The non-profit art organisation Checkpoint Helsinki is in the process of reinventing itself as Publics under a new artistic director and programme manager duo. Artistic director Paul O’Neill and programme manager Eliisa Suvanto both began their work last September, and the new identity, both organizational and visual, was launched in December together with the opening of a new permanent space in Helsinki.
Checkpoint Helsinki began its life as a spontaneous collective movement within the Helsinki art world more than five years ago, in 2012. The immediate catalyst was the Helsinki authorities’ unrestrained advocacy for a Guggenheim Foundation franchise museum to be designed and built in Helsinki in order to attract cultural tourism. Kunstkritikk has reported on the various stages of the Helsinki Guggenheim plan, including the architectural competition for a museum to be built on the Helsinki waterfront, won by the Paris-based Moreau Kusunoki Architectes in 2015, as well as the final refusal of the city council to accept the plan in 2016.
Different from the Guggenheim franchising plan, the aim of the Checkpoint movement was to connect the Helsinki art scene internationally, to invite artists and curators to work in Helsinki and to commission and produce ambitious new works. The first project realized by Checkpoint Helsinki was Ahmet Ögut’s reversal of Ray Bradbury’s classic novel Fahrenheit 451 in 2013. In Ögut’s reappropriation, Fahrenheit 451: Reprinted, firemen circulated the city and printed out classic banned books from a list compiled by the artist in collaboration with researchers, and also made home deliveries of the books.
If Checkpoint Helsinki’s name had a local timbre to it, underlining Helsinki’s geographical location and historical identity as situated between the east and the west, the name Publics no longer bears these cultural or geographical connotations. Nevertheless, in the new mission statement, Publics promises to continue to invite dialogue between local, regional and international art.
Publics defines itself as a curatorial agency and characterizes its activities as discursive. The plural form of the new name underlines the agency’s view that no single or unitary public exists, but always already multiple publics.
The launch event was carefully designed to convey the idea and ethos of multiple publics. It attracted a crowd of artists, curators and art students to listen to talks by Adelaide Bannerman, James Hoff and Kathrin Böhm discussing topics such as choreographies of movement in public space, the politics of 1960s and 70s artist’s books – such as Allan Kaprow’s Assemblage, Environments and Happenings (1966) and Fluxus calendars – and their potential relevance today, or using cycles of production and economic circuits as a new form of commons in the service of creating a sense of shared activity. The event continued in the form of a party with performances and screenings in the evening.
Paul O’Neill is known as a prolific author and theorist of current curatorial thinking and research, with a stated interest in participatory and durational practices. He has written extensively on participatory practices, the genealogy of institutional critique and relational art and their more recent transformations.
An anthology titled How Institutions Think? Between Contemporary Art and Curatorial Discourse, edited by O’Neill together with Lucy Steeds and Mick Wilson, was launched on the opening day of Publics.
The anthology focuses on the role of institutions and the ways in which our thinking is dependent on and perhaps conditioned by the forms institutions take. If our thinking is “implicated, or even confined by our experience of institutions”, as the editors claim in the preface, then perhaps the task is not only to change the institutions themselves, but first to try to find out exactly how institutional conditioning governs our ways of understanding what is possible.
How Institutions Think? tackles this question from a diversity of perspectives, both culturally and geographically, and gives as its credo “agnostic pluralism as a way of learning from each other”.
In the anthology, the notion of thinking styles and thinking collectives is further elaborated so as to point out the social embeddedness of both artistic and curatorial practices. It also suggests that discursive acts and curatorial reframings may have an actual effect in the social world. By changing orientation toward social time and durational projects, Publics has already transformed the thinking style of Checkpoint Helsinki and reinstituted its grassroots legacy.