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Jos de Mul. These boots are made for talkin'. Some reflections on Finnish mobile immobility. In: Oiva Kuisma, Sanna Lehtinen and Harri Mäcklin (Eds.), Paths from the Philosophy of Art to Everyday Aesthetics. Finnish Society for Aesthetics Publication Series. Volume 1, 2019, 214-222.

You can’t be a Real Country unless you have a beer and an airline—it helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.  Frank Zappa

Abstract

On January 13-15 2005, a conference entitled Aesthetics and Mobility was held in Helsinki. On invitation of the organizers, Arto Haapela (University of Helsinki) and Ossi Naukkarinen (University of Art and Design Helsinki), I took part in this wonderful event. I knew Arto from the regular meetings of the International Association for Aesthetics and it was a great opportunity to get acquainted with his research project Aesthetics, Mobility, and Change and his international network of scholars. As it was my first visit to Finland, I also took the opportunity to get introduced to Helsinki and Finnish culture.  Afterwards, I wrote down my impressions of the conference and my memories of the visit. On occasion of the Festschrift for Arto I’ve worked up these personal notes as a tribute to him, esteemed colleague and distant friend.

 Aesthetics and Mobility

I could have easily left my Eskimo-hat and gloves at home. Instead of minus 20 degrees, the digital thermometer in the Aleksanterinkatu in Helsinki indicates plus 7 Celsius. I was hoping for a winter wonderland, instead it rained incessantly. Even in this self-declared eco-paradise that is Finland the climate in January 2005 seems somewhat out of sorts.

Together with my Finnish host Ossi Naukkarinen and my American colleague Joseph Kupfer I walked from the University guest house to the stately main building of the University of Helsinki situated in the old town square. With Nokia's headquarters almost next door, the city of Helsinki seems to be the perfect location for a conference on Aesthetics and Mobility.[1]  Only a few decades ago Finland was an agricultural society and yet it has now seen an explosive growth of mobility of people, goods and information. In 1960 the five million inhabitants of Finland owned less than half a million cars between them, while in 2005 the number of cars on the road has grown to five times that number. Over the same period the number of intercontinental flights taken annually by the Finns rose from 0,2 to over 8 million. And Nokia transformed itself in the same period from an ailing producer of wellington boots to the figurehead of the Finnish high-tech industry.

 

Mobilisation is globalisation

Certainly, Finland is not alone in this. Mobilisation is globalisation. Resources, consumer goods and even waste are moved to and fro all the time. The world's population is also constantly on the move because of labour migration, tourism and the flow of refugees. Homo mobilis not just travels longer distances but also does that with greater speed. Even those who stay put, keep up with the fast pace of life. They keep up the pace at the fitness centre, or while lounging on the sofa, zapping through dozens of TV channels or unlocking numerous virtual and augmented locations when playing computer games. And at the same time we also manage to exchange billions of bits of information with each other via our mobile phone and the internet. Is this perhaps what the German writer Ernst Jünger referred to in 1931 when he wrote about the 'totale Mobilmachung' of our culture?[2] Undoubtedly so, but nowadays we tend to use the English turn of phrase: Wherever we go, we go with the flow!

And this can also be said of the speakers at the conference. Tens of cultural academics and historians, architects, engineers, philosophers and artists have been flown in from all over the world to analyse the new experiences of beauty that go hand in hand with the mobilisation of culture. They are not the first to do so. Decades before Jünger the Italian futurists eulogised the beauty of mobility. In 1909 Marinetti wrote in his Futuristic Manifest, 'Up until now literature has glorified pensive immobility. We declare that the greatness of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: that of speed. A racing car, its bonnet decorated with thick tubes that look like fire-breathing snakes ... a car with a throbbing engine, looking like a machine gun when it moves and more beautiful than the Nikè of Samotrace.'

This statement certainly did not fall on deaf ears, as speaker Filip Geerts makes clear in his lecture on urban utopias that in the last century have been projected onto aviation. In Le Corbusier’s Ville contemporaine pour trois millions d' habitants from 1922, airplanes fly to and fro between skyscrapers, thus erasing the distinction between city and airfield. These dynamics not only apply to aviation, as is shown by Pasi Kolhonen who talks of the maelstrom of moving billboards and images that surround and drive the inhabitants of the metropolises of today. And Mikko Villi argues how mobile phones with their inbuilt cameras have created a new phase in the mobility of the image.  In contrast to the moving images on the billboards, which stay fixed on the spot, the photographic image released from the paper now whizz back and forth between mobile phones. These are fleeting images, partly because the users do not save them on their phone. The mobile phone transforms the photograph from being a lasting record to a momentary message. Five years after this conference Snapchat turned this transformation of photography into a successful business model.

Anne Marit Waades gave a rather humorous lecture on hyper tourism, by referring to the TV programme Pilot Guides (www.pilotguides.com). We are shown an episode in which the hyperactive travel guide Ian Wright drags us through the tourist database of Brazil in under 10 minutes in a delirious vortex filled with planes, hang gliders, speed boats and race horses.  Out of breath, we can then conclude that after such a condensation of time and space the real trip will be nothing but disappointing.

The hypermobile phenomena raise a mixture of fascination and repulsion in the speakers and audience alike. In that sense the mobilising technologies are very similar to a hard drug.  Perhaps it is not a coincidence that one talks both of 'users' of narcotics and of new media. For both groups of addicts the kick quickly wears off and the need for more grows ever faster. And as is the case with each addiction, the most intriguing question remains who or what uses who or what.

Beer saunas

And as for traditional intoxicants, it is clear that many Finns don't know how to restrain themselves either, as I visit the Kotiharju's sauna together with Ossi that evening, located in one of the older districts of Helsinki. This is one of the last remaining traditional public saunas in Finland, as almost every household now has their own. Having got ourselves undressed in the rather dilapidated changing rooms, we enter a sauna with the size of a modest ballroom. In one of corners there is a wood-burning stove measuring a few metres tall. Everywhere on the wooden benches of the amphitheatre fat-bellied Finns sit quietly drinking an incessant stream of Finnish beer - sold in half-litre bottles by the ticket seller - to stay off the dry heat. Even if only the names of the biggest drinkers live on, the Finnish people must have a huge collective memory.

It is impossible, however, to accuse the people of this country of excessive loquacity. Yet they enjoy self-mockery. The majority of Finns is able to be fluently silent in at least five languages, as Ossi assures us with a straight face. I remember the guest lectures I gave at the university a few days ago which had rather unsettled me. The students had looked at me with a silent gaze, hardly showing any inner life at all, let alone any interest in my explanation of the concept of 'database-ontology'. Fortunately, the emails I received on my return home containing intelligent questions and commentary from the students reassured me that my lectures were appreciated alright, but it is a mystery how this reticence to talk can be squared with the success of the mobile phone in Finland. Or has it something to do with the vast expense of the Finnish countryside and its endless woods and lakes and lack of land lines?

On the second day of the conference the American philosopher Joseph Knupfer reveals himself as a technological teetotaller. According to the best cultural pessimistic tradition he claims mobility technologies will inevitably lead to displacement. Thanks to the new means of transport and communication we can now go anywhere we want and at the same time be present anywhere we want, and yet we are nowhere any more. Detached from our physical contact with nature, we become estranged from each other and from ourselves. And not to forget the sacrifices we make because of mobilisation. While the world regularly grieves collectively when natural disasters or acts of war cause thousands of casualties, hardly anyone is aware of the million road traffic victims every year. This message is well received by many of the older Finnish participants. The younger generation at the conference seems to be less bothered by it, as is the case with young people all over the world. They don't seem to miss spending long winter evenings sitting quietly round a wood-burning stove.

 

Kirkkonummi

Even though I am not a fanatic nature lover, the next day I am bowled over by the nature in Finland, when Markku Hakuri takes me on a trip through the forests west of Helsinki. Markku is professor of 'environmental art' at the University of Art and Design (which used to be located in the old Arabia ceramics factory in Helsinki) and as a visual artist has achieved fame with his impressive ice and fire sculptures in the Finnish landscape, among other things. Today he is taking me along to the Hvitträsk, which is a monumental villa built between 1901 and 1903 by the architects Herman Gesellius, Armas Lindgren and Eliel Saarinen, in national romantic style, located in a wonderful wooded area overlooking a lake near the village of Kirkkonummi. The three architects and their wives also designed the Jugendstil interior of the house which has been implemented down to the smallest detail. As we wander through this magnificent house, in awe of the ingenious panelling, the various dark pieces of furniture inlaid with several types of wood, and the stained-glass windows, the mobile culture suddenly seems so far away.

Afterwards Markku invites us for a late lunch in his house in a hamlet close to Espoo. It is three o' clock in the afternoon and dusk is already setting in around the old wooden house. Inside we sit near the wood-burning stove and enjoy the salmon and reindeer meat while Markku and his wife Kaarina, who is a music teacher, tell us about the rather tempestuous love relationships between the six residents of the villa Hvritträsk. It reminds me of the films of Ingmar Bergman. Markku and Kaarina also adore his films, although, measured by their Finnish heart, they regard the Swedish film director as being a bit too frivolous. Time stands still when Kaarina takes out the blueberry pie out of the oven - the size of which defies any Aga - and despite darkness falling and the stillness all around us we quite simply feel happy in the Normankatu.

The next day I become fascinated yet again by Finnish immobility when I visit the exposition Monitoring Visual Landscapes in Finland at the University of Art & Design. The photographer Tapio Heikkilä explains how since 1996 he has photographed the typical Finnish landscapes with regular intervals documenting the changes in landscape caused by modernisation. Spot the differences. No matter how hard I stare at the series photographs of continually the same landscape, except perhaps for the appearance and disappearance of a lone walker or roaming reindeer, I cannot see any development at all. I am probably already hopelessly corrupted by the aesthetics of speed. More senior Finnish visitors stand in front of the photo's shaking their heads, appalled by the rate at which the Finnish landscape seems to be disappearing.

And yet rural and urban areas in Finland appear to develop at different rates. Despite the fact that Helsinki seems provincial compared to many other capital cities in Europe, its architecture - of which Nokia's headquarters is a showcase, erected in highly modernist glass and steel - is hardly any different from what we see in other places. In the new, also hyper modern-looking Kiasma museum, with its many curves in the interior reminding me instantly of the Guggenheim in New York, I visit the exposition Love me or leave me, which gives an overview of the 'most loved, much-talked about and hated' works from its own collections. You can see the effect of globalisation here too; the exposition shows neatly the international trends and movements over the last few decades. I am not that impressed by the Finnish contributions to modern art brought together here, although there are a few exceptions. Jan-Erik Andersson’s The Triangle, the Square and the Circle. Meet the Fast-Food-Boat from 1988 is a little gem. The installation consists of a floating snack bar, offering a very interesting menu. Behind the salesgirl a large number of pictures of dishes can be seen in which various icons from twentieth-century art are recombined. Anyone interested in Fusion Art can choose among other things between Malewich Flakes with Kiefer Sauce, a Keith Haring Herring and an A Sol leWitt Cube with Pollock dressing. Database art combined with an amusing mobile ontology.[3]

 

Homo mobilis

One of the last lectures of the conference is given by my Helsinki-based colleague Arto Haapala, whom I have known for several decades now as a co-member of the International Association for Aesthetics. Haapala puts the contrast between mobility enthusiasts and prophets of doom in perspective. He distinguishes between three forms of identity: place-related, cosmopolitan and nomadic. As an example of the place-related type of identity Haapala refers to his grandmother, who – like my own grandmother - has not practically ever left the village in which she was born, during her entire life, let alone been abroad. Just like a tree in a forest she was rooted to her 'spot' and surrounded by familiar things. Whoever moves house is confronted with a new environment and needs to try and get settled, to find her or his way again.

In the mobile culture, where work and holidays keep us on the move all the time, this 'feeling for being in a place' starts to erode. The new form of identity related to this, and inspired by thinkers such as Deleuze, is called nomadic. However, according to Haapala, the name is not justified in most cases. People have an insatiable longing to create a familiar place for themselves. The modern-day Homo mobilis manages to do this by making sure that every environment looks the same. This explains the success of global hotel chains, fast-food restaurants and coffee shops such as Hilton, McDonalds and Starbucks. They are not very attractive buildings nor is the food or coffee particularly amazing (to put it mildly), but they offer a much-needed familiarity to the cosmopolitan citizen when he is abroad. Many travel companies offer tourists a similarly familiar environment, whereby they can go on excursions sampling exotic culture in small doses and are led by an experienced tour guide.

The popularity of the mobile phone, which stores our favourite music, offers personalised displays and ringtones and 'virtual residence' technologies, can also be explained by this 'longing for home', as it allows us to access our personal documents and photos, no matter where we are. Such mobile technologies create a virtual home around us. Such bubbles allow us to move and stay put at the same time. Perhaps that is the reason why the immobile Finns have become so hooked on mobile technology. They have been caught up in a mobile immobility.

 I focus again on Haapala. He finishes his argument by saying that being nomadic means being able to move about without having a home. Only a few manage to do that. Because even the most nomadic of people keep coming back to the same places. Perhaps that is a good thing.

It is 4.30 a.m. when my phone alarm wakes me. In two hours' time I will fly back to the Netherlands. While I am waiting for the taxi that will take me to the airport, the weather seems to have turned. The icy wind is carrying the first snowflakes to Vironkatu. It’s still dark and the streets are deserted. I am longing for home.

 

Endnotes

[1] The proceedings of this conference, edited by Arto Haapela and Ossi Naukkarinen, were published in 2015 as a special issue of the online journal Contemporary Aesthetics (https://digitalcommons.risd.edu/liberalarts_contempaesthetics/vol0/iss1/

 

[2] Ernst Jünger, ‘Die totale Mobilmachung’, in: Krieg und Krieger. Berlin: Junker und Dünnhaupt, 1930, 9-30.

 

[3] For a more detailed exposition of this database ontology and its impact on art and aesthetic experience, see my contribution to the conference, entitled ‘From Mobile Ontologies to Mobile Aesthetics’ (https://digitalcommons.risd.edu/liberalarts_contempaesthetics/vol0/iss1/4/

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