Hey beautiful being, lovely that you just are

A black and white photo that looks like some kind of distorted image of a circular glass ceiling. The ceiling consists of decorative glass panes in the shape of a rectangle, which taper towards the center of the window. The image twists in a spiral, which makes it difficult to recognize the elements.

Image: Haliz Yosef

What would happen, if city facilities were planned for loitering? What does loitering mean, and what is its purpose? UNDERTONE – A Proposal For Legal Loitering suggests answers to such questions. This year’s traditional closing club of Baltic Circle is taken over by the UNDERTONE. It is an invitation to loiter on a Saturday night in November at Tiivistämö in Suvilahti and a comment on the politics of surveillance culture.

Instead of looking at the person entering the space to measure their suspiciousness, the working group asks each person to come as they are. Or as they would like to be? I met Haliz Yosef and Geoffrey Erista from UNDERTONE and we discussed reclaiming space, identification, stripping roles, and having fun.

Geoffrey and Haliz reveal that the process of creating the piece has been a vibrating tangle. “When I set out to create this concept, I contacted my coursemate Eric Barco from the Uniarts Helsinki’s Theater Academy’s degree program in acting,” says Geoffrey, who convened the working group. “Eric may have a different answer, but personally, I wanted to bring together the things that I love. Which are contemporary art, nightlife, and the subcultures of a vibrant city.” Eric, who joined the working group as a co creator, agrees with Geoffrey and mentions that the pair’s common desire for a piece that combines electronic music and performing arts was a driving force in creating their performance.

Haliz, in turn, says they received a call from Geoffrey whilst moving house in July. They were fascinated by the idea of reclaiming space. For them, delving into the world of the performance meant researching the history of club culture and Chicago’s warehouse rave scene, to the origins of house music. Geoffrey nods, and adds Detroit and London to the list. Geographically, the work expands in many directions, but particularly vibrant metropolises are close to the creators’ hearts. Eric’s geographical focus is on Berlin.

“We would like to maintain the spirit of reclaiming space,” Haliz continues. “Quite a lot of places create these kinds of spaces, but those spaces are often already taken over and people are there just as decorations.” They are reflecting upon the new premises of the Uniarts Helsinki’s Academy of Fine Arts, which they are familiar with. “What will students do if they take over a space? They turn a corner of a room into a kitchen, for example, but all that has already been done for us. There is no room left for abstract thinking or community building, but rather an already existing capitalist framework persists.”

Both see the November night at Tiivistämö as a good opportunity to reclaim space. “Even though we’ve got a ready-made framework,” Haliz points out. “Even if it’s a city space,” Geoffrey adds. “Even if it’s a city space!” Haliz gets excited. “That is exactly what makes it more interesting. That we can also show the city of Helsinki what we can do when we are given the trust.”

For Geoffrey, acting worthy of the trust given to him has meant assembling a working group of people pushed to the margins by society, for example those that do not fit into the rigid molds of heteronormativity. UNDERTONE – A Proposal for Legal Loitering is the first performance created as part of Baltic Circle’s four-year project, Coming Stage, which is funded by Kone Foundation. These grounds gave Geoffrey, who was asked to create the piece by the artistic director Hanna Parry, the freedom to assemble the working group he wanted. “I didn’t want to make it a requirement that somebody has a formal, higher education in the arts. Rather, I wanted to focus on people who create interesting work, who I wanted to work with and who are in some way marginalized.”

The performance is deeply linked to the current societal undertones, from which the piece borrows its name. “I feel that Finland is now experiencing a time of transition. It is vibrating beneath the surface. Production companies and communities are constantly being created, such as Ruskeat Tytöt, Urbanapa, Stop Hatred Now, only to mention a few. Ambitious communities that do things on their own terms.” Haliz continues: “Subcultures have recently been encouraged to make more noise. It is only in recent years that I have been encouraged to take over space in the field of art. For a long time I thought that I didn’t belong, that there was no room for me here – that I don’t belong here, even though I do. For a long time, there was a threshold that I could not cross.”

How does loitering, which ended up in the title of the piece as well, relate to this subsurface bubbling, which seems to be full of buzzling energy rather than loitering?

According to Haliz, it is the loiterer who turns the space into a space of loitering. Geoffrey also approaches the essence of loitering through people doing it. “Loitering is what people do in parks in the summer. Or in youth centers and shopping malls, in those moments when they are not spending time in a store. I feel that the people that I see as I go past Kurvi and Piritori by tram are the people who are loitering and hanging out. That is also the type of loitering that the guards and police do not really tolerate.”

Loitering is also a legal term. It has allowed the police and other authorities to ride public spaces where people, usually young and those whose appearance differs from the general population, loiter, says Geoffrey. “Finland has not yet gone exactly there, but for example I have also experienced authorities coming to ask me to present my identification.”

For instance, The Stopped research project, which mapped ethnic profiling in Finland, showed that people with a Somali background, for example, are nine times more likely to be removed from the space by shop employees or security guards than white Finnish-speaking young people. The risk of native speakers of Arabic and Kurdish is six times higher. The loitering of others is seen more easily as a disturbance than that of others: the order to leave is emphatically directed against racialized and indigenous peoples.

According to Haliz, loitering is not only a nuisance but also an intrusion in the Finnish societal atmosphere. Haliz pays attention to the soundscapes that surround us on a daily basis. “For instance, at the central train station one immediately pays attention to it when someone is making a certain type of noise. This sound is also an intrusion. This, in my view, raises the question: who has the right to loiter or exist? It shows the hierarchy of society. It is fascinating how loitering is equated with intrusion and how it reflects human rights.”

The Student Theater is a place where Geoffrey often says he goes to hang out or work – especially in the cold and wet. Haliz reclaims the space on the couches of their friends. “I often also look for places with special acoustics. I’m interested in how the sounds act in different places.” In addition to visual arts, they also work in the field of sound art. One acoustically interesting place is the sculpture that stands in front of Linnanmäki amusement park on the rocks at the Sturenkatu side. “Sometimes when the wind blows into it, it emits these howling ooOoo sounds. At times, I just stand close to it and listen. I’m interested in all these soundscapes that the city spaces create and how sound takes up those spaces. We humans create so much sound! Then sometimes I try to find places where there is no sound. I take it as an adventure. Just like a dog sniffs new smells, I sniff new sounds.”

To encounter  loitering and other loiterers through identifying with each other rather than through suspicion is at the core of Undertone’s philosophy. Geoffrey mentions that he has more of a connection with people who spend time at Piritori than with the leftist-green elitists. “Where I grew up, I spent more time with those who are similar to those in Sörnäinen than those in Punavuori. And when I hang out with the people in Kaisaniemi, I don’t need to be sending a message that I’m everything but what has been linked to people looking like me throughout history.”

Haliz points out that identification and encountering others as they are becomes possible in  spaces where people from different societal classes gather together. The same is possible in  UNDERTONE, to which the entry is free: all that is required is respect for the other.

Taking time to loiter allows space for observing – perhaps you begin to take in others’ presence differently. “In an Internet-dominated world, there are constant superficial stimuli that prevent being present in many ways. You need to constantly produce, consume, be displayed, or in some way prove that you exist. Things don’t happen if they aren’t documented in some way, or posted to a community that exists somewhere else than in the physical world,” Geoffrey describes.

He says he wanted to create a space that places no demands on the entrant. Together with Eric, they wanted to bring together people who don’t need to do anything. Eric is inspired by their club nights in Berlin a few years ago. “These spaces are free for loitering where you can be just as you are, celebrating differences, enjoying the wonderful looks and energies of others, allowing space for your own desire to experiment and for being curious. Or just meditating on the dance floor for hours knowing that there is a complete peace for it too.”

Freedom of loitering allows for abstract thinking and communality that Haliz previously called for. For Eric it is also important to unravel the reputation of commercial nightclubs, where space is seen as a place of predation or display. “Loitering means to me that the other’s gaze doesn’t demand or judge, but says ‘hey beautiful being, lovely that you just are’. Taking responsibility for the effect of one’s gaze and energy in the creation of the shared space is an essential thing in creating a safer space. Loitering is a non-performing activity where stagnation, silence, calm and unhurriedness prevail, and there is no need to stress whether you are enough and sufficient, because everyone automatically is.”

“On the other hand, we started out with a very simple thing, that is, having fun. We thought we wanted to just have a really fun night and gather together all the people we know to really know how to have fun. That is the philosophy of the night”, Haliz says.

Unlike I assumed, loitering is not the opposite of doing. On the contrary, it allows for dissent. An invitation to loiter together turns the ban on loitering upside down and causes the brain cells to move. If this can be thought of differently, what else could we do differently, upside down and together, relying on each other?

The author, Emma Kaskinen, is Baltic Circle’s communications intern and doing a master’s degree in Gender Studies at the University of Helsinki

A black and white photo that looks like some kind of distorted image of a circular glass ceiling. The ceiling consists of decorative glass panes in the shape of a rectangle, which taper towards the center of the window. The image twists in a spiral, which makes it difficult to recognize the elements.

Image: Haliz Yosef