First Encounters

Rock a microphone. Straight from the top of my dome.

The music video of Freestyler by Bomfunk MC’s was my first, mediated impression of Helsinki metro. I saw the video for the first time at the age of seventeen when I was living in a small town in western Finland, a couple of hours of train ride from Helsinki. Helsinki metro seemed to be something different; it was linked to the hopes of international breakthrough of Finnish music; it included rhythm, dance, starting and freezing movement, new media technology; a promise of something new. The year was 1999.

The colour of the metro was bright orange. This is what I learned from the music video in 1999 and noticed when I finally took my first metro ride in Helsinki. I must have been 22 or 23 years old.

These first encounters – mediated and material – with the Helsinki metro have been occupying my mind in the beginning of our research project Digital Youth in the Media City. During the first months of the project, I have been travelling in the metro and doing metro ethnography by observing: watching, listening, sensing.

During my ethnographical metro rides, I have been interested in different encounters. Following feminist philosopher Sara Ahmed, my focus has been on the physical and virtual encounters the metro creates and limits. Ahmed posits a relationship between dwelling and movement: how is movement regulated, who is given the opportunity to move? Can the metro be understood as ‘a place in-between’, as a socially constructed space with its own hierarchies and logic, its own ‘metro code’?

The metro encounters are, firstly, physical and multisensory and occur between the traveller and the material reality of the metro space: the slippery, plastic and orange benches, the soundscape of humming, squeaking, doors opening and closing, announcements. The smells of being underground, of rails and humidity. The encounters are also mediated and occur through visual info screens, tablets, books and smartphones.

Secondly, the metro is a space for different kinds of embodied encounters between travellers. I’ve been thinking about the internalized metro code that is present all the time – however, it differs according to the time of day and it occasionally be broken. The metro code can be understood as silent knowledge that becomes visible only when challenged.

Firstly, during commuting hours, the metro is characterized by travelling alone, silence and sense of privacy. The soundscape is overruled by silence and the metro sounds, occasionally interrupted by chatting in a low voice, official announcements, coughing or signals from phones. Privacy is achieved by looking out of the window, flipping through a smartphone, reading a book. These are shared, internalized codes. However, communication and social dimension is still present via smartphones: people are writing messages, spending time on social media, making phone calls, talking on Skype. (Metro Diary pt. 1, May 2016)

The metro encounters follow an internalized social and embodied hierarchy. For Ahmed, the idea of familiarity and strange – and the figure of a stranger – are formed in encounters. When we recognize a stranger, we recognize bodies out of place in a certain context. These recognitions tell about social control and power mechanisms: who has the right to a certain place at a certain time and why? How are the practices of social inequality and racism present in metro encounters and recognitions? How do these encounters and the presence of ‘stranger danger’ change when we travel through the city?

I start to think that I probably wouldn’t feel this uneasy and easily startled if I wasn’t observing. If I were just ordinarily travelling, I would keep to my smartphone, browse Facebook, write WhatsApp messages and listen to music. I would distance myself from people and noice around me by creating my own, mediated space in the metro car. This is of course not ok in case something disturbing would happen, such as harassment or racist insulting. (Metro Diary, pt. 2, May 2016)

Sara Ahmed (2000) Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. London & New York: Routledge.