Finnish Burners Bring Playa Magic to Helsinki

Security guards give us curious looks when we approach the metal detectors. My companion has to take off his top hat decorated with long branches and hand it in for special inspection. My golden pants and glitter storm on my face amuse the guards.

Interesting and influential people from the fields of academy, arts and technology have arrived to the US Embassy in Helsinki on the warm evening of the 29th of April. The unusual crowd has gathered there thanks to Finnish Burners Anssi Laurila and Andrew Clutterbuck.

Laurila is the Regional Contact of Finland for Burning Man, known for his many crazy ideas.

“What is your dream?” asks Laurila, standing on a platform in front of the audience. It is a good question. What is the dream that you want to make true? Dream that will maybe change your life?

“The biggest lesson I have learnt from Black Rock City and through the projects we have made, is that you should always trust in what you are doing and believe in it. No matter what difficulties you are facing,” Laurila says.

Essi Nisonen, Andrew Clutterbuck, Irena Bacić and Sam Bloch
Photo by Pietari Purovaara

Building New Traditions

Laurila and Clutterbuck present a fine example of willpower. Last year, only in three months, their group made a huge wooden pike head with a kantele — the national musical instrument of Finland — in its mouth and took it to the desert.

“We faced a lot of hardship during the process,” Laurila says. “It took a lot of effort to find the right people. Then Reno had run out of the kind of wood we needed. Luckily a Finnish couple saved us by cancelling their holiday and driving all the way down from Los Angeles to bring us the material. On top, we lost four rides to BRC and almost burnt down our smithy in Reno.”

But everything worked out even better than expected.

“After two weeks of very long days and five nights of no sleep at all, we were finally ready to bring the pike head kantele to BRC,” says Hannu Koistinen, instrument maker and father of the modern kantele, who was also present at the embassy.

The Finnish Burners called Koistinen after they had the idea of the pike head with a kantele in its mouth, a reference to the ancient Finnish mythology. They needed someone who could actually make the instrument.

“In BRC, the pike head kantele started to live its own life. People came to play together, loved it, started to hug each other and their mood turned into positive. Many great encounters happened there. The biggest lesson from BRC for me was to learn, how to create a safe space for people, where they can give their very best,” Koistinen says.

Hannu Koistinen
Photo by Pietari Purovaara

The Playa Provides

The trip to BRC and the pike head kantele actually gave a new direction to the kantele maker’s life. Unbelievable things started to happen. In BRC, a mysterious man was very interested in kantele and came to talk to Koistinen.

“He asked for my contact details and said that it would be lovely to talk to me later on…”

After Burning Man, the Venice Art Crawl organizer Daniela Ardizzone invited Koistinen to the Venice After Burn event in California.

“We had no plans, so we headed to Los Angeles with the kantele. When we arrived, I got an email from the man who had come to talk to me in the desert. He invited me to his home in LA and said that it would be lovely to meet again. Soon it became clear to me that he was the Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino.”

Through some other incidents, Koistinen got connected with the Simpsons producer Bonita Pietila in Los Angeles.

“Lots of lovely things happened and doors opened. Thanks to Bonita Pietila, something big is going to happen to me career-wise in the near future,” Koistinen says, but keeps the rest still a secret.

Koistinen is now sure that for the rest of his life, he will be researching this new social form of making music, which has no threshold or barriers between people.

“Life is not a venture, it is a music adventure,” Koistinen adds.

Laurila’s speech gets at the same idea. He wants to bring people with different backgrounds into the same space and give them freedom to express themselves without fear of failing.

Outi Kuittinen explaining the Koulu peer-learning concept
Outi Kuittinen explaining the Koulu peer-learning concept (Photo by Pietari Purovaara)

Teaching and Learning, Gifting and Receiving

The Finnish Burners already have their hands on the next project for BRC.

“This year, the dream of Finnish Burners is to get the people in Burning Man to gift each other the skills and knowledge they have, to teach each other,” says the Head of Co-creation of Demos Helsinki, Outi Kuittinen, who presented the new project to the audience at the embassy.

The project is called Koulu on Fire, Koulu meaning “school” in Finnish. It is a peer learning system based on the idea that everyone has got something to teach. That talent can be turned into interesting lessons and the person into a wonderful teacher.

The concept was first launched by the Nordic think tank Demos Helsinki in 2012. In Koulu, the volunteer staff helps the participants to discover what they can teach. Then they are trained to master some world-renowned Finnish teaching methods. After that, they are able to teach others their lessons, which vary from ten minutes to an hour. It is a way to enable people to gift each other a new talent. At the same time, it opens people up to each other by the gratitude of gifting and receiving.

“First we want to test Koulu in harsh environments like the Nevada desert. Later on, the big dream is to bring it, together with NGO partners, to refugee camps or centres and other temporary settlements, where education is urgently needed”, Kuittinen explains.

Sam Bloch and David Mitoh being serious
Photo by Pietari Purovaara

Diplomatic Ingenuity

Big dreams are born and realized in BRC and at other Burns. There is no doubt that bringing this culture and way of thinking to the rest of the world can create real change.

“One thing that is really fun about events like this … is that they take you out of your normal diplomatic role and put you into a lot of fun and creative circles,” says Jeffrey Reno, Public Affairs Officer at the US Embassy. “[Y]ou get people who would not normally come to the US Embassy engaged in something that is important for all of us.”

Reno adds that one of the key things they do is to work with young people in particular and teach them creativity, entrepreneurship and that it is okay to fail.

“The lessons you get out of failure are lessons that drive you further. Burning Man in Finland has embraced the same kind of concepts. That is why we jumped on board”, Reno says.

What Is Your Dream?

Dreamy kantele music leads us to another mindset as we move towards night. The audience stands still when Koistinen’s son, Anttu Koistinen, plays touching and modernized music with his traditional instrument familiar from many folktales.

Suddenly fire starts spinning outside at the backyard of the Embassy building when Belenos Group of Arts start their show. Skillful moves and spins give the cheering audience goosebumps. It is clear that this is only a start of a new adventure.


Top image: Belenos fire dancers, photo by Pietari Purovaara

About the author: Mari Karjalainen

Mari Karjalainen is a Helsinki-based Burner. By day, she is a journalist, content planner and writer. By night she drifts away with techno music, relaxes with yoga and meditation or escapes to nature.