In a moment where everyone feels compelled to do something, anything, quick – from the Occupy movement to Kony 2012 – Pilvi Takala’s standout piece in the New Museum’s show "The Ungovernables" conjures the strange power of simply doing nothing instead. Like Melville’s Bartleby, Takala worked in an office – this one Deloitte, the multi-national accountancy firm – and one day simply stopped working. Unlike Bartleby's famous “I would prefer not to," she was very happy to explain her non-productivity: “It’s good sometimes to try to do the work in your head” – rather than on a computer. Later in her internship, she stood in the elevator all day, explaining, to those who dared ask, that she thinks better in a dynamic environment.
Takala, born in Helsinki in 1981, likes to create awkward situations. Her brand of performance might be called embarrassment-endurance art. Last year, she repeatedly entered the European Union headquarters in Brussels, wearing a t-shirt with the suggested dress-code written on it, and was subjected to a different set of procedures each time: sometimes stopped and grilled by security staff, sometimes able to float through unchecked. In another experiment, security guards at Disneyland Paris explained that she couldn’t enter wearing her unauthorized, and pretty creepy, adult Snow White costume because she was not the “real” Snow White.
As petty rules proliferate – to compensate for a lack of regulation on a higher level? – Takala likes to poke tiny holes in apparently water-tight systems, and see what happens when the leaks spring. Recently, she talked about her New Museum project and her indefinable style of performance art.
How did you choose the moment to start doing nothing and how did people respond to that shift?
When I started working there, I didn’t know what I wanted to do apart from first become a part of that community. I predicted that I would decide to behave in a weird way at one point, but I didn’t have any plans. So my first task was just to be believable in my role. I used my second name, Johanna, and a different background: I had studied marketing. I wasn’t working so much: I was just pretending to work or doing something simple like photocopying, because I didn’t have any skills for the job. After a couple of weeks I arrived at the conclusion that claiming to work while physically doing nothing would be a tough one for the people there to accept.
For how long did they tolerate you doing nothing?
My co-workers contacted their higher ups who would be responsible for kicking me out, but I had a deal with the company that I had this job for an undercover art project. The manager of marketing knew what was going on, so he would say everything is going OK.
Did you have Bartleby in your mind?
No, it wasn’t something I thought of before. I was familiar with it, but I only read it in full afterwards.
Is this performance political?
Politics is essentially a negotiation of the relationships we want to have together. But in the field of politics you need to propose a solution and I'm not proposing a solution in my work. I’m looking at what can be stretched in the given situation. We often assume that we share some kind of position, but the rules we share never cover everything. People in the workplace think they have a consensus about how things should go, what you’re supposed to do. But then something like this happens and it appears that a rule for this situation doesn't exist. Some people might think it’s a good way to work. Others might think it’s crazy.
You’ve said that your performances are like pieces of fiction happening in real life. Is it actually the other way around – pieces of the real exposing fictions?
Yeah, I mean fiction, it’s a fun thing to talk about. In "Real Snow White" for example I pretended to be a fan of Snow White, someone who enjoys dressing up. But I didn’t sign a contract to work at Disneyland so I couldn’t enter. You can only have one kind of fantasy there. If you’re a child you can be Snow White, but if you’re too old you cannot. I think most of my interventions reveal something that is going on which is absurd but also real.
But I wasn’t surprised that you weren’t allowed into Disneyland dressed up as Snow White.
No, me neither. But I was interested in how they would treat me – really nicely trying to get rid of me. I was aware that there would be visitors who would want to have their photos taken with Snow White so I knew there would be some kind of minor conflict. They have a dress code but it doesn’t say anything about dressing up. It just says you have to wear clothes, you have to wear shoes.
Your work seems to show that despite our assumptions about the strictness of rules, these rules can be stretched.
When you enter a new space you immediately scan how people are behaving and you start to imitate, start to limit yourself. Until you see somebody taking off their shoes you won’t take off your shoes. It’s a human behavioral thing. But most rules are unwritten – the ones that we observe and think we intuitively understand even if they’re not actually in place. When a rule gets stretched, there’s something that really changes, and something is left behind. Everyone won’t be sitting around at Deloitte and thinking, but a little bit of space opened up.
At the risk of a stereotype, Finnish people are usually quite taciturn. So what is the meaning of this for you, especially when you make these interventions in Finland?
Finnish people don’t easily express themselves, and they often want to be correct. So they were reluctant to come up to me during "The Trainee," they wrote an email or talked to other people about me. But you see it on their face that what you are doing is not OK. They only said something after staring at me for two days. They’re quite patient; they didn't judge me immediately. It’s good that they didn’t come up to me after just five minutes and say, "What the fuck are you doing?"
Is there a rule or a situation that you’ve noticed recently that you’d like to try to exploit or negotiate?
There are a lot of them on the pile! But there are some things that seem like they have more potential for negotiation than others.
How did you develop such a high tolerance for awkward situations?
That might have something to do with Finnishness. Finnish people don’t like to be embarrassed, they tend to take themselves quite seriously. I just find the embarrassing situation so interesting that I take it very seriously and I don’t want to ruin it by starting to laugh. But I didn’t have any formal training, just home schooled.