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by Jan Sandberg

Encounter with Finnish Artist and Curator Ritva Kovalainen

I met Ritva Kovalainen, the curator of Festival Norpas, in her atelier outside Kimito, Finland, in November 2018, to gain insight into the challenges of organising a multi-art festival in and for a working-class community. Norpas describes itself as “[...] made of concerts, silent films accompanied by live music, workshops, installations, photo and art exhibitions, interviews and lectures with artists, dance, performance art, theatre, circus—all these colliding in unexpected ways.”

In conducting this interview, I was hoping to get the opportunity to ask about the process leading up to the foundation of the festival in 2012. It happened to be at the moment when the residents of Dalsbruk, where the Festival Norpas is established, woke up to the devastating news of the sudden bankruptcy of the steel mill FN-Steel[1]—the main employer in the region. Did Festival Norpas, despite the difficult conditions prevailing in the community at the time of its inauguration, manage nonetheless to install a sense of hope for the future? The festival, a self-proclaimed odd-bird and peripheral landmark in the Finnish art world, is currently in its eighth edition and seems to have no plans of slowing down.

Jan Sandberg: I would like to start by asking about the history of the Festival Norpas. How did it start? It would also be interesting to hear about the team behind it. You are acting as the curator, but there are additional members behind the organisation of the festival?

Ritva Kovalainen: Festival Norpas was founded by Matias Kauppi and me. Matias was an organiser of the event’s predecessor, the Festival Surpas[2] in Spain. Festival Surpas was located in a small town called Portbou; the festival came to an end because of financial difficulties. So, I lived here, and he lived in Barcelona, and we started to form the idea that maybe Dalsbruk could be a good location for a continuation of the festival in some form or other. It seemed to be an attractive alternative, as opposed to doing it in a larger city—that was something we had no interest in pursuing. Large cities already have a plethora of activities and festivals—we figured that here we have the chance to do something more intimate, more in line with our interests, and through our own network maybe bring forth what could be an artistic experience—in both the width and depth of a festival. As things grew, so did we in size—Ville Laitinen joined us as executive manager a couple of years later. We now have approximately one hundred volunteers for the festival; in the latter years, we even managed to pay salaries for the managers.

Ritva Kovalainen and guest Oriol Hernando (ES). Dalsbruk, 2016.Courtesy of Festival Norpas

JS: Ok, so there is a direct continuation of the Festival Surpas and Festival Norpas in Finland?

RK: Yes, I displayed a selection of my works at the Surpas Festival. I was asked to join by Matias. He was there bridging Finnish and Spanish culture—networking, so to say. We became better acquainted during my exhibition there, so this is where we share the Festival Surpas connection. In our opinion, it was an extraordinary festival, and it was the spark that ignited the future formation of the Festival Norpas—it all came from that place after Festival Surpas went bankrupt.

Artistic manager Matias Kauppi Festival Norpas. Dalsbruk, 2016. Courtesy of Festival Norpas

JS: How did the closing of the steel mill in Dalsbruk affect the formation of the festival—or did it influence its formation at all? It all happened the year of its formation, if memory serves me.

RK: The closing of the steel mill did actually happen sometime before the founding of Festival Norpas, but it didn’t affect, or contribute directly, to our activities. For example, all our events were either in spaces that were assigned specifically to cultural activities or were already empty buildings before the closing. But, of course, the closing of the steel mill was a very tragic event, and the local communities were affected. It was indeed tragic. Questions that did arise during that time centred on what could possibly be done to regain positive thinking again and reintroduce a belief in the future even if the situation was precarious. Focusing on tourism and culture was in part seen as a solution to this problem.

JS: We have been focusing on what constitutes community in our course at the ZHdK Curation department. How has Festival Norpas been received on the local level?
RK: It was slow in the first years. This Festival Norpas and its organisers are considered to be somewhat odd birds here in this region. We, the organisers, are mainly people who moved here. I mean, I lived here for over twenty years—but this doesn't make the festival “local” to local residents here. Dalsbruk is its own community where we are simply acting as organisers. Over the years, the prejudice has, of course, slowly fizzled away. They see we bring people—customers for businesses, restaurants, accommodations. What’s more, we offer an event, and everything that goes along with that, so the municipality considers it good PR for them, something that brings them out into the world. So, I’d say we achieved [a community] in some sense, insofar as the community recognises that there is something positive here, and that we can cooperate with the local actors in a positive way. Among the local residents, we have certain people interested in art who participate actively—but we also have those who do not have slightest interest at all in art or culture, or those who have their own set of beliefs or fixation on tradition. Connecting with these groups is more difficult. We have tried each year to present a project where we could do something together, or just something for the sake of the community. We have tried to reach out.

JS: So there is a conscious strategy to include groups in the festival?
RK: Yes, definitely. For example, one year we had this art workshop for the local women of Dalsbruk with over twenty people attending. After the workshop ended, the group stayed together; they still gather as a group, and over the years have contributed their works to Festival Norpas. We also had a project, a collaboration with the elderly residents—people over eighty in on Kimito Island. In was documentation through interviews and photography of their lives. The final result was presented as an exhibition and book publication. It was received positively in the community.

Ayaa Sheik Jalal and artwork I Love Aleppo Women’s Workshop Kimito Island (VaSaMu). Dalsbruk, 2016. Courtesy of Festival Norpas

Kirsi-Marja Sirén, Humble Luck. Part of exhibition. Dalsbruk, 2017. Photo: Anna Kuokkanen. Courtesy of Festival Norpas

Jouko Ollikainen Reconnection at Festival Norpas. Dalsbruk, 2014. Photo: Niilo Rinne. Courtesy of Festival Norpas

Screening of Forest Talk film. Dalsbruk, 2016. Courtesy of Festival Norpas

JS: On the topic of centre vs. periphery, how do you relate to a possible existence on the periphery outside of a perceived centre? For example, when it comes to institutions, where what art is can be dictated or established.

RK: Well, it is an important question as we don’t want the festival to follow or to be associated with any certain genres or styles of art. We prefer it to be open. And lately, the Finnish art movement, in my opinion, has been excluding a lot of art, and only promoting this one trend here, or one specific artist there, who are then almost slavishly worshiped. This excludes a lot of art because it might not be easily marketed, or might not be for sale, or is just not easy to promote. This excluded art can, in fact, be good art, and come from a true place—driven by the artist’s own passion. We want to bring forth these artists that are on the peripheries.
JS: Would you like, through your practice, to comment on institutions, and their approach?
RK: I don’t know how to reply to that. I guess I could say this: diversity is needed. This is good and it’s an energy that pushes things forward. But I wouldn’t say it stands as my statement per se. It’s more an observation. It’s something I noticed in the Finnish Art movement. Maybe it’s part of something broader we do in Finland in general: we always go together as a group in the same direction.

JS: Do you have something within the festival arrangements that resemble a center/periphery axiom. Maybe something you prioritize more or try to focus differently? Age, gender, or perhaps something else?

RK: The programme is basically made for everyone. The festival is maybe in that sense different [from others] because the audience comes from all generations—we have young children, and ninety- or eighty-year-olds attending, lots of people in their twenties and thirties, too. The organisers belong to various different generations, and maybe this spills over into the programme? It is, in part, a conscious decision to not promote the boundaries—age restrictions, gender differentiations—these are hurdles that are possible to overcome. We are happy to see the interactions between different people of all ages. On the question concerning gender, we do not prioritize one gender over the other. The festival has been more about equality. But we have strong opinions on the environment: both Ville and I, and Kristiina, are environmental activists. This is clearly present in the festival. We have our views that are centred on a relationship to nature, and this is something we promote. We take environmental issues seriously. As to other possible priorities, what sort of art we choose is limited to our finite financial resources and the spaces we have available. We can’t build big stages—so we do a lot in the old buildings—in nature and the environment of the village—to avoid any extra technical solutions needed for production.

JS: Essentially, you try to use what is available?

RK: Yes, we build and equip performative areas and create technical solutions according to our needs, but we try to do it modestly.

JS: Have you figured out any creative solutions that can circumvent the problem of limited constructions for the festival?

RK: Each year on Sundays we have had an event set in nature that has been very positively received. We take the audience for a hike, and nature in a way acts as a stage. One specific example that comes to mind was set in Söderlångvik, where the audience hiked along the seashore to reach a final performance—a concert on the rocky coastal hillside—it was really impressive scenery with the sea as a backdrop. We’ve noticed that nature adds something to art. It brings something powerful to it. An element that feels larger than life.
JS: So, in a sense, nature is used as a stage for the festival?
RK: It has been used for one day, yes. On Sundays.

JS: To what degree is the community involved—you touched on the subject earlier. What is community for the Festival Norpas?

RK: Community is another aspect of arranging the festival, yes. Those who help organise the festival tend to form their own community, and those who participate as performers or artists form a separate community to their own liking. What we realised over time is that to become part of a community you need to contribute to it in some way—doing things together forms a community. If you just come into an existing community as a passive spectator—you won’t become part of the community.

JS: How do you communicate to your public, and is there something you highlight when you try to reach an audience? Maybe you can tell me something about the channels you use, and the solutions surrounding them?

RK: That is in a way a difficult question—how to communicate and reach people—because sometimes we feel we’ve been thorough with regard to spreading the word here, but we get the “I didn’t know! I never heard about it!” response when meeting new members of the general public in the area. Today, there’s so much information everywhere that we are constantly trying to figure out how to push through the noise. We do not have the budget to do any large-scale advertising, and sometimes even posting in newspapers can cost a lot, so we’ve mostly relied on using social media and posters.

Festival crowd. Photo: Pekka Turunen. Dalsbruk, 2014. Courtesy of Festival Norpas.

BlueSkyWhite at Festival Norpas, part of project with Ministry of Education and Culture & the Finnish Institute in St. Petersburg. Dalsbruk, 2018. Courtesy of Festival Norpas

Za! Improvisational workshop performance at the old cast-iron foundry. Dalsbruk, 2017. Courtesy of Festival Norpas

JS: Another follow-up question came to mind: have you collaborated with any larger institutions?
RK: We have, for example, done collaborations with the Festival of Political Photography and the Museum for Rituals and the local Aurinkoinen Tulevaisuus here. We’ve collaborated with Metropolia—the University of Applied Sciences in Helsinki. But not really any larger art institutions in the traditional sense.

JS: Not the Finnish Museum of Photography?

RK: Well, the Festival of Political Photography is part of the Finnish Museum of Photography. We’ve exhibited works from the Festival of Political Photography at Festival Norpas. We are, of course, constantly in search of new collaborators, but we think smaller actors are a better fit for us. Although at the moment we actually happen have an ongoing “Russia” project with the Ministry of Education and Culture, and the Finnish Institute in St. Petersburg, that’s in its second year. The goal has been to present Russian artists in Finland and, vice versa, Finnish artists in Russia.
JS: Was the location for Festival Norpas a conscious decision?
RK: I’d say in part it‘s because we live here, and Dalsbruk is the only possible location for organising a cultural event like Festival Norpas on Kimito Island. The place has all the resources needed and an attractive environment. It’s a combination of several things: nature, a rich history, accommodation possibilities, and services. It has everything that we need.
JS: You touched on the following question earlier—Would you like to share some insights into the financial aspects of the festival? Do you have a strategy for funding?
RK: At the moment, roughly sixty percent of our budget comes from financial aid or funds. Next year is actually the eighth time we have organised the festival, and our budget has quadrupled since the early days. The biggest donors that are supporting us at the moment are the Arts Promoting Centre Finland/Taike, and the Ministry of Education and Culture. The latter is in connection to our Russia project. We get additional support from the Municipality of Kimitoön and Svenska Kulturfonden—they are at the moment the most significant financial donors.  

JS: What is in store for the future of Festival Norpas?

RK: The future is on a year to year basis. I, myself, have the idea of doing ten years in total. A tenth Festival Norpas must be arranged. If something was to happen to this group—if someone gets a better offer from somewhere else [laughs]—then we seriously would need to consider how to proceed. But this is hard to imagine at the moment. 

Artist with crowd at old cast-iron foundry. Dalsbruk, 2016. Courtesy of Festival Norpas

Nature as stage: Acrobatic peformance, Metsä—the forest project. Dalsbruk, 2017. Photo: Heidi Kuovo. Courtesy of Festival Norpas.

Audience in Nature. Photo: Heidi Kouvo. Dalsbruk, 2017. Courtesy of Festival Norpas.

Ritva Kovalainen is an artistic photographer/professor and activist, whose work explores the relationship between man and nature, including the cultural significance of forests and trees, Finnish neopaganism, Shintoism, and environmental impacts of forestry. Throughout her long career, she has frequently exhibited her works domestically in Finland and abroad, including Centro De Arte Alcobendas (Madrid), The Light Factory (Charlotte, NC), among other venues. She has published several books, including Tree People with fellow photographer Sanni Seppo, which has been translated into English and Japanese. After an exhibition in Spain, Ritva Kovalainen decided, together with Matias Kauppi, to found ‘Festival Norpas’ in Dalsbruk, where she has acted as curator since its creation in 2012.

Jan Sandberg is a CAS Curating student at ZHdK and previous co-curator of a photographic festival in Finland. His studies focus on visual communication, photography and researching visual identities of cultural institutions. In his spare time, he likes to collect posters and document urban landscapes through photographs.

[1] Salon Seudun Sanomat, “Steel executives accused of hiding assets before bankruptcy,” Yle, May 17, 2017, accessed  Nov. 1, 2018, http://yle.fi/uutiset/osasto/news/steel_executives_accused_of_hiding_assets_before_bankruptcy/9617883.

[2] “Festival Surpas,” Gentnormal, accessed February 15, 2019, http://www.gentnormal.com/2010/08/festival-surpas.html.

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Issue 41

Centres⁄Peripheries – Complex Constellations

by Ronald Kolb, Camille Regli, Dorothee Richter

by Heike Biechteler

by Ella Krivanek

by Giovanna Bragaglia

by Francesca Ceccherini and Noriko Yamakoshi

by Paola Granati & Ronny Koren

by Domenico Ermanno Roberti