Niko Hallikainen’s Black Mercedes: An intriguing journey through the collective unconscious

An illustration in red and purple colors showing the mouth of a two-way car tunnel and a partial lunar eclipse. The moon is large in the starry sky and in front of it hangs a black diamond cut crystal in a pendant. Lilies and the human bones are illustrated on the edges. A toucan is sitting on top of the lily on the right, holding a coin in its beak. The style of the illustration is cartoonish or comic-like. At the bottom of the picture it says "Black Mercedes" in a slightly gothic style font.

Illustration: Milena Huhta

Black Mercedes on esitysrunoilija ja kirjoittaja Niko Hallikaisen uusi viisituntinen sooloesitys. Teos on puhesäestys Prinsessa Dianan televisioiduille hautajaisille vuodelta 1997, joka palvelee portaalina kollektiivisen alitajunnan tutkimattomille raunioille. Baltic Circlen viestintäharjoittelija Anastasia Dimas haastatteli kirjallisesti Niko Hallikaista ja selvitti luovaa prosessia Black Mercedesin takana sekä teoksessa käsiteltäviä teemoja.

While flicking through this year’s festival programme, the piece that first caught my eye was Black Mercedes by performance poet and writer Niko Hallikainen. Hallikainen creates text-based solo performances with recurring qualities in his works being emotional hyperbola, alienation and the limits of language.  I was intrigued by both the 5-hour runtime and the subject matter. The piece is a spoken score for the televised funeral of Princess Diana and explores the collective unconscious. Even though I was a toddler when Diana, Princess of Wales, passed away, she has somehow managed to be part of my life by popping up unexpectedly at regular intervals. She has been brought up either by my still-grieving mother, who once took a picture of the princess to the hairdresser’s, or by the media, who can’t resist bringing her up at every turn of her sons’ lives. This fascinating shared grief has transcended time and become part of so many people’s own lives and experiences, so much so that most people probably still remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard about her death.

When I got the chance to interview Hallikainen, I just had to ask him why he chose to build his piece around Princess Diana’s funeral and what her death means to him. “The day Diana Spencer died, my mom and I watched the live reports on TV and mom was crying so hysterically that I assumed she knew Diana. That loss was the first live global event I experienced. You could feel it in the European air, how her death instantly crushed everybody’s hearts, because Diana was practically a saint. Diana suffered like a saint, too. Her pain resonated in my childhood home profoundly, because my mother worked as a nurse in a children’s hospital, so I grew up around this everyday mystery of why do innocent and good beings have to go through pain and sometimes die suffering. That mystery is as unclear as what actually happened to the black Mercedes-Benz in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel. The mystery unleashes a primal rage in me. In Black Mercedes I’m calling out whomever or whatever is responsible for emotional pain.”

Emotions have played a significant role in Hallikainen’s previous work and Black Mercedes is no exception. In this piece, however, the examination of emotions also moves from personal to collective; Diana was, after all, known as the people’s princess. This collective grief is one of the main themes explored in Black Mercedes. I wonder what drew Hallikainen to explore collective experience. “I’m obsessed with language and verbalizing things that are difficult to name and describe with words. There’s a solitude to nonverbal experiences which I find so sick that I pretty much devote all my time to language. Language is the only creative practice I master for pushing an interior experience towards a collective experience. In Black Mercedes this collective experience is conjured through symbols and intensities, that are then accented by Alva Noto’s music and a videotape. The music and the visuals serve as landscapes that we can enter, then run through the goldfield of the collective unconscious together under the influence of language.”

Like Black Mercedes, Hallikainen’s previous work has been in English. His use of language is magnetic, and his words sweep you away to tragic, painful and funny scenes of his life and psyche. The mental pictures painted in front of the audience are vivid and full of emotion. Hallikainen himself has mentioned that his work explores the limits of language. On that account, I am curious as to what his relationship with language is and especially his relationship with English. “Writing feels like crashing against the limits of language over and over again and then imagining creative ways to get to the other side of the borders that appear. I write my poetry in English because it’s the most emotional language for me, it’s the language of my alienation. I spent a major amount of my childhood in front of the tv watching Cartoon Network in English alone, so the syntax of my poems is often influenced by television.”

When I watched his piece Heat (flesh wounds & hidden rooms) at Kiasma in October, I noticed that even though Hallikainen’s work draws heavily from his personal experiences, it invited and inspired me to reflect on my own life, thoughts and decisions. I later find out that this is intentional, when I ask him about what drew him to performance poetry and if there is anyone he admires. “I view poetry as lines that are sprinkled with holes and these holes leave room for the listener to read themselves into the text. Performing a text becomes a collaborative act that forms a screen between the voice and the listener, both equally active and passive, and then we watch each other on that shared screen. I’m inspired by anyone who has their own unique way of speaking or reading”, he writes to me.

Some of the experiences Hallikainen touches on in his work are quite personal which has me wondering whether there is any fear involved in bearing one’s heart while face-to-face with a group of strangers. “I like to overshare information and overexpress intensities in my texts, it’s comical, because it’s not a sustainable way of everyday communication in our social structures that are built to repress. But I think the private meanings I write into the shows mostly get lost both in the textual hyperbola and in the bleak vocal delivery. When I perform, I’m more focused on the form than the content. I don’t believe people even pay much attention to the content, so I don’t ever feel exposed”, he explains.

While watching Heat, a feeling of bittersweetness and nostalgia kept creeping up on me and according to the synopsis of Black Mercedes, the piece will touch on the use of nostalgia to process grief. I wonder what Hallikainen’s relationship is with grief and nostalgia. “I spend a lot of time reminiscing and the past makes me happy. I find the present moment always a bit confusing, but the future makes me hopeful. Nostalgia is one efficient way to access truths that need to be released in the grief process. I believe grief is one of the few things that actually hold enough power to change a person fundamentally. I think of grief as a way to transcend suffering and welcome joy into pain.”

Other recurring themes in Hallikainen’s work are emotional hyperbola and alienation. This year’s global pandemic has forced many of us into a new lifestyle of social distancing. Many have probably had to face social and physical isolation and alienation during a tumultuous time that has brought many emotions closer to the surface. I ask Hallikainen how one can process a vast range of emotions in such an alienating time as 2020 and how he himself has fared in social isolation. “I think most of us have gone through some degree of regression this year, when all of a sudden our lives have gotten narrower and more understimulating. It can be scary and disorienting to drop deep into yourself abruptly and involuntarily, but the stress to maintain a balanced middle or upper class life during a pandemic has been excessively vocalized and publicized and I’m sick of hearing about it. Creative work can be a necessary overstimulation and clarification right now”, he answers.

Hallikainen combines his stream of consciousness style poetry, which is filled with feelings, thoughts and experiences, with dreamy instrumental music. The results are intriguing pieces that invite you to experience different times and places with Hallikainen, while, at the same time, transporting you into your own past and helping you make sense of your own thoughts and experiences. The themes and subjects explored in his works are numerous and diverse. For example, Black Mercedes explores heartbreaks, psychic gardens, secret diaries and tax havens. How does one prepare a long emotional piece that touches on so many subjects? I have to ask him what his process is when he starts working on a new piece: “I work alone, I don’t present the material to anyone before the premiere. I write a lot, I edit what I write, I design the soundscape. The writing is very associative and free-flowing, I don’t experience writer’s block. The editing process is more obscure, it’s quite esoteric and intuitive. For Black Mercedes I’ve kept listening to Alva Noto’s music and assigning lines for different tracks. I bought 10 kilos of smoky quartz to strengthen my connection to otherworldly forces. I also do different creative meditations that sensitize me to use new vulnerable verbal registers.”

Hallikainen’s debut novel Kanjoni will be published in January 2021. I ask him what prompted him to write a novel and how he found the writing and publishing process. “I’ve always wanted to write novels, but it took a long time and a lot of work to figure out my own way of writing in novel form. Kanjoni started forming two or three years ago and for the past year I’ve kept editing and rewriting the manuscript in order to achieve the effects that take place there. I wanted to create a literary installation, it’s not a conventional plot-driven story. It deals with dreams, hopes and expectations collapsing. My publisher Otava gave me the freedom I needed to go really deep into a strange area where fact and fantasy blur. It was extreme to write it, my language managed to scare me recurrently, and I hope readers will sense the intensity”, he says.

The author is a Communications Assistant at Baltic Circle and currently doing a master’s degree in History at the University of Jyväskylä.

An illustration in red and purple colors showing the mouth of a two-way car tunnel and a partial lunar eclipse. The moon is large in the starry sky and in front of it hangs a black diamond cut crystal in a pendant. Lilies and the human bones are illustrated on the edges. A toucan is sitting on top of the lily on the right, holding a coin in its beak. The style of the illustration is cartoonish or comic-like. At the bottom of the picture it says "Black Mercedes" in a slightly gothic style font.

Illustration: Milena Huhta