Against Unlearning – Rab-Rab Journal encourages artists to study and write

Text: Irmeli Hautamäki 15.3.2017

Recently, I was gladly surprised at an invitation to a book launching of Michael Corris, an artist and theoretician, who is also a member of the Art and Language group. In spite of the terrible weather, the worst snowstorm of the winter, I decided to enter the event. I was even more surprised when dozens of other people arrived to Pääskylänrinne Maa-Tila to discuss Corris’ new book, Leaving Skull City.

Ilya Orlov: The Very Last Futurist Exhibition
+ Gravity (from Rab Rab Vol. 3)
The invitation came from Sezgin Boynik, the editor of Rab-Rab journal. The journal, which focuses on ‘political and formal inquiries on art’, has so far published three issues, altogether over 800 pages of texts and artistic material. All contributors of Rab-Rab are artists; some of them are Finns. The journal also contains interesting interviews with researchers. From my point of view the interviews with John Roberts, an art theoretician and critic, and the art historian Margarita Tuptisyn were useful and contained some new insights. The theme of the first Rab-Rab issue was ‘language’ and the second issue from the year 2015 addressed ‘noise’. The third volume from last year is titled ‘forest’. The subtitle is, of course, ironic as rather than nature or forest the articles deal with theory and practice of avant-garde art: such as Kazimir Malevich and Antonin Artaud.

In the Introduction of the ‘forest issue’ Sezgin Boynik writes that Rab-Rab journal wants to come ‘out of forest’. The editor addresses Finnish readers by insinuating that it is about time Finnish artists to start to think about art and make it from conscious political, historical, and formal points of view. He writes: “Anyone who lives in Finland knows that the galleries and museums are flooded with mystical, sticky, nationalist, reactionary art depicting the endless green of confusion, thickened with the torturing slow motion of angst and darkness of despair. The name of this reaction is … forest. Needless to say, as supporters of secular, materialist, contemporary and inquiry based art Rab-Rab is against this reactionary and provincial position.“ (p. 16.)

The above criticism is perhaps exaggerated but I understand the point. I have also written that in Finland artists are too easily praised for addressing their relationship with nature or being concerned of nature’s future. So I decided that I must meet this Sezgin.

Rena Rädle & Vladan Jeremic: detail from
“Ironworks ABC” (from Rab Rab Vol 3)
During our conversation, I told him that back in the 1920’s and 1930’s modernism and avant-garde were dismissed in Finland with a nationalist argument. According to it, artists should consider nature as their main subject. Impressionism was not apt as there are no such bright colors in Finland’s nature. The critics explained that “we have our forests and lakes” and these should be good enough for the artists. Such ideas have had deep influence on the Finnish artists’ thought and evaluations. [1]

But who is this Sezgin Boynik? He has written that he was raised in socialist Yugoslavia, where nationalist ideology offered an answer to all questions of human life. Sezgin, who was born in 1977, lived in the middle of the bloody civil war in the 1990’s. He was then in his twenties, in the age when he, like many of his generation, should have been engaged in the interesting avant-garde productions of his country. The ideology however made this impossible.

Sezgin Boynik has written that the awakening from nationalism was personally a hard process for him. Encountering the International Situationist Movement, the film directors Jean-Luc Godard and Michael Haneke, free-jazz and other such things opened up a counter force to the nationalistic ideology. He writes that only then he realized that Yugoslavia, too, had had its own internationalist avant-garde movements which were the core of the Partisan Movement during the WWII. [2]

Rena Rädle & Vladan Jeremic: detail from
“Ironworks ABC” (from Rab Rab Vol 3)
Sezgin came to Finland in 2010 in order to write his dissertation at Jyväskylä University. The 2014 dissertation considered the relationship between art and politics in the Yugoslavian “Black wave” films (Dusan Makavejev) in the 1960’s and 1970’s. After this, he has continued his research and studying process in the Rab-Rab journal and also encouraged others to do so. The editorial board of Rab-Rab consists of a network of artists and theoreticians who are based in different cities such Spandau/Hamburg, Brussels/Belgrade, Rovaniemi, St. Petersburg/Helsinki, Tampere, and Helsinki.

The Introduction of Rab-Rab Volume three says that Rab-Rab is an experiment in learning: “We deny unlearning, dislearning, and all sorts of mechanical understanding of how the inquiry should relate to new and unpredictable things”. (p. 15.) The journal attempts to activate artists to study and write. It organizes meetings for discussion and invites interesting visitors to Finland. In June 2016 Rab-Rab invited Jacques Rancière to Helsinki. The next issues of Rab-Rab will contain material related to this meeting.

Rab-Rab Issue Three, Rab-Rab Press, Helsinki 2016
[1] Irmeli Hautamäki: Kansainvälisyys ja kansallinen projekti suomalaisessa taiteessa/ Internationality and the national project in Finnish art , teoksessa Alaston totuus taiteesta, toim. Sini Mononen (2014). S. 21 – 36.
[2] Foreword in ”Towards a Theory of Political Art Cultural Politics of ‘Black Wave’ Film in Yugoslavia, 1963-1972” (2014)