New Kids on the Block

New Kids on the Block | “Brain Work” with Pilvi Takala

Artist Pilvi Takala describes her practice, which includes performance, video and the related ephemera, as “intervention.” Takala, who was born in Helsinki and is now based in Istanbul, embeds perverse characters – often enacted by the artist – into otherwise ordinary scenarios and environments. The ensuing (in)actions strive to intervene and re-channel the invisible streams of social convention.

For example, in The Trainee (2008), exhibited in The Ungovernables, the New Museum’s Triennial show last spring, Takala played the part of an indolent intern named Johanna at the real-life international financial consulting firm Deloitte. While her co-workers enthusiastically went about their business, Johanna did nothing. At an empty desk, she wanly explained that she preferred to do her “brain work” in her head rather than on a computer.

One week later, the new intern spent an entire workday inside an elevator. To her bedevilled co-workers, Johanna compared the movement of the elevator to a train, a place conducive to deep thought. Understandably, employees dithered over the trainee’s behavior. Meanwhile their reactions were recorded and their email correspondence was collected as part of Takala’s month-long intervention, of which few people at the company were aware.

An earlier video piece, Wallflower, also documents the disturbing nature of inaction. In 2006, Takala transformed herself into an unaccompanied onlooker at a dancehall popular among older Finnish couples. Obscenely over-dressed in a shiny gown, Takala watched as gleeful couples danced and eventually departed. After everyone else had left, the only remaining gentleman placed Takala’s pitiful hand in his and dutifully led her to the empty dance floor.

As in Wallflower, the tone of much of Takala’s work feels similar to a long, slow dance with a stranger – bungling and awkward. Indeed the etymology of “awkward” means to move in the wrong direction.  By intentionally moving crosswise over contrived codes of conduct, Takala’s work calls into question which direction is right.

This month Pilvi Takala chatted with me about her work over email.

Pilvi Takala. “The Trainee,” 2008. Installation. Courtesy Galerie Diana Stigter, Amsterdam and Carlos/Ishikawa, London.

JG: When did you start making work?

PT: I had always been drawing and painting, but never really thought of that as a possible profession. Seeing video works by Bruce Nauman during high school was quite influential and later seeing Eija Liisa Ahtila’s work really got me into video art.

In art school I started making short narrative videos that dealt with social rules like my work now, but after the first year I felt like I needed to get out of the studio and do something in the public space, something that would directly interact with the real world in the process.

JAG: Can you explain how your ideas begin and codify into an intervention? Is there something equivalent to sketching in your practice?

PT: My practice is a lot about research, reading, browsing the internet and being places. Sometimes a situation, a place or phenomena really intrigues me and I feel like I have to do something with that. It doesn’t always work out and I’ve spent a lot of time and energy in research that never lead to an art piece because you also need the right kind of opportunity to do something – you can’t force it.

To make an example, I was spending some time in Paris and since I had made work in shopping malls before and was already interested in that kind of commercial space, I felt like I should definitely visit Disneyland Paris. I had never had a chance to visit any Disney park before. The park was strictly controlled and I was fascinated by the visitors’ behavior and willingness to obey all the rules. I started to read blogs of people who worked at Disneyland and looked into Walt Disney’s’ ideas about society.

The final sketching occurred when I went back to the site and just sat outside the Disneyland gates thinking about what the best thing to do there would be. I imagined different options and how people and the Disney security might react and then chose the one that seemed interesting enough to try out. Something that wouldn’t just confirm what I already think, but would bring about something new and unknown. I knew the staff wouldn’t let me in as Snow White, but I didn’t know how they would deal with the situation and how the park visitors would react.

Pilvi Takala. “Real Snow White,” 2009. Video, 9:15 min. Courtesy Galerie Diana Stigter, Amsterdam and Carlos/Ishikawa, London.

JAG: You’re referring to your piece from 2009, Real Snow White. You donned Snow White’s garb and tried to enter the Disneyland theme park dressed as the Disney character. Why did you pick Snow White over the other female Disney protagonists like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty?

PT: Snow White is the oldest and most recognizable female Disney character. Although she is a Brothers Grimm character, how Snow White look is really determined by the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs from 1937. Her appearance is so recognizable that you can find hundreds of different variations of her costume, even with a short skirt, that still look like Snow White. You’d never think you’re violating copyright laws when dressing up as Snow White for a costume party – you’d imagine Snow White has become public domain already – but actually Disney still holds the copyright to her appearance due to lobbying changes in the copyright laws.

JG: You violated copyright law and as such, you were banned from entering the park. Why do think that dressing up as Snow White was viewed as such a threat to Disneyland?

PT: The success of Disney parks is based on absolute control and perfection. All of the staff follows strict rules on how to behave. A hotdog seller from Fantasyland would never enter Discoveryland in his/her costume. The garbage disappears from the bins through underground tunnels, so we don’t see the ugly sight of garbage being collected. This is all quite impressive and sets Disney parks apart from many other amusement parks.

Pilvi Takala. “Real Snow White,” 2009. Video, 9:15 min. Courtesy Galerie Diana Stigter, Amsterdam and Carlos/Ishikawa, London.

JAG: In another work from the previous year, The Trainee (2008), you confronted another tightly-controlled environment. For one month you worked inside the marketing department of the financial consulting firm Deloitte in Helsinki. How did you find the corporate milieu?

PT: The corporate environment was totally new and exotic for me and at first I was worried about fitting in and being able to perform as Johanna Takala, the marketing trainee. However, I found fitting in to be pretty easy. It’s fascinating how we are programmed to observe and copy others around us; this happens with almost no effort at all. I observed how appearing busy was more important than what you are actually doing, and wanted to know how people would treat a person that claims to work hard, but doesn’t appear busy.

JG: During this time you spent a lot of time doing nothing – “brain work” at your desk while you vacantly stared into space or riding the elevator up and down for hours. How did your co-workers react to Johanna Takala’s behavior?

PT: On superficial level, working at Deloitte is supposed to be creative and free and using your brain should definitely be more important than being busy at your computer browsing Facebook, but just the fact that someone would take the liberty to behave as they want is unsettling, and even more so, when they do nothing instead of clearly doing something wrong. Sitting and thinking might be acceptable for a few minutes, but when it went on for hours and for days, my co-workers grew more and more uncomfortable with me. Doing nothing carries potential for a radical act and the longer this goes on, the scarier the situation seems.

So many of my co-workers didn’t know what to do and tried just to avoid me, some reached out to management and asked them to do something about the situation. Some were more open to hear my explanation of my working method and expressed interest even if they wouldn’t fully understand what I was trying to do.

After I left, the conversation about acceptable working methods continued at the workplace. Whether accepting my behavior or not, I forced my co-workers to reconsider their expectations of shared rules and I think the same happens to people who see the documentation as my art piece. After several months, when everyone at Deloitte had already forgot about the weird trainee and the project was revealed, many felt relieved that it had just been an act; some respected the fact that I could sustain so much social pressure.

Pilvi Takala. “The Trainee,” 2008. Installation. Courtesy Galerie Diana Stigter, Amsterdam and Carlos/Ishikawa, London.

JG: In effect you prompted a conversation and challenged conventions regarding behavioral norms in the workplace. How do you know as an artist when you have made something that will resonate in this way?

PT: I just try to do things that I find extremely interesting and trust that others feel the same way. Also I’m into shared rules and how we negotiate them, which often touch many people’s everyday life. I also discuss my work in progress with close colleagues and friends to get feedback. This helps a lot especially with editing the material and choosing how to present the work. The more I show a piece, the more clearly I can see how a piece actually resonates with audiences. Over the years some pieces appear stronger than others.

JG: Lastly, how do you sustain your practice? For example, do you read or look at the work of other artists?  What do you need to do to keep moving forward?

PT: I look at a lot of art and film but I think my research of different communities and situations is the thing that really keeps my practice going. Looking at art helps with thinking about forms of presentation and it’s just really great and inspiring to see good art. When I’m really in the middle of a project it’s hard to pay attention to art though, and I’m concentrating all my energy into understanding the context I’m working with.

JG: Thank you, Pilvi!