Hey kids, here’s £10k to do what you want!
Why the Finnish artist Pilvi Takala’s Frieze Project is a parents’ nightmare
By Laurie Rojas. From Frieze daily edition
Published online: 16 October 2013
What happens when you give a group of children £10,000 to spend as they wish? Pilvi Takala, the 2013 Emdash Award winner, is daring to ask the question—and the answer is not what you expect.
The Finnish-born artist is known for creating situations that disrupt unspoken laws of “normal” behaviour, often by putting herself at the centre of a performance, and for blurring the boundaries of what is socially acceptable. For The Trainee, 2008, the artist took a month-long job as a marketing trainee; using hidden cameras, she records how she gradually turns into a manager’s nightmare—not for what she does, but for what she does not do (ie work). She documents the project in several videos and a PowerPoint presentation. In one video, “February 25, a Day at Consulting”, she shows how her co-workers try to make sense of the situation but grow increasingly impatient with her idleness. In “February 28, a Day in the Elevator”, she records her awkward encounters with employees as they come and go while she stays in the elevator. Finally, one leaves a phone message with one of her superiors, complaining about her behaviour. He says: “There are such problems in here that I don’t even want to go into the same elevator with her… so try to get her out.” We might laugh, but not because it’s funny. The video ends with an email that says: “Obviously she has some kind of mental problem.”
For the Emdash Award, which is worth £10,000 and is given to an emerging artist from outside the UK, Takala has invited a committee of children from east London, aged between eight and 12, to decide how to spend most of the money. The artist lives in Istanbul and Helsinki, but admits that she is never really at home and travels full-time for work. For the past few weeks, she has been in London running workshops with the children as they agree on the best way to spend the money. We will be publishing the results of their deliberation in our weekend edition. She told The Art Newspaper how the project developed.
The Art Newspaper: Where did you get the idea for the project?
Pilvi Takala: I saw two opportunities: the £10,000 budget to do anything and the possibility of making something that could extend beyond the fair. I decided that I wanted people who are not connected to the fair to spend the money, and I immediately thought of children. It is completely new for them to have a budget and to have no restrictions on how to spend it.
I was also clear that I didn’t want collectors’ kids, or Frieze employees’ kids. I needed to find a way in which the children decide for themselves; with permission from their parents, of course. Someone from Frieze had a connection to a youth club in Hackney called the East Side Youth Centre—a place where kids under 13 go on their own. We invited them to join, and those who were interested, 11 in total, decided to take part.
How did the children respond to being part of an art fair?
I told them that the fair is where the money comes from, that they had £7,000 to spend—the rest was for the workshops and travel—and that I was just following their process. It wasn’t hard for them to understand. It wasn’t about whether it’s art or not. For them, art can be anything—and I think that is correct. But they have never been to Frieze, and even if they went, they would not understand the position they are in within the art market. But I don’t know if that is a problem; I don’t know if I understand the position that I am in with regards to the art market.
What kind of ideas have they come up with?
At first, they came up with things like buying food or a TV. They also discussed spending the money on organising an event or activity to make more money and to give that extra money to a charity, like cancer research. They also proposed things outside the budget, like “build a house for my mum” or a Legoland amusement park. At some point, they proposed making action figures of themselves, and one kid just wanted to go to Jamaica.
I offered a little structure at some points, but I did not orchestrate how they made the decision. The hardest thing was to help them understand that there are no limits, that they can do what they want with the money.
Your work has been described as subversive, about breaking the rules of social conduct. What are you hoping to achieve with this project?
The interesting thing is the expectation of how kids will deal with the situation. All the adults I talked to feared there was going to be a lot of chaos, that the kids were going to go crazy when they heard about the money. They said that giving children that kind of responsibility is setting them up for failure.
The project is not about saying something about kids in general, but about these kids’ group dynamic. Do they see value in splitting all the money, or do they choose to do it together? What are their ideas of democracy and what do they think is a good way to make group decisions? For them, it’s really important to facilitate everyone’s wishes and to make a decision where every kid is happy. They work towards a consensus without me directing them. They are also pushed a bit in this situation; they have to imagine more than they have before. It is a challenge and an opportunity. We don’t know what’s going to happen.
Are there any risks?
I don’t see any risk in this. I don’t think they will be harmed. I think that they will gain experience that is unique and valuable. Even if they make a bad decision and regret it later, it is not going to be a problem. People were afraid that they would be consumeristic and wanted to make sure they didn’t spend it on things they need. But why not? If they make the wrong decision, nothing is going to happen—it is just £10,000 that would have gone towards a sculpture or an installation. What I am interested in is questions of group dynamics and social pressure.
Have you taken any real risks in your previous work?
Risk is a very vague word, because what you normally feel is a big risk is not, in any real way. The main risk I take is that I might embarrass myself. It is not a risk to my health or to my personal safety. I might have broken the law, but in general I try to avoid that, in order not to shift the attention [to that]. I usually do something very minimal, but there are things that create anxiety and a feeling of risk that are not [really risky] in the end, and those are the issues I play with. The stronger the response I create, the more I feel as though I have touched on something that matters.
For more information on Frieze Projects, visit www.friezefoundation.org/commissions
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