This essay discusses how an urban circus and flow art community reclaims urban space and struggles for belonging in Helsinki. The community’s shared subcultural values are ever-present as a researcher embarks on a journey of participatory ethnographic research among circus artists.
TEXT Heta Mulari
ORIGINS OF CONTEMPORARY CIRCUS – Especially since the early 2000s, contemporary circus has gained growing attention as a form of art and urban street culture, as well as a tool for critical pedagogy and social work. The roots of contemporary circus are often located in the French cirque nouveau movement of the 1970’s. The multidimensional nature of circus can be seen in the countless props, techniques, styles and locations: circus is constantly changing according to the artistic, social and political contexts.
SUBCULTURE is a concept very frequently discussed in cultural youth studies. Much of the research tradition refers to the Birmingham School theorists of the 1970s who understood subcultures as class-related resistance, and emphasized the understanding of subcultural authenticity (especially against mainstream media). In this chapter, I mainly refer to a later (sometimes called post-subcultural) research tradition, especially Sarah Thornton's understandings of subcultural ideologies and capitals. By subcultural ideology, I am referring to the way in which the circus group discussed their own social group against others and saw their group as distinctive in terms of style, conventions and values. By subcultural capital, I refer to the embodied and communally learned conventions, knowledge, style and social connections.
FLOW ART is a concept often used about different forms of movement-based disciplines, such as juggling, dance, object manipulation (with props such as poi, hula hoop, contact ball and dragonstaff) and fire-spinning. In flow art, movement, props, choreographies and improvisation are deeply intertwined. Further, contact improvisation in the form of juggling or spinning poi together is an important part of flow art.
I received an image in my email from one of my informants. In the image, there is a young woman who looks past the camera with a determined look on her face and her long dreadlocks pulled back from the forehead. Above her shoulders she carries a heavy, metallic stick called a dragonstaff. Both ends of the prop are on fire. The young woman is wearing a light brown skirt and matching leg warmers.
The image seems to capture a moment of deep concentration before a fire art performance. Further, the image delivers visual cues about a specific way of practising circus, belonging to a certain community, and repeating visual aesthetics I had seen before on many Instagram accounts. This recognizability reflects our digital era, in which arts such as circus are increasingly transurban. Situational circus acts and performances actualize simultaneously in local urban spaces and on transurban, virtual spaces, such as Instagram and YouTube. These creative forms of reclaiming physical and virtual spaces are closely linked to the formation of communities both locally and globally.
So what do I mean by circus or flow art? Upon my first arrival to this particular research field, I had little knowledge of this urban activity I was now getting to know. Soon I began to notice the specific elements that intertwine in creating different acts and using props – each prop, as well as the urban spaces occupied, reclaimed and used by the community, and lifestyle choices within the community, carried considerable subcultural relevance.
In the interviews and field observations, I noticed constant balancing and negotiation between using the concepts of circus and flow art.
“I don’t think I will start juggling. It reminds me of real circus type of circus,” commented Lotta (22), who was practicing with poi and identified as a hippie girl. Further, many informants pondered upon how poi is often seen as a prop quite strongly linked to flow art, psychedelic trance and hippie subculture. Certain props, such as poi, hula hoop and dragonstaff were also used together with music, dance and other forms of embodied arts. Many informants talked about ‘getting into the flow’ when referring to doing tricks, or through certain kind of music, often psychedelic trance or other electronic dance music. For example, Juho links his initiation into circus to psytrance:
I used to go a lot to these psytrance parties, these subcultural parties where fire is very strongly present. So-called hippie circus and then hippie parties, they fit well together, so already then I was looking at it, like, wow this is something super cool, like… It is… fire is just so magical and then if I’m controlling something that magical, it’s quite a cool thing.Juho, 25
It is dusk in the park and the trees cast shadows on the grass. Music streaming from the loudspeakers is electronic and instrumental, the bass is very loud. Poi spinners are gathered in pairs and small groups, everyone has poi in their hands, spinning it around in complex sets of choreographies and dancing to the music. In the twilight, the spinning led poi create psychedelic shapes in the air. I remember one respondent’s definition of poi spinning being dancing with the prop.Passage from researcher’s field notes
During the time I spent doing field research, my mind often wandered back to sociologist Sarah Thornton’s thoughts on rave and club cultures in the 1990s in Britain and the US. According to Thornton, becoming authentic, gaining recognition and becoming distinctive against other youth groups were essential aspects of club cultures. Thus, subcultures are negotiated in nuanced ways in relation to other youth groups, which reveals something about the power used in the subcultures in order to create a shared understanding of the community. These understandings can include, for example, shared creative practices, conventions and style, as well as political opinions.
In most interviews, hippie culture was mentioned as a source of subcultural identification. The interviewees’ understanding of what being a hippie meant was a local adaptation, deeply tied to the cultural and political contexts of the 2010s’ Helsinki, while simultaneously citing the historical legacy and values of the movement.
The definition of a hippie was discussed in every interview from contradicting perspectives. Many identified closely as hippies, but some also wanted to distance themselves from the concept. Identifying as ‘a circus hippie’ meant first and foremost belonging to the community, which included values such as physical closeness (exemplified by hugging everyone), peer learning, environmental thinking, communal living and the overall explicit emphasis on empathy and harmony between people, following the legacy of the hippie movement. Juho (25) commented on the definition of hippie as belonging that is related to style, community, values and urban space as follows:
Juho: “It [hippie] is only a word for me. Of course, it describes me quite well. Like, I have tangled hair [points to his dreadlocks] and I use these kinds of clothes and now I’ve found my own place there. Before I didn’t really have my own place in society so I think this hippie word describes it to a degree. And it’s nice to belong to a group. Some people don’t like it [the word hippie] but for me it only describes belonging to a certain group. And that’s a good thing.”
Heta: “Are there any values linked to it?”
Juho: “Green values and such for sure. On the whole, being empathetic and sympathetic are the two most important things that are linked to being a hippie and to [the rehearsal space] in general.”
However, the participants also talked about negative values linked to ‘hippies’, especially within the wider circus field. They felt that the concept was too frequently used in a downgrading way, signalling unprofessionalism, lack of circus skills and a lifestyle that criticized the societal ideals of individual success and competition.
In contrast to these ideals of never failing, being competitive and having individual success, which were discussed as essential aspects of living in Finland as a young adult, the community members emphasized shared conventions, such as peer teaching and peer learning. The participants described it in terms of learning from each other, encouraging one another and finding the courage in the learning process to face failures. These implicit conventions can be understood, following Thornton, as elements of subcultural ideology, shared in the community.
In addition to balancing between these contradicting definitions coming from within and from without, the community had its own implicit hierarchies and orders. Sociologist Anni Rannikko points to subcultural respect as a key issue in the inner order of alternative urban sports, such as circus, parkour or roller derby. While the rhetoric of these sports includes a principle of ‘everyone is welcome’ and takes a stand against hierarchies based on gender, sexuality or ethnicity, the subcultures include their own unspoken rules and power relations.
Some of the unspoken conventions in the group were linked to everyday rituals, such as physical closeness and hugging. While many of the participants talked about hugging in a positive tone (“During one night you can get more hugs here than an average Finn gets during one year,” says Laura, 24) hugging could also occasionally turn into a selective and excluding act. Some informants pondered about the difficulty of entering the rehearsal space and spending the evening in the group – while the space was rhetorically open and free, it was not always easy to access socially. Importantly, gaining a sense of belonging to the space and community required learning the embodied, unspoken and social conventions and values regarding peer teaching and proximity.
It is an unusually hot evening in May and I’m sitting on the ground in front of a community centre in Helsinki. The wide open space is surrounded by industrial buildings, now taken over by different cultural actors and industries - a phenomenon familiar from very many European capitals. My juggling balls are scattered around me; I’m taking a break. People are rehearsing and teaching each other, hugging, chatting and having snacks. I can smell lamp oil and sense the excitement; a fire jam is about to begin.Passage from researcher’s field notes
Media scholar Myria Georgiou (2013) writes about how different groups of people become part of a global, digital city. As she states,”[– –] the city is a site of struggle”, both for symbolic and material resources. In the circus community, the struggle was quite concretely visible in local and global ways: in addition to the concrete occupations of rehearsal and gathering spaces, the community took a stand on urban politics.
In a circus act, urban space becomes transformed: certain parts of the city are turned into subcultural arenas and pockets of counteraction. For example, one informant described her view in a lively way on the anarchistic elements of a circus act:
I guess it takes a stand on… I don’t know, Helsinki is a city of many rules […] it is anarchistic in a certain way. To go and spin fire without any permission, in the park. Or, wherever, on a parking lot.Alisa, 35
Alisa’s words about anarchism and circus echo Rannikko’s research, in which she discusses alternative sports through the concept of counter space, aiming for rethinking and challenging conventional uses of urban spaces. For the circus group, creating counter space was especially visible during the summer in one specific park in Helsinki. Located around 3 kilometres from the city centre, the circus group frequently named the park as a key location, as a place temporarily taken over by their community and art. In their discussions, this specific park had a reputation for being a ‘hippie park’, thus including considerable subcultural and community-building relevance.
Furthermore, the community took a clear stand on official urban planning and conventional uses of spaces, thus creating a counter space both concretely and metaphorically. Terhi voiced her wish for alternative spaces as follows:
I’d hope there would be more places, spaces, urban spaces in Finland for… People spending time and developing themselves. It annoys me a lot that there’s a certain purpose for each space and especially public outdoor spaces. They want to put fences around each space, they want to control them, they want to… they want to limit their use.Terhi, 29
Occasionally practising circus and flow art was also used as a means of criticism and protest. While not all community members participated in protests, many of them had been doing circus in, for example, Pride or events for environmental issues and human rights.
In May 2017, I interviewed Juho in a pub close to the city centre in Helsinki. From the pub window we could see the railway square, which had during the spring become a symbol of political polarization and strengthening of the far right movement, but also solidarity with the asylum seekers. At one end of the square there was a protest camp set up by asylum seekers, and at the other end, a camp of the extreme right movement, Finland First.
Juho told me that he had visited the protest camp for asylum seekers several times with the circus community.
And about circus in general, when they had these protest camps for asylum seekers here at the railway station, so we were often there [- -], just doing circus and bringing joy and playing with children and… Children come from difficult circumstances and they’ve found joy in it. That’s been very nice to see.Juho, 25
When looked at from the outside, flow art often manifests itself as playful reclaiming of urban space, of taking over parks for activities, such as poi spinning, acrobatics with hula hooping, or even park raves. However, the activities of the group researched here also included elements of concrete counteraction, of creating different spaces through performances and protests. Thus, circus and flow art can be understood as artistic means of reclaiming the urban space, experiencing belonging and creating a temporary stage for situational performances, flash mobs and protests.
The park has emptied for this evening and everyone’s heading back home. Many Instagram accounts repeat what’s been going on in the evening: learning new tricks, encounters between community members, spinning individually and together in the urban space. On different social media platforms, temporal performances and spatial occupations gain an afterlife and become digital, local adaptations of a global circus and flow art community.
During my time spent with the circus group, I often pondered upon different meanings of belonging. For most respondents, the sense of belonging came from the different forms of circus art. Choosing a specific prop was a route to experiencing belonging to a certain art form and to people who were playing with the same prop. Further, for many, finding their own space in the city was deeply connected with the community: its subcultural values, practices and conventions.
Names of interviewees are changed for anonymity.
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This essay is informed by fieldwork in two research projects, Digital Youth in the Media City and PROMISE: Promoting Youth Involvement and Social Engagement. PROMISE has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 693221. This chapter reflects only the views of the author; the European Commission and Research Executive Agency are not responsible for any information it contains.