Photo: Patrik Rastenberger. Courtesy the artist and Helsinki Contemporary, Finland
Pump House Gallery meets with Finnish artist Pilvi Takala to discuss her project The Committee, on show at the gallery from 11 January to 26 March, 2017
Pump House Gallery: What was your favourite idea put forward by the kids?
Pilvi Takala: I was more interested in the decision making process than the ideas themselves, but I liked the fact that the kids wanted to make something that was unique in some way, and their emphasis on making it together. They had other creative ideas at first, like building a mini-city or putting together a collage of the royal baby, but even though those ideas could have been fun to execute, they lacked an engagement level: Where would you put it? How would it be used? There were a lot of adventure park ideas, and a lot of slides, so there was definitely an element of communal activity there. They seemed to have a definite feel for creating a public event, something that could be communal, and the call for making the end-result somehow unique went almost unquestioned. Some of the kids seemed keenly aware of their own progress and contexts. A lot of initial suggestions concerned the immediate neighborhoods for example, questions of housing or hiring more policemen, but I think they realised their budget was not limitless and that they had to think realistically about its purposes and values. How far does £7.000 go?
PHG: What surprised you about working with the kids in this context?
Pilvi: Their organisational efficiency, they were very self-reliant. My main battle with the project was actually to keep the adults on the side-lines and avoid having too many activities organised by adults during our time together. There is never a ‘pure’ situation, but I wanted to avoid giving the kids suggestions of which direction to go by programming the workshop. The most important thing was to give the kids time together and time to think. The context of the youth club, held itself in a certain structure, represented certain values that kept the project from falling into chaos. It was important that the context was not a school, but a place where children come voluntarily without their parents. I was initially surprised by their awareness, the ways in which they thought about their own roles, their lives and the wider context of the project.
PHG: What motivated you to take on this specific project and how do you see it sitting within your wider practice?
Pilvi: The conditions of the Emdash Award are that you need to produce a work specifically for Frieze Art Fair but I felt that context to be very limiting. I wanted to shift value, quite literally, outside the fair to make sure my project was not contained by the fair. Frieze functioned as a platform and context for the conceptual gesture, but most of the project happened outside it.
I normally work in a different format, in which the participants are not aware of the fact that they are participants, so I learned a lot in the process. Observing the decision making and group dynamics and trying to position myself right in the situation was all in line with my previous work . But also, like in most of my work, I used a simple gesture as a way to explore what we might fear in a shift of rules like kids suddenly having money. Many of the adults involved in the project seemed to be quite concerned about the levels of responsibility I was bestowing on these kids, urging me to help them ‘cope’ in some way, while I was trying to give them as much responsibility as possible. Of course the rules of the youth club applied to the workshop too, but I did not want to give them rules about how to make decisions as a group or help them spend the money well. It really showed me how much adults don’t trust the ability of kids to handle a new situation like this. A lot of adults I discussed the project with seemed scared about the social position children embody, fearing that something violent would happen, that this level of responsibility would destroy them. Or that they would just spend the money on food and household items unless we would instruct them to do something creative with it. Some told me my act was unfair to the kids, what if they could not decide? What if they would fight? What if they would buy sneakers and phones? But I never believed that the kids would be completely unable to make a decision and even if they were, it would be interesting to look at why. I felt that as long as the kids accept the deal of them getting to decide on the money and me being able to follow that process, any outcome was welcome.
PHG: Where does the art begin and end in this project?
Pilvi: In the end the ‘art piece’ is about the conceptual gesture. The gesture of giving money to these kids, the knowledge that children have control and the reactions this causes in the world: it is a performative action. This is visible in the Finnish TV clip where adults discuss the project. Their limited and dismissive view on kids has nothing to do with what actually happened in the project, but it’s also a way this gesture resonates in the world. With this piece in particular it can seem difficult to pinpoint the artistic value. Even the film based on the kids’ interviews – although this is usually seen as the artwork – is not really the piece. It is an access point, but the work takes place somewhere else. The whole exhibition in Pump House Gallery is a selection of access points to this project.
PHG: How do you see consequence playing a role in this project?
Pilvi: It has been three and half years now since I started the project and a lot has happened. The design and production process took almost another year and the Bouncy House was launched in summer 2014. The rental business hasn’t been easy to run, The House is heavy and hard to transport and requires a lot of maintenance. This is not ideal, but something I could expect to happen, plans seldom play out perfectly. The sadder turn was that the youth club was forced to close, as the community centres were sold to developers. This made it very clear how much my project was leaning on the structure of the youth club. It was in fact completely depending on that. Once the Bouncy House was produced and handed over to the youth club, I felt my active work was over and I could just follow what happens. I was curious to see whether the kids would use it, manage the renting or if they would just move on to other things and forget the Bouncy House in the youth club storage, but none of these outcomes seemed a failure or required my interfering. Closure of the youth club changed all this, because now the Bouncy House had become a possible burden and financial liability, I had to think again about my position and responsibilities in this new situation. Just storing the Bouncy House became an expense. Luckily Martin, the former youth club leader was willing to take care of the Bouncy House and could store at his house. He is trying to negotiate long term rentals for it and use the funds to run projects with the kids.
When I was invited to exhibit at Pump House Gallery my first thought was that this was a remarkable location; it needed a project that would suit it. Battersea Park seemed a perfect location to bring the Bouncy House so it can be used as a bouncy castle as intended and the video with the kids’ interviews hadn’t yet been shown in London. More importantly, I felt the need to address what happened since the Bouncy House was launched. The strength of the project comes from the fact that these were real kids actually deciding on the money and on us having access to that process through the video of them speaking. It is a valuable and inspiring story in many ways, but it is also true that these kids now don’t have a youth centre anymore and that the Bouncy House is also a possible burden. If I’m going to exploit something for artistic purposes I need to address the layers of the contexts that come with it. Giving the kids the money was not charity. It was a form of exchange in which I recognised the kids’ agency and the context that exchange was made in.
PHG: How do you feel about the disappearance of the youth centre in Bow and the future of the project?
Pilvi: I’m glad that Martin is willing to care for the Bouncy House and is able to use it as a means to organise activities with the kids in the neighborhood, even without the youth club space. He is definitely the right person to have the Bouncy House and his attitude makes me hopeful. The closure of the youth centre is extremely sad also because it sounds too familiar, it’s one more example of social structures like this disappearing.