It is 12.07 and we are leaving the ferry, or “Lossi” as it is called here on the shore of Varjakka Island.
We – that is a group of tourists and international artists that have come to explore Varjakka Island, which was once home to the biggest sawmill in Northern Europe and which is now a place where we can witness what happened when nature took over, after the industry was abandoned about 100 years ago. Many passangers are wearing life jackets and all make sure to “mind the gap” as the “Lossi”- a hand rowed fleet, attached to an iron chain running through the water smoothly lands on the shore. Most are families with children or couples and the artists who have come to work on the island today. Some people from the local community who work here and help running the place are also there.
Tanja from Taika Box is giving us a guided tour around the island, we are getting to know the different preserved buildings and hearing the tales of that magical, yet also slightly haunted place.
Especially striking is the story of 20 women and children drowning in the water in front of the island. Tanja tells us how those women and girls had been in charge of transporting the finished planks in boats to bigger ships in the harbour close to the island for transfer. On their way back, the caravan of boats ran into each other and the chain used to hold the boats together pulled the mast over. Tanja reminds us that womens clothing during that time consisted of many layers, which soaked with water make up for a heavy weight, leading many to drown. She also tells us that there is a memorial right at the harbour that commemorates the loss.
Affected by the story we get caught up in a discussion on the working conditions on the island, the traces of classism still found in the buildings (some well preserved, others only left in their foundation) today, the presence of ghosts or perhaps the need for ghosts in certain places and the powerful, almost humbling silence that we perceive in the forest but also in the preserved buildings.
The next day we decide to see the memorial on the harbour. At first, we cannot find it. Eventually it turns out that it is a statute of half of a small black boat, right at the corner of the road we have been cycling on down towards the harbour for the whole week, but we had never noticed it. Underneath the boat there is a plaque with a sign on it. It says:
On the 18th of October, 1907 a big accident took place in the bay of Varjakka. 20 women and girls drowned as they were returning from work at the Varjakka sawmill.
They were buried in a common grave on Oulunsalo’s church grounds. The names of the accident’s victims are engraved on the memorial stone.
Oulusalo Municipal Art Acquisition 18.10.2007
Plans by Tero Paldanius
Created by Raimo Savaloja
Materials by Sah-Ko Inc.
But where are the names? Why would we have to cycle to the next town to read them? There would have been enough space to put them on here. Moreover, why was it then important enough to name the people creating the memorial, when it was not even possible to name the victims?
What is irritating as well is that what happened to them is labelled as a “onnetomuus” which literally translates to “an unlucky event”. Also the mere formulation of “returning from work” seems to be an understatement of how their death was a direct result of the risk involved in their working conditions.
In our reflection of that situation with Julian and Chris, later at the “Grilli”, Chris points to a theory by Jasbir Puar, found in her book “The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability” which explores the tension between the different levels in which we think about disability. It raises the question of how much of disability is created by systems of capitalism and imperialism, in which it is often a given that we accept certain bodies to be exposed to more risk than others and enjoy less security, be it by the conditions of labour under which they work, be it the conditions of their housing or environmental risks they are exposed to.
It makes me think of Black Lives Matter.
It makes me think of German politicians finding no other words than calling the intense and catastrophic flooding that reached Germany two weeks ago a simple tragedy. Floodings which appear as an obvious forecast of many disasters we will be facing in the light of human made climate change – brought about by the economic growth of the more privileged ones on our planet and which will continue to harass most and first of all the poorest of the poor.
It makes me think of the 72 people who lost their lives in the huge fire that broke out in the Grenfell Tower block of flats in North Kensington, London in 2017. Their death was due to calculated risk that industry and government were taking due to “value engineering” and cost pressures. It was found that the polyethylene-cored cladding panels on the walls of Grenfell Tower were the primary cause of the rapid fire spread.
I makes me think that this list is endless.
It makes we wonder of where to draw the line between an accident, calculated risk, negligence and murder.
In Capitalism it seems to be a necessary part of the calculation that some bodies are made disposable. Or more disposable than others. And those 20 women and girls were some of them.
The next day, while we were working on the island, Chris took a bike ride to the cemetery.
Their names are:
In the light of this story, our life vests seem almost cynical. They seem to be pointing at the question of who nowadays enjoys security? And which bodies are made disposable? And who gets to write their stories? And who can stand up for them if their own bodies cant?
It throws me back to the question of who tells whos stories, the endless question of representation. And I am wondering: how can you let yourself be heard, if the system silences you?
It also makes think that this is just another shore in Europe that looks so friendly and enjoyable to some and means hard work, precarity or even death to others.
Finally, I remember another detail of the story that Tanja told us that day: it is said that the driver of the boat of the 20 women and children was drunk. I am not sure if I feel that makes it better or worse.