Interview with Marita Liulia

Art in the Age of the Mobile Phone - Text Messages from Finland

The Finnish multi-media artist Marita Liulia once described her country of origin as a one idea nation. With one company, Nokia, now bigger than the Finnish state, with one giant telecommunications firm, Sonera, and one media company owning the only daily national newspaper, the Helsingin Sanomat, with its one art critic, etc. etc. Having been isolated and colonized in previous centuries, being squeezed being Sweden and Russia, Finland is now going through its Golden Age, with an unprecedented prosperity, at least for those who own Nokia stocks or work for Nokia, which is an increasing number of people. The process of urbanization and post-industrialization is vibrant, with people and resources concentrating on the South coast. Finland as a member of the European Union will introduce the Euro. It even has an growing population of immigrants and refugees. But Finland has still only five million citizens who continue to suffer from cold, dark, lonely winters and celebrate the long warm days in summer. Population wise it does not amount to more than North London, as one critic used to say. Or may be Greater Berlin. That is a small number of people for a country of this size. How do these demographic, political and economic facts effect the cultural climate in this country? I met Marita Liulia briefly in 1996 and got to know her better during my stay in Finland of altogether two months in 1999 when I was working on the Temporary Media Lab at the Kiasma museum ( During the winter of 2000 we did an online interview which developed step by step into the collaborative text below.

How do the economic and geographic condition determine your work? It seems that you are being thrown back and forth between the village type of cultural policies on the one hand, and the unique opportunities of a five years long state grant for artists on the other? Please introduce us to your version of Finland.

Finland is a nation where only one idea rules at a given time. We are just 5 million (and not growing). Our history is a long story of self defense. The Russian bear has always been a threat, but the Swedes are not so loved either. Finnish are not conquerors but defenders by nature. So we turn the new millennium page as a pure white, deep clean and nature loving, extremely well organized country with straightforward, rather equal people who just have one big problem: long and depressing winters. Maybe that is why we have such a bad records in committing suicide. Since the Second World War Finland has been culturally surprisingly Anglo-American. Before WWII the third language after Finnish and Swedish, which was compulsory, was German. Now as we are member of the EU and our standard of living and degree of democracy is in top league worldwide we could loosen a bit our “only one idea at a time” policy. After the war we had proportionally the largest migration from the countryside to the cities in Europe. Spiritually Finnish culture has not yet arrived from the countryside to the city. Our cultural people give look backwards. Just think about those nostalgic Aki Kaurismaki films (the last one, “Juha” was a silent one!). The 50s are still considered to be the Golden Era of our culture. It doesn’t mean we don’t have good and original artists. It is just difficult to find (popular) art connected to contemporary urban life.

New media haven’t (yet) brought very much change. It is surprising. Finnish are not all that technophile as they are made to be. They are just keen users. Exactly as you told me about that other techno nation – Japan. The generation which will slowly change this attitude is still in its early 20s. But we are coming there. Mentally I am fitting better into that generation than in my own. Therefore my audience in Finland is rather limited. In recent years I have mainly focused on issues in contemporary (fe)male roles and identities. My work is not tied to Finland per se. I could have done it anywhere. Actually I did. I am constantly on the move. At the end of the 80s I was very frustrated about the art and media world (I worked years as a journalist/photographer and traveler) and – more than anything else -about my own ideas of arts and the media. I grew up with Marx, Hegel, Kant, Dostoyevski, Marcuse, Sartre, Nietzsche – thus in a company of rather gloomy men. Plus artist bohemians, from Baudelaire to Burroughs. Very inspiring for a young and passionate woman artist, isn’t it? Late 80s I started to study postmodern and gender theories with great appetite and ended up combining my old skills to new ideas to new technologies. It was a moment in my life when I finished writing the concept of the “Jackpot” CD-ROM installation in 1991. After discussing with technicians I suddenly realized there is no other way – I had to start to work with computers. I used computers in the 80s already while making sound and light installations. By the early nineties I had started to direct a team of professionals. Production of large multimedia programs started. Now I have a fourth one in process, new wireless platforms like WAP.

Both of your CD-ROMs, Ambitious Bitch and Son of a Bitch, deal with (female and male) sexuality.

Sexuality is just one of the issues including changes in feminine and masculine identities, excerpts of recent discussions about (fe)male gender roles, psychoanalysis, social relationships, biological discoveries and fashion. Just to mention some. I am interested in changes. And I am fascinated by the ways people express themselves, by words, by body language, by thoughts, by clothes.

I know you do not like to be identified as a feminist, because of its limitations concerning the fixed and narrow identity politics which go with this term. Still, it would be justified to say that sexual politics of art and new media are playing a dominant role in your work. Would you consider yourself a cyber-feminist?

Me a cyber-feminist? Why not! It depends what you mean by this. Does it mean one is a feminist? For me it simply means a person who wants equality. Even in cyberspace. Let’s add cyberspace to the list indeed (laughter) Some feminism is needed there, too.

How are these issues played out in Finland? Your country is indeed well known for its strong women, and perhaps also for its slightly tragic and disaster prone male culture. How do you turn your explicit theoretical and political (psycho)analyses into a sexual esthetics?

The field of the new media developed simultaneously with the high tide of feminism. Lots of (young) women got involved – expecting to avoid patriarchal hierarchies typical of the “old media” – like film. I considered studying film in 80s but quickly realized I will be 50 before the guys in power will allow me to make my first feature film – until that I would have also run out of ideas, I thought. None of my female film director friends ever made a feature film. In the multimedia nobody knew so much how to play boss. These days I think a female director is not a strange creature from outer space…but you have to be “a bulldozer”, as you put it once. No mistakes allowed. Since this promising start the number of female students in technology has declined rapidly. The field of the new media is heavily engineer-oriented. Even in Finland where the whole state (our new president is a woman), the bank system and the cultural sector are run by women, we have to be worried again about the fact that girls do not find information technology a very seductive perspective. I have worked together with engineers for about 12 years now and I take care that my teams are build up so that both sexes feel comfortable and safe. It is a hard, sometimes full time job but I enjoy it. The more the people are mixed, the less prejudices there are. When I did the research work and wrote the manuscript for the SOB CD-ROM (Son of a Bitch) I wondered how I could realize it in rather homophobic Finland. If a woman creates a work about men with such an outrageous name, the consequences are obvious. I took a risk and operated with sense of humor. I guess in Nordic countries women can afford to laugh about dumb blondes jokes, but male roles are surprisingly rigid. Male identity is not something to poke fun at. It is possible that the timing for SOB was wrong. It was too early. I had to do the work anyway. In general sexual and gender identities have been a popular issue in Nordic (cyber) art and culture over the last ten years. But not so in popular culture. If I compare Holland and Finland, our popular cultures are quite apart as far as sexual/gender issues are concerned.

Throughout your art career you keep coming back to your own body, visualizing it, taking pictures of it, morphing it through PhotoShop, dressing up, metamorphosing into other faces, other personas. What makes you so fascinated by this? Your biography seems to be full of big changes. You have gone from journalism, through performances and installation works to multimedia, and now onto the Web. With projects becoming ever larger in scale. How would you describe these phases, this drive to move onwards, the cycles in your works which leads you into a creative crisis in order to reach the next, higher level? Were does this capacity to change, to transform into somebody else originates from?

This is a very simple and therefore tricky question. It is curiosity which is driving me. I want to see what is behind things. I have always felt that the only real limits I have are body and time. I have spend my childhood in hospitals reading and making plans about what I was going to do if I would survive. When I got better, around the age of fifteen, my hungriness to life didn’t know any bounds. I wanted to see and experience as much as possible. I might call that my artistic-intellectual role as a hunter of hidden meanings behind self-evident truths. I am constantly playing around with ideas and testing them. I play around also with myself. In a way my body is material, a model and it is always available. By changing styles and characters I find out different attitudes. I also chance my character according to my work. Projects grew naturally bigger because with more experience I could handle more demanding projects. I need challenges. I cannot repeat myself – I feel like dying and drained out if I have to, so my next project always differs a lot from the previous one. My art projects are research projects as well. That is why it takes three years to finish a project.

You have been part of the multi media industry from its very beginning, in the early nineties. You have founded your own company, Medeia Ltd., employing a flexible number of freelancers, depending on the project. So far you have very successful in this. Still there is this fundamental problem of the distribution of multimedia titles, specially when these are artworks. You are now setting up a Finnish version of the Paris-based Moebius price for multi-media. How do you look at the recent developments in this industry? It looks like it is a tough business for artists with ambitious ideas about interfaces, complex content and non-linear ways to tell stories. And where does the Internet fit into this story? Much of the money these days is going into e-commerce, not so much to (CD-ROM based) multi media. The CD-ROM production, with its rather large budgets, somewhere in between a thick catalogue and a film, might in the long run be too difficult proposition, with so little returns on sales. Or do we just have to be patient and speculate on the ever-growing number of computer users?

I am operating somewhere between the art world and electronic publishing. My main problem during the nineties – and I am not alone in this – has been (international) distribution. The art world lives still in video time (even today many big museums are not equipped to deal with computer-based art!) and the electronic publishing companies are still building up their systems. Also, high quality content is expensive and demanding to create, thus it holds never very much appeal to cash-crazed marketers. At the moment I am preparing my next multimedia title called “Marita Liulia Tarot”, which will be produced for four different platforms: printed cards, CD-ROM, Internet and wireless WAP. I am interested in current developments in telecommunication systems. I believe in multi-platforms at the moment. We go on working with CD-ROMs and DVDs because Internet’s development towards multimedia is slower than I thought 4 years ago. And audiences want their techno utopias to be fulfilled at a push of the button, just because salesmen told everything was going to be possible…I am dreaming of distributing my works for free – but who will pay the high costs of production? It might be a nightmare – or a real challenge for a producer. Somebody said that future audiences will not be willing to pay for content. That would be something the advertiser would take care of. Will commercial companies control the content in future? Will a banner in a website pay for the content? What kind of critical, intellectually demanding, challenging stuff could that be? It raises many interesting questions.(Noam Chomsky’s lurking behind these lines). The best solution for distribution problem is located in the Net itself, those who produce content should build up a network in order to distribute the works. First steps into that direction are being taken these very days.

Could you tell us something about your way of working? To what extend do you think artists have to become engineers and technicians? How is your relation to the computer software and to the programmers you work with? Do they influence the final result, or do you keep in control over the whole process? How would you describe the digital images and the interactive environments you design? It seems that you still ‘drawing’ images, in the handicraft way; but this time with a computer.

I am doing my best in order to bring such members to my team who are going to be genuine contributors. For years I been looking for an outstanding programmer with also a degree in philosophy. Seriously. Many programmers I have worked with tend to be too young, nerdy types with too little experience in other necessary fields (those legendary social skills…) to work in a team in long term. But then I have worked with so many good ones recently that I should shut up. In a team I am the director and sometimes also producer so I always carry responsibility for the project as a whole and I am the one that takes care if somebody’s not able to do the work or has problems in the team. And once you have a team you’ve got problems too! I have written a mini-manual of sorts for my students about the main problems they probably will encounter. One has to foresee upcoming problems. Often they are linked to the team members’ personal difficulties and are therefore difficult to solve but they’re very disturbing to the work atmosphere nonetheless. Male and female roles are an endless source of problematic situations. Creating a good, respecting atmosphere seems to be essential – and that is my main job as a director. No wonder I feel like an alien when the work period is over. I have to leave the studio for some months and get really pissed off in Paris or Bangkok or somewhere else far enough. I cannot afford to bring my moods to work. All my works are based on photography, even SOB, whose interface is realized with Quick Time Virtual Reality. We manipulate digital photos or video images (we might even paint them one by one, and there are 24 images in a second!) The amount of stills I have to work out is so large, approximately 4 hours to browse in one program, and body and mind really have their limits. By now my both hands had to be operated upon. But I really adore to work with images. That’s my greatest enjoyment. I could perhaps manage without writing but I really would suffer if I could not create images. It is a basic need for me. My works are based on (manipulated) photos because of the quality. And there’s the prize aspect of it.

Maybe later on I will start to work with 3D and artificial graphics. I like to combine real images to artificial and the result should not be documentary. The way we work in a team is as follows. First I present my idea (manuscript) and my (philosophical, estethic and political) goals to the team. I would also have prepared images and some examples of multimedia realization. Then we start working together and I do my best to motivate the team to bring their own ideas or criticism to the fore. It is sometimes hard work especially if people have been employed in companies where they are not expected to have an overview of all aspects of the work. It is extremely difficult to generalize but I have noticed women have to be encouraged to defend their ideas whereas young men… well, I mentioned the lack of social skills before. What I like best is to work with multi-skilled, hard-working people who are curious about their own capacity.

Can you say something more about the relation between the artist and the engineer? This relation does not seems ideal at the moment. Is the only solution that artists become technicians of sorts? If not, what are their skills then — to tell stories, draw imagines? It seems that artists these days have to be more than ever project managers, administrators, therapists and PR strategists in order to operate successfully in the market.

To be successful in market has always been demanding. It helps a lot if one is multivalent – and also an attractive person. Artists have always worked with other professionals (though their names are hardly ever mentioned). Also engineers. I am aware of the deep divide between artists (or people from the culture field in general) and engineers. The problem is how artists who are interested in technology/new media will manage to find engineers who have a desire for art and culture. It depends of one’s contacts in general. And of one’s attitude. I think we have to co-operate and learn to communicate with different professionals. Situation forces artists towards that direction. One can not handle all the professions which are needed for realizing the larger kind of multimedia works.

The relation between so-called contemporary artists and so-called electronic or new artists seem complicated. Over the last decades these tribes, or rather these universes have come to be separated from each other. Due to the rise of the Net and the arrival of computers in artists studios and at the art schools, we are now heading towards a clash. I am not sure if it will be a productive ‘accident’. You are active in both worlds. Would you like to see electronic arts ghetto disappear? In the Kiasma event these two schools of thought seemed to co-exist, and also elsewhere in the Finnish arts world.

In my surroundings – in Finland and in France these universes are not so far apart. The number of artists that have started to operate in Net is growing fast. Like in any other professions. The computer is just the tool of this epoch. I think zapping and personal presentations of artists help to demystify the tool. The audiences and the art people need a smooth guidance to the electronic arts. the main problem is one of availability – how to distribute and present the works in the art world. The time we live in now is a time of images. Artists should benefit from that instead of being afraid of the new professional tools. Then again, younger generations have different attitudes but their encounter with the slow and conservative art world has not been a very successful one. They have to make their own rules. I expect that the new crop of curators, organizations, exhibition spaces, magazines, activities and even schools will make the change – but it is a slow process. Partly because the commercial image making, advertising business and TV has succeeded to monopolize the pool of young talent for a long time now. With money.

What do expect of new media critics? Can you remember a good piece you read recently which would indicate the way to go? Should criticism be more based on hyper text or should we rather works ourselves towards the level of the “Tres Grandes Theories” ? (to become the Sartres and de Beauvoirs of the Internet, as it were….)

Maybe the speed of technical development has been so breathtaking that grand theories are still on their way. It takes always time to build up a comprehensive view of a period in history but I’m eager to see it after all the hype. In this era sociologists (Castells, Bourdieu, Zizek) and linguists (Chomsky) seem to do the most interesting job. Last years I have concentrated to gender issues in order to understand what was happening to concepts like “woman” and “man” but my need to understand rapidly changing conditions in society and economics is growing. The consumerism (which has replaced former ideologies) we encounter in our everyday life doesn’t hide a revolution which has been going on for some time. Nokia´s year budget is bigger than the government budget of Finland. Who controls Nokia? The main shareholders. But who are they? What is their interest? Who controls a country, we could as well ask. Intellectuals has been surprisingly silent on these issues. For a long time it has not been fashionable to criticize society, the media – or individual companies. What was fashionable was to chose between brands. there is so much to observe and analyze. Media critics could offer some interesting views.

How do you interpret the mobile phone mania and where do you fit critical and artistic content and interface design in the current explosion of telecommunication? Everybody will be a WAP artists for the time of a telephone call?

I find interesting how our ideas of communication are changing so rapidly. Availability and accessibility are changing our “art of existence” faster than we care to notice. We want to be anchored in time, that is why we buy the latest tools. The drive of the market is absolutely amazing. Wireless communication creates an odd combination of distance and intimacy, which seems to be immensely seductive. Especially among youngsters: SMS- text messages are extremely popular in Finland, so are the mobile phone desktop images. If it will bring new art forms, I don’t know which but I am interested in that code language too. Artists can use whatever medium but the medium itself doesn’t make art. It has been always difficult for the art world to accept new mediums for artistic expression. It is again question of power, like in any human system. Those who have it, tend to keep it out of reach of others. Newcomers have to prove their plausibility. But if I were a poet, I would immediately start a Poem Phone where one can get max 400 characters haiku’s to the screen of mobile phone and the money would go to the poets’ own pocket. No publisher between. I am planning to use wireless WAP/ 3G as one of the four platform of my next work. My reasons are merely experimental. If the manus I’m working on at the moment fits to a new platform, I’m curious to see how it functions and what will be the response from the audience. The most attractive thing in new media for an artist is to find new, unexpectable audiences.

The works of Marita Liulia can be found at