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Acheulian Hand

UNMASKED began as a two-month Kone Foundation Saari Fellowship in Finland. Our starting point was the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, written down and presented as an authored work of literature by 19th-Century collector Elias Lönnrot. Initially an attempt to collect and preserve the tradition of sung incantatory poetry from Karelia in the Eastern part of Finland, it became a totem of Finnish national identity.


Our question became, ‘What do you do when you record?’ Are you preserving lived reality, or distorting it? When you take things down, are you, in fact, dismantling them? We found ourselves caught up in the tussle between culture and nature, sustainability and globalization, orality and text, performance and reality, and the sacred and the profane.


As an artefact, the Kalevala exposes the tensions between written or ‘recorded’ and experiential and performative forms of culture, knowledge and ways of life. The oral tradition behind the Kalevala is rooted in a pre-Christian belief-system in which culture is inseparable from the material and spiritual lives of the people: poetry and song, dreams and lakes, trees and animals, rocks and spirits all participated in the same cultural ecosystem. The Kalevala itself belongs to the written culture that superceded it.


The Kalevala has been criticised as culturally imperialist – the capture of a rural culture by urban elites – and its collective tradition, sanitized and labelled as a work of literature, authored by one man. In some regions, the Kalevala started to displace the singing tradition on which it was based. For others, Lönnrot was the singing scribe, marking the passage of the ancient tradition into modernity, orality into text, and collectivity into individuality.


In order to grasp the significance of the Kalevala, we attempted to reach beneath it, into its origins in the 10,000 year-old ritual structures of the runoja (sung incantatory poems), and the traces of the culture that birthed them. Our research brought us into contact with a culture and landscape under threat from corporations attempting to extract resources from it, and with attempts to preserve it, with archivists, activists, cultural tradition keepers, and a rune singer who it is claimed is the last person to have received the Karelian tradition through the oral lineage. These people shared their own stories and ways of life with us.


For Deptford X festival in London in September 2015, we worked with sound designer Ben Grant to develop an onstage sound design using cassette tapes as a medium for exploring the piece’s ideas of technology, recording and obsolescence, and exposing how testimonies are recorded and ‘reality’ created.


UNMASKED is not a staging of the Kalevala. If anything, it is an attempt to point at the mechanisms behind it and - beyond that - something primal and inchoate that seems to lie just out of reach. We wonder whether there may be a place where these things meet, whether that may be where we, as a culture, need to go next, and how it's possible to get there...


Samantha Jayne Williams

London, September 2015

@DeptfordX, 3 October 2015

MP3 recording of 'Deptford Conversations' post-show audience discussion of the ideas and research behind UNMASKED with Philippa Hambly and Samantha Jayne Wiliams of Acheulian and Tero Mustonen, cultural tradition-keeper, scholar of biodiversity, and Director of Snowchange Cooperative with Kaisu Mustonen. Research conducted with Tero and Kaisu continues to inspire UNMASKED.


From its base in the Kareilan village of Selkie, Snowchange does extraordinary work in the boreal north and in collaboration with traditional communities around the world. Jukajoki, an American-Finnish co-production with Snowchange charts the struggle of two tiny villages to bring together traditional knowledge and the latest science to halt the destruction of their environments caused by industrial mining.

Footage of the drive up to Koli in Karelia, in the east of Finland. Koli is composed of three quartz-capped peaks - Ukko Koli [the old-man sky god], Akka Koli [his consort; goddess of fertility] and Paha Koli [the evil one] - the remains of the Karelianfold, mountains formed two billion years ago.


In the 19th Century Koli's scenery provided the stage set for the Finnish National Romantic movement which also included the Kalevala, first written in 1835 by folklore collector Elias Lönnrot from the sung incantatory poetic tradition of the region. The movement is credited with Finland finally winning independence from Russia in 1917.


The music in the recording is by Karolina Kantelinen, graduate of the Sibelius academy, ethnomusicologist at Helskink University and specialist in ethnic singing styles.