Orlan Ohtonen – to whom are you responsible?

In which context are you working as an art educator?

Orlan Ohtonen: I work as a freelancer, and have ended up with the overly long title of curator-writer-educator. In the past I have taught photography to children and adults of different ages. More recently I have been organising workshops and research based events with my colleague Selina Väliheikki; a central element here is learning together with others. In addition, I have been teaching writing about art in CuMMA (MA program in Curating, Managing and Mediating Art) at Aalto University with Professor Nora Sternfeld and curator Marina Noronha. To put it short, I work with art & education in several contexts but not really as an art educator at the moment.

Who are you working with?

OO: As I mentioned before, I am working with Selina Väliheikki – we form a curatorial duo called nynnyt – and was just teaching with Nora Sternfeld and Marina Noronha. In the last course I gave I also worked with a group of curatorial students. Selina and I have recently been working with a variety of people, mainly women who work in the arts in Finland. When I’m writing, I’m usually accompanied by my sleeping child Elia, a sleeping dog called Greta and the plants at my home. I’m not sure if they are sleeping, but they all affect the process for sure.

How would you describe your understanding of art education?

OO: I think about art education as a process of learning together with others and with art. My personal understanding of a specific situation changes slightly with the role that I am given within it, but generally this idea is what guides everything I do in this field.

How would you describe the relation between education and art?

OO: Personally, I always think about mediation when I encounter art or work with it. I wouldn’t talk about it as education, but often these two are entangled in terminology. For me, learning always happens best when art is present in some form, so both in work and on a very personal level I see the relation of these two as fixed constant, but I recognise that they also exist separately in the world. Talking on a general level, I see that the time of post-internet is changing the concepts of teaching, learning and education from acquiring information to using it. Within this shift, art has an enormous amount of potential that could be used to understand and re-work these concepts, but this is a highly politicised and difficult vision to navigate. I just hope that instead of getting cut from public education, art will actually affect it more in the future, but not as a political tool for social change.

Why mediate (contemporary) art?

OO: I know some people wish to encounter art with no mediation, but I don’t think it’s possible, unless you are standing in an artist’s studio at the moment of creation. As soon as the art work is placed in a space and context outside its immediate birth, mediation is in process: someone is thinking about how the work should be encountered. I think mediation sometimes has a bad reputation because of the instances when it hasn’t succeeded; it can get on one’s way, or disappear in empty words and gestures. I think mediation should exist for its good moments: for when it provides the visitor of art with questions and information that help her open up a conversation with the art work.

Please describe the relation between working as a curator and working as an art educator from your point of view.

OO: For me these two are completely entwined. I work in a way that doesn’t separate the two but rather keeps them in constant dialogue with each other. I know this is a personal choice, but do also believe that curation in general should not be thought of as something detached from the public, nor education as something detached from the curatorial concept. Looking at mediation from this point of view the lines between the fields become blurry, which I see as a good thing.

How important is art education and mediation for a museum / an institution?

OO: I think it’s vital. There are several ways to do these things and by far not all of them are good, but in general I don’t think that spaces of art can exist without educated visions of how art should and could be presented, encountered, discussed and questioned. Especially when we talk about museums that are, for the most part, public institutions, a dialogue with the public should be formulated, and I feel this falls under the category of mediation.

Which institutions provide the opportunity to discuss our personal experiences with art?

OO: This is a difficult question because I am not familiar with enough institutions to give a qualified answer. However, I can say that many of them try but not hard enough. I think that to be able to talk about actual discussions with its public, an institution needs to go outside of its comfort zone. There are some that are going in this direction and it’s super interesting to see where we will be in 5 years with this.
One example that I always keep in mind when thinking about a dialogue with the public is the Centre for Possible Studies at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Their whole program is built on collaboration with the people who form the neighbourhood of the projects.

In your personal opinion, what are the criteria for successfully mediating art? In your point of view, what is especially difficult about it?

OO: I think that if it’s not difficult, it won’t be successful. For example, when I visit art projects, I tend to complain about bad texts, because to write a text that opens up something you should know about the art but can’t experience without the text is super hard. Still, I’ve read great texts that do this so it’s possible. I suppose this describes my opinion of what successful mediation does with art in general, and what is hard about it.

Have you developed a special method or innovative strategy you’re working with?

OO: I don’t see it as hugely innovative, but it’s a strategy that works really well for me; it’s what we do with my colleague Selina Väliheikki: we ask questions. It’s how we work with each other, with our projects, with artists and with our public. What is special about working with Selina is that we work within, with and through friendship. During our studies in CuMMA, we were introduced to h.a.r.t.a, who said they use friendship as a method for working. It made a huge impression on both of us. Now, as we’re also using friendship as a method (a position we entered without realising it), I’ve been reading Céline Condorelli’s “The Company She Keeps”, completely inspired. Condrelli sees friendship as a form of solidarity: friends in action. She refers to “action” as Hannah Arendt introduced it, explaining friendship through the alliances we form in life, with other beings as well as subjects and projects. I read her through a feminist agenda of forming new kinds of solidarities to break the white patriarchal hegemonies of our culture.

Which books, projects etc. were/are important for your work – and why?

OO: I’m repeating myself but have to underline it: Hannah Arendt’s Human Condition is important to me because it’s through which I understand a public; not as something that we can plan and orchestrate but as something that comes to exits from its own, shared urgencies. Condorelli’s aforementioned text is important to me at the moment, which I already explained. During my curatorial studies my professor Nora Sternfeld, lecturer Henna Harri and visiting professor Irit Rogoff all had a huge influence on me through their work, and I return to their thoughts and texts still. I’m also currently reading together Hélène Cixous and Franco Berardi, which are very important to my current thinking.

Is there a special question you would like to ask an art educator?

OO: Gosh. Hmm. To whom are you responsible?

How would you imagine the future of art education?

OO: I want to think positively and see it as an integral part of how culture and education are formulated, thought of and questioned.
Orlan Ohtonen is a curator, educator and writer working in Helsinki, Finland.

Published April 24th 2016
Editing: Christopher Forlini
Interview: Gila Kolb, 2016