TUIKE ALITALO AND SIMO ALITALO: ALL EARS ARE EQUAL

Tuike Alitalo and Simo Alitalo are sound artists based in Turku, Finland. Their practice involves sound installations based on field recordings, environmental art, writing, participatory performances as well as communal sound performances and listening walks. Exploring the ways places are heard, their work emerges from the central questions of ‘acoustemology’, i.e. acoustic epistemology, questioning, “What do we experience through sound, listening and other auditive practices? How is our knowledge shaped by the things we hear in our surroundings?” Programs made by Simo Alitalo for Radio Broadcasting now in Yle Arena. “Simo Alitalo (b. 1954) has been one of the key players in the Radio Broadcasting and its predecessor the Radio program, which naturally joined Alitalo’s work as a sound artist. Alitalo’s work is humorous, intellectual, cultural-conscious and sound-oriented, while simultaneously and ironically questions the media itself.” OUTSIDERS AT WORK speaks to Tuike and Simo Alitalo to explore together their experiences regarding practice, work, their methods, and their living.

I (Vidha) met you (Tuike & Simo) briefly in 2010 in Lincoln, but we really started meeting regularly only when Ali moved to Finland in 2015. And you included us in many conversations about work, life and work-life. These conversations inspired us to do this interview with you. So we have some questions, and after we wind this down we also have a lighter part of the interview, which is the Proust questionnaire.

Vidha: We could begin by talking about how did you meet each other? And before you started thinking about the field or the profession you’d continue doing for the rest of your life – something ‘pre’, even before university, such as defining moments in upbringing or school that made you think, “This is what I want to do”.

Simo: hmmm… interesting. We met in the student theatre ages ago, in 1969…

Tuike: …or 68. At that time, ‘the theatre’ was a thing, at least in this town (Turku, Finland). That’s where we met and the student theatre was very experimental.

S: We did street theatre. When the local newspapers reported about things in Paris they seem to be fascinated or outraged about Situationist slogans like “Below every street there’s a beach”, so I think the Situationists inspired us. In addition to the theatre projects and street theatre, there were ‘actions’…

T: We didn’t know each other, but when we met in the student theatre we had this feeling that ‘Yes! We love these slogans’ – “Be Realistic”, “Demand Impossible”, these were our favourite. Both our favourites were the Situationists in Paris. So that was actually something that connected us… and there were other people too, so we made a group and wanted to do something.

S: At the time the city of Turku had small metal signs in parks that said, “Don’t walk on the grass” – like a city law. One night we gathered all the signs and we repainted them with all sorts of crazy cowboys and witches slogans, and we put them back and believe it or not some of them stayed like that for almost 10 years! No one seemed to notice or didn’t bother to change them…

T: …or read what the sign was saying. This is why we loved the theatre because it had ‘space’ in every sense of the word, where you could work. The theatre was divided into two spaces, we were more interested in the workspace than the stage. There were different sets of people, and some from the workspace group were studying in the local art school.

S: In the theatre space we did different performances…

T: …and we did street theatre as well.

S: We also did strange concerts with all our friends playing and I produced concrete music. One of the instruments that were invented was an ancient metal bed that was turned and amplified on which you could play this interesting noise music. It was called…

T: Vakka-Suomen Sähköheteeka.

S: Electric Bed of South Western Finland (laughing together). So we did that…

T: We were still studying in high school, we were 15 and that’s how we met, at the theatre. We did theatre for a few years and dropped out of school. We were both dropouts, which gave us more time to do our experiments… FUN.

S: During that time I started to play the Saxophone and after the theatre projects I played in different bands and also in big band in Turku for almost 10 years. I then went to the evening school or high school for adults, where you study in the evenings, after your work, graduated, and went to the university, where I started to study musicology. When they closed the musicology department, I transferred to philosophy and I was sort of meandering – there was never a clear idea of what I would do when I grow up.

T: I was also in the evening school. After that, I went to Turku University and was still quite young when I became the head of the whole theatre…

S: …Chairperson.

T:  They made me the head of the student theatre. Just a few days ago I was thinking, ‘what were they thinking – I was too young for that’. 

I wanted to go to theatre school and I even applied once to enter. They didn’t take me  – they never take anyone the first time but I never applied a second time, for which I am very happy because it would have been awful. Instead, I started writing about Art in the newspapers, even though I was still in university studying Political History. Later I changed to ‘History of Civilisation’, and then I studied Literature with no idea of what sense it made… but throughout I worked and actually started making money writing for newspapers. So, when we moved in together –

S: it was 1975 when we moved in together and married.

T: The money came from writing. At that time you needed to make money… I did news reporting – they were paying.

S: …You worked also during the summer holidays.

T: And during the winters holidays…

S: Yes, also during the winter holidays.

T: It’s a long story, but being the head of the student theatre was good merit for me.

Ali: You have both mentioned in the past that you got married so that your housing situation would be easier to process, can you explain what that means?

T: It was impossible to have your own apartment without being married. It was equally difficult to move in together without getting married.

At the time I was still writing with my maiden name, so even though we were married no one knew that we were married. My fellow students didn’t even know that I was the same person who wrote in the newspaper – I still have friends who don’t know what my real name is…

We both hated the idea of getting married. I was exceptionally unhappy with the idea [of marriage] because I had decided that I would never get married.

A: …then why did you get married?

T: To get the apartment (both chuckle)

S: There was a sort of government support to married couples.

T: They gave us a little money because we were married.

S: And they paid part of our rent so that was extra encouragement.

T: The truth is that since then the housing situation has only worsened. From 1975 to 79 we lived in three different places. Of course, now we know that people move every year.  we were in the first place for one year and in the second place for one and a half years. By then it was impossible to find any place – so we took a loan.

S: The rent went up as well.  When we did the math it made sense to buy our own apartment.

T: I was making a little money so we could get money from the bank and I think at that moment we could say that we are really married because we had a loan together and we thought, ‘now this is getting serious’, ‘now it is difficult to a point where it is not going to be easy to get out of it anymore’. And actually, it got really difficult. Not difficult between us, but difficult regarding the bank. I lost my job immediately after getting the loan, that good job which I had from about 1975 to up till 1980 and we bought the apartment in 1979. For us, marriage is always connected to what we’re doing and how we’re making a living.

V: I gather from your responses that you were both working independently of each other – that for practical reasons, you were both doing different jobs… but tell me, when and how did the two of you transform into a collaborative team that works on projects together? Did you have a conversation with each other one day, saying that let’s now define our practice like ‘this’ and focus in ‘this’ manner? Did something like that happen?

T: As we mentioned earlier we started working together from the student theatre days, but if I was writing something I was discussing it with him [Simo]. I didn’t know anything about saxophone playing and so on, but all the time we were interested in something that we both found interesting. Then in the 80s, we chanced upon this new thing and we got really interested. Video Art was just surfacing in Turku and at the same time we had transitioned from the theatre into film and found ourselves visibly interested in Cinema. Simo was interested in  ‘Sound in Cinema’ which during the 80s and 90s got bigger and bigger.

S: I also joined the radio in the 80s. The connection with radio started in 1984.

T: Simo also started making money…

S: I started doing the radio programs in late 85. The interest in film studies was connected to the fact that the university (Department of Cultural History) had received money to buy the first Beta Recorder, where you could record the whole film. So we had a film study group, where we recorded films from television and analysed them as a group. And I did radio work on the side.

T: The Finnish broadcasting company (YLE) had this experimental studio, called ‘Special Program’. The time that Simo worked for them was a defining time, because you could say that this was when he started to do ‘Radio Art’. The broadcasting company also had an Art Department.

S: And we did modern documentaries…

T: But also experimental work in radio…  it’s simple, you can say that ‘when you move Radio Art out of the radio and put it into the art gallery it transforms into Sound Art

S: Or Radio Art…

T: In the beginning, everyone said that Simo does ‘Radio Art’…

S: One of the first radio programs Tuike and I did together was ‘Travelling with a coconut’. We went to Bali in Indonesia, with the idea to make a program about how Indonesian or Balinese culture use the coconut for everything – for clothes, food, building material, cups, etc. We made recordings during the entire two months that we were there.

T: This was connected to both of us in the way that Simo was working at the radio and studying music at the university and studying Sound in film, and the same time I was working in the newspaper… I was already interested in Film History (as part of the History of Civilisation or Cultural History). I had decided that my main subject of study or what I was going to study, is the History of Food. I was just fascinated… you have to understand that in the analysis of European history, for example in Italy and in Italian analyst history, nobody had really thought of the meaning of food in all kind of things. From that, you can understand how we were interested in the idea of culture, going to totally different cultures and thinking of it from this strange perspective. The coconut was totally unknown subject/food for us and we saw that for them it was so fundamental and a basis of living.

S: Then we did the ‘meaning of coffee’ in Finnish history. There are a lot of stories in Finnish literature about how people exchanged coffee and not exchanged coffee – It starts from whether you’re offered coffee or not. Another radio project we did together was a ‘pillow of emotions’ that was later turned into an installation in the early 90s.

T: We took the same material to a gallery as an installation because it was based on photographs from my childhood, from my mother’s collection. We transformed those photos into stories made for the radio, so you could hear the photos… that was the idea.

V: Was this happening at the same time that you were working at the radio?

T: and while I was working for the newspaper, and we were both studying, and our hobby was studying and analysing films.

A: Did you establish by then that you will always work as a team?

T: I remember that it was really fun – all the things we did together never felt like work. We were writing together, everything together was so wonderful and I actually wouldn’t mind doing it all over again but our ideal collaborations were the radio programs because I did one part of the writing and Simo…

S: …I was a bad writer, so I needed Tuike because I couldn’t start. But, I was a fairly good reader – once we got text on paper, I could confidently say, ‘okay this can go, this can stay’. Radio texts have to be really bare.

T: He transformed the texts into sound material…

S: And into the kind of texts that the actor would feel comfortable saying.

T: I was amazed by how fast we could be in doing something so difficult. It was really fun.

S: I agree…

T: The funny thing is, or the truth is that the programs were not financed too well. We did it because it was fun, so it was okay that they didn’t pay well or sometimes didn’t pay at all.

V: I understand that this process of working together had already begun since the student theatre days and I am trying to connect it to what you mentioned earlier, ‘when radio art travels to a gallery it becomes sound art…’. Was this when you put it in your CVs that you are Sound Artists? How did that understanding come about?

S: It came about while I was in Helsinki during the radio project days; the programs were 55 min. 37 sec. exactly. You had five days in a studio to do it: The first day you recorded the actors in the studio, then you edited them, then you had to find additional sound materials from the radio archives and in 5 days you had to put it all together. The studio times were divided into Monday mornings and Tuesday evenings where two teams worked together in two shifts. So I spent a lot of time in the University of Helsinki Library reading magazines and I found the ‘Leonardo da Vinci Electronic Artist Magazine’ or ‘Inter-Artist Magazine’ and there was this guy writing about his work,  Bill Fontana,  he called himself a ‘Sound Artist’ or maybe a ‘Sound Sculptor’…

T: …And this was the late 80s?

S: 86 I think, and Leonardo [da Vinci Electronic Artist Magazine] had this habit that they published the writer’s address. So, I wrote to him, saying that, ‘what an interesting article and I would like to know more and more about this’… and eventually I managed to get the radio to pay for him to come to Helsinki… we had sort of dreamed up a project that would connect Stockholm, Helsinki, Turku and Leningrad in real time in a sound installation.

T: That was the kind of work Bill Fontana was doing at that time, these sound bridges.

S: Yes, Sound Bridge. There was funding for it…

T: And at the same time you were doing the documentaries.

S: Yes I was, but this radio project became such a big project that it sort of died. We couldn’t get all the parts together.

T: It never got realised, actually. The sound bridge became difficult essentially because the Soviet Union collapsed, and it was part of the ‘Finnish Soviet Cultural Exchange’.

S: The Soviet Union disappeared, so the project disappeared because the cooperation disappeared…

T: … and so the funding disappeared.

S: But that’s how I realised that okay, this is what I want to do and this is what Bill Fontana is doing and this is what he is calling himself – that’s how I found my identity.

T: And you called yourself a ‘Sound Artist’ instead of calling yourself a journalist or a Radio Producer…

S: And then I started to find connections around the world… finding that there are other people too, who are doing what I do.

T: Did we do already some curating by then? In the 80s we had a Media-Art gallery.

S: … Showing mostly Video Art.

T: We were very interested. It was an absolutely new form, different, and a new idea altogether as compared to cinema, although cinema had also been a passion for us…

S: …and in Turku, you learn very early that if you want to see something, or hear something, you better arrange it yourself. Nobody else is going to do that. So, we started this gallery and hoped for the scene to adapt. I think our first applications for funding that got accepted were for the Media-Art gallery. We were part of this group that had started a Book Cafe in the centre of Old Turku. The place was actually the old Police station from the time Finland was part of Russia. There was a walk-in-safe about the size of this room (approximately 35 sqm.), and we thought that we should be able to do something with the safe and came up with this idea that we would organise an exhibition called “Safe” and have a media installation inside the safe, where people could go in one by one… 

T: We did that was because we never liked the way museums would display Video Art works, often in some corridor or some corner where people would pass them by. Where in a 2-hour programme there would be several short video pieces one after another, like a sausage of Videos.  It was horrifying. You have to give space and time to video works as well. So for us, it was an experiment to see what would happen if there was a room in which there is only one piece and where only one person could go in at a time.

S: Also radio gave me the idea that you could have 50,000 to 200,000 people listening to the same radio program but they usually listen to it in their own home by themselves. There is no audience effect.  Whenever they organise seats in a row there is an audience and an osmosis of opinions, where people form a common opinion of what they’re seeing; and I thought it would be good if everybody could be responsible for their own listening and watching, but do it collectively.

T: Safe festival was a big project, we were not doing it alone.

S: I think we got funding for it because it was an international exhibition. We had artist all over the world, meaning that we had some people who sent their piece, but also some who travelled to Turku.

T: The idea was that it would last two weeks – with a different artist each day. In order to see the whole show, you would have had to come for all fourteen days. We installed it the night before, to be seen the next day, and we thought that was good timing. We also faced some problems. One of the problems was that it became very popular and hence very difficult with only one person being able to see at a time.

S: Somebody got us a token machine…and we shouted, “27…27…”

T: We managed to have it remain open in the night as well because people were complaining that they didn’t have time to stay in the line, so we had these numbers. Since it was close to the university, students could attend a class and come back. People came in the morning to pick their number and came to see it later. They could even call and ask which number was going on. We did that and learned many aspects that you have to be careful about when planning such concepts.

S: For example, how many jobs you create for yourself, you have to think about that as well…

Viileää – Sounds Cool 2003, Sound Installation for 78 loudspeakers, Wind Harp and Hydrophone and 6 channel Sound 
Wäinö Aaltonen museo ,Turku. 2003.  
Aftonlandet  Galleri  54, Göteborg,  Sweden. 2004.
Klangkunst -festival “ Klangraum  Raumklang”  
Galerie Rachel Kaferkamp Cologne, Germany 2004.
Sonic Difference: Re-Sounding the World, Beap Biennale of Electronic Arts Perth,  The Moores Building Contemporary Art Gallery, Fremantle, Australia 2004.
Mäntän Kuvataideviikot  -Mänttä Summer 2006 
Photo by Simo Alitalo | Image: courtesy of the artists

A: Now that you had been calling yourselves Sound Artists, did you find other sound artists in Turku or in Finland, who were thinking on similar lines or doing similar work?

S: The first contacts came from abroad…

T: In the early 90s, probably 1991 we had this urge of wanting to know more, and to see what others are doing. Simo got a grant in 1991 to go to Canada.

S: Canada seemed to be the most active in Sound Art at that time.

T: He applied to travel across Canada, and although there was no time limit, it was dependent on how much money he’d need, and the Foundation Suomen kulttuurirahasto, The Finnish Cultural Foundation, that funded him said, ‘ok, good idea, go to Canada’. We went together, and I’m thinking that it’s amazing how much one can learn, in just one journey. We went to interview all those Canadian Sound Artists, in exactly this way as you are interviewing us – we had recorders and a lot of questions. They took us to their studios and showed Simo their computers, their programs, we were like, ‘wow, wow, wow’ (laughs)… that’s how we got these connections. It was spring, and during the trip, these people, the Canadians, were telling us that ‘have you heard that this summer we are planning to make an international congress in Banff and they are making this Forum for Acoustic Ecology?’ And we were like, ‘No’, we hadn’t heard, but we made the trip from Toronto all the way to Vancouver…

S: I think Montreal, Toronto… we did Banff also, and then to Vancouver…

T: Yes, and in Vancouver we met all these people whose books we have read, like Hildegard Westerkamp and they took us… and, it was funny that Hildegard’s husband Peter was doing this community radio, which I had always admired, but in Finland it was impossible.  It was so overwhelming to experience all this in person. When we came home, we decided that we just have to go to the Banff meeting, but we had made this really expensive trip. So, Simo went alone because we couldn’t afford for both of us to go. Simo went that summer, and from then on we have been in this international community of Acoustic Ecology.

S: There were a lot of people, University people, and artists…

T: Simo met a lot of people at the Banff Conference, from Australia, Japan, that was like… sometimes it’s a very good idea to go abroad. And if you have contacts, to just go and meet people. And thinking that young sound artists nowadays, from all over, they contact us if they happen to be in this part of the world, and we always, always try to meet them remembering how important it was for us. (laughs)

S: Yes, this was 1991, and then in 1996, we went to Berlin to Sonambiente…

T: and we had an exhibition in Turku, after Sonambiente.

S: And we also were in Sound Culture in San Francisco.

T: that was later…

V: When did you first go to the USA?V: Can one say that in order to create the audience, you first educate the audience, and when they become more participative, one can hope for an exchange?

T: In 1991, the first time we went to the US. Canada trip was before that, wasn’t? I don’t remember…

S: We can check our CVs… We went to the US for the first time in 1990 and to Canada in 1993. Our second trip to US was in 1991 and I went to US a second time in the summer 1991 doing the documentary about the blues musicians. And after the Indonesia trip (1991-92). we went to Canada and then in 1994 again to US and stayed for a longer time in New York.

T: Well the story is, that I was working at the Ministry of Education where they were planning to introduce ‘Film Studies’ as a subject in the University, because the Department of Film Studies wasn’t in the University yet. For this, they had a committee for which I was working as the secretary. All the members of the committee were busy professors… and lazy. They said that somebody would have to go to the US to study how the curriculums are made. So off we went! (both chuckle).

It was probably because we had been to Canada that they knew that we had done this kind of crazy study, and that we could do it. And we did it – and made a lot of connections in film studies as well.

S: Was it during this period that we met Nigel?

T: It was during the ISEA (Inter-Society for Electronic Arts) conference in Helsinki, in 1994.

S: Yes, the first ISEA in Helsinki. There we met Nigel Helyer, a sculptor and sound artist, from Australia, and then again later in San Francisco, where we started to discuss the possibility of doing something together, and he told us about the Sound Culture exhibition coming up in New Zealand, in 1999. We have then worked together with him several times since then.

T: For us, there was also this feeling – that we have to do something, but the scene wasn’t really professional, and we didn’t know what we were really doing or wanted to do. I remember that we sat down and tried to figure what was wrong with this role, and how it doesn’t work. We understood that the problem was that Simo couldn’t get shows – you couldn’t get into the galleries, into the museums, because they didn’t know anything about Sound Art. 

S: Yes, and we had seen in the world, that this thing is coming up, strongly, and [we felt] that they should know something about it…

T: We decided that we have to introduce Sound Art [to them], and that was the beginning. We made the first International exhibition in Turku, where we invited those people from the Sound Art world whom we knew. We had done the ‘Safe’ before, but we actually realised that it was a mistake because there was too much video art, and computer-based art. So we decided, ‘No, we have to concentrate on sound art’, because it serves us best – then the people learn. Probably the curators and so on, they come because it is their profession, they come to see and understand, and possibly be more open to having more exhibitions on sound. So we started to curate Sound Art exhibitions, we did one in Turku, and then we did one big one in Helsinki at the MUU Gallery – a really huge exhibition. At that time, we had this – what would have been a really complicated term – ‘artist/curator’ connection. I don’t know how many ‘artist-curators’ would have been in Finland at the time, I don’t think there would have been many, but in some other art forms that are very marginal, you just had to have them, and we began [that trend] in Sound Art, where Simo was the ‘artist/curator’ and I suppose people thought I was a ‘producer/curator’.

V: Can one say that in order to create the audience, you first educate the audience, and when they become more participative, one can hope for an exchange?

S: Yes, and also, we had to send up a flag to the art historians, curators, and museum people that there is this new thing just knocking on your door, and that you should pay attention.

T: Today the world is different, but during that time it was so that if you knew how to get stories into the magazines and newspapers about this new thing, then even if people thought, “is this real?” because if there is a story…

V: …then it must be.

T: One could say that what we were doing or why we were doing it was because we really wanted to do it. We just had to figure out how to make it possible, and then we had to do it. But thinking back on it now, it didn’t really work so easily. Museums and galleries in Finland had no interest in Sound Art.

V: So, in this kind of a situation, how do you position yourselves? How do you operate? Do you continue to put out this ‘red flag’? Is the situation better compared to 25 years ago?

S: Well, one thing we understood was that ‘ok, it’s never going to happen in Finland’, so we had to go abroad. And if you did something abroad, then maybe they would invite you back to Finland. And so in 1996, we went to Berlin for Sonambiente. It was always about going somewhere, meeting someone… T: …trying to get yourself the possibility of doing something. It was easier to get yourself space in Berlin to do Sound Art than anywhere in Finland. Simo has had more exhibitions in Berlin than in Helsinki.

aCollection d’hiver / Talvimallisto   2002 
Sound Installation for 9 Loudspeakers and 8 Channel Sound
 La mission arctique: L´Oeil de Poisson, Quebec,  Canada 2002.  
Kakelhallen, Mariehamn, Åland. 2003. 
Photo by Simo Alitalo | Image: courtesy of the artists

A: Did you feel like an outsider in Finland because of your practice?

S: Yes, I was an outsider, being from Turku and exhibiting abroad…

T: Also not coming from the schools, where if you came from the schools, you would know each other, and if you’re not from the schools, then you’re outside [the circles].

S: But fairly early, I knew what I was interested in, and what I was doing. I had been teaching in all the schools, so I said, “I can’t be the one coming from these schools because I’m the one who teaches in those schools”. How would that work? And there wasn’t a place before where you could study Sound Art, so the only thing you could do is study yourself. And keep reminding them, ‘why don’t you fund sound art? Give me your reasons.’

V: Having faced this sense of being an outsider do you find yourself situated outside the sphere of the given “Art-World” protocols? Is it a more freeing experience as well?

S: Yeah, yeah… I could bang my drum more freely than the others (laughs). I could say that, “I’m here but you don’t notice me because I’m not from that school”. I teach there, but I don’t teach myself, so here we are… I think it can be ‘freedom’. And still, there weren’t any others, at that point of time, who were doing anything like that.

T: For years, meeting these Sound Artists and being part of the group, we would meet and say that we are this kind of ‘nomadic sound artists tribe’, (both laugh together) who travel in these festivals… and every time we meet now we joke that now after these 25 years, ‘it’s happening, or it’s going to happen’ – 25 years ago everyone was saying…

S: … ‘Next year… next year…’

T: … And it [this sense of freedom] hasn’t happened anywhere…  But now when we were doing our performances in New York, there were Canadian audience members, who said that sure it’s happening there, it used to be that they started early and still are kind of leading… yeah…

S:  They also have a sensible funding system, and a better peer review system than the Finns have… now the Canadian system may have taken a turn for the worse, but in the early stages, their peer review was much better.

T: And I’m thinking that in Australia, they still have it quite good. And Germany…

S: Yeah…

T: When we were in Cologne, in 2017, people took us totally seriously – they discussed sound with us, and they were interested in what we were doing – something that hasn’t happened with us in Finland for years, and we don’t even expect it any more… So if we’re really depressed, we try and organise something for ourselves in Germany, or Canada, or Australia, and it helps immediately (laughs). Just thinking about the few weeks in Cologne, we can emotionally sustain ourselves for a couple of years.

S: But the thing is that Museums started to take notice of Sound Art only with the advent or the ‘phenomenon’ of DJs, and curators thought that ‘hmmm… let’s make sound art so let’s take these DJs so they can play music in the opening…’. It started to get quite delusional where a lot of musical things happening in gallery spaces was called ‘Sound Art’. In 2004, there was a Sound Culture show in Perth, Australia, and we had a seminar where we talked about it and it was Nigel that proposed that the starting point should be the non-musical use of sound. Earlier when I had tried to make a documentary recording of my work and gave it to people, they thought it was music, and I said, ‘no, no, you’re listening with the wrong pair of ears, it’s sound art.’ I realised that the problem is in the form of the ‘disc’ – the distribution form of sound art is different from music. And so I began to do video documentation of the installations, so they could see them as well as hear them.

T: And see the space…

S: …and at least get an idea of how it [Sound Art] works in the space. I think that music is ‘context abhorring’ – it doesn’t think about context. Music works in every context, but Sound Art is a ‘context-binding’ art form – it absorbs the context into itself, and it works within the context. One of the reasons why it is so difficult to record and distribute sound art is because it easily can become a kind of ‘lesser music’ – and it doesn’t work that way. I try to explain that but … in Finland, young artists aren’t that serious about the difference between Sound Art and Music. I come from a music background, so for me it was always important to understand that what I’m doing is different, from what is happening and from people who play music. It was an essential question for me…

T: There are many young artists who call themselves Sound Artists, who make work that they think is ‘sound’, and thinking about how we were ‘promoting’ Sound Art then, meaning that we were constantly attempting to create an awareness about Sound Art, we don’t do that now.

V:  – now it has already been established?

T: In a way, yes, but also because we can’t be the guards, saying, “This is ‘Sound Art’, and this is not”. We’re not making any generalisations, or creating these blanket statements – now for us, it’s just about ‘what we do’. But then again, now we are promoting something else because it seems that we just can’t stop promoting something – what we are promoting are the kind of projects we are now doing.

V: What are the kind of projects you are doing now?

S: Listening. Sometimes we call it Community Art, or Participatory Art…

T: …or Participatory Sound Art…

S: Or Participatory Listening. We were doing Listening walks for a long time, and that seems to be a very good approach to get people involved fairly quickly and even if they have no interest in art or no art background.

T: And that has been for us a refreshing move away from the high culture art gallery spaces, going to the streets and meeting people, and doing something together with them and they don’t even realise that it is some kind of art – they are just doing something. We have been doing this for almost seven years now and only this spring we had a real gallery show in Cologne. We haven’t had one in Finland in seven years. In 2010 we curated this big Sound Art exhibition In Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova Museum, and in 2011, we had a Museum show in The Collection Museum in Lincoln, UK…

S: And then we were in the Finnish Embassy in Washington DC.

T: Yes, but what I mean to say is that we have had exhibitions in other countries but not in Finland, and not in galleries, or in museums. But now it was  great to be in Cologne for a typical exhibition, and it felt that it would be nice to do this as well, but that it’s also great to work with people who don’t necessarily connect into the art scene.

S: At one point we did work with schools, with children. But organising workshops for children in schools is really difficult.

T: It’s much nicer to do it in some other ways, some ‘off-curriculum’ way…

Tuike and Simo Alitalo, Listening Walk, Brooklyn Bridge, New York | Photo by Alexandra Oliva | Image: courtesy of the artists

V: How do I as an audience, prepare myself to experience what you are doing?

S: Well, one should “come with open ears”. During the walks, we usually introduce people to what we expect of them, what has to be accomplished in order for it thing to work, and it’s fairly straightforward. The only time the audience or half the audience escaped us was in 2010 in England, when we did the first one with the school kids, so… when they saw crickets and ran after the crickets. I managed to keep half of the group but…

T: When you have a sound installation and expect people to come in to see it, there is only one unwritten rule – give it a little time. It’s impossible to experience Sound Art in the same way as if you would walk into a museum, notice a picture, and stop in front of it – with Sound Art you have to stop first…

S: and maybe move around and listen to what happens when you move. Brian Eno said in Berlin 96, “if it’s time-based, why don’t you give them some chairs?” In a Sound Art exhibition there always should be at least one chair so that if even one person wants to spend time, they could also sit. That’s a good rule of thumb for time-based arts – they need time. But other than that, I don’t know. Usually the works are so explanatory that you just have to give them a moment.

T: And the good thing about sound art is that no one is really a ‘professional’, or an expert. There is no Sound Art historian, who would say that “this is real, and this is not”, so it’s just that everybody, or all ears are equal.

S: Yeah, all ears are created equal.

V: How do you work as a team?

T: Ummm…

V: … or is it a secret?

T+S: No, no… (laugh)

T: Of course when we collect material, I can record…  Simo and I both don’t like recording very much, but usually Simo does it. And when it comes to editing, I haven’t practised it so much, so it’s more sensible that Simo does it – much better and faster…

S: When we are doing field recordings and gathering material, while I’m recording Tuike makes notes about what she hears. This is essential because when you make long recordings, it’s often tedious to listen to them again with a keen ear – quite tiresome. It’s much easier when there’s a note that indicates when something interesting is happening that I can check before moving forward. It’s almost as if the sounds are logged while being recorded, I can then ‘re-log’ the interesting parts.

Simo Alitalo, Tuike Alitalo, field recording | Photo by Katja Ojaniemi | Image: Courtesy of the artists

T: It also helps that I keep my notes in good order, Simo’s recordings are totally messy (laughs)… but we can always find where and which one it is because I can tell what is in there. I think it gives you [Simo] the freedom to concentrate on your recording and on other things because you can’t think about how it will be catalogued while recording – so the notes and logging do that. The specific thing that Simo does while recording is that he gives it a number at the end. Usually, it’s the date and time and I have dates and time in my logbook. But I have a lot of other information as well. So this is our method for when we do field recordings, it’s totally our own system.

At some point when I was trying to make my living as a journalist, I also worked in [the field of] television, and I had to learn ‘television work’. I learnt that you had to have good notes otherwise you can’t handle the material. So probably that’s easy for me. And I’m really happy to do it because I get frustrated if I have to record (chuckles).

S: And now with the walks, I use Google Maps to figure out what would be the interesting routes, make a few versions of it, and then we walk together to do the test runs. Sometimes we get it after just one test, but often we have to go back there and sometimes the tests need to be a week before at the exact time to see what happens… so that’s the way we work. We do the preparation work on the computer, and on the map.

T: For years I have always been helping Simo with installations and I’m excellent at installing. The only problem came when I had these… hand tremors, but this time in Cologne I could again work with the tiny screws, and everything.

S: Ok, an essential part of the teamwork is also dreaming up projects during the [grant] application times…

T: It’s always easier when there are two persons.

S: Yes, and so we write a draft, how it will work, what we will do etc.

T: So very often Simo says that he can’t write, and I’m better at starting the proposals – but nowadays Simo starts and I’m better at completing them. When Simo feels he doesn’t know where to start from, then I start. Once it starts then we are fine. That’s how we write together. When we do our proposals and make our application papers, that’s usually when we write, and talk, and think, and usually get new ideas – suddenly, in the middle of things – and we have difficulties also. Perhaps we should make a proposal and then do these things. But actually, it is probably the other way around.

S: Earlier, when we were applying for personal funding, whenever either of us had the difficulty of starting to write something, Tuike would start writing my application and I would write hers, and we were both freer… to write whatever – ‘She’s going to do this, this, this…’ and ‘oh! she’s so good’.  Often, when you have difficulty in saying a good word about yourself, you can always propose to your partner ‘why don’t you say something good about me?’

T: I have also been teaching ‘Writing’ at the Art School for several years and during my teaching I often propose that when we do sketches of our work, we write. So how do you sketch ‘Sound Art’? What do we do? We do field recordings, that is our research. When we do field recordings, we hear strange things. We want to go to places where we can hear things we haven’t heard before. When we hear and record these things, we probably start thinking of things we haven’t thought of before, and then we talk about it. But it has to be this way – you can’t sit down and say, “Let’s talk about sound”. The crazy thing is, how many field recordings we have that we have never used. And so now when we do the Listening Walks, you don’t need to record all of it, you can just listen. So that is what we are doing, we are not recording so much. But we are listening in the same way Simo listens when he records.

“What do we do?” We do field recordings, that is our research. When we do field recordings, we hear strange things. We want to go to places where we can hear things we haven’t heard before. When we hear and record these things, we probably start thinking of things we haven’t thought of before, and then we talk about it. But it has to be this way – you can’t sit down and say, “Let’s talk about sound”.

V: Each time we visit you, or when we are talking about you between us, or even to someone else, we say ‘our friends in Turku…’ So for us, Turku is synonymous with Tuike and Simo. And earlier, you mentioned the affection you both have for Turku. So clearly, Turku is an important part of this conversation.

Considering how you both have regularly exhibited and worked abroad, you didn’t have to necessarily live in Turku. Was it a conscious decision, or circumstances that made you decide to remain in Turku?

S: Well, there are economic reasons. At the beginning of the 80s, we were thinking that maybe we should move to Helsinki, but we had just got our own apartment.

T: And thinking many times when it gets really hard, it would mean that there would be a need to do more work, but our whole lives we have decided that ‘ok, if we stay here, we have more time to do what we want to do’. So the choice is always between different kinds of lifestyles. If we lived in Helsinki, we both would need to have two independent jobs, in which case, how would we do what we were supposed to do? It’s so much cheaper in Turku.

The other thing is that we have a home base here, where it is so much easier to get so many things. In the late 90s, we were in a situation where we just needed some workspace, because Simo was doing these installations that needed to be stored somewhere… if you don’t have money, you need to make them from recyclable material, so when you see something cheap, you just buy it…

S: And you pile up stuff like that…

T: …Not knowing when you would use it – like electronics. The workspace situation in this city [Turku] was really so bad, that in order to figure out how to do it, we had to organise it. We have this Fimbul Art Space (Taiteilijatalo Fimbul) that rents out studios to artists, it is run by a small society that we have organised ourselves.

S: Because you have to do it yourself…

T: Actually we have had an increasingly good situation regarding workspaces over the years. And because we’re still running the system while trying to get rid of it, I see how difficult it is… And it’s getting difficult again. It was a little easier in between.

S: Recessions are always good for the artist, but when the economy booms, the spaces disappear – it’s always more difficult. We thought that we would move to Berlin, but we experienced some Berlin winters when we visited, so we thought, no, we don’t want to… and here we had the parents, my father and my mother…

T: Thinking retrospectively, the truth is that both our parents always and wholeheartedly supported our art. That meant a lot to us. Later we also stayed because they were getting older and needed help. Once Simo’s mother was saying that I understand that if you want to make your career you have to go away, and everybody else does this… but we decided ‘no, no, we stay’.

And we are very happy that we did not move. Of course, we could have done more but at least we didn’t leave them. Now we have only my mother. But because I have sisters, we [Simo and I] can go for residencies and stay away for longer such as three months, because we can balance out our time…

V: Listening to this entire journey of this unknown territory that you were charting – in a space like this, to have family support really lightens the weight and makes you freer to run. It is quite instrumental…

T: And in that way, also thinking that being in quite a small hometown, even the town gives you this sense – that you are safe. Then you can risk in other aspects of life… don’t you think? Very often, there are a lot of people you know, and you can ask for help.

V: We are nearing the end of this interview and I wanted to close the conversation at Turku, but our last question – In many parts of the conversation you have passed on the undercurrent message of how other artists, in other fields where there may or may not even be a name, can go about moving and do things. But perhaps if there is anything more concrete, or in more direct words that you may like to say to…

T: …To young artists

V: To us? Us representing the young, ya… like a generation…

S: Well, Steven Spielberg said once, to George Lucas that, “George, you gotta learn to write, you gotta learn to write”, and that’s what I said when I was teaching; I taught that writing is a way of dreaming up things – thinking with writing. It’s one of those important things.

And the other thing is that you have to, you have to be able to say “no”. I am suspicious that in the art circles people tend to be a bit dishonest. In my philosophy seminars, when you made an argument against somebody, some famous written article or chapter in a book, we were always taught that “You can’t think of them as straw men, you have to give them the consideration that they were not being lazy when they were writing things, you have to give them a benefit of a doubt and give them your best argument”. In the art circles and creative circles I have felt that you get dishonest arguments, so my philosophy has been to never give them even an inch, for example if they try to persuade you that you are wrong, which is often for the sake of it, or to mess with you – then you have to stay there and argue against them, and in the end they will bend.  Otherwise it will mess with your mind. When I was in the art school situations, I found it very difficult to have serious discussions, because people’s minds run all over the place and you can’t argue with everything that’s just coming from their mouth. For example, we had an exhibition once – this painter who came to one of our openings, I had to argue with her for one and a half hours during the opening, because she claimed that there isn’t anything like Sound Art! So we argued, and finally she gave in. And I thought that if she really had a point, I would have lost, but she was really just trying to mess with me during my exhibition opening. So yeah, I do have this aura of being argumentative, but only when someone tries to mess with me. You have to say no, never give them an inch… because there are so many people who will try to do that.

T: I have nothing to say, except that I always think that I have nothing to do with art. I’m not even thinking about whether what I’m doing is art or not, but of course when I was involved with cinema I was always fascinated about documentary films, and then I have been working so much in journalism, that in my head something has happened where I have these codes, that they’re written and that has to be true… but not meaning that I don’t value those things that are artistic, but like we were talking today, and going back to the time when we were young, for me when I saw the 60s French cinema, and although I couldn’t speak French and the translations and subtitles weren’t so good, I remember [Jean Luc] Godard but also [Alain] Resnais, and when I saw those films, I thought, “Finally! Finally, someone makes films just the way I think that the world is.” Because I didn’t understand anything – I didn’t understand what was happening in the films, and I thought that this is just like how I felt most of the time anywhere, everything is so crazy. But thinking now, that what this means is that if there is a film I don’t value, that I feel that it doesn’t have ‘artistic value’, I value it if it gives you this kind of space that you can be a part of it. It’s not just doing this one thing, but it gives me the right to be an intellectual audience and gives me ideas, or emotions. Not answers, but inspiration… and I think Simo and I share this sense. Actually, my education, when I was working with film was that, if it’s something like that (answers), cut it away. Immediately. It’s not worth it.

V: Wonderful! Thank you, this was really good.

T: It was fun…

 


 

V: If you’re up for it we can go through the Proust questionnaire

So we’ll start with Tuike, and then I’ll ask Simo the same questions…

V: What is your idea of perfect happiness?

T: Well, a stupid way of saying this would be, ‘working’, but probably even more stupid, it is ‘flow’. Then you’re happy.

V: What is your greatest fear?

T: I’m afraid of a lot of things, but fear… I have nightmares about losing all my things and forgetting my bag, which is really like nightmares, so there has to be something bad in it…

V: What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

T: Well, I’m a little timid.

V: What is the trait that you most deplore in others?

T: Dishonesty.

V: Which living being, or which living person do you most admire?

T: …I don’t remember.

V: What is your greatest extravagance?

T: Clothes.

V: What is your current state of mind?

T: Content.

V: What do you consider to be the most overrated virtue?

T: I should know this, I always talk about it, but probably… there is Finnish thing, but I don’t know how to translate it… being a hard worker, but no, ‘Being industrious’. You know, how parents tell their children that if you’re industrious, you will always succeed. I think that instead, people should learn to do nothing. It’s a really important virtue.

V: On what occasion do you lie?

T: Umm… talking to people I don’t really respect…

V: What do you most dislike about your appearance?

T: Being so standard, that you can see from miles away that I’m this old Finnish woman. I’d love to be a little different. No matter where I go in the world, everybody if they have the knowledge, or if there are other Finnish people, they would immediately know that this is an old Finnish woman who is walking on the street. That’s boring…

V: Which living person do you most despise?

T: Hmmm… I could name what kind of people, but not really name any…

V: What is the quality you most like in a man?

T: I don’t know, being interesting…

V: And in a woman?

T: The same.Yeah, having interesting thoughts…

V: Which words or phrases do you overuse?

T: It’s a Finnish word, ‘Tota’.

A: …and what does it mean?

V: ahh, it’s a niinku – sort of like a, ‘ummm’, ‘ahhh’, ‘I mean’, ‘like’ …

A: a filler?

T: yes. I hate that I use ‘I mean’ so much.

V: What or who is the greatest love of your life?

T: Simo.

V: When and where were you the happiest?

T: Just one place? Probably now.

V: Which talent would you most like to have?

T: Hmm, I would like to be more musical. Musically talented.

V: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

T: I would give away my asthma.

V: What do you consider as being your greatest achievement?

T: …I don’t know…

V: If you were to die and come back as a person, or a thing, who or what would it be?

T: Butterfly…

V: hahaha, I was just thinking of that. I think you have told me this once before…

Where would you most like to live?

T: Probably in Italy.

V: What is your most treasured possession?

T: I don’t know, I have never thought about it.

V: What do you regard as the lowest depths of misery? What is the most miserable thing or quality? In your life, or world, or experience, anything?

T: Hunger.

A: What is your favourite occupation?

V: I think we had the whole interview about favourite occupation…

T: I hope people think we are occupied…

V: What is your most marked characteristic?

T: I don’t know…

V: What is it that you most value in your friends?

T: Good discussions.

V: Who are your favourite writers?

T: I can’t say…

V: Who is your hero of fiction?

T: I haven’t really thought about it…

V: What are your favourite names?

T: It’s the name of a place, ‘Unikankare’

V: What is your motto?

T: I actually have a motto on my Facebook page, Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible!

V: Which historical figure do you most identify with?

T: I have never thought about it…

Proust: Simo

V: What is your idea of perfect happiness?

S: A good night’s sleep.

V: What is your greatest fear?

S: Losing Tuike.

V: What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

S: A short temper.

V: What is the trait that you most deplore in others?

S: Dishonesty.

V: Which living being, or which living person do you most admire?

S: Tuike.

T: That’s an easy one…

S: (chuckling) Flattery will get you everywhere.

V: What is your greatest extravagance?

S: Amarone.

V: What is your current state of mind?

S: Calm.

V: What do you consider to be the most overrated virtue?

S: Being virtuous.

V: On what occasion do you lie?

S: When I don’t trust the people. I think they may be lied to me already.

V: What do you most dislike about your appearance?

S: My hair… the littleness of it.

V: Which living person do you most despise?

S:  I don’t know… Maybe Trump. Emperor Trump.

V: What is the quality you most like in a man?

S: Honesty.

V: And in a woman?

S: Having interesting discussions…

T: So women can lie?

S: Yeah…

T: That’s a privilege…

V: Which words or phrases do you overuse?

S: Toisa OTA – ”On the other hand”.  Toisaalta ?

V: What or who is the greatest love of your life?

S: Tuike.

V: When and where were you the happiest?

S: With Tuike.

V: Which talent would you most like to have?

S: hmm, hmm, hmm… to play piano.

V: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

S: My digestion.

V: What do you consider as being your greatest achievement?

S: Life.

V: If you were to die and come back as a person, or a thing, who or what would it be?

S: I’m not so sure if I want to come back…

T: That’s why I said butterfly because they live for such a short time…

S: Ok, let’s say I would rather be a butterfly bar…

V: Where would you most like to live?

S: In a warm country where there are friendly people.

V: That sounds a bit like Italy.

V: What is your most treasured possession?

S: I’m not sure there is anything…

V: What do you regard as the lowest depths of misery?

S: A migraine…

A: What is your favourite occupation?

S: Sound Artist.

V: What is your most marked characteristic?

S: Being stubborn.

V: What is it that you most value in your friends?

S: Being interesting.

V: Who are your favourite writers?

S:  John le Carré

V: What are your favourite names?

S: Helinä

V: What is your motto?

S: ‘Nii Oikke Kuis Sit’. It’s a local dialect, meaning ‘That’s how it is’.

V: Which historical figure do you most identify with?

S: Alexander the Great.

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