Looking close, but in the longer time frame

A photo of a terrarium or bamboo sticks behind glass lined with brown and green butterfly cocoons. A large gray-brown butterfly with an eye pattern on the wings has hatched from one of the shells.

Photo: Maija Hirvanen

Life as we know it is a collaboration between two mid-career artists: Maija Hirvanen and Juha Valkeapää. It playfully and imaginatively ponders what the future has to offer, what kind of possible directions could life take? Nelly Hakkarainen, a communication intern of Baltic Circle, sat down with the artists to have a conversation about the backgrounds of Life as we know it, about change and making of art in times of uncertainty.

What was the driving force of Life as we know it, and how did the working group get together?

Juha: We had been following each other’s works already for a long time, and I wanted to collaborate with Maija. I suggested her to meet up, and that’s how we got started. Our first proposal was accepted to the MOTI-programme of Tinfo (Theatre Info Finland), supporting the Finnish performing artists and their international projects. Then, in mutual understanding, we asked Barbara von Lindt, the director of Kaai theatre in Brussels, to be a discussion partner in the making process. We both already knew Barbara. We invited Jenni Pystynen and Ville Kabrell as light and sound designers. Without the Coronavirus pandemic, we would have had trusted colleagues and friends to watch our rehearsal along the way; but it was not possible last spring, so we asked Aune Kallinen to give feedback about our run-throughs.

Maija: In the beginning, Juha and I often sat together, drinking coffee at the seaside and talking freely without any particular topic or a solid idea of what we would do. We were mapping where our lives are, what we experience now, and how we could come together. In the beginning, it was not even clear that the format will be a stage work. Both of us had done context and site-specific works before, which could have been another natural direction for this production. We were also thinking and imagining us, mid-career artists, doing something completely new. We were pondering about the utopia of relearning and recreating oneself as a human being or artist.

 Juha: Novelty or change is not an absolute value, but I have a kind of drive towards forcing myself to do things differently, or at least I try. At worst, it may mean that you imagine doing things differently but eventually end up repeating the very same.

Maija: One way to think about change could be that there is no change in me, but the universe and the surroundings are in constant flux and we are just part of it. And then we sometimes happen to think that I change and do so much. On the other hand, there are also areas in the art field where you can look at the change as a very old thing, as a principle.

Juha: When we first started to think about principles for how to collaborate, it was important that we would not be in a hurry while working together. That we would have time for conversation, but then as well have time for things to happen and arise. Novelty could be developing yourself better in what you already can do — and this kind of state demands being and time.

Maija: At the beginning of my middle career, I feel that it is possible to create space, where being a bit slower can be nurtured. Time is dynamic; it is not only quick or slow, constant development is not needed, but time for just being — and it is a creative mode.

How did the content of the work begin to take shape? 

Juha: When we really started to work on the piece at the Santarcangelo Festival in summer 2018, in my notes, there is a list of words that includes, among other things waiting, momentum, a ball, unhurriedness, coffee, tea, a flower… They were more words than themes.

Maija: We didn’t think at all through such things or phenomena that can be called nouns or themes that are then brought together — it was much looser. We thought that “non-verbal” and “a ball” had equal status in that discussion. I strongly experience that when I’m somewhere, the place is a collaborator. Location changes also affect the work. It was a hot day in Santarcangelo, cicada sounds surrounded us, and an old dog was strolling around. Really big Pyrenean mountain dog, male. We did a lot of walks in the hills, very sweaty. It felt like life was leaking into the piece. During four residency periods, in 2018- 2019, interest in a continuous process and change were clarified. We became curious about what will happen next in our lives, in the world, in communities. Writing was a common technique for us. The writing process was multi-layered and had themes insides themes. We decided to write about our own lives, starting from the point where we are now; then we imagined in a playful tone three alternative courses where life could go. We didn’t aim to be realistic or autobiographical but defined a task of following  fear or a passion in each of the three alternatives. Afterward, we wrote on top of the texts together and separately. We started looking for connections that all these themes have with other people, whole bigger ideologies and schemes of things, that have something to do with why we imagine such alternative futures. A speculative touch emerged in work; in the performance, we imagine the future while performing it.

Juha: There was a frame that we are bringing the piece towards visions, where one could really want to go, somehow desirable, positive, or bright. It might be that one doesn’t want to visit them anymore as they are now.

Maija: There might be question marks if this really would be a good thing, but not a clear dystopia, only points where people can disagree. What kind of things rise from the performance depends on the spectator.

How about your own backgrounds and areas of knowledge, and how have they intertwined in this collaboration? 

Maija: I have always been dancing and always return to dance. Simplified, I think my background is strongly based on dance, but it has been enriched with multidisciplinary thinking and skills. I have a wide perspective on what choreography can include. For instance, I have choreographed for a van, words, and breathing – usually, however, human bodies in live-situation. I have a BA in interdisciplinary performing arts and a master’s degree in visual culture. I have as well studied Performance Writing.

Juha: I have started to make art through sound improvisation. That’s the beginning of my path that has led to the point where I am now. My majors in the university were theatre studies and Hungarian language. Even though I have such a theoretical background, sometimes I feel far away from that. But I do like to read all kinds of books and when I start working on something I try to find texts about it.

Maija: Besides writing, non-verbal work is important to me. We spent much time in the dance studio sweating and trying out different body-based practices. We were walking a lot in different places. The writing was not separate from the bodily practice, which functions without words. In this kind of process, which aims for a choreographic piece, I write different things compared to creating a play, for example. In that sense, the style of our text is a performance text, and it was born from bodily practices. This is an important aspect for me when considering the process.

Juha: As a choreographer and a director, Maija is more experienced in making this kind of stage performance with designers, so it feels that she had more to say about it. For me, it was sometimes even a bit difficult to get a grip on it because, for the most part, my work environment has been different: I am a performer who both creates and performs the works – mostly as a solo or as a duo with another performer. That’s probably the most obvious difference between us. Even though we have discussed the dramaturgy together, the most fundamental thoughts and solutions that can be seen in the performance are Maija’s propositions.

Maija: It has much to do with the practice and the question of how to work. In my view, there are two perspectives in dramaturgy. One of them has to do with where and to which direction the whole work is led, why are these certain foundations, structures, and starting points selected, and what kind of world do they create. The second point is how to bring it into practice. As a choreographer, I’m oriented to be spatially and physically present, to let everything flow through the body. I have done a lot of studio work with both my own body and together with other bodies. While directing and choreographing, in addition to working with my own body, I have to communicate with others about what this technique means or even invent new techniques on-the-go to get the desired thing done. It can mean, for example, concrete physical techniques like “now we grab the head of the other, and at the same time, we are speaking a memorized text.” Then we start to pay attention to how breathing is working in that action and how it all could be brought into space. In the physical-dramaturgical sense, we worked more through my aesthetics. I nevertheless feel that the collaboration was equal. In the actual work and its processes, we constantly tried to settle into that shared space. The main thing in the whole process is that we carried the work together.

Juha: Yes, carrying it together means perseverance. We both were committed to the work and didn’t give up. It was obvious to both of us that the work isn’t just about making talking heads, and Maija’s skill as a choreographer, who combines text and movement, brought us solutions.

Maija: From the beginning on, it was clear to us that there is mutual trust. The collaboration has been a long process, but it is a sort of trick for our work.  For one and a half years, we tried to find out what “we” and “our way of doing” could mean, conscious that it might not be resolved. The collaboration is based on finding similarities in our different ways of thinking.

When you think about your own careers, how have your artistic interests changed along the way? 

Juha: At first, I worked on pieces not associated with verbal language for ten years. Then words came back, and I realized that I can do all kinds of things, and art gives permission for that. That realization brought the aspect of play. For a long time, I thought that there are two possible topics to make art of; love and death. Afterward, when looking back to my career, I see that, at a certain point, the path of love has gone to its end, and the same applies to the path of death. Of course, they both still exist, but then other aspects of humanity have risen into my work too.

Maija: When I stepped out of the role of being a dancer, who is a medium actualizing choreographer’s ideas and started to make art by myself, I had two main areas of interest. The first one had to do with form and technique, and the question of how to work with those in a way that the result will be simply well done, somehow special. I don’t mean virtuosity, but it takes time to find such a form that appeals to me so much that I could share it with the audience. It’s about things to do with body and language, the question of how to write or perform; my theoretical thinking is connected to that. I think that physical doing gives birth to thinking, knowledge, and being. Another strong interest is the question of how we are together, other than socially. What does the social circle mean, how do we create relationships and communities, and how do we create society’s undertone through art. I have been interested in relationships between art and different belief-systems, relearning, and performance as a situational event. I call the performance event a temporary community or a ritual. We gather at a particular place, and then we end it together. Therefore, as an artist, I’m interested primarily in the format of live performance. Still, even after 20 years, these two focuses are in continuous dialog with each other. In one artwork or a situation, they might be combined, and sometimes they can be in different things and viewed from different perspectives. They are big areas that cannot be emptied and where I get back to over and over again.

At the moment, I’m into sweating and breathing. I’m interested in how to live in every state, what I want to join in, what I can influence, and what I can’t. How to find such a working method in art which could help me to think and see the world free from the duration of my own life? What impact will our lives have after a few generations? What does it concretely mean to treat humans as one of the species, among others – not only from a philosophical standing point but at all levels? I’ve been carried away by these questions lately.

Life as we know it touches on ecological themes, too. Do you think human status is to be urgently reevaluated or questioned? Are there any other themes to consider in our time?

Juha: In the work, it comes naturally from the fact that we live and exist in our time. We are breathing right now, and we are seeing what is happening, whether we want it or not. We don’t directly comment on it in our piece, but if we think from the present moment to the future, maybe there is a wish, that human finally realizes its place, that human is not the crown of the creation, but one among the other species.

Maija: Even though there is a line towards more-than-human in the dramaturgy, the work is not only a comment about it. We didn’t want to imagine dystopia, but to end the performance in a place of hope that leaves open questions, and is playful and speculative — an open ending that could work as a starting point for something new, a possible second part. For example, I don’t think that the posthuman theory that recently has been present in our field quite a lot is a trend that will fade out. That burning question is not going to be easily dismissed. How we define the distance between generations is complicated but significant; it is not only limited to ecological concerns as everything is connected. Are there other themes? Yes – and all things are interconnected. In Life as we know it, we have dealt with connections between different areas of life. We are thinking in a longer time frame than just the present, and we have brought to the work some really old things. The idea that a human being is a part of a larger system is as old as humankind itself. Perhaps we don’t need to invent any new turn to our relationship with other living creatures but engage ourselves in the ancient knowledge held by humankind for millions of years. It is not a new idea in the performing arts that human beings don’t represent themselves. In many old dance cultures, a dancer dances the universe. The concept of a stage to be a place for human appearance is very narrow in that sense. I think that in contemporary performance, we only got to the beginning of bringing different worlds together on stage, not only the human perspective.

We’ve talked about change now, and at some level, the conditions for continuous change appear to be the undertone of Life as we know it. What’s your opinion? Can art change the world?

Juha: That’s such an awful question; if I had to think of it every morning, I couldn’t start with anything; it would be totally paralyzing. One of the means of art could be to create space for imagination or stimulate or evoke imagination. If we can imagine something else than what exists is in everyday life, then maybe that other thing will someday become a part of everyday life.

Maija: I think that stage works can also have an effect on our existence here in the world as well as everything else, but that effect is often a little more obscure and deliberative, not quite as direct as in activism. Multifaceted. One such thing that we talked about in this work is that its task is to evoke imagination. Or rather we activate to imagine. Life as we know it is one suggestion for what art can do.

Juha: Above all, the meaning of art and its influence can be found in one fundamental question: how do we live? Art might be able to provide alternative ways of thinking to reduce biases and confrontations.

Maija: The performance has an empathic approach. The greater our ability to identify with other things, not with me or my body, the better our ability to empathize. Promoting empathy, for example, could be the way how this work contributes to the world.

Who do you think Life as we know it would be important to see? 

Juha: This is a tricky question that I, as an author, often cannot think of. It would be fantastic if as heterogeneous a group as possible saw the performance.

Maija: It would be great that people who don’t necessarily follow our work would see it. I would also like more and more people to have a chance to get into the realm of art if they want to. Barbara said that at first, the performance seems simple because the setting is minimalistic, but then you realize it’s really multidimensional. There are so many levels in this performance that it is for anyone with curiosity.

Juha: And then such attributes like poetic and magical have emerged, which at least in my own ears sound great. Aune Kallinen commented that this is a children’s play for adults.

Maija: That’s how we have defined it along the way, too. In recent times I’ve become fond of the element of play. It is a liberating and relieving idea that adults also play, and it doesn’t end with childhood.

A photo of a terrarium or bamboo sticks behind glass lined with brown and green butterfly cocoons. A large gray-brown butterfly with an eye pattern on the wings has hatched from one of the shells.

Photo: Maija Hirvanen

Photograph of a train window reflecting the feet of three people standing on the platform.
Photo: Maija Hirvanen
In the photo, two people are sitting behind a table and holding a seminar type of event. The persons, assumed to be woman and assumed to be man, sit facing the audience. The assumed woman is saying something, the assumed man is writing something down on paper. The picture shows only one representative of the audience sitting and a couple of chair backs. The surrounding space looks like the interior of an old wooden villa.
Photo: Margarita Germane
Photo of a performance space and two performers. One of them, presumed to be a man with short brown hair and a bit of a beard, is lying on his side on the white floor. Another performer, assumed to be a woman, stands behind the assumed man with her hands lightly on his side and hips. Both are looking somewhere far away. In the space, there is a backdrop or a projection that resembles metal or rippling water.
Photo: Kari Sunnari