How to Life: On Shame, Joy of Failure and Infra-ordinary

Text: Sini Mononen 16.1.2018
Pictures: How to Life

“How to Life Below Average” is a collaboration between curator, art critic, artist and researcher Anna Jensen and artist Andrea Coyotzi Borja. The essence of “How to Life” is about shame, joy of failing and being a professional in researching the weirdness of the everyday. Anna and Andrea’s message is compelling: change your expectations and you might be pleasantly surprised of what you can find. Anna and Andrea took some time to write down their thoughts on “How to Life”.

Sini Mononen: I noticed that you have opened a new website, “How to Life Below Average”. What is this project about?

Anna Jensen: “How to Life” (HtL) is a project in a constant state of becoming, with lowered expectations, regarding the outcome. Or anything. In “How to Life” we focus on the process and acts (like walking, writing, drawing, smoke bombs, confetti guns, biking and making guacamole) instead of describing and conceptualizing (can’t totally avoid that either, as we see here).

Anna Jensen & Andrea Coyotzi Borja: How to Life

Anna Jensen & Andrea Coyotzi Borja: As an artist and a researcher you need to be ready to defend your practice all the time. There are always expectations about it, there is always a feeling of the need for justifying what one does. Sometimes it feels like it is more about justifying your work, art in general, your own practice, your allowance of normal income etc. than the actual work. You are expected a lot, but as an artist you are always more or less a failure in the eyes of society. It does make us set our own standards quite high, and keeping one’s standards too high makes it impossible to truly experiment. And we think that art and research should be about experimenting, more like a study than a research, as social anthropologist Tim Ingold might put it. We want to study the world – and we want to study while doing – not make our practice look like research by adopting certain methods and languages.

AJ: “How to Life” is also a kind of a joke about expecting to know how to life. About all the things we read and do for living a better life. As we could control that. It is a comment on using art as a tool – to create “better” environments and better lives for different kinds of people who live their lives “wrong”. Art is not a tool and there are many ways of living. We use “How to Life” as a non-hierarchical starting point, where the act itself (be)comes before the questions, and maybe eventually some answers too, but they are not the point, the process is.

ACB: And in a way, “HtL” might always be at that starting point – or in a way pointless – meaning that it has no definitive trajectory of a specific outcome, as Anna said. “HtL” is in a constant state of becoming.

AJ: The process has been the main thing in art now for a while, and there have been a billion seminars, symposiums and workshops about laboratories, platforms, participatory practices and process based practice, but the discussion seems to stay inside the bubble and I am not sure where it leads. This is my way of testing what could become after all the rhizomes and laboratory platforms. At the same time it is based on this same kind of a cell division form, and is something that cannot really be owned by anyone.

Anna Jensen & Andrea Coyotzi Borja: How to Life

ACB: “HtL” questions, not in a manner of defiance, but as a wondering walkabout while practicing, what is really the function of these platforms nowadays..

AJ & ACB: “How to Life” is also about trusting oneself, if not in anything else, then at least in failing; or allowing oneself to do and fail as a part of a process. Creative process (huh, wouldn’t want to use that term, but can’t think of anything better now), art and research seem to lead to that every time. You try to reach something and you fail. Even if you don’t, it feels like a failure. A failure that comes from the expectation of reaching a resolution, a conclusion, a formulated thought. The outcome of most of your work is shame. Exhibition openings – I feel ashamed. Publishing something – I feel ashamed. Public talks – even more shame. At the same time, we are professionals. We have done our homework. We have been reading, we know our theorists. We know our practice. We do not need to prove anything to convince people we can – instead, this seems to be the opportunity to actually put our knowledge and competence to work and to try things without the safety net of a structured framework.

SM: What struck me when I stumbled upon the “How to Life” website was that I could not quite figure out what it was for. Anna has previously worked with curatorial projects like Porin Kulttuurisäätö and Space Invaders. It sounds like, though, this is something else: research, and artistic work itself. Is it too early to ask what you are researching? Is it the process or the joy of failure? Also, is this “academic” research, or “artistic” research?

ACB: Indeed, “what is it for?”. We don’t know, yet. There are always hints in doing, and while doing, but I think with “HtL” we don’t feel the urge and anxiety to force an answer. I think we can’t pinpoint this project in a type of research. Or in a medium, discipline, or a specific platform. Doing so would only limit the practice of doing, the type of subjects and concepts we approach, or attempt to approach. It would construct the practice and would raise the necessity of conclusive ideas. I don’t mean to say that we stay at a safe distance from moving towards a thought or idea, we try (and fail) but I think that in the practice of doing one might temporarily settle in specific frameworks, while the practice continues, and the frameworks shift. “HtL” has a shifting framework that allows to study and settle as much as it is needed for a certain period of time.

Anna Jensen & Andrea Coyotzi Borja: How to Life

AJ: I think “HtL” is for understanding our being here, or more like trying to communicate those feelings of belonging and not belonging that are crucial for society and collectives, but sometimes ones that are not recognised or only spoken of in weird ways. Trying to approach that part of life that doesn’t take forms, like Lacan’s the real or the uncanny and so on.

Research has been an essential part of my previous (and ongoing) practice with Space Invaders and Porin kulttuurisäätö, as well as my own art, but the questions have been clearer in a way, starting from certain structures that we have felt the need to explore and deconstruct. But as my main research question is often entangled with the unpresentable and unspeakable, the real and the uncanny (unheimlich is the main concept I use), this seemed like a good way of approaching it – as my hypothesis is that we have this overwhelming need to formulate and structure everything to cover up the fact that there are always things we do not control and understand – possibly threatening things without a clear form – and it seems false to talk about phenomena of this kind by imitating the language and methods of science. Andrea uses the term “infra-ordinary” instead of “unheimlich”, but we are dealing with the queerness of everyday life and environment all the same, and the experiences you can’t really explain that always escape from our reach. Mark Fisher wrote about the eerie: that there is something that shouldn’t be there, but also that there isn’t something that should.

I really enjoy the state of becoming I now feel that we are allowed to be in. We are making the experiences mentioned above visible, but we are not trying to reveal them, or empty them. And now, when I mentioned enjoyment, I could add that I see that too as an essential part of the project, and something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I think we have all ended up working in this field because of the love for arts and because we enjoy the practice itself. But it is not an easy job, and there are so many not so enjoyable aspects in it, so I think it is super important to find and maintain collaborations and actions where one feels homelike. It doesn’t mean it is necessarily easy, but it makes it easier to take risks and challenge oneself. So yes, I guess it is also the joy of failure.

SM: Funny, that when we try to escape concepts, we ultimately find ourselves discussing them and trying to define them. I guess it tells measures about our professional ethos, on the one hand, and the trouble of being a human, on the other. Even in the age of objects and new materialism we feel the need to name and conceptualize everything.

The way you use unheimlich is refreshing; Freudian unheimlich is about something odd, and perhaps even repulsive. For instance, art scholars have found the concept useful when trying to explain the appeal of art horror. You seem to seek the joy of unheimlich – something familiar yet unfamiliar, that can be approached as a play.

Anna Jensen & Andrea Coyotzi Borja: How to Life

AJ: I, too, have linked it to horror, in a sense, as my master’s thesis in aesthetics was about the undead and how they cross the ultimate line between the concepts of living and dead and, as it is a line that isn’t crossable, the undead is something we can’t really understand, it is the unrepresentable other, and still we try to represent it, just like death. The “uncanny” in the context of art has too often been linked to a kind of simplified abject art, as my opinion is that it is more linked to the revolutionary power that art has due to its capacity to address phenomena we can’t really approach by any other means. And this is why I think art is important, as it can tell something about our being in the world without falsely categorizing it, it is a way of studying the world, as it has always been, till it was strangely separated from “science” and “research”. Art as plainly visual pleasure and aesthetic value is of course easier to control, and I see the way art is treated as an object with not more than market value, as a way of controlling it. Sadly, I think also the so called artistic research often just follows the same rules. The question of selling and buying art and the idea of an artist as someone who makes his living out of selling art is a mechanism of oppression, as I see it. Maybe we shouldn’t call our practice art at all? Maybe we should call it “study” or “research” or create totally new ways to talk about it? I think this is also related to what artist Kimmo Modig was just demanding in his Facebook status: “I want to see artists asking what their works can make, instead of what those works represent.” I think we, as artists, should take responsibility for our art, and start treating it as an actor with potential. I think Sarah Vanhee was also referring to this in an interview “How to Dare, Interrupt, Intrude, Fictionalize and Scream for a Public”, noting: “Thinking along the schemes of social and cultural satisfaction often means maintaining them and reducing a plurality of voices to a number count. I’m interested in art as a space for meeting, speaking, thinking, for potential dissensus.”

Scholar in aesthetics, Sami Santanen, mentioned in his nonchalant way of putting all the difficult ideas in their places in one simple sentence, the other day, how “unheimlich is a spatial concept”. And as so many times before my tangled up thoughts started making sense to me: uncanny is not a singular experience I need to justify, but an experience related to space we are embodying, and hence a shared space, at least to some level, and I think that is what makes it so interesting and vitally important in the context of both art and communities.

Anna Jensen & Andrea Coyotzi Borja: How to Life

SM: How does Andrea’s “infra-ordinary” relate to all this? Infra means below something. Is it some kind of sub-ordinary, or something that philosophers might name as a Platonic idea that is not thoroughly familiar to us? A world beyond ours?

ACB: I have always enjoyed and ended up working with subjects, concepts, ideas, and things which seem to be part of the everyday, the quotidian. In 2011, I got myself into a project called “A one day project” for four years in which I was acting out one “project” each day. I say “project” because they were probably not something people would call projects when they were actions like having a glass of water, swiping a kitchen, skating with soaps attached under my shoes, and burning some flowers, to name some “projects”. Most of the time, those projects didn’t require a well-set plan for making and doing them; although there were some that needed some thinking, like: dropping a bed frame in a certain angle over myself and managing to keep myself harmless when the bed finished its fall. Something I wanted to do, and that I had probably seen in a cartoon or a movie (very much a low cost, very risk free, and very unimpressive action in comparison to Buster Keaton’s action in Steamboat Bill Jr where the whole facade of a house drops, and his body goes through the narrow space of a window). It was this requirement I had set up on myself of doing one project each day that set me in a constant state of doing. Constantly asking myself what the things I was doing were, how these ordinary things changed by being called projects (only by me of course). Asking myself if these ordinary things were different now (again, for me) because I had named them, and I had made them visible.

Anna Jensen & Andrea Coyotzi Borja: How to Life

After four years, I decided to end the project. I decided to take away the platform I had created for myself to shelter those actions and try to look more in depth into what happens with the quotidian, what happens with all those things that were visible, but where visibility seemed to be temporary. In the project website, I in a way denied their primary state of being ephemeral, I was trying to hold onto experiences with different mediums and possibilities. It was when I had set an end date for the project and I decided to look more in depth to try to understand or to have a dialogue with what I have been doing – it was then when I read a text by Paul Virilio, “On Georges Perec”, where I stumbled into the concept of infra-ordinary. Paul Virilio explains how, in their practice of approaching the city, they observed what they called “infra-ordinary”:

What we do when we do nothing, what we hear when we hear nothing, what happens when nothing happens. Outside of the city nothingness can perhaps exist (…) but it certainly does not exist in the city. In the city, there is never a void. There is always background noise, there is always a symptom, a sign, a scent. So we were interested precisely in those things which are the opposite of the extraordinary yet which are not the ordinary either – things which are “infra”.

When I think about what this infra is, I don’t think of it as something which is below, for me it’s positionless. This infra refers more to a state of being, rather than a location, it does not refer to a social, physical, or art practice sphere, in the case of “HtL”. Every time I attempt to explain what the infra-ordinary is, I fail. And every time, without doubt, everybody ask me the same question: “Can you give me an example?”, I never can. The infra-ordinary is the constant possibility of something becoming. The infra-ordinary dwells both in the possibility of something becoming, and in something being. (I am sorry, it took me so long to get to the point of “HtL”, but it’s difficult to jump into the infra-ordinary without offering some perspective on where I am with it.) We want “HtL” to allow the possibility to become something, to study something while doing. I always liked the phrase “walk the walk, not just talk the talk”. We try to walk, and do, and stop, and fail, and get excited while having our “walking talks” and realizing something just made sense (conversations Anna and I have while walking somewhere or nowhere in particular, but walking), and then question it again, and again, and again, until something (else) makes sense somehow.


Cveji?, Bojana (2015) “How to Dare, Interrupt, Intrude, Fictionalize and Scream for a Public. An Interview with Sarah Vanhee”, in Interrupting the City. Artistic Constitutions of the Public Sphere, eds. Sander Bax, Pascal Gielen & Bram Ieven. Amsterdam: Valiz.

Fisher, Mark (2016) The Weird and the Eerie. New York: Repeater Books.

Ingold, Tim (2000) The Perception of The Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London and New York: Routledge.

Virilio, Paul (2008) “On Georges Perec // 2001”, in The everyday. Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press.

How to Life Below Average