I met with artist, journalist and activist Jari Tamminen at his exhibition and workshop series, Spektaakkeliakatemia, currently on at Stoa, Helsinki (30.10.2020—13.12.2020). He explained to me his ideas about how the language advertising is the lingua-franca of the globalised world. In his art-activist practice and workshops Tamminen considers ‘classic advertising’, such as the manipulation of text and image as seen on billboards and bus shelters, as a form of communication that is recognisable and understood internationally and across cultures. This is evident in the exhibition at Stoa, where a series of ‘subvertisements’ are rendered in languages that reflect those commonly spoken by teenagers who attended his workshops in East Helsinki, an area notable for its migrant communities and ‘cultural diversity’. Aside from Finnish, Swedish and English the posters featured texts in Russian, Turkish and French (a language commonly spoken amongst West African communities).
Tamminen, who studied marketing, further claims that as a modern and subliminal means of communication (and manipulation), advertising takes advantage of an innate awareness that we humans have about our surroundings. He has observed that when his students analyse advertising in his workshops they are often surprised at how many brands and trademarks they can recognise, even if they have never directly engaged with the commodities or services they represent.
I first met Tamminen at an exhibition he curated, Rájágeassin Demarkation, about Sámi art-activism at Sinne gallery Helsinki, August 2020. Here I was introduced to the work of Suohpanterror!, a Sámi collective using the tools of subvertising and meme propaganda to challenge the state and corporate marginalisation of Sámi people and their interests.
To think a little about the power dynamics of (visual) appropriation and remix: The ‘classic’ argument is that advertising is an invasive takeover of public space by private commercial interests. Culture jamming, ad-busting, subvertising and other similar strategies intervene and disrupt these processes, often with satire, and arguably speak truth back to power. To use Tamminen’s words these practices ‘punch up’, especially when people and communities are invisibilised, marginalised or misrepresented in the media and by the dominant narratives they uphold.
Tamminen discusses his work with Suohpanterror! on a campaign to confront Disney’s Frozen franchise. Disney’s production crew had visited Sámi lands late in 2016 as part of their research for the second animated feature, but had not properly consulted or sought permission from Sámi people. As Tamminen writes in Voima, a magazine freely distributed in Helsinki, Sámi clothing, jewellery and other artifacts were viewed and used, irritating historical and ongoing tensions about the appropriation and misrepresentation of Sámi culture.
Suohpanterror! and Tamminen’s poster campaign sustained a public debate about Disney taking more than just inspiration from the peoples of the North. Tamminen draws attention to the ‘Hat of Four Winds’, an example of traditional attire that has been appropriated and commodified in Finland, (notable by the tourism industry). One of the characters wears such a hat their Stolen campaign poster as a satirical speculation as to how Disney might also appropriate Sámi culture. Tamminen explains that when Disney were made aware these and other complaints they quickly responded. The producers sought to consult with a Sámi expert committee during the development of the animation, signing a contract as a commitment to portray their culture respectfully. Disney also dubbed the film into a Northern Sámi language. Jikŋon 2, was released in cinemas conjunction with the original language version of the film in Norway, December 2019.
Tamminen alerted me to a popular TV show Hymyhuulet (Smiling Lips) from the 1980s that featured ‘Nunnuka Nunnuka’ racist and derogatory caricatures of Sámi people. (Question: Why are they in Black-face?):
Sámi rapper, Ailu Valle responds to this racist media-cultural slur:
It’s worth noting that strategies of remix need not only be weaponised. For example fan-fiction and Karaoke employ methods of cut, copy, modify and paste to pay tributes, elaborate on fantasies and find affinities with characters, celebrities and other ‘public figures’. (As this project veers towards remix in music, I’m curious as to what is the tension between appropriation, admiration and meme-like acceleration of cultural productions).