'Humans are not wired to make sensible choices'
Every town and every time has them: the in-between places, the protected areas where young people hang out after school, between classes or just to kill some time before going home. In the 1950s in North America, it was the soda shop, in the 1980s the video arcade. Today in Helsinki and elsewhere, it is the shopping mall: a place to see and be seen, to relax - and on occasion, even to go shopping.
'Shopping malls are strange places. We think of them as in the public realm, but they are privately owned, developed and controlled,' says Andy Best, lecturer in sculpture at the School of Arts, Design and Architecture. 'They are commercial spaces that are playing with the emotions wrapped up with ideas of public and public.'
Best has more than a passing interest in malls and how we interact with them. As an artist and educator, Best wants to engage with society, also and in particular with 'troublesome' elements such as shopping malls. Places where people with differing views and differing intentions come together.
But how can art impact a location such as a shopping centre? In his course Media Intervention in the City, Best brings Aalto School of Arts, Design and Architecture students to locations such as the new REDI shopping centre in Kalasatama, Helsinki. There, in the midst of stores like Clas Ohlson and H&M, students create participatory, performative works of art. Mall shoppers are confronted with performances, video installations, or soundscapes that challenge expectations and easy definitions.
The course grew out of Best's belief in art as a powerful force in society, and his desire to bring artistic interventions into everyday life. 'It is very safe for students to make media art projects in the university or even in a gallery or museum, but when you work in public space the risk factor is a hundred times greater. I like the concept of "Poetic Terrorism".'
While the aim of the course is certainly to explore the role of art in public spaces and even to intervene, Best does not consider it to be a form of activism.
"Activism sounds like being outside what is happening looking in, whereas I think that art is very much a part of society and can be a very powerful tool for changing how people look at things, how they think and act," Best says.
Combining art and business
For decades, Best has been walking the line between commerce and fine arts, mixing the aesthetic and the popular. His first work of art when he moved to Finland in 1988 was a stylized red exclamation point on an old mill in Helsinki, a tribute to comic book art in a very public setting.
As some of the first artists working on web technologies, Andy and his partner Merja Puustinen developed internet-based 3D worlds as works of art in the early 1990s. Later in the first wave of the Dotcom explosion, they converted this aesthetic capital and the international reputation they had earned into a company with an initial round of venture capital acquisition.
The project was a 3D world game called Ice Borg, which Best describes as 'Mad Max meets Monty Python'. In the online game, players were tasked with collecting pollution and trading it in at a sort of recycling machine. 'You might say the theme was a bit ahead of its time,' he laughs.
The vicissitudes of the market in late 2001 led Best and Puustinen to wind down the company. Since then, Best has worked as a practicing artist and in academia, now teaching sculpture in YoYo, the general studies programme at Aalto School of Arts, Design and Architecture. TAIK, one of the predecessor institutions of Aalto University before 2010, had a long tradition of sculpture education, and Best builds upon that while updating the curriculum for the new millennium with 3D art courses.
One idea to bind them
Asked what he is particularly excited about teaching at the moment, Andy Best mentions the compulsory bachelor's course called Ajatus ("Idea" in Finnish). The idea in question is the Anthropocene, 'the human epoch', referring to proposed geological age beginning when humans began to have a major impact on the earth and its ecosystems. Several times a year, Best is given the task of introducing the topic to a group of 2nd and 3rd-year students ranging from fashion designers to architects. It is a theme-based rather than a technique-based course, allowing students of various disciplines to explore with all the creative assets at their disposal.
The course begins with two guest lectures, one from a science and research perspective and one from an artistic standpoint. Students learn about related topics such as sustainability, climate change, population growth and migration, and pursue their own creative projects related to these themes. 'Ajatus is important because it shows that art can deal with these essential themes for planetary survival, and that students are able to make great works that help us understand the problems mankind faces,' says Best. Each course ends with a final exhibition of all student projects, which Best says has been very well received.
Business as usual
Although Best uses technology freely in his artwork and teaching, today he finds himself more of a technoskeptic than in the early days of the Web. Emblems of a more sustainable lifestyle such as electric cars are currently just a plaything for the wealthy, he says.
Society is in denial about climate catastrophe ahead, says Best, because people do not like to change their habits unless they absolutely have to. Although there is widespread consensus on the need for immediate action, those in power seem to be going about business as usual. 'We're not wired to make sensible choices. We're wired to survive once things break down,' he says.
If Best is right, perhaps it is one important role of art to help people see the situation more clearly and change their actions. That is why he keeps making art in the public space in addition to teaching. Currently, a recent work by Best and Merja Puustinen, Strange Fruit, is on display at the top of Finlandia Hall as part of the "Sculpture Expanded – Moving Laboratory of Public Art" exhibition event.
The final Ajatus exhibition this spring will be on display in Beta Space, Otakaari 1X from 28 May until 7 June.
Sculpture Expanded - Moving Laboratory of Public Art
Finland will present its exhibition Everyday Experiments at the XXII Triennale di Milano from 1 March to 1 September this year, featuring twelve experimental projects people are already doing to make their lives more sustainable and equitable. La Triennale di Milano will take place from 1 March to 1 September 2019 and is curated by Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design and Director of Research & Development at The Museum of Modern Art. Broken Nature will reflect on the relationship between humans and environments at all scales—from the microbiome to the cosmos—including social, cultural, and natural ecosystems.
Learn more about all 12 Everyday Experiments: everdayexperiments.aalto.fi
The XXII Triennale, Broken Nature: http://www.brokennature.org/