Finlandia On The Rocks: A Trip to the 2004 Avanto Helsinki Media Art Festival
"Finland’s fucking burning, baby" astutely observed Byron Coley and Thurston Moore in a recent issue of Arthur magazine. That’s still an understatement, but it couldn’t have been timelier; a visit to November’s Avanto Helsinki Media Art Festival – that country’s vital expo of outward-bound musical and visual talent – affirms that this unassuming nation of just over 5 million people hosts one of the most prolific, unselfconscious and audacious left-of-center cultural scenes in the world.
It’s worth mentioning that icy Finland has been "fucking burning" for a while – the rest of the planet just never bothered to notice. Explicit sensibilities connect the chronological dots in a lineage spawned by ’60s vanguard forefathers Erkki Kurenniemi, The Sperm and M.A. Numminen ja Sähkökvartetti, as well as by ’70s post-hippie progsters Haikara, Wigwam and Mummi Kutoo. The trajectory widens in the '80s to encompass rabid hardcore and postpunk pioneers Terveet Kädet, Sielun Veljet and KTMK alongside more abstract mutations a la Mana Mana, Motelli Skronkle and Radiopuhelimet. By the ’90s, stylistically omnivorous indie-noise champs like Circle, Keuhkot, Sweetheart and Worms were carrying the torch, as were neo-electronic gurus Pan Sonic, Anton Nikkilä and the Vacuum Cleaners.
At present, this deep-rooted underground tradition is exploding into polyphonic prisms as distinct as the scabby psych-folk of Kemialliset Ystävät, Avarus or the Anaksimandros and the ironclad rock experiments of Magyar Posse, Kroko or Stalwart. The bent circuit manipulations of Verde, Es and Pink Twins also share this challenging spirit, albeit with a more cerebral outlook.
The common thread throughout these five decades of free-thinking activity is a combined dose of determination, autonomy, wonder and endurance – sisu, as certain Finns like to call this somewhat untranslatable, frequently misapplied term (which expectedly eludes mainstream Scandinavian pop). Avanto provides an annual stage for this slippery virtue, having supported nearly a dozen of the above acts plus a smattering of comparable, international heavyweights. Not surprisingly, the homegrown heroes usually put the big-name foreign guests to shame.
The four-year-old event takes place at an assortment of venues around Helsinki, the most striking of which are the plush former strip club Mocambo and the Kiasma museum, housed in a curvilinear, steel-and-glass trapezoid. The cityscape – with its ultramodern-meets-deco skyline and arresting setting on the Baltic Sea – adds a lot to Avanto’s appeal. Fleeting, late-autumn sun bathes everything in a lovely dawn-like glow, and ample watering holes ease the pain of those frigid 18-hour nights. As an added bonus in 2004, 13 inches of snow turned the sparkling exteriors of handsome landmarks such as the Tuomiokirkko cathedral and Alvar Aalto’s Finlandia Hall into the architectural equivalent of Malevich’s White on White.
But this isn’t a travel guide, so let’s cut to the chase. Avanto opened with a bang – more accurately, it opened with the explosions of war. Two installation pieces ran continuously during the festival: German essay-film icon Harun Farocki's Eye/Machine III used footage of missile system demonstrations, air-to-land combat and surveillance to turn the lilliputian Galleria Huuto into a sort of anti-art video chamber. At a glance, the work looked slightly clinical (with an excess of grainy digital vomit), though it conveyed a grim, ironic message with brutal clarity: pretty colors and eye-catching images are the aesthetic byproducts of machines designed to kill people.
Fetching local Minna Långström explored similar themes, albeit more engagingly, at MUU Galleria, a casual warren of rooms filled with unpretentious, wine-sipping youngsters. Her interactive Kupla ("Bubble") transformed the main area into a pastel nursery, complete with outsize furniture, the soothing notes of Emi Maeda’s piped-in harp, and a high-tech soap-wand from which spectators took turns blowing bubbles. The flying suds were projected onto the wall and filled with violent news segments rendered even more poignant by Bush's fresh re-election and the ongoing unrest in Iraq.
Långström's baby ingeniously represents Scandinavia itself (or perhaps the entire West), which exists isolated and safe from daily suffering and chaos. Kupla is also a brilliant metaphor for the information age, in which we sit complacently in front of our televisions and computers, far removed from the media's disturbing snippets of Third World hardship and death. Has technological saturation turned us into desensitized infants, receiving but not comprehending the floating data on our monitors?; Has cruel misfortune simply become tolerable fodder, like so many children's toys? Or are we merely powerless toddlers, who feel the resulting pain from but cannot control the outcome of these tragedies? Långström thrusts the very definition of "news" and of our global position into multifarious states of flux.
Ohne, the rarely-seen Euro-American confusion collective featuring Tom Smith (of To Live and Shave in L.A., Peach of Immortality and prepubescent Pussy Galore "fame"), launched the musical portion of Avanto. The trio – reduced from a quartet due to Reto Mäder's health-related woes – was preceded by a selection of Kurt Kren's and Ernst Schmidt Jr.'s 1960s Viennese Actionist films, in which hilarious, often grotesquely sexual barrages of naked torsos doused in paint, food, carnage and gore race across the screen. The pairing was impeccable; Ohne's needling collage of performance art and treated amplifications of the human body loosely fashions itself as a punk-schooled sonic parallel to Actionism's ocular overload.
When the vignettes ended, an insistent loop of a ticking stopwatch and galloping hooves ricocheted around the darkened Kiasma theater. Mocking spotlights shined down on Ohne's vacant microphones. Ten minutes later… absolutely nothing happened. The stage remained empty; the polite customers grew palpably restless. Gradually, a few anonymous rabble-rousers began grousing, booing, or screaming "bullshit!" from the aisles. Someone coughed. Another guy clicked his tongue. A can sailed through the air. "Do something! Come on!," the voices shouted in flawless English. Suddenly, it became obvious that the members of Ohne were responsible for the yelling. They had blended in among the audience to heckle their own production.
The instigators urged the onlookers to hurl forth insults, but only a handful of detractors actually joined in. And nobody accepted the invitation to get onstage. A few malcontents headed for the exit. That reaction says a lot about the stereotypically reserved and stoic Finnish character; in the U.S., mass jeering would have ensued. But in Helsinki, the crowd suppressed its mild annoyance and either patiently waited for the payoff or silently fled. Who knows what might have transpired had the patrons bum-rushed the show and taken matters into their own hands?
Had Ohne walked off without touching its laptops, the gig would have been an amazing triumph: a total refutation of the very notion of performing. But maybe the ensuing fracas was just a deliberate anticlimax? The set began in earnest when Daniel Löwenbrück, who had recorded the heckling introduction, played back his cassette of the episode while strolling among the rows of seats. From the stage, a bored-looking Dave Phillips triggered a plethora of strident samples. Smith attached contact mikes to his churning stomach and initiated an array of gargles, chokes and gags. Eventually, he would ham it up with his trademark lounge-lizard histrionics. The three men enacted a series of rituals – aiming the house lights directly at people's eyes, sprinkling powder everywhere, rinsing their soiled hands in a bucket, hammering nails into cloths on the floor and doing pushups until exhaustion set in – served with a dense, feverish squall of deflating balloons, sawing cellos, artillery and thunder. The spectacle always engrossed the eyes, yet occasionally tired the ears.
Smith, Phillips and Löwenbrück admirably capture the essence of both punk and Actionism – to incite, vex and destroy – but it was a minor disappointment that such a hostile crew even deigned to play. It would have been far more infuriating (i.e. effective) to let the tension build without any resolution whatsoever. Given their reputations as infamous troublemakers, they'd probably agree with that opinion.
Later that evening, a historic reunion occurred. Aavikon Kone ja Moottori ("Desert Machinery and Motors"), Finland's very first industrial-drone unit, unleashed its minimalist, primitive clatter on the red velvet curtains, marble columns, Oriental carpets and comfortable sofas of Mocambo. Born in 1979, the obscure three-piece self-released two one-sided singles that doubtlessly scared the crap out of everyone in Tornio, a conservative northern backwater within spitting distance of the Arctic Circle. Veli-Matti "Läjä" Äijälä, one of Aavikon Kone's founders, would go on to become the linchpin connecting Finland's hardcore punk and deviant electronic scenes. In the '80s and '90s, this true renaissance man would front such diverse, influential combos as Billy Boys (trashy rockabilly oddness), Terveet Kädet (inventors of nordic HC and crossover thrash; see numerous yellowing pages of Maximum Rocknroll), Death Trip (scum-encrusted, splatter-flick riffery) and the Leo Bugariloves (Dadaist perversity masquerading as campy pop). To the shock of avant-garde establishment, this subterranean iconoclast headlined Avanto 2004, dusting off three of his groups and finally garnering some long-overdue praise outside the usual leather-jacket milieu. The festival, in conjunction with Bad Vugum Records, also commissioned the superior career-spanning anthology, Passions of Läjä Äijälä, which rescues rare tracks from all of the aforementioned inspirations. (Veli, Sisko, Kuulet Kumman Soiton, the latest edition of Avanto's attendant compilation CD, is also worth your spare change.)
Clad in black with his face framed by a thin, well-trimmed beard, Äijälä and Wasp synthesizer expert Pekka Ruth began by chanting the one-word lyrics to the second Aavikon Kone 45, "Rakkaudella Sinulle." (Seppo Oförsagd, who rounded out the troupe in the old days, did not participate.) "Moooottttori. Moooottttori. Moooottttori," their low-volume, throaty mantra rose from behind a bank of vintage analog gear. Conversations from the bar submitted to the seductiveness of those drawn-out syllables: "Moooottttori." The haunting grumble soon yielded to programmed, metronome-like rhythms bisected by hissing volleys of bleeps and buzzes. The eeriness heightened with taped, disembodied voices and the whine of a violin bow caressing a thin ribbon of metal. Each monotonous, inhuman pulsation evoked a lonely wasteland of foreboding skies and discarded hunks of aluminum rusting in bleak, frozen fields. Next to the stern purity of Aavikon Kone's 20-minute history lesson, bygone peers such as Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire seem almost cheerful and needlessly dramatic. The other attractions at Mocambo – the funky Serbian techno-jazz of Belgradeyard Sound System and Helsinki's IDM enfant terrible Aprox. – didn't stand a fucking chance.
Friday afternoon kicked off with John Coney's freaky 1974 Sun Ra movie, Space is the Place. By 7 p.m., the venue itself had been turned into both an art object and a musical opus: Mikko Hynninen's Kiasma-teatteri was Avanto’s ultimate conceptual success. Despite its academic nature, the deftly executed work was anything but stuffy, conjuring up visions of some crazed, automated robo-symphony. Sans any actual instruments or human beings, the composer found harmony in the mundane, incidental sounds of the room; he carefully rigged the Kiasma auditorium's stage lights, winches, air conditioners and fluorescent tubes to somehow "play" themselves.
A single microphone slowly descended from the ceiling, creating sheets of feedback; when it struck the stage, it let out a dull thud and its pitch began to waver. Light panels on the left wall fizzled on and off in geometric patterns, making the most of the hall's acoustics. An orange screen flickered and hummed while the innards of seizure-inducing spotlights whirred in perfect time, at vacillating speeds. Dry ice emitted a calming rustle of negative ions. For the finale, the generally mellow, austere piece revved up into a mighty roar, with the whole theater pounding like 10,000 tympani. Hynninen's master plan – elucidating the buried melodies of mechanical bustle – is nothing new; Futurists such as Luigi Russolo and F.T. Marinetti were engineering likeminded feats in 1914. Kiasma-teatteri beautifies and updates the strategy for the 21st Century, though, using a far larger scale and employing flashier raw materials.
Following a viewing of Leo Bugariloves keyboardist Pupu Lihavisto's absurd cinematic short The Man and His Wardrobe (glacial pans of Äijälä decked out in his signature S/M garb and gasmask), two sharply contrasting aspects of the Avanto experience duked it out at the UMO Jazz House: organic live music and gadget-driven ideology. Japan's Astro Twin adheres to something called the "Onkyo aesthetic," which according to the Avanto literature, beefs up "barely audible sounds" and eliminates "grand gestures, expression" and "symbolic meanings" from performance. Utah Kawasaki supplies the synth and computer hubbub while button-cute Ami Yoshida comically abuses her voicebox to squeeze out nutty squeaks, wheezes and croaks. Sadly, the duo didn't exactly revel in variety or intensity. And anyone who witnessed the '80s a cappella stunts of Shelley Hirsch or Rebby Sharp would have realized the limitations of Yoshida's piercing peeps. But a lack of serious content seems to be the point: Onkyo is an attempt to devise "music without meaning," which reads well on paper, but can't hold up in practice – too much pondering, not enough action. Would anyone pay attention to this stuff were there no thesis behind it? With vague, noncommittal art so widespread in this cynical era (especially in electronic circles), it takes far more courage to make a concrete statement. Ignoring expression and substance is far too simplistic, no matter what the intent.
Mego Records laptop jockey COH (aka Russia's Ivan Pavlov, who now resides in Stockholm) also failed live up to the hype, though this is an incredibly subjective judgment. But c’mon, it's 2005; iBooks and DJs are just as cliché-blighted as classic rock. As Leo Bugariloves guitarist Ruki Vehr so eloquently says in the Avanto guide, "99 percent of avant-garde is crap, just like 99 percent of official culture is crap." These days, it's no more boundary-smashing to strum plain chords on six, shitty strings than it is to invalidate "symbolic meanings" with software.
Which is why both Sultans and Kemialliset Ystävät ("Chemical Friends") were so refreshing. The latter situated itself in a Buddhist triad. Sedate and meditative, this lean incarnation of the Tampere-based ensemble gently coaxed a sublime trance out of clean electric guitar, tranquil acoustic figures, pipes, recorder, shakers, bells, hand drums, cymbals, ragtag electronics and a talking plastic doll. The alternative media likes to depict shaggy, blond leader Jan Anderzén as some kind of tree-hugging forest sprite, but there's nothing retro or naive about his studied approach to stumbling-cum-sophisticated dimestore psychedelia. It's fascinating to trace KY's evolution from late-'90s lo-fi concern (early singles owed a recognizable debt to Finnish "snot-folk" greats Liimanarina) into a comely, ethnic-tinged creature that magically digests everything from the Third Ear Band to Angus MacLise. The gorgeous reverberations inside the UMO Jazz House were equal parts majestic, rough, blissful and yes, blatantly mystical, but Anderzén's output is as modest and unaffected as his demeanor; at the closing party, when asked how he felt about the accolades heaped upon him by the Yankee press, he shrugged his shoulders and smiled humbly. You'd probably let him date your sister.
Sultans found Läjä Äijälä behind a hollow-body guitar, accompanied only by the rudimentary drumming of Terveet Kädet bassist Lene Leinonen. They fit the Avanto bill by thoroughly recontextualizing an all-too-familiar form: the duo cleanses the blues of its sentimentality and egotism, leaving only basic structures, a primordial thump and soulful insinuations. There's no hint of the personal catharsis most closely identified with the genre; the pair's weary, groovy and sparse instrumentals chug along in a haze of faint emotional impressions that practically defy criticism. Jim Jarmusch should hire these subtle kings of cool to score his next slice of celluloid.
Avanto's Saturday gala commenced with a reel of the Leo Bugariloves' memorably surreal promo clips (e.g. Äijälä in his gasmask contemplating a lifeless fish) at the vast, two-tiered club Gloria. The raucous, beer-soaked clientele quieted down to anticipate Goodiepal, nee Denmark's Kristian Vester, and his wild facial hair. He's one complicated cat; acclaimed for his business-associated 7” picture discs (Nokia, Hitachi, etc.), this onetime corporate "sound designer" has since taken a job at a nursing home in the remote Faroe Islands. Regrettably, his bio surpassed his listless aural pastiche of chirping birds and oceanic tides – New Age escapism for the cellphone generation.
Despite a poor mix, the Leo Bugariloves really smoked. Their perplexing, sleazy-listening charms have survived intact after a seven-year hiatus. Äijälä stood zombified in the middle of the stage, as if staring at some imaginary catastrophe, while he deadpanned the Lappish humor of such "hits" as the guttural porno-punk-disco "Absoluuttinen Mies" ("The Absolute Man") and the nonsensical surf-shuffle "Viiden Tuulen Lakki" ("Hat of Five Winds"). His gruff yet dispassionate vocals haphazardly molested the dinky (but relentlessly catchy) arrangements, oozing the disease of Iggy, the repulsive sensuality of Barry (White or Manilow, you decide) and the pluck of a catatonic. One wishes that Alan Vega could have aged half as gracefully.
Vehr's peppy riffs sloppily wove in and out of the fray, and Lihavisto relaxed behind the keys like some lazy wedding entertainer, occasionally remembering to plink out a winningly cheesy hook or cue some Suicide-ish preset rhythm. The real curio, however, had nothing to do with the songs: A couple of seated, neatly dressed men nonchalantly snapped apart a pile of twigs, one by one, in front of a microphone. The maddening crack of splintering wood persisted throughout the set. God knows what any of this was supposed to signify: A rural proletariat satire? The ridiculousness of showbiz? A Duchamp-derived prank? All of the above? Who cares? It just fucking ruled.
Like the Bugariloves, Teutonic aggro-techno luminary and Digital Hardcore Recordings boss Alec Empire prefers physical to theoretical tyranny. Earlier that afternoon, Avanto presented the label’s video compendium, Revolution Action!. Though quite juvenile in spots, this '90s propaganda by Empire, his erstwhile band Atari Teenage Riot, EC8OR, Hanin Elias, Nic Endo and Nintendo Teenage Robots ignited Kiasma with rage, youthful enthusiasm and, most important, a sense of belief. Regardless of its gimmicky slogans ("Destroy 2,000 Years of Culture!"), the DHR stable just might be more relevant now than it was a decade ago. ATR appeared particularly thrilling against such an urbane backdrop; speedmetal velocity, rock-star poses and booty-moving obnoxiousness bashed out by a German stud, a saucy half-Syrian girl and an African dude don't conform to the conventions of the aloof and overly caucasian avant-garde. Empire isn't afraid to go out on a limb; "Kids are United!," an adaptation of an ancient Sham 69 clunker, might as well be an angry Benetton ad. But even here, the underlying philosophy is 100 percent noble: take risks, get off your ass and do something! Today's political and artistic climate demands a revival of such energy and sincerity.
At Gloria, Empire's shtick was enjoyable, if fairly predictable. His most groundbreaking accomplishments are behind him, but he can get the blood boiling when he wants to. An ambient hush led to a fiery culmination of hyper breakbeats and sinus-clearing static. Then all hell broke loose. The Avanto conflict of intellectual versus visceral led to a bonafide confrontation when Basque filmmaker and laptop improviser Mattin – whose insufferable, shaky-cam glimpses of Bilbao debuted at Kiasma on Friday – threw a glass at the stage. An irate Empire methodically slashed himself with a shard before he dared his assailant to a public fight. But security intervened and the gig ended without any further commotion. While it's a pity that the evening came to such a bitter, macho conclusion, the scuffle certainly proves that the outspoken Berliner can still provoke with the best of them.
Avanto capped its final day with Andy Warhol's often-discussed but seldom-seen 1963 mindfuck Sleep: nearly five unbearable (but watchable for brief stretches) hours of poet John Giorno taking a snooze. Compounded with a morning at the hotel sauna, a few choice moments of this soporific epic made for a peaceful and utterly novel way to vaporize that notorious Finnish hangover (known colloquially as a krapula, or a darra, should you favor Helsinki slang). And then the afterparty got going . . .
Compared to most European or American festivals, Avanto is a shot of both smarts and adrenaline. The hedonistic Id of punked-up nightlife crashes into the brains of a government-sponsored culture exhibition, with all the professionalism of a top-class museum installation. On one hand, it's a rather highbrow, futuristic affair full of technology and lofty questions about art and performance; on the other, it's an intoxicated celebration of rebellious joy. The 2004 lineup boasted a startling number of extraordinary (or at least commendable) sights and sounds, and even the worst offenders could at least spark thoughtful debate. Plus, there's no better way to skim the surface of the currently- hip Finnish underground in chilly, tourist-free Helsinki. So "advance yourself," as New York no-wave legend Von Lmo once advised; skip the institutional Bang on a Can, forget the unwashed hordes at Terrastock and leave All Tomorrow's Parties to the indie kids. Get your ass on a cheap fall flight to Scandinavia instead.
By Jordan N. Mamone