IHME 10 years: a decade intersecting everyday life

Susan Philipsz, When Day Closes, 2010. Image: Kai Widell/IHME Contemporary Art Festival

IHME will turn 10 years old this year. Its background organization Pro Arte Foundation Finland was founded in 2007 and its first production was the IHME 0 programme of films and video art at Helsinki’s Bio Rex cinema in 2008. The first IHME Festival was held in spring 2009. For the past decade, IHME has taken art to the places that people gather and spend time in their everyday lives. IHME Projects commissioned by the Festival have been realised in shopping centres, libraries and trams.

Free hands and sufficient resources

The first person in IHME to be given a free hand was Museum Director Emerita, Doctor of Visual Arts h.c. Tuula Arkio, who was previously in charge of Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art and the Finnish National Gallery. Arkio, who was at the end of a long career, could not believe a private donor’s inquiry: What would you do if you could do anything to benefit art? It was time to make dreams come true: what if the entire city were a space for art?

The invitation that artists receive from IHME is also sometimes met with disbelief: they are given carte blanche to create a work in a public space for Helsinki residents to marvel at. Instead of accruing collections of art, something quite different began to happen.

The festival’s activities have also been acknowledged by other players in the art field. “IHME’s commitment to public space is a practical example of efforts to incorporate contemporary art into the everyday life of the city,” says Johanna Tuukkanen, the artistic director of Kuopio’s ANTI Contemporary Art Festival. She also appreciates the focus on a single large-scale work that the artist is given sufficient resources to realise: ‘In a time when artists often have to accept short-term work and which admires spectacles and works that go quickly out of date, IHME is even more important.”

Negotiations on public space

Taking control of public space is often about negotiating what is possible and permissible in a certain place. For example, the 2010 IHME Project, Susan Philipsz‘s sound work When day closes, was realised in the busiest place in Finland, the main hall in Helsinki railway station, which some 200,000 people pass through every day.

Pirjo Huvila, who was at that time the architect with rail company VR’s real estate unit, recalled her enthusiasm for the project immediately: “I think stations are just the kind of places that should host more art exhibitions and interactive projects.”

The project had to take into account both the historically valuable building and the way it was used. Huvila, who was responsible for the protected building, was concerned that the speakers would be properly concealed on the ceiling. “The installation was done at night so that people rushing by wouldn’t bump into the crane or each other,” says Paula Toppila, who was in charge of the curation and production of the work. Information about the exceptional arrangements had to be relayed to a large number of people. “Effective cleaning, however, managed to remove a sticker indicating the optimal place to listen to the work from the hall floor”, Toppila laughs.

Changing a familiar place

IHME Projects often blur the lines between private and public space. At the railway station, a sad ballad, based on a poem by the Finnish writer Aleksis Kivi, surprised those with the most finely-tuned ears: “Grove of Tuoni, grove of evening / There a sandy cradle is waiting / There I will carry my child.”

Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev observed people’s reactions to Philipsz’s work and noticed that the song, which was audible in the hubbub of the station hall, offered some people a yearned-for opportunity to retreat inside themselves, while others didn’t want it to reveal too much of them. The respondents felt it was “touching”, “calming” and “magical”, but also “too sad for the train station”.

As with Philipsz’s work, the 24,000 tram passengers who ran into Kateřina Šedá’s Tram Buskers’ Tour mostly welcomed it. The buskers she invited to perform on Helsinki’s trams in 2016 represented a wide range of musical styles, from blues to baroque and from folk to free jazz. That was one reason that the festival’s main partners, Helsinki Region Transport (HSL) and the City of Helsinki City Transport HKL, were prepared for negative feedback, but most of those who encountered these special events found them enjoyable, like the young woman who shared her experience: “This is so wonderful. I have ADHD, and tram journeys are pretty awkward for me when I should just sit down in my seat.”