The Almost Familiar

A double-exposed photograph showing a streetscape of an autumnal suburb. The photo shows a red brick low-rise apartment building from the 1960s, a crossing area and a grove. The overexposed image shows a map of Kulosaari.

Baltic Circle's communication assistant Jannika Lalu took the tube to Kulosaari and met with people behind the piece Thresholds. A research project that gained some attention in the media a few years back, examining the uncanny experiences of people in everyday settings, takes a new form in a performance by a pan-Nordic group of artists. The piece, which is located in a soon-to-be-torn-down mall, calls for gentleness and openness in front of the strange.

A brisk wind is blowing through Kulosaari, a suburb island near the center of Helsinki. It’s the end of October. Before we enter a Chinese restaurant that I hear is the best in the city, I snap a few pictures of the area. Red brick buildings with a maximum of four stories, slow traffic, yellow, sparsely leafed trees. There’s an old, worn down mall with a barber, a vague clothing store and of course a bright red and yellow Alepa on the second floor. We enter the restaurant and escape the approaching winter. I crunch on spring rolls while the others have soup and dumplings.

We’re here to talk about a very special performance. Thresholds is a theatre piece but that doesn’t cover it – its background, multidisciplinary nature and overarching topic make it something more. It has come together in a unique way and thankfully we have managed to get together with a little under one-third of the working group, Sinna Virtanen and Daniel Andersson, and professor Marja-Liisa Honkasalo, who has been elemental to the birth of the piece.Thresholds brings the common – but not commonly talked about – uncanny experience to the stage. Uncanny (or in Freud-familiar terms Unheimlich) refers to something familiar that appears unfamiliar, unsettling. It is the weird in the normal, the eerie in the everyday, the almostfamiliar. The term uncanny is fluid and can be used to describe a range of occurrences that surpass our everyday understanding of the world and the structure of reality itself. It can be a feeling of someone in an empty room, a precognition of a friend walking past or a predictive dream. It can be a sense that something will happen and then it does. With this meaning of the word, I suppose we’re all strangely familiar with the uncanny.

Thresholds is brought to Baltic Circle by a pan-Nordic group of artists from different fields and is done in co-production with the festival. In addition to Andersson who is an architect, and Virtanen, who works mainly with directing and who introduced the research project to the others, the group consists of dramaturg and director Anni Klein, sound designers Heidi Soidinsalo and Tatu Nenonen as well as actors Pyry Nikkilä and Valborg Frøysnes. Most of the members already know each other and have worked together before.

The theme for the piece didn’t appear suddenly from the heavens and neither did the collaboration between art and science originate in the most common way. Usually the initiative to merge science and art comes from the art side but Honkasalo approached Virtanen.

Mind and the Other, a multidisciplinary research project led by anthropology professor and physician Honkasalo and which is a part of the Academy of Finland’s larger The Human Mind project, set out to understand the human experience more thoroughly. The aim was to examine the uncanny experiences of people – not to prove whether the phenomena reported was real in the strict, scientific sense. The usage of the term uncanny has to do with this, because a normative evaluation seems to be built into “paranormal” or “supernatural”, words commonly used to describe the unexplainable. Honkasalo and her team wanted to enlarge the field of human experience by taking seriously how the world presents itself to some people and especially their interpretations of these occurrences.

The subject is tricky, and the times aren’t gentle to the fair examination of it. It seems that merely the attempt to examine the uncanny is a challenge to the reign of science. But one should remember that experiences that can be placed under the term uncanny are actually very common – according to one estimate, they’re as common as heart arrhythmias. This is something that has struck Honkasalo and the working group of Thresholds. “If it’s so common and if they think what happened to them was so extraordinary, then it must be something that should be taken seriously in research and in public discussions”, Honkasalo says.

When Mind and the Other commenced, it was widely reported in the news. The tone wasn’t flattering, and the media backlash surprised the researchers. Honkasalo thought Finland would have been more liberal a place, also toward a topic like this.

The subject matter, uncanny experiences, raised concerns about exactly what kind of research the Academy of Finland was funding and if it was relevant in any sense, if it was sheer drivel. But this response inspired hundreds of people to call and write to Honkasalo to disclose their own experiences of the uncanny and the unexplained and share how they had been ridiculed as well. These letters subsequently became the very starting point for Thresholds.

The letters were very different among each other, but the most common experiences had to do with hearing voices, seeing visions, precognition and telepathy. Often people were feeling the presence of loved ones who had passed away. Some of the writers had been searching for years and years, trying to figure out what these occurrences were and had gone through huge amounts of literature and different kinds of social movements. They were desperately trying to understand how it is that this is something that happened to them. “Searching for an explanation but also at the same time searching for the meaning of life”, Honkasalo recaps.

In November 2016 Honkasalo and Virtanen got together to discuss the possibility of a performance. “I realized that science and the scientific method is not enough to reach this area fully, we need collaboration between artists and scholars”, Honkasalo says. The funding of the research project was ending around that time so there was an incentive to hurry and put the remaining money in some reasonable cause. “Otherwise the university would have sunk it all in administrative expenses”. This makes us all laugh a bit. Maybe it’s the feeling of small, disparate streams coming together and finally manifesting in Thresholds.

“Art has been a very important mode of knowing, because it evades thinking with categories”, Honkasalo says. And scientific research contexts don’t come with tools to work with the invisible in this sense. For the working group the source material has been extremely fruitful. “When I started reading the letters, it was aesthetically really seducing and kind of recognizable”, Virtanen says. She felt that it was all already there in the letters and contextualizing them into a theatre piece wasn’t really going to be a struggle. “The questions, the ambivalence, the aesthetics – it was there, waiting”.

One of the themes of the source material and the performance is linguistic inexpressibility of the uncanny. “It’s interesting, because when you read the letters, there are so many things that obviously can’t be explained with language”, says Andersson. Because of this, the performance deals more with something that resides in between the lines, and not so much in the explanations of the phenomena or employed concepts.

This is something that the working group is actively taking into account in the performance. “We don’t try to illustrate exactly what someone’s experience in the letters has been, but we use for example infrasounds so that the space resonates, and you feel it in your body and not with your ears or eyes”, Virtanen explains.

The performance seems to me very pervasive and immersive. The working group is using the whole spectrum of different elements found in the urban landscape of Kulosaari and being truly creative at that. The inside and outside spaces, reflections, lighting and imaginative sound design is used to tease out the uncanny, or at least a sense of what it could be.

“We’re researching the feeling and how to embody it”, Virtanen says. Seeing that there is a lot of suspense in the letters and just the mere quantity of them directs the work. “We’re not trying specially to dramatize the material, to underline the negative things or seek the tragedy”, she explains. To the makers of Thresholds, it’s important to show the material as it is, be gentle to it and celebrate it.

Thresholds is an artwork in itself. In addition, its aim is to enlarge the field of what is regarded commonplace and hopefully be emancipatory. It gives a definite space (in the unexpected form of an old kiosk in a crusty suburb mall) to these phenomena as they present themselves to people, regardless of whether we will ever know the scientific truth or origin of them. It gives the space regardless of what one personally thinks about the possibility of invisible forces, life after death or fate. It looks at the uncanny as something to be embraced and the gaze is receptive.

The uncanny is still strongly present in society, and there’s no fading in sight. With traditionally religious outlooks on life decreasing, the ever-onwards marching secularization of culture and the imperium of science staying sturdy, the ground is at the same time fertile for a new ascent of the spiritual. It’s no news that different kinds of new-age movements, esotericism and adopted religions have been on the rise. I ask Virtanen, Andersson and Honkasalo if they think there is always going to be some sort of uncanny sphere in human life.

“It very much depends on how we think about the world, the universe and life and death”, Honkasalo says. “If we think that we are a part of something larger than us, then we will not be able to know the world exhaustively.” Andersson adds that it depends on what we think is ordinary. “In some cultures, it’s normal to have these kinds of experiences and they are an active part of private as well as public life”. When rehearsing with Thresholds, the team might try doing something slightly out of routine in the landscape and suddenly it produces an uncanny feeling. “It shows just how strict our perception of the normal is”.

The ordinary. That’s what the uncanny challenges and what it partly consists of. It’s a truism old as the hills that what’s ordinary for one is strange for another and what’s everyday for me is a vacation or nightmare for you.I think it won’t hurt to change shoes once in a while. Thresholds runs four times throughout Baltic Circle festival, in Kulosaari mall.

Text and photos: Jannika Lalu

The author is a communications assistant at Baltic Circle and a student of political and moral philosophy.

A double-exposed photograph showing a streetscape of an autumnal suburb. The photo shows a red brick low-rise apartment building from the 1960s, a crossing area and a grove. The overexposed image shows a map of Kulosaari.

Withered pink roses, paper waste and dried tangerine peels on top of a green plastic lid. Photo of the underpass tunnel. Above the tunnel is a sign of the Helsinki metro, which reads "M Kulosaari Brändö" on an orange background A close-up of the wall of a 60s apartment building with a sign. The sign reads "Skateboarding and roller skating prohibited" in Finnish. A picture of a gray tile floor with a disposable coffee mug, dry tree leaves and tangerine peels.