WeLoveHelsinki – a space of optimism in the chaos of the city

By: Flynn Lewer

WeLoveHelsinki is a diverse group. While the breadth of activities they promote is constantly expanding, for this article we will delve into their street art activities as a focus. Both in 2011 and 2012, WeLoveHelsinki has organised a day of the year in which the public can participate in remaking, rethinking and regenerating our definition of ‘the street’.

It goes without saying that 2011 was the year of street interventions. From the Arab Spring to OccupyWallStreet, we have seen across the world a focus on the street as a venue for public intervention. The sheer emancipatory power of street movements has always been profound, and WeLoveHelsinki seem to agree. This is not to say that Helsinki is dealing with issues of the same magnitude as that of Cairo, or New York City, in which entrenched social divides necessitate confrontational action, but that nevertheless there exists a problematic current state in the citizens’ relationship to public space in Helsinki.

Essentially, WeLoveHelsinki believe there is no such thing as too small of a problem. Indeed, as citizens of a city in a welfare state there are far fewer controversies in the shared space of the city, yet the question the group seems to be asking is ‘does this not create its own set of problems?’ If you were to ask Timo Santala, one of the founding members, of his reasons behind establishing the collective, he seems to echo this sentiment.

“I believe in the welfare state, but it should not be expected that society takes care of everything for us.”

So it may be helpful to here identify the systemic approach that is implicit in street-art day. Soft-systems methodology begins with the notion that in the first instance a problem exists. We could label this problem passivity. Santala is saying that the welfare state creates a passive relationship between the citizen and their city. Peter Checkland’s ‘seven-stage methodology’, (‘Systems Thinking, Systems Practice’, 1981), is useful in understanding the next steps WeLoveHelsinki undertake.

1. entering the problem situation

People just happen to be going about their day when they come across a WeLoveHelsinki street-art day. By choosing to participate, they are going outside of their regular routine, they are now active participants engaged in the ‘problem situation’.

2. expressing the problem situation

Participants use stickers and stencils to humanise public space. The problem situation is expressed as this tension between the colourful art and the blank, industrial city infrastructure. They are asking, does a blank wall mean anything to us?

This is really where street-art day ends. As an activity it is primarily intended to promote reflection, both on the part of the participants but also casual observers. The next steps in Checkland’s definition of soft systems methodology are therefore intended as on-going concerns, as the participants are now aware of the ‘problem situation’.

These next steps are: a) conceptually understanding other systems relevant, and b) how the ‘human activity system’ is defined by the street-art event. We should again consider that this activity is intended to promote a wider public engagement with ‘the problem situation’ so in a way it would be counter-productive for street-art day to then try and organise a forum to discuss this ‘problem’. By merely ‘popping up’ at various times and in various locations, as they do, WeLoveHelsinki are trying to not define a boundary or specific group mentality, they are trying to reach as many people as possible. What is important is the realisation that systems are at work. There is a relationship between being active, and the complexity of meaning in the city.

Maybe the collective is also saying that in trying to promote an alternative understanding of the city, (as defined in soft systems methodology as this building of a ‘conceptual model’), does it really have to be explicitly formalised? Street-art day is a continuing tradition, and as such a ‘conceptual model’ is continually reinvented. The main argument WeLoveHelsinki seems to be making here is that the city is constantly reproducing itself. This constant state of reproduction is important to acknowledge, and this can be done in a fun and creative way.

Street-art day is a learning system (Checkland, ‘SSM, Thirty-year retrospective’). Once you have learnt of the ‘problematic situation’, (of passive interaction between yourself and your city), you begin to share this knowledge with others. You are now a teacher.
Eventually, if teachers keep recruiting students and the cycle continues to repeat itself maybe we could say that a fundamental shift has occurred in the general perception of
the city, and that we are no longer passive.

WeLoveHelsinki realise that theoretically, given our understanding of ‘learning systems’, such a shift is possible. Maybe the path to consciousness in our city should not be promoted as a set of formal values but rather as a fun and inclusive activity-day in which there is no agenda. Maybe having fun and engaging with your surrounds is the hardest first step in being an active citizen, WeLoveHelsinki are here to make that first step easier.