Artist interview: Niko Hallikainen

Artist interview: Niko Hallikainen

Niko Hallikainen is a performance poet and novelist born and based in Helsinki. He writes prose in Finnish and performance poetry in English. Niko was selected by an open call for the Mind the Gap residency, a new programme supported by The Finnish Institute in the UK and Ireland. He worked in London between July and September 2023.

In addition to your performance poetry, you have written novels and numerous works of non-fiction. Is there any form you enjoy writing more than others?

Writing is always lonely, and how enjoyable that is depends on other things than form. I’m not ever really alone when I write, I’m always connected to the voices of other writers and otherworldly spirits. But in comparison to prose, what I enjoy about writing performance poetry and making my text-based shows is that the ultimate goal of all the work is the moment of collaboration with audience members. During the performance event we solve the puzzle of meaning-making together. Writing a novel on the other hand takes years and it’s always a deeply transformative process to such an extent that it feels pretty impossible to elaborate its personal influence on others. What I love about writing a novel is that the personal transformation is so profound.

What poets, writers and artists inspire you?

My inspirations depend on what I’m working on. Currently I’m inspired by Gordon Matta-Clark’s spatial works, CAConrad’s poetry, Anne Carson’s new book of poems called Wrong Norma and Clarice Lispector’s novel Apple in the Dark published by New Directions last year.

Why do you choose to work in English as well as your native Finnish?

I spent a significant part of my childhood alone in front of the television set. For some mysterious reason our household had unauthorized Cartoon Network, an American cable channel showing old 60’s & 70’s cartoons all day and night. All of the cartoons were broadcast in their original English audio without subtitles, so I learned to use English by accident and based on this entertainment vernacular. It’s one of the most profound occurrences that influenced me as a person. I would call it a myth, because when I write, especially performance poetry in English, my way of constructing syntax will forever be influenced by how people talk on tv.

How has living (albeit temporarily) in London influenced your work, both thematically and also in terms of language?

The Britts are so elastic and brilliant when it comes to the English language that it was just a thrill to get to listen to them talk for 3 months. I would never naturally use English in a similar way, so I wasn’t really that influenced linguistically by the surroundings, except when it came to the names of pubs, for I’m obsessed with the act of naming, and most pub names in London are so vibrant that they heighten the energy field of whole buildings. Thematically on the other hand, something peculiar happened during July-September 2023. Living at a former fire station during last Summer’s four consecutive full supermoons was one of the most influential periods of creative work I’ve ever had in my life. I think I’ve experienced a circumstance so significant maybe it only twice before in my life, moments in time, of which in hindsight I’m able to say that the course of action shifted totally.

How do your personal experiences influence your writing?

Personal experience used to be the evident baseline of my writing, and now my personal life is less and less present in the texts I create. I believe I’ll always focus on the experientiality of the self and creating ways to honor my individual myths, but in much more concealed ways in the future. In my upcoming third novel I still focus on real life experiences as material and soil from which fiction can come to life, but what will follow after that has much less to do with my persona.

Do you believe poetry is subjective?

It’s equally subjective and collective. Reading and writing are highly subjective states, but when the text or the moment of citation are tapped onto the collective streams of consciousness, then poetry can really hit a nerve that disrupts the concept of subjectivity. I think we’re very aware of how individualistic the author’s profession is – but in my experience reading is one of the most subjective things one can do.

Do you write for your audience, when creating poetry that is intended to be performed? Does the audience influence the writing process prior to the performance?

Audiences don’t influence the process of writing, since I can’t estimate who’s going to be there to experience the piece. However, the milieu where I perform influences the show’s text thoroughly in advance. Every time I’m going to perform an existing show, I write new material, rewrite parts of the previous version and reorganize the whole text as well as the sound score. Pretty often I edit the text up until the moment I have to go on stage, and during the show I try to communicate the text to the audience in a way that resonates as much as possible. Every show is literally different, a new premiere in a way. It’s exciting – especially in tandem with writing novels that are basically set in stone once the work is ready. Performing is a form of editing as well. I aspire to make the audience understand something that was too elusive for me to fully comprehend while writing it, and together me and the audience might have unexpectable realizations and even breakthroughs. This is why I never memorize my texts and instead I read them from my phone on stage, because I want something completely dysregulated, unplanned and revelational to happen in the moment – especially in relation to text, which many people think of as a holy, monolithic or essentialist entity. I’ve performed a lot in theaters and especially in those scenarios it’s more of a shock to people how malleable all text actually can be.

How does personal narrative intertwine with collective memory in your performance Lavender Deal (Performa 2023)?

It depends so much on where it’s performed. The original premiere of Lavender Deal in Helsinki in April 2023 told the story of a failed long-distance relationship during the first lockdown of the Covid pandemic. Last November when I performed a new version of the piece at the Tibet House in New York as part of the Performa Biennial, the show started recounting that pandemic romance, then disrupted its pre-invented narrative, and ultimately the show became a deal between me and a bunch of unseen forces. In addition to talking about a virtual ex-lover, I communicated with the spirits of dead writers from New York who have influenced my writing, so the the last third of that show was a sort of seance specifically constructed to fit in that milieu. Performing in a Tibetan Buddhist context was a huge gift, because it allowed me to discover parallels and analogies between those traditions and my own modus operandi. I’ve worked with chanting, citating and the chakras for years, and the experience opened new directions in my own work, when I was able to perform in a context where the aforementioned methods are seen as serious portals. It was a relief, and now there’s a lot to process in terms of contexts – what kind of circumstances are actually fruitful for presenting my work.

Interview: Athanasía Aarniosuo, proofreading: Mauri Aarniosuo

Photo: Tani Simberg

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