Making a research-art exhibition Visible Invisibility

Visible Invisibility – was the title for two exhibitions of the Digital Youth in the Media City (DiMe) project.  The main aim of the international research team was to use art forms for communicating to broader audiences the findings of our scientific research project. We wanted to tell about visible and invisible sides of youth cultures in academic, artistic and ethical ways.  We also wanted to give floor to young people to be co-researchers and co-presenters of research.

 Read also: 
E-book: Digital Youth in the Media City: Belonging and Control on the Move
DiMe Blog: A Researcher’s Account on Art, Research & Popular Scientific Writing
KONE Foundation Blog: Yleistajuinen julkaiseminen tekee tieteestä inhimillistä

“These will be two different exhibitions”, professional art curator Terhi Tuomi said after she learned the research material and research team’s plans to show exhibition in two cities. These two exhibitions were almost identical in their art objects (canvases with printed photos, sticker combos, video clips, sound recording and a DIY-zine). However, the venues, the social and political contexts for exhibitions were very different. The first exhibition was held in Russia and it was followed by an exhibition in Finland. Canvases with photos were printed in Finland, transported to Russia and returned back to Finland.  “We just check if there is any propaganda of extremism or religious sects on these pictures”, said Russian customs officer when he was examining every image printed for exhibition. The Finnish customs officers were more interested in paperwork and quantity of art work, not in its content. Despite the fact that in St. Petersburg the opening of the exhibition coincided with a massive youth political protest against increasing retirement age, the TV news reports about our exhibition clearly outnumbered the reports about rallies and mass detentions of protestors.

The venues.  The first exhibition took place from 8 September to 7 October 2018 at the Street Art Museum (SAM) in Saint Petersburg, Russia. This is a new museum that gives young street artists a place for presenting their art and tries to develop the industrial district of St. Petersburg. It is located in several halls of a functioning factory about 25-30 minutes car drive east from city centre. Most of visitors are young people who are ready to travel there and pay the admission fee to see the urban art exhibitions. Our exhibition occupied a spacious room with no windows on the second floor of the former administrative building of a factory. We had a very general agreement with SAM with little details – this made us to worry at the beginning but all turned out just fine. Museum technicians painted the room and made most of technical work. DiMe team applied stencils and hanged the exhibition materials. Everything worked perfectly.

Customs control: no suspicious content found.
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The second Visible Invisibility exhibition took place from 17 October 2018 to 13 November 2018 at Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) special hall for “people’s” projects – HAM Corner.  HAM is part of a large culture and recreation center Tennispalatsi, which also includes movie theaters and restaurants. The HAM Corner had free admission, so anyone could pop in to see the exhibition. The hall had only one solid wall, and huge windows facing busy streets in the Kamppi district in the heart of Helsinki – perfect for window shopping art. DiMe team had a detailed agreement and work plan with HAM. Part of technical work was done by museum technician and another part by the team.

Conflict. There is no doubt that communicating science to broader audiences using the means of art and popular writing is very important. It becomes especially important if in your research you receive new evidence about existing problems in society, for instance about sexual harassment and racism in metro or pejorative attitude towards young people in public places. It becomes the responsibility of a researcher as a citizen to inform more people that there are many young people who experience these problems every day. The knowledge should reach beyond academic community and hopefully various agents (citizens, NGOs, companies) will make the effort to resolve these important problems and thereby improve the life of young people.

Window shopping art. Photo: Arseniy Svynarenko
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When combining art and science it is important to find the right solution to the conflict between the different intentions of art and research. Very often, the intention of artist is to challenge the norms, to redefine the boundaries of normality and aesthetics (this is particularly visible in post-conceptual art). The most usual intention of a researcher is to get the new knowledge while following research ethics, scientific methods, and norms of academic community.

And last but not least is the question about the involvement of young people in research and in art project. There is no universal way or method for youth participation in a research project. The most important rule is: all ethical and security concerns must be taken seriously and dealt timely and with care. Each case presented in the Visible Invisibility exhibition demonstrated different ways for youth involvement. Each was ethical and nonintrusive.

Presenting research themes in an exhibition. The exhibition was structured according to research cases. Each case was presented in its unique way. Pokémon Go gamers’ communities were shown with:  photos, a video of gameplay with researcher’s notes, a large printed “raid-groups’” map made by gamers. Graffiti and gender – photos, social media vocabulary, DIY zine made by researcher, and and researcher’s audio-diary. Urban circus scene – a short documentary. Sticker art scene – photos and sticker combos (dozens of stickers assembled on a plywood board).

Exhibition as a space for interaction. The DiMe team wanted the exhibition to be interactive.  For this purpose we invited a Russian sticker artist to lead a sticker workshop, we organized a discussion panel and a “field office” – when exhibition hall became also an work space for two researchers who combined their routine work with communication with visitors.

Researchers brought desks and computers to the exhibition hall in HAM Corner and worked there for several days as if they were at own work room. Every day exhibition had around one hundred visitors of different ages. We assumed that some visitors came to see our exhibition after visiting HAM museum (they had museum stickers ), others were on their way to movies or waiting for friends.

While working at the exhibition we met visitors, told them about the research and learned their reactions to exhibition. For instance, we met an 100-year-old man who shared with us his thoughts about changes in this neighborhood over time, history of the Tennispalatsi building (which was build for 1940 summer Olympics), and his trips to St.Petersburg before the Winter War (Soviet-Finnish war in 1939): “There was a broad street, I think Nevsky, probably it changed a lot”.

We also met a 45-50-year-old man from St. Petersburg who was visiting Helsinki with his family. He shared with us his mixed liberal-conservative views on politics (he supported liberal democracy and Russian opposition leaders) and culture (traditionalist view on gender, racist interpretations of graffiti scene). He dropped a bombshell with his stalinist perception of control in public places: “If I would see someone sticking a sticker in a city I would shoot him in a back…”

Making an exhibition is more than hanging pictures on a wall. Making an exhibition  – collecting material, negotiating the content and visual presentation, writing the exhibition texts, –  takes a significant amount of time and effort. The research ethics, safety of informants have the greatest importance at all stages. They should not be sacrificed when combining research and art. This may set certain limitations to popularization of research findings. All participants in this process should be ready to face the conflicting intentions of artist or art curator and academic researcher. There is a fragile balance between empowering young people and non-intrusion in the field.

Exhibition creators. Researchers: Malin Fransberg, Margarita Kuleva, Yana Krupets, Heta Mulari, Arseniy Svynarenko, Anastasia Sablina, Nadezhda Vasileva. Photographer: Patrik Rastenberger. Curator: Terhi Tuomi. Graphic designer: Jaakko Pietiläinen. Members of the subcultures in Helsinki and St Petersburg. SAM and HAM staff.

Text by Arseniy Svynarenko