On August 29th, as usual on late-summer weekends, there were loads of things going on in Helsinki. The two events I attended required or allowed me to slow down and pay attention.
There was the twentieth anniversary party of the environmental organisation Dodo, which has left such a strong imprint on green thought in Finland. Prior to the music and dancing guests could take a walking tour from the Teurastamo or abattoir district, Helsinki’s answer to global food fashions, through many far less attention-grabbing spaces. But more on that below.
Before joining the Dodo event, I visited the opening of a Nordic environmental art exhibition on the theme of Human Era curated by Laru Art. It was in Lauttasaari, a neighbourhood that was built on an island in western Helsinki, and which is now undergoing rapid “regeneration” or transformation from an industrial to residential area. It also has a remarkable south-facing shoreline that is protected, with areas of tiny rented summer cottages as well.
The concept of Human Era or Anthropocene is in fashion, but to tackle it through art in the landscape, particularly where the city meets the sea, is an inspired move. The artists in the show explained their works in speech, but many of the works spoke clearly themselves – not least this one!
(“Superlative day understand the beauty of clouds out here under the open sky” – a twist on fridge magnet poetry)
Art helps us think the unthinkable, perhaps, or state unpalatable truths.
Political and commercial institutions seem oblivious to fact that an environmentally damaged and socially chaotic future is already here for most people. This makes the work of inspiring imaginations, making connections and eliciting emotions, in short, the work of artists, extraordinarily important. The exhibition is still in place, until 4th October 2015.
The activists of Dodo were also inspiring imaginations with their 20th-anniversary celebrations. Volunteers with experience of Dodo’s type of hands-on environmentalism had worked together with professional performers and put on a show that was a walk that made us pay attention.
They made the city a stage where all the senses would get used. And my thanks to Tuomas Aro whose b&w photos, interspersed with my snapshots below, will give you a bit of a sense of the occasion.
In the newly developed housing up the hill from Teurastamo, we stopped to think about Dodo’s great hero, urban designer Jan Gehl, and his still valid but unlearned lessons on making cities more human. Why, when the street is not meant as a thoroughfare anyway, has it been designed to be so car-friendly and family-unfriendly? By making us act out better uses for the space we’d been led to, the organisers, many of whom have professional knowledge of planning or urban policy, got us to imagine a range of possibilities. Soon residents joined in, and much civic behaviour ensued.
We found a plot of land that will soon be a park and so switched from criticising the city authorities to recognising their good work. We watched some theatre and soaked in the smells and colours of a guerrilla garden that the city is also allowing to continue. It’s tucked away in its peace so I won’t share its co-ordinates online. I know that people who work it feel it to be one of the best things in their lives at present.
Some of us got wet washing the windows of the OP bank headquarters almost completed on a busy road, and wondered about the feel of architecture and parking when one is a human being. We learned also about the damage that the construction of the state-of-the art financial complex wrought on neighbouring houses built almost a century ago, many of which still contain tiled stoves to heat them. In may of Helsinki’s old flats, such pretty and practical stoves add substantially to character and price.
We found more park, more hidden treasure, some industrial area, urban rap, history lessons and simply more city than we, or at least I, had known before.
We ended up, of course, at Pasila’s Turntable for speeches and fun and dancing. We feasted on veggie stuff, something sustainable that Dodo has helped popularise in Finland.
And used that self-powered speaker-system of course.
A point to make? That environmentalism is not just one thing. And a second one: we live in an urban age, environmentalism has to be about the city.
Thirdly: thanks to all responsible.