History of Others. Interview with Laura Gustafsson and Terike Haapoja2015-12-24
Aleksandra Jach: What are the beginnings of the History of Others? And what are your main fields of interest?
Laura Gustafsson/Terike Haapoja: We started in 2012. I met Terike when she was teaching in Theatre Academy. I attended her lectures because, being animal rights minded, I found her recent work, the Party of Others, so incredibly important. During that week Terike discussed the Jewish Museum in Berlin and I somehow came up with this idea of a huge museum dedicated to tell the stories of all those species that doesn’t have their own museums or histories, ie. all the non-human species. Soon after that we started our project History of Others the aim of which was set to build the Museum of the History of Others. But since that would be such a large-scale production we decided to make a little demo of what that museum would be like and came up with the idea of our first museum, the Museum of the History of Cattle.
When starting to plan the cattle museum Museum of the History of Cattle we had little idea of how to execute the production. How could we even try to tell the history of someone who doesn’t have the concept of history? Should we leave the language out and try to reach the bovine experience? I think the main theme in our first project was came to be the ideal of efficiency and how that has affected the lives of animals, including humans. You can read our studies and conclusions on here. To summarize it’s about humans inventing something, starting to use it, abusing it, and suddenly there's a genocide or an eco catastrophe or otherwise just billions of casualties.
An important interest for me has been language. As a writer (I've published 2 novels, now working on a third, you probably know Terike's background better) it's my main tool whereas Terike operates in a more visual and spatial fields (although we are both into writing and in History of Others - we haven't felt the need to split the roles). We also write about the language used in museums in our essay, featured in the book. Briefly, it questions how we can use human language to interpret other species without being colonialist and diminishing. It has much to do with different registers of language. (When using one's own language this is easier but with other language it becomes harder. This is a problem with English too. Although we work with a translator there's only so much they can do. I think we have found a way of speaking about History of Others in Finnish and now we are working out a way to create a History of Others with English.)
We have described History of Others as a matrix through which we are looking at the world and (very often) humankind. When we step outside our individual humanity and look through someone else's eyes the vast absurdity of modern society and human actions becomes clear. This can be seen humouristically, which has been an essential part of our collaboration.
Aleksandra Jach: Do you know of a cultural institution or artistic project which is close to the idea of re-writing history from the position of non-humans?
Laura Gustafsson: There are a lot of animal related art projects but those that observe history seem often to have antropocentric view. But I am not that involved in the world of visual arts unfortunately.
Aleksandra Jach: I found that you are exploring the legal status of non-humans. Can you tell me something about the book you are currently preparing, 'The Trial Notes'? How do you connect the processes of conferring legal personhood on non-humans with capitalism and globalization?
Laura Gustafsson/Terike Haapoja: Actually we did a lecture-style performance (or lecture-performance, as we called it) named “The Trial”. “The Trial Notes” would be a publication containing the play and perhaps other related items. “The Trial” (named after Kafka's novel, no other link between the two) was a performance we made in a Consistory Hall at the Helsinki University, a place that called to mind a lot of the courtrooms you see in the movies. On one level it studied the poaching case of three wolves that took place in Finland a couple of years ago and has received huge amounts of publicity as wolves are much hated and persecuted in Finland. The performance was about the law and how the legislation has treated certain members of society, for instance African slaves in America, women, and now animals of other species. You can read my short essay on the performance (and also a bit of the Museum of the History of Cattle) here. The performance had also a collection of total madness that's going on with the animal welfare act: how the undue suffering is forbidden but if you read between the lines the object of this act, clearly only the suffering that doesn't cause economic benefit to anyone is forbidden. So the "undue" is seen from the perspective of economy, not from the perspective of the one who will suffer.
So the question of animal rights - and human rights for that matter leads you to the sources of capitalism. Money seems to be the overriding unit of value, not the goodness of an action nor somebody's well-being. So in this way, this production has been linked to capitalism. But History of Others finds capitalism and furthermore neoliberal ideology intriguing also because of their absurdity in ways they make people think about nature, other animals, and other humans too. There's this idea that immense growth is possible and even desirable although absolutely nothing in this world indicates as such. Perhaps it is here that the essence of our project lies: showing humans the little they are, trying to pull through their megalomaniac attempts of control and domination, in front of the vast natural world of non-human, history of life, and the universe itself. There is comedy in this irony as well.
In regards to globalization - I'm not sure that I have anything to say. Maybe in the context of this project we mostly find people alike no matter which continent or historical era they come from. But so far in the work there has been a strong emphasis on the Western society and the history, religion, philosophy and ideologies we live with here, since, from our perspective, they seem to have caused the most damage. Although of course there's a lot of good too: we couldn't talk about animal rights if we didn't have the concept of rights or if we didn't have the tools to consider other animals as sentient beings.
Aleksandra Jach: Why do you think that the format of a museum, an exhibition or an artistic project is the best way to mediate the knowledge about Others?
Laura Gustafsson/Terike Haapoja: I'm not sure it is. But art is one way. I have chosen art for many personal reasons. One reason we have discussed is that the art gives us room to study and interpret the Others in ways that would not be approved in other fields but that still show some essential meanings.
The concept of a museum is a way to make something seen, sort of authorization for a certain group's (for instance the cattle's) existence. It's a notification that something is valued. But in existing museums there's a certain set of simplification that we wish to avoid - what we want is to show the multiplicity of realities and perspectives. A museum may also be seen as an artistic means of utopia. For instance, when talking about dehumanization - which is our next topic - we make a suggestion that it's part of history, something that has been put in the past, and from which we have learned so much that such mistakes will never be made again.
Aleksandra Jach: What is the audience of History of the Others? Your exhibitions travel to different places, the website and the publications are in English. Does the Finnish context bring something specific to your perspective on the Others?
Laura Gustafsson/Terike Haapoja: Being a white, straight, European female I can't really call myself the Other like it was maybe in the days of Simone de Beauvoir. I am not sure if you even meant that, but no, I don't think that our being Finnish makes our perspective any different. Or maybe the way in Finland, where the equality of sexes is fairly good (but where there's also a lot of violence towards women and lots and lots of misogyny), we are in a strange intermediate space: we have moved from the "other side" to the first or right side but can still see and feel the ones from the other side we are leaving behind. I don't know. Maybe this is too teosophic or something, I haven't really given it a that much though. And of course there are white, straight, males who can also convincingly discuss the questions of otherness. But for some reason this field is somewhat female dominated.
I know we have a sort of audience, even a fan base; mostly they seem to be other artists but there are also activists. We hope to spread the word for people who do not seem so interested in these questions - but that has proven difficult. Ouf first museum reached about 500 people during two weeks, if I remember, and there were people attending who didn't come from the fields of arts or activism but I am not sure whether the exhibition made sense or just confused them. But yes, with an English production we are seeking an international audience.
The interview was realized thanks to the support of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.
History of Others is a collaboration between writer Laura Gustafsson and visual artist Terike Haapoja.
Laura Gustafsson is a Finnish author and playwright based in Helsinki. Her debut, a genre-bending fairytale and feminist pamphlet called Huorasatu (2011, “Whorestory”), was nominated for the Finnish Book Foundation’s Finlandia Prize. Gustafsson's second novel, Anomalia (2013, “Anomaly”), addresses the themes of language, violence and the imaginary line between man and beast. Her new book, Korpisoturi (“Warrior of the Wilderness”) is due out in August. Gustafsson graduated with an MA from the Theatre Academy Helsinki. She has written a number of stage and radio plays. Her novels and plays have been translated to German, French and Turkish.
Terike Haapoja is a Finnish visual artist based in Inkoo and New York. Her recent projects include: Closed Circuit – Open Duration (2008/2013), last seen at the Venice Biennale, which focused on questions of mortality, co-existence and the relationship between humans and nature; The Party of Others project (2011-ongoing), which appropriates the form of a political party in order to look at the status of other species and other groups excluded from the law. Haapoja contributes regularly to Finnish and international art publications. She represented Finland at the Venice Biennale in 2013 with a solo show in the Nordic Pavilion. Her work has won the Finnish Dukaatti prize (2008), Säde prize (2009) and an honorary mention in Finland’s Festival’s Artist of the Year 2007. Haapoja was a candidate for the Ars Fennica Award in 2011.