by Perttu Rastas

People, years, electronics - International timelines

The history of Finnish media art is short and thin - which is generally true for the history of all experimental cinema and art. From the birth of video art in the mid-1960s right down to the early 1980s the Finnish video landscape remained - excepting a few interested individuals and the activities of the 'Dimensio' group - a virtual waste land. The tradition of experimental cinema could have been an interesting starting point for media art as well. The experimental films and advertisements of Eino Ruutsalo are a narrow but bright flame in the blue depths, and together with the "9 Poems" by Risto Jarva (his first film from 1957) they constitute the foundation on which the history of Finnish experimental moving image must needs be built.

A more internationally oriented interest in media art began with the correspondence between critic and artist Jan-Olof Mallander and Nam June Paik in 1968. Mallander introduced Paik to the Finnish public in 1970 on the pages of a special 'Intermedia' issue of the Iiris magazine. In 1971 an 'Intermedia' happening was organized by the Elonkorjaaja group at the old Student House in Helsinki, which wasalso the first occasion when video art was seen in our country. The works shown included tapes by Paik, a video installation by Philip von Knorring, and Dimi-O (1971) which was a combination of computer and video devised by Erkki Kureniemi.

Built by Kurenniemi himself, the series of Dimis (from DIgital Music Instrument) consisted of synthesizers which produced sound effects interactively with the information on a video tape. The Dimi-O version exhibited at the Elokorjaaja group's happening at the Student House consisted of dance movements which had been shot with a TV camera and which produced electronic sounds. The same idea has been used again after a lapse of two decades by many other pioneers(?!) of interactive art (including David Rokeby's Very Nervous System which was displayed at the Otso Gallery in connection with the MuuMedia Festival in 1991).

The debate around video remained rather lukewarm in Finnish art circles throughout the 1970s, notwithstanding a few prodding articles by Mallander, Kurenniemi and Antero Kare in the Taide [Art] Magazine. In his 1971 article on disposable art, "Message is massage", Kurenniemi reflected on the immaterialisation of art. The works, he wrote, "disappear from the tangible world, because they are for most of the time useless", for when "a work has been uttered in the programming language, it can materialise at any time and in any place where an output device can be found".

The interactivity of Dimi-O was not the only instance where Kurenniemi's futuristic visions turned to concrete reality. In mid-1980s Kurenniemi also theorised in the Aura magazine about 'video spectacles' of the future, which could be used to look at artificial realities. And very soon after VPL introduced its data glasses and data gloves (which were actually offshoots of experiments made already in the late 1960s at military aviation laboratories and in space research).

At the turn of the 1970s and 1980s the crowd at Tööt-filmi (Antti Kari, Jukka Ruohomäki, Heikki Paakkanen, Harri Kaasinen and Kyösti Mankamo) produced a series of animations to texts by Eino Leino (Orjanpiika [Slave's Maid] 1977-78, Mennyt manner [Lost Continent] and Ukonlintu ja virvaliekki [Thunderbird And Will-o'-the-wisp]). These animations used computer-generated images for the first time in Finland. 1)

The first takes of video art were shot in Finland as late as 1982 - almost 20 years later than in the international arena. In connection with a symposium of environmental art held at Lehtimäki, the Turppi Group (Marikki Hakola, Lea and Pekka Kantonen, Martti Kukkonen and Jarmo Vellonen) shot Earth Contacts, a performance video which is today considered the first Finnish work of video art. The video was shot with VHS equipment borrowed from abroad. Marikki Hakola continued working with video when she went on to study art at the School of the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts. Her graduation work titled "Time Is Right For..." was a video installation based on scratch material.

At about the same time, in 1981-82, Asko Mäkelä started showing videos in the art gallery of the old Student House; the programme consisted of central works of European video art. In the autumn of 1982 Mäkelä organised an exhibition at the Sara Hilden Art Museum, where the works exhibited included Earth Contacts and Juhani Tirkkonen's video recording of a street performance titled "Money" by a group called "™". An article by Wulf Herzogenrath in the exhibition catalogue was the first general review of video art published in Finnish. A wider public exposure of video art took place the following year in connection with the ARS 83 Exhibition, where the performers included some prominent international names (Dana Birnbaum, Bill Viola). Another significant fact is that the same year Finnish video art got its international debut at the Long Beach Museum of Art.

The development in the mid-1980s of videoworkshops (modelled after British video artists' workshops) signified a rapid expansion of video art and a huge increase in the number of users. The first Finnish workshop was established in Kuopio. The first workshop in Helsinki operated in connection with the People's Cultural Association KSL. Its first video course, organised in 1984, also drew some artists to attend (including part of the "™" group). One of the results of the course was Kimmo Sininen's scratch video "Das Kapital" (1984). In the late 1980s over 1000 people attended KSL's video courses, and the same interest seems to continue today in the more than ten intermediate-level media schools.

Video art was instrumental in introducing the concept of media art in Finland, at the same time when performances and spatio- temporal art forms flourished in the productions of the Jack Helen Brut and Homo S groups. According to Risto Heikinheimo performance is "the last 'tour de force' of the pictorial arts": "in the midst of all the visual chaos" it was "a cool reminder of the superiority of the Image".

Combining spatial art and video, Marikki Hakola's extensive works PRE (1984) and PIIPˇˇ (which involved also performance and dance, 1987) were already seeking their way out of the confines of simple tape works towards a more comprehensive conception of media art. 3)

In the late 1980s the second international wave of video art washed ashore in Finland at the Kuopio International Video Festival (1989-90). In 1991 the festival office moved to Helsinki, where it changed its name to MuuMedia Festival and grew to embrace the entire field of new media, from experimental cinema through video art to interactive art. This year ISEA comes to Finland; next year another MuuMedia Festival will be arranged.