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How Things Appear: the Staging of Perceiving and Knowing at the Helsinki Biennale 2023

Lotta Petronella with Sami Tallberg & Lau Nau, Materia Medica of Islands, Laments, Mourning Choir: Alma Rajala, Anna Jussilainen, Gabriela Ariana, Heta Pyhäjärvi, Kristina Vahvaselkä, Laura Naukkarinen, Lotta Petronella, Textiles and costumes by Maedhbh McMahon, 2023, Helsinki Biennial 2023, Vallisaari, Helsinki, Photo: © HAM/Helsinki Biennial/Viljami Annanolli
Cultural theorist Olga Goriunova reviews The Helsinki Biennale 2023. Taking place on Vallisaari Island, HB23 juxtaposes modernity, indigenous worlds, and technology, and addresses themes of contamination, agency, and regeneration, emphasizing marginalised cultures and knowledge. Goriunova looks at how HB23 underscores the importance of alliances and collective world-building in navigating ecological and political challenges.

In a narrow cave-like corridor contained under a curved ceiling (that of an old gunpowder magazine), the video in Matti Aikio’s audio-visual installation Oikos (2023) slowly unfolds to a soundscape of Sámi songs. The moving image does not appear to be moving. It trembles and shimmers until one realises that it has, unnoticeably, fully changed. At one moment, one is looking at the outlines of deer and wind turbines amidst an expanse of snow, just to discover that instead, they are now looking at pools of water in rock, only to realise that the water is in fact ice covering a slow burning fire. The question of perceptibility held together in the relationship between articulating the complex and uneasy relations of oikos (hearth, ecology, economy) by making things appear – and the habitual regimes of visibility and comprehension that it tests and slithers through – is key to this work, and perhaps also to the biennale as a whole.

A large part of the biennale takes place on the island of Vallisaari, a former military base that served, in tandem with some other islands of the Helsinki archipelago, as a key part of marine defence architecture and–later–weaponry storage. Only recently disused, it is now a rich nature reserve, whose biodiversity is backlit by repurposed military buildings. Not only in Oikos does modernity meet indigenous worlds amongst climate collapse, but the whole island is also where war technology meets its own oikos and their limits. What appears to be visible conceals histories and is full of possible mis/directions (to paraphrase the title of the biennale New Directions May Emerge). Furthermore, as one crosses the water and begins to stroll in search of artworks, there is no escape from the worry that some may be missed, unseen, invisible. What is the limit to a viewer’s attention and awareness? Is it personal or collective, individual or infrastructural? Fifteen sculptures by Adrián Villar Rojas (From the Series The End of Imagination (2023)) are positioned in the trees or on buildings, at times marked by signs, at times not. Fantastical creations in which sometimes a beak may be recognisable or perhaps a scorched battery – they fit into the architecture of a tree or a wall, carrying their own worlds (the creatures are results of battered virtual worlds, modelled into tangible sculptures), but without drawing too much attention to themselves, making manifest without overpowering. How do things phase in and out of attention and what are the means through which perceptibility can be enhanced, and to what ends? Technologies and infrastructures shaping perception and directing attention are usually described through the vocabulary of control whose destabilisation is both desirable and fearsome. What can the arts of noticing, seeing, and comprehending produce, in isolation, or together with other modes of sensing, grasping, and overall, of knowledge-making?

Ours is not only the time of attention overload, but also of an epistemological crisis. As attention spans shrinks to an average of 8 seconds, it is also crucial, we are told, to disbelieve what we see. AI-generated texts are set to threaten the remains of factuality, especially in times of elections or major conflicts, and deep fakes already make appearances both on television and in the warnings about the oncoming confusion about the nature of reality. Making visible or sensible and making truth-statements are inseparable; indeed, constructing a truth involves complex negotiations between grasping the manifestations of reality and forms of visibility or sense-making that make it possible, including the abstractions of knowledge and political grounding it entails. In other words, making visible is political – however, an image is not a document or a fact. While such concerns punctuate art’s history, they are complicated by the newest technologies, new wars, climate damage and its manifestations, and diverging paradigms of modes of living, solidarity and hope. Paul B. Preciado writes, ‘We are going through a period of epistemological crisis. We are experiencing a paradigm shift of technologies of inscription, a mutation of collective forms of the production and archiving of knowledge and truth.’01 Achille Mbembe writes about our condition as one of ‘epistemic obsolescence’.02 Desire to be dazzled by intensifying spectacles cannot mask the overbearing, angsty confusion about the possibilities of the future for the unequal and violent, burning world,03 where making sense of what is happening and what to do is simultaneously enhanced and made more difficult.

The biennale, curated by Joasia Krysa with the help of a number of curatorial and artificial intelligences,04 engages these questions with rigour and profundity. It is framed, on the one hand, by works such as Remedies’s (Sasha Huber and Petri Saarikko) Sanctuary, mist (2023), a steam installation dealing with the boundaries of visibility and the nature of ephemerality, or a project literally invisible unless viewed through a mobile phone, namely the AR piece Green Gold (2023) by Ahmed Al-Nawas and Minna Henriksson, visualising overpowering timber rafts, a kind of mausoleum for carbon capture. On the other hand, it foregrounds an altogether different take on the function of visibility, exemplified by the investigative project Colonial Present: Counter-mapping the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in Sápmi (2023) by INTEPRT, that maps, collects and documents environmental destruction and resistance to extractive capitalism in an attempt to produce evidence and advocate for indigenous and marginalised groups. Conceptualised between these poles, the biennale firmly focuses on sensing, sense-making and making sense as aesthetic activities core to art as well as to wider attempts at re-thinking the problems of today.

The formulation of aesthetic activity as one of sensing and sense-making, a capacity that extends beyond the human and the history of perception in western modernity, and at the same time foregrounding the ways in which aesthetics enters into relations of power, is a concept proposed and developed by Matthew Fuller and Eyal Weizman in Investigative Aesthetics. At one level, it grounds an observation that sensing is ‘scaffolded by multiple perspectives and situated registers’.05 While sensing might appear immediate and unmediated, from plants to animals it is based on ‘elaborating sensitivities to the things they come in contact with’.06 Internal composition creates predispositions to certain ways of attending to things, and yet various mediations, environmental responses, and transformations shape what becomes possible to register. Sense-making then relates to the ways in which sensing has to pass through multiple levels of abstraction, or differentiation of patterns, which allows for interpretation of events.07 Such interpretation could relate to the oncoming of a storm, a reading of pollution levels or indeed, expectations from an art work. The transformation central to this process thus encompasses the ways in which non-living matter can register material events and be transformed by them as well as the ways in which technical instruments, histories of training, cultures and ways of living, as well as scientific and artistic practices shape sensing and take part in sense-making, in the modes of constructing sensual prostheses and of reasoning. Therefore, paying attention and being able to identify, register, and change in relation to sensing and sense-making, are epistemological operations of aesthetics which enter into relations with power to construct modes of knowledge that foreground specific capacities and determine future options.

Many works in the biennale engage directly with this problematic. One of three  thematic threads, contamination, is attended to by Tuula Närhinen in her work Plastic Horizon (2019–23). A large collection of plastic debris from the Baltic shore, sorted by colour, the project reimagines the practices of collection, description, analysis and visualisation derived from the sciences. A sense-making practice recomposed into a visual narrative, the work presents a transformed form of sensing. Emilija Škarnulytė’s project Hypoxia (2023) is a film installation concerning oxygen starvation caused by pollution and rising temperatures in the Baltic sea basin. Here, mythologies, science and science fiction are practices of sense-making that are used to imagine a future, perhaps bleak, but still mesmerizing.

Making manifest, inscribing and archiving, to return to the words of Preciado, may also concern sensing and sense-making in ways that form modes of knowledge that are barely visible, disappearing, threatened, either by extinction or by related logics of domination or struggling to be developed and sustained. A number of works deal with cultures, practices and knowledges that are side-lined and aim to create conditions of visibility that emphasise their potentiality. Lotta Petronella’s work, in collaboration with chef Sami Tallberg and composer-performer Lau Nau, Materia Medica of Islands (2023), centres on imperceptible or forgotten knowledges (presenting an apothecary) and people (celebrating Ilma Lindgren who, in 1914, began and subsequently won a legal case securing the right to freely roam and forage in Finland), as well as staging lamentations and a nightly recordings of moths. Suzanne Treister’s Technoshamanic Systems: New Cosmological Models for Survival (2020–21), installed in a hut, develops non-extractive cosmological models mapped as systems, diagrams and compositions. These two works, staging the appearance of species, cultures and languages, spearhead two other thematic threads of the biennale: agency and regeneration.

The work put into making a mode of knowing appear and last requires invention and the formation of alliances, creating collectively produced worlds.08 Sepideh Rahaa’s Songs to Earth, Songs to Seeds (2023) is a multi-channel video  installation documenting traditional rice cultivation in Mazandaran, Northern Iran. Poetic and unflinching, it manages to combine informing with enchantment. Indeed, to see rice soaked, arranged as a rounded pedestal and covered with branches of another plant to germinate to then leave the building and be amongst other plants of the island provides a perspective that does not only reflect on the politics of food, hard labour or women’s lives, but also gives an insight, at a scale rarely construed, into histories of colonialism and current world orders, linking indigenous languages (Mazani) and intensive agriculture with the movement of people – and interrelatedly, of plants. There is a sense of clashing worlds and threatened commonality at the same time as a call for and perhaps a discovery of allies that might not be considered to have agency in the current regimes of power but have a powerful presence and significance, predisposing us to possibilities of regeneration.

Focusing on sensing of and with plants, as well as technical entities such as machine learning and 3D modelling, and sense-making processes that draw upon divergent and incompatible kinds of participants, practices and scales of agency, often against the background of extractive capitalism and colonialism, results in many projects of the biennale presenting differently expressed but sustained political investigations. Red Forest’s sonic work On the Loss of Energy. Radiogram from the Remnants of Collisions (2023) is anchored on the harbour and the island and can be streamed online. It is a 90-minute sound piece that weaves science fiction and musical improvisation together with research into specific sites of conflict, energy colonialism and environmental racism (such as Chornobyl and the Mexican Transisthmian Corridor). Their method is of sonic, poetic composition that gives voice to different kinds of agents, at times in the form of an interview or a tale, other times as a rhythm. Revealing and exposing as well as making apparent and tangible are sense-making strategies that can collaboratively work to produce aesthetic commons, not as a generality, but as ‘places for collective differentiation’ and ‘terrains of joint action’.09

Indeed, how to make manifest and take action amidst the plight of people fleeing crop failure, destruction of their ecologies due to dangerous mining and armed conflict, amidst strategically determined climate collapse? PHOSpfate (2023) by PHOSfate centres on the desert: on how Sahrawi people grow food in a desert and how deserts are made both by mining for phosphate (in Western Sahara, endangering the lives of the Sahrawis) and pollution with the fertilizers produced by such phosphates, everywhere, including the Baltic sea. Making tangible the lives of plants – and of the Sahrawi people – in the desert of Western Sahara, the project presents a sandoponic garden, a little planted desert on an island of plants. The plants selected are now universal: potatoes, lettuce, basil, coriander, and carrots. Grown in deserts, camps and in the Finnish fields, they themselves tell a history of colonialism.

Such layers of coming into appearance or of rendering apparent, of agencies, materials, forms of power negotiating the processes of sensing and sense-making, only partially observable by the visitor, are echoed in other works. Alma Heikkilä‘s coadapted with (2023) is a transparent construction made of polyester canvases enclosing a fungi-hosting sculpture. The canvases are designed to make manifest microbial lives and ecological processes: infused with dyes made from local plants, smudged by every passing rain, they are now filled with microbial species that started growing on them amongst debris fallen from the forest canopy. While the project emphasises the scales of sensing that outlie and outlast human attention and capacity to perceive, it also plays with architectural conventions and classical geometries, where rectangular walls connected at 90 degree angles and a perfectly circular roof window above a similarly-sized water bowl housing a tree stump frame not only, at one end, distant sky, and at another, fungi thriving on moist wood, but also create an apparition of decaying modernity with its cosmic ambitions.

While it is not possible to properly reflect on each of the twenty-five works of the biennale, it is worth highlighting the coherency and precision of curatorial work and the rigour of artistic engagement. The key focus on ecologies anchored by the island as the main exhibition site necessitate both reconsiderations of sensing subjects (microbes, plants, sculptures or people of different kinds) and of power relations that strive to make sense of realities and thus construct histories and future worlds. Focusing on ecologies means highlighting wars, inequality and colonialism, and while many works make such power-knowledge matrixes manifest through distributed, collective sensing assemblies, some other works foreground hyper-visibility. Such an approach is, for instance, evident in Bita Razavi’s Kratt: Diabolo. N.3 & Elevated Platform (2022), counterposing classical botanical images made in Dutch-colonial Java in the early twentieth century by Estonian draftswoman Emilie Saal and images of the destruction of Indonesian lands and people. These images move through the limbs of a large diabolical spider-and printer-like machine conjuring a spectacular presence. Slightly smaller in scale is Asunción Molinos Gordo’s pottery based work ¡Cuánto río allá arriba! (2023). These are large ceramic sculptures whose development is based on researching and thinking with irrigation systems and fair use of water commons in various communities (Imazighen families settled in what is now Northern Spain and North Africa).

To bring this reflection to a close, it is worth spending a little time with works whose sensing and sense-making assemblages rely on agencies of computational technology. Two to highlight are Thou Shall Not Assume (2023) by Danielle Brathwaithe-Shirley and Pond Brain (2023) by Jenna Sutela. Brathwaithe-Shirley’s work manifests as sculptures or characters, dotted along the exhibition route on the island. These are tall grotesque figures, often in groups of three, appearing as some forest witches or scarecrows whose cloaks bear otherworldly inscriptions. These other worlds are online/physical auto-fictioning performances of the Black Trans lives in which they were developed. This sense-intervention is an exercise in attunement and world-switching, that requires training and effort to trace, overall highlighting the mediated nature of sensing and sense-making, whose controlled directedness this and other works seek to destabilise. Sutela’s work is a water-filled bronze bowl with handles, installed in an echo-ey building. Rubbing the handles energetically produces sound that develops, in collaboration with the bowl, the volume and surface of the water and machine-learning models that pick up close-by and far-away sounds, into a soundscape, reverberating, until it dies down. Working with the logic of artificial intelligence expands the sensing subject and complicates sense-making, inescapably mediated by computation today.

Overall, this Helsinki biennale presents a strongly curated exhibition that makes globally attuned and contemporarily acute artistic interventions. Brilliantly crystallising how art is changing in response to a world steeped in multiple crises, the biennale formulates strong arguments concerning the ways artists develop means for sensing and attuning, making appear or become perceptible, for gathering knowledge, and pursuing engagement across the multiple aesthetic registers of ecologies, peoples, plants, cultures, technologies and histories. This is the art that makes sense today.


  • Paul B. Preciado, An Apartment on Uranus, London and Cambridge, MA: Fitzcarraldo Editions and Semiotext(e), 2020, p.210.
  • Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics, Durham: Duke University Press, 2019, p.109.
  • Another example of an analysis of epistemological crisis is Bruno Latour, Down to Earth. Politics in the New Climate Regime, London: Polity, 2019. Latour casts a wide net, identifying climate change deniers and a rise of nationalism as symptoms of the current ‘epistemological delirium’ that follows the collapse of the ideas of solidarity and the explosion of inequalities.
  • There are TBA21-Academy, Critical Environmental Data, ViCCA @ Aalto ARTS, an AI Entity with Digital Visual Studies at Zurich University and the Museum of Impossible Forms, whose Giovanna Esposito Yussif curated a programme of lectures, sonic interventions, conversations and screenings.
  • Matthew Fuller and Eyal Weizman, Investigative Aesthetics. Conflicts and Commons in the Politics of Truth, London: Verso, 2021, p.28.
  • Ibid., p.44.
  • Ibid., p.46.
  • Ibid., p.196.
  • Ibid., p.199.