Nature as a Stage

Anna-Mari Laulumaa

The characteristic of performing arts is that it lives in the moment, or really for a moment — and disappears. Like in human life, it is an intended or miraculous coincidence, but always only temporary. In the age of digitalization, the performing arts remind us of the basic nature of life: it is limited despite humanity’s efforts to postpone death. We eventually live on earth in the memories of others and in the documents we leave behind. This is also the case for the performing arts. It lives on as an experience and in the photos and video clips taken of it. 

I look at the photos and videos of the past performance in a gentle wonder: How in the world did it become just that? And how great it was. And I feel some sort of beautiful sadness. The performance never happens again. 

The sadness goes away through the mind’s automatic balancing system. Fun moments from the rehearsals come back to my mind. I suddenly see a flash from the flamenco studio backyard, where we tested the hands around the trees. I look at the videos taken from the rehearsals as looking at my own child’s first steps. In it, the scene takes its first steps, then begins to walk, and soon it runs. 

Marja Kemppainen in the Sacred Place? -performance in August 2020. Photo: Marko Poolamets.

The next glimpse is from rehearsals where we were testing the walking lines with Joel Linna and Markus Kinnunen in the swamp. It poured rain and water spilled from my neck to my back despite the hood. There’s not much more in the video than the unbridled crackling of the rain. After two hours of training, I was quite wet. As we left, Joel said with a smile, ”Oh, this is sooo nice!” There was not a splash of sarcasm in the sentence. That was quite true and illustrates the attitude of both Joel and  Markus. That sentence also sums up the deepest nature of the whole project. They felt joyous despite of walking and singing  in the swamp in the rain, a huge stone on the shoulders. Roughness and true challenging of ourselves were part of the enjoyment. 

Joel Linna (on the left) and Markus Kinnunen in the Sacred Place? -performance in 2020. Photo: Marko Poolamets.

The goal of this performance was twofold from the beginning. It had to be good art as well as part of the research. The theory of the relationship with nature was discussed during the spring with Kaisa and Riikka during the planning stages and well before the intensive implementation phase of the summer. Working together in person was not possible due to covid so we talked a lot on the phone. The two of us discussed and reflected, sometimes for hours, reflecting on our own relationship with nature and theory. Thoughts revolved wildly from place-specificness through the old Finnish legends to nature conservation, from the meanings of words through experientialism to our borders. This grinding phase was absolutely crucial. In it, the subconscious accumulated material for processing. 

The performance thus had two aims; to be an independent artwork and produce information about the relationship with nature for the research. In the project application, it was defined as follows: ”The aim is to create a work in which the different forms of the relationship with nature and their  multileveled complexities challenge viewers to explore their own experience and become aware of their thinking and beliefs.” 

An independent artwork is easier to accomplish, but how is the performance built into the research? The answer is: by doing. Performing arts always require concrete deeds. We have to get to work and take action. But there is no rushing to do until you have addressed the theme on a personal level as well. That’s how I also think about good acting. The actor treats the theme in his mind so that the “mind desktop” is as clean as possible to function in the use of the character himself. In director work and especially in building a site-specific performance, it is much the same as in the process of writing and directing a performance. In both, my own perception and the way I make art is repeated in this very kind of personal immersion process that eventually gives rise to the work. Working on a personal issue means going through the slightly dull process of revealing your own relationship with nature to yourself. Maybe not completely, but more than before. The sad side of introspection is that you can’t find mere treasures inside

There were two essential moments in looking at my own relationship with nature. The first was my exaggeration at the bottom of the Hitonhauta as I tossed and quickly flashed the thought: “Why do these stones have to be here! This is annoying.” That thought was over a hundredth of a second, but I got it caught up like a passing bird. I looked at it in amazement. What on earth do I mean when I get annoyed by rocks on the ground? This is what it is about reflection and introspection: part of one’s own mind observes the experiential mind. 

I’m thinking about the nature of the relationship as being somehow ”good”. I run and ski in the forests and I am very sensitive to many things. I spare meadow flowers in my backyard and mourn every tree felled from the yard. But is that surface just a delusion? Have I built myself an identity and a story of myself as some kind of natural person? Am I, after all, an urban, modern person for whom walking on a rock is annoying? Is it really the case that a 300-meter quarry already makes me miss a smoother and, in fact, man-made route? And of course there is nothing wrong with that longing. Man, like other animals, has built a functional environment for himself. But still. My thoughts kept confusing me.  

Why did the rocks of the gorge start to irritate even though I specifically wanted to make a show here? 

Another important moment was when I realized I wouldn’t dare to sleep in Hitonhauta for a night alone. At first I definitely wanted to experience the gorge alone one night. But my courage waned as the summer came closer. Sleeping in the gorge alone was no longer a fun idea. I realized that I had started to ran faster toward my car,  as the twilight descended and bears began to appear on the blackened tree trunks. I realized that in nature I was not as at home as I had imagined. What should you think about it? Am I afraid of nature? What am I afraid of? And why? What are my instincts, my inheritance, my pastimes and what have I learned? Is my relationship with nature right or wrong? Good or bad? One of my old friends, who was considering coming to see the performance asked quite seriously: ”So can I come to see the performance even if my relationship with nature is kind of bad?” He did not eventually come even though I had said quite honestly, that I am interested in all kinds of relationships with nature. That exploring the relationship is truly inspiring and wonderful. Our relationship with nature is never as simple as good or bad.

The relationship with nature is like an underwater world, into which I dived and realized that there is more there than I could have ever imagined.

The relationship with nature began to appear to me as quite multidimensional, contradictory, and layered. The multidimensional and layered approach began to take shape as a performance: although each scene was built from a particular chosen location, I wanted enough levels and tones for each image. Instead of a flavor of a thin juice, I thought of the scenes as a multi-layered cognac or a good wine with multiple flavors on top of each other: that the scene opens layer by layer for each in its own way. Since the audience would be asked about the relationship with nature after the performance, I wanted the scenes to excite the audience to talk about their contradictions as well: to take an interest in the layering and surprise of the relationship with nature itself. The “correct answer expected by the teacher” familiar from the school had to be avoided by all means. I didn’t even have this one right answer, because exploring the relationship with nature suddenly felt the same as exploring other relationships. They are not inconsistent or clear. Sometimes I think there is something about our mother relationship in our relationship with nature. And maybe psychoanalysts think so? Among psychodrama practitioners, we have had the saying that everyone in their dramas eventually returns to think about their own motherhood at the kitchen table. Is the relationship with nature in the end a version of the mother-child relationship as well?

Audience walked the nature path of Hitonhauta as part of the Sacred Place? -performance in summer 2020. Photo: Marko Poolamets.

There were various pieces of the theory and reflections in the scenes of the performance. The images of national romance, the collapses of Linkola, industrialization and technological development, the utilization of nature, our existence, spirituality, our relationship to death, lifeless nature and the perspective of history, the struggle with nature and the security and comfort of nature. In the performance, the sad and depressed Linkola figure cries for the destruction of nature against the rot and the men are chanting carrying heavy stones on their shoulders in the swamp. Elsewhere, the water touches the hand incredibly powerfully as we sit on the ground and feel nature all around us, the hands of flamenco dancers touching the surface of the trees tenderly. The lumberjack swings at the top of the trees, reminding of human skills, abilities and responsibilities. The lumberjack is above us, is man there or in what relation to the rest of the living and inanimate? In the gorge a woman turns towards us slowly like the circle of life. The ice melts on the performers hands in a beautiful rockfield from the ice age. The time perspective opens from the ice age to the present moment and to the melting glaciers at the same time.

The entire performance route can also be seen in a picture of life or crisis. Partly unconsciously, I quite frantically wanted a show just for Hitonhauta and its difficult environment. Sufficiently challenging terrain, the sweat of the experience, the body, and bringing the audience far enough away from the nearest burger place seemed important for exploring the relationship with nature. When studying the relationship with nature, it is not just talked about, but it is experienced and experienced as thoroughly as it can now be done without the loss of the public. The performance says something about my own relationship with nature, where nature is harsh and powerful and ultimately never under human control.

The role of people in the face of the greatness of nature became quite clear on this stage. The sets were enormous. 

The presentation, with its rides, eventually lasted more than three hours and, for those who participated in the study, more than four hours. As I transported the audience to the performances, I found myself telling the groups at the beginning like this: “Don’t worry at that worst point, the hardest quarry is just a hundred yards and then it makes it easier”. If the performance were a metaphor for a crisis or an awkward point in life, I would act differently than what happens in life. In the most awkward crises of life, it would be wonderful to hear those words: “One more hundred meters and then ease. Certainly.” 

Thus, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the goal of relief has shifted many times. Maybe we’ll cope better when we put our hopes in a place where it’s easier. I am writing this in January 2021 and visited the ”Damn Tomb”; Hitonhauta, or Devil’s Grave, yesterday. In winter, when the snow covers the rocky areas, the passage is easier than in summer. The path is leveled. Nature makes it happen.

The role of art and nature

Anna-Mari Laulumaa

When we combine art and science, we presumably collide with the challenging questions about the concept of knowledge and language. Research is often called a creative process, but at the end of the day, it will be written in words. Any scientific thesis is written in words, and in the world of research, there are strict matters of form that should be followed when reporting. The Doctoral Thesis cannot be danced, at least not fully.

In the scientific process, the art can play many roles. It can be the object of research, when we study e.g. paintings from behind centuries or millenniums. Research on art seems to be as old as art itself. During the last few years, the role of art as a mere object of research has changed. The art has wanted to rise or it has been raised at the same level with research. At the frontiers, there is quite a tumult. Naturally, the issue has its problems. Is art or science going to lose its characteristics?

Will the result of combining art and science be something that is neither art, neither science anymore?

In art, we have also other kinds of knowing and expressing than just carefully outlined words. The body language, speechless messages, place and stage, and the meanings they imply. The reactions in the body of the spectator and the one who experiences. The unconscious layers of the mind. Chaotic, dreamlike sensations and thoughts, sentiments and experiences, all mixing together. There is not necessarily a one whole word in the flow of memories, emotions and ideas. Voices, smells or a melody can be bursting.

The role of art in the processes combining science and art is often subordinate to science. The scientific results can be ”colored” or ”popularized” by the means of art. The art has been seen as subordinate to science. Sometimes art is some kind of a small additional part in a greater scientific project. This tendency enters often into the project budgets: the share of art is small. During the centuries, the relationship between art and science has been varying. During the last couple of decades, they have come closer to each other and possibly warmed up a little.

On the path towards Hitonhauta. Photo: Agata Anttonen.

In “Pyhä paikka”, or “Holy place” project, our genuine intention was to look for balance or at least equality between art and science. The performance that will be constructed in August 2020 has as important role as the research. The performance must work as an independent piece of art, because it is a part of the program of Jyväskylän Kesä -summer festival. As an independent piece of art, it has to fulfil the criteria of good art in the same way as the research articles must fulfil the quality criteria of a scientific study.

The role of the performance is also to produce knowledge in many ways. The question is: what kinds of knowledge? The creative process itself is already a compilation of experience originating from various different sources and processing knowledge in a way that often is quite subconscious. The performers, who will join our group following their own routes, process their relationship to the nature as they prepare and act in the performance, and each member of the audience receives the performance in their own way.

One particular characteristic of a site-specific performance is its linkage to the surrounding community and society. The performance is not made under cover of the theatre building, but ”right there”. As a result, several fundamental demands upon setting the place follow. The first is to respect the history and culture of the existing site and related communities. This would come easier to mind if you were planning a performance at Macchu Picchu, but the same principle works fine for all site-specific performances. The artist is – hopefully – not riding to exploit the place with a colonial attitude, leaving behind an eternally destroyed culture or community. Secondly, in a site-specific performance the meaning of the place itself is greater than in a show built in a black box.

The place is dictating its conditions and the site is not just a passive scene, but also a living part of the performance. It is a character.

I remember sometimes saying about the Hitonhauta performance that nature is very powerfully present in this performance, by its difficult terrain and also the weather. Now we cannot choose the weather, and the terrain is what it is. This winter, the nature brought in one new, unwritten main character. The corona virus came to tell the story of the relationship between a human being and the nature in a way we could never have told it by ourselves.

I am writing this text in April 2020, and at this moment I hope that we can realize the performance in a small-scale in August. Corona became a part of our performance, yet I hope it will not play solo, and we people can nevertheless take part in it.

Nature inspires the art performance that will be conducted at Hitonhauta in August 2020. Photo: Agata Anttonen.

The broken duckboards of Hitonhauta

Anna-Mari Laulumaa

In August 2019, Kaisa asked me if I was interested in participating in an art & science project. We had just finished a site-specific performance in Patarei prison, Tallinn, Estonia, and the idea felt refreshing after the rough themes we had dealt with there. Oh, site-specific performance about the human–nature relationship… Wouldn’t it be wonderful? Back to the nature! After the performances adapted to the stony prison buildings I could see myself lying on the moss and wandering in the nature looking for the right place for each scene.

The first cell of the performance is usually created in a second. I chose Hitonhauta in Valkola, Laukaa, for the site before I even myself knew why it is so suitable for this project. The choice has been right, but not an easy one. Hitonhauta is an optimal place to study the Finnish nature relationship. It is an impressive gorge near the city of Jyväskylä and easy to reach by car. But the easiness ends there. When you try to crawl to the gorge, you find that it is not very accessible, some curses enter your mind and the name of the place, “Devil’s grave”, starts to make perfect sense.

Hitonhauta is not an easily accessible site. One needs to climb over tree trunks and rocks while descending to the steep gorge. Photo: Kaisa Raatikainen.

Nature is not just a mother’s warm lap, but a harsh and hard, even demanding being.

Hitonhauta is a strong name – Devil’s Grave – and it has actually been a grave, at least for the moose that were hunted by driving them down there at the ancient times. The word ”hitto” or actually the word ”hiisi” means a holy place in the Mari culture. The Maris are a small language group living in Russia, linguistically related to Finnish language. But when the Christian church came to Finland, the former word related to holy places, “hiisi”, was changed to mean something bad. The old belief systems were transformed by changing the meanings of the words and places. The history is present at Hitonhauta also in many other ways. During the time of so-called Big Hatred, when Russia was attacking Finland in the 18th century, the gorge was a hiding place for the local people. And when you look at the kettle holes of Hitonhauta’s surroundings, you know that those rocks have been there at the same place for 11,000 years, since the last Ice Age.

Hitonhauta belongs to a nature conservation area, partly owned by a private person and partly by the state. The former is governed by the ELY Centre for Central Finland, and the latter by Parks & Wildlife Finland within the Metsähallitus organization. The gorge itself is protected, as are the plants growing there. The regulations forbid using the site as a venue of any events. Therefore, Hitonhauta is not a national park nor a target for trekking, but literally a protected area. Anyhow, it is such an interesting and magical place that it attracts a growing number of visitors.

To protect the plants, Hitonhauta would need duckboards on which the visitors could walk. And the duckboards need to be maintained and repaired.

Yet, Parks & Wildlife Finland and the regional ELY Centre have no funds for managing all conservation areas and the infrastructure within them. The state’s resources are mostly spent on national parks. When we planned our project, we were thinking that we could build the duckboards, and the wooden structures could be left at Hitonhauta as a sign of our gratitude for getting the permission to conduct our project there. But this was found to be impossible. When there’s no money earmarked for repairing the duckboards in the future, it may happen that the government has to pay the possible damages caused by the broken duckboards.

The conservation decision is only a starting point of a process. An area can be protected, but there is not necessarily enough funds earmarked for building and maintaining the protective infrastructure such as walking routes. The conservation decision excludes the utilization of the area for forestry, but the public right of access, “right to roam” or “everyman’s right”, as it is often called in the Nordic countries, can only be restricted by a very special protective decision. Even then, we would not have the economic resources to fence off the area, but the results of the attempt to close a certain site depended on the good will of the citizens – the everymen.

Hitonhauta illuminates the strained field of nature conservation in a way that I could never have imagined beforehand.

Thus, Hitonhauta has turned out to be an excellent place also from the research perspective. The landowners, local people, tourists, businesses, and conservationists may have extremely contradictory visions about the utilization of the site and its surroundings. Similar tensions can be sensed in the conversations related to other conservation sites, for example at the Pallastunturi, where an economic pressure to build on the fjell is debated. Or the plans to build a mine in Hannukainen, near Ylläs. Situations and sceneries may change and vary, but tension and contradictions remain invariable. From the point of constructing a performance, the challenging atmosphere feels sometimes overwhelming. If I have learned something so far, it goes like this: whether it concerns nature conservation or anything else, it would be best just to sit down and have a talk with people who look at the subject of discussion differently or from a different point of view. It is very healthy to expose one’s own point of view and its scale to rethinking, and that can be achieved through an open-minded, true discussion among people. In a true discussion, a common language may be found, words that the other one can comprehend.

The Hitonhauta gorge was protected in the mid-1980s. Old signs that mark the border of the conservation area can still be found. Photo: Kaisa Raatikainen.