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The artworks’ life after the biennial

In the summer of 2021, the residents of Helsinki and mainly domestic tourists enjoyed the inaugural Helsinki Biennial, which offered high-quality, international contemporary art in the unique environment of Vallisaari Island. The end of September marked the art event’s conclusion. The biennial’s environmental coordinator, Kiira Kivisaari, who has been focusing on the event’s EcoCompass system since autumn 2019, has an important role in the dismantling of both the works and customer service. Well-managed dismantling and efficient logistics are part of Helsinki Biennial’s emphasis on sustainability.

“Everything we do leaves a trace; otherwise, we could not do anything. But our aim is to make that trace as small as possible”, says Kivisaari. During the dismantling, she monitored how much waste the artworks and customer service produce. Surplus materials are primarily recycled or reused in the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM), for example, or the city’s other operations. Toxic waste and waste incineration are the last options. However, some amount of toxic waste is always produced.

The biennial’s dismantling has been planned since the early stages of production. “Dismantling has been considered in everything”, says Kivisaari. Since the beginning of artwork production, every artist has had their own “dismantling card” on which they have registered information about materials and how to return them to the artist. All audio-visual equipment used on the island has been rented or borrowed.

Some of the artworks, including the blocks of wood used as seats in Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s sound installation, will remain in HAM. Dafna Maimon’s work as a whole will be returned to the artist. Prison uniforms used in Paweł Altham’s 3D-film will be given to the city of Helsinki’s youth services to be used as theatre costumes, for example. Part of Jaakko Niemelä’s large installation that welcomed visitors in Luotsiranta will return to the artist; part of it will go to the scaffolding rental service.

Katharina Grosse created her spatial painting over a school due for demolition, which is unusable because harmful Actinobacteria were found inside the building. As a work of art, the building’s life was prolonged a little. Loose parts that were on top of the work will be returned to the artist.

Alicja Kwade’s Big Be-Hide and Pars pro Toto as well as Laura Könönen’s No Heaven up in the Sky will remain on permanent public display in Helsinki’s city space. Kwade’s works will be placed in Kalasatama and Könönen’s work in Hyväntoivonpuisto Park in Jätkäsaari.

“Even though the transportation of Kwade’s heavy works to Finland increases the biennial’s carbon footprint, the works’ life cycle in Finland will continue for decades, and numerous city residents, regardless of their socio-economic status, will be able to experience the works. Placing the works in the middle of residential areas as part of the city space is socially sustainable. It is important to promote different sections of sustainability side by side”, Kivisaari remarks.

A comprehensive assessment of the biennial’s environmental effects to be carried out

The city of Helsinki has set three main objectives for the biennial, one of them being that the biennial is an “ecologically sustainable and responsible event”. The city will conduct a comprehensive assessment of the biennial’s environmental effects. All figures, such as the amount of waste remaining after dismantling and the carbon footprint of transport and logistics will be part of the biennial’s impact assessment.

The EcoCompass environmental certificate was granted to the biennial in summer 2021. The EcoCompass system has been used as a tool in the biennial’s production since the beginning. It includes ten environmental criteria that an organisation committed to the system must comply with.

A certificate can be granted if an organisation has worked toward the criteria and has demonstrated commitment to complying with them. An external auditor examines the organisation’s success. “We cannot rest on our laurels after the audit. It is repeated every three years, and we must be able to demonstrate how the environmental work has been promoted”, Kivisaari says.

In addition to the EcoCompass, the biennial has been involved in the city’s Think Sustainably service and has used the Hiilifiksu järjestö (carbon-smart organisation) calculator. Currently, the biennial is involved in the pilot phase of the city of Helsinki’s new carbon footprint calculator along with five other events.

The Helsinki Maritime Strategy of 2030 has set its aim to be carbon neutral from 2022 onwards. According to Kivisaari, that requires a lot of work and support as well as reflection on what is included in the carbon footprint. “To achieve the aim requires a lot of action because compensation is the last choice. Emissions must first be minimised.”

“At the moment, we are observing the current environmental programme’s results: what has been achieved and what has not. Next, we will start creating the new environmental programme”, Kivisaari says. “Now, along with the reopening of air travel, for example, it is good to consider whether we can somehow limit air travel for the biennial’s part. The artists have already been committed to the island’s natural values and contemplated their material choices but, in the future, we could use even more time for engagement and material choices.”

The biennial is committed to developing corporate social responsibility

“The inaugural Helsinki Biennial focused especially on ecological sustainability. Next, we plan to advance accessibility”, Kivisaari says. “However, we must keep in mind that Vallisaari is a nature reserve, and its topography cannot be changed. In cooperation with the ferry operators and Metsähallitus, a lot can be done to improve accessibility.”

According to Kivisaari, Helsinki Biennial is genuinely committed to responsibility. “I would still like to see my position of an environmental coordinator replaced by the position of a responsibility coordinator whose responsibilities include environmental, social, economic, and cultural responsibilities.”

In 2021, only a few foreigners visited the island due to the pandemic, which means that many more visitors are expected in the future. Metsähallitus determines the island’s capacity. “Vallisaari has never been an untouched island, and there has always been activity. For example, it has been used by the Finnish Defence Forces. This does not decrease our responsibility but reminds us that with sensible usage, nature will do well and recover”, says Kivisaari.

The biennial operates on Vallisaari within the values set by Metsähallitus. Of the island’s area, 73 per cent or 55 hectares is nature reserve, and this area is kept free from all activities. That means that 27% of the island is available for use. “Vallisaari is larger than Suomenlinna but it feels smaller because only a small part of the island is used”, Kivisaari says. On the area available for use, visitors must stay on the marked trails.

Now, since the biennial ended, Kivisaari has been working on a final report. “It is important to remember that the reported figures should not be filed as mere statistics. Instead, they should turn into impact and action.”

Original text: Reetta Haarajoki
English translation: Elävä Kieli Oy

Kiira Kivisaari and senior planning officer Aino von Boehm from Metsähallitus were used as expert sources for this article.