By Maria Vlachou
The temporary Museum of Nonhumanity opened last September in Helsinki. As one reads on the museum website, the aim was to present the history of the distinction between humans and other animals, and the way that this imaginary boundary has been used to oppress human and nonhuman beings. Throughout history, declaring a group to be nonhuman or subhuman has been an effective tool for justifying slavery, oppression and genocide. Elements of dehumanization are seen today in the hate speech that has entered contemporary political discussions.
Considering how relevant this subject is nowadays, as well as feeling intrigued with the choice of the museum format, we got in touch with Laura Gustafsson and Terike Haapoja for a brief interview.
Q: In the wake of the election of a new USA President, what is the relevance of a project like the Museum of Nonhumanity?
A: Even though it now seems that the world will soon be a much scarier and more violent place, we should remember that there has been violence and utter despair at all times: it’s a question of who is the one that has been forced to endure this violence. The history of western world is full of cases of oppression against other people and against other animals. This has never stopped. If we think of other species, especially those in the food industry, there’s probably very little significance to them whether the president is Clinton or Trump, for them the world is already violent and frightening.
In this project we have discussed “animals”, the boundary between “humans” and “animals” and how different groups have been taxonomized in the course of history. With Trump-like leaders and their followers, there’s a big chance that the category of “human” will become more exclusive and more and more people will be categorized by those in power as less than human. Characters like Trump and world views like his must be challenged. Art is one way to do this. Art can also be a force that gathers people together so they can join their efforts.
Q: Why is the format of a “museum” the most appropriate for your project and why a “temporary museum”?
Museums are places that exhibit established histories, worthy of being told. This was the main reason behind our first museum, the Museum of the History of Cattle. But with the Museum of Nonhumanity we thought more about building a utopia, where the idea of nonhumanity is something that has been placed in the past. There was a vegan café in the museum, so that was part of the utopia too.
As an artist, it’s interesting to study such a format and to pose a question to oneself, whether it is possible to borrow the form of an institution but to avoid its oppressive structures. Our museums are discrete performances that come to being through the participation of the audience.
The reason behind temporariness is mostly a material one: we cannot afford to keep them going for a long time. Temporariness makes it also possible for the project to change and shift according to each new exhibit.
Q: How does this project contribute to the construction of a more inclusive society? What feedback have you got so far? Does this project relate to the current migration and refugee crisis?
The museum hosted a series of lectures that discussed possible futures and more inclusive societies. The lectures were curated by activists and organizations such as Amnesty Finland. Through publications and seminars, the museum brings awareness on issues such as exclusion and functions as a platform for currently marginal discourses. We also had an outreach program specifically created for targeting high school students and their teachers. Of course most people coming to see works like this are already included in society. The Museum of Nonhumanity doesn’t relate to the refugee crisis as it is, but we are considering working on that urgent issue when we tour in Italy.
Q: Do projects like this “preach to the converted” but have difficulty in attracting those with different views or no views on the issues they handle?
When it comes to issues we dealt with in the Museum of Nonhumanity – such as using other humans, other species, and nature as whole, in order to gain economical profit -, the “converted” are extremely few. We all have blank spots in our ethics, spots where the suffering of the “Other” takes place. But in fact, we don’t preach, it’s not very effective. We try to analyse the society and, especially in this project, language: how does the oppression smoothly slide into everyday speech, for instance, and what is the ideology behind the things we don’t even question – what’s hidden in plain sight. The aim of the lectures and also of the café was to give some tools to fight this, to widen the crack through which the light would come in. It is not enough just to point out what’s wrong, we need to try and give better options. Joining forces and finding alliances between struggles is crucial, since, in the end, the motivations for the oppression are the same: to use others as a resource for the ones on the top.
Q: What are your plans for the near future?
The Museum of Nonhumanity will be touring internationally in 2017. We are working on a publication, “The Encyclopedia of Nonhumanity”, to accompany the exhibition. A new History of Others project is due in 2018.
MUSEUM OF NONHUMANITY
Museum of Nonhumanity is created by History of Others, a collaboration between writer Laura Gustafsson and visual artist Terike Haapoja. The first part of the History of Others project, The Museum of the History of Cattle (2013), was the world’s first ethnographic museum showing history from a nonhuman viewpoint. The second part, a courtroom performance on nonhuman legal personhood called “The Trial”, had its premiere at the Baltic Circle Festival in 2014. History of Others was awarded the Kiila Prize in 2013 and with the Finnish State Prize for Media Art in 2016.
Laura Gustafsson is a Finnish author and playwright based in Helsinki. Her debut, a genre-bending fairytale and feminist pamphlet called Huorasatu (2011, “Whorestory”), was nominated for the Finnish Book Foundation’s Finlandia Prize. Gustafsson’s second novel, Anomalia (2013, “Anomaly”), addresses the themes of language, violence and the imaginary line between man and beast. Her new book, Korpisoturi (“Warrior of the Wilderness”) was published in August. Gustafsson graduated with an MA from the Theatre Academy Helsinki. She has written a number of stage and radio plays. Her novels and plays have been translated to German, French and Turkish.
Terike Haapoja is a Finnish visual artist based in New York. Her recent projects include: Closed Circuit – Open Duration (2008/2013), last seen at the Venice Biennale, which focused on questions of mortality, co-existence and the relationship between humans and nature; The Party of Others project (2011-ongoing), which appropriates the form of a political party in order to look at the status of other species and other groups excluded from the law. Haapoja contributes regularly to Finnish and international art publications. She represented Finland at the Venice Biennale in 2013 with a solo show in the Nordic Pavilion and she is the recipient of several prizes, including ANTI Proze for Live Art (2016), Dukaatti prize (2008), Säde prize (2009), and Ars Fennica Award nomination (2011).