ARS 2006 – The Art of Complaining by Mika Hannula

The ARS exhibition series is an institution in its own right in the truest sense of the phrase. It has taken place every five or six years since 1960. An event that began as an effort to introduce contemporary art practice and discourse to a post World War II Finnish audience, it is one that has developed into a significant exhibition venue with always great expectations and sometimes even great experiences.

This year’s exhibition focuses on the chances and possibilities that art plays a significant role in our daily lives. It addresses the ongoing process of how artists increasingly deal with issues that are not only about art for art’s sake but about something else. This “something else” in ARS 2006 is dubbed the “Sense of the Real”, which serves as the show’s title. It’s a show with forty artists or artist groups that cover all potential mediums and that occupy the entire Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum in Helsinki from late January until the end of August.

But what is it we see, feel and hear at the exhibition? Is ARS 2006 good, fantastic, brilliant, mediocre, lousy, or just silly? I don’t know, and I really do mean that.

Once again, as so often before when attending and thinking through a show of this size, I am utterly confused. This confusion is not necessarily at all unpleasant or unproductive. It is a confusion of scale and perspective. A dilemma I face when I confront the event as a whole entity and try to articulate something general and all encompassing about it. A confusion that evaporates into thin air if instead the concentration is forced from the common to the particular and from the general to the specific. In other words, if the focus is on one single work, there is a slim chance of saying something meaningful with it, a chance, if successful, to say something about the macro level issues at hand through the route of a micro level example.

In this review, this chosen example is a work by the Finnish-German duo, Tellervo Kalleinen & Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen, a couple who with their work “The 1st Complaints Choir of Birmingham” manage in an eight-minute video to do something we all desire and lack. They manage to invite us to laugh with their work and at the same time to laugh at ourselves. Indeed, they manage to massage our cortex, creating something that can be called intellectual entertainment.

What follows is the attempt of an argument why this particular work is not only interesting, but something providing us poor lost souls a kind of hope – a hope that reminds me of a song from over twenty years ago about “a milkman of human kindness.” It is an argument exercised in four interwoven steps.

Point 1: Availability. This work deals with issues and patterns of daily life that we all share and that we all reproduce ad nauseam. What we see is what the title of the work promises. We see the performance of a choir that complains, a choir made up of about fifteen rather young persons who all share the same motivation: to complain and to have fun at the same time.

Thus, the work is about how people in Birmingham complain about their surroundings, their lives, their work, the price of beer, the unfriendliness of other people and how the bus is always late. To get a taste of it, this is how the song starts: “Birmingham has changed so much, I don’t like it anymore. Birmingham has changed so much, I liked it more before. Recycling is a token here, they do the very least. And if I keep on cycling here, I’m gonna be deceased.”

With the glorification of complaining – the most common thing on earth - the artists create a platform to which we all have access, a work that achieves the impossible: turning something nasty and negative into something productive and positive. Indeed, they shape and achieve a connection to the theme on such a vast scale and with such power it reminds me of another work done in absolutely different style and dimension but that enjoys the same broadness of audience. The work I have mind is Olafur Eliasson’s “Weather Project” in Tate Modern, 2004. The gestures are as far as they can be from one another in terms of scale and attention, but as with complaints, we all talk about weather nonstop but do it in a little bit different way. We all have, if we want, access to it – to talk and walk and argue with it.

Point 2: Becoming aware of what you do when you do what you do. The background for the work is that Kalleinen and Kochta-Kalleinen went to Birmingham for a residency. At the site, they faced the common dilemma of what to do in that certain space you don’t know and have little time to get to know better. And as we have witnessed, they decided to deal with something they realized people in Birmingham do often and something anyone anywhere does often.

Kalleinen and Kochta-Kalleinen started collecting different versions of how people complain. They advertised the project, distributed flyers. Along with the material and the people interested in forming a choir, they found a composer to write the music. The whole effort was completed during a two-week workshop, an effort both a constantly evolving process and a collaborative achievement as such.

It is a magnificent song that, for example, highlights these following deep seated opinions: “My minidisk player is broken, sex pressure is too low. I don’t like bad hair days, and my beard won’t grow.” It describes the ways we live life as it is: “People eat my biscuits when we have a pot of tea. They never share their biscuits, no one appreciates me.” A song that does the trick in a cruel way, it lures us to be aware of our petty attitudes and the constant litany of complaints we all just spit out over and over again.

Point 3: Rethinking the role of the artist. My claim is that in this work the necessary self-critical and self-reflective process does not only address the issues of ego and collaboration. Here we have the artist as someone who takes part in the production of knowledge within the field of contemporary visual culture in a way that turns something totally ordinary into something unique.

A process of transformation we cannot take for granted, and a result that cannot be forced. A process not driven by the need to make an object but that is happily dependant upon the motions and emotions of a socially engaged practice. A practice in which the outcome can never be fully predicted. It can be envisioned, but not fully planned. Thus, what we have is the art of structuring a process so that it allows those elements of surprise to live and breathe – and to kick.

Point 4: Pleasure Principle. The work of Kalleinen and Kochta-Kalleinen was certainly very easy to locate. In the fashion of a typical contemporary art exhibition, there were numerous white and black boxes built into the space. But theirs was the only box people were laughing inside. It was a very distinguished laugh of a collective kind, a kind of shy laugh that tries to conceal itself, but when the dam breaks, it all comes out without any hindrances or sophistication.

But why did we all laugh? What’s so funny about people in Birmingham complaining as a choir? I mean, we are nowadays even used to a choir of ugly men screaming; do we really need a choir that complains? The beauty of this work lies ultimately in a balancing act. As just an idea I would never buy it. But as a work shown and seen in ARS 2006 I was without defenses. I had to laugh. Not at, but with – with them and myself. Kalleinen and Kochta-Kalleinen did something rather silly, something rather unnecessary and childish. They did something that spread joy and pleasure, joy and pleasure extremely present in the actions and faces of the people in the choir. Goddamn kilogram, they were having fun when singing along at the rehearsals, on street corners and in pubs the chorus of the song:

“Why does my computer take so very long?
Why can’t the bus driver talk to anyone
And why is the beer so expensive in town?

I want my money back,
My job is like a cul-de-sac,
And the bus is too infrequent at 6.30.

Why don’t they pay me more?
Life was good before
And I am thirsty.”

Mika Hannula / Review for Kunstkritikk 23.1.06