Uncharted waters for Helsinki subcultures

URB 20 festival’s curatorial team member Walle Kiikeri’s thoughts about COVID-19 pandemic affecting the urban culture in the summer of 2020


The ongoing pandemic has pushed us to get comfortable with certain things of which one particularly popularized one is streaming and video calls. Whether this is in the nature of entertainment, work matter, friends or family, one thing is certain: streaming and video calls isn’t there to quite replace the needs of active subcultures as well as creative communities.

We sat down with researcher and academic of urban culture Giacomo Bottà earlier in March to discuss subcultures and urban Helsinki as part of our curatorial role for URB 20 festival. As it was prime time for the pandemic, by instinct we began the Whatsapp video interview by discussing the uncertainties that will burden cultural bodies and event organizers in Helsinki, and the potential ways in which subcultures, the key consumers of their services, might be adjusting to the situation.

This is a very particular moment in time, as event organizers are sort of in charge of the magic that keeps Helsinki based subcultures tied together, as an essential backbone for urban art and underground entertainment. Many underground clubs and event organizers are currently doing what they can to keep their Lego blocks sticked together through the pandemic storm. ‘This season by these means is going to look a lot different in terms of what culture has to offer’, says Bottà.

We agreed upon this without denial with Sasu Koivisto, my colleague. The influence on our exciting plans as art festival curators seemed devastating, but it remained vital to begin to look at it this abnormal situation with new eyes. We therefore kicked off our curatorial job by organizing this interview with Bottà. In hope for a stimulating discussion about a perhaps ”new looking” Helsinki,  we began discussing this Nordic oddity of an European Capital with him as his expertise about it and urban subcultures is really worth listening.

Creativity as one of the key factors in the Helsinki urban culture
Helsinki within its creative communities and the youth’s dynamic subcultures is very particular, as the city isn’t connected too much to specific social classes, and the rather handy size of the city allows for quite a unique freedom for its identities to enjoy. Bottà, the Italian urban culture maestro pointed out the belief that there is lots of consensus in this Nordic capital. Hearing this, I agreed and realized that not only does consensus around people exist in Helsinki, but there also seems to be mutual understanding with the system in which these subcultures lay. Of course, I’m not saying that things are marvelous or that imperfections aren’t there, but in terms spontaneous projects and artistic freedoms the society seems pretty flexible with.

As a wild example, which probably only Finns can settle with without thinking it’s abnormal, the other day, I came across a two-day built transferable sauna, which some locals had constructed as an anarchistic response to closure for public saunas. What I found particularly brilliant, was that this sauna was placed 10 meters apart from the publics favorite Sompasauna. Sompasauna had to close its doors naturally due to the safety regulations imposed for the public. These sauna passionates were convinced that public saunas are a key component of Finnish culture, and a true need for those without sauna at home.

Fair enough, let the people enjoy the granted sunlight.

Could the cancellation of urban events be a fuel to innovative new events in the summery city?
‘With abundance of caution for the health and safety of our staff, visitors and community – (you name your favorite event) will not occur this summer due to COVID-19 pandemic. We advise you to stay indoors before stated otherwise’. We’ve all heard this statement in some form or another now. The summer in Helsinki has had for long a tendency to represent an activation of cool events and funky gatherings as culture remains indoors for a long period of the year due to cold reasons.. Therefore, despite of us soon getting to enjoy some of the freedoms again starting from June 1st, the return from winter hibernation for culture and events will undoubtedly hold a different nature for us Helsinkers this season.

The extent, which music and artistic events have in recent years increased and gained popularity around Helsinki, organizers have had to ever more, be cautious of not overlapping too much which each other. Now, what these organizers can in legal means offer this season to its impatient audiences will be limited. It is yet to be seen how this deactivation of events and artistic movements of the high season period could affect how subcultures will be adjusting to the situation. Could perhaps some new, more anarchistic forms of events come to life when things cool down a bit with the pandemic, with spontaneous gatherings and parties organized in outdoor spaces and abandoned locations for example? I am essentially talking about rave-like safe space gatherings and cool artistic movements organized by amateurs who have usually been the consumers of entertainment but now could turn into spontaneous event organizers. Regardless of limiting restrictions of 50 people gatherings, the presence of outdoor events and spontaneous parties are key for Helsinki, and their blossom in a summer city is what we are most after during months of summer. There could therefore be space for such phenomenon, who knows.

I am most importantly questioning the cost of not doing anything. Are local subcultures going to let the summer slip between their fingers, or could they seek for innovative alternatives and open doors for some new experiences? Some would say that it is human nature to create the best in the worst of circumstances.  Does the pandemic impose opportunities for you and your friends to try something new?  Because often by observing, where the most successful concepts are in a city, sometimes involves looking into their initiatives behind it. 

Walle Kiikeri is a member of URB 20 curatorial team. Walle is an International Event Management student in Coventry University in the UK. He’s currently taking part in a set of work practices in Helsinki, and doing so by teaming up with some culture-producing organizations such as Kiasma Theatre and City of Helsinki. Walle is a curator and cultural observer by his behalf. He seeks to bring his adopted knowledge and interests back to his root city Helsinki, as soon as he’s done with his studies.