Letters as envelopes sent to artist Nastja Säde Rönkkö on display in the 24/7 exhibition at Somerset House

Six months without the internet

15 Nov 2019

Nastja Säde Rönkkö, an interdisciplinary artist from Finland, spent six months without access to the internet to study the effects of offline existence.

Based in Somerset House Studios, Rönkkö swapped emails for letter writing, likes and comments for a series of seminars, and documented her experience through video, photography and text. 6 Months Without – the culmination of Rönkkö's offline residency – is now showing as part of 24/7: A Wake-up Call for our Non-Stop Worlda group exhibition exploring the non-stop rhythms of modern living.

In this interview, Rönkkö discusses the artistic and environmental motivation behind her project, epistolary joy and turning experience into art.

On your website, Ellen Mara de Wachter writes that, “Far from constituting an abdication from any kind of contemporary social contract, 6 Months Without generated a network of meaningful relationships across the world.” I’m interested in your positioning of the project as an act of engagement as opposed to withdrawal. Can you say more about this?

During the six months I had an out of office auto reply in my email, briefly explaining the outline of the project, as well as its wider context. The email also had my studio address at Somerset House and the times I would be in it, encouraging people to visit me or to send letters. The response was overwhelming; I got hundreds of letters from all over the world. The letters were from strangers as well as from friends and family. I think the idea of being connected to each other in other ways than social media, or instant online connection, clearly touched something in people. With some people we exchanged only one or two letters but with others we actively wrote to each other for six months. Another way to be engaged was this seminar programme we were running, inviting people to talk about everything from the feminist internet to the enormous environmental impact of technology. So there were multiple layers of engagement with different people, communities and subjects. Just none of them happened online.

It was also important to realise the project in London, in a big city. I didn’t want it to become some kind of offline retreat where I would go into the woods and close myself off from everything and everyone for half a year. That wasn’t interesting to me. The interesting part was trying to find alternative ways to engage with different areas of our society while being offline.

Nastja Säde Rönkkö's Out of Office message for her 6 Months Without residency at Somerset House Studios
Nastja's 'out of office' for 6 Months Without

6 Months Without seems to sit at the intersection of performance art, environmental activism and scientific experiment. How do you conceive of the project and what do you hope it’ll make people reflect on?

I saw it as a sort of a very long durational performance that lasted for half a year. The performance was documented weekly by video, photographs and writing. I saved everything from the six months: letters, books, newspapers. I have displayed that paraphernalia as documentation of that period. It was also a participatory piece (writing letters, organising seminars and conversations with people) and an attempt to think about how profoundly the internet and the mode of being available 24/7 has changed our world and society. It has changed what it means to be a human, in a heartbeat. The internet only just turned 30 and think about what it’s done to us in such a short time. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, but it has totally challenged what it means to be human, how we function in society, the way we connect to each other and how we perceive ourselves. Also, the environmental damage that technology causes, and the contribution of the internet on climate crises is enormous. According to different sources (it’s really quite complex to calculate it accordingly), the annual carbon footprint of the internet is at least the same or bigger than all the flights of the world combined in a year. I feel like we talk a lot about how bad eating meat or flying is but nobody really wants to talk about how bad watching YouTube videos or binging on Netflix is for the environment. It’s almost like the taboo of our times. 

Nastja Säde Rönkkö at Somerset House Studios, Image credits: Nastja Säde Rönkkö, Magda Fabianczyk
Nastja Säde Rönkkö at Somerset House Studios, Image credits: Nastja Säde Rönkkö, Magda Fabianczyk

The “digital detox” has become an increasingly popular term for short periods of individual online abstinence. But it’s a term that still feels inherently capitalistic – in the sense that those periods offline are designed to re-energise us for when we’re back on. To what extent does 6 Months Without propose sustainable solutions to the current system?

We ran a seminar programme where we invited people to contribute to various themes around the digital life. For example, the second seminar attempted to redefine the meaning and functioning of technology from something that only considers Western rational logic and knowledge as valuable and scientific into something that includes other modes of knowing and being. We had some amazing people like Melody Patry who spoke about what we need to do to protect the internet and those who use it, as well as Tamar Clarke-Brown who spoke about her project CBT (coding : braiding : transmission) which explores the relationship between body and digital spaces in an attempt to understand how new technologies build identities.

The seminars were attempting to imagine alternative ways of being together and through that, propose solutions to the current system. We were thinking – how can we challenge the ways we use digital technology and social media? How can we challenge the ever-growing power of those in charge of emerging technologies, and the way they are using us for their own interests through data collection, social media addiction, fake news, internet governance and such? What kind of political strength and opportunities for resistance might there be in slow (offline) living? 

In a practical, everyday level I think a good way to start is to limit your use of the internet and social media. Things that sound simple but are difficult, like sleep with your phone in the other room, or leave it home when you go somewhere for few hours, don’t use social media during weekdays. It could be anything really, but requires a lot of self-discipline. 

During the project, you based yourself out of Somerset House Studios, and invited people to write letters and visit you spontaneously. Who did you correspond with and how did you find the process of letter writing compared to, say, online messaging?

I corresponded with a lot of people I didn’t know, as well as friends, family, colleagues. I don’t quite know how some people found me or learnt about the project, but I got hundreds of letters from people I didn’t know. Lots of people passed through my studio, they came in once reading the poster on my door (that explained the project) and got curious. The process of letter writing felt almost like writing a diary. It felt really intimate and it was easier to share personal things. I found that people who wrote to me really opened up and it felt comfortable to write things about my life that I wouldn't share in an email. Writing letters takes time, it’s actually really slow and quite physical too. We don’t really use those muscles anymore. It’s curious how all the letters I received were hand-written, nobody typed them on a computer and printed them out. I like reading peoples’ hand-writing, it feels like there is someone real writing to you, versus online messaging where you can’t see how somebody’s handwriting looks like. It is also way more exciting to receive and open a letter. I think sometimes it’s good to wait for gratification. With the internet and online messaging you get immediate dopamine hits. That’s why we keep refreshing.

Letters sent to Nastja Säde Rönkkö during her '6 Months Without' residency at Somerset House Studios
Letters sent to Nastja during her Somerset House Studios residency, Image credits: Nastja Säde Rönkkö, Magda Fabianczyk

There’s an irony to the fact that you were living in a kind of cocoon, completely absent of surveillance in one of the most surveilled cities in the world. How did you experience this during the project?

Absolutely! As I mentioned earlier, it was important to make the project in a city. I actually became super aware of the surveillance aspect and thought about it a lot more than usual. I noticed CCTV’s easier than before. I only used cash (since contactless payment goes via the internet) and that felt good, to be relatively untraceable, it felt really powerful actually. I think the internet allows a whole other level of losing privacy and not knowing who knows what about you and this was something I became hyper aware of when being offline.

How do you plan to turn such an experiential, momentary piece of art into something that viewers can interact with, understand, interpret?

The outcome of the project is two videos - one is a 10-minute documentary of my time offline and the other one is a 40-minute video of me reading letters I received and writing them (the latter being in the show). All the letters I received are in display vitrines in the exhibition for people to see. Some of them are open so people can read them (with the permission of the sender!). I’m also exhibiting newspapers, books and maps I used during the six month period. I took a polaroid self-portrait every day and those are also framed documentation of how I felt (not in the show though). We also recorded all the seminars. So there are multiple ways to experience the work.

You’ll be presenting your work in 24/7: A Wake-up Call for our Non-Stop World alongside over 50 multi-disciplinary works. Could you speak about any works that have particularly caught your attention?

During the install, when I got tired or overwhelmed, I went downstairs to experience “Daily tous les jours' I heard there was a secret chord”, which is a participatory humming channel with Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. It was a very calming and comforting experience. I could have stayed forever.

This interview was originaly published on TANK Magazine.

24/7: A Wake-Up Call for our Non-Stop World is open 31 October 2019 - 23 February 2020

6 Months Without on display in the 24/7 exhibition at Somerset House
'6 Months Without' on display in 24/7