Feminist Culture House is an intersectional feminist organisation based in Helsinki. EDIT interviewed its co-founders Katie Lenanton, Neicia Marsh, Orlan Ohtonen, and Selina Väliheikki about their pioneering work and the meaning of communality in the field of art during the bittersweet year of 2020.
What is Feminist Culture House and what do you do?
We are an intersectional feminist organisation based in Helsinki, Finland. We work with and for underrepresented artists and arts workers. This means our work is a combination of advocacy, administration, and commissions—creating opportunities to pay artists and arts workers.
Our main goal is to function as a supportive structure for those who are practicing in the Finnish art field, but due to—for example—structural racism and cis-sexism, have to work harder to be recognised. We do this through the lens of a collective curatorial practice.
In addition to lots of emails, conversations, and organising, our days usually involve discussions and reflection, as we test and refine how to practice intersectional feminism in our working practices. We remind each other to take breaks, say no, laugh, and celebrate. We walk and get some fresh air with our dog companions Sara and Snoozle.
We hope that our actions are creating a caring and inclusive intersectional feminist working community that is based on sharing, togetherness, celebrating, and supporting one’s peers.
Why and when did you start FCH?
The foundations of FCH were laid in 2018, and we first gathered under the name Support Structures Collective, along with Anna-Kaisa Koski. The short answer for why we created FCH, is that we believed work in the art field could be done differently.
The elevator pitch answer to why, is that we want to see an art field that is more representative of—and accountable to—its constituents, and that functions in ways that are safer, fairer, and more comfortable for all kinds of bodies, identities, and agencies.
Reflecting on this a bit more, we were aware of how collaborative relationships can often feel extractive, competitive, unclear, and full of power imbalances. We wanted to work in a way that centred the needs and wellbeing of our collaborators. We began by listening, and developed FCH’s mission and vision in response to feedback from different people and groups. Regular listening and reflection sessions guide our work.
Concurrently, we began dreaming of an organisational structure that would be guided by intersectional feminist practices, and not just replicate the status quo. While we’re not yet a physical “house”, we’re creating an architecture of administrative documents that could one day guide how a more tangible structure operates. We figured it’s better to put our energies into creating ways of doing that could help others to work differently, instead of replicating existing institutional structures (and often-unquestioned ways of working).
How has this year been treating you?
This year feels a bit bittersweet—we know we work best when we’re together, and we were excited about how our working rhythms were feeling after spending a lot of time in 2019 collectively articulating our mission, vision, and ideas for working practices. We miss the social aspects of our work, like sharing space and time with the wonderful members of our artist-led peer groups. It’s still great to gather online, but presence is so important. On the bright side, this year would have been far more challenging if we were still dealing with precarious working conditions, so we feel fortunate and very grateful to have the security of working grants during the pandemic. To that end, we have been working hard to create commissions and other paid opportunities for our collaborators.
What does community or communality mean to you and your work at FCH?
There are many overlapping communities that inform and guide our work. And many in our communities are artists seeking spaces to share needs that arise in the intersection of their artistic practice and their lived experiences. Our communities are networks of support that arise in intersections and gaps, and they help people to not feel alone. They are spaces for listening and vulnerability, but also for hanging out and feeling comfortable, knowing there are commonalities, crackling and electric, in the room.
Our communities are not fixed, they are sometimes impermanent, and maybe they are more like vibrations.
Now we are reminded of a text we wrote in 2019 for UrbanApa festival, which is a different way to think about how communities form and what they do—they shake things.
Do you feel that your community has any different purpose during the Covid-19 pandemic compared to the time before that?
A lot of our work develops through presence, so of course isolation has been challenging in relation to forming communities. We’ve moved presentations and celebrations online, and sent our steering group members meal vouchers instead of sharing lunch with them. Plans for group studio visits and portfolio-sharing networks have been put on hold for a while. But we’ve also been proud to celebrate Black History Month online instead of irl, through an Instagram takeover and commissioned artworks and writing. Some peer groups have met online, and we’ve been happy to realise that listening and reflecting is possible and meaningful when you are working with skilled artist-hosts who always find ways to sensitively guide groups of peers.
Physically FCH is currently based in feminist, anti-racist studio space called Poimu. What type of significance does Poimu have to your work?
Poimu and FCH are both acts of worldmaking—crafting realms collectively dreamt into existence. Two of our members started Poimu together with Femicomix Finland so that we would have a place to work in that was different from ones we’d previously experienced; we needed a space that centres intersectional feminist and anti-racist values. Having that now as a daily part of our lives feels really special—there is always someone interesting to chat with in the common areas. The impetus for Poimu grew from a tiredness of working in isolation from like-minded peers, as well as from the need for a working environment where intersectionality is considered throughout the process of sharing space. Like FCH, Poimu is a collective practice—we test, refine, and learn how to divide tasks, care for the space, and help each other. We take turns shouldering administrative labour. FCH’s activities have been informed by listening sessions with Poimu people, and FCH and Poimu share similar values—when making decisions about tenants, Poimu prioritises LGBTQIA+ people, Black and POC, and migrant people. Anyone interested should join the waiting list, as some places are becoming available soon!
The Poimu association has around 46 members, and member practices encompass different fields like performance, fine arts, curation, dramaturgy, research, film, and other forms of feminist collectivism. Many peer group hosts have been involved with Poimu, and the association encompasses many skills and experiences that we draw upon in our work.
You are an international community or group of people but currently your work feels mostly local (for example Helsinki based peer groups and workshops ). Is your mission to be more local or do you wish to expand your work to more internationally?
Our work is international because we are international! Two of the four of us were born in Finland, and two are from elsewhere. This helps us to recognise questionable practices that are normalised in Finland, and collaborate to do them differently. For example, we define our working relationships with artists by making clear agreements, paying people for their time, and discussing and refining the scope of the job with all parties—this has been an imported though foundational part of our work since the beginning, and we’re really glad to see this thinking being supported by Taike’s recent Campaign for Fair Art.
We work closely with many international artists and arts workers—for example, Archie Barry and Spence Messih, who wrote the original English-language guidelines to support trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming artists that we’ve recently translated into Finnish as Selvät sävelet. We’ve also long admired the Women’s Centre for Creative Work in LA, and were excited to be in a collaborative project with them in the summer.
We direct our listening practices towards creating spaces for artists and arts workers who are currently nesting in Finland, but many of them are diasporic or based outside of Helsinki. There are many ways in which internationalism pollinates how we approach our work.
What is the next goal of FCH? Do you have anything exciting planned that you’d like to share with our readers?
We celebrated Selvät sävelet with an online party and a series of commissions that highlighted the practices of trans, non-binary, and gender non-confirming artists. We’re now promoting and providing workshops to help institutions and organisations use this resource. In the longer term, we aim to find collaborators interested in translating it into other languages that are relevant in the Finnish context.
We have Kone funding from 2020-21, so next year we will continue searching, reflecting, and testing different ways to face the big challenge of sustaining our work.
In April we’ll move our office to Cultural Centre Stoa in Itäkeskus for 6 weeks, which will be a more visible and publicly accessible context than Poimu. We’ll also be close to the retailers of our favourite jarred pickles :). We’re excited to see what moving in the context of many unknowns will mean. We see it as an opportunity to test what happens when we use an exhibition space as our “house”, to create platforms to celebrate the artists we’re working with, and to enjoy what happens when Sara and Snooz have a larger space to engage in play, presence, and publics.
"We believed work in the art field could be done differently."
The text is part of the series “Yhteisöllisyydestä” (On Communality). In 2020, EDIT will delve into what communality is and what it could be in making both criticism and art. The series discusses the possibilities of community and interviews actors in the field of art on the subject. The series is implemented with the support of the Kopiosto grant awarded by the Finnish Critics’ Association. Previously published texts in the series can be found here.
Article photo: Selina, Neicia, Orlan, and Katie. Image courtesy of Feminist Culture House.