Tent Academy Awards | Martta Tuomaala

Interview by Floor Kortman, video by Martta Tuomaala

For this year’s Tent Academy Awards, Rotterdam art institute TENT presents this Summer’s best video art from all the Dutch academies, together with those of guest country Finland. Video art is not the past; it is very much the future. New technologies make the world of video a very exciting place right now, which will be reflected in the TAA. During the award show on 12 July they will show the nominated clips, films, documentaries and animations, which will also be on view in the exhibition until 17 August. We talked to Finnish nominee Martta Tuomaala about her video ‘The Right Not To Be Silent’, a grainy, black and white manifesto for cleaners.

 ‘I think the process of not to be afraid of making mistakes or to take myself too seriously will be my lifetime project’

How are you? 

I’m doing well. I just graduated as Master of Fine Art from Aalto University in Finland. Now, I’m having a small holiday before I continue my art projects.

What do you like about video art? 

I guess for me it is just a natural way to combine image, sound and motion, but that includes all kind of audio-visual art, not just video art. Audio-visual art usually moves me the most. I really don’t know how to explain it comprehensively. Most of my favourite films are the type of artworks of which you never seem to figure out all the layers. No matter how many times you watch them, you always notice something new you weren’t aware of the last time seeing the piece.

I gather that somewhere in 2011 you made a shift from a fictional way of story telling, to using a more documentary approach. Can you tell me something about the difference of narrative and storytelling between these two forms? Or is it not that different for you? 

Well, in fictional work you have the chance to plan everything just how you want it. In documentary, you never know… You can plan and hope things to go as planned, but you can never be sure what will happen. And of course there are more ethical principles to think about as well.

At the moment I feel that both the fictional and the documentary approach are present in my practice. Sometimes, you are actually more capable of describing real life situations through fictional storytelling. It totally depends on the subject. I wouldn’t want to draw a strict line between fiction and documentary, I prefer to mix both if needed.

Can you tell me something about your video ‘The Right Not to Be Silent’? How did you initiate this project?

I have a lot of experience as a cleaning worker myself. I’ve been cleaning offices, trains, malls etc. I guess that was a starting point for the whole project.

During the past few years I’ve been working on a large-scale documentary installation project titled Cleaner’s Voice that deals with working conditions and rights of cleaners. I’ve been collecting interviews since 2012. This has been an on-going project and the multi-channel installation has been exhibited a few times. The first version of the project consisted interviews of eight cleaners and the last time the work was shown as a 15-channel installation. In this instance there was one television for the story of each of the interviewees. The viewer could watch and listen to the individual stories with headphones. In contrast, in the gallery space all the interviews were played at the same time. So the aim of the sound atmosphere was to create a sort of multilingual demonstration.

‘The Right Not To Be Silent’ is sort of an outcome of that project. I thought the installation also needed a manifesto telling how valuable cleaning work is and how companies as well as legislative decisions have affected the cleaners.

Installation shots by Ikahu Media Art / www.ikahu.fi

Can you tell me something about the ‘feel’ of the video, the graphics, the black an white, the graininess, how do these things attribute to the storytelling?

There are many different reasons concerning the choices I’ve made. The manifesto spoken in Finnish, Arabic and Estonian is in my point of view a very important part of the work. The calm wide images are supposed to demonstrate the importance of the physical work: the time and professional competence it demands. We often only see the results of the cleaning work, though it’s not supposed to be invisible.

I read you like to improvise, how does this work when you’re making a video? Do you know what you’re going to say when you start, or do you kind of go where the story takes you?

I always know what I want to say in whatever kind of project I’m doing, but the way how to express those things might change during the process. I always have a well-planned script for every project, but in several occasions I’ve made drastic changes to the plans, even during the production. Mostly it has led to good results. But I wouldn’t be able to do these kinds of things without a perfect, flexible crew.

I think my urge to improvise comes from my childhood. Back then my passion was to become a classical piano player. So, everything was always about right or wrong, how you play and interpret. There was no room for me to improvise. My brains were so stuck with all kinds of rules. I think the process of not to be afraid of making mistakes or to take myself too seriously will be my lifetime project. The courage to improvise and to trust my intuition is something that I try to accomplish through my artistic practice.

Your nomination for the TAA is pretty exciting, but do you have any other plans for the future, anything you’re working on? 

Yes, the nomination is really exciting. I’m also happy that Tent Academy Awards is organized in the Netherlands. It has been great to read about the huge cleaners strike in 2010. All in all the cleaners strikes in Netherlands really prove that even in these days, when it seems corporations have claimed the rights and the power from the workers, people can still make a difference with coordinated effort.

And yes, I also have plans for the future. I’m eager to continue the Cleaner’s Voice project. Besides that I already have couple of ideas for a video art piece and a fictional film. I’m not out of ideas, thankfully.

The video ‘The Right not to be Silent’ by Martta Tuomaala will be shown at the opening of Tent Academy Awards on 12 July, and will be on view in the exhibition at TENT until 17 August.