly the energy we should all have instead of calling this naive.
You came back to arts and choreography after having pursued this research background. Why? Does art suggest more answers than science?
There is a sense of freedom in art. I noticed quite quickly after I started studying Peace and Conflict Studies that I want to write more poetically about things. Sticking to the academic form – although I find it very safe – was in moments frustrating to me… It started opening up to me that even when I think about concrete theories or hard facts, poetic thought comes quite quickly – I started to seek more space for that. I didn’t go back into arts or dancing with the idea it will become a profession, however: I just realized I need a break, I want to do something I enjoy, where I get the life energy from. That’s how I went ”back”, and then suddenly more doors started opening up – on a more professional path in the arts.
Did a dream project bring you to Varjakka?
I do have a dream project. It has to do with facilitating other people’s processes – with making art that doesn’t necessarily come from the professional discourse. This would actually mean working with young people – perhaps aspiring to be professional artists in some way – to discover how they think before they are involved with professional discourses. A lot of other fields of science know how to communicate with people who are not on the ”specialist knowledge” scene. Art doesn’t do that as well as science does, from my perspective.
Do you believe the hierachy – maybe also because of the triggers that Corona has caused – is fading away, freeing the space for horizontal networks?
I’m not sure how the Corona might have impacted this – it is yet to be seen. But it did impact me in a way that I had to work a lot more alone. It was upholding the classical image of a lonely artist working alone (and not appreciating his art partly because of that – because he cannot present it).
In some niches of contemporary dance, for instance, the hierarchy is dispersing. In other niches it’s not happening at all. In my education this hierarchy is something we’re trying to get rid of. I’m interested in facilitating the art’s ‘serving’ – not from the point of view that I’m some kind of a servant, but from the one where I serve their processes and we accompany each other’s processes so there’s a little bit more community spirit in our work, not solely your thought which brings up the art, but something else that is more likely to give nutrition to the process.
While the hierarchy is stepping aside, do you feel community-based art is the new trend – with the sharing, appreciating the process over production and horizontal – solidarity – approach?
A lot of people were talking about working as communities. There’s still a long way to go – before we can truly linger with communal work instead of sticking to the accumulative lonely productions…
Loneliness is one of the things Corona did amplify. Artists are craving for the audiences after having to perform for the void online, and vice-versa. Do you feel that loneliness and how is it balanced in your artistic perspective?
I do miss the audience. Perhaps at least some of the audience misses the art… My experience is that in the so called professional education level audience is not the word that comes up: it’s not encouraged as something you have to orient yourself through in making your work. I find it sad. I’m interested in communication: what kind of art is needed and resonates? It’s not about pleasing or entertaining. It goes in line with how we socially form ideas and knowledge and where we could meet the audience and accompany it in the big questions of life.
One doesn’t seem to leave much of a trace in the eternity without the audience involved – one person influenced by art changes the world.
Yes, the most joyful experience of making dance or being with dance comes from moments when you feel like the audience is engaged somehow. It is nice to be in touch with the audience and to give them something they feel they can handle and resonate with. That has to do with the separation between the specialized discourse and how you translate into a language that could be understood on a pedestrian level more widely… There’s this feeling that I should translate my specialized knowledge to a language that my grandmother could understand…
What’s your favourite example of peace VS conflict?
It’s difficult to go into thinking on a global scale, because there’s a lot of power relations and it’s so incredibly complex. I usually like to look at local situations. I think in Finland my example of this is loneliness.
Loneliness is peace and conflict at the same time, isn’t it?
It is. In Finland we’re not in war or physical conflict on a national scale at least. But there are those symbolic systematic acts of violence, cultural violences such as loneliness, and I’m concerned about this. It’s an important value in art-making – to look at what happens in the local sphere – and how to respond…
Do you see peace and conflict as opposites, or a conflict can rather be a guarantee to keep the peace in a way? If there is no concept of conflict – why would the concept of peace even exist? Are they actually co-dependent concepts?
They are two words, and they go beyond dualism for sure. When you start to get deeper into theories of peace and war, it comes quite quickly that it’s not either/or. But for sure these terms are some kind of linguistic forces – there’s not one without the other in a way, they help is make sense of the world. In peace there are concepts of negative peace and positive peace, negative peace being the absence of war or physical conflict, while positive peace is actually when everything comes together in an ecological systematically wonderful way, this is a utopian ideal. We in the Nordic countries could say we are more on the side of the latter, but actually it can never reach the utopian model – due to all those actual conflicts that are present…
Racism, class issues and ableism form a very big part of our society. It’s all very very complex (what is a peaceful society and what violence can we do and can’t?..) – and that’s also why it’s a very interesting field to orient yourself through, with all the theories to get to know – not necessarily using them in art in concrete terms, but there are things that can be learnt and be oriented oneself through. Even though they seem nearly impossible to be solved. Simply orienting yourself through these fields of issues might offer some solutions.
Oulu has won the status of European Capital of Culture for 2026 with a big idea of the fruitful partnership between art and technology. You have been building bridges between science and arts. How does it feel? And how does the bridge between arts and tech look from that perspective?
I am someone who doesn’t have so much experience with technology and art except for that I use technology sometimes to make my art – (laughs) on a basic level like taking images. I think the reason why I’m personally not yet going there is that I have this conception around technology that it tends to be accumulative – everything everywhere tends to be pressured into the here and now. The sensation of duration, lingering, of sections in life, of focus somehow might disperse. However, technology can help with those issues as well. It’s just that the daily use of technology makes me feel like that – although I realise there’s potential for technology to go the other way, to actually create the sensation of duration more than accumulation and everything being pressured into here and now.
Everything being constantly possible right here and right now gives a lot of anxiety. That’s why I try to often stay away from technology. And that’s why choreography and dance are so unique: they have the sensation of time, space and duration, and being with those things instead of accumulating in a negative sense. There’s a lot of potential between bridging science and art – yet it needs a lot of daring.
The “let the audience live its own life” vibe seems to be bringing same kind of loneliness to artists and scientists, doesn’t it?
Yes. I try to build the bridges and hope to be doing this more in future in one way or another. Not only from the perspective on peace and conflict studies, but also other fields of science. I would like to think of that in concrete, practical, pragmatic terms – how do those things come together?
There’s a lot that has to do with the way the world is today – everything seems to be in the air, just floating out there, and we’re hovering somehow through time. Therefore it’s quite exhausting.
That’s why my strategy is about pragmatism – in order to actually meet the society and the world, the craft of choreography needs to meet the craft of science, the craft of facilitation and the craft of accompanying. When I say craft, I point toward the word in Finnish – kasityö – the work of hands, which for me is the sensitive work that you do with your hands that is practical and pragmatic and produces both the process and the product.
You’ve had experience of working and studying abroad. What is special about the Oulu arts scene and – since we are speaking in the Konttori building during the Warjakka Art Lab – what have you discovered in Varjakka?
Varjakka is special with the idea of building community, allowing artists to come and be together in this space. This is wonderful and this is also something that should be a big part of Oulu 2026 – allowing spaces like this to exist, expanding that even more instead of going to lonely productions and lonely products that are somehow interlinked, but not quite enough. Is there an actual beneficial community building happening, that gains duration beyond one project?
It would be a challenge to fight loneliness by producing alone.
Exactly. I am a young artist, I don’t have structures around me except for university at the moment that’s supporting my work. The fact that there is this place suddenly in my home town that expands for me, invites me, allows me to come in and gives me space where I can have my own room for an hour or two – it’s very precious and makes me very happy.
Coming from Oulu, I care for the city. There’s been a lot of worrying and grieving about Oulu for the last few years when there’ve been cuts in the culture sector… Oulu 2026 coming up is a win in many senses – it makes me feel like there’s hope and energy: suddenly the city is expanding for things that I have faith in and that I value just as a lot of other people value as well.
I was impressed by the sensation of the Konttori building in Varjakka. It is an empty house, but weirdly it’s not at all empty: it has to do with architecture, the textures and patterns that are here that create this feeling, the odd corners where you could possibly build a nest. Things that don’t make sense, but totally make sense. The sensation of duration is here – this place has been here over time, you can see it in almost everything. That is how it gets very inspirational while also feeling safe and calm – and having to take a ferry to reach the island is taking a leap away from all the forces that can drag you back…
You’ve spent whole six years abroad studying and working. What was missing there that you enjoy here in Oulu?
I’m currently studying in the University of Arts in Stocholm, there’s a certain kind of vibe there of course, but when I come to Oulu I can take off some kind of a backpack – I always end up wearing slightly more odd clothing, as I feel more relaxed and grounded somehow. Oulu does not make me overthink. I’m also impacted by the fact there’s a lot of marketing and branding around Oulu as a technology hub. My professor and mentor in Stocholm suddenly is working in Oulu in a project combining art and technology. That’s really a field where Oulu is actually connecting to professionals abroad, both in science and in art.
The main theme of Oulu 2026 is cultural climate change. I am looking for feeling it even more. There’re a lot of young art graduates who are originally from Oulu, and would perhaps wish to come back. I would want them to feel invited by the city, it expanding for them as well, so that they don’t need to question whether there’s space for them.
As we speak here in Varjakka you are wearing a costume you made yourself. What’s the story behind that?
I came here to be with the things that I’ve done over the past few years, gathering thoughts. It’s not about accumulative gathering, but rather gathering thoughts back and understanding what I would like to linger with. Recently I’ve been working a lot with issues around grief and loss as well as ableism.
And as a part of what happened during Corona I suddenly started making costumes – in a very amateur way. It somehow became a part of the choreographic process. I have actually started making grieving costumes. The one I am wearing now is made out of abandoned fabrics from an old care home. It’s a very mechanical fabric – it’s maintaining clothing in a way: it’s a washing bag, where you put clothes.
When I started to work with the material, it started more and more to look like lace, which is another material I started working with when it came to costumes and grieving. The material itself was very sad, lonely and abandoned. Then it was repurposed into something. It’s an example on how grief is actually generous in a way and how you can keep it and repurpose it. How you can wear grief. It becomes a harness in a way, but in the same time it’s a lace dress. Grief is about paradoxes.
And conflict and peace.
Exactly. There those opposites meeting in grief: grief can be something destructive and generous at the same time. And it’s such a weird place to be in – it’s something I can’t help but orient myself through. Grief is so much present. Especially now, when we are in this kind of society where we can know about everything at all times. Then grief is everywhere in a way. As well as loss.
Silja Tuovinen was talking with Lölä Vlasenko during Warjakka Art Lab 2021