Pilvi Takala, Close Watch, 2022 (still). Multi-channel video installation. Commissioned by Frame Contemporary Art Finland for the Pavilion of Finland at the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Image courtesy Carlos/Ishikawa and Stigter van Doesburg

So close, so far

Pilvi Takala’s breaching experiments

Artillery Row

A young woman with a kindly expression, dressed in a full Snow White costume, tries to enter Disneyland in Paris. Children, many of them donning Disney character costumes themselves, queue up for photographs with her. The morning is sunny; the spirits are high. It’s not long, though, before the Magic Kingdom’s security guards arrive and ask Snow White to leave because despite looking very “real”, she isn’t. They say that because the intruder isn’t one of Disney’s designated princesses, her presence could confuse or upset others. Disappointed, she heads to the bathroom to change her clothes. Everyone looks a little perplexed, but the kids will get their photo ops with other Snow Whites on the other side of the ticket barriers, and they won’t know the difference. Order is restored.

This performance is the plot of Real Snow White, a 2009 video by the Finnish artist Pilvi Takala who has made a career of showing up, acting slightly oddly and then looking confused when her behaviour is challenged. The work is gentle and understated, disturbingly so when viewed in 2023 by anyone familiar with the genre of social media videos in which adults lash out in childish anger when confronted by authority figures, or when they don’t get precisely what they wanted at the fast-food counter. We may expect this Snow White to throw a tantrum and scream that she is “real” because she says she is and that she can do as she pleases. But she doesn’t. This is unsettling because the artist’s capitulation leaves the viewer to consider for themselves the balance between wannabe Snow White’s desires and the norms needed to keep the magic of Disney “real” for everyone else. 

Complaints about unacceptable violations of personal space started pouring in

Takala’s mini-retrospective at South London’s Goldsmiths CCA is filled with works that are as ambiguous as they are peculiar. Once, she documented a month she spent as an intern at the consultancy firm Deloitte, where she passed her days staring into space and riding up and down in the elevators, simply “thinking”. Because she did this long before such idle “working” from home became the norm, multiple colleagues raised the alarm. In another of her videos, staged in a trendy London co-working office complex, she adopted the role of an HR welfare officer and traversed the corridors trying to improve the morale of her colleagues with a smile and a casual stroke on the arm. This soon backfired, and co-workers started giving Takala a wide berth whenever she appeared on the horizon. Who is this person, exactly, and what is she doing? Complaints about unacceptable violations of personal space started pouring in. You’d be surprised how quickly a “hey, you alright?” turns into a declaration of war.

The resulting 2018 video The Stroker would have already been enjoyable as a sardonic commentary on the knotted-up English attitudes to the body: we put up with strangers breathing down our necks on the Tube, but god forbid a friend hugged us just a little too tightly. Whilst it is amusing to watch, the implication is that office procedures and corporate safeguards do some extremely heavy lifting to keep us functioning at all. Why, precisely, are Takala’s colleagues freaking out? Just how fragile are we that we lose ground because someone smiled at us the wrong way?

Takala’s work is rooted in the practice of “breaching experiments”, a technique derived from social psychology which uncovers the nature of the “normal” by challenging it with unusual behaviours. These fractures can start innocently. In an example from the influential sociologist Erving Goffman, someone needs to start talking to themselves loudly in a crowd for everyone else to realise that they have been keeping quiet. The revelation quickly turns sinister because the breach of the rule only reinforces it, and the crowd labels the individual mad and moves to expel him. Here lies the dilemma in Takala’s office procedural: is the aversion to touch which The Stroker records an unthinking, arbitrary attitude to be undone, or a piece of social etiquette necessary to keep us safe? After #MeToo, there is no simple answer. We have seen that the gap between innocent human friendliness and predatory abuse can collapse at the slightest provocation.

In today’s art institutions, which unabashedly take partisan political stances, it is refreshing that Takala’s work leaves such fundamental ethical decisions with the viewer. It may be because the modesty of the artist’s claims and the works’ aesthetic reserve distract from the profound nature of the questions. The tensions simulated by Takala in her films could fit right in the centre of the raging culture war, however. Daily, under the guise of inclusion and progress, we see social conventions breached with experiments that seem designed to cause outrage. Daily, we see a reactionary response which, as Goffman predicted, ostracises the perpetrator to preserve vital social order. The righteousness of either position is far from obvious, as social psychologist Harold Garfinkel demonstrated in his experiments in the 1980s. In one of his protocols, for example, an experimenter cheating in the game of noughts and crosses had some of his subjects bizarrely interpret the move as a sexual advance. How would one weigh the social merits of impropriety against irrationality?

Covid restrictions themselves were a massive breaching experiment

Even when Takala’s videos observe real human behaviours, they have the potential to act like elaborate metaphors. The Stroker gains a new significance after the pandemic and its global prohibition on human touch. Of course, Covid restrictions themselves were a massive breaching experiment. The nearly universal adaptation of mask mandates, for example, instantly labelled anyone still sticking to the earlier norm as a madman, with textbook consequences. There are limits to social psychology, and there is no comfortable excuse for the propagation of unthinking mass compliance, however. The muted reaction to the recent revelations of the Hancock files, for example, shows that we often lack the capacity for introspection and nuance but react decisively and unthinkingly when faced with even an imaginary breach.

The production of such conformity under stress is the subject of Takala’s latest work, Close Watch, for which the artist spent six months employed by the global contractor Securitas as a guard in a shopping mall. The resulting video installation records a series of workshops and re-enactments with her colleagues. On two screens, arranged behind two-way mirrors as if to give the audience a taste of being both surveyors and surveyed, a group of professional guards role-play good cop and bad cop, testing out contentious but routine scenarios involving scuffles with members of the public. 

In one of the scenes, a guard overreacts to a minor provocation, using undue force in what should have been a harmless interaction. Recent media coverage of far more consequential incidents involving the police would have us believe that access to power inevitably leads to such abuse. Watching the films, one almost wishes for the Finnish guards to form a closed rank behind the abuser and thus show themselves to be either “systemically corrupt” or at least severely “rotten apples”. There is no such relief: the guards’ positions are nuanced, ethically complex and mostly reasonable. Nobody thinks that abuses of power should go unchallenged. All the same, they can’t recall an occasion when a guard’s behaviour has gone too far past the elusive line of acceptable behaviour in the policing of acceptable behaviour. The rules are complex, and they keep changing. 

The kicker in Close Watch is that we are fine with this because available alternatives are either impracticable or unsatisfactory. We might #DefundThePolice, but then, it’d be up to us to enforce the rules and we won’t be any good at it. Or we could defend “law and order”, but thus risk never knowing what the rules are until it’s too late. Clinging to either certainty on the copper’s beat, in the office or at Disneyland is a mark of madness. 

On Discomfort by Pilvi Takala, is on view until 4 June at Goldsmiths CCA.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover