“Political Imagination and Alternative Futures” is a multidisciplinary post-doctoral study combining methods of ethnography and artistic research. It is funded by Academy of Finland and realized at The University of Turku (2020-2024). The aim of the research is to explore how political imagination is practiced among different groups of people, including artists and activists, as well as different kinds of alternative communities in Finland. There are five researchers in the project: Inna Perheentupa, Salome Tuomaala-Özdemir, Hanna Ylöstalo, Suvi Salmenniemi (PI) and myself.
The project started with concerns about a lack of political imagining and the ensuing need for social change. Global challenges, like climate change and social inequalities, demand us to go further with finding new ways of collaborating and organizing common life. However, our claim in this study isthat political imagination has not dissipated, but alternative political futures are imagined and promoted in everyday spaces that people inhabit. We would like to bring forth different practices of political engagement as well as develop new arenas and expressions of current utopian thinking.
The research itself is method orientated, so we are looking for different ways of thinking and doing everyday utopias. The research questions in this project are: How is political imagination practiced and what alternative futures are imagined and made? What ways can we find to create a more sustainable future? Moreover, in relation to pedagogy, which ways can political imagination be taught?
While the other scholars in the research group have a background in social sciences, I am a performance artist and artistic researcher. From the beginning of the project, the idea has been to conduct a multidisciplinary study with the aim of mixing different kinds of methods and learn from each other about different research practices. Besides the shared research questions, I also have some more personal research interests like how is political imagination practiced in the arts, especially in the performing arts in the 2020s? In what ways do different art projects and artists create spaces for imagination? How could tools and approaches developed in the art be used more widely in social research? And last, how sociological thoughts and philosophies of utopia and social change feed my own artistic practice in the context of artistic research?
Traditionally political art has been understood to mean that art reflects reality. However, in my opinion, following the idea of a performative paradigm, art does not only reflect the society but also performs it. Art not only mirrors what is going on in a society, but it does much more: it focuses, frames, and brings forth the current political issues. It creates spaces to think and imagine, to try out things and get new perspectives. It suggests forms of collaboration and ways to get closer to what is unknown and intangible. Since social scientists and artists are nowadays increasingly problematizing the same issues of capitalism, climate change, identity, and power relations, it is rewarding to map the ways of thinking and working in collaboration.
Where in more traditional discussions the term ‘utopia’ was understood as a stable destination or a target, recent research defines utopia and utopian thinking as an ongoing process or as a method (Levitas 2013, Eskelinen 2020) to deal with questions of the political change. Moreover, utopia can be used as a toolto reflect current issues and it leads us to think and imagine the future. It has a critical aspect as well, utopias can be seen as counter images or practices against the existing system (Eskelinen 2020).
As for my own project, so far, I have focused on utopian thinking and performance. Joan Esteban Munoz (2006) has suggested, that one of the key elements of performance is its potentiality. The “performance’s temporality is not one of simple presence but instead of futurity” (Munoz 2006, 10). Moreover, I have interviewed my artist colleagues asking about their ways to provoke utopian thinking and generate spaces for imagination and collective dreaming. In the research group I have been in charge of creating exercises for collecting material. In the participatory events we have suggested participants do some exercises for observing the material environment, to provoke thinking and re-seeing the ordinary.
In our research day at the University of Turku in October 2021, we invited performance artists Milla Martikainen and Katri Puranen to talk about their project Forest Performance (Metsäesitys 2015-). With this project their goal has been imagining, experimenting and proposing a new kind of forest relations. They came to the seminar as flying squirrel characters, Papana and Norkko. The flying squirrels gave us a lecture about their recent activities: they have organized twitter dinners, interviewed politicians during the municipal elections, actively participated in forest industry debates and awarded a prize for a policymaker, who “shows a desire to promote constructive interaction between thinkers in different ways”. In addition to this, they have created installations and organized workshops in different contexts.
After the performance lecture there was a discussion where Martikainen and Puranen talked about a communication about political issues through fictional characters. The playfulness of the characters and the way in which they combine fact-based knowledge and a poetic flow of thought brings a new dimension to situations and removes their predictability.
Another example of artistic ways of dealing with political issues is the Climate Church collective. Despite its name, the collective is non-religiously committed and they aim to explore the relationship between the ecological crisis and the sacred. The founders of the ensemble, performing artists Laura Marleena Halonen and Ronja Louhivuori, talked about a need to deal with the climate crisis not only verbally, but also affectively and physically. Climate Church projects utilize common rituals familiar from religious contexts: singing together, preaching and “confession”. The aim of the collective is to create performances that reinforce a sense of community through a variety of simple and familiar ritual practices.
From a methodological point of view, the aim of the Forest Performance is to dismantle and nullify the preconceptions of different encounters. The potential of performing characters in political discussion is related to interaction and bringing in unforeseen elements. The way flying squirrels discuss and communication from a “squirrel perspective” makes visible the social structures within which we are accustomed to operate and the conventionality of language and thought associated with them. The Climate Church, on the other hand, calls for a bodily approach to both the climate crisis and other global problems. Instead of considering problems alone, the collective proposes new kinds of rituals in which a sense of togetherness is developed, alongside different ways of working together and a “common activist body”. Both examples represent, in a fascinating way, the coming together of art and politics in this time. They also concretely propose new perspectives and ways of working as tools for thinking about the future.
So far, my role in the research project has been as a co-researcher with a performance and pedagogical perspective. It has been interesting to think about new ways to combine artistic practices and ethnographical practices, in the context of social science research. It continues my previous research about engagement of politics and arts as well as performance art practice and performance pedagogy. The project has been going on just for one year, so I do not yet know how it will affect my own performance art practice.
Finally, artistic research itself is a form of utopian thinking. It involves new ways of doing research and collaborating, re-defining our understanding of knowledge as well as the practice of art and art itself. Many things that used to be uncommon and “utopian” fifteen or twenty years ago in academia, like multidisciplinary research, embodied research and artist’s practice as a form of thinking, just to mention a few, have established their place as a part of research processes - at least in art universities. The most utopian aspect in artistic research is that it is not a stable set of methods to be followed strictly, but an open format that includes an opportunity to develop new methods and renew them with each study. As a result, it can also be thought of as a form of political imagination.
See more http://polima.fi
Eskelinen, Teppo. 2020. The Revival of Political Imagination: Utopia as Methodology. London: Zed Books.
Levitas, Ruth. 2013. Utopia as Method. The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Munoz, Jose Esteban. 2006. “Queers, Punks and the Utopian Performative” in The SAGE Handbook of Performance Studies, edited by D.Soyini Madison and Judith Hamera. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
Pilvi Porkola is a performance artist, writer, and researcher. Currently she is working as Senior Researcher in a project “Political Imagination and Alternative Futures” at The University of Turku.