FiR Artist Interviews: Carl Giffney

This is the first interview in the series of Frontiers artist discussions between Tessa Aarniosuo and the artists participating in Frontiers in Retreat residencies and other activities at HIAP – Helsinki International Artist Programme during 2015–2016. Tessa is a Helsinki based artist and writer currently working with several residency related activities at HIAP.

– Jenni Nurmenniemi, Curator of Frontiers in Retreat (HIAP)


Not colonisation

I interviewed Carl Giffney during the last few days of his second Frontiers in Retreat residency at HIAP. We discussed his work while here in Finland, his work in general, and the busking performance he put on for HIAP’s Open Studios event.

Carl’s work takes the form of performative research focusing on social capital, social capital being the wealth that presents itself when a group of people are in a relationship with each other.

On the eve of the 23rd of March 2016, the HIAP Open Studios visitors are greeted in one of the Suomenlinna tunnels by a singing Irishman. Giffney is playing well known Irish songs on his ukulele, letting people know they are at the right place. Some people do give him change, others seem more hesitant. Is he really busking or is the performance part of the art event?

What is certain, is that the visitors now form a much tighter community. They are together walking towards the HIAP studios, gaining strength as a group from Giffney’s performance. The performance does not end with this introduction; Giffney takes on the part of the leader, guiding visitors from one studio to the next between visits. Towards the end of the night he puts on a DJ show.


How can art help sociology? Could artistic matter be introduced in social science?

CG: Yes, yes it could, especially in environmental social science.

Ecology and environmental social science is the study of the relationships that all organisms have with their environment. The organism I focus on is the human. The so-called environmental crisis we are facing is a human caused, human managed problem and should not be understood as one that is nature centred, in my opinion.


Do you try to distance your character from yourself when doing research?

CG: No, I don’t do that at all. When I do research, I’m still Carl, I’m still an outsider. I often accentuate being foreign, for example. In the Open Studios event I put on here at HIAP, I performed Irish songs in a tunnel while wearing a jacket with the flags of Ireland and the EU sewn onto it. I am foreign here, but also part of the community.


When you position yourself into an environment as part of your research, does empathy ever come to play for each of these positions? Where does your social engagement begin and where does it end?

CG: In one of my projects I worked as a miner. Mines often have outsiders working there for short periods of time. I was an outsider, but an equipped one; I had the tools, I had the uniform. I blended in. Empathy, however, can be risky. It implies feeling superior, which I most certainly do not.

My research is the opposite of colonisation. Not colonisation. I try to fit in, but not impose my culture or my beliefs onto anyone.


Your research is very different to community art programs, however.

CG: I’m glad you mentioned community art programs. They can be so patronising and formulaic. What they do, is they identify a social problem and then bring in some academic with a PhD to try to fix it. In my research, I want to put myself in a vulnerable position; I am asking for help, not giving it. Giving help when not asked is very patronising indeed.

Another pitfall is art that tells us things we already know. This is often the case with environmentally concerned art. Art needs to tell us something new. I ask myself that question often, when making work: “Is my art telling us something we already know?” If it does, it is not working.


How does social wealth correlate with monetary, economic wealth?

CG: In the HIAP Open Studios event people were quite literally evaluating how much my performance was worth and giving me money accordingly. In some other cases the correlation is not as direct, but it is still there.

Sometimes social wealth brings well-being that leads to better productivity and more economic wealth.


Your work is so close to cultural anthropology and social science. How did you pick art to be your medium of choice?

CG: I do see myself as a social ecologist. I identify social structures and research them empirically. I chose art over social science, however, because art has the most profound effect on people.