ANDREW GRYF PATERSON
ABSTRACT: This article introduces the issues of aligning ecology and sustainability in the cultural production of Pixelache Helsinki’s Festival and network. It focuses upon what might be an ‘appropriate’ form of cultural networking, and argues for an ecogeographic approach in the future. The ecogeographic case example given is that of the Eastern Baltic Sea.
Short distances between cities surrounding the Baltic sea means that locals have been busy with trade and cultural exchange for centuries. At different times the cultural, linguistic, economic and political formations of their surrounding nation-states have both eased and made more difficult that process. There are several regional and transnational high-level cooperative frameworks which focus on the Baltic Sea Region, such as the European Commission’s HELCOM and The Union of Baltic Cities.1 Furthermore in recent years Oleg Koefoed from Cultura21 Nordic was commissioned by Nordic Council of Ministers to undertake research on the relationship between cultural production and sustainability in the region (Aidt, 2013; Koefoed, 2013).2
In this short essay I focus on one cultural association from Helsinki, Finland—Pixelache Helsinki—with the example of its year-round educational programme which I coordinated and facilitated from the beginning of 2011 until 2014 – three intensive years of related cultural exchange around the Eastern Baltic Sea. In that position I argued for a renewed effort for mobility and exchange around the eastern side of the Baltic Sea region, re-invigorating the concept of the “Gulf of Finland Community,” and introducing the concept of an ‘ecogeographic’ approach to cultural production.
I write from the perspective of an artist-organiser in the cultural field, who has adopted different approaches from network culture and applied them to temporary collaborative productions in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus during my years based in the Baltic Sea region. I am also interested in writing narratives about these experiences, and connect them to practice-led cultural research, as well as to cooperative-minded research and pedagogy. At the beginning of 2011, I was employed part-time by the Finnish non-profit cultural association known as Pixelache to facilitate and coordinate an informal outreach and pedagogical programme called ‘Pixelversity’ as part of Pixelache Helsinki activities. I have written elsewhere on the same topic in a longer and more detailed article (Paterson, 2012), on which this edited version is based. As my proposal emerges from this work, I will first elaborate briefly on the underlying motivations of the Pixelversity programme and give an overview of my proposed orientation towards the Gulf of Finland as the basis for appropriate networking for cultural production, hinting at future aspirations and connections.
“Appropriate networking” for cultural production borrows a concept from permacultural development and appropriate technology applications, with creative applied design and technology for sustainability issues, such as renewable energy, clean water filtration, bio-remediation, or compost systems. The global Permaculture movement started by David Holmgren (b. 1955) and the recently deceased Bill Mollison (1928–2016) in the late 1970s in Australia is an inspiration as it is imperative to work with, rather than against nature; “of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor” (Mollison, 1991). Its online equivalent may be the Appropedia.org network, initiated by Lonny Grafman, that brings a similar spirit to networked knowledge-sharing practices around the world. Grafman is inspired by the economist E. F. Schumacher, who over 40 years ago developed the concept of intermediate or appropriate technology, or “technology with a human face” (Schumacher, 1999). In general, according to Grafman, the consensus is that such technologies are those which can be maintained, used, repaired, operated, retrofitted by the actual stakeholders, “a technology that’s not just designed for but [..] designed with the stakeholders” (Grafman, 2016).
Context of Pixelache Helsinki
Pixelache Helsinki is a trans-disciplinary platform for developing and presenting experimental art, design, research and activist projects since 2002. However, it is also an organised network of people – currently approximately 30 association members, 1 full-time coordinator and 1 part-time staff member year-round, plus a handful of fee-based staff during the festival period or funded projects. About one third of members are regularly active in Helsinki; approximately one third are active but based remotely or often travelling outside Finland; and about one third are less active members; as well as a network of regular friends or unaffiliated associates in the Nordic-Baltic region or further afield. Many participants in this network use Pixelache Helsinki as the main way to present their recent professional practice, research or approach to art, design or technology; for others it is a fun, hobby-oriented event to test or experiment with prototypes; while for some lucky handful it is a mix of both.
Although it is true that as members we have become good friends, collaborators and peers in the development of Pixelache Helsinki, academically one could interpret it as a cluster of several communities of practice, who share concern and passion for what they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly (Wenger, 1998). Included in this regular interaction are processes used with each other, with other organisations and institutions, as well as with other publics and communities in the format of a cultural festival or via other projects/processes. Early in Pixelache Helsinki’s development, a social science paper by Katri Halonen identified the strong co-relations between open-source ideology and the thematic and organisational structure of the festival (Halonen, 2007). However, the interests within this organised network are broad and not always easy for outsiders to understand.
Pixelache Helsinki is and has been part of a regional and international network of similar practitioners, organisers and producers, with qualities that Ned Rossiter claims characterizes networks: “fluid, ephemeral, transitory, innovative, flowing, non-linear, decentralized, value-adding, creative, flexible, open, collaborative, risk-taking, reflexive, informal, individualized, intense, transformative and so on” (Rossiter, 2006: 46). Rossiter refers to organised networks as “loose affiliations where participants have the freedom to come and go” (ibid, 2016: 22). Most often cultural networking happens via sharing information about events and ideas online, as well as with travel to attend gatherings or festivals. I argue that this should ideally be done in accordance with the synergetic relations of “natureculture” with protracted and thoughtful observation and (net)working.3
In coordinating and facilitating the Pixelversity programme between 2011-2014, discussing regularly with key participants, I considered relationships between different activities, imagining how they may build up cumulative knowledge and skills towards future Pixelache Helsinki activities. For example, in the first years there was an emerging interest from Piknik Frequency association members related to energy use, knowledge sharing, social engagement, and towards ‘transition/resilience’ themed activities and events. Considering the Baltic Sea regional scene, these interests have also found inspiration, company and informal collaboration with partners in Estonia and Latvia.4 The holistic vision of Green Economics, as presented by Molly Scott-Cato (2009), was also a strong influence at the time, leading to further research.
The topic of sustainability I argue is firstly not just relevant as a subject in our fields of practice and theory, but also relates to personal economical sustainability in a period of financial uncertainty, and specifically within cultural funding structures. Secondly, it is important in relation to our practice in our particular locality, in this case our region of the Gulf of Finland, the Baltic Sea region, and North East Europe. What are appropriate ways to work within organised networks, as part of the increased interest within our scenes for topics of transition/resilience, renewable art, technologies and sustainability?
Considering the ecogeographic region model
In early November 2011, I presented Pixelversity 2011 activities at the RIXC Centre for New Media Culture Art+Communications Festival Conference in Riga, and with this review, I also introduced the concept of an ‘ecogeographic’ approach to cultural organising and production, which was later published by the same organisation (Paterson, 2012).5
This perspective was originally inspired by conversations from 2007 onwards with marine biologist, artist and activist Richard Thompson Coon, resident of Suomenlinna until 2013, in Helsinki, where we first met. Coon founded and chaired the environmental non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Gulf of Finland Environment Society SULA, which was active in the 1990s and early 2000s in the Eastern Baltic Sea. Through a multi-faceted, trans-cultural and trans-disciplinary environmental agenda and activism, his colleagues regularly gathered people together in educational events. For example, in 1996, natural scientists, musicians, artists and school children from Finland, Russia and Estonia gathered on Suomenlinna, a historical island fortress in Finland, to address the environmental situation of the Gulf of Finland. Many years later, he still advocated for continued grassroots, trans-cultural and trans-disciplinary initiatives related to the Baltic Sea region, and the Gulf of Finland in particular. Key from his point of view is the need to continue invigorating the idea of a “Gulf of Finland Community”. This community, according to Coon, should be understood as including not just humans, but also animals and plants; the whole ecosystem. The idea of a community which spreads over a geographical territory, based on ecological principles, may be called an “Ecogeographic community.”6
As political theorist and peace researcher Arthur Westing defines it, an “ecogeographic region” denotes a “geographical area that is unified in an ecological sense, gaining its integrity from this cohesion”; by extension, an ‘ecogeographic region’ is “an ecological system, or ecosystem.. a unit made up of living and ‘non-living’ components of the environment that interact to form a life-support system”. For example this may be “seas with their associated drainage basins (watersheds, catchment areas), major rivers with their associated drainage basins, major mountain ranges, major islands or peninsulas, insular aggregations, deserts, tundras, and permanently ice-covered areas” (Westing, 1989: 2). Hence, an ecogeographic approach would mean, in the case of the Gulf of Finland, not just the ecosystem population around the coast, but also that extending all the way to the edge of its water drainage basin. Westing opens his thesis “Comprehensive security for the Baltic: An environmental approach” with the question: “[T]o what extent does regional cooperation on environmental protection and nature-resource utilization serve as a confidence-building measure for the purpose of fostering comprehensive international security?” (ibid: 1). In other words, how does it help develop further shared common value and interest among stakeholders?
Returning to the cultural organisational field, as an artist-organiser, I believe in the necessity to develop trans-disciplinary capacities to engage on/in Commons issues; that cultural workers and producers can contribute to environmental protection and sustainable nature-resource utilization/management, and that active cultural organisations should lead the way by example, especially those with network-building and facilitation experience.
This approach raises a set of questions and thoughts that are relevant to consider: What will be the effect on cultural organisational work if we do our networking mostly within our ecogeographic subregion of the Baltic Sea, that is, the Gulf of Finland, including portions of Finland, North-West Russia, and Estonia? For example, this could include cultural exchange and co-production between the 3 ‘capital’ cities of Helsinki, Tallinn and St Petersburg, as well as with population centres and regions as broadly circumferential as Lahti, Jyväskylä, Kuopio in Finland; Petrozavodsk, Veliky Novogorod, Pskov, Russia; as well as Narva and Tartu in Estonia. What have been the challenges in the environmental NGO scene across the region, and how can we learn from their experiences? Where do we—in the trans-disciplinary media arts and cultural scene—find the resources and finances to support networking? Should the funding instruments support this from the top-down? Can we or will we have to raise grassroots support from the bottom-up? If so, who would be good partners and collaborators?
In answer to the above questions, I argue that it is necessary to include—beyond experimental art, design and technology, individuals and various organisations—cross-sectoral collaborations with the environmental NGO scene, including institutional scientific research, cultural associations and activist groups, schools and educational/participatory science groups. An example from the latter sector from outside the cultural scene is ДРУЗЬЯ БАЛТИКИ (Friends of the Baltic), who have organised the Baltic Sea Ambassadors project that compiled and presented ecological knowledge about the Baltic Sea and related sustainable practices, in schools around the region (Senova, 2011).
Reflecting upon our friendships, partnerships and collaborations that have developed over the years of Pixelache Helsinki, as well as upon attempts to collaborate beyond the art and cultural field(s), I argue that from an ecogeographic perspective we should be engaging with our human and non-human peers with whom we share the most fundamental Commons. In other words, develop appropriate networks among those who rely upon and live with the same constraints and affordances. Acknowledging the work of Gulf of Finland environmental networks and cooperation, what is absolutely shared and shared in common, despite the variable cultures, languages and political-state differences, is the Eastern Baltic sea, its extended hydrosphere and water-drainage basin on surrounding land areas, and other related environmental, atmospheric systems; essentially the watershed of the Gulf of Finland. In relation to this network, social and economic sustainability of practice can also be considered. The increasingly urgent and fundamental challenge in future regional cultural productions, collaborations and conflicts will be to take these commonalities into account as the basis for cooperation, as the basis for strengthening the appropriate networking vision of ecogeographic cultural community.
Much gratitude goes to my peers at Pixelache Helsinki in helping to test the practice of appropriate networking with me between 2011-2014, and especially to Richard Thompson Coon for challenging me with his pioneering work in the late and post-Soviet socio-political environment to develop the ‘Gulf of Finland Community’ concept, which was still an urgent vision that he could share a decade or so later in the early 2010s. In addition to acknowledging the influence of Molly Scott Cato’s vision of Green Economics, I add the shared work developing pedagogy titled ‘Green Economics and Management’ undertaken by Olga Mashkina and myself at Aalto University School of Economics Mikkeli Campus, from January 24 to February 11 2011, which contributed to shaping the combination of perspectives presented here.
1 See: European Commission (1992-). The Helsinki Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area. Webpage. Accessible from http://ec.europa.eu/environment/marine/international-cooperation/regional-sea-conventions/helcom/. Also see: The Union of Baltic Cities (n.a.). Webpage. Accessible from http://www.ubc.net
2 Disclaimer: This author was also a contributor to the related research as an interviewee, and was a presenter at the Nordic Council’s seminar in Copenhagen in which Cultura21 Nordic presented the research commission report on April 29, 2013. Further information is accessible from http://www.norden.org/en/news-and-events/news/culture-will-play-key-role-in-development-of-the-baltic-sea-region
3 ‘Natureculture’ is an anthropological term which contests that there is a dichotomous relation between Nature and Culture, recognising continual living and biotic relationships between both, and conceptually counters the alienation of Man and Nature. Further reading on this alienation can be found in El-Kamel Bakari (2004).
4 In particular the ‘MIM goes sustainable’ project in Tallinn between 2009-2011 (accessible from http://mimproject.org) and RIXC Centre for New Media Culture’s ‘Renewable Network‘ project also from 2009 ongoing, accessible from http://renewable.rixc.lv
5 RIXC Centre for New Media Culture. (2011). ‘Techno-ecologies’ Conference. Art+Communications Festival. 4-5.11.2011. Riga. Accessible from http://rixc.lv/11/en/conference.info.html
6 Note there are many similarities in this concept to what Peter Berg in collaboration with Raymond Dasmann in the early 1970s described as “Bioregionalism” (Berg, 2001).
Aidt, M. (2013). Cultura21: How can culture lead transformations. Blogpost. Culturefutures.org, June 16. Accessible from http://culturefutures.org/2013/06/16/cultura21-how-can-culture-lead-transformations.
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