Pilvi Takala, Boundary Tester
Pilvi Takala, Boundary Tester

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Pilvi Takala, Boundary Tester

My therapist once told me I have a dominant superego. Defined by Freud as the moralising part of the psyche, Having a strong moral compass may not sound like a bad thing but in its strive for perfection,the superego causes its sufferers to be overly critical towards themselves, as they struggle to meet unattainable standards. This self-policing becomes exhausting as feelings of guilt and shame take over. Trying to challenge these thoughts, which are so ingrained in the stories we tell about ourselves, is deeply uncomfortable but crucial in ‘doing the work’. The bleeding of surveillance technologies into everyday life and the normalisation of watching and being watched - through smartphones, Ring doorbells, and data capture - creates the perfect breeding ground for an overbearing collective superego to emerge, as we judges others’ actions on what we deem to be right and wrong. This internalisation of control, which we inflict on ourselves and others, emerges in Pilvi Takala’s performance and video works, which test the boundaries of social convention, coaxing out the superego of those in her orbit as they are forced to confront their feelings of discomfort.

The stroker 5

Pilvi Takala, The Stroker, 2018 © Pilvi Takala 2023. Courtesy the artist; Carlos/Ishikawa, London; and Stigter van Doesburg, Amsterdam.

"Even utopia has rules"

Pilvi Takala’s retrospective On Discomfort at Goldsmiths CCA charts her interventionist performance and video practice from 2007 to today, revealing how we can turn inwards, sitting with those uncomfortable feelings. The gallery’s basement has been compressed; a large, mirrored wall constricts the space. Close Watch (2022) is a three-channel video installation, first presented at the 59th Venice Biennale, exploring Takala’s six month stint working covertly as a security guard. I’m greeted by a recognisable ‘pop’, the notification sound from WhatsApp. A blown-up iPhone screen hangs from the wall, glowing, as a conversation unfolds: timestamped on 17 January 2020, a message from a contact called ‘Field Manager / Securitas’ with welcome instructions for Takala’s first day at Securitas, a private security company that provides services to shopping malls. Six months later, another message arrives: she’s been outed. Her colleagues have been googling her and discovered that she is in fact an artist who has been working undercover.

Dressed in uniform in a vacant office space, the security guards and Takala participate in a series of workshops to discuss various workplace incidents, from the casual cracking of racist jokes to a particular colleague who exhibits blackout rages, to reveal the network of power structures they can both reinforce and resist.

Close watch 1

Pilvi Takala, Close Watch, 2022 © Pilvi Takala 2023. Courtesy the artist; Carlos/Ishikawa, London; and Stigter van Doesburg, Amsterdam.

Moving upstairs, I discover that security guards feature in Takala’s earlier works, but here she is at the mercy of their authoritative decisions. Real Snow White (2009) documents the artist outside the gates of Disneyland Paris, dressed as the cartoon princess: a jet-black bob adorned with a red bow, blue and red puffed-up sleeves, a white popped collar, and floor-length yellow skirt. Crowds of parents and children rush to her for photos and autographs. A security guard pushes through: she can’t enter the park, as the ‘real’ Snow White is working there. In the following scenes, amusement, fear and the absurdity of the situation plays out as an instant assumption is made: only something sinister could prompt an adult to dress up in a Disney costume. An even bigger threat looms over the brand: a PR disaster. This cracking down of the rules that govern how a person can act in a resort that claims to make ‘Dreams Come True’ highlights the exclusivity of this vision. Only a certain kind of dream, controlled and sold by Disney, is permitted. Even utopia has rules.


Pilvi Takala, Real Snow White, 2009 © Pilvi Takala 2023. Courtesy the artist; Carlos/Ishikawa, London; and Stigter van Doesburg, Amsterdam.

"the perfect breeding ground for an overbearing collective superego to emerge"

This notion of a ‘real’ Snow White is poked at by the artist: ‘I thought the real Snow White was a drawing.’ The security guards’ inability to decipher the difference between the Snow White visitor and the Snow White worker encapsulates Baudrillard’s ideas of hyperreality, arguing that we have become unable to differentiate between what is real and what is a simulation, as truths and fictions blur. For Baudrillard, Disneyland is the perfect apparatus through which we can think about this idea: ‘the Disney enterprise goes beyond the imaginary. Disney… is now in the process of capturing all the real world to integrate it into its synthetic universe, in the form of a vast ‘reality show’ where reality itself becomes a spectacle, where the real becomes a theme park.’ Takala’s Snow White cannot exist in the mass media and entertainment conglomerate’s theme park; she can only participate as a consumer.


Pilvi Takala, Real Snow White, 2009 © Pilvi Takala 2023. Courtesy the artist; Carlos/Ishikawa, London; and Stigter van Doesburg, Amsterdam.

"Some feel that her behaviour is weird, even if they ‘don’t know why.’"

The security guards at Disney and Securitas explicitly enforce power through preventing crime and trying to keep people safe; meanwhile, workplace codes of conduct and expected standards of behaviour implement soft power as a means to control the workforce. The Trainee (2008) and The Stroker (2018) enact workplace etiquette and what happens when you refuse to comply. In the former, Takala undertakes a month-long internship at Deloitte’s Marketing department whilst she attempts to write her thesis. Secret cameras reveal her days spent staring into blank space (doing ‘brain work’) and riding the elevator (‘train style’). Voicemails and emails to her manager reveal that colleagues are disturbed by her inexplicable behaviour and they immediately pathologise her: ‘Obviously she has some kind of mental problem.’ Similarly, in The Stroker (2018) Takala poses as Nina, the founder of Personnel Touch, a wellness company that provides ‘touching services in the workplace’ to boost creativity and productivity. As she walks around the office, gently asking people how they are whilst lightly placing a hand on an upper arm, the workers begin to gossip. Some feel that her behaviour is weird, even if they ‘don’t know why.’ Clearly uncomfortable receiving these harmless exchanges, and unable to voice their concerns to Nina directly, they whisper to each other and send private emails to management: this sort of behaviour has ‘no place in a business environment.’ As an observer, her presence and actions seem harmless and their uncontrollable need to snitch on her reveals the ugly truth. This need to pathologise Takala’s behaviours and report them to management says more about them than it does her.

Wf still

Pilvi Takala, Wallflower, 2006 © Pilvi Takala 2023. Courtesy the artist; Carlos/Ishikawa, London; and Stigter van Doesburg, Amsterdam.

Be it at Disneyland or Deloitte, Pilvi Takala’s subtle interventions undermine the natural balance and those around her become compelled to articulate why they have a problem with the challenging of social conventions, with varying degrees of success. A collective superego emerges. Like a therapist, Takala draws out and questions our knee-jerk reactions - whether they be whispers amongst friends, a note to a boss, or a rant on Twitter. Such a strong desire to control others people’s behaviours begs the question of who all this policing really serves.

By Alex Hull


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