Events shake things up and make people think

  • SELMA (Centre for the Study of Storytelling, Experientality and Memory)
  • IABA 2021 (International Association for Biography and Autobiography)  
  • Aino Kallas Seura
  • Aboagora
  • IIPC (International Institute for Popular Culture)
  • EPCA (European Popular Culture Association)
  • IASPM (The International Association for the Study of Popular Music)

Maarit Leskelä-Kärki and Kimi Kärki are enthusiastic and inspiring event organisers, who would rather create something new than be stuck in old familiar patterns. In the conferences and events they organise, science and art are intertwined in a natural fashion.

Maarit Leskelä-Kärki and Kimi Kärki

The atmosphere was both enchanting and gave people shivers. For a moment, the power of mass psychosis was demonstrated in the hall of the Sibelius Museum in Turku, as Adjunct Professor and researcher of popular culture Kimi Kärki got the audience to chant truth isn’t truth in unison. Kärki wanted to create a propaganda event that felt real when speaking about dystopia and the burden of truth at the Aboagora symposium in August.

– I admit that I wasn't sure how the audience would react to the concept of an imaginary dictatorship and guards dressed in uniform, he admits.

Kimi Kärki and his wife Maarit Leskelä-Kärki are used to taking risks. They are courageous organisers of events and conferences. They dare to try new ideas in order to shake up traditional or rigid ways of thinking.

– Whenever we start to plan a presentation or conference, we consider how we could do it differently than before, says Adjunct Professor Leskelä-Kärki, who works at the University of Turku as a cultural history professor.

Usually the feedback is positive, but occasionally the audience wonders what just happened.

– It is also a wonderful situation! Always when you stimulate thought, we are close to something new, Kärki notes.

Inspired by forerunners

The couple discovered working together while both were studying cultural history at the University of Turku. The spark for various events of different types and sizes was also ignited already during studies, as the dynamic atmosphere of the discipline encouraged creative dialogue. Important role models included, for example, professors Kari Immonen and Hannu Salmi.

– The discipline of cultural history was a pioneer especially in combining science with art. We learned in an environment where it was really natural to do so, says Leskelä-Kärki.

Maarit and Kimi have already organised dozens of events together and separately. Occasionally a lecture, event or conference is closely associated with their work, but they also tailor events in their volunteer organisation roles.

Important networks for Kimi, for example, include the International Institute for Popular Culture (IIPC) and International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM), which organised a world conference in Turku in 2001 and was a great learning experience for Kimi – an initial inspiration for organising large-scale events.

– The conference is still remembered as a magical event, the researcher happily recalls.

Maarit emphasises that the desire to make research and views available to audiences also comes from within. She has organised a lot events in the Aino Kallas Seura (Aino Kallas Foundation) she established and has used the ideas from it also in the university world.

Together with her colleague, Professor Hanna Meretoja, Maarit established the Centre for the Study of Storytelling, Experientality and Memory (SELMA) a few years ago. The research centre specialises in storytelling, cultural memory and experientality.

– Since its inception, SELMA has also organised a lot of different types of events. We were commissioned to organise the IABA conference in June 2020. It is a major event, she explains.

The International Association for Biography and Autobiography (IABA) brings together an interdisciplinary researcher community to a world conference every other year. The last conference was held in Brazil.

– I have often attended IABA conferences. I suddenly realised that Turku could also be a natural location and SELMA a good organisation to be behind organising the event.

The conference is expected to bring approximately three hundred international guests to Turku. The University of Turku, Åbo Akademi, Finnish Literature Society and City of Turku will help with the arrangements.

– I would want doors to be opened for Turku residents during the conference. Popularising science is an important part of the philosophy of SELMA and the research centres that cooperate with it, Leskelä-Kärki explains.

Maarit Leskelä-Kärki and Kimi Kärki

The audience and the performers together create the atmosphere

Kimi Kärki emphasises that the atmosphere and energy at the events is created by the audience and performers together. Taking the risk paid off at Aboagora held in August, as people boldly immersed themselves in a fictional dictatorship.

– Moments like that are rewarding. The idea was successful and we achieved an interesting discussion on the post-truth era, the rise of populism and the methods of the totalitarian propaganda machinery.

Maarit Leskelä-Kärki says she was just as entranced as the rest of the audience when watching the opening performance at Aboagora, where Claes Andersson and Julia Korkman effectively combined psychology and jazz.

– The atmosphere was really intensive. About half of the attendees in the hall were crying when listening to the music and profound stories.

Aboagora, which has been organised since 2011, is a three-day symposium that combines arts and science in a uniquely fascinating manner. The event is organised by an interdisciplinary steering committee from the University of Turku, Donner Institute and Åbo Akademi. Kimi and Maarit have increasingly participated in organising the event over the past five years.

– It is wonderful that the University of Turku, Åbo Akademi and Åbo Akademi University Foundation have committed to our five-year plan. The theme of the plan is the five rings; Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Void.

The five rings is based on Eastern element thinking and sword skills manual authored by Miyamoto Musashi, a Japanese Samurai who lived in the 17th century. The book later was applied as a leadership guide.

– Natural sciences, philosophy, social sciences and art can easily be combined with the themes. The planning of the programme for next year is already under way, says Leskelä-Kärki.

Room for free discussions

Combining science and art is difficult and very daring, but is highly rewarding. It comes most naturally when the research subject and artistic presentation are naturally linked to one another. The art can be in the form of theatre, performances or music, for example.

– Experientality helps expand the boundaries of thinking, Kärki explains.

Kärki combines music especially well with science, as he composes, produces music and creates lyrics in many different music genres ranging from heavy metal to folk music. Kärki also goes on concert tours with his several bands.

– Lord Vicar, Lux Ohr and Kauko Röyhkä’s Uhrijuhla, Kärki lists.

– The most well-known of the bands is likely Reverend Bizarre, but they have already broken up.

Performing arts are often also included in the evening schedule of the conferences. The goal is to be as meaningful to the attendees as the official programme.

– A relaxed format is important for the evening programme, so that there is time for open-format discussions. The evenings are for networking and agreeing on literature projects.

Meeting other people and creativity in its different forms are the best thing about conferences.

– Although the arrangements at times seem burdensome and stressful, the events are also very energising, Kärki assures.

– Conferences are very inspirational and rewarding. They provide a completely different type of inspiration for research work, Leskelä-Kärki adds.

As the parents of two children, they have to schedule their daily life carefully and sometimes have to skip some of the available international events and conferences. The years of experience prove helpful when organising conferences.

– We are now able to not stress about inconsequential matters. When the event is planned well, you can focus on the content and engage in good discussions, says Kärki.

Developing networks and skills

Maarit and Kimi are conference veterans who like to encourage students to participate in events and the practical arrangements when possible. Creative planning and organisation develop skills that are highly beneficial in one’s career.

– Networks are expanded at events and interaction skills improve. It is great to discuss research when the person whose book you have cited is sitting next to you, says Kärki.

You become a skilful event organiser by boldly taking action and by utilising existing services. Leskelä-Kärki is grateful, for example, for the free support provided by Turku Convention Bureau that is made available for planning conferences and marketing.

– You learn by doing and you can always consult the more experienced organisers for advice, she encourages.

– But it is not good to be held captive by traditional practices.  It is good to experiment and get playful, Kärki adds with a twinkle in his eye.

Text: Merja Kallikari