Interview with Art Fellows, filmmaker Minou Norouzi and poet Matti Kangaskoski

By Irinja Bickert & Riikka Juntunen

For the academic year 2019–2020, the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies hosts two Art Fellows, researcher and filmmaker Minou Norouzi, and researcher and poet Matti Kangaskoski. HCAS offers a Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Arts, funded by Kone Foundation, which aims to develop new forms of cooperation and dialogue between art and scholarship. The fellowship is intended for practitioners of all fields of art having a doctoral degree either in the arts or in a different academic field.

Picture of Minou Norouzi and Matti Kangaskoski

Norouzi is a filmmaker, writer and curator based in London and Athens. Her project at the Collegium is called “Revolutionary Patience: The Ethics of Non-interventionist Documentary Encounters”. Through filmmaking and writing, she examines ‘the objectification of the real’ – the process of turning reality into material for the purpose of art production. Her film applies a mix of autoethnography and critical theory, exploring migration and political responsibility. She draws from her own experiences of coming to Europe as a child from Iran during the Iranian revolution.

Kangaskoski is a poet, novelist, and researcher based in Helsinki. His artistic-scientific study is called “Poetics of the Future: Logic of Selection, Cultural Interfaces, and Literary Production in the Age of Digital Media”. He is interested in exploring how contemporary digital cultural interfaces and their logic influence culture and society, and specifically literature. As digital media have penetrated all levels of society from everyday practices of work, politics, and communication to art, research, and even love, it is, according to Kangaskoski, crucial for both art and science to examine this condition and to reflect on its consequences.

“The research I do feeds the thinking that’s then the basis for the artistic work and of course, the other way around.”

Kangaskoski’s artistic project, a novel, imagines a near-future society that has reached full digital saturation, and explores the logic of thinking, being, and loving born out of this entanglement. The scientific part investigates current digital cultural interfaces and their influence on specifically literary production using interdisciplinary methods from philosophical cultural analysis, literary and media theory, and software, code and affect studies.

Meeting points of art and academia

The Collegium provides Art Fellows with a unique opportunity to create art in a scholarly environment, working as a part of a community of academics. What attracts an artist to work in this distinctive setting?

For Kangaskoski, the academic and the artistic are interconnected, as he has always been doing both simultaneously. “The research I do feeds the thinking that’s then the basis for the artistic work, and the other way around,” he explains. The Collegium provides the opportunity to cultivate this connection. Kangaskoski is pleased with his current work environment: “The Collegium is an amazing place both artistically and academically, because of the variety of ideas, people and disciplinary perspectives.” Sharing a physical space is important; fellows form a community, and interdisciplinary encounters take place in seminars, reading groups, yoga classes and coffee breaks.

Norouzi feels that, as far as her work is concerned, she is better placed in an academic context because it affords her the freedom of making work away from market pressures. Being a film maker in an academic environment allows her to maintain the position of an outsider from the inside, she notices.

“The Collegium does give us the opportunity to be process driven rather than outcome driven.”

The Art Fellowship programme at HCAS is based on the idea that having artists and researchers in the same space is not only an opportunity for the artist, but also benefits the academic community. We asked our Art Fellows for their thoughts on this notion.

Norouzi suggests that artistic practice expands the methodology of academic research. She points out that the methodologies of scholarship are distinct to those of artistic production and that she had to adapt her working methods when shifting from an artistic environment to academia. Since practice as knowledge production is still a little on the margins in academia, Norouzi sees value in artists ‘infecting’ the academic environment with their practice methods. “You need someone to create some chaos,” she concludes with a laugh.

Kangaskoski agrees and adds that cultivating art as another kind of creative activity with different means of exploration, results and performance can be beneficial for the entire community. During his fellowship, he is planning on writing about the differences in knowledge production in the arts and in the context of academia specifically.

Opportunities for good thinking

Norouzi praises the Art Fellowship’s ability to grant stable conditions for creating. “For an artist, it’s an incredible opportunity to get a one-year fellowship – the stability offers a rare privilege.” The chance to combine artistic and academic concerns creates fertile ground for cultivating new ideas.

Kangaskoski points out that there are not too many institutional positions that combine art and academia. Usually one of the two has to officially be the main job, and the other comes as an addition. “It is nice to have them equally present in this position.”

Ideally, research should lead to concepts and conclusions that one wouldn’t have been able to predict at the beginning of the research project. “Someone asked me the other day whether I am outcome driven. Who isn’t? But processes are important, and the Collegium gives us the opportunity to be process driven rather than outcome driven.” Norouzi concludes.

Expectations and future aspirations

When asked whether her expectations for the programme have been met so far, Norouzi answers, “Absolutely.” She commends the Collegium for striving to create social cohesion amongst the fellows.

After a hectic start of his fellowship, Kangaskoski is now looking forward to “the fun bit: good research, good thinking and good concentration on developing ideas”. Norouzi, too, is excited about getting to explore what she does not yet know. “Surely we’ll discover!”

Film maker Minou Norouzi has used pictures from her family album in her art projects.

This article has also been published in the HCAS Newsletter 2019-2020.

”So what brought you to Finland?”

By Josephine Hoegaerts

It’s a question I have come to expect in these last two years, and one that apparently can carry any number of inflections. It comes up as people feign interest during a lull in conversation, try to overcome the awkwardness of standing next to a stranger in line to a complimentary coffee or (my favorite) as a fellow academic, half-sloshed at an end-of-conference reception and with barely hidden incredulity, wonders what could possibly have possessed me.

It’s a fair question of course, but one I haven’t been able to develop an adequate answer to. I did not have a burning desire to come to the North, and I knew very little about Finland (or indeed the Nordics in general). My historical research on vocal culture and science very occasionally would throw me little nuggets of nineteenth-century wisdom, though. According to natural philosopher William Gardiner, for example,

“in the northern and colder regions, where the mouth is more constantly closed, the voice is restricted, and escapes with difficulty”.

Being surrounded by quiet and vocally restricted creatures might, as one colleague pointed out rather unnecessarily, give me some personal insight into a practice that is otherwise foreign to me and thus be of value to my ongoing research on silence , but it was hardly an attractive prospect. (Incidentally, whilst not all languages have a simple verb for the act of holding one’s tongue, Finnish has several.) And so I generally resort to a very literal answer. ‘What’ brought me to Finland was the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, and the Core Fellowship I had been lucky enough to obtain in 2015. I have since left the Collegium (my fellowship ended earlier this year), but my experiences and the research I’ve been able to conduct there have certainly contributed to the answer to the inevitable follow-up question: But why did you stay in Finland?

Embodying Finns’ worst nightmare

As it happens, my introduction to Finland and life at the University of Helsinki was neither cold nor quiet. For a number of reasons, the Collegium is a place that incites discussion and chat. Maybe it’s the comfy sofas of the common room, maybe it’s the particular nature of its inhabitants – a confederacy of rogues who have chosen to leave the comforts of their departments and warmer climes for a while. Or maybe it’s because the mixture of disciplines and nationalities thrown together in meetings and lunch seminars (at which nobody seems to manage to eat) necessitates constant explanation, because the presence of a roomful of sceptics who don’t take the habits of your discipline for granted, encourage more passionate and more emphatic talk.

My own research, a ‘social history of the voice’, sitting uneasily on the cross-roads between history of science, sound studies, embodiment and a smattering of musicology, lost its footing completely in such a context. Why limit yourself to mere interdisciplinarity, when there are derailing conversations to be had on other subjects, other theories, other cultures and continents? Why stay within the safety of languages and texts you know, when you are surrounded by fellow nerds who can translate, re-imagine or completely replace your raw material in an instant? And so, instead of finishing the chapters I had set out to write, I branched out into political philosophy, egged on by colleagues with whom I organized a symposium on ‘Embodiment and Emancipation’. Or delved into contemporary orality and rhetorics for the 2017 Winterschool, broadening my notions of vocality with the help of Helsinki’s doctoral students. Or sat in on debates that completely eluded or exasperated me.

Bright ideas at LUX Helsinki 2017

These collaborations, invitations to re-invent, and occasional collisions, led me toward the new project that ‘made me stay’. In the coming years, I’m getting started on a plan that may look perfectly linear and coherent, but that I know to be made up of reflections on citizenship that would not have been there had I not been pushed to talk about emancipation and democracy, of methodological leaps I owe to some witty remark of a multi-lingual classicist over lunch, of careful considerations of modernity thanks to an angry medievalist,…and many more vocal utterances I may be slightly too obsessively interested in. Luckily, I’m not alone. Guess what the coming spring symposium is on?

Josephine Hoegaerts (HCAS Core Research Fellow 2015 – 2017), is currently carrying out research at the Department of World Cultures. You can find out more about her work at her TUHAT research profile, and on her blog.