Extract of a conversation:
“What are you promoting?” — “Gender equality” — “Oh… (shy laughter), cool.”
During lunchtime on February 2, 2017, the two of us set up a table in Aalto University’s main building at Otaniemi Campus. We were giving away patches we had embroidered beforehand. The patches depicted a hand holding a wrench, and the words “SMASH PATRIARCHY” written over the image. Next to us were other students with their own patches; unlike us, they were selling theirs to promote a party. They were dressed in red overalls (“opiskelijahaalarit”) and had several patches (“haalarimerkit”) already sewn onto them. This is really common in Finland—every sort of event addressed to students has its own patch which can be purchased and adhered to overalls. Over time, this version of Finnish (and Swedish) student uniforms turn into a sticker-album-like wearable diary.
What was uncommon about the situation was us: we weren’t organising a party or an academic event or any event at all. We weren’t wearing overalls (we don’t even own a pair), weren’t selling patches but giving them away, but above all we were trying to open up a discussion through this method of distribution. We meant to point out that like every object, a patch (“merkit”) is a carrier of meaning. We intended for our patch to carry a different message than the usual merkit-designs, which present sentiments we consider as mostly dispensable and at times even offensive. While most merkit present logos of student associations or needless yet harmless comments on drinking culture, many that are still considered funny by their wearers are often inappropriate or use degrading language to make sexualised jokes. It was sad and shocking for us that a bottle of chloroform1 with the words “women hunter”, and other jokes along same line, not only seem to go uncriticised, but are also not in dialogue with patches with feminist, anti-racist, or other anti-discrimination content. Couldn’t this be a platform to raise such topics within the academic community, and couldn’t patches with critical messages be an amplifier for voices against this everyday sexism? Could patches also address other social issues such as racism, xenophobia, discrimination, consumerism or capitalism? Through the form of sew-on patches, we were able to hijack the mode of expression that we wanted to criticise. But where to even place this criticism if there is seemingly no discourse whatsoever to dock onto, and we cannot discern an awareness of the possibility for a political dimension within this ever so naïve student culture?
We might need to take a few steps back here. In Finland there is a tradition of students wearing monochrome overalls or boiler suits, similar to a typical worker’s uniform. Different colours represent different fields of study. Students then “customise” and “individualise” them with the aforementioned patches, as well as other peculiar objects like plastic shot glasses or handcuffs. While it is not mandatory to follow the tradition and actually purchase a pair of overalls, it is highly promoted by guilds and associations, and adopted by most freshmen students, both Finnish and international. The tradition, even though it is only roughly 30 years old, is taken surprisingly seriously. During our field research of the perimeter of Aalto University in Otaniemi, this culture manifested in two different ways. The guild for the business students (and other associations as well) provided us with the least information possible, avoiding some questions or giving different answers than those we received from individual students. The guilds of the technical students, on the other hand, host a museum celebrating their party culture and are visibly proud of their legacy. Even though it appears only semi-official, located in the basement of a student housing complex, it forms a significant part in constructing, passing on, and institutionalising these traditions. The museum heroises former students who would party the hardest and those “famous for their good or bad sense of humour”, as the museum guide recited. It assigns value to an ever so irrelevant (to us outsiders) conglomerate of details: on the building’s front lawn, memorial plaques on gravestones mourn associations that no longer exist, while inside a display of clothing and accessories like hats and stick pins join the ubiquitous overalls and patches.
We set a timeframe for field research when we realised that besides the Museum’s spoken and visual narrative, there is little formal or authored documentation on the topic. We worked both on campus and online, contacting each school’s guilds with questionnaires that specifically asked for their view on the concept of the overalls, the patches, their policies towards new students, suggested dress codes, and encouraged behaviours. We included very direct questions addressing the double entendres and ways of reading the patches, and also asked for their opinion on the lack of political awareness and any form of resistance in the visual artefacts that represented Finnish student culture. We additionally interviewed a small number of students in person, after asking for their consent to use the material within our research. The results were quite messy, as each guild and individual responded very differently; the only common observation about the interviews is that the responses were rather lukewarm. Nobody seemed to defend or be overly excited about the rationale behind the party culture, but no one would heavily criticise it either.
Within our fact-gathering to prepare a visual presentation on the topic, we did do some additional covert research. We joined a student party and filmed parts of it, including small discussions we had with drunk students. Of course this is not an advisable method to follow; it’s debatable if our decision to record and present this raw material is justifiable. We did adjust the frames so as to not include the speaker’s face or to expose the students. Due to that choice, the aesthetics of our video turned out to be different from what we had planned, resulting in a rough outcome.
Despite their seeming informality and their use mostly as party gear, the overalls are still uniforms: they create borders, they are markers of inclusion and exclusion, and therefore they create hierarchies and encourage certain behaviours. The more participating, active and “social” the students are, the more add-ons (emblems) they collect. So far, so obvious. Apart from these more or less personal items, logos from several companies are often part of the costume decorations. It is the guild’s sponsors that buy sleeves, legs and so forth as advertising space before the uniforms are distributed to the students. It’s the main source of financing the overalls, but it also establishes first bonds with possible future employers. The entanglement of university education, student clubs, networking, and economy goes beyond that. At the same time, more and more lecture rooms make the same sponsors visible through printed logos and other materials. One day during our research, we ran into a marching band (which is another student association) performing a small gig for the Minister of Finance, who was visiting the university. Additionally, for the occasion, a tent spruiking his political party was set up in front of the main building. What is a musician’s motivation to play at an event like this, or rather: who decides to receive this politician in the first place, and what criteria should the visitor meet to receive a marching band welcome?
With our little intervention we aimed to open up a dialogue opposing practises which are perfectly normalised and do not seem to bother most of the students—they sometimes even go unnoticed. We have certainly encountered students who haven’t presented us with thoughts about feminist issues, or their personal point of view when reflecting upon the implications of the festivities and the attire and how this comes together with their experience as students. Indeed, our discussions about feminism remained on an extremely superficial level, i.e. introducing the word “patriarchy”. This is not surprising if we reflect upon the sentiments of the typical overall decorations, but is it really what one would expect to be circulating in a Nordic university in 2017? We did manage to distribute all of the patches we made and we can maybe hope that at least some of them will be worn. But should we call this a success? And are we entitled to level criticism only through these means? Who has staged the intervention and which audience did we try to reach?
We are clearly outsiders in relation to the overall tradition, in two ways in fact. We are foreigners and don’t speak Finnish, so a lot of information—and also possibly critical views—remained inaccessible to us; maybe they have been discussed and manifested before our short-term residency at Otaniemi. We should however mention that published and online information about opiskelijahaalarit and Finnish university culture is very limited. Additionally, we are students in the Department of Art, a department the overalls never found their way into. This relates to our approach: were we patronising? We, the reflective art students who are oh so critical tell the technical students how to be feminists, what is valuable and what is correct, all without really knowing or experiencing the reality of their communities, judging them again by the stereotypes that are associated with their majors and future professions.
As we are writing this, the grounds of Otaniemi Campus are becoming festive, filling with colours and rather loud and persistent sounds. “Wappu”, the annual cliché celebration of student life par excellence, is clearly coming up. We were about to float the question here about what it would mean to parade one’s own privileges of being a student, resulting in the hangover of the year, on Labour Day, which is traditionally associated with worker’s marches. After having criticised them for their mocking boiler suits, we were really tempted to now attack their whole participation in Wappu, too, as a contortion of Labour Day. But then, at the same time aren’t we blind to our very own intellectual snobbery when blaming them for being appropriative, indifferent or ignorant?
Katharina Körner and Danai Anagnostou
1 Chloroform is a chemical that affects the nervous system. It was one of the first anaesthetics, but is also known for its criminal use i.e. knocking someone unconscious or in connection to rape and even murder.