Mika Taanila in Zurich

[…] «Technology cannot take control as long as man can misuse it» – this is the brilliant insight of Erkki Kurenniemi, a sort of visionary godfather for Taanila.

[…] Control is always balanced by the room left to accidentality. Taanila programmes accidents but not their consequences, with which he cannot but dialogue.

Mika Taanila in Zurich

He is humble as a scientist, joyful as a techno-freak, and concerned as any artist deeply engaged in conceptual creativity. Mika Taanila comes to the Zurich festival Zwei Tage Strom with its baggage of utopias – actually a bunch of films, a performance and an installation (curated by Jolanda Gsponer and Nicole Reinhardt) – and brings a refreshing enthusiasm for technology, in an epoch where utopias seem to all be grabbed by urban dreamers of a retro-romantic harmony with nature.

The baggage of utopias

The Futuro Houses are less to do with nature than mimicking its organic form: they are big plastic cells that landed as if UFOs in the Finnish landscapes of the late Sixties. Taanila has dedicated a film to their story (Futuro – A New Stance for Tomorrow, 1998), which started with the mathematical dream of their architect, Matti Suuronen, and is a parable speaking for the technological utopia of design that has been instrumental for Finland in building its new identity of a modern country under the long “reign” of president Uhro Kekkonen.

Taanila’s documentary work however is also able to hint at some critical appraisals: in old archive footage hosted in the film, for example, we hear: «An all man-made environment can create psychological pressure…», and yet this somehow premonitory statement about the current Anthropocene debate does not lead to any nostalgia of nature. The film ends with these words: «Space is surrounded not by void but by the endless space of imagination. The art of the future is fantasy enriched by the results of science». The Futuro Houses could be placed everywhere and probably speak of a nowhere of which only human beings are capable. Is such a nowhere the wide-open door to the future?

Futuro – A new Stance for tomorrow also  articulates the actual future of the Futuro Houses, that being the story of a failure: an improvised marketing strategy and the oil crisis of the 70’s had been enough to render their production unsustainable. If today they have almost only a museal destiny, their second life has been exemplified by Charles Wilp’s idea of using them as fashionable sets for the art world. This factual evolution certainly has a general value for Mika Taanila, making this film definitely more than just a historical documentary. Failure and artistic sublimation are two core elements of Taanila’s own aesthetics; two elements that have also the ability to warn us against the risk of taking utopias as normative or prescriptive: in Taanila’s eyes, utopias seem to be destined to remain an idea, a regulative principle, a principle that should inspire, not constrain.

Suspension as emancipation

What is the connection between old futurist architecture in Finland and two vacuum cleaner robots wandering on the carpet of the Filmpodium in Zurich? The opening (“third”) day of Zwei Tage Strom hosted Mika Taanila’s filmic performance I Might Be Stuck, where he VJed live on screen the images captured by the two cameras put on said robots. The automatic travelling of the cameras created a mirror effect for the cinema theatre and, at the same time, a shift of the perspective on the usually neglected floor of the cinema – probably the darkest side of the black box – and on the viewers’ feet. We situated ourselves and perceived our bodies through the immersive experience of the big screen, while a poetic dialogue between the two machines expressed the existential mood of “being stuck”. Who is stuck? The animal soul of the machine? Or the animal body of the cinema viewer? Or genuinely both of them, insofar as they discover an unexpected intimacy? This piece of expanded cinema was not only an occasion to reflect on the cinema dispositive but to feel the bond with the dispositive itself.

Now, the secret of this experience was the suspension of the dispositive or, more accurately, of its function, which here is the deviation of technology – wherein we find the connection with the failure of technological utopias. The vacuum cleaner stuck under the piano of the Filmpodium was like the Futuro House abandoned in the residential suburb of Helsinki: (if they are not musealised) they became both a source of artistic experience and of reflection on the media. «Technology cannot take control as long as man can misuse it» – this is the brilliant insight of Erkki Kurenniemi, a sort of visionary godfather for Taanila who paid homage to him with the film The Future Is Not What It Used to Be (2002) – another documentary that is definitely more than a documentation on the life and deeds of this genial scientist, inventor and electronic music pioneer. Cinema as a medium is also an emancipatory technology in that its dispositive can be suspended, and therefore made visible.

When conceptualism is saved by accident(s)

Through the performance with the vacuum cleaners, we were brought back to the basic grammar of cinema, where sound, image and action become perceptible as elements that are or can be combined in order to create the illusion of film. In this “intersectional” way, moving images become something concrete, objects in space, guidable movements. Mika Taanila has constantly explored this internal combination of cinematic elements, of which the film Optical Sound (2005) is a paradigmatic example. Focussing on the “symphony” made by digital printers (“The Symphony #2 for Dot Matrix Printer”), we shift our perspective from the sound within or behind images to the sound of the production of images. The making of the images becomes perceptible, while the function of the printers is deviated for musical purposes.

The visibility of the suspended media is the result of cinematic experience. Is the output of this experience a purely intellectual reflection? Does Taanila’s poetics of suspension necessarily lead to a conceptual moment? Does Taanila’s intersectional approach, between sound and moving images, performance and curation, cinema and exhibition space – and a great pleasure for collaborations – make him a conceptual artist? Yes, but not only. If we come back to the cinema performance with the vacuum cleaners, his role as a “designer” is only one part of his artistic practice, for control is always balanced by the room left to accidentality. Taanila programs accidents but not their consequences, with which he cannot avoid a dialogue.

Special assistance: this is what machines require when they are free to deviate from their intended function, something that becomes more and more evident with AI devices… During the performance, on the screen of Filmpodium we often saw the same shoes, intervening and guiding the automatic erring of the machines. They needed this special assistance in order to avoid a “game over”. Their being stuck necessitated a form of staging in order for them to play at being stuck. The machine in the performative game can get stuck, but the game itself should not get stuck. The special assistance reveals how the machine, thanks to its ability to produce accidents, turns from the status of a serving puppet to one of served master, master of the game.

The ethics of the game

Utopian poetics, poetics of suspension, poetics of accidents... all together they express the playfulness of Mika Taanila’s relationship with technology. His enthusiasm though has nothing to do with the renewed neo-positivist and populist optimism for a technology that could make us forget the catastrophic influence of human beings on their environment. The humorous touch in portraying the optimism of robot scientists, in his RoboCup99 (2000) for example, adds to the informative layer about the technological advances in the AI domain an ironic and thus critical layer, in this instance about the competitiveness of the national teams involved in the cup.

Taanila’s intersection of science and art on the level of a game allows us to gain some distance from serious technological projects and simultaneously use this distance for  serious reflection on the status of technology. I cannot help but recall another deep insight of Erkki Kurenniemi, who underlines how the digital/analogue divide can be reduced to two different forms of “memory”: «without the consideration of memory, the digital world would not mean anything».

Let’s continue this reflection using Taanila’s tools in his cinematic game of science and art, and say this: the future of technology is interesting if we consider it as an accident of memory – that is, if we keep ourselves open to hearing what can happen unexpectedly. To hear, precisely : the alpha and omega of the “sound” artist Mika Taanila.


Zwei Tage Strom – Festival für elektronische Musik | Kunstraum Walcheturm Zürich, Filmpodium Zürich | 18-20/4/2024
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I Might Be Stuck | Film Performance | Mika Taanila | 2022 | 30’ ca. | Filmpodium Zürich | 18/4/2024
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The Future Is Not What It Used to Be | Film | Mika Taanila | FIN 2002 | 52’
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Optical Sound | Film | Mika Taanila | FIN 2005 | 6’
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RoboCup99 | Film | Mika Taanila | FIN 2000 | 26’
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Futuro – A New Stance for Tomorrow | Film | Mika Taanila | FIN 1998 | 29’
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First published: April 29, 2024