The Sydney Biennale opened last week and came to my attention via a strange bit of correspondence I had with someone involved.
Mieskuoro Huutajat (The Shouting Men Choir) is a Finnish ensemble that formed in 1987. They've gained an international reputation for their performances, which usually involve traditional or national songs made strange by being shouted and howled by a gang of several dozen guys in suits. It's an interesting project – firstly in the way the harsh chanting strips away melody while foregrounding the affective potential of pure rhythm, and secondly in the choice of songs, which take on new aspects when delivered in an almost militaristic, aggressively masculine fashion.
Huutajat were set to appear at the Biennale this year and I'd been invited to catch them live by one of its members. A few weeks back he let me know that the choir would no longer be able to make it, however, as the institution which had granted them 50% of their travel funding had suddenly been disbanded by the Finnish Ministry of Culture. No one knows where that money has gone.
Here's the organisation in question, FRAME.
The website is a bit misleading – as the text in the bottom right indicates, the government is reassessing the ways in which it will distribute cultural funding in the future and so FRAME has effectively been suspended if not outright done away with.
The group was still determined to have a presence at the Biennale and so its director videotaped each member individually and assembled the results into an installation piece. When I discovered the subject matter my interest was piqued a little more. The piece will involve the choir shouting excerpts from Kevin Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generations.
What's interesting to me here isn't just how this departs from the choir's usual brief – though reinterpreting the apology through a medium of almost violent, macho yelling will probably lend an very weird air to the politics of the speech. What's equally intriguing is how this kind of appropriation will be met. There are massive issues when it comes to other cultures 'quoting' Indigenous Australia – remember the Russian ice skaters debacle? The market for fake 'Aboriginal' art? And even the sensitivity required when presenting the names or images of deceased Indigenous Australians?
This is why the Huutajat project may be treading on thorny territory: it doesn't re-present Indigenous Australia but does focus on one of the most important moments in non-Indigenous Australia's encounter with its first inhabitants. Can a bunch of Nordic blokes really speak to the relationships between people of this country, or is it a sensationalist stunt? Would a performance of the apology by an Australian group present different questions or challenges? Or will situating the thing in a Biennale make any response purely academic?
And what the hell is a Ministry of Culture?