by MK PALOMAR
MK Palomar: Can I ask you some background questions to get an idea of how you arrived at this point in your work? Your practice encompasses many different mediums. You draw and you make sculpture and you perform and you sing, and you have a persona – or would you say character or alter ego? – called HK 119. What term do you use when you talk about HK 119?
Heidi Kilpeläinen: Any of those would fit it, I suppose – but I do feel it was something that was geared towards the music world, so the current work is not really HK 119.
MKP: OK, so let me go back. You work with different materials. Can you tell me how those different materials – paper, clay, music, performance – inform your practice? How do they influence what you’re doing?
HK: It’s a little bit difficult, because it’s something I don’t really think about. It’s something which comes instinctively to me. I have a need to explore different materials – it’s like a way of being in the world – through different medias, like how does it feel to touch something which is clay, how does it feel to hear something which is music or composition or a world of sound or noises. And then what about the visual that links very much to our internet age, which links again with this alter ego HK 119, who was tapping into that science fact and fiction world, exploring the relationship between man and machine – woman and machine – which is one of the recurring themes that interest me. So the medium comes instinctively, as if I had an unspoken need to tap into a particular area momentarily. They might not always take the foreground fully – like at the moment, the audio visual composition is the main work – but behind the scenes I might have an urge to make a drawing or a collage or take a photograph and that’s on the back burner cooking – so they have different developing times –they are worked on a different level or time frame.
MKP: Do you think one informs the other? For instance, the drawings you do?
HK: Yes, there is a link – they all create this Gesamtkunstwerk (It’s German. It means total work of art), all-encompassing work like Bauhaus theatre – for instance, my piece [graduation show at Central Saints Martins] with the installation, with the video, with the costume, with the song, with the performance – it’s everything that excites me because it is the sort of playing ground where anything and everything fits in – and these things and mediums have a relationship with each other, more or less. Obviously, there are moments when you think, how do these [work together] – it might not always be obvious that’s what I mean. Why am I attracted to canvas after having been doing drawings, for example. What brings me back to this traditional, conventional painting surface like a canvas? And I think again that goes back to – as a human being – to explore different mediums, to be a whole, to experience the touch, the audial, the visual.
MKP: The touch?
HK: I’m talking about how in a way they satisfy different parts of me – and what different needs I have to understand and view the world. If I was blind, I’d be touching all sort of surfaces and things in the world, and making a reading based on those, so in a way I suppose I’m making my reading of the world through tapping into different mediums. Then some things might stick and take the foreground for a bit longer to become a piece of work – and then another form might stay as a sketch that then informs the main piece, but on a subconscious level. Does that make sense?
MKP: When and how did you come to develop your performance character HK 119 and what were the influences behind it?
HK: It was before MA (Central Saint Martins 2002-4). I was on and off with music all my life really. I remember playing the triangle when I was five at playschool, and then being in a band when I was 14, then a different singing project when I was 16, and then left [Finland] and went to Spain and came to England and I had a boyfriend who was a musician so I started tapping into his guitar and stuff – making musical sketches – and then went to art school, and then making records came later [Kilpeläinen was signed to Bjork’s record label, One little Indian, in 2006]. So it was always this kind of thing, like a wave form [Kilpeläinen motions the up and down of a wave] of visual, audial, visual, audial. Like I said, that’s my way of reading and understanding the world. I made short songs on a digital eight-track machine, like two, three minutes max – songs that were based on science fact and fiction. I was watching certain sci-fi movies, Gattaca, Kubrick’s 2001 – classics – they inspired me to write lyrics and make the character HK 119 who then performed in different guises. These songs and subject matters that were revolving around man-machine relationship and technology, and the dystopian fun side of it – dramatic threat to humanity question mark. So it was fun to create this character, HK 119, who took this position of the advertising world and being the woman who spoke for the digital age – I suppose a kind of seductress, in a way. To lead us away from human values, and what does it mean to have compassion and important values that I think should be cherished like social skills. So through those short songs and videos, the persona was created and then I realised that I was making music – and I thought, whoops, I got into Central Saint Martins to do an MA, so I started thinking about the visual sides of those songs – and that’s how the videos came into play. They were at first songs and then I performed them on to videos. Which they selected for The Bloomberg New Contemporaries in 2004. It went to two galleries, the Curve in Liverpool and the Barbican. So at school [CSM], I started looking into the Bauhaus and constructivism and I started creating environments for this persona [HK 119] to live in – like stage sets – you can see these videos on YouTube.
MKP: You performed that character HK 119, in some very different kinds of places – in the V&A [among ancient statues], and also in a nightclub in Soho – the same character but very different environments. Did those different environments affect what you were doing?
HK: I was just doing the character, performing in the way that HK 119 performed, doing the same songs. Obviously, each setting was a new chapter position to the table – like how is it different and what does it mean to perform in an institution like the V&A – a museum that normally shows some really old artefacts – it was a music event, so it was curated to be an audio thing. And then I suppose the nightclub where the culture and influences comes from performers like David Bowie, Nina Hagen, Iggy Pop, Grace Jones, Kraftwerk, these people who blew my mind in Finland where I grew up living in a small town. Hearing and seeing their personas, obviously Bowie was the biggest one of them, and it’s really, really very sad to loose him [pauses]. He really informed my growing up in that sense of how to be playful and invent who you are – and that sort of fun element of each record is different – which I was in a way doing myself, although I only have three records – they all have very different characters or aspects of HK 119.
MKP: Because you perform in such different venues – like the V&A [which is] sort of the opposite of the Soho nightclub – first, I wondered if it influenced your performance, but then I’d like also to ask, did you feel different? There you were in the V&A among all these ancient sculptures in a kind of hallowed space …
HK: I think it was great. I loved the contrast. It was fun to be in, in that the building has a kind of ghost – lots of invisible things there, like the residue of the performances that once happened – and at the time the contrast in the surroundings gives it a different aura to a nightclub, which is where you’d expect to see it, isn’t it. You go to a nightclub or a cabaret place and you expect to see something like HK 119. But then there are lots of art galleries too [that host these music events], and I guess that brings up the question: “But is it art?” When I sent my videos to New Contemporaries, one of the selectors said: “Well, we had trouble deciding at first. We wondered if you’d entered the wrong competition, and then we decided that it’s art.” I thought that was nice because I really felt that I was on the borderlines. It’s always nice to stir up these judges.
MKP: Talking about borderlines, that brings me to ask you about the work that you’ve recently developed, tango therapy. How did you come to develop tango therapy?
HK: Tango therapy started as part of a larger performance at the Beaconsfield residency [she was in residence at the start of 2015], so it was one element of a performance with multiple actions within it. And it became a piece from there, and I tested it in a few places. I did it there and at an art fair in Finland and at a gallery in Finland, and then I came back to London and I thought, next time I go to Helsinki to do the HIAP (Helsinki International Arts Programme), where I’ve just been (on a residency) for two and a half months – my mission was that when I got to Helsinki I would ask the refugee centres if they would like tango therapy. The bureaucratic routes could take months and months to get through, so I met a lady who had been living in the centre and had moved to live with a family outside Helsinki and still had friends at the centre. We met at Stefan Bremer’s photographic exhibition of refugees who have come to Finland, and I asked her if she thought the refugees would like tango therapy. She said she thought they would – because there’s a lack of activities, and boredom sets in and they have no money or capability to go out and venture anywhere – so I went as a guest of this lady.
MKP: There’s no documentation of your tango therapy. Will you tell us about it and explain why there’s no documentation?
HK: Tango therapy is a performance to one person at a time, sitting on two chairs opposite each other – the rest of the audience watches the performance and can take turns to sit on the chair. I look into the eyes of the person and I sing a Finnish tango or another familiar melody.
MKP: What is Finnish tango? I don’t know what that sounds like.
HK: Finland is really big on tango. Tango first came to Finland around 1913 from Argentina to Europe and from Europe to Finland. We adopted tango into our hearts as a nation and started writing our own tangos. They are different from Argentinian tangos. They are more melancholic in their melodies and chord structure and also lyrically. So as they are part of our identity in Finland and they are songs that I grew up with and they feel like part of my DNA – I’ve known them from my parents. As language is one of the barriers when you arrive in a new country, a new setting, I thought it’s a nice way of exposing our language – an element of our culture for these people. But at the same time, of course, melody is a language that crosses boundaries – so that’s why tango therapy seems very successful, even in this situation. You can’t communicate with each other. Most of the refugees don’t speak English [let alone Finnish], so there is no common language to communicate with. That’s why this tango therapy became interesting for me because of the fact of humanity – the eye contact, the performance being just a cappella – the melody crosses boundaries. And, of course, we all have our own relationship towards melodies – songs and what they might mean to us and what memories they might have for us.
MKP: There’s no evidence visual or sound, no recoding of these works. Can you explain why?
HK: I wanted it to be solely about giving – I did not want to tap into this – you know, taking photos and exposing people [who are under threat] to any sort of danger. That’s why there can’t be photographs because these people’s identity has to be protected. The tango therapy is just me singing, so I didn’t feel the need to record myself. Each performance is different, with its own background sounds. Sometimes, it can be quite cacophonic – very hectic, noisy – or another time very respectful and silent, then every body cheering and joining in, and really like if it was a concert joining in and complimenting – wonderful –wonderful. Then another time, ladies became very emotional and another time the same ladies would sing back to me. So each time the piece changes and I’m especially really interested in this aspect that they want to sing back to me. We had a very nice sort of extension of tango therapy session where Ethiopians, Iraqis, Serbian and Albanian ladies and Syrians all took turns to sing for me and that was really brilliant. We had all different languages going on and their spirit was brilliant. They were like: “We are not immigrants, we are not refugees – we are a big family here” and the women living together there – that was really uplifting – so each session is very different. It wasn’t my priority [to document]. You see, I did not want to impose myself in that way – like, “Oh, let me put the recording machine on”, to come across as though I need something out of them or out of the situation.
MKP: Do you see it as part of your practice?
HK: Yes, I do. I see it as an extension of making music – and using my voice. There is a very inbuilt need for me to express myself through my voice, which started a long, long, long time ago, and developed into three albums, and now for me this is one way of using that tool – my voice – differently.
MKP: You had a recording contract with One Little Indian.
MKP: Would you think of singing to me?
MKP: Would you allow that sound to be attached in a link to this article?
HK: Yes, we can see how it turns out. Do you want to do it now ?
Kilpeläinen’s studio room is full of musical and recording equipment. There’s an upright piano, small strange ceramic sculptures masks and books. She draws up a chair facing another, sits me down and sings a cappella – a clear, strong, resonant sound and perfectly pitched. I am touched by this intimate vocal made for and directed to me.
MKP: It’s almost like a lullaby – like calming a child.
HK: Yeah, you can see how that might fit in [with the refugees].
MKP: And there was something of Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present [sitting face to face with one other].
HK: Yes – I didn’t think about that when I first started this – but then I realised of course – and that moment [engagement with one other] – is quite rare these days. We are always mediated through something, especially in big cities. I live in a city, so I see things in that way. We don’t really have time to stop and look at other people or hear other people properly – or even ourselves sometimes – so just to take a breather, to stop, can create that little special something. Like “Hang on, hang on – what’s really going on here?” Let’s not get completely carried away with this, “We are so busy and then we die” and we didn’t realise that there were these important bits that we should have been involved in. Busy so we get it all done before we have to go [laughs] – morbid Finn! Let’s not try and portray that [laughs].
This is the most famous Finnish tango, Land of Dreams. This is the one that I wrote new lyrics for based on Facebook comments about Charlie Hebdo in Paris. So I used people’s comments and sung them to this melody, but I sing the original here now. I also like to manipulate old traditional songs with new lyrics. For example, one Finnish tango, The Tango of Destiny, is so suicidal that I have to change the lyrics. I don’t want to sing a suicidal song to my tango therapy person who comes to sit with me, even if they don’t understand. Because this piece is about giving something and surviving in extreme upheavals.
MKP: Are Finnish people by default rather sad and gloomy? Is it the lack of light?
HK: I think maybe the lack of light, yes, that we maybe have a tendency to be melancholic, let’s put it that way. And some melancholic people jump off the bridge – or whatever … hmmm.
MKP: So this is called Land of Dreams?
HK: It’s called Land of Dreams and this, I think, is a wonderful song because it says, in your imagination you can get there. So it kind of offers you that option of (pause) – you can make your own world and your happiness by imagining this positive place. And, of course, that’s kind of like for us all – you create your moment by being in the moment and it’s possible that can be your land of dreams – if you can stay, tap into that – that land of dreams is a place of eternal happiness, away from all the trouble and heartache. And in terms of a refugee context, it’s a nice sentiment to offer – that “hang in there, things will get better”. You have this dream, try to keep striving for it – stay positive and upbeat.
MKP: Do you have a translator with you at these sessions?
MKP: So they don’t know what the words are?
HK: In one session I started opening with the title, but for me it’s not important the cerebral thing– it’s more about the human contact, especially in this context when people have gone through hell. Like you know [laughs] (as if to say): “Let me explain to you now what’s going on.” The important thing for me is being humane. The media reports that most of society hates all the refugees and they are not wanted. So it’s a kind of a welcoming, warm thing – showing those people that we’re not all like this [against refugees] and we don’t all think like that [hate refugees], and you are welcome and you’re a human being and your suffering is real, and I really have compassion for that, I’m very sorry. So it’s all about those things, rather than talking about what the lyrics of the song might be. If there is a translator, I might be interested in that – but it also breaks up the magic of the moment, which is about being silent and sitting in the chair and then delivering. Like I said, the melody is what crosses boundaries.
[Kilpeläinen sings a bright, light melody with an upbeat lilt and happy pa pa pa sounds.]
HK: Often in Finnish tangos you have references to nature – so in this, “I am not a bird, I have not got wings, I am tied to the ground – I’m a prisoner of the ground – only in my thoughts can I go to a place, that land of dreams that’s perfect”– so it’s encouraging.
[Kilpeläinen was preparing a new work for her performance at Beaconsfield Gallery Vauxhall]
HK: “Implicated” that’s the name of the piece – and that taps into all our current social ills – the wealth crisis, you name it – and also personal – a woman is raging in it, so – [Kilpeläinen’s performance took place on 26 February 2016].
MKP: Will you be performing as HK 119 or Heidi Kilpeläinen?
HK: As Heidi Kilpeläinen. I’m a visual artist above everything – I’m the creator of HK 119, which is a project. Then there’s Fed Up, which is another project – so HK 119 was a project. I don’t know when she will come again, I guess it’s up to her really (laughs) when she turns up.
We viewed Kilpeläinen’s video (in the process of being edited). A split-screen displays (sometimes two frames, sometimes more) images of Kilpeläinen, sometimes opposite, sometimes besides, sometimes facing each other – and then another split – and sounds – chanting, ranting, raging, screaming, yowling. A difficult video to watch, to be railed at from a flat screen, then the sound of the breath and pulse of a heartbeat and more raging and raising volume – mesmeric- flaying head-spinning and shaking and screaming – and shouting and yelling and repeating a rhythm.
MKP: Will you perform this live?
HK: The exhibition is on now until 9 April 2016 and I will edit a special version for the live performance, titled Protest Song competition.
MKP: Did you make this film here?
HK: No, at the residency, I can’t scream like that here: they would call the police.
MKP: You said it was called Implicated. What are you doing [in the video]?
HK: I’m commenting about current issues globally and on a personal level as well. It’s a kind of continuation of Fed Up, which was a retching choir. Like previously, I’ve always been in the man-machine relationship, but also about consumerism and about inequality – and, obviously, they are really big issues going on currently politically and globally, what’s going on with immigration and the way nations kind of deal – or don’t deal – with it, and, you know, the level of corruption that’s going on. It’s enough. It’s my way of digesting the news. I was just expressing feelings about current affairs, letting some steam out. Really, the question is, at the end of the day, how can we affect political decisions? So I was venting the frustrations – some changes are actually happening – but we need much more.