Arts-based research; research-based arts

James Simpson, University of Leeds

Finland gained its independence from Russia in 1917, and the Finnish National Theatre is running a project to celebrate the country’s hundredth birthday next year. The work is called Toinen Koti, which translates as ‘another home’. Jussi Lehtonen, an actor with the Finnish National Theatre, leads the work, a documentary theatre project. While in Finland over the summer I travelled to Helsinki to sit in on some of the data collection with Sari Pöyhönen of Jyväskylä University, who is managing the linguistic ethnographic strand of the project, and is carrying out the interviews with Jussi.

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Toinen Koti is about home, and also about integration. The concepts of home and integration align with many emergent themes within the TLANG Project (see, for example, our working papers series) and with the TLANG-inspired Connected Communities project (Migration and Home: Welcome in Utopia). In Finnish there are two verbs for ‘integrate’. Kotoutua has the familiar sense of a migrant integrating into the new host society. Kotouttaa on the other hand conveys the meaning whereby a host society and its functionaries work to integrate migrants, implying something of a two-way street. In the root of both words, though, we see koti: ‘home’.

The project team is interviewing fifteen refugee artists, actors and creative practitioners, in an open-ended and informal way, about their sense of home, about what home means to them, and also about being a refugee artist in Finland. The artists all bring something along with them to the interview – a poem, a song, a small performance, a musical instrument – which they know will be used during the session. The plan is for the stories, the narratives elicited during the interviews, to be developed through a series of workshops into a performance of speech, movement and music. This will take place at the National Theatre of Finland late in 2017.

In some interviews Sanna Salmenkallio, a musician and composer who is also on the project team, accompanies a re-telling of part of the participants’ stories on the violin.


The second interview is with Osman (a pseudonym), an actor who, since arriving in Finland as a refugee, has performed in Helsinki and also in nearby Espoo, in a bilingual play for a Finnish audience, and also “in some places for immigrants.” Osman is a competent user of English, which he learned following his father’s advice to “challenge the language like a person.” He talks about being an actor in Iraq. “We cannot act,” he says with feeling, “I cannot touch a woman.” He describes how he left when IS took control of his city, and declared all actors to be its enemies.

Osman recounts with good humour an amusing anecdote, a story of when he was younger. Jussi asks him to retell the story but this time with Sana accompanying him on the violin. Moving to the middle of the large, empty rehearsal room, he takes a seat opposite Sana. Sana starts listening to Osman with her violin on her knee but she soon begins playing, accompanying his tale with a thin improvised tune.

Osman tells us how he understands ‘home’. He says, pausing between each phrase:

Home is not a house

not a land

not a anything

It’s the moment you feel you are safe.

He talks of his mother (“she takes care very well of me. I have been missing her a lot”), and of life as a young actor in Iraq. He tells us then how he would on occasion sit by the banks of the Tigris. He would, he says, take a half-bottle of ouzo and something to eat down to the river, to beneath a bridge that was built by the English army. “I went there and listened to music from the phone and drinking.” He stops. Until this point the mood was light-hearted. In the gathering dusk in the shadowy room he starts speaking again, quietly and sadly: “And then they threw two kids from the bridge. I’m not going to sit there any more and I don’t want to see the Tigris.” There is a very long silence.

The Finnish National Theatre has traditionally been thought of as being about Finnish language, culture and identity, and multilingual new arrivals present something of a challenge to the idea of Finnishness. ‘Integration’ into work and society is complex and multi-layered, regardless of whether the load of integration is being shouldered by the migrant (kotoutua) or by the host society (kotouttaa). The documentary theatre project, by opening its doors to refugees who are also professional artists and creative practitioners, creates a space for addressing this challenge.

It is also aiming to generate a situated community that develops around a performance. So as well as questions about ‘home’, the project also asks: How does a group develop to be a community of artistic expression? How does the community adopt and adapt the stories which are told, and take them further, to make performances? For the participants in the project, being an artist has provided the motivation for migration, because they have been persecuted for doing what they do. So further questions include: What does it mean to be an artist in Finland? Are the newcomers still recognised as artists, even in the new home? Can you find a home in Finland as an artistic practitioner who is also a refugee?

The project goes beyond collaboration, and is a model of co-produced work, enabling a conversation between the arts and academic research into language in use. It bridges practice and ‘the academy’, being both arts-based research and research-based arts. The artistic workshops and the eventual performance are grounded in action research. This is, feel the research team, the best way for Finnish theatre professionals to ask themselves how the theatre as an institution can be renewed, allowing multilingual practitioners and audiences to find their way to it. The interviews themselves, their generation and their analysis, are informed by linguistic ethnography and an interpretivist approach. The exploration of what the participants mean by home, art, culture and community is shaped by the fact that all the artists are in exile because they and their work have somehow been stigmatised. Given that as refugees seeking asylum they are likely to be stigmatised once again now they are in Finland, one possible direction for analysis is through Goffman’s notions of stigma. Goffman’s ideas about stage and performance will surely also figure in the analysis.

Most importantly perhaps, through this moving and valuable project the Finnish National Theatre will develop the idea that the potential of art is not only in the hands of those who speak Finnish or Swedish. In this sense, the project embodies an emancipatory orientation towards gaining knowledge.

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