13 Mar 2019




photo by Robert Powell

I met curator and writer Rob La Frenais during his first visit to HIAP, on what was a lovely spring day, in April 2018. We sat on the balcony of his studio in Suomenlinna, looked at sailing boats and talked about the future of travel and water.

The relationship of Finns to water is what drew Rob to Finland in the first place. A high percentage of Finns use the water on a daily basis. Many people live on islands, use yachts and kayaks daily, and depend on the water in their daily lives. Rob grew up in London and was understandably very affected by the river Thames. About 20 years ago he joined a rowing club, and he now has his very own boat, which he describes as “very light and very impractical, but very fast.” He keeps his boat by the river where he lives in France.

He has worked for nearly thirty years with his long-time colleague Tracey Warr, also a previous HIAP resident. With Tracey he shares a passion for water, and they have collaborated on many projects, most recently on Tracey’s short fiction novella Meanda. Meanda tells the story of human-like inhabitants living under water, and the book was also inscribed in large letters on riverside paths, to be read while walking along the river (as well as being published on paper and online). In 2019 He will continue with collaboration with her in a workshop on Future Fictions as part of Continuum, a season about art, astronomy and speculative fiction at Allenheads Contemporary Arts in rural Northumberland, UK.

Suomenlinna seemed like the ideal place for Rob to walk, look at the sea and reflect on themes of water and seafaring. Rob indeed enjoyed walking on the island, getting a sense of where he was. He also kept a blog of things he did and people he met, which is still ongoing.

photo by Jussi Virkkumaa

During his spring 2018 residency, Rob also participated at a conference called Radical Relevances at Aalto University, where he presented work he has been doing on artists researching mobilities and transportation infrastructures, and a three-year project he is doing called Future of Transportation, which reflects upon artists’ approach to this subject. He also presented his work at an event organized by Frame Contemporary Art Finland and did a lot of writing for various magazines. It seems like, although Rob did his best to step back from the process of exhibition making during this residency, his time was filled with many activities.

Rob’s style of curating is extremely collaborative. He prides himself on developing close relationships with the artists he chooses to work with, ultimately developing work together with the artists. This is why he was extremely happy to meet many Finnish artists during his HIAP residency.

Some of the interesting artists he has already met or is hoping to meet are for example Antti Laitinen, who is well-known for his floating projects, Tapio Mäkelä, who is planning a new residency called Future Lake Residency, and Ulla Taipale, a Finnish artist-curator based in Barcelona and her brother Tommi Taipale, who has built a catamaran from waste materials called Pelastusalus Silakka / Rescue Boat Baltic Herring together with Teemu Takatalo. Rob also met performance artist and curator Leena Kela, a meeting which resulted in a performance lecture by Rob, standing on a boat going down the Aura river at the opening of New Performance Turku in September 2018. To do this he worked with members of the local rowing club Turun Soutajat and had to convince them he was a skilled enough rower to undertake the performance.

Rob is fascinated by the way Finns live in collaboration with the water. This is extremely obvious in Turku, he finds. Rob saw in Turku something that he has never seen before anywhere else: ladders that go all the way down to the river Aura, so in case people fall in the river, they can climb right back out. This is a sensible idea, which to Rob points out the way Finns are tuned to living with and by the water. “Finland is like a laboratory for ways of new living,” Rob laughs.

Rob’s plans during and after the residency included reflecting upon and planning a new exhibition. This new project has been codenamed Close To The Water, and it revolves around the themes of rising sea levels, radical seafaring and floating on water. There is so much information that Rob has been collecting, so many art projects addressing these issues, that bringing them all together is not an easy task. The separate projects need to be brought together in a new kind of way, by creating a platform where these projects can be looked at together. What Rob is trying to do, is to develop more abstract thinking about what issues the artists are trying to address with all these projects. The challenge with trying to synthesise such varied and vast material is how to come up with an approach that is thoughtful and challenging and not too obvious.

The first step is to look at the commonalities between all these projects. Rob believes that what these projects have in common is in fact a small-scale approach to very large issues, for example the environmental issues and the tragedy of rising sea levels, and the refugee crisis and people actually having to use rafts to escape. Is it possible to affect people’s thinking about big problems with small gestures, to change infrastructures with small scale interventions?

The second step is to intelligently present all this information.

Now, almost a year later, Rob La Frenais is returning to Finland. He has joined the no-fly movement for 2019 and is traveling on land and water, making his trip from London St Pancras to Turku in a trek of two and a half days. His journey was funded by the Finnish Institute in London. By deciding not to fly, Rob is not trying to reduce his carbon footprint but to show there are alternatives. He hopes to influence organisations and change patterns of behaviour. In Finland, Rob is forming a working group alongside Turku New Performance and other organisations to propose a major event about art on the water by the River Aura in Turku in Autumn 2020 at the same time as the Helsinki Biennale. It is appropriate that during a worldwide declaration of a climate emergency and heatwave conditions in Western Europe that he arrived to do this via rail and sea, arriving in Turku on the water.

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