Seductive Catalysts


New life was born into my home. Our small foal arrived in a spring night in 2020. The next day all the members of our stable had their cameras busily documenting the progress of the newcomer, crystalized in her first steps. When she pooped for the first time, there was much rejoicing. She was healthy.

+bug photo

Horse manure is also a signal to other animals. There was movement in the manure pile behind our stable, when a four-centimeter long European rhinoceros beetle (Oryctes nasicornis) waddled towards the foal’s poo. The beetle was not alone, either, but instead was carrying a bunch of hitchhikers. Creative solutions are sustainable. Even though the European rhinoceros beetle moves slowly, it can fly, and the tics travelling on it can also conveniently reach new places to eat, decomposing composts and manure heaps.

Photographs are a means to observe, experience, remember, transmit and to change things. After we have seen the photos, even poo is no longer what we usually think it is. Photographs and their stories tell about the fine-textured systems of the nature, and the circular economics’ idea to keep materials sustainably alive as long as possible. In the idea of circular economics, waste is not a problem but instead important raw material for somebody.

+the book photo

This book is a part of the CICAT2025 research project, which is funded by the Strategic Research Council operating under Academy of Finland. In the project, “circular economy” refers to using less natural resources, closing material-, energy- and nutrient cycles, and keeping  the value of products, materials and resources in the economy for as long as possible (CICAT2025). This multidisciplinary, 5-year project, searches for catalysts, positive forces of change, to speed up the transition to sustainable circular economy. Artists around the world were invited to help with the book.

The materials in the book are based on an international Special Open Call, organized in conjunction with Backlight 2020 Photo Triennale. The Open Call received 168 different proposals. Through their works, the artists create an understanding on the possibilities of art as a force of change in the future. This will help us see the present day through critical eyes, and activates our minds to act towards a more sustainable future.

The proposals offer a chance to recognize fairly consistent insights and views. We may well ask how photos, videos, and other visual presentations give meanings to reality and increase thinking of change by catalyzing a systematic transition towards sustainable circular economy. This is where the term visual catalyst, which we have adopted for the project, comes from.

+backlight photo

As the Backlight Triennale, organized in Finland, has over the decades profiled itself as an event for art photography, it leaves out many actors and conventions of the field of photography, such as for example ad photographs, nature photography, and journalistic photography. This leads to the examples in this Visual Catalysts book to arise from the field of art photography, and from the proposals of the artists working in that field.

Open Calls for art festivals search for new and fresh ideas based on an existing theme. On one hand, the Visual Catalysts Special Open Call is very delimited, and on the other hand, very permissive for different interpretations. As the idea of the open call is to create an international exhibition and a book for the Backlight Triennale 2020 event held in Tampere, this is a very motivational project for the artists. My role has been that of a curator and the editor of this book.

The meanings of images are created in interaction by looking at them, experiencing them, and interpreting texts. When we talk about the meanings of images, we talk about culture-specific catalogues of meanings, which are in constant flux. The interpretation of art and photographs is dependent on the culture and location, and for example exotism is created as a product of the cultural difference between the observer and the photograph. On the other hand, interpretation done from a Western viewpoint often creates quite similar meanings.

Since we wish to, on one hand, utilize the observations brought about by the cultural differences and, on the other hand, find different and new viewpoints, this book was designed by an international, multidisciplinary team. A Finnish artist and graphic designer Jani Ikonen and a German photographer Alexander Lembke did the photo selections. The images were interpreted and the articles were written by professors of leadership, Donna Ladkin from the UK, Steven S. Taylor from USA and Hanna Lehtimäki from Finland, together with the researcher Siiri Pöyhönen and the researcher of sustainability politics Ari Jokinen. All these people have added their voices to this book and have had an impact on the final collection of photographs.

In order to have as many voices and cultures represented as possible, artists from 18 different countries were chosen. However, the majority of the 38 artists are from Europe, although there are also artists from North and South Americas, as well as Asia. The most usual medium of work is photography, but there are also works from the artists working with interactive media, as well as installation and performance artists.

The selection of works was based foremost on their ability to evoke thoughts and feelings in the observer. Sometimes works seduce through visuality alone, other times the text attached to the images creates the moment of revelation. When a conventional assumption is broken, the preconception is shattered and the process of critical thinking begins. The images and the descriptions created by the artists form critical material, which this book uses to ask what types of visual meanings are created by art, and what kinds of visual “recipes” can create critical discussion to launch sustainable change. In other words, we are trying to find out how visual catalysts are born, and what kinds of positive consequences they might have.

Juha Suonpaa