Drowning in Mainstream

The radical potential for change presented by immersive performances are in the danger of being squandered in Finland, writes Samee Haapa, who has spent two decades creating performances in this genre. The situation can be remedied with a more critical examination of power dynamics and with a fairer distribution of resources.

As new forms of art become more common, they eventually become hot trends in the grant system. Applicants and evaluators in positions of power embrace these new phenomena without regard to whether they have historical expertise in such forms.

In the case of immersive performances, this has manifested concretely in the fact that the audience-performer relationship has remained unchanged even in works that the creators themselves consider immersive or thathave been categorized under this term. By now, several national awards in Finland have been justified by denoting the work as immersive, even when the works are based on traditional detached observation by the audience rather than on an expansion of the role of the audience characteristic for immersive works.

While discussions about cultural appropriation are very much in process, the reason for the term and the criticism it brings about is clear: it is about the exploitation of another culture. Anthropologically, culture is not defined by any specific identity-related characteristic (such as skin color or language), as it is often understood in everyday language. The anthropological understanding of cultural appropriation can be applied in many contexts. I apply it here to art by proposing the concept of artistic appropriation.

The definition of artistic appropriation follows from the previous one: a person or agent in a position of power exploits the artistic work of someone in a weaker position and benefits from it.

It’s about historical awareness and about structures of oppression. In the Finnish system, new artistic forms are developed in a independent field without meaningful funding. When these forms become widespread and end up in the programs of performing arts institutions dominated by those in power—such as language-based theatres and other theatres protected by the law—they are built upon years of development work by artists in precarious positions.

Artistic appropriation is common in Finnish performing arts. One example from recent history is somatic dance techniques. In the early 2000s, somatic techniques were just emerging in Finland. At that time, modern dance techniques were dominant in the field, and users of these techniques looked down on somatics. Modern dance techniques were considered legitimate dance techniques, while somatic techniques were seen as something vague.

In the 2010s, somatic techniques were accepted as part of the spectrum of dance techniques. Currently, they can even be argued to constitute the mainstream of contemporary dance technique. Despite this change, pioneers of somatic techniques have received recognition for their work relatively infrequently. Many pioneers of somatic techniques have left the field or continue to work with minimal funding, while practically the entire Finnish contemporary dance field benefits from their pioneering work.

The same mechanism repeats itself in the case of immersive performances. The term became known in Finland in the 2010s, while it had been used in the UK at least since the turn of the millennium. As always with new terms and methods, the reception in Finland was varied.

According to those identifying under Finnish term ‘esitystaide’ (usually makers of experimental performing arts), it was nothing new. And yet, the essential critique of immersive art, the need to renew the audience-performer relationship, was not taken seriously. Currently, ’esitystaide’ often justifies its significance by emphasizing immersion, even though there are still many traditional stage performances under the umbrella of ’esitystaide’. The creators of institutional language-based theatre have largely neglected the opportunities offered by immersive performances for innovation.

Immersive performances were developed for a long time in the margins before funding bodies recognized their importance. I personally worked as a performer in stage performances to fund my experiments with alternative audience relationships for over ten years before any funding was provided in Finland for such forms of performance.

Currently, our funding system has grasped the importance of immersive art, but the largest pieces of funding – given to immersive work – is still directed towards those who have earned their stripes in traditional stage performances. Prestige is established through stage performances, and the system encourages accomplished artists. The problem arises when artists focused on traditional performances lack the expertise required for alternative audience relationships.

This not only leads to artistic conservatism, but also poses safety issues. The most concrete example of this is the current state of negotiation of consent. Consent refers to voluntary agreement and is one of the most crucial issues globally in the context of immersive performances. However, few artists have professional expertise in negotiation practices. In performances, this has manifested for example as situations where the audience is touched without permission.

It is crucial to recognize existing power structures, as well as the specific questions of immersion and the expertise it requires. When borrowing, it is essential to identify the source and distribute resources accordingly.

Nothing arises in a vacuum. Above all, a system should be created to ensure ongoing support for new radicalart. The current system does not support experimental art. Supporting pioneering work requires a stronger referencing practice that recognizes the work done and its communal nature.

Some of the resistance that immersive performances face in Finland is connected to the history of Finnish performing arts, its strong emphasis on stage performance and language-based theatre. In the UK, for example, language-based theatre and stage performance have a very strong position, but there are also other forms of performance. This allows for a basis for more diverse performance forms than in Finland.

On the other hand, some of the challenges in the development of the field are also international. Persis Jadé Maravala is the artistic director of the British performing arts group ZU-UK and an artistic researcher. She is a well-known and award-winning creator of immersive performances, who criticized the current state of immersive theatre in a podcast Talking about Immersive Theatre, published in 2022.

According to Maravala, the radical potential for renewal in immersive theatre has been diluted; it has become mainstream art entertainment.

It is essential that the criticism comes specifically from artist-researchers. Immersion is becoming a wet dreamfor project managers, but radical new proposals, bolder development of the relationship between art and its audience, and the specific questions of immersive performances do not receive the support they deserve. If that persists, immersive performances become at best a new genre and at worst a smokescreen that secures significant funding for work that in reality is utterly conservative.

Samee Haapa

The author is an artist and a researcher with training also in Cultural Anthropology.

The Finnish text was originally published in the performing arts periodical Teatteri&Tanssi+Sirkus in 2023.

Photo from The Constitutive Meeting of The AI Party (FI), an immersive performance by The Center for Everything. Photographer: Marko Mäkinen.