Interview with Pehmee-kollektiivi (The Soft Collective)
We are chatting to Caroline Suinner and Meriam Trabelsi, also known as Pehmee-kollektiivi (Soft Collective) via zoom. With just over two months to go until the Together Again festival in Helsinki, which they will be part of in September, we have a list of questions and just an hour of precious time to find out about their latest workshop in Amsterdam and their plans for the festival.
Suinner and Trabelsi are on a mission to create representation and space for marginalised bodies in the fields of media, art, fashion and culture. They have both been involved in Ruskeat Tytöt (Brown Girls) media platform, which started as a blog in 2015 by Koko Hubara and now acts as an independent online publication committed to centering and normalising the perspectives of Brown people in Finnish media.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about the fact that you’re fat, is that interesting to think about?”
A question that both scared and excited the duo, and changed the course of their work together. In response, they set up Pehmee-kollektiivi (The Soft Collective) and Finland’s first-ever podcast that truly talks about the intersections of being fat and queer and brown, especially in the context of living in Finland. Bringing intersectional feminism, radical self-love, body positivity and good vibes, the podcast invites guests to discuss fashion, beauty, health, sexuality, social theories. The podcast dives deeper into the structural discrimination of marginalised people, the muted erasure of fat bodies and how fatphobia is racism. “We wanted to talk in our own language and use our own words about these subjects, and not always feel like we’re secondary to academic speech”.
They soon realised as important as it was to get their voices out there, visual representation also needed to be explored. Their award-winning instagram account is a beautifully curated collection of photographs from the collective’s safer spaces events and editorials made in collaboration with marginalised artists. “We felt that it was necessary that people saw us and how we looked. Our instagram is very precious to us, and a lot of work goes into it.”
Safer Spaces for Unhad Conversations
In 2020, as a response to the pandemic and the challenges faced by artists, the Finnish Cultural and Academic Institutes released a series of calls to support projects of Finnish and Finland-based artists and artistic groups. Together Alone and Together Alone 2.0. supported proposals focused on resilience in the face of the pandemic, radical change, societal innovation, inclusive and accessible art practice. In 2021, as part of Together Again 2.0, Pehmee organised Safer Spaces For Unhad Conversations in London, inviting four creatives from marginalised and underrepresented communities to create audiovisual pieces based on various psychophysical experiences about the “unhad conversations” they experienced during the pandemic. As a continuation of the workshops, the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux collaborated with The Soft Collective to bring the concept to Amsterdam in May 2023 as part of Together Again.
Taking the conversation to Amsterdam
The room they are in is being used by another group, so they take us on a little tour of their working space. “We are in Lapinlahti. It’s an old psychiatric hospital in Helsinki, which has been turned into a cultural space. This is one of the wings and these are the patient rooms, we have a small office in there”. They settle back down with a coffee.
“We noticed that people often don’t understand that there are brown people in Finland and we were surprised that Amsterdam was quite segregated. According to the people we met, marginalised cultures are still not mainstream in that aspect, you can’t just dive into them. You can’t be like “let’s go and see BIPOC queer parties” or “Let’s go to a fat hang”, and we found that quite difficult.
But we still discovered quite a few cultural hubs, such as Bar Bario – a beautiful concept. It’s a coffee house that functions as an office space for queer people during the day, with an art gallery out the back. They have a secret menu for BIPOC people who might have less income.”
In Amsterdam, the collective got to work with Zulu Green, a black, queer, rapper, singer and songwriter from Amsterdam. “Zulu Green is an absolutely amazing person! In our workshop together we referenced this angle of community caring, through plant medicine and musical healing.”
Creating a Space for Vulnerability and Connection
Creating a feeling of trust and building a safer space for these unhad conversations to be had is a large part of the collective’s work and it is in this process where they see the art of what they really do. “We have a method – a series of steps we follow before we get together with the participants. We like to do a pre-interview where we go over their needs, pronouns, their life situation, dreams, and their experiences during COVID. Then we follow this up with a video call during which we get to know each other. That way, when we meet in person, we can start immediately.
We have created a set of exercises where we ground ourselves together. The idea is to create a safer space where we can truly connect. Writing has proven to be a very successful way of creating together in a short time. We have not yet cracked the code, as to how we have managed to get to this essence, where participants feel safe to share their traumas and experiences. I think it is to do with the order of the exercises and the establishment of safety. Through our journeys in social work, community work and the entertainment industry, we have collected a good set of tools. We are also peers of the participants and we lead by example by opening up and being vulnerable ourselves. Participants also read their own texts out loud, so you get their voice on what they’ve been writing. It’s very intimate.
During the workshops we usually write together and take portraits, and this time we also filmed video content, which will be presented as a collage at the Together Again festival. We hope this will resonate with bigger audiences, and inspire them to continue asking the questions, even if they can’t participate in the workshops themselves. It all comes from the need for stability, joy and connection, things we take for granted, in our normative lives, especially if we live in places like Finland.”
We wonder how these conversations and spaces have been impacted since the pandemic.
“There are still many spaces to be created, and the pandemic revealed them to us in a way. I think that there has been a shift since our workshop in London.
We dared to dream a little more in Amsterdam, but there are still spaces that we need, especially when the world has changed so much. We need to figure out how to talk about important issues like war and climate change in relation to the social climate and polarisation.
It feels important for us to learn ways of creating sustainable patterns of working with identity questions without burning out. We know that experiences are different outside of Europe and going to Africa to our home countries to have these discussions is one of our dreams and passions for the project.
We want to show the vast and diverse representation in the art field. We often forget that there is a multitude of incredibly talented people who are sidelined only because they don’t present or represent something. But we also want to ask why it is that we have to be so binary in the art and cultural world. Why can’t we have a support group that’s also an artist collective that’s also a dance class all at the same time? I think advocating for that liquidity is the biggest goal of our work.
Another aim of Safer Spaces for Unhad Conversations is to create a network of marginalised artists to support one another when it comes to navigating this world. We are not sure what form it will take but we want to create something permanent and stable.
Our work is continuous and thus can’t end until we have found some kind of solution for people being sidelined for being who they are.”
Pehmee-kollektiivi aka the Soft Collective will be at the Together Again festival on Friday, the 8th of September at Helsinki Central Library Oodi, bringing Safer Spaces for Unhad Conversations to audiences both in Helsinki and online. The one-day contemporary arts festival is free and open to all. Registration to attend in-person and online is now open. Registration and more info at togetheragain.fi
The Pehmee podcast has been implemented in cooperation with Radio Helsinki. You can listen to the series on soundcloud and Radio Helsinki. You can also find the series on streaming services Spotify and Apple Podcasts.
This article is based on the interview between the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux’s Communications Officer, Ela Suleymangil, Communications and Project Assistant, Anni Koskela, and The Soft Collective’s Caroline Suinner and Meriam Trabelsi on 13.6.2023.
Featured image: Caroline Suinner part of The Soft Collective photographed for Safer Spaces for Unhad Conversations workshop that place within the project Together Alone 2.0 in London. Shown as part of the exhibition Elastic Alliances Hanaholmen Kultuurcentrum, Helsinki, 2022.