TaikaTalk. Episode 1
Oulu based journalist Lölä Vlasenko interviewed TaikaBox’ co-founders – artists Tanja Råman and John Collingswood – about the new reality of contemporary performance
TaikaBox emerged onto the art scene of Northern Finland in 2015 having existed in an international – originally British – performance art context for over ten years. The company’s philosophy – combining choreography and technology – is rooted in the backgrounds of the two co-founders.
British visual artist and interactive systems designer John Collingswood and dance artist and choreographer Tanja Råman from Northern Finland together have been researching and creating ways of mixing things that are not usually expected to match. In TaikaBox projects galleries are created in forests, epic stories are rediscovered through cutting edge technology, performances are held in gardens, things are turned into art objects – and none of it seems oxymoronic once you witness or experience it.
Non-profit, non-hierarchial and nonconformist, the art processes that TaikaBox launch and sustain have a strong environmental and humanitarian message, developing long-term bonds with an active and aware community.
TaikaTalk is the new segment of TaikaBox’s media activity. Having connected with a lot of independent artists who participated in TaikaBox’ events and projects, the company decided to create a more sustainable network by regularly posting interviews, features and online workshops with like-minded artists from around the globe. Developed as an alternative independent online magazine and a social network of free-spirited artists and audiences, TaikaTalk is aimed to help strengthen the artistic network and the connection between the artist and the audience.
Produced by TaikaBox and Oulu-based journalist Lölä Vlasenko, TaikaTalk is opening with an introduction to its instigators – Tanja Råman and John Collingswood. With this big interview they invite fellow artists to join the conversation, share backgrounds and plans, fears, hopes and energies, celebrating the freedom of expression.
Lölä: How did you invent TaikaBox as a hybrid of dance and technology?
Tanja: It was love – disguised as trying to work together (laughs). We met when touring in the UK.
I didn’t have any experience of working with tech before. John, on the contrary, had plenty of experience working with dance. I was starting to develop my own choreographic work and suggested that John comes and helps.
John: There was something about the way she was moving: it was compelling and precise.
I did the lighting and sounds designed specifically to be very precise – one particular cue had to be sent with split-second accuracy to get the best results. The light had to be on Tanja at exactly the right time, matched with the soundtrack and movement. I think she appreciated that… We worked quite well together and also, for some reason, I think she wanted an excuse to spend a little bit more time with me.
Tanja: I really appreciated the fact that John has an artistic background and he can really understand another artist. Often theatre technicians are not creative, saying no to your ideas. John was the one who said yes and tried to make it happen, thinking creatively with the artist, being an art ally in a theatre.
What was that performance about?
Tanja: It was my very first solo work that I created in Wales after I moved there in 2004. It took me a couple of years to develop it. Then it was picked up by an organization called Welsh Independent Dance – It doesn’t exist anymore, but at the time was organizing tours and opportunities for independent artists.
My solo work was developed through their Dance Bytes programme and then taken on tour with John working as technician.
That solo was the very first part of a trilogy I then completed once we moved back to Finland in 2015. It was based on my diaries, particularly ideas of living in a foreign country: what I missed, misunderstood and how I was misunderstood. Once we started working together more, we developed that work into the next stage…
John: That’s when we started to explore interactivity on stage.
Tanja: I forced John to come on stage with me (laughs). The idea was not to hide the tech behind the scenes.
Were you dancing, John?
John: My fingers were dancing, triggering the sounds that accompanied Tanja moving.
Diaries are a dramatic material, Tanja. You were into writing? What does dance have that words don’t?
Tanja: That is how I came to dance in the first place – through words. I was very late to start dancing – I had already turned 16 when I went to my very first dance class. I have always been very sporty and physically active, but it wasn’t until I went to the dance class when I realized: ”Oh my god! This is my channel to express myself”. I’ve always been very shy. If I needed to speak in front of an audience, I was terrified and unable to do that. However, with dance I didn’t experience it. I might be a little nervous initially, but then it all disappears and I feel comfortable and confident. I talk through my body.
I don’t think it is very good to value something as more or less better. I feel words and movement can help each other. I would never want to show anyone what I wrote in my diaries. But through my body I could express and show the essence of the feeling I had when writing those diaries. Both words and dance were important for the process of expressing myself.
I still occasionally write diaries, I’ve been doing it for 30 years since I was a teenager. Still never ever would I show them, but those words are important for me to dance. Writing is just something that comes out before the dancing.
Do you like words, John? Are they less powerful than movement?
John: I guess the words are in a way not as important as the process. And the very people in it. That is why I was more attracted to dance. I’ve always loved contemporary dance because of the abstract nature it has, unlike words. I like abstraction.
Tanja, you said when you started dancing you had to convince your parents that “choreographing and performing is a proper job”. Was it the same for John? What was it like and what would you suggest to people having the same type of argument?
Tanja: My parents are very traditional in terms of work. My dad was a farmer and my mom worked in a tax office. She has never changed her job. All of her life – same job! What probably scared them is that art is so insecure in terms of income. How would I survive making it? That is what has been worrying them all these years on my behalf.
One religious group was very strong in the area where I grew up. They considered dance a sin.
Although my parents don’t belong to that particular religious group, they were very embarrassed to mention that I was studying dance to anybody. Once I gained a position of being a lecturer of dance in the university, that started to be a ”proper job” – because I started to get a regular wage. That was a relief for them.
John: I was pretty rebellious in some ways when a teenager. The parents seemed to expect that anything could happen. Then I went to art school and they were supportive, especially my mom. And that is where I channelled my energies and worked really hard. When I took a foundation course, they saw the results and decided it actually suited my personality. Maybe if I had some sensible 9-5 job, my energies wouldn’t have channelled that way and everything could have turned out to be something a bit more disruptive…
How did you choose contemporary art? Did you have “classical”, “official” temptations?
Tanja: As I started dancing at the age of 16, there was no way for me to follow the ballet route, by that time you have to be pretty ready to go to the ballet school. I didn’t do that – that kind of opportunity wasn’t even offered to me when I was a child. In terms of a dance context, the classical way was closed.
There have been many times when I felt: I am not getting anywhere in dance! It is so hard to earn money through that. And I was questioning whether I should carry on trying… When we moved to Finland, it was hard to get into the Finnish dance sector and find funding. And there was this one point when I felt: we either just leave the whole art scene and go look for a job in a shop, or we succeed.
My heart is definitely in the arts – and what your heart is saying is what your life depends on. If I am not somehow creative and involved in making art one way or another, it makes me really depressed. I can’t see any other way for myself that could be possible.
I know my dad sacrificed his dream by taking a job that his parents wanted. He has always regretted it, although he does see the benefit and security of having a regular wage and he wishes that for his children. My father wanted to be a PE teacher – he was a very good sportsman. He did not believe that you could earn a living by doing competitive sports though, and PE teaching was the closest to his dream. But he gave that up by going first to work with machines and then on a farm. I decided I can’t make that kind of sacrifice.
Are you ready to see your children rebellious?
John: I guess so. I’ve always wondered whether the children’s rebel would be against the very rebelliousness, turning out to be straight down the line, into classical music and such. It doesn’t seem to happen that way though. Our kids are brought up with dance and music in the house constantly.
Tanja: They are already showing signs of rebelling, demonstrating a lot of creativity in different ways of looking at the rules or what is expected of them (both laugh).
Why did you decide to come to Finland after having spent so many years abroad? What were things that impressed you most in Finnish contemporary art scene? Have these things changed throughout the years as you were developing TaikaBox?
Tanja: The reason why we moved to Finland was our children’s upbringing: Finnish schools have more freedom and space. I wanted to move back to Finland for a long time but didn’t feel when the right time might be. Not to be drifting, we put ourselves a deadline: once Noa, our oldest child, would turn seven, we would move to Finland. It was a good move and the right time – before Brexit and the Pandemic kicked in. It was also a good time to be in Oulu, because the arts in Oulu are now experiencing interesting times with regards to the application for European Capital of Culture status.
It was not easy to get into the Finnish dance sector. I feel it is not just to do with art and culture in general, but the whole Finnish society: it is not hugely welcoming foreigners or even those Finnish people who were studying or working abroad and are coming back. I tried testing the water before, in 2003 and 2004, thinking whether it is time to move back to Finland. Definately, it was not! Finland was not ready (laughs). Things have obviously changed: the country has culturally opened up. A little bit. But it is still hard work… I speak Finnish and in certain ways know how the system here works. Many times I have thought: what about those who come here with no Finnish language and no experience of Finnish systems and don’t know anybody who could help them?
The Finnish sector is quite traditional and in many ways is staying behind the changes of the world and the art scene in particular. That is why new ideas, new ways of working, new people have trouble getting in. We were establishing TaikaBox in Finland in a very different way than a traditional dance company. It is more about process, supporting and developing the sector here in the North and continuing our research. It is not about making productions one after another and touring.
So you have this anticapitalist approach to art? Which doesn’t make it communistic either (all laugh).
Tanja: Although it is about community. I was looking into one of the funding applications recently, they are not recognizing such an approach at all. I feel we are doing a lot and building the sector here in art. But they are just asking about a number of productions and performances. It doesn’t feel quite applicable.
John, do you feel homesick?
John: Oulu is my home now. I don’t really miss the UK that much, even though I miss the people. But I have found new ways of connecting with them – and also the UK has changed so much in the last 5-6 years that I feel I’m in a better place now. It has never occured to me to move back.
What about the unwelcoming part? Have you felt unwelcome?
John: No, I felt a little caution, because my Finnish language skills are poor. It is really hard to break through in some ways because of the lack of easy ways to communicate.
Tanja: I think it also goes beyond the language: there is this Finnish way of not being as relaxed as one would be in the UK when socialising, talking to strangers or with each other. It is the lack of small talk. Finland is quite straight to the point – and that is that.
One of your projects – Born Old – is dedicated to Finnish epic poetry Kalevala, the source of inspiration for many people of art, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings being just one example of it. It is a combination of very ancient stories with very modern technologies. How did you come to playing with these totally different things?
Tanja: This is the nature of how we work together: both of us bring different things to the table. What John brings sparks my imagination, and vice-versa. When we started working with BORN OLD, we could not imagine the end result. It is part of the process: we bounce the ideas back and forth and then the piece just comes out of this.
I am really proud of BORN OLD, I think it will last for quite a long time. I’ve seen it many times and it still makes me laugh at places and admire its beauty. Back in my childhood I felt gutted that I never managed to read Kalevala through when I was younger. BORN OLD was a way of going back to getting to know it in a playful way and have quite a lot of fun.
John: Our collaboration in bringing things from totally different sides together is the nature of most of our work. The body and the digital are TaikaBox’ basis, the two sides of a coin. We always try to bring them together in a way that they harmonise. We’re trying it to look as natural and organic as possible, even though we are using computers quite a lot. In our work with dancers we keep connected to human nature…
Tanja: In many works done by other artists the body and the ‘humanness’ oppose the tech as they are not properly combined: tech there tends to be quite clinical and cold. Seeing them as two opposite things doesn’t interest me much. As a choreographer and artist I am curious to explore what can be done to enhance physical expression with tech, highlighting its organic physicality. That allows me to explore energies and emotions I wouldn’t have been able to without technology.
Tech is often connected with cyberpunk style that goes out of line with nature. There are not many examples of the opposite approach – like the nature loving robots in Hayao Miyazaki’s ”Laputa Castle in the Sky”. Does the Warjakka project symbolize that organic environmentally friendly tech exploration? You use tech creating virtual galleries to explore old buildings that no longer exist in the village of Varjakka and create performances that include a lot of digital art in summer art residencies there in community gardens. Why do you enjoy intentionally combining those mistakenly opposite sides of tech and nature?
Tanja: It gives more layers, anchors and ways for people to access the art. In the particular area where we live in Varjakka there is a stronghold of that religious group which views dance as a sin. Tech is one of the interesting tools to try to bring people who might find dance as a not-their-thing – whether it is a religious reason or just the lack of interest – to experience dance art – live or virtual. Varjakka does symbolize a perfect marriage of tech and nature – all encouraging the community to rediscover the place’s history and dip in through its ghostly atmosphere.
Within the ”Moving Barents – Out of Urgency” project and Oulu Dance Hacks you were creating online-offline performances, where artists are located in different studios across the globe and in the same time perform simultaneously on one screen, the choreography being both about the movement and – about playing with screens, projections and streaming. How did Corona, when everybody had to go online, affect your explorations in that field?
Tanja: It definitely speeded things up. The Corona has done a lot of havoc, but also highlighted the things that are sustainable in our artistic practice. Varjakka with its virtual galleries in outdoor nature based sites felt like a great project to continue… And in Oulu Dance Hack where we usually bring artists in, we managed to connect artists without traveling. The same happened with the Born Old as we streamed it live to thousands of schoolchildren across Finland. The pandemic speeded up the process of using tech more to connect in spite of distance. We thought ”Out of Urgency” would take us two-three years to produce a satellite piece with several places connected in a real time performance. Then Corona came and we were suddenly doing it straight away…
How is it possible to create the common online-offline art space having connected several studios in the same time and actually direct a piece like that?
John: It’s a result of a constant research process. We’ve always wanted to find new ways of doing things, being anti-tradition for a long time. Our work has often been concerned with audience engagement and audience’s experience of the world that we’re producing.
Tanja: And the process itself as a priority.
John: For years we have been using technology rather than the traditional method of touring, that is why when Corona came along, we were ready. We like collaborating, meeting new people and going to new places, but we’ve been aiming to find more sustainable ways of doing things using technology. This is also about trusting people. We can only see what happens in our studio, we have to have a vision and imagination to find a way to understand how the other artists feel.
Tanja: John and I have been working together for 15 years now, and through that time we’ve developed skills of understanding each other. In terms of choreographing with tech I can guess quite a lot, how certain tech influences the movement, the choreography.
Who do you feel is your audience? Where do these people come from mainly – the tech or dance sectors?
Tanja: There are loads of different ways we are trying to connect with people of different ages and interests, using interdisciplinary arts and encouraging people to discover dance or rediscover tech they are familiar with. I feel that I’m not choreographing just for stage anymore. I am choreographing in society, in community, even in a garden – each full of very different people.
One of the things you have been developing and supporting is an alternative touring model, when the local artists and art community are the beneficiaries of events developed and held on the spot rather than “exporters” to big cities. The old model implied a lot of traveling expenses and actually left the artistic place of origin empty, yet it remained the mainstream approach to making art. Did the Corona trigger any revision of that old model towards the new one, in your perspective? Did the era of the old fashioned classical big touring finally end?
Tanja: I hope that the big scale touring in a way has ended. Obviously I love seeing some big scale productions, but they are not reliable ecologically, don’t really live much and generally feel pretty detached. The show is done. What is the legacy? What are the connections to the place of performance? The long-term plan?
For nearly ten years we have been exploring the ecological touring model in different ways not just in terms of having less carbon footprint, but also in terms of connecting more deeply with places where we go – with the dance sector, venues, international partners we are working with. Touring from one place to another can be fun when you are young, but after a while you think: what is the point of this if you are not connecting and working more deeply with the people? Are you ever coming back? Probably not…
Looking for answers, we started thinking how we can connect more deeply with the people in places we go to.
Another reason is that we are quite a small company. How are we able to do the ”big stuff” without lugging more people around and having long rehearsals? We were very lucky to have some money from the Arts Council of Wales to do a couple of research projects based on audience development. Through doing those projects we developed ideas of hybrid choreographic/digital systems that just the two of us can take to the place and work with artists there in order to make a bigger piece.
Do you think the Corona reality started the era of a choreographic and touring evolution?
John: The climate crisis has been in the back of everybody’s minds, but we managed to ignore it until last year. The planet is making things more challenging for us to continue in the same traditional way in lots of different walks of life. Performance and contemporary arts are one of those things that have to respond quickly to the changing world, and the world is indeed changing quickly.
The corona pandemic with its lockdowns made many people reassess what is important. It’s had a huge impact on their lives, making them realise it is not a short term thing that is just going to disappear and everything gets back to normal. We actually need to rethink our efforts and ways of living our lives.
Would you argue that Corona-driven reality has urged art to be more political and less abstract? In the same time the Covid has brought in some intimacy: artists haven’t been just witnessing and reacting, but suffering together with the others, losing people, opportunities and health. Maybe the Corona has in fact blurred the borderline between the personal and the social in art?
John: Corona has marginalized everything. Places like big theatres had to be closed and they can’t continue creating behind closed doors, then showing it to people for ticket money. They are finding new ways of doing things and using the same methods as independent artists, creating something that is available for free, connecting with audiences and getting their work out there online. This levelled the playing field in many ways. So now there’s potential for more voices to be heard. I guess that will encompass a bunch of different views and has potential to make the scene more political.
Tanja: It is going to be interesting to see in years to come how we actually reflect on this time. We don’t even know yet how long this will last and what comes afterwards. But I don’t think we will ever come back to what it was. We will have changed. I have thought for a long time – not because of the Corona – that big theatres are like dying dinosaurs. They are too much about the tradition and not so much about the things that are happening right now. Everything has to change – from funders to artists and organisations. The independent artists are more agile to change and to make difference.
Speaking of intimacy and bringing more personal to the art, Corona makes physical contact or meeting another person much more meaningful. Same in performing arts and dance. Now that restrictions don’t allow us to see performances too often, when you finally get to, the magic of how your body mirrors the emotions expressed in a non-verbal physical way is amplified.
Emotions and energies are the centre of many TaikaBox projects. Some of them like Morning Rave or DigiTanssi deal directly with mental health, with fighting depression and anxiety and with accepting one’s body. Creating a common art space connecting studios from different parts of the world is not only about technology, but, as artists say they feel, about connecting energies. How do people actually start feeling each other (and feeling good about each other and themselves) in spite of thousands and thousand kilometres between them?
Tanja: That came through research and discovery. I used to also work as a cranio sacral therapist, exploring energy and particularly energy in movement. In 2018 I first started researching with an artist in Lapland. We could not get together regularly due to the long distance and started trying to create and share a digital studio. We’re both interested in energy-based work and improvisation. We realized that there is something going on in our relationship when we are dancing together, even when using cameras and projectors to share a virtual space.
We started developing a project in the TaikaBox Studio – facilitating sessions where people feel relaxed, comfortable and open to connect with others. It turned out that when creating the right type of environment it doesn’t really matter whether the people are right there with you or whether they are on the screen.
This idea of well-being is based on an understanding that we are entities, not just the bodies taken by the brain from A to B. Everything – energy, body, and emotions – comes in one package. This is what we believe in, whether we are acting as an employer, or working on an artistic project or collaborating with a community. We are avoiding hierarchy as it interferes with creating a comfortable environment, a safe space.
John: The idea of removing hierarchy from art is something we have always been interested in.
The work we do is not about an artist crafting something and then showing it to the audience which says ”that’s amazing, I could never do anything like that”. For the last ten years our work has gone further away from just making a show and performing it.
We’ve been more into creating experiences for people to feel something significant, to actively engage with the work and come out with some kind of emotional change and realisation within themselves. In some projects we took the artwork away completely: it is just about the audience and what they do with each other and the environment that we provide for them.
Tanja: That connection is the artwork itself. That is the art we produce, not a product.
John: That is really exciting to witness how, given an opportunity, people can find ways of enriching energetically and emotionally – within themselves, a small community or just when meeting with strangers. Corona has intensified our research. We found technological ways of doing that so people don’t have to be in the same room and can connect through these experiences across distance.
Tanja: Having the therapy practice experience, I like to think of myself as being a channel, whether it is a channel in energy or a channel in art. That is how art can be a healer – when it involves participating and engaging in different ways.
What is the biggest trauma art can heal from?
Tanja: I don’t know what the biggest trauma is. But the wonderful discovery is the change you can go through together with a person who has never worked with us in any form before – whether it is an artist or a child who came for the workshop.
You literally can turn artists into ghosts playing with projections as they move in front of the screen. Do you feel that you are choreographing through digital art and visuals? How do people change their movement when experimenting with tech?
John: I guess my influence is in a way quite abstract. I don’t tell artists what to do, I offer opportunities and then let the dancers explore those abstractions, new ways of looking at themselves and what comes out of it. Then I can respond to their ideas on how they are feeling about the image that I created. And then push that image in direction of what they see in it.
Tanja: Because we work with improvisation I feel that John is an equal improvisor amongst the dancers. He just uses different media. The tech brings really big physical changes of how the dancers respond to it. Whether John is playing certain music or changes something in the visuals, it makes us move differently. It is like a dialogue – between the dancers and what John does.
John: Yes. The kind of tech that I use includes a toolbox that enables me to respond quickly – give real time response to what the dancer is doing. That enables it to become fully improvised rather than being ”wait before I recode, give me half an hour”.
Is it some special software that you can cast in real time depending on your vision?
John: Around 13 years ago I was introduced to the software called Isadora, it is basically a way of tweaking data. I am very comfortable with it. It involves visualisation rather than coding. I can visualise what I want to see on one end and how to change it on the other end, switching the settings really quickly and dramatically affecting what is going on.
Tanja: The key to how we collaborate in many projects is that we are in the same space at the same time rather than me being in the studio and John somewhere else doing different things and us trying to later bring it together. That quite often happens in the dance sector, when people are employing a digital designer – they remain too separate. Very early on we realised that we actually have to be in the same space and influence each other so that everything becomes well integrated.
John: As a technician I try constantly supporting the performers. In the traditional touring theatre method I would first go to the venue, make everything right and wait for the performers. The situation that we have is less like that and is more like an equal input. It is still supporting what the performers are doing, but also giving them new opportunities and exploring ideas using tech.
What do you like more – working with visual art or creating music for performances?
John: I see it as everything fitting in together: sound, projection, light, design, costumes. My skills are not particularly musical. I always wanted to be a musician, but never had patience to practice – or natural ability that would make practicing easy. Music is a huge struggle for me. So I rather see myself creating sound design, having a more textural approach to sound.
Tanja: Often in our projects I feel John is the glue between the different elements: artists, musicians, tech company. He is the one being able to have a conversation with everybody and understand a bit of everybody – and he is holding it together. It is often hidden behind, but is actually very solid.
John: It gives you the foundation to be more specific about pushing things in different directions and directing.
What gives you more energy and inspiration – solo dancing, dancing in a group, choreographing?
Tanja: I like the spectrum. I really like Oulu Dance Hack, because it is about being creative and facilitating that creation, as well as having other like-minded people working with us. I also love performing and having that special connection with the audience. I love doing the Warjakka project because it is about taking steps towards some areas that are quite new to me…
Does TaikaBox now look the way you dreamed it would? Does the contemporary dance scene look like you dreamed it would when you started TaikaBox?
Tanja: We started working together in 2005 as Tanja Råman + d’bini industries. Then in 2010 we created TaikaBox. As we were coming up with the name, branding TaikaBox and going through business planning, we didn’t really know how it all would turn out in Finland. After we moved to Finland all the funding structures changed and that also directed how TaikaBox was developing.
In certain ways our dreams have come true because of the variety of what we are doing, working with different levels: with the communities, with artists, doing research and performances. It feels like I started with stage work, choreographing quite tightly, and then it all started to dramatically expand. I can’t even imagine where it can go!
John: We came from quite a traditional set up of creating work for stage and then we started thinking of what we actually wanted to do and what we felt was the most enriching for us. It turned out to be more about the process and the research. For a few years we struggled with making a business model based on that. Then we moved to Finland and were starting from scratch – our experience didn’t account for much here. So we started to try everything – applying to get funding to do all kinds of different projects just to see what people would appreciate and support so that we can survive. That has been fantastic because it enabled us to branch out and do various things – and this is exactly what we aimed for in the beginning.
Tanja: It feels there is room to expand, but there is too much work! We would really like to have not just the two of us, but a variety of people working with us so that we can keep branching out. But for that we need more money (both laugh). I feel we are quite unique, because we didn’t know how things work here and how you are supposed to exist as a ”proper” association. We were doing things our way and that gave us freedom to do them differently. Corona makes me realize that we have been building things in a very sustainable way, which is always important.
John: We have always been outsiders in a way – and felt comfortable with it. And now everybody is an outsider, because it feels that in this new normal, what was ‘inside’ is struggling to survive.
Tanja Råman and John Collingswood were talking with Lölä Vlasenko