Interview with Paula Toppila

This is the fifth published interview in a series that was created in the framework of "The Curatorial Unpacked" colloquium that took place in the 2016-2017 academic year, for the MA and MFA programs at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design (Jerusalem), organized by Nirith Nelson. In this platform dedicated to an open discourse about curatorial practices, each speaker presented ground-breaking curatorial projects and provided conceptual tools to the curatorial treasure chest (in Hebrew, the word for “curator” is spelled the same as “treasurer”–otzer). The plurality and complexity provided a manifestation of the richness of the curatorial profession. For further details, click here.

Paula Toppila is the Executive Director of Pro Arte Foundation and IHME Contemporary Art Festival since 2007. IHME Contemporary Art Festival annually commissions one work of art from an internationally recognized visual artist in the public realm of the metropolitan region of Helsinki (Finland). During her directorship, the Festival has produced new commissions in public space in collaboration with artists Antony Gormley, Susan Philipsz, Superflex, Miroslaw Balka, Yael Bartana, Jeremy Deller and Kateřina Šedá. In this talk, Paula Toppila discussed the different roles the curator and artist take in the creative process of the IHME Festival. In addition, the IHME program includes talks, film programs, and art education workshops. IHME is funded by its founder Pro Arte Foundation Finland and Kone Foundation. Paula Toppila has curated numerous Finnish and international exhibitions such as Finnish representation of Sao Paulo Biennial in 2001 and The Fourth Pirkanmaa Triennial in Tampere, Finland in 2009. Toppila holds a Master of Arts Degree in Art History and participated in Curatorial Training Program of De Appel Foundation in Amsterdam 1997-98.


Paula Toppila – Hansen House, Jerusalem.
Colloquium #12, May 24, 2017 – Nirith Nelson – Masters Bezalel Academy

JL: How is your role – as a curator – influenced by the characteristics of the IHME projects: no-predefined space (as a white-cube), but a one-year project with one artist at a larger scale? And could we say that the way you curate is a counterexample of the usual and traditional curating practice?

PT: Yes, the fact that I am curating in public space is determinant. The other important element of my practice is that I work with one artist to produce a specific work of a large-scale. It is very different to be part of the production process of a new work rather than to curate existing works that are already defined. The openness of the whole process is a challenge. Patience is a very important quality in this kind of program, as well as being able to direct the process, define a schedule and other practical parameters in relation to it. I am not sure if it is correct to say that my practice in IHME is a counterexample to a more usual curating practice. Nowadays, many museums commission new works for their collection or permanent works in public sites of the museum, and then the work between the curator and the artist is probably similar. But of course, working in public space is very different than working in an existing space that is dedicated for art. In public space, artwork happens in the middle of the flow of the everyday life where the parameters are not stable. The artworks are also not stable – many of the projects that I have curated as part of IHME are specific situations such as encounters with people, for example, Jeremy Deller´s Do touch (2015) or Katerina Seda´s Tram Buskers´ Tour (2016).

Do Touch, IHME Project 2015. Photo: Veikko Somerpuro. Courtesy by IHME Contemporary Art Festival.

JL: You are also not dealing with a collection – that would probably determine the commissioned works. Isn’t that point crucial?

PT: Yes, it is. Furthermore, I curate singular works, I am not creating a group show, it is quite radical actually. Nowadays, the demand is to produce many so that you can offer plenty and reach a larger audience. But, in IHME, we think that this one work is enough for everybody. You can find your own way to think about it, you can like it, not like it, be inspired or challenged by it.  One is enough, it is a strong statement in the age of hyper-consumerism. An important aspect of IHME is that we are not only producing artworks by progressive artists, but artworks that often have an important social and political message that connects to peoples lives. As part of IHME, we organise two to three day-long events for discussions, talks, workshops and music programs that are curated around the issues of the artwork in order to create a platform for knowledge production.

Jeremy Deller, Do Touch, IHME Project 2015. Photo: Veikko Somerpuro. Courtesy by IHME Contemporary Art Festival.

JL: So, the particularity of your practice is that you deal with all of these aspects, and not only with one of them, like many institutions do.

PT: Yes, it is right. It is a very small organization where I take many of the roles in the direction, curation and production, along with a small team who assists in communication and production.

DG: How do you create a criteria for a participating project in a public space, as it is a one-time event?

PT: It is a very complicated question. Most cases, we do it step by step. We can only proceed when the artist is ready and happy with the concept and once we have found out more about the process that it requires. The collaborators are crucial. If the key collaborator does not want to do it, we cannot move forward, because usually there is just one collaborator. For example, in Kateřina Šedá’s project Tram Buskers´ Tour (2016), we brought buskers from the world metropolises onto Helsinki's tram lines. If the train company would not agree, it would not happen. We are totally dependent on the collaborators willing to participate. But now that we have existed for ten years and we have created successful meaningful projects it is easier for us to approach any public institution because there is trust in our programs and they know there is funding backing the plans.

JL: At the start of IHME, was it hard to approach collaborators?

PT: Indeed, because in the beginning there is not much to show to the potential collaborators. But we have a board with people that have all gained recognition both in Finland and abroad in running contemporary art institutions, which helped considerably. I myself had already curated quite a few of shows in institutions and in public space when I worked at Frame Finnish Visual Arts, but they all took place abroad. So at this time, I had not shown my skills in Finland in producing visible projects for agents that are not following contemporary art.

JL: Speaking about methods, do your curatorial projects follow the usual separation between: creation, production and exhibition? Or, do these projects elaborate a kind of new method?

PT: I think that most often we work with these three stages, but there is the important element of the unknown especially when the site is an open space. We do not necessarily know the result or how is the encounter between the audience is going to be. Even if you have a detailed project plan and you have organized a test situation to learn from it, it is always a moment of excitement to see how a project works in a context over time.

JL: The project begins through the encounter of the artist with the context. Is it just more of a flow, or less defined?

PT: It is a combination of the elements of unknown and surprise, but there are also the elements of risk and trust. Trust has a large role in the collaboration of a project like IHME. You have to give time, support and help to the artist in the creative process.

DG: How would you define a public space project that does not fulfill its purpose? Conceptually, how can a public project fail (other than logistics)? 

PT: In IHME, our main objectives are reaching out to new audiences, making the contemporary art more accessible and supporting the artists with whom we collaborate.

Failure is a difficult question, it depends on the perspective. For example, in Kateřina Šedá’s project (Tram Busker’s Tour, IHME Project 2016), some people could not find the performances, or when they did, they found themselves listening to music that they did not like. So, in their perspective, the project is probably a failure. From the artist’s and the festival’s perspective, this was a very successful project. It is a challenge with the projects that we have been producing the last few years to convince the art critics to become participants instead of looking at these works as in a gallery context. These works cannot be experienced in totality, because who can experience in three hundred hours in four days as in Katerina Seda´s case? I really hope that the new generation of art critics will take the challenge with the new kind of art artists´make.

Katerina Seda, Tram Buskers´ Tour, IHME Project 2016. Photo: Veikko Somerpuro. Courtesy by IHME Contemporary Art Festival.

JL: In 2016, Jean Blaise presented in Artport (an art residency in South Tel Aviv) the public art festival Estuary Festival that was founded in 2007 in Nantes and St Nazaire, France. He spoke about how this public art festival had been an incredible way to renew the cultural capital of the cities (Nantes and St Nazaire), but also a great way to boost tourism and economic growth. What were your intentions economically for the city?

PT: In our case, it is not crucial because we are privately funded, we are not dependent on the funding from city or the government. This makes it possible to give free hands to the artists and ourselves, we can be more flexible. This makes us free from the objectives of the city and government funding, which are to attract more tourists and thus strengthen the economic growth of the city. No doubt, our programs definitely work the same way, although tourists are not our main target group but rather local people in the city. Our program is free of charge, so economical growth doesn’t benefit the foundation itself but we do employ people, pay for many services and so on. In IHME´s case, I think that if we were publicly funded, it would not be possible to concentrate on one production as we do. But I hope that I am wrong, attitudes change and I want to believe that the consciousness of the importance of artist´s freedom of expression is growing among non-art-professionals in power.

Miroslav Balka, Signals, IHME Project 2013. Photo: Veikko Somerpuro. Courtesy by IHME Contemporary Art Festival.

DG: In the online catalogue for Miroslaw Balka´s Signals (2013), there was a line that IHME wrote questioning whether art should be useful or if it’s allowed to be useless. Looking at Stephen Wright’s essay Towards a Lexicon of Usership, he defines his notion of “usership” as a: “a radical challenge to at least three stalwart conceptual institutions in contemporary culture: spectatorship, expert culture, and ownership.” In which way are the concepts of useful and useless crucial in participating projects?

PT: I think that it has to do with the discussion we have with artists about the objectives of the IHME Project. In the case of Miroslaw Balka’s Signals, the artist wanted to give the space of his artwork to deal with the important questions of the people in the city. Signals was aimed to be useful to the people living in the city. This usefulness motivated the different city district association’s to participate in the project. They could discuss important issues, they had the possibility to meet decision makers face to face and present their opinions about the future of their district. Afterwards, we can also reflect on it and ask how useful was it in the end? Did it make any change? The question of usefulness of art is definitely not one of the parameters of IHME but in Miroslav´s case, he raised the discussion and this discourse remained as a defining quality of his project. In participatory projects that are made in collaboration with a defined community, the starting point is often trying to solve some problems that the community has named. In these cases, usefulness plays a critical role in the process.

JL: In IHME’s projects, the artworks are ephemeral. After the festival, there is nothing to look at or to collect, do you consider the “remainder” or “rest” of the projects as the experience (and souvenir) of the participants?

PT: It is true that several projects had relatively short active time span: Jeremy Deller´s Do Touch lasted for a week and Katerina Seda´s project for four days as did also Miroslaw Balka´s project. When the action of the work is finished, there is nothing to look or rather to participate in, but often there is the reflection of the project that continues. As I told earlier, at our festival there is a talks program that allows participants to share what they experienced with other audience members and the artist. Of course, we also document the projects in photos and videos that are being shared on free platforms – Youtube and social media – where the project can be revisited afterwards. Today, even collecting ephemeral and temporary works is very much possible and museums do collect them.

Yael Bartana, True Finn, IHME Project 2014. Photo: Veikko Somerpuro. Courtesy by IHME Contemporary Art Festival.

DG: IHME conveys an interesting statement about citizenship and local identity as most of the artists you work with are not Finnish. Do you aim to open up the Finnish identity by inviting artists who are not Finnish?

PT: Well, yes and no. Firstly, IHME is not giving themes or topics to the artists we invite to collaborate with us. Some artists are interested in studying the Finnish identity as Yael Bartana did in her film True Finn (2014). In this work, she also questions nationalist populist political movements that were rising all over Europe at the time. But certainly, by inviting artist from abroad, we do ask for some kind of reflection on the Finnish context. It is very well possible that we would invite a Finnish artist or an artist living in Finland in the future. Within the global, international – at least Western – (contemporary art) world, many questions are common, so citizenships do not really matter when we select the artists.

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