Not Kidding Around: Pilvi Takala Hands Over her Emdash Award to Kids

By Ana Finel Honigman

The Emdash award was designed to promote the promising work of emerging artists at the Frieze Art Fair. In keeping with this spirit, Pilvi Takala took her win one step further by tapping into the next generation of talent; after earning the prestigious prize, the Helsinki- and Istanbul-based conceptual artist recruited a coalition of children to help her develop the piece that she will present at the 2013 Frieze fair. Over a series of workshops, Takala, U.K artist Polly Brannan, and youth club leader Martin King encouraged the adolescent participants to express their budding creative, managerial, and organizational abilities. Here, Takala shares her impressions of working with tomorrow’s potential artists, art collectors, art administrators, and definitely, art lovers.

Ana Finel Honigman: Who are these children? Where did you meet them?

Pilvi Takala: They are 11 regulars at East Side Youth Center in Bow and live in the area; they are 8-12 years old. We thought a youth club would be a good context to create a committee, because it’s a place where the kids go on their free time voluntarily and the youth club leader could ask the kids directly whether they would be interested in my project, rather than have parents enroll their kids in the workshop.

AFH: How did you describe the project to the kids?

PT: I basically just introduced myself and a bit about my practice.

AFH: Tell me about the children’s personalities. I assume there were some who aggressively guided the experience and others were more shy.

PT: I did see different sides of the kids’ personalities, and how they would behave in different situations. One kid, who seemed to take a leader position easily to organize the group, seemed to give up her own proposal quite easily and didn’t advocate for it even if her proposal was quite popular in the vote. This seemed surprising because right at the first meeting, when deciding where to go for lunch, she announced that everyone who disagrees with her suggestion should raise his or her hand. She kind of organized a vote, but did it in a manner that suggested trouble for those who would not vote against her. One kid gained supporters by aggressively shouting out his own proposal, continuously repeating it instead of explaining why it is so good, but he would eventually lose those supporters again by being too annoying. Some kids seemed to have endless ability to come up with and get carried away by new ideas and to expand and get excited about other kids' ideas, some would stick to their first or second proposal through the whole time. Some brought fewer ideas on the table, but were good at questioning and comparing others’ ideas.

AFH: How did the outcome and experience of this project relate to your previous work with adults?

PT: The committee process touches on many of the issues I’ve worked with before, like behavior, unwritten rules and how we negotiate shared rules between us. Although the set up seems quite different from my previous work, it’s still about creating an unusual real situation and observing how people negotiate and deal with that situation. Children are normally never trusted with decisions on such large amount of money, they are not familiar with the situation and don’t have a pre-existing plan or pattern for resolving it. They might have got a pound or two before to buy candy, but if they apply the same strategy here, they’ll get more candy than they can handle, so they have to be creative and invent a system of responding to this.

AFH: How knowledgable were the children about art?

PT: They seemed to understand art in a much more profound way than many people who have seen more art or might be more knowledgeable about art. The kids knew that art can be anything, that there is no right or wrong way to make art. They seemed to think of art as an area of free experimentation without rules, which is pretty much what I think art is. They were not concerned with questioning whether something is art or not, so my project of offering them to spend the money and that being my art wasn’t difficult for them to understand or accept. Also within my project, there is no right or wrong way for them to spend the money, which makes perfect sense, as they are getting this money in the context of an art project.

AFH: How are norms of childrearing and attitudes towards children different in England, Finland, and Turkey?

PT: I have made work for children before in the Netherlands and I felt that the attitudes are more relaxed than in England. I made the piece for an exhibition specially commissioned for children and it involved having children play with a pile of real money. The piece put adults that brought the children into the show in a difficult situation and many felt very uncomfortable, but this didn’t seem to be a reason for the audience to complain or for the organizers to worry about how the piece will be received. I guess a little bit of uncertainty and discomfort seemed more acceptable, even something to be expected from an art piece even if it involves children. Here I’ve encountered much more fear of unexpected consequences of allowing children access to money. The laws regarding working with children are also definitely stricter here than in Finland, Turkey, or The Netherlands.

AFH: What were you like as a child?

PT: You should ask this from my parents, I guess. When I was thinking about the best age group, I also tried to remember how I would have related to the project at age 9 or 12. That age I really started to value making my own decisions and having independent opinions about the real world, but also could still engage in imaginary narratives and play. I would have definitely wanted to take part in this kind of project as a child.

Pilvi Takala, “Wallflower” (still), 2006. Video, 10:26 minutes, courtesy of the artist and Carlos/Ishikawa; Portrait of courtesy of the artist and Carlos/Ishikawa.

On view at CARLOS/ISHIKAWA, Frieze London 2013, Frame and Focus, Booth F33, October 17th – 20th.

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