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Young artists bring edgy energy to Helsinki’s Ateneum Museum

The multi-media UrbanApa art festival brings a blast of youthful urban energy tackling contemporary themes. The genre-busting series takes over the temple of the Finnish art establishment, the Ateneum, through Sunday.

Maria Autio, Minna Karttunen and Mia Jaatinen performed "Girl Girl Girl" on Wednesday. Image: Wif Stenger / Yle News

The Ateneum Art Museum, founded 130 years ago, represents Finland’s art establishment, mostly showcasing long-dead artists.

Through Sunday, the large building in central Helsinki is being taken over by the UrbanApa (siirryt toiseen palveluun) festival, a lively array of multi-media performances by young artists.

Dance, music, spoken word, video and installation works by dozens of cross-disciplinary artists – many of them young women from multi-cultural backgrounds – bring fresh breezes into the staid atmosphere of this conservative bastion.

Choreographer and dancer Sonya Lindfors co-founded the festival in 2009 with Anniina Jääskeläinen. In 2013, the festival earned the Finnish State Award for Dance.

The jury described it as an "urban art event concept that plays on the border of urban culture and contemporary art in an unprejudiced, relaxed manner". The annual festival has been held at Ateneum seven times, with smaller events elsewhere throughout the year.

"Lo-fi, fun, energetic and communal"

"When we started, the point was to try to make a platform that could facilitate young artists and experimental art and multi-disciplinary things, a very easy-access, lo-fi, fun, energetic, communal platform where we can come and work together, meet each other. It’s from young artists to young artists and young audiences. It’s really about having fun and sharing love for art together," says Sonya Lindfors.

Sonya Lindfors co-founded UrbanApa in 2009. Image: Mårten Lampén

So how does it feel to bring all this into the Ateneum, the symbol of the art establishment?

"That’s also one of our missions. There are a lot of institutions in Helsinki that have free space that’s not being used. And most young artists who work in performative art like dance, theatre or performance struggle with a lack of spaces. So our policy is to try to use those empty spaces," says Lindfors.

"The point is to facilitate spaces for those artists who don’t already have them. And at least in dance, it’s probably easier for men to get a more established situation. Of course there is also a very feminist agenda in that we really try to push young women forward. Our emphasis is feminist and anti-racist."

A project of dreaming

Lindfors describes this year’s theme of 'Possible and Impossible Futures' as "a project of dreaming".

"UrbanApa tries to imagine what the art institution of the future could be: it’s non-hierarchical, it’s multi-cultural, it’s feminist, it’s communal, it’s about having fun. There’s space to fail. It’s about s--- and diamonds: sometimes great things happen and sometimes they don’t. That’s life and that’s artistry."

At Wednesday’s opening, crowds thronged the museum's main staircase to hear spoken word poet Laura Eklund Nhaga perform in English and Finnish, probing the contrasts between her childhood in a multicultural Helsinki suburb and her current downtown life and international aspirations.

A dance piece entitled "Girl Girl Girl" marked International Day of the Girl, with three dancers wending their way through the mostly-young audience on the steps.

The Ateneum opened in 1887. Image: Derrick Frilund / Yle

Radio work inspired by environmental fears

Over the next few days, the museum will host a wide array of performances that blur genres and fields of art to the point where they become irrelevant. These include stories and music performances that are broadcast live on the festival's own online radio station, Turner New Day Radio (siirryt toiseen palveluun).

Performers include Zen Jefferson, a Swiss-American dancer, DJ and sound collage artist based in Berlin, Spanish interdisciplinary artist Beatriz Gijón, British musician and conceptual artist Joshua Legallienne, and music and fiction from Helsinki sibling duo Emily Boswell and Roy Boswell as well as Tuukka Haapakorpi.

Overnight the station streams audio content such as "Birdsong to Deter Rats" – one of several dystopian works at the festival envisioning a future after environmental disaster.

Visitors of all ages in the "Space Disco" area. Image: Wif Stenger / Yle News

Many of the works in the festival are reactions or comments on current events, including apocalyptic visions.

"We’re living in a life with multiple disasters and a lot of scary things happening in the world right now," notes Lindfors. "Artists have always been in the avant-garde trying to react to these things, to dream about both these dystopias and these utopias. Is there going to be a tomorrow with all these political issues, the right-wing policies, Trump, North Korea, climate change – all these things are here in some way or another."

Hip-hop to the future

On a lighter note, there's a festival club on Friday night at the nearby National Theatre's Lavaklubi featuring bands, rappers and DJs - and free admission for most of the evening.

The UrbanApa X Ateneum festival wraps up on Sunday afternoon with a panel discussion featuring members of the Ruskeat Tytöt (Brown Girls) media collective and the Museum of Impossible Forms, a cultural centre in eastern Helsinki's Kontula neighbourhood. They'll be discussing the festival's theme of "Possible and Impossible Futures".