Helsinki-based choreographer, founding member and Artistic Director of UrbanApa, an inter-disciplinary and counter hegemonic arts community that offers a platform for new discourses and feminist art practices, Sonya Lindfors took the time to answer our questions within the frame of her Together Alone project, Soft-Variations – ONLINE.
Soft Variation is a project that aims to empower communities. How did you first get the idea for this project?
I was born and grew up in Finland, and the story that was always told to us is that “there are not so many black or brown people because Finland is so small”. But the homogeneity of the art fields is a deeper structural problem. This becomes especially visible in bigger cities like Paris. Younger, I used to visit Paris during the summers to study dance and already then I noticed that even though the city is very diverse the art institutions are still very white and homogeneous.
“Every time I step on the stage all the ghosts of the stage are there with me. The canons, the representations. My skin, the different amount of melanin, carries with it meanings and histories that are politicised. I never had a choice in whether my body could be neutral or not. That is why we should decolonize our stages.”
All of my work deals with structural issues, trying to dismantle structural opponents. This specific work, Soft Variations – ONLINE, came from a need to offer people of color spaces where we can be in context, where contemporary art is somehow discussed or interrogated, and to also make them feel that it is something for them, something they can belong in.
In the end, the idea really came from a need to work with communities of color and facilitate spaces for empowerment, critical thinking as well as healing. It came from the need to diversify and also interrogate. Who are the artists, as well as the institutions, we are making art for? Who is the assumed audience? And who is the “we” we are talking about?
The first version of the project was made in Mannheim in 2018. How has the concept developed since?
The original starting point for Soft Variations was to interrogate the notion of the neutral body and neutrality in large as well as recentralize blackness and brownness. In Mannheim we were approaching these issues by talking, writing and doing different kinds of exercises. The working group consisted of black and brown German women and of us professionals, Esete Sutinen, Zen Jefferson and myself. During one of the sessions we discussed with the participants why contemporary art felt so remote to them. Why didn’t they go to theaters? Why didn’t they go see contemporary dance?
And everything seems to come back to access, representations and narratives. What are the stories that are represented on stage? Who are the performers, the actors, the artistic directors? What is being curated? What kind of representations of blackness and brownness are shown?
Mannheim is a very diverse city with a large Turkish – German community, but despite this the theater and performing arts scene lacked diversity.
I felt that working in Mannheim was a really important experience for me, I wanted to continue with the work. Actually, it is interesting how sometimes artwork starts to unravel only when you are busy with it. Soft Variations seems increasingly vital, in the midst of all the murders and violence towards black and brown bodies, police brutality and the Black Lives Matter – movement. Initially we were trying to shake the notions of normality and neutrality but actually I think the work touches one of the core problems creating structural oppression.
It is the question of who is considered as human.
Who can represent humanity and humanness? And who are the ones that are dehumanized?
“We cause fear. Just by being. We don’t have to do anything.”
The white cis hetero able bodied slim and slender Western person is considered as the epitome of humanity. Neutral and apolitical. Whiteness is both invisible and yet preferred whereas blackness is considered as a threat. During this spring Ahmaud Arbery was jogging, just jogging, when he was murdered. During the refugee political crisis, with many people coming to Finland you could feel and notice how white Finns were bothered and irritated by the mere sight of brown people sitting and spending time in public spaces. We cause fear. Just by being. We don’t have to do anything. That is why I feel the questions of “pedestrianity”, or neutrality are at the core of the problem.
It all comes back to art and stage. Every time I step on the stage all the ghosts of the stage are there with me. The canons, the representations. My skin, the different amount of melanin, carries with it meanings and histories that are politicised. I never had a choice in whether my body could be neutral or not. That is why we should decolonize our stages.
How was it to have these discussions during the pandemic and after the murder of George Floyd?
So now this spring the project Soft Variations – ONLINE has been carried out together with my collaborators Julian Owusu and Esete Sutinen. We as a working group felt that, especially now, we need to keep talking about body politics, blackness and structural oppression. We also need to keep dreaming and facilitate spaces for discussion, support and healing.
Many people said this pandemic is affecting everybody in the same way, when actually, it’s not. People who are already marginalized, vulnerable, poor, living in challenging conditions, without resources, insurances and choice, are impacted the most. In some countries like the states we have witnessed how black and brown communities have been struck the hardest.
Oftentimes in moments of crisis drastic changes are pushed through. I fear that conservative values will come back both in society, art and culture. Finland is still in 2020 very monocultural, and there can only be one issue at a time. First it was pandemic and now it is the protests. But everything is connected. Audre Lorde said “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” This is hard for people here to understand. Those struggles happen at the same time and they intersect and accumulate.
Physical workshops have been a very important part of your work. How has it been to take them online?
To me, it is important to be able to see and touch people and breathe, dance with people and share sweat with people. But at the same time, working remotely has normalized the understanding that it is actually possible to be here and work with somebody based in Brazil, in Singapore, in New York. Of course, it was possible before but I didn’t consider it as a first choice. Now that I have to do it, it opens up new possibilities. We’re practicing ways of working together online and I think this will be a tool that will remain for later.
Interview: Estelle Leroux