Communication and Identity

by Tapio Varis


A very simple but fundamental question that is very difficult to answer is what really constitutes communication.

In order to answer the question many scholars focus on the nature of media technology as well as on the techniques, codes, models, formats, logics, and discourses used to construct communication. A popular approach to the postmodern mediascape is to use nondiscursive, figural strategies of communication that emphasize the visual over the verbal and the emotional over the rational. Communication is said to be affective.


But we can also look at communication from a different perspective. Communication is sharing. At best, we want to be close to others, share their presence and, with the modern technology, also the telepresence, feeling of being actually present in some distant physical location, or at least being in communication through distances in time and space.

This is how I understand Juhani Palmu is approaching communication through his art: searching for ways of sharing, and striving for inner peace in a world full of mechanically reproduced messages, symbols and visual images.


Juhani Palmu expresses his curiosity in the limitless space of the new telematic media world but simultaneously maintains elements of familiarity in his productions. There is something well-known and secure but also a touch of the unknown, mysterious and threatening. We struggle internally between elements of security and threat in a rapidly changing world and communication environment.


Culture, among other things, means belonging. This belonging gives us an identity which defines human beings and gives meanings to their signs and messages. The ostensible globality that modern media bring to the awareness of people also provides them with the feeling of powerlessness in the face of a world which appears chaotic, without any kind of order.


There is a difference in the way an artist and a scientist look at the world. The methods and the role of the senses may be different. But the nature of human knowledge is becoming more problematic. Things are ever more complex and beyond the explanatory power of traditional disciplines.


The nature of knowledge is no longer as certain and absolute as in the world view of Galilei and Newton, but increasingly transdisciplinary and contextual. The study of complexity as a phenomenon has brought science closer than ever to art, closer perhaps than it was during the Renaissance. New ways of thinking must be applied to complex phenomena, new methodologies must be developed which are capable of handling changing, complex information.2

Art deals with the sensual world, metaphors, intuition, and the holistic concept of a human being. It helps people to communicate with other people and share identities, feelings, and knowledge.


The rapid growth of population, movement of people and urbanization make a great number of people rootless, with no history, with a feeling that they do not belong to anything. Our age of rapid change and social instability, following economic modernization and applications of information and communication technology, is separating people from longstanding local and cultural identities. Over half of the world’s population will live in growing and decaying urban areas by 2025. A whole migration of peoples is possible.


Juhani Palmu’s art is deeply rooted in the inner peace and harmony of the Finnish people, their collective memory of Finno-Ugric culture, instituions like the "sauna", and modern way of telecommunicating between people who live scattered among the forests and lakes, and at a distance from each other.


The oldest rock drawings of the Finno-Ugric peoples can be found on the eastern coasts of the White Sea and Lake Onega in Russian Karelia. They were created some four or five thousand years ago. An Estonian artist and researcher finds common features in the rock drawings: the efforts of their creators to carve stories into the multifigural compositions in the rocks. The basic thinking is cosmogonic, dealing with the creation of the world and existence.


Juhani Palmu is puzzled by the same things. He is now assisted by a huge info-telecom galaxy which recognizes no limits nor order – only chaos and great mystery remain. Communication is also communion with God.


The President of Estonia, Mr. Lennart Meri, once explained that when the world was divided they had time for Siberia and for concentration camps as well as for pure nature. In order to understand their culture, the Estonians returned to its origins and found fishers and hunters in rapid rivers who led materially poor but spiritually rich lives.


Deep in the minds of people there is a collective memory of some common past which gives meaning to life. The dominant currents of thought may also lead to collective amnesia. But even then silence speaks. Cultural identity exists in time: at times it fades into the background; sometimes it becomes dominant. The collective memory carries elements of beauty, goodness, and destruction.


Identity does not exist separate from place. The Europeans are trying to define and promote ‘‘Euro-peanness’’, or ‘‘Euro-consciousness’’. Inside Europe smaller and smaller groups and cultures are rediscovering themselves. The Finno-Ugric peoples are returning to the lands, lakes, forests and seas which have been their source of inspiration for thousands of years.


The American philosopher John Dewey said in 1926 that of all affairs, communication is the most wonderful. We are telepresent with each other, in cyberspace, and we can experience simultaneous enjoyment. Telecommunication connects us and may at best help us understand our differences but not to overcome them. Some answers to the mystery of life lie in the diversity of cultures.


Today, one of our main problems is how to communicate. Are we still able to share things with other people, create a communion with others and the Divine world, and develop inner harmony and peace?


The problem of media skills and communication competence was created when the technological change in the last century had the consequence that the following generations could no longer be sure of what kind of world they would live in. The era of modernism did not only change the environment but also the way in which people perceive and construct reality. The emergence of photography and later of film constituted radical innovations in the media world. In order to understand them it was not enough to have the traditional views of what painting is or what the role of a picture is in culture in general.


We have developed mechanical or electronic extensions of almost everything we used to do with our bodies alone. Commenting on the impact on his art brought about by technological and social change in his own generation, Henri Matisse remarked:


‘‘Our senses have a developmental age which is not that of the immediate environment, but that of the period into which we were born. We are born with the sensibility of that period, that phase of civilization, and it counts for more than anything learning can give us.’’


Contemporary media research also maintains the view that the dominant media emphasize some of our senses more than others and also have an impact on the structure of thought processes. Walter Ong wrote of ‘‘secondary orality’’ as a consequence of the emergence of radio. He said that to use the term "media" is useful to refer to the technological means like writing, printing or electronic means of communication, but it could also be misleading if it leads us to think that the use of these media would be only transmission of information. In fact, all of the media do much more; they enable thought processes inconceivable before.


The now dominant media culture is audio-visual in nature. The media environment is increasingly oral and visual, composed of audiovisual images. Further-more, the volume of information, noise and stimuli to which it is difficult to attach any significance is growing at an accelerating rate. Parallel to quantitative growth, there is a qualitative process as well.


Régis Debray speaks of mediology; of different eras of logosphere, graphosphere, and videosphere. During the first period of oral media truth was theological, with its centre in ancient Greece. Then, during the Renaissance and the birth of printing, truth became aesthetic, and the centre moved to Rome. Now with the culture of audiovisual media, truth is economic and its centre is New York.


We may have only a slight idea of the deep and qualitative consequences of the new media environment to design and cognition. For example, the change from passive two-dimensional to interactive three-dimensional media may be as dramatic as the change from still to motion pictures.


Perhaps artists are the least prejudiced in face of these changes because no one can force them to use the new technology. Their imagination and use of this technology are limited only by economic realities and their own prejudices, customs and ignorance.


Juhani Palmu himself has observed that the electronic and digital media of visual communication influence human life. He asks if the market forces also determine the quality of art? If the philosophical and social ideals continue to lose their meaning, the result may be a revolution in art traditions as well.


The contemporary era of communication is very contradictory. Communication may become a victim of excessive communication. This excessive communication has resulted in implosion of the senses, a loss of the real and domination of the unreal. Words do not mean anything any more, images lose their visual attraction. The world is more and more complex, chaotic, without history, realities or truths. The world of communication is full of local, ethnic, sexual and religious identities.9 How can we construct meanings for them?


It is in this world that we try to communicate and discover our identity, this world remains a mystery that a fine artist may seek to solve with the means at his disposal.



  • John B. Harms and David R. Dickens: ‘‘Postmodern Media Studies: Analysis or Symptom?’’.Critical Studies in Mass Communication No 13, 1996.

  • Carole Gray and Ian Pirie: Artistic Research Procedure: Research at the Edge of Chaos? Paper presented at "Design Interfaces Conference", University of Salford, April 1995.

  • Kalju Pollu: ‘‘Onko Karjalan kalliopiirroksissa tähtikartta?’’ Horisont No 8, 1990.

  • Viron Tasavallan Presidentin tervehdys Savitaipaleen suomalais-ugrilaiselle kulttuuriseminaarille 20–22.6.1993.

  • Margot Lovejoy: Postmodern Currents. Art and Artists in the Age of Electronic Media. UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor/London 1989, p.3.

  • Régis Debray: ‘‘The Three Ages of Looking.’’ Critical Inquiry, No 21, Spring 1995.

  • Frank Biocca and Mark Levy: Communication in the Age of Virtual Reality. Hillside, New Jersey 1995.

  • Tapio Varis: Tiedon ajan media. Helsinki 1995, p. 95–96.

  • Armand Mattelart and Michele Mattelart: Historia de las teorias de la comunicación. Paidos 1997.

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Juhani Palmu, Galleria Strindberg