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I feel I am a little more confused these days than I have been. Enthused by my typically eclectic reading of academic texts (e.g. this), I’ve been trying to link them to what is happening in or to Helsinki. How are the weird things happening here (and I’m not just talking about yesterday’s elections) connected to news and academic reflections about how urban development is affecting people, the Earth and democracy elsewhere? If the built environment really is crucially important both for social order and individual life, as I believe it is, then how should I understand policies towards it right here in Helsinki?

To help figure out, I am committing to this blog post some rather raw thoughts. They revolve around the fact that I found myself going on three consecutive days to the wonderful Lapinlahti hospital, which is gradually becoming known to at least some Helsinkians as a fascinating place of quirkiness, peace and cultural heritage. But the best things going on there appear to be threatened.

First, the tiniest bit of background (for more, follow the links and/or dream up your own research project on it. It opens doors to countless fascinating streams of historically significant events).

From 1841 to 2008 Lapinlahti served as the country’s foremost mental institution. Most of that time, it was closed off to ordinary residents, a fact recalled in the sign on display at the small Mental Museum operating there.

Sairaala alue kyltti

After the last psychiatric units were rehoused, it remained in city owndership but was left abandoned until volunteers gradually got it back on its feet. They struck a very short-term tenancy agreement with the city and have been able, despite little monetary support, to turn it into a life-affirming, quietly and preciously special place a hub of makers and doers whose future is, however, now uncertain.

Two years ago already I was concerned about this and helped organise a discussion about the contested future of the place. Fed up then as now with planning for shopping, I wrote:

…  Lapinlahti outshines, in every possible dimension, the tawrdy stuff of the retail therapy that Helsinki is currently building …

Its two main tenants were concerned about how their activities, which were then getting off to a good start, would be able to continue. In one wing the Tilajakamo cooperative provides affordable (really affordable) space to artists. In the other, the social enterprise Lapinlahden Lähde rents out space for voluntary and cultural activities with a special focus on wellbeing and mental health.

Instead of taking responsibility for developing the good work already underway here, the city wants someone to take the troublesome hospital area off its hands. Sairaalan piha

At Christmas last year, the city launched an ideas competition to come up with a high quality, functionally efficient and feasible “solution” to the “problem” of Lapinlahti. This would involve just one instance (investor? visionary?) to realize it. The brief does require, however that an endangered moth’s protection be secured and the area remain open to the public for recreational uses.

There is also the option to rent the whole to a suitable tenant. Several sources tell me that this is only in the call because of their lobbying. Many talk of the “so-called” ideas competition, adding hand-signal-scare-quotes as they speak.

Indeed, ideas are not in short supply here (see the text here and the video here for instance). Finance is.

Money. The city wants first of all to sell, not to care for or develop. According to an article in Helsingin Sanomat from December 2018 (screen shot below), to make its offer more attractive to investors, the city is even considering rezoning for new building rights on the edge of the park. The first round of the competition closes 31.5.2019.

Lapinlahti myyntiin HS 281211

One explanation for the craziness going on here now is that Helsinki has adopted policies that legally oblige it to manage the structures it owns for profit. Having said that, a city government is also legally obliged to look after its citizens’ wellbeing. It must ensure access to recreational spaces. To me and many others it seems clear that its first priority should be to support the activities that can already be found there. What amazing things could happen if the energy one feels there were supported with just a little bit of funding. The place needs maintenance. It does not need to be turned into luxury.

It also worries me that such a high profile place is so hard-pressed to gain support for activities that support social and use value over financial value. While I was on a guided history tour, former president Tarja Halonen was opening a new exhibition of Roma Culture. I only hope this kind of support will also lead to the material support that we people of Helsinki are bound to need as the threats to people, earth and democracy I began with remain with us.

(No wonder this is tricky to write about. There is so much to care about in Lapinlahti. And so much is endangered here: architectural heritage merges into cultural patrimony merges into personal and family histories merges into social fabric merges into walking in the cemetary and eating together (Loop) merges into the restorative joy of gardening merges into urban planning merges into land use requirements merges into Helsinki’s geography merges into loss of (bio)diversity merges into pollution merges into the growth imperative merges into climate change merges into troubles with Earth systems merges into foreshortened futures merges into school strikes merges into climate anxiety merges into all of the above… Aaarrggghhh. But it helped to write and to meet all those people who work every day to develop good things for us neighbours.)

(On my outings this past weekend, I also went to buy bread from the remarkable baker who can be found on weekends in the red-brick Venetsia building on the right in the picture above. Discovering him was a fabulous bonus. Do try, for instance, his Totally Nuts loaf, sold by the kilo and worth every cent!)

 

 

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Living sustainably isn’t easy when you’re rich

As I write, all who live in Europe must know that we are living climate change. Perhaps this also presages more recruits to the many initiatives of prefiguring more climate-sane and equitable futures.

Like so many of us engaged with environmentalism and other social movements, I struggle to assess and evaluate the role of the countless creative activists whose efforts sustain them and whose work I’ve been following with admiration and interest for the last decade and more. It’s just that their being so wealthy means that however activist and green they are, and however great the ideas they are promoting (like Dodo’s Megapolis events, below, 2009), they/we are still a problem.

IMG_5498

In Helsinki you can only have a sustainable lifestyle if you are homeless. For the rest of us, our homes and our engineered surroundings, built to serve consumer pleasures or, rather, industrial capitalism over decades and centuries, undo any efforts at sustainability. This contradiction cannot, however, be grounds for criticising environmentalists in wealthy places, even if the activism alternates with shopping as in the picture above.

A recent report by colleagues, 1.5. Degree Lifestyles: Targets and options for reducing lifestyle carbon footprints, makes clear that becoming a “sustainable civilisation” requires massive shifts in those infrastructures. But the authors also argue that it needs, as they call it, “a groundswell of actions from individuals and households”. Less driving and flying, more vegetable-based diet and, as I view it, probably more convivial hanging out. Also, quite a bit of collective experimentation.

This, by the way, is what is on display in the Finnish pavilion (also the handiwork of good colleagues) of the XXII Triennale di Milano opening tomorrow. The somewhat alarming title of the show is Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival. As ever, I hesitate at the idea that the required humongous reduction in resource exploitation will be spearheaded by people who, as the website puts it, can quip that as human extintion looms, design makes for a more elegant ending…

Yet it also suggests the opposite: the so-called creative classes have been cossetted over the last three decades in economic and urban policy. If they don’t launch themselves into sustainability, how can anyone else in the over-consuming global North do so?

So I find that I keep being interested in the comfortably off – my own “bubble”, if you like. Already as an aspiring anthropologist embarking on doctoral research in the early 1990s, my academic work was about ordinary people in an ordinary place. Later I’ve come to think that I’m eternally curious about the weirdness of the MN or “Modern Normal.

At least in climate terms, “normal” produces “disastrous”. So, we need more research on what this “disastrous” “normal” consists of and what sustains it.

Cue lots of wonderful, great research on grassroots activism that is a struggle to keep up with (or classify sensibly).

The comfortable slot

Although you could talk of a comfortable bubble, I’ve started to think about activists in Germany, the UK and Finland, as being part of the “comfortable slot”. It’s a structural thing.

I’ve been playing with the concept in seminar papers. I use it in a chapter I wrote for a book edited by Francisco Martinez and Patrick Laviolette, due out in a few months, on practices of repair. The book tackles this topical theme through ethnographic analyses of the failures, gaps, wrongdoings and leftovers that are inspiring so much creative research (e.g. discard studies, or social studies of waste, pollution and externalities).

The idea of social arrangements and relations being reduced to a “slot” derives, in a roundabout way, from Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s famous (1991) critique of the kind of society that could produce anthropology. He pointed out that anthropology had established itself as a discipline by contrasting an Other, the “savage slot”, with a politically far-from-innocent Self. This was the Christian European “slot” that claims descent from a Golden Age of Greek Civilization, and still models normality as male, white and property owning.

Then, in a much-cited paper from 2013 Joel Robbins observed that something like a “suffering slot” had been shaping the discipline. Later still, Sherry B. Ortner (2016) framed recent anthropology as overwhelmingly preoccupied with the “dark side” of neoliberalism.

She also notes Robbins’ call for an “anthropology of the good … focussed on such topics as value, morality, well-being, imagination, empathy, care, the gift, hope, time, and change” (quoted in Ortner 2016: 58). Many activists that I know could be described as members not just of the European slot but of the most comfortable among them, and still trying to live up to these values.

So my chapter in Repair, Brokenness, Breakthrough looks at how ordinary people living ordinary lives in ordinary places are compulsively drawn to repairing the damages brought about by decades and centuries of ordinary industrial capitalism. Or, of the Modern Normal.

Vegan junk food makes a point

On the corner of a small park is a “peaked” kiosk, an icon of Helsinki’s summer months, which used to sell sweets and ice creams. For some time, many of these kiosks were unused. These days, those that are in use are run on short-term leases and often by what you might call entrepreneurial neighbourhood activists.

In 2016, this kiosk got a new identity. Called Jänö (bunny), it began to serve unhealthy vegan food. By serving unhealthy vegan food, it punctured expectations that vegans would be as self-righteous about their health as about their world-saving (both silly prejudices). More seriously, Jänö reused an existing building, putting into practice at a small-scale but in a symbolically significant way, the principle of renovating and reusing rather than tearing down to make way for something new. The business model was an unusual mix of crowd-funding through social media channels and conventional bank loans, involving, I imagine, considerable expertise in the legal structures of co-operative enterprise.

Jänö by GJ May 2018

May 2018. Photo by Guy Julier.

I’m not sure who will be running it this year, but I look forward to another summer of liveliness and quirkiness.

Jänö really highlights the contrast between the massive scale of city-sponsored development and “city making” at the grassroots level.

Material environmentalism of everyday life

What’s so interesting is that Helsinki’s most comfortable slot could be expected to just sit back and relax, live their lives and rely on government and the businesses it supports to sustain their comforts. But many clearly aren’t. They may not be protesting so much in the streets (though they appear to be doing more of that too) as protesting through action, by prefiguring. Some vehemently deny that they are protesting. They are just doing stuff.

They are not the “social wildlife” of squats (vilified in Finland, but also admired for their political imagination), or of the early anti-globalisation protests that “respectable society” complained about in the 1990s. More likely they are those with “post-material values” more focused on quality of life than quantity of stuff.

David Schlosberg and Romand Coles coined a term for this: new materialist movements. It’s a varied, dynamic and growing type of environmentalist action. It involves people who are no longer “willing to take part in unsustainable practices and institutions, and not satisfied with purely individualistic and consumer responses”, and more likely to be restructuring everyday practices of circulation: they eat local and low-carbon, prefer cycling, like repairing and making. They aren’t passive consumers, but active participants and avid fans of DIY.

One area in Helsinki that is increasingly relevant in talking of material flows and views of the good life, is the built environment. The conflicts over landscape change (high-rise building), population targets, land use and the sustainability (or not) of today’s construction sector are currently very much on the agenda (as noted here, in Finnish).

Here too, the comfortably off have an important role. And here too, my hunch is that the contradictions hit people personally: architects may be forced to work for big construction to make a living, and still lend their expertise to promoting alternatives. More on this, anon, I hope.

Hundreds of flowers blooming for now

After it ceased operating as a hospital, Lapinlahti old mental asylum spent some years looking very drab.

Thanks to the efforts of alliances of activists from creative and variously comfortable slots, it has now become self-organising world of artists, mental health professionals and associations and of different kinds of sustainable initiatives. One is Restaurant Loop, which I warmly recommend. Together they have made piecemeal improvements to the historic buildings. They serve mental and physical wellbeing, support creative labour and delight us citizens who get to enjoy its beautiful architecture and social vibrancy. I wrote about it almost exactly two years ago on the blog.

As a funky film made by its tenants shows, it is a space of hundreds of flowers blooming. It would be a fabulous place to do an ethnographic study of Robbins’ anthropology of the good in the 21st century.

Alas, the city is making their lives difficult. Current tenants are apparently to be out of the building by the summer. The city is now looking for an entity with an idea for the buildings – as well as the corporate and financial clout to realise that idea in practice.

The city of Helsinki can only apparently imagine business-as-usual for Lapinlahti: run by a single corporate entity with a strong brand and heroic vision. They appear blind to its multiple functions, organic social networks and above all the amazing way the current tenants continue its long tradition of caring for us all by caring for the vulnerable.

Why? Because the city is obliged to make a profit on the buildings it owns.

A municipality also has many other obligations.

To make those obligations have weight and to really counter the disastrous modern normal, which has its eye on economic growth above all else, is taking a lot of work. But  it is happening. The more the “comfortable slot” participates in building climate-sane and equitable futures, the more quickly I suspect the necessary changes are likely to happen.

I just read Felix Ringel’s engaging if theoretically quite heavy monograph, Back to the Postindustrial Future: An Ethnography of Germany’s Fastest Shrinking City. The title is slightly misleading (as the author admits), but it’s well worth reading, excellent anthropology. It’s a story of when (urban) growth ceases to orient collective effort.

It deals with the fact that cities shrink as well as grow. Personallly I’d have wanted more about how life in such a situation gets arranged and rearranged, and some more on how urban growth became such a fetish in the first place.

But I guess the book’s emphasis is elsewhere, for instance on theory. It makes sophisticated contributions to social science debates on temporality and broadly philosophical questions about emergence and becoming.

felix-book-cover-latour.jpg

This jumped off page 168:

“Instead of waiting for emergent new ideas, many people in my fieldsite … were busy trying to keep things alive. If they had not made the effort, these forms would have ceased to exist.”

The book, after all, describes people and events involved with sustaining. Its protagonists, though preoccupied with the future, are not only anxiously scanning for future potential or seeking ways to control uncertainty and risk (as neoliberalism and academics typically do).  They are busy keeping things alive.

That insight helped me discern something new (for me) about how people in general deal with social and environmental change that they don’t like. Isn’t the activism that fascinates me about keeping alive the things that activists do like? Whether in urban gardens, repair clubs or sharing initiatives, as in the Helsinki I’ve been curious and written about, or in the practical activities of citizens maintaining “their club, association, school or kindergarten” that Ringel writes about, those who are recognised as activists really are making things exist.[1]

In describing life in Hoyerswerda, a shrinking postindustrial city, Back to the Postindustrial Future dwells mainly on something I remember quite a few Germans talking about 25 years ago when I did my doctoral fieldwork there: the “no future” phenomenon, which they referred to using the English words. A key difference is that I was doing research on environmentalism, so the lost future in question was planetary, whereas Ringel’s focus is on a city with supposedly “no future”.

Hoyerswerda was once home to 70 000 residents but over half its population migrated out after German reunification and the dismantling of the local coal industry. Like in so many other parts of the reunified Germany, unemployment “roared” (to use the lovely word from page 5). Ultimately, losing a future the city had grown used to, also meant a disorientating deconstruction of Hoyerswerda’s cityscape.

Things are complicated there, as elsewhere, by investments that were made in the past in large-scale and programmatic futures. Those futures were part of the socialism that was built in and for the German Democratic Republic. They materialised for example in education, or in the building of entire new towns. Other futures have emerged through programmes of integrating the city into a neoliberal global economy, and the “spatially widened, increasingly inclusive metanarrative of change” (p. 51) accompanying these.

Insisting from the start on there being many different futures and future narratives in Hoyerswerda, the book also surveys a depressingly same-y and ubiquitous narrative of urban futures. This is the prescribed optimism of zombie neoliberalism, the dogged determination of so many decision makers to adopt criteria of urban success designed by and for corporate elites.[2]

Drawing explicitly on David Harvey, Ringel sees the situation in the context of global capitalism’s mode of urban development as a competition for foreign investment. He writes, “Like so many other small- and medium-sized cities worldwide, Hoyerswerda failed in that competition – and blamed itself and its wrong image for it” (Ringel 2018: 141).

Yet the story isn’t so simple, and it’s far from over. Although youth continue to leave, new traditions are taking hold in the city. Above all, the book describes a wealth of pedagogical and artistic work centered on dealing creatively with painful loss and experiences of powerlessness. And although the book doesn’t discuss social movements directly, its analyses of how the past and the future are used in the present spoke directly to the question that bugs me decade after decade: how might one best understand activists who explicitly want to influence social and environmental change?

It’s a question that I’ll be pursuing at the Finnish Society for Environmental Social Science (YHYS) annual colloquium in a couple of weeks. In my abstract for a panel on environmental justice, I promised a paper titled ‘The nature of urban growth and the meaning(s) of environmental justice’.

In addition to drawing on Ringel’s work, writing my presentation will also push me, once again, to engage with Bruno Latour’s take on environmentalism.

Latour seems unhappy about how stubbornly environmentalists remain wedded to modern epistemologies that reify nature and science. What they should be doing instead is, as he says in an interview published earlier this year in the journal Social Movement Studies, “rethinking nature and science”. I critiqued his work twenty years ago on this same score, and I think I may have to do so again.

Perhaps this just means that things move rather slowly in academia despite so much talk of urgency and need for change. Then again, many of us are pleading, are we not, for the chance to slow down thinking.

Whether to laugh or cry that I find myself so irritated by the same, massively influential author who so inspired me all that time ago, I’m still rather enjoying all this. Particularly when I see ethnographic engagements still put to wonderful conceptual use in works like Ringel’s Back to the Postindustrial Future. His book is about temporal reasoning and a town and has nothing explicit to say about social movements. Still, I think it has already helped me update my own thinking about that topic. Thank you Felix.

I wonder whether Latour’s new book – ordered already – will do the same. If it does (and maybe even if not) I may do a “review” of that here too.

[1] To put it in a different language that’s also popular, they’re doing ontological design. Or, since all design is ontological in that it makes ways of being and doing possible (or enforces them) as Arturo Escobar might say, they’re doing design. But this is a diversion.

[2] It’s a story unfolding in Helsinki too, as construction continues to make the city attractive to financial interests, tourists and, perhaps, shoppers rather than citizens.

I’ve been musing again on a life-long problem: why doesn’t everyone react with the same alarm to environmental change as I do? Why won’t everyone (and not just isolated if amazing heroes like the striking Swedish school girl) demand that those with power use it to stop the Eart from broiling?

Too Late shaded 2018

As ever, I’ve looked for clues in literature.

I particularly enjoyed a volume on Economic Science Fictions edited by Goldsmiths-based William Davies (2018) and a short book cited therein, by Peter Frase called Four Futures from 2016. I also looked at David Pilling’s journalistic Growth Delusion, and finished going through a special issue of Ephemera Journal on Degrowth from 2017.

I’ve also been reflecting the readings against the freakishly hot summer.

I started to write this post, laptop on lap, from a small island in the Baltic. I sat not uncomfortably on the end of our jetty enjoying the best of a weirdly warm breeze.

Undoubtedly the most significant inspiration for my becoming an environmental anthropologist has been that place. Like many Helsinki kids, I was transported each year to be “close to nature” away from school and city distractions. A few weeks in a comfortable if simply equipped cabin with water to swim and fish in and rocks and woods to run around in.

verkkoja laskemassa july2018

Drinking-water still has to be carried there. Waste is composted or combusted or it gets carted back to the mainland. Here is a perfect spot for learning about environmental change: annual fluctuations in seaweed and algae express the state of the Baltic. Not good.

Over the years it’s been wonderful watching sunsets. Gradually I’ve learned to listen to birds and look out for fish, elk, deer, and lately, ticks. But the small changes have been incremental and often for the worse.

This year for the first time, I ended up doing what I could to keep the cabin cool. (See the photo above, top).

I also cut reeds for the first time. Although good for cleaning impurities from the water, they were also threatening to suffocate a lagoon. People have been enjoying warm swimming there since the late 1950s and no doubt before. A “first world” loss and not THAT unpleasant a job. But not an insignificant thing in terms of ecological health.

Nice to escape into books. What was a pleasure about my summer reading was that the texts spell out confident versions of environmentalism. They have no truck with so-called climate sceptics, and they are happy to muddle along in a broad-brush cognitive space in which events out there in the world demand radical responses.

Now, as fellow anthropologist Hannah Knox argues so lucidly, we can’t be sure the heatwaves were “caused” by carbon emissions. But we can be pretty sure that what we think of as normal and even desirable is paving the way to climate chaos. If economic growth continues as the default aspiration through which we try to maintain something like social cohesion, disasters small and large, of many kinds, are sure to come, and quite soon at that.

july-2018-heat-map.pngThat all sounds a bit vague. So did the rather alarming heat maps that peppered the media this year. But then progress and economic growth are really extraordinarily vague co-ordianates by which to order social life too.

So, those books. They make vague but strong claims about how we, the primary beneficiaries of global capitalism, have produced this mess.

It was rewarding to read about what we know has happened and what kinds of responses are already being undertaken. These were more than could-be and should-be sustainability talk of the kind my friend Cindy Kohtala has warned students about. (Although there was inevitably a little of that too.)

Particularly Davies’ edited volume stridently turns on its head the economic thought I’ve always felt surrounded and suffocated by. The volume explores imagined worlds from literature, film and planning, whose notions of economics highly consequential and yet also fantasies. Embarrassing perhaps, but I had no idea so much science fiction, and “cli-fi”, was out there, dedicated to questioning progress, innovation, economic growth and other Europe-centred modern virtues!

There is still a problem though. For all that the zeitgeist encourages talk of the harms created by devotion to economic growth, to mention growth scepticism still courts ridicule or disapproval. Somehow it just isn’t polite to talk about climate change.

What is and isn’t polite is of course the stuff of anthropology. In all societies there are some things that are considered too dirty or shaming or dangerous to talk about. And usually the most powerful people are able to ignore them or pretend they don’t apply to them.

Which links climate and other environmental crises to the not-so-thorny problem of whether or not royalty goes to the toilet.

What a depressing thought, that link.

Making it does, I suppose, reinforce my belief in the importance of environmental anthropology. I see few signs of it getting much support or authority, but perhaps this is about to shift. The zeitgeist and those temperatures, after all. Of course they go to the toilet.

p.s. This poster by Finnish graphic designer Kyösti Varis riffed on a similar theme back in 1970. “The ball is in our hands” it says.

Varis Pallo on nyt

I recently wrote a review, in Finnish, of a book with an intriguing looking take on urban futures as re-industrialised. As I tend to do, I first wrote it in English, so here is the draft.

Urban Re-Industrialization, Krzysztof Nawratek, editor. punctum books, e-book. 2017

This intriguing volume of short texts (frustratingly short mostly) argues for the creation of more production-oriented or industrial rather than consumption-led spaces in urban areas. In his introduction, the editor Krzysztof Nawratek promises thinking to break neoliberal path-dependencies that have long enfeebled cities. The volume in fact contains some great deconstructions of the double-speak that offers improvement while instituting ever more exploitative systems of supervision and control deep into the social and technical systems underpinning ordinary life. (I particularly recommend Chapter 1 by Michael Edwards & Myfanwy Taylor). Indeed, the analyses and proposals put forward in the book are tantalizing – at times.

As a whole the book, however, is a strange ensemble. It offers sharp and well researched analysis on the one hand and surprisingly vacuous rhetoric from writers promoting supposedly “alternative” urbanism, on the other.

What is even more odd is that the critical analyses come first, followed  by several texts that these would seem to be perfectly poised to debunk. There is quite a lot there, of what, in his (critical) contribution to the volume, Jeffrey T. Kruth dubs the “re-invention of fads, ideas, technology and marketing strategies” related to “cappuccino culture”.

Arising out of teaching and two mini-conferences, Urban Re-Industrialization makes a plea for something more real and more just than the “cappuccino city”. In any case, argues Nawratek very reasonably, that was built on a fantasy of creative talent and spurred on by magical thinking that “doesn’t bother to ask questions about where the middle classes (or indeed their money) are coming from”.

Unfortunately, however, cappuccino culture remains promoted and often publicly supported, and, like gentrification, it too is  decried and promoted by the same actors. (At least this is the case in my home town of Helsinki, and my former home, London.)

But the volume’s practice-based texts aim for a “more just and more democratic” society (don’t we all?) by reproducing naïve rhetoric about, for instance, the possibilities of the Third Industrial Revolution of digital manufacturing and the personalized, customized, craft-based and always somehow environmentally benign consumer items it heralds. Even more irritatingly, sometimes they echo the biggest developers and construction firms, by using a vaguely declamatory future tense – “these developments will…” and asserting equally vaguely that the changes will have important implications for our cities and homes. We also hear of the attractions of a fuller sensory experience to be gained once work is returned from grim industrial zones on the edge of town into the hubbub of everyday life. Besides being platitudinous, such prose comes close to justifying the circus of vanity projects in arts and culture that still try to target struggling municipal governments with their promises of “global” visibility and streams of money-spending tourists.

Not, I should add, that any of the chapters would do anything so ghastly as promote the creation of staged spaces of consumer safety. And its contributions make an often compelling case for reinserting productive rather than consumptive functions back into urban areas, for stopping the deadly sanitizing of urban culture, in short.

Much of the book argues for some serious economic and institutional reorganization as well as rethinking. It is after all incredibly difficult if not impossible in public governance to prevent – and not just pretend to disapprove of – the perverse and enfeebling impacts of land speculation and wealth accumulation based on rent and transfers of wealth from public to private hands.

A strange mix of texts indeed, perhaps some of them will be developed further and published in more thorough treatments of a truly problematic contemporary condition!

 

A month or so ago, I had the pleasure of “delegating” a teaching slot in my environmental anthropology course to Tim Ingold. He was keynote speaker at the Aalto University’s Art of Research Conference 2017, so I required my students to show up to that.

In a talk that substantially reflected his 2016 autobiographical paper, ‘From science to art and back again’, in the online journal ANUAC, he certainly inspired them.

Around the same time I was asked to prepare some comments on a paper, a version of which will appear in Suomen Antropologi, on “urban hitchhiking”. A method for engaging with strangers that was born of artistic practices, urban hitchhiking was presented at the conference by the authors Tuuli Malla, Anna Kholina and Lauri Jäntti. I was happy to write a comment on the paper, particularly since back in April 2017 I had tried out urban hitchhiking at the Finnish Urban Studies Days (conference).

This description is from their paper:

Take a sign that says “May I walk with you for a while? Place yourself along a pedestrian route. Stand somewhere along that path, raise your thumb and make eye contact with people who are passing. Wait fairly passively, looking for eye contact until someone approaches you. Let the journey begin. Often the person who is giving you a lift will ask what this is about. You may answer as you like.
This is experimental, an intervention into the course of everyday urban life whose results can be fun, intriguing and unanticipated.

Walking is now part of many an ethnographer’s toolkit. Some urban walks I have done for seemingly unrelated reasons in hindsight feel like they were ethnographic exercises. Such as this Narratiimi-walk to Helsinki’s Kruunuvuorenranta, pre-development, last year.IMG_6184 (1)

That Malla’s and Jäntti’s hitchhiking exercises were productive is, by contrast, not in question. They had an exhibition at the Helsinki Art Museum. Who know where they will go with their innovation!

Such unorthodox research methods need not be an end in themselves. As a way to open up the researcher to the city in all its fullness and unpredictability, urban hitchhiking has analytical and critical potential, though exactly how, remains to be fleshed out. Then again, it has value whether or not it’s turned to scholarly use. I hope to adapt it for teaching quite soon.

Malla and Jäntti are artists. They listen and observe carefully. Kholina is a PhD candidate in the Department of Design at Aalto and seems to do the same. Their joint exercise again raised the question about producing, documenting and authorizing knowledge, and about who does these things – scholars, professionals or so-called lay-people.

These things have always been part of my own research. Much of it has involved working with well-educated environmental activists, whose expertise and viewpoints, though epistemologically defensible by any criteria, have often been side-lined, suppressed and even ridiculed as utopian.

IMG_4712

Not so long ago, even those, like the active citizens that set up London’s Glengall Wharf Garden (above), were no doubt thought of like that.

As a social scientist, I have often interrupted the lives of middle-class environmentalists in seeking research material. It’s meant huge overlaps in my analysis and their analysis of any situation. When anthropology still equalled the study of exotic peoples, this kind of “horizontal” relationship with one’s ethnographic interlocutors used to be noteworthy.

These days we are more likely to see such situations as ordinary, even as imperatives to “experiment” with and redistribute the work of research. Returning to urban hitchhiking, to encourage reciprocity and collaboration (if not equivalence) between academic and non-academic questioning, is no longer gimmicky.

As my former colleague Les Back insists, experimenting with the aim of paying closer attention, describing more carefully and still applying critical judgement, is epistemologically as well as ethically the most defensible kind of social research. Exploring multiple perspectives with empathy as well as with the analytical and documentary resources available to academics, is what academics should do. If others can join in and help the process, so much the better, I think.

Anyway, I expect that what is today called experimental or unorthodox will one day be quite standard. Their popularity may also reflect a feeling that the very point of research practice is being rethought. No longer the purview of professional researchers alone, perhaps social research isn’t even aimed any more at creating new knowledge. And certainly I don’t think it is motivated by a desire to help manage unwieldy yet high-profile (and high-stakes) contemporary collectives like cities!

I’ll end on cities and their management. As lovely as it would be to turn back the clock and wish away talk of the “smart city” (brilliantly deconstructed here) or even “urban policy”, the incontrovertible fact is that just coping with cities of the scale and scope we have today, requries massive inputs of intellectual, esoteric and technical power. And it requires critical, academic, reflection to discern work out how to adapt global “development” fads to local conditions or, indeed, to reject them.

If exercises such as urban hitchhiking were to be promoted as part of urban research, it could have interesting effects. In a fit of optimism, I think it could benefit Helsinki.

Could it not be used to educate our planning professionals about the famous social bubbles that worry us all so much? Or about what it feels like to walk in over-designed or over-commercialised parts of the city? Like past this illuminated monstrosity that is currently taking up 1/3 of the wall of the Music Centre (which, BTW, I would prefer to see called the Music Building)?

Black WEek on musiikkitalo 2017

In fact, I suggest Helsinki planners should go urban hitchhiking as much as they can during Helsinki’s darkest months (there are still a couple left!) I recommend that they loiter with intent in the vicinity of these vast advertising surfaces.

Sources

Back, Les (2007) The Art of Listening, Oxford and New York: Berg.

Berglund E (1998)  Knowing Nature, Knowing Science: An ethnography of local environmental activism. White Horse Press.

Berglund, E. (2017) ‘Steering clear of politics: local virtues in Helsinki’s design activism’, Journal of Political Ecology Vol.24, 566 – 580.

Clifford, J., & Marcus, G. E. (Eds.) (1986) Writing Culture. The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: California University Press.

Corsin Jimenez A (2013) An anthropological trompe l’oeil for a common world: An essay on the economy of knowledge. Berghahn.

Estalella, A. & Criado, T.S. (Eds.) (2018) Experimental Collaborations: Ethnography through Fieldwork Devices. Oxford: Berghahn.

Marcus GE (2016) Jostling Ethnography Between Design and Participatory Art Practices, and the Collaborative Relations It Engenders, in Smith RC, KT Vangkilde, MG Kjaersgaard, T Otto,  J Halse, T Binder (eds) 2016 Design Anthropological Futures, London & New York: Bloomsbury: 105-119.

 

 

I’ve been keeping busy with all sorts of things that I have been thinking would be worth sharing, but in the absence of time to write coherently about these things, I’m sharing a blog post that I wrote for the Arts in the Environment Symposium to be held in Helsinki at the end of the summer.

The symposium will be held on Vartiosaari island, a place cherished by all who know it. It is, however facing the state-sponsored vandalism misleadingly known as “urban development”. We could more honestly call the process a legalised form of theft that encloses shared heritage – like some epic views – for the enjoyment of the few. My post begins below this picture, taken in winter 2016. Other images of the island are from one of my first visits in 2014. More can be found in an earlier post here.

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To consider art and the environment I would start with cities. The more they are pressured to grow, the more every environment beyond them is also put under pressure. The world as a whole is now required to service cities, providing them with everything they cannot provide for themselves. That means most things, from construction materials and food to landfill. It is also breathing space to ‘get away from it all’, whether this be a golf course or a supposedly pristine wilderness. And, as some would have it, cities need to be constantly pumped up with ‘talent’.

And the more cities grow, the more we all need art.

I am not quite sure how to define ‘art’ but my own most exquisite moments of gratitude for life are bound up with it. An encounter with art can produce a similar delight to what I feel sometimes towards the elements – the earth, air, fire, water and their descendants. I say descendants because history has technologized them. Earth, air, fire and water are now mixed with the artefacts of culture, particularly of the culture I call my own, that of the urban, colonially created, commodity-intensive global North.

Towns and cities are human technological creations too. I am not sure, though, whether cities can properly be considered art, or indeed, if everyone agrees with me that cities are, for most people today, our environment.

Over the centuries though, many cities have been experienced much like as art might have been, not just as beautiful or stylish, but as entire worlds that speak to us. Some cities, like uninhabited landscapes, have more magic than others, but most places reward both tourists and locals who explore or just pay attention to them.

As someone who organizes occasional urban walks, I know how some people truly delight in (re)discovering familiar surroundings with others and take pleasure in discovering and creating new meanings through this shared activity. Like field-scientists fascinated by the workings of the environment, more and more urban dwellers are turning to different forms of local exploration. Perhaps they are intrigued by what anthropologist Tim Ingold has recently called “the sheer richness and complexity of a world which human beings have irrevocably altered through their activities and yet in which they are puny by comparison to the forces they have unleashed” (Ingold 2016: 19).

The urban environment in Helsinki is, obviously, unique. I say obviously, because so far cities pretty much are unique, though that is changing. Helsinki has been incredibly lucky to have been able to develop both a distinctive architectural style and an identity so seamlessly tied to its location.

We know its trees are reducing in number, but only a handful of people would be able to say by how much. The waterfront is comparatively more researched. Depending on the season, on who is measuring, how and for what, Helsinki currently has near about 100km of it, with more stretching out both East and West. IMG_2256

And in Vartiosaari it has an irreplaceable landscape where cultural and natural have colluded over time to produce an environment with clearly paradisiac qualities within city limits.

It’s not just that Helsinki seems somehow ‘close to nature’. Architects, designers, musicians, artists and many other visitors from around the world have long appreciated Helsinki for its special built environment, as architectural critic and friend of Helsinki Jonathan Glancey so movingly writes (2015). Like no other city, it has pushed itself up and out from the local granite to become an original and above all environmentally well adapted city. Its buildings have been mainly low-rise, which makes the best of sparse sunlight and tempers harsh winds from the sea, and it still has a rather pleasing mix of old and new, of the engineered and the organic.

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Unfortunately it cannot be taken for granted that these qualities will be enhanced into the future. Even in Helsinki landscapes are at risk of becoming less local, less easy to cherish, less worth exploring. As in so many cities in Helsinki there is a housing crisis, but arguably the more significant pressure to build comes from the city administration wanting to make the city more ‘competitive’, a vague term that seems to favor wealthy taxpayers and tourists. By comparison, existing strategies for nature conservation and dealing with climate change tend to get de-emphasized. And as local and global interests jostle for space in these situations, there can be a strong feeling that democracy is being hollowed out.

In this context someone with an interest in sustainable urban development like myself is going to have to start paying attention to art.

On first reflection, I think of two opposing ways in which the term ‘art’ could be involved in directing the course of events and shape of the future. I might think of the proliferation of what used to be called ‘artist’s’ renderings’ or pretty pictures of the future city. The production of such imagery has intensified in the last two or three decades though it is a very old practice. After all, the seductions of the drawn image were important in persuading Renaissance princes just as they are necessary to urban politics today. Ridiculous computer-generated visuals of utopian future cityscapes are now peddled around the globe in efforts to sell an almost identical and equally fantastical product commonly but less and less accurately called ‘city’.

Though of course, to use the term ‘artist’s renderings’ is absurd. Actually one increasingly hears more apt names for these creations, like ‘property porn’ or even ‘horrenderings’, as urban scholar Geci Karuri-Sebina has suggested.

Looking for a more contemporary and hopeful role for art, I am drawn to its capacity for exploration, for questioning, for exploding simplified binaries and false choices. As art activism or ‘artivism’ art combines with all manner of locally committed as well as spatially mobile people to lavish both attention and care on the environment. Often it awakens political instincts, whether quietly or more brashly and rudely. Artivism alerts us to the necessity of friction in life in general, wary of commercially driven dreams of happiness and designed well-being.

In fact maybe it isn’t artivism as an overtly political standpoint that achieves these necessary outcomes, but art in general. From the better funded performing arts to conceptual works in and out of gallery spaces, and to the tiniest community initiatives and street art, what nurtures our humanity – common or not – in ways that few other things do, is the care and the collective imagining that flows through artistic practice.

Now retired, with a distinguished career behind him but wielding ever more influence across art, design and architecture as well as the social sciences, Tim Ingold whom I quoted above also raises art above his earlier passion, science. Art is also more ecological now, he suggests. Meanwhile science, Ingold worries, is seduced by innovation and by numbers and is anyway in the hands of a global scientific elite in collusion with corporate power. In such a context we need art more than ever.

Indeed we do. I wonder, however, if with art we might also destabilize the seemingly hard boundary between art and science itself. Building on that virtue that Ingold values so highly, of curiosity, it might be possible yet to care and imagine collectively among the scientists too, maybe even the economists (who knows?). Like him, however, I’m looking more and more to art.

Glancey, Jonathan. 2015. ‘Here and nowhere else’, in E. Berglund and C. Kohtala (eds) Changing Helsinki? 11 Views on a City Unfolding, Helsinki: Nemo, pp. 124-131.

Ingold, Tim. 2016. ‘From science to art and back again: The pendulum of an anthropologist’,   ANUAC. VOL . 5, N ° 1, GIUGNO  2016: 5-23.

Be good to Helsinki 2010-ish

“Be good to Helsinki”