Upon wining this year’s Emdash Award, a prize presented in conjunction with the Frieze Foundation celebrating emerging artists, Pilvi Takala decided to give the majority of the GBP 10,000 prize money to a group of children from Bow, a working class neighborhood in East London. The Finnish artist’s only condition was that the children, members of a youth club at the East Side Youth Centre, would collectively decide how to spend the money—whether it be on a pony, group vacation, or a ton of candy—as a group entity impinged by no rules and most importantly, no adult interference. The kids would create proposals and vote on a litany of ideas proffered by the group, and then be interviewed about the process on camera with Takala. Titled “The Committee,” the resulting project was shown as a video installation at London’s Frieze Art Fair last October. And if you’re wondering, the children settled on designing their own luxury “closed inflatable trampoline” (the technical phrase), or in layman’s terms, a “five-star bouncy house.”
While “The Committee” fits seamlessly with the theatrics of an art fair, the project is anything but the usual annoyingly bravado display of artistic insouciance, and certainly more thoughtful than, say, Hans Peter Feldmann’s display of his USD 100,000 Hugo Boss Prize at the Guggenheim in 2010, or Merlin Carpenter’s heap of shopping bags at the ICA Philadelphia, the result of the museum forking him over USD 4,000 cash no questions asked. Rather, in the context of an art fair, Takala presciently acknowledges the role of talks, film programs, and awards such as Emdash play in the context of the art mall that is Frieze London: all of these cutting-edge videos, enlightening panels, and übercool artist commissions are just fluff distracting us from those alienating six-or-seven-figure transactions taking place in the big white tent. When Takala was thinking about proposing a project for the Emdash Award, her thought process was exceedingly rare for an art world dominated by the big, bad, and dumb: she thought not, How can I make this money work for me? But How can I excise this money from the fair context? What is the most powerless group of people that I could give this to? As it happens, children are among the most powerless of peoples—they have no autonomy and always require someone else’s responsibility and supervision. The act of giving children such a large sum of money begs the question of whether children should be allowed to make serious decisions for themselves and others, and whether adults should step in and protect them from potentially wasting a valuable resource. “We can also always make a scandal combining children with a large amount of money and class issues,” quipped Takala in a recent phone interview with me, speaking of her decision to work with children from Bow. (But was she joking? It hardly bears mentioning that England, and particularly Frieze Art Fair, suffer from no shortage of class issues.) While the threat of scandal and prodigious waste loomed, the children came up with a sage, self-sustaining model that will potentially make them more money in the future: they will also rent out their five-star bouncy house for private hire and special events.
While Takala mainly works through video installation, this concern with redistributing the resources and questioning the power structures of an art world juggernaut ties her work to the lineage of Institutional Critique. Particularly relevant is Hans Haacke’s “Systems Work,” in which the artist critiqued the contemporary art patronage system of the time, one that still exists today: here, corporate financial capital is exchanged for the sponsorship of an artist, which grants the corporation symbolic cultural capital. Takala’s desire to extract the prize money from the art fair speaks to the rarity of an artist controlling financial, rather than symbolic, capital. Takala’s decision to give it to children could thus be read as a little bit of a “fuck you” to that system. Further, giving the prize money to children—by definition a non-expert group of people— deflates the idea that financial capital should only be controlled by people (oftentimes white men) who perceive themselves to be responsible. This subjugation of authority recalls Andrea Fraser’s Jane Castleton performances, in which the artist performed as a leisure class, career-less wife speaking about contemporary art as a museum docent.
Takala’s earlier work is, as the artist puts it, decidedly more “scientific” in nature, and is rooted in DIY sociological research, with the artist regularly playing various characters in her projects. Take, for example, Takala’s 2008 project “The Trainee,” in which the artist was hired as a marketing trainee at the Helsinki branch of Deloitte, an international professional services company. For the first two-and-a half weeks, Takala acted as a normal, earnest new employee, completing assigned tasks in an efficient manner. Shortly after, the artist began breaking widely accepted rules of professional conduct: rather than work, or act like she was working, Takala would ride the elevator up and down all day or sit at a desk without a computer staring off into the distance, claiming that she was doing “brain work.” The artist’s co-workers soon sensed something was amiss, and began writing office memos to supervisors about their coworker’s disconcerting behavior. One colleague writes to their manager, “Hi. Now the trainee has placed herself in the elevator closest to the cantine. She’s standing in the back corner drifting from floor to floor with the other users. People have spent a senseless amount of time speculating on this issue. Couldn’t we now get her out of here? Obviously she has some kind of mental problem.” Takala also spent a day staring at the wall in Deloitte’s Tax and Legal department and another day in Consulting convincing her coworkers that it’s actually very unhealthy to work with machines all the time, and more advantageous to work everything out “in your head.” Thankfully, for our amusement, the project was fully documented: the artist worked with Deloitte (who was in on the deal, brokered by the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki) to install hidden cameras around the office, the footage from which she transformed into an installation replete with three videos, office paraphernalia, and a PowerPoint presentation.
Similarly creepy and hilarious is Takala’s public foray playing Snow White at Disneyland Paris. Walking up to the theme park’s gate dressed as Snow White, she is greeted by ooh’s and ah’s (“She’s so beautiful!” and “She’s so kind!”), and happily signs autographs and speaks to children. Takala is soon approached by a security guard who relays in broken English that she must either change clothes or leave the premises because she’s not the “real” Snow White. (Takala sardonically asserts that she thought the “real” Snow White is actually a drawing.) The artist again points out the awkward, uncharted territory we encounter when dealing with a socially extraordinary person, and therein lies the crux of her work: when someone’s behavior falls outside our existing social code, we must invent new rules by which to act, and thereby examine the systems that produce and uphold such rules, which are often the purveyors of alienation and frustration. Even though it seems like Takala enjoys punking the world, the artist heartily claims she does not enjoy provoking these embarrassing social situations, whose elements of social rejection can cause her to experience a strong haptic reaction. (Takala mentioned it took weeks to fully recover from her rather traumatizing Deloitte experience.) While the rest of us go on about our merry way progressively making the art world more hermetic, Takala dives head first into the more uncomely crannies of human existence, groping around in darkness to sense the walls of wayward social propriety that we’ve built around us.