Artist in Residence
Leevi Toija
autor: Neža Kokol


Leevi Toija is a 22-year-old artist from Helsinki, Finland who just completed his BA in the Studio of New Aesthetics at FAMU. He is currently doing a residency at Petrohradská Kolektiv after which he will continue with his master studies at the fine arts department of Zürich University of the Arts (ZHdK). The winning project for the residency was also his graduation work, called Static-Dynamic: Lessons on Highway, which he is developing further throughout the three exhibitions at Jedna Dva Tři Gallery and will be available for the audience until the end of July 2021.

The work you exhibited as a part of your residency at Petrohradská Kolektiv was analyzing spaces of infrastructure, with a special focus on the highway whose sole purpose is to create and control movement. What made you decide to explore it beyond its primary function as a tool and instead look into it from a perspective of a socio-political apparatus?

My interest grew towards it after hours and hours of driving between Helsinki and Prague.  What I found especially fascinating is the feeling of being nowhere even though you are constantly moving from country to country, and how the highway nowadays is the only way of travelling where you can actually feel the length of the journey - if you fly, suddenly it is one and a half hours and you are at your destination but when you drive close to 2000km in about 20 hours, you can feel the distance. And the project is also about the landscape itself - how the sound wall blocks it, creating an anonymous space in which you recognise where you are only based on the road signs. For me, it is especially interesting how it controls people - and here I am referring a lot to Keller Easterling’s work Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space - exploring how this place [the highway] is so monumental but at the same time when someone does not obey the rules and there is an accident that blocks the traffic, suddenly its whole concept of freedom of uninterrupted travel sort of collapses. All of a sudden you find yourself on a country road that lets you see some sights throughout the voyage while sitting in traffic, instead of the fleeting sound wall blocking the scenery. The gas stations on the highway, for example, took over the cultures of these small towns and even though they might be named after the towns and one can say they have been there, in reality, one cannot experience the “authentic”, local culture of the specific place through a global rest-stop-chain.

Compared to other public spaces, what is particular to infrastructure is the constant movement of its users, the temporariness of their coexistence and, therefore, a lack of opportunities for mutual (re)shaping. Would you agree that in this sense, the highways are very self-contained as spaces and consequently create a very isolating experience?

Exactly. The interesting contradiction in these infrastructure spaces is that even though you use them collectively through the common parameters, you remain isolated from the space and time itself, thus the experience becomes a completely different one from everyone else. A funny example of highways “stealing” local cultures is The Cars movie by Pixar. It is all about the speed and the highways until the protagonist, Lightning McQueen, gets lost and finds himself in a tiny ghost town. The villagers tell him how vibrant it used to be before the highway got built and how it slowly died off because of it. Suddenly there were no local stores but instead only global service chains... Obviously, it is not as simple as that, but the movie, which is made for children, exposes in a somewhat brilliant way the fundamental structures and consequences of our huge infrastructure projects: the highways. And to be clear, I am not saying that highways are good or bad. I am just a spectator, trying to form a portrait of them as clearly and objectively as possible.

As opposed to the general image of the highways you are pointing out the exclusivity of such spaces - one needs a license, a car and in most countries a toll sticker to be able to use them. In many ways, it becomes a privileged way of commuting while the more broadly available regular roads demand a certain sacrifice in a sense of time, planning etc.

I think this is the most interesting thing about it - in a way everyone can use highways, for example by bus, but the whole idea of them is the freedom of individual travel - if you think about the 50’s when larger highway networks started to emerge in the United States, they were advertised as faster and freer ways of commuting, as opposed to public transport. One has to also take into consideration that there [in The States] everyone has a car because without it you are practically immobilized as the public transport system is pretty much run-down. It is a bit different here [in Prague] because the public transport is way more effective but the highways still have the same problems, just on a different scale. Congestion of traffic is the biggest problem of highways, as it completely breaks the whole function of highway’s fast and uninterrupted travel. Suddenly people find themselves sitting in traffic for one and a half hours per day when they need to commute for only 10 kilometres for example. What I found super interesting was that in The US they tried to find the solution by adding lanes to the road so there would be more space for cars. It seems like an easy solution, but surprisingly so, it only made the traffic worse. What they realized is that to avoid congestion, you need to make the highway smaller so that people use it less due to the fear of traffic. It is a little bit like reverse psychology.

“(Infra)structures are spaces we all recognize and feel familiar with - yet they still fabricate feelings of alienation. These arrangements are defined not by the individuals using them, but by the parameters given to the users.”

You spoke of the disregard of the spaces of infrastructure for their users as they are primarily defined by the specifically assigned parameters - do you see a parallel between such spaces and Neufert’s standardisation of furniture? In both cases, the focus is not on the bodies but the effective usage of space.

I think there are a lot of parallels but when you talk about the furniture or private spaces there is one main difference - with the infrastructure spaces, your individual thoughts cannot really affect them while at home they can. For example, even though the furniture would be standardized one can paint the wall and suddenly space becomes individual. What interests me in infrastructure spaces is that these are the kind of universal spaces, which an individual experiences in their own way, but cannot change or personalize them - when you think of the telecommunication, highways, shopping malls and so on... even though they are quite exclusive in many ways – they are still generally accessible if you have the basic means to use them. For the highway, one only needs a car. Be it a brand new Ferrari or the oldest Škoda, it works essentially the same way because the parameters are the same for us all. But when speaking of furniture, even if everyone would have the same Ikea furniture which I would not necessarily like (not because of standardization but because of Ikea), the interesting thing about furniture is that you can always mould it into your home. You can add a tablecloth, candlesticks and essentially you can still personalize it in your own way. Or maybe it has a stain, your child drew on it or something similarly distinctive ...

Yet as always the formal function and use differ from the non-formal ones. With different bodies using the space, multiple functions start to occur. The space under the highway bridges serves as a shelter for the homeless, a garbage dump, it works as a division of space and of a certain pre-established social dynamic … Why do you think even such rigid forms of space transformation eventually multiply their functions?

I feel that when it comes to space this is inevitable. If we lived in a generally perceived “dystopian” world where everything is perfect and there is no space for anarchy or improvisation and everything is precalculated, I believe some sort of disorder would eventually happen. Even in the cleanest scenario, you would still have some secret dump somewhere or graffiti appearing on the street. Obviously, this creates different kinds of spaces and people living under the bridge are there because society does not give them a space to live. It is the fault of society itself that there are homeless people or any kind of “disorder” in public spaces. So it is extremely absurd that instead of actually trying to solve the problem of homelessness by providing affordable housing or job opportunities, the authorities mostly just create “anti-homeless” architecture. But as our society is the way it is, it is quite inevitable that these things keep reoccurring.

Even though such infrastructures always have a fixed beginning and an end, one can still lose their sense of direction or a goal. The cartesian dualism of the mental and the physical, the rational and the instinctive, the function and the use once again prove a dichotomy of realities that eventually overlap in a form of a physical route. How can one be lost yet still headed somewhere?

I think this is due to their generality. For example, the parameters of the sound walls are assigned as they have a very specific function but the visuals change as you drive along the highway. For me, the most interesting thing is that even though one will not really get lost on a highway, as there are signs and GPS telling you where you are and every once in a while a specific landscape reminds you of the surroundings. The occasional anonymity is what intrigues me. It does not matter where you are, but every once in a while, a moment occurs, where one might feel lost in time, as the highway creates an enclaved passage passing through vast spaces. A continuous wall fleeting in front of the eyes of the driver, the humming sound of the car. These sensory feelings cannot really be put into words, nor can they be connected to any specific time or culture. My exhibited video was shot straight from the passenger window of a car. And the feeling of being nowhere is what the video is trying to convey and remind its spectators of. The video for me is the ultimate portrait of a highway - one cannot possibly connect it to any specific time or space.

In a lot of your work, you seem to be addressing the topics of absolute, general, inclusive which add a political undertone to the seemingly neutral situations. Is there some particular fascination along those lines you would like to explore in the future?

Definitely. I like committing to something, especially to the kind of prefabricated work such as manifestos and the act of manifesting your thoughts itself. For example, I wrote some sort of a guidebook for myself about how to work with video. It is not the kind of manifesto where I try to change other people’s opinion on how they should work with video but it defines it for me and it prevents any kind of unwanted surprises that might otherwise occur. Especially the idea of standardized working methods and the famous notion of turning “man into a machine” that was popular in different Russian avant-garde movements … my interest goes a long way back. But especially fascinating to me is to find these absolutes in the society where we think we are completely free just because you can say and think what you want. I disagree with the idea that if you think you are truly free, it means you can do anything you want. That is not really how it works, at least not for me. One works from 9 to 5 and thinks that they are free just because they can go on vacation once a year. I do not think that this is real freedom nor do I want to say that someone is stupid to think a vacation a year equals freedom...

As famously stated by Horkheimer1 .

Yes, I guess in a way … but now, as I wrote my thesis on Russian ultra-Taylorist, labour organiser and poet Alexei Gastev who envisioned this extremely standardised “utopian” society which has inspired many dystopian novels, I think it is interesting to see how people perceive freedom and absolutes. Gastev was saying we should not tolerate any form of individualism but instead form a collective mass in the sense that it does not matter to sacrifice thousands if millions can live. My next projects will definitely revolve around this as I want to do more research about Gastev. I feel like his ideas connect completely to infrastructure spaces and the concept of absolutes that is very prevalent in our lives yet often remains unnoticed.

To continue Gastev’s thought of a collective mass, I am fascinated with the idea of manifesting one’s work in a way that it becomes transparent and available for all. Sort of like the open-source technique which is used in many free-trade-zones, for example, Shenzhen in China (which Keller Easterling also addresses in her work), where the same products become available months prior to Europe. If for example, you have a 3D model of something, everyone can access it and develop it. I really dislike the idea of the so-called “Western mastermind genius'' either in the innovator or the artist context. I don’t agree that is how it works - you need a collaborative approach in order to achieve something. That is also why I want to manifest my thoughts and steps clearly so it functions as an open book. Of course, it goes beyond simply stating the rules but at least that works as a clear base. I do not consider myself superior to anyone else and so I believe all we need are collaborative ways of working.

1“Freedom means not having to work” was Horkheimer’s response to Theodor Adorno in one of their discussions in the spring of 1956 documented in the book Towards a New Manifesto (London : Verso, 2019)