Martta Tuomaala (born in 1983) is a media artist based in Helsinki. Tuomaala graduated from Aalto University School of Art and Design in 2014, and her body of work includes mostly installations and short films. Her initial plan, however, was to become a film director. “I had this 18-year-old’s naïve idea about what directors are allowed to do,” she says. “I wanted to be in control of everything: directing, script writing, producing, so art studies were a natural step towards that direction. However, I work together with an artistic crew and their input for the artistic process and the outcome of my artworks is priceless.”
“I do films, documentary, fiction, video art, installations, participatory works and everything in between. For me, the content is the most important element. I always start from there and develop the form on the basis of that. In Cleaner’s Voice, for example, the choice of the medium is directly connected to the work of cleaners, and how the voices of the workers are silenced by various different agents, sometimes even by those who should be fighting for workers’ rights.” As the name already suggests, Cleaner’s Voice (2014), a 16-channel video installation, consists of 16 stories told by people working as cleaners in Finland. The viewer can listen to the individual stories with headphones, but in the exhibition space they are all played at the same time. The effect is a multilingual demonstration – the aim is to highlight the power of the masses, but at the same time bring out that there is no singular voice of a cleaner.
“I started the project because I have worked as a cleaner myself,” Tuomaala explains. “I have cleaned offices where some people knew me and greeted me on the streets, but they didn’t recognise me at work. I don’t think it necessarily has anything to do with arrogance, it’s because people don’t even look cleaners in the eyes.” Along with drawing attention to people whose job is to remain unnoticed, Tuomaala also wants to examine larger, societal structures that shape the industry.
“I am interested in seeing how politics and history change from the perspective of cleaners,” she says and compares her work to longitudinal research. “If I were to conduct interviews in 2010, 2012, then in 2018, 2020 and 2030, I think I’d slowly start to discover how attitudes have changed, how politics has changed.” Cleaner’s Voice is a project Tuomaala plans to continue for years, and the installation is only a part of it.
The short film The Right Not To Be Silent (2014) – written in a form of a manifesto – belongs to the same project. The manifesto includes material from the interviews, but it focuses on the structures of the industry instead of individual stories. “It’s supposed to be an additional comment to the installation,” Tuomaala says. The project also includes meeting and working with activists, researchers and people who work in the industry, and she hopes to continue developing Cleaner’s Voice in cooperation with people who are involved with workers’ rights issues.
Pedaling against austerity politics
Tuomaala’s commitment to social activism is evident in her other pieces as well. Her video installation FinnCycling-Soumi-Perkele! Vol. 2 (Installation 2017 | Film 2018) is an interactive indoor cycling class instructed by her. Instead of meaningless pop beats and supposedly motivational encouragement to keep on going, Tuomaala’s class cycles to the tune of biting criticism and sardonic remarks about the current shape of the Finnish welfare state. The result is a clever, a little ridiculous and honestly funny commentary on modern-day Finland.
“The whole thing started as a joke,” Tuomaala laughs. Having been to numerous indoor cycling classes, she recounts an instance when the instructor told everyone to cycle furiously towards a sale at the department store. “And I was so angry, I thought to myself, ‘this is the kind of right-wing bullshit I’m forced to listen in here, and everyone thinks it’s completely normal, nobody complains.’ Then I realised that I was there, too, strapped in, not complaining, just pedalling as fast as I can. And that’s when I was like, ‘fuck it, I’m going to make my own program.’”
“I think it would be very arrogant to claim that my art encourages people to take action, but I have thought that it could hopefully inspire a feeling of ‘ok, we have had enough,” Tuomaala points out. The things we now consider to be entitled to didn’t just magically appear. People have fought for them in the past, and people can do the same now, Tuomaala explains.
Although FinnCycling is centred around issues concerning Finland, Tuomaala doesn’t think that the content of the artwork would be necessarily Finland-centric. “Because I live here I think that it is only natural for me to criticise this country,” she begins, “but I also think that the themes of my artworks are global and deal with bigger questions such as austerity politics, labour rights and migrants’ issues.”
Facing the conflicts and complexity
Tuomaala is currently working on an artwork that deals with the work of fitness instructors, personal trainers et cetera.” The rather surprising choice of subject is very much in line with the issues Tuomaala has addressed previously. “Their work is precarious, there’s no collective labour agreement,” she explains, “and I have heard pretty horrible stories about what the job entails.” “Fitness workers are also easily portrayed as successful ‘survivors’ in a capitalist society. My aim is to concentrate on the conflict between reality and representation”, Tuomaala points out.
Tuomaala’s recent artwork Under Pressure (2019) made in collaboration with artist Sepideh Rahaa will be exhibited for the first time at UGM in Maribor, Slovenia in the end of April. It deals with intersectionality and the complexity of privileges and power relations. In the artwork, statistical facts about discrimination against women in Finland are intertwined with metaphorical and fictional storytelling based on real life situations. She is also a member of Miracle Workers Collective that will represent Finland at the 2019 Venice Biennale.
Tuomaala’s ambition and drive to work toward societal change also extends beyond her artistic work. She has published articles about the working conditions and labour rights of cleaners and artists, and she actively participates in various art workers’ activities and other events concerning art politics. She is also a board member in the Union of Finnish Art Associations, AV-Arkki and a vice chair of Leftist Artists’ and Writers’ Association Kiila.
Credit for featured image: Kerttu Hakkarainen
For more information and requests on Martta Tuomaala’s works, please contact AV-arkki’s programme coordinator Tytti Rantanen, firstname.lastname@example.org