Jani Leinonen, The Art of Disobedience / Interview

Jani Leinonen, Art as Disobedience

He fights capitalism from within using its symbols, means and icons in a subversive humorous way that provokes audience’s critical viewing and draws attention to the real issues and problems of our consumerist societies.

For his Hanger King project a handmade wooden grill kiosk was set up in Kamppi shopping center, Helsinki city center. The menu gave the visitor two options: a top quality local and organic Take Away menu, or a Give Away menu, which saw food redistributed to those in need.

Anything Helps consisted of 22 begging signs from 10 different countries the artist Jani Leinonen had been buying from beggars around the world during 6 years. The signs had been framed in thick golden frames under a glass. A copper plate on the glass let the viewer know what city the sign was bought from from. Paris, New York, London, Milan, Ljubljana, Moscow, Houston, etc.

The 22 piece installation were presented in Venice Biennale, the Danish Pavilion, in 2009.

For the Food Liberation Army four men, disguised as repairmen removed a Ronald McDonald statue from a Helsinki restaurant. McDonald’s received a “ransom demand”, broadcast on YouTube, asking them to answer several questions about the sourcing of their food and their ethical stance. McDonald’s refusal “to negotiate with terrorists” (McDonald’s spokesperson) resulted in Ronald’s execution by guillotine.

Jani Leinonen is one of the 58 artists chosen from Bansky to participate in his Dismaland.

In September 2015 KIASMA, Finland’s Contemporary Art Museum, will present his newest project called The School of Disobedience along with a retrospective of his work.

Jani Leinonen has spoken about his work and upcoming project to Eleni Zymaraki Tzortzi.


Your upcoming project/exhibition at Finland’s contemporary art museum, KIASMA, is titled The School of Disobedience.

Why do people have to disobey? And why do they have to be taught to disobey?

I am worried that kids will take their obedient place in society and look to become successful cogs in the wheel – let the wheel spin them around as it wants without taking a look at what they’re doing. I’m concerned that kids become passive acceptors of the official doctrine that’s handed down to them from the politicians, the media, textbooks, teachers and preachers. Our problem is obedience. Nothing changes if we only obey. Disobedience is the only way to challenge systems and customs that dont´ work.  Historically, the most terrible things, war, genocide, and slavery have resulted not from disobedience but from obedience.

Your work is a constant fight against capitalism by appropriating its own means and images. Is such a fight feasible? Do you worry that this might just be making the ‘monster’ stronger?

All images are capitalist nowadays. Products are sold with revolutionary and communist style labels. Capitalism has integrates everything into it, that´s why it is so effective a system. But not until the recent years have I seen the drastic increase of trade-marking images that have existed thousands of years everyone thinking they were public property. Even the capitalists used to have manners. Now they are there simply for the money.

I don’t think there is a way to change the world by staying outside of it. I don’t think I want to move to the country and start a self-sustaining hippy commune so I would not be part of the Capitalist system. I don’t think that would change anything. I think that would be also selfish. I think we need to change the political system from inside. Perhaps that is the battle I can help with.

The contemporary art world scene is a genuine child of capitalism. Money makes the art world go round too! However, many artists try to make the world a better place through their work.

How can anyone expect from artists to change the system they belong to?

We are using all kinds of tricks to draw our attention from the system we belong to. When we are shown scenes of starving children in catastrophe zones, with a call for us to do something to help them, the underlying ideological message seems to be: “Don’t think, don’t politicize, forget about the true cause of their poverty, just act, contribute money, so that you will not have to think!”

We shouldn’t let those pictures of subjective violence fool you. They are turning our attention away from the other, more destructive forms of violence, like the anonymous violence of our economical system. We must resist the charm of this graphic subjective violence, because it drowns us in our emotions, forces us to hurry and prevents us from seeing the bigger picture. The big picture where we want to be unaware of the violence, because we in the West benefit from the suffering of millions in the third world. The developed nations “helps” the underdeveloped countries with aid and loans, and this way avoid the crucial fact, our participation in the poor conditions of the underdeveloped. This is the most horrifying form of violence in our system, much worse that anything that Stalin or the Party did in Soviet Union. It´s more horrifying because we cannot blame anyone or anyone´s bad intentions for this but it is purely objective, systemic and anonymous. We cannot overthrow a dictator that doesn’t exist.

I think most of us have had enough of a world – not matter if it´s art, business or political world – where, to recycle Coke cans, to give a couple of dollars for charity, or to buy a Starbucks cappuccino where 1% goes to third world starving children is enough to make us feel good. We need to change the whole system.

However, I am very tired of the art market, which is so very exclusive, even though art is often very inclusive. Perhaps that is the battle the School of Disobedience is fighting. We should not be selling art through the myth of “individual genius creating unique pieces”, which is what my galleries and museums eagerly sells this as. All we do and think comes out of interaction with others. In activism, politics and art, to change things we don’t need individual heroes doing big things, we need movements, masses of people making small things. I am just the headmaster and the founder of the school, calling all these amazing creative people together to make a difference.

You work has been included in Banksy’s latest project Dismaland. Could you discuss your participation in Dismaland

It was very exciting to participate in Banksy´s project because the communication with Banksy was so mysterious. It always came through a third party. But the extend of the whole spectacle was a mystery to me as well until they made it public. I didn’t even know which artists were in it. I really like Dismaland visually but would have hoped for some kind of a social mechanism to change the world and not just cynically take the piss out it.

The world we are living in is filled with contradictions, exploitation and hypocrisy. Do you believe in people? Do you believe that there is hope for a substantial change after all? Can art play a role in this change and if yes, under which conditions?

If I had to choose between cynicism and naivety I would choose naivety every time. I think the big stories that postmodernism so badly wanted to kill are still here. We have the right to demand Justice, Truth and Solidarity even though the meaning of those word have perverted almost unrecognizable by the power elite. I do believe in people. They are our only hope. I think we are living the times when we are once again putting the question of what kind of a world we want to live in on the table. That question has not been on the table since the cold war. There have been no alternatives. Now, once again we are allowed to think about alternatives. We realize we do not live in the best possible world. But there is a long road ahead. There are truly difficult questions that confront us. We know what we do not want. But what do we want? What social organization can replace capitalism? What type of new leaders do we want? Perhaps art can help in the process of finding the answers.

Ronald and the guillotine 2
Food Liberation Army: The Kidnapping of Ronald McDonald, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.
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School of Disobedience, http://disobedience.co

Jani Leinonen, http://janileinonen.com/en-gb/