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Biennial Conference of the Finnish Anthropological Society, October 21.-22.10. 2015 Helsinki

Anu Lounela and Jenni Mölkänen

How are human lives entwined with those of other species and materials in various relations produce landscapes? Through what kinds of institutions, technologies, practices and experiences do people construct, inhabit and imagine particular places and locations? How are landscapes produced and processed in large-scale processes of capitalism transforming lives of humans, plants, animals and soils in specific places? Questions such as these brought together more than 200 researchers from over 30 countries to the Finnish Anthropological Society’s biennial conference held in Helsinki in October 2015 under the theme “Landscapes, sociality and materiality.” The conference included fourteen panels, a poster session and a film session and focused on a variety of research topics through which landscape has become a prevalent and productive anthropological concept in recent years.

The keynote lecture at the event was given by Professor Anna Tsing of the University of California Santa Cruz, and the conference concluded with the Edvard Westermarck Memorial Lecture given by Professor Philippe Descola of the Collège de France. These keynotes reflected the wide variety of approaches to landscape either as an object of multidisciplinary study or as a culturally specific place structured by the relations between humans and nature. Anna Tsing addressed landscapes as assemblages that come together and fall apart. The human-disturbed landscapes are reassembled by animals, plants or other organisms, a process which she calls auto-rewilding. These places of autorewilding constitute the landscapes. Interestingly, Tsing defines landscapes as gatherings to discuss important issues, following the concept by geographer Kenneth Olwig; in this respect, landscapes encompass histories. The Westermarck keynote held by Professor Descola traced two different lines of conceptualizing landscape: one that is regarded as a view/vista, a picturesque object, or one which is inhabited by humans. Descola emphasized the understanding of indigenous perceptions of landscape and expressed a wish to develop a third approach called transfiguration, by which he means the process in which things and objects are constituted as part of landscape. Landscapes are constituted by the changing appearances of sites, so that they become iconic signs that stand for something else. As an example of landscape transfiguration, Philippe Descola took Amazonian gardens that imitate forests; this relationship is actualized by humans and here a gap between the sign and the referent decreases.

The concept of landscape was discussed in the panels in relation to built environments, infrastructures and technologies, to identity and memory, sacred and ritual, and capitalist processes. New technologies and infrastructures were considered to create new opportunities and challenges that have an influence on policy making and how new articulations of politics emerge. Movement between different places and also social movements as political action were concluded to create new emerging articulations and identity formations in rural and urban landscapes. The role of memory was highlighted in many papers; landscape is produced in a mutual process of forming identities through social memory enabling people to recall the past, their histories and social lives. The role of socially shared knowledge informing cognition and the material world was essential in constructing landscapes. Several papers in different panels explored the sacredness of landscapes and how sacredness is related to identity formation, political claims of authority and ownership and to ecological stewardship based on religious principles and processes of enchantment and modernization. Ritual was considered as a crucial element in producing sacred landscapes that involve human and nonhuman actors with different ontologies. Further, capitalist processes, extractive industries such as mining, plantation economies, food production, intertwined with infrastructural projects such as road building and mobile technologies, suggested that landscape could operate as a connection point of the processes of different scale. In these processes, landscape not only involves human actors but also spirits, ancestors and different materialities influencing on the formation and negotiation of landscapes that are essential in understanding the politics of nature.

These different approaches reflect the variety of understandings of landscape among the anthropologists. For some scholars the variety of uses and definitions of the concept of landscape might raise the question of ambiguity of the concept, while some scholars see it as opening up new possibilities to discuss not only human sociality but also different materialities and human and nonhuman entanglements in the landscapes. Further, the concept of landscape makes possible debates on universalities and particularities and their configurations at different sites. Clearly, transformed and human-disturbed landscapes have inspired discussions on anthropocenes and capitalistic geographies and vice versa. On the other hand, anthropological explorations of indigenous notions of landscape, for example as gardens as noted by Philippe Descola, extend the concept of landscape making anthropological comparison possible. What seems to unite many of the conference attendants is the effort to go beyond dualisms both at theoretical and ethnographic levels by using the concept of landscape.

The organisers Anu Lounela, Jenni Mölkänen, Tuomas Tammisto, Katja Uusihakala and Heikki Wilenius of the FAS Biennial Conference want to thank panel conveners and presentators for the successful panels, Hilja Aunela for acting as a conference secretary, Carlo Cubero from the University of Tallinn for the great collaboration and organizing the film session of the conference and the anthropology student association at the University of Helsinki, Mana Ry, for the volunteer work during the conference and for organizing the evening event. The Allegra Lab Helsinki in collaboration with the PhD students of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the University of Helsinki, Aleksis Toro and Maija Lassila, will publish highlights from the conference at
http://allegralaboratory.net/.