FiR Artist Interviews: Mari Keski-Korsu

This interview is part of 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)


Humanity, empathy and alpacas

Mari Keski-Korsu spends part of the year in the rural area of Tunnila, near Sulkava in Eastern Finland. The other residents of the area are mostly elderly, and they all have stories to tell about fishing, what kind of plants grow where, how to find chanterelles or meet a bear in the forest. The landscape and the environment are ideal for Mari’s art, which focuses on the environment, ecology and socio-economic issues. The basis of her work is in ecofeminism and permacultural practice.

Mari was born and raised in the Ostrobothnian town of Raahe. As a teenager, she was a part of the activist campaign against the fifth nuclear power plant plans in Finland since the beginning of the 1990s. There is almost a certain irony that the location for the sixth nuclear power plant was chosen to be Pyhäjoki in 2007, just 20km from Mari’s hometown. She states that as with most of the controversial processes relating to massive changes in the environment and social tragedies they cause in the communities, Pyhäjoki power plant political decision making, planning and construction has been an undemocratic and hazy process.

In 2013, Mari organised a trans-disciplinary expedition and production workshop, called CasePyhäjoki – Artistic reflections on nuclear influence. She invited a diverse group of outsiders - artists, scientists and activists - to reflect on the situation on a local level in Pyhäjoki and also to communicate the experience into global networks. The camp was a success for the participants, leading to fruitful future collaborations and various projects. Mari, however, felt frustrated and powerless.  Generally, regardless of the progress, the changes in humanity and in human spirit seem desperately slow.

She started to search for the basis of human morals and through what kind of process other species or ecosystems are included into the human moral circle. The only way for this inclusion is naturally empathy. Humans experience empathy towards each other and usually towards other species that are cute and this way easier for humans to identify with. “If empathy is something that has enabled human species to collaborate in a level that it has spread across the Earth, could this same ability be enhanced generally and to be experienced towards whole ecosystems and any species? “, Mari wonders.

For the past three years, Mari has been collaborating with other species, exploring different kind of ritualistic and empathic ways to communicate with them. The Oracles is an ongoing project of hers, in which she tries to find different ways of connecting with the other animals, and asking help and advice for the human kind from them. At first, she became interested in alpacas, because although they were domesticated a long time ago (before the cow, even) and have thus a long companionship with humans and an understanding of the human species, they have not changed as a species during the years, and have remained untamed. When Mari begun work with alpacas in one of the biggest alpaca farms in Finland, she also started a collaboration with animal communicator Maiccu Kostiainen, who has been involved in the process since.  The Oracles –project includes sessions where Mari takes participants to a meeting with the other animals and leads them to an experience of communication. Another part of the Oracles are the channellings, sound pieces that are based on writings done by Maiccu Kostiainen on questions or proposals by Mari. For example a scientific report on the human kind’s challenges like climate change or overpopulation was presented to alpacas.

Mari has also worked with Clydesdale horses in Scotland. They are massive draught horses, breed by humans to be calm and strong. It has been said Clydesdales build Australia, and this way they have also experienced the imperialistic ambitions of human beings. With Clydesdales, Mari worked exploring thematic of work, labour, energy and time.

Another ongoing project is the Beat to the Balance series, in which Mari is recreating the healing properties of whisking – “using whisks, branch bundles of different tree species, in sauna,” she explains. Mari has worked with trees, forests and forest management in the past, but it wasn’t until she got in touch with Lithuanian whisking expert Rimas Kavaliauskas, that she became interested in the healing potential of whisking and communicating with tree species in this way. Rimas has been teaching whisking for over ten years at the Lithuanian Bath Academy, and under his tuition Mari has learned about the psychosomatic effects of whisking and temperature balancing. Mari sought out Rimas after she heard about him through a friend, and managed to bring him to to give a first such whisking course ever in Finland. The Beat to the Balance project includes building a sauna from found materials and whisking in it. The tree branches and (usually) two people create a space of empathy inside the sauna. Through whisking the people involved create a connection with the environment. So far, Mari has built saunas in Scotland and Denmark.

Mari is hoping to continue working through creating environments for empathy to happen. She has been very pleased to work in Frontiers in Retreat as it has given a time for experimentation and also a place to collaborate.


TA: Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in.

MK-K: For example, the work with the inter-species communication (with other animals as the Oracles and with plants as Beat to the Balance tree healing) is based on the search of guidance from other species towards holistic existence of a human. In this case, by the holistic existence means a disappearance of rational, emotional, physical, spiritual, mind – these often separated elements of a human being into one. This is basically the process I explore. I try to create situations where we could use empathy as the key to connect with other species, imagine equality with them, and propose a question if it's possible to experience emphatic relationship with whole ecosystem we live within. Yes, indeed it's about imaging another narrative for humanity that is in crisis. 

I often work in environments of distress, border or un-definition and that are maybe not very interesting places necessary generally. The only environments I find rather challenging to work at nowadays are very central, urban areas.


TA: How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?

MK-K: My work has started from a long-term frustration towards ultra-rationality and the overwhelming current narrative (that basically supports and aims to the so called Western way of living). It gives only a little loop-holes for anything else to flourish. Most of the human kind mainly plays by the rules of the economic system but what actually in the end keeps us alive, is the planet and the ability to work together, enabled by empathy. What has changed in my work, is that I try to analyse less and less. It gives me peace of mind and opens maybe something else. 

For the future, hopefully I have found ways to connect the elements I mention above in a way that my art disappears.


TA: How do you go about choosing where to show your work?

MK-K: The work spreads across different media in different forms. It’s usually very site-spesific and dependent on the collaborations in between different actors; human or non-human. I’m trying to search and create environments where empathy can happen or be enhanced.


TA: Do you feel that humanity is disconnected from nature?

MK-K: This depends on what disconnection means. The nature doesn’t exist as some separate entity from humans and nature conservation is actually conservation of human species, trying to sustain living conditions where this species can still live within. Nature exists always, in one form or the other. As Bob Hunter puts it, ecology is a flow and we are all part of it. Everything one does, affects to flow and everything that happens in the flow, affects the one. I do believe that we have disconnection from understanding this flow, our position and connection with it.


TA: What are you currently working on?

MK-K: I’ve been interested in the forest communication systems in between trees in comparison of how humans create their own bubbles where they communicate only with like-minded others. I don’t know what happens with that, yet. 

At the moment I’m also working on the Oracles –installation to be exhibited soon and co-directing Pixelache Festival 2016 – ‘Interfaces for Empathy’ happening in September.


TA: What first inspires you to look at these themes, and to use photography, observational drawing and installation to explore them?

MK-K: When I was a child, I accidentally saw a part of a documentary film that was telling about radioactive fallout and how only cockroaches could survive from that. Obviously, I was pretty disturbed of this and figured that if I could cover every part of my body with a blanket at night, it could protect me from the fallout. I was worried my family was not doing the same (and it was pretty hard to breath under the blanket through the night). Ever since, I’ve been a worried person my whole life, the issues have varied in different times. What I try to do, is to transfer this worry into joy, to something… constructive or productive - for the lack of better a word. 

The technique is rather irrelevant to me; I just choose what seems to fit when needed.


TA: How does architecture tie into the environment?

MK-K: It ties into the environment the same way as eg. agriculture, intensive forestry, mines or other geoengineering. Humans have affected the planetary systems of the Earth in myriad of ways. The only way to tie any of this into the environment is to have respect and understanding of the ecosystem present. Permacultural practice interests me on the level of how to bring it into for any practice, not only growing food. Would be good to see the whole planet and the human culture as a permacultural system.


TA: Your art looks like scientific research. Do you ever collaborate with scientists, researchers etc.?

MK-K: I tend to always involve different kinds of experts because they have knowledge and experience I don’t. I’ve collaborated with scientists for quite some time. First with humanists, then more with natural scientists; mainly forest researchers. If my work looks like scientific research, hopefully it’s scientific research gone wrong.


text by Tessa Aarnisuo