The work of the Museum of Contemporary art started at Kiasma while the building was still under construction: last autumn a study circle on contemporary art was arranged for the builders of the Museum. The group got together five times in one of the site barracks during extended coffee breaks.
The sessions were participated in by a varying group of some twenty workers. As the diploma given to each participant after the last meeting says, the course dealt with questions such as why the ventilation pipes used by an artist are art, but those used by builders are not; why do the artists produce such works; why a work of art need not look like a work of art; what the role of an everyday object in art is; whether contemporaray art is just a joke; what interpreting and understanding art means? The project is yet to be completed: the next meeting will be held at the completed Kiasma.
The spur for arranging a study group of this sort rose from a number of discussions with the builders and the realisation how different our perceptions were of what was going to be inside the building. What significance would contemporary art have for those who were actually building the facilities for that very art, unknowingly influencing the conditions for its existence?
Spreading the gospel of art among builders sounds like the most orthodox 1970's type of cultural ideology. In fact, it ultimately follows the enlightenment ideology that first gave birth to the public museum institution: open up artistic treasures and culture to the people.
For me, an observer from within the field of art, it was a real challenge to go and talk to builders about contemporary art. How should I justify the, from the layman's point of view admittedly obscure, artistic solutions and actions that make up contemporary art? How would I convince my audience of the significance of these curiosities-without forgetting that a critical attitude is always allowed? Moreover, it felt artificial and quite patronising to think I would be "educating" others. I would much rather think the study group was an opportunity for the two parties to get to know each other and each other's experience.
That everyone should have equal access to art and civilisation is a beautiful thought. But there is downside to this democratic educational ideal. Education means also discipline. In the last century, when the public museum institution emerged, museums were and became places where the upper classes would feel at home. Society has changed enormously since those days, and so have museums. Still, it is a valid question, whose world view do today's museums respond to, who will be comfortable there and who will find it easy to step inside?
The change in the concepts of education and museum are reflected in the way musems name their educational departments: in the period of the Fine Arts Academy of Finland in the 1960s and 70s the Finnish National Gallery had an "enlightenment department", which in 1990 was changed into the "unit of museum education". At present, even the word 'education' sounds too patronising and ideological; therefore the name of the department will in the future become 'cultural services'. Instead of learning art history or how to produce art, the aim of these services is to activate the viewing process and interpretations, and make room for sensations.
The goal of our study group was to create a situation where the opinions of the participants could find a channel and means of expression. It is not easy for non-professionals to make their ideas heard. And even should the occasion arise, comments remain few and far between. The respect for experts remains great. The other side of openness is to accept that there might not and need not always be a comment to be made.
It's a two way street
Kiasma's expressed wish to be a common living room leads to the inevitable question: who will feel "at home" there? Or will it become the kind of living room where, despite the host's invitation to "make oneself comfortable", one never really knows how to relax?
The Museum's aim to target its programme to the "general public" does not mean anything, unless one also considers, what kind of a role the Museum and its practices cast on the visitor: what kind of world will the visitors step into and how are they supposed to behave in there? In the Lousiana Museum in Denmark, the words 'viewer' or 'visitor' have been abandoned and the term now used is 'guest'. 'Guest' could also be understood as 'customer', to whom, again, it would be natural to offer 'services'. Different interpretations give rise to different associations; we may be talking about looking after one's guests or engaging in the rhetoric of consumption.
In Finnish, to nobody's surprise, the word vieras can mean not only "a guest" but also "stranger" who is met with suspicion. True hospitability would be to welcome those who feel "strangers" in the museum. Lately, a lot has been said of people's access to art. For different groups of the disabled, this would mean getting rid of physical obstacles, such as thresholds. But the real challenge is to be rid of invisible thresholds, the kind of inherent practices and evaluations that steer us to certain predetermined enviroments and make us stay clear from other ways of living.
We all know what it is like to be "in the wrong place at the wrong time": to find yourself at a cocktail party wearing a tracksuit or taking part in a conversation you understand nothing about. I, for one, would be as hopelessly out of place and wrongly dressed at a country horse race as at Ascot. So, if the museum visitor feels excluded and finds it difficult to join in the discussion, whose fault is it, the visitor's or the museum's? I would argue both: the museum institution should be much more conscious of its inbuilt assumptions and become more flexible in that respect, while on the other hand, familiarising oneself with art and museums demands effort from the visitor's part as well.
Opening up the dialogue between differing world views leads to a road of constant exploration, amazement and, undoubtedly, compromises: it will mean questions and answers, challenges and adjustments, demands and giving in. Besides, without an active audience no dialogue will ever even begin.
So, why aren't those ventilation pipes art? Go and ask the builders.