Oulu wouldn’t be Oulu without musician and producer Jarkko Halunen – the leader of both the band Neondad and LUMO – the light art festival which unites artists from around the globe in their joint creative boost transforming the whole city into one big multimedia installation each year.

TaikaBox has been lucky to participate in LUMO regularly over the last few years – the association’s cofounder visual artist John Collingswood has made projection installations for the City Hall building and outside the city’s gallery space Valve. Oulu Dance Hack 2019 was part of the LUMO weekend, with hundreds of visitors to Oulu Museum of Art experiencing the performances created by international artists throughout the previous week. We’re also big fans of Neondad, the band’s tender absurd psychofunk aesthetics always bringing smiles to our faces. 

In this TaikaTalk Jarkko Halunen speaks about what makes Oulu’s art scene so special and expands to embrace the international contemporary arts scene’s struggle with rethinking and re-evaluating itself after the traditional momentum was challenged by the new Corona reality.  

Portrait of Jarkko Halunen by Harri Tarvainen

How do you combine simultaneously being an office-based producer and a rock star?

I’m not sure what the rock-n-roll star’s lifestyle is like nowadays. Is it still sex and drugs or rather going to a gym and having healthy smoothies? Everybody says rock-n-roll is dead. If rock-n-roll is dead then what’s all that Blind Channel noize in the Eurovision song contest and what are all those bands making fresh music rooted in the tradition of rock? I don’t know about that, or how I combine that, all I know is it’s hard (all laugh).

Maybe the secret lies in you being not just a rock star, but a post-rock star, as Neondad is often labelled.

Yes, post-rock star I am – in terms of ”post” not being a part of ”post-rock” genre, but rather describing the era of no-longer-being-a-rock-star! To be serious, at some point I had to restrict myself in going to gigs. Some fifteen years ago, going to gigs, having some drinks on Wednesday and showing up in the office at 9 o’clock in the morning was nothing. It’s not that easy these days. It’s a good thing that we have this pandemic now so I don’t feel like I’m missing anything (all laugh).

A Still from the video for Fleshwound

One of your main projects is the award-winning LUMO festival. How did you come up with its idea and what was the biggest challenge in organising it?

Well, I didn’t start LUMO, I hopped in on, what I recall was, the second year of the LUMO festival – all created within a larger light-based project. The people who started it were quite confident in going to the end and making it happen. The first two years I was doing some little part-productions for the festival, in 2016 I started working more, and since 2017 I’ve been in charge of everything in LUMO with my producer partner Anna Lanas.

The hardest thing is struggling with a quite limited budget for a light festival. Light art and all the technical equipment needed is very expensive to purchase and hire, and it is always hard to find financial partners to offer something more impressive for the audience.

The hardest thing personally has always been about keeping the endurance, going straightforward with the plan and the patience to make things actually happen. I’m basically quite an impatient person – it’s got something to do with the fact that I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) – thus some things are harder, some are easier.

What’s easier then?

Being with people. That’s the main reason I’m engaged with both LUMO and Neondad. No matter the outcome, it’s always about a process and projects with people. Starting from the very beginning – from having that idea and the first rush, or rather crush… Going to the end with the idea can be the hardest thing actually – and it tells if the idea is good. If it isn’t, you just can’t keep the interest of processing…

The outcome seems to be as fascinating as the process – within LUMO you turn the city into an artistic fairy tale. Do you change yourself too, rediscovering your relationship with the city? And how would you describe that relationship?

I moved to Oulu when I was around nineteen – I used to live in a little village called Pyhäjoki, 100 kilometres away from here. Since then I’ve been living in Oulu and I do feel like it is my place. It has a strange balanced combination of good and bad things: just the right kind of alternative attitude that I like on the one hand, and elements of cold and cruel atmosphere that I don’t like, on the other.

The most important thing is the people – all the friends and the folks of the cultural sector in Oulu. There are many nice people living here and nice things happening that are quite different from what you might feel in Helsinki, for example. Things are made smaller scale, with more of the alternative vibe. Doesn’t it make a city nice?

One of the things I have been inspired by in the recent years is the idea of surprising people – the most important thing in a living city. You should have surprises when you walk on the streets – when you turn round the corner you should find something that you don’t expect. That’s one of the leading ideas in LUMO. Although light art is very expensive (laughs) and we have a limited budget, we always try to find something that hasn’t been seen before, at least in Oulu. That’s why we go to different festivals around the world – to see what’s going on…

How do you feel about the balance between what Oulu and the Finnish art scene in general has absorbed from the international cultural environment and what they have produced and exported?

Oulu has always been an alternative cousin of a well behaved something (laughs; we try not to use the word Helsinki too much, we laugh at ourselves laughing at this – TaikaTalk). Oulu has been strong in music and dance, and it has played a big role in developing the national dance scene and affecting the Finnish alternative music development.

In the 1990-s Oulu was the base for metal and alternative rock, for example Radiopuhelimet, Brüssel Kaupallinen, Electric Blue Peggy Sue and The Revolutions From Mars… All those bands led way to other Finnish artists. Oulu has very often been the first wave – making it possible for others to enter the scene. If you look at the pop side of art and entertainment, you might not find too many ”top level popular” artists of Oulu’s origin, – but those in Finland who are, wouldn’t emerge if not the first-wave-Oulu breakthroughs that had inspired them… It seems Oulu keeps exporting people and ideas, and someone picks berries from the seeds Oulu gives.

You have been creating and developing the art scene in Oulu for years. How has it changed in the last years? Does it look like you thought it would when you started working in the culture sector? And if something was missing – did you try to fill that gap with Neondad?

Of course, we try to fill every gap we can with Neondad (all laugh). I feel Oulu is much more opened nowadays. I started working for the City of Oulu with the Rockpolis project – a music information centre which was a EU project in 2005 – yet it still had the 1990-s kind of vibe. I was working with bands, and they were standing in the promo pictures with their hands crossed on their chests and looks on their faces saying ”Don’t come close”. That was their attitude: “We have to put it real. We can’t seek commercial success or promote ourselves too much, because it’s not right. We have to make our own thing and wait for someone to find us” (laughs).

I don’t know if it’s right to say ”the majority of bands”, but many of them were thinking like that. The main twist that has been happening in the last twenty years was about people’s minds opening to new attitudes. People now feel that from Oulu it’s possible to go everywhere and be known everywhere and find collaboration around the world.

Neondad – keeping it real

You are driven by art, yet you are informed by business approach – maybe because, as you said, you like to go to the end with the implementation a lot. Was it hard with Neondad, where you’re especially involved as an artist more than a producer?

We used to have a band called Universal Audio Attack Orchestra with Neondad’s drummer Peter. In this band Jani was singing and I was playing guitar. After the band quit we thought we must start a new one with more of pop attitude: some laid back humorous band like Pavement, etc. It’s a little like what Mac DeMarco is doing today – that’s one of the ways of putting what we were thinking of doing. We still keep that humour and fun in it, but music just changed…

Neondad is a perfect example of something purely Finnish – by which I mean there is no division between arthouse and mainstream. Things that are perceived abroad as ”Finnish arthouse/ indie” seem to be just normal here on the inside. How has that perception been evolving throughout the years – you must have noticed something since you have been engaged within so many international projects?

It’s true that we have this strange approach to artwork. I’m talking about Finns and Neondad as Finns – we’re quite serious people, even pessimistic and negative, – that’s how we cope with obvious disappointments… We think: ”It’s not going to work anyway, so let’s just…”

Have fun.

Yes! Let’s just do it for fun. I find that in myself and in Neondad, always feeling like doing whatever for fun… The inner question in us is: ”How much should I try something not to get disappointed too much if it doesn’t work?” (all laugh)

That is one clear thing in Finnish mindset. And that’s also what makes us different from Swedes, for example, who seem to be good at marketing themselves as the successful ones. Whereas we in Finland send out a message like that: “Well, it’s not that good, but have a look”…

Seems to be working though, doesn’t it?

At least this is one thing that makes us unique. It’s a way of thinking.

It quite questions the capitalistic tradition in marketing art productions/products and whatever with the “best-best-best vibe”, doesn’t it? People got quite tired of that one, as it seems.

True! I’ve been tired of capitalism my whole life (don’t print that) (all laugh).

Self-irony and humour is a powerful tool not just in marketing, but also in fighting all kinds of tyranny. Do you believe fun could be a long-term freeing effect against the dictatorship, as one of your music videos – people dancing with Kim Jong Un’s mask on – suggests?

Of course I do. Art can play a great role in showing the emperor’s new clothes’ flaws and errors. It can make people think and even change their behaviour. It’s more likely to happen in youth though, when people are sensitive and are just finding their way of looking at life and the world…

When I’m speaking of art, I always also mean entertainment. For me art and entertainment are the same thing. It shouldn’t be divided into different sectors: both have a lot to do with making the world a better place and finding new ways of looking at things.

Have you been feeling lonely with such an approach or is this a Finnish thing – not putting a bold borderline between art and entertainment, bringing the fun to the sad and vice-versa?

At least the mass audience doesn’t find any borders between those things. Those borders, however, still exist, – that’s one of the reasons I like to speak out on them, as if raising my hand saying: ”Hey, I don’t think that works this way”. I’m not sure if it has changed much throughout the years: if we go back in time for a few hundred years, the great orchestral music made those days was considered entertainment back then, and now we think of it more as art.

It works in Finnish context as well as the international one. Popular music isn’t considered art, but just entertainment, and time is making it into art. The line, of course, is drawn by the personality, the approach of the one who draws it. Yet though everyone has the right to make a border, there’s no use for it I think.

After having released the Fleshwound music video you joked that you will reach one million views by 2050. Jokes apart, do you feel that the Corona reality with its limits and restrictions made every viewer, every allowed person in the audience, every performance more precious?

Maybe. Though I was joking about not missing things taken away by the Corona-era, of course I do miss them. I miss going to gigs – that’s the most important thing in the cultural sector for me: I love feeling the emotions with people, bands and performers. I haven’t found a substitute for that within the Corona. There’s only a few streams that I’ve been watching… Most of the times I’ve been shutting the stream down just because it doesn’t have the essential vibe.

Of course, every person is important. It’s just that the connection is not happening. There’s a lot to do in making virtual events more experimental, immersive, unique, intimate – these would be a big thing nowadays. Unfortunately, the income is a more relevant thing for most of the artists and those who are creating these experiences. The income in a happening or an event where there’s only a few people in the audience is challenged by a possibility of becoming a thing for rich people only.

The financial losses and the loss of the common ways to connect with the audience made a big number of people depressed. Do you feel this depression might have triggered anything positive: rethinking that connection, addressing more dramatic issues in art, researching more to find innovative technical solutions to perform?

It could have been a good suffering, if it lasted a shorter time (laughs)… It’d boost the imagination and kickstart creative innovation. But now it’s more than a year since people lost jobs and income. The suffering doesn’t seem healthy anymore. It’s not a thing that might inspire you to find different aspects in art or whatever – it’s basically about surviving.

And we don’t know when it ends.

No future is the hardest part. How do you find yourself somewhere in the future where there isn’t one? I don’t have an answer to that – and it’s easier for me because I work for the city and my bank account gets money coming every month. I feel almost ashamed (laughs), feeling as if this isn’t right – although I do things that bring income to people in the cultural sector (still doesn’t feel right)…

In the same time I’m very happy about the fact that once I made a decision to work for the city and planted some ideas… I was thinking of starting a company or a restaurant a few years back – its good I sticked to the other decision…

The theme for this year’s Lumo Light Festival is ”Back to New”. And these are the questions organizers set for artists to reflect on: ”Normal as we know it might no longer exist, what kind of opportunities will open in the new era; what ways of our thinking have changed for good; how will our approach to other people and the environment change and how will the human mind and humanity evolve”. Now, how would you personally answer those questions? 

The reason my colleague Anna and I have put these questions up is that we don’t know (laughs). We want artists to tell us. It is very hard to see the possible future by finding ways of thinking about the time when the pandemic is over. There are so many messages out there to comprehend! So many people are telling different kinds of versions of the new reality – and often it’s quite a black vision.

Of course we know that different new ways of making shows and events will emerge, allowing us to have more collaboration through technological things, which have all been developed a lot in the Corona-time. Yet I’m worried about the future of connection. How the connection will actually evolve, how do we feel the warmth in another person? Or hate? Or something as powerful as that? I wouldn’t have created anything just by myself – the whole idea of creating alone is horrifying me (laughs). It has always been about being with the people reacting to my ideas and vice-versa. It’s going to be hard to (re)find the real connection between people…

It is something informed by hope – putting tough questions to artists, because unlike with science, anything is possible in art?

That’s true. At least that’s quite an optimistic way of thinking.

Jarkko testing the combined producer/rock star look at Pikipop – photo by Nina Hyvärinen

Jarkko Halunen was talking with Lölä Vlasenko

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