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  KALTIO 1/2003: The Screaming Men in a Church, Petri Sirviö talks about otherness

In English
Image: Jussi Vilkuna

Screaming Men in Church

Petri Sirviö on Otherness


Kaltio 1/03

Finnish text: Jussi Vilkuna
English translation: Anniina Vuori


The director of the male choir The Screaming Men, Petri Sirviö, sits in a booth at the restaurant Emigrant. He is stroking his hair that is standing on his head while drinking beer and leafing a Bible. Only 15 minutes ago, he was installing building board on the walls of his home.

The Screaming Men performed a couple of days ago in a chuch, for the first time in the choir's fifteen years. Sirviö cannot say why only now.
- I don't know why it took so long for us to perform in a church. We haven't fooled around with religion before. We've been busy working on other holinesses.

Sirviö is still pondering performing in a church, for it made him think about the concept of selfishness. According to him, the basic ethical rule of the Western culture, also taught at school in religion and ethics classes, is to do onto others as you would have them do onto you.
- This is the best a Western person can do. What suits you has to automatically be good enough for others, Sirviö cogitates. He refers to the passage in the Cermon on the Mount where Jesus says: "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12)
- For instance, think of a situation where a lumberjack like me, a heavy consumer of beer, ends up in the same elevator with a model and wonders what to do next as an ethical person. 'I will do to her what I would like her to do to me.' The results wouldn't be so great.

Can there be ethical deeds, ethicality, without comprehending otherness? The author Leena Krohn has written: "In order to realise our existence, we first need to acknowledge the existence of others."
- You cannot do ethical deeds before you understand otherness, that is to say difference. First, you have to be able to imagine yourself in the other's shoes, Sirviö says.

Men in black open the side doors of the Oulu Cathedral. It is a dark, cold November night. The church entertains the most mixed audience in its history: traditional church-goers, a few members of spiritual student organisations, elder ladies and gentlemen, the town's cultural elite and people with messy hair, familiar from Oulu rock circles. I am sitting on the fifth row and watch the men walk briskly on the aisles like an colony of ants. They are screaming as they walk.


The cathedral of Oulu is one of male bishops. It represents spiritual dominion in half of Finland, all the way from Kalajokilaakso to Nuorgam. The cathedral is not only a church of masculine power but has been labelled one of the last frontiers of chauvinism. During the term of Bishop Rimpiläinen, which ended two years ago after 21 years, the most narrow-minded and fundamentalist male priests were inaugurated in the cathedral of Oulu. From there, these so-called traditional believers have spread around northern Finland.

The male choir The Screaming Men is not the first group to use the name. In the 18th century, there was a Viklundian awakening near Tornio which became famous for preaching while asleep. As the movement spread to Kautokeino, its forespeakers called themselves The Screaming Men and gave cermons in trance on their knees or lying down.

Strong emotional states, high-pithced "hih huh" shrieks, tears, joy, and jumps have also been part of Lestadianism especially at the beginning of the movement. Public states of emotion and open confessions became more rare in conservative Lestadianism in the 1970s, but they are still common in original Lestadianism.

Northern Finland has seen many religious movements which include screaming and trance. Some examples are the Kautakeino trance that led to murders, the Korpela movement near Tornio that awaited a crystal arc and being pulled up to heaven, and the Heinonen movement in Oulu at the turn of 1950s which awaited the end of the world.

These northern religious movements have numerous avangardist characteristics and events which can be compared even to the male choir The Screaming Men's performances.

The Heinonen movement regards Erkki Jokela, now retired from the vacancy of Haukipudas bishop, as their prophet. He once told the following story once. As Jokela came to the old wooden church in Haukipudas one summer morning in the 1960s, he saw the church yard and steps flooded with young people. The young were screaming rhythmically: "Lord, light the heart of your servant". At the same time, the fire patrol rushed to the scene. The fire sargeant Paavo Kropsu yelled to the fire fighters running with their hoses: "Pressure 1, pressure 2..."

The Screaming Men arrange themselves in front of the altar. Sirviö lifts his drum stick. One cannot really say men from around here are pretty. The choir obeys the stick and screams: "...And if I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but have not love..." One screaming man rises his microphone: "but whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall be done away." The others scream: "And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love." The grannies on the first row turn their hearing aids down, the grandpas hold on to their wigs.

My head is spinning. Masculine use of power, screaming, trance, fanaticism... They let men like Hannu Taanila curse in the Oulu cathedral nowadays, progressive rockers play their synthecised electric guitars, and The Screaming Men scream. Still I wonder, what does the first performance of The Screaming Men in a church symbolise, what is Petri Sirviö aiming at, what does he want to with this? What happened today?

According to critic Riikka Kalsi, The Screaming Men are protesting. She writes in the newspaper Kaleva: "The male view, reaking of testosterone, was naturally represented by The Screaming Men directed by Petri Sirviö. Their interpretations boasted with a similar feel of protest singing... Everyone can think for themselves, what The Screaming Men protest - the EU, high culture, or macho male roles? Protest away, but people in Oulu love you."

Do The Screaming Men protest? Petri Sirviö gives a surprised glance behind his pint and answers certainly not. The choir is an abstraction for him, a tool for studying and analysing the world; an instrument, like with any other artist.

Sirviö is critical about the church as a institution, but there is a difference between criticising and protesting. He himself sang in a church choir as a kid. Nowadays, church as an institution does not arouse much respect in him. Still the meanings which people give to the church as they visit there mean something to him too.
- The church is given an immensly high, sacred value.The church has been one of the vain things we have put money in here. The only place with no utility or usefulness. For don't we think here: what isn't absolutely necessary is vain, and what is vain is sin. And traditionally, the only vain and sinful thing here has been the church.

Petri Sirviö is not the first person from Oulu to criticise the church. Lauri Ulstadius caused a stir in the beginning of 1680s by blowing up his father's philosophical works in Oulu. In summer of 1688, the cermon in Turku cathedral was interrupted when Usltadius, looking wild, appeared in the centre isle. He started preaching that the Lutheran doctrine is cursed, that preachers are full of blasphemy and human inventions, and that the clergymen do not have Holy Spirit. When they tried to seize the intruder, his old clothes were torn off. Ulstadius ran down the main isle of the church, bare naked, screaming that the disgrace of Finnish clergymen will once be revealed like his disgrace now. Ulstadius and his most impassioned followers were sentenced to death, but the conviction was changed to life in prison. Even though Ulstadius probably was genuinely worried about his salvation, he and his followers crystallised the frustration, hunger for power and thirst to cause a stir that young men who are talented but grown up in the periphery have.

It is 1987 and there is a bunch of frustrated young men in Oulu. At he same time the country, also called the Japan of Europe, is at the top of its economic growth in the 20th century. The people spend like crazy with loaned money, selfishness grows to its umpteenth degree. Oulu has started its growth from spiritual industrial city of 85 000 into a 120 000 people international, yet remote, town. The city's rock image, tasting of metal, is being born. 

Despite all the economic well being, Oulu has a bunch of students, unemployed and in the margin, who feel like they are outside the society. At the same time, shipyard director Martin Saarikangas scolds the young generation for getting everything too easy.

Shall we scream? Why not, perkele [damn], think the men from Oulu.


Year 1987 began with God's Theatre throwing shit in Oulu city theatre in January. The year ended with The Screaming Men's first performance at the university's Independence Day celebration at Rauhala.

Sirviö composed two new pieces for the choir's performance in the cathedral. He says he was very interested in Lauri Ulstadius and other old geezers in the church of Oulu. He tried to find their texts for a basis of his works, but ran out of time. 

Sirviö says he is "simple in the sense" that he always looks for texts that fit the situation of the performance. In all the hurry, he suddenly remembered Paul's letter to the Corinthians, which tells of love (I Cor. 13).

- I realised that there is at least one place in the Bible where human ethics and understanding for others has been defined a bit closer.
One part in the letter to Corinthians discusses the development of consciousness, the interface between childhood and adulthood. "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."
- This was still a time when Elvis Presley hadn't declared the time of youth begun. First we are children, then we at confirmation or as we get married pull on a suit, and we become men.

Central in undestanding otherness is the 12th verse in chapter 13: "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."
- Paul, who I have understood was a rather unpleasant norm-maker, suddenly in this part of the text philosophically discusses how understanding others begins. In the world of youth, there are prophets and the whole wisdom of the world, and you speak in many tongues. Paul says it's all ok, no problem. For nowadays you can see yourself quite accurately in the mirror, but at that time the reflector must still have been pretty poorly polished.

According to Sirviö, true wisdom comes from feeling face to face, perfectly through the other person.
- This hit me. Understanding of that dramatic moment when we are right at the limit where this rascal is about to discover a new world. The tenses change curiously, and the text becomes a magnificent piece of literature.

Sirviö regards Paul as an idealist after all. Life and otherness are something you don't learn to know yet when you are still young, in an age to be married.
- Perhaps in real life the authentic level of consciousness comes only after you look at the world from face to the other face behind. Meaning when you become a parent and have to wash someone's bum six, seven times a day.

Paul's text could be interpreted otherwise too, as a description of the difference between life on Earth and life after death. It is about the border between life and death, in other words allegorically the interface of coming into faith: we are still living in an incomplete world, but once we are reborn after death, we live in heaven as full.
- As an adolescent, you've probably read the Bible and listened to the Doors, where death and sex are intertwined. Do you think love is realised only in death? It isn't so. For Paul talks about love, the gift of love. The definition of love is in motion here. If you talk about another world, the for you indefinite love will come true in death. Today's teenage romantics listen to HIM, in our time they listened to the Doors. This is the same thing as the young werthers of German Romanticism.

I try to breathe life into the section of 1 Corinthians in question again. Would Paul really have written merely of high school-style earthly love? Doesn't the text have more levels, parallels of earthly and Godly love? Especially since Sirviö himself complimented the text magnificent.

St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of how God's love is perfect and human love imperfect. Human love only seeks good for itself, God's love makes good out of bad and full out of empty...
- I would go to the Lestadian theology here. Human is God's image only after he or she lives as man and woman who have divinely been joined together.


During their career
, Screaming Men have performed in the Venice Biennale, Salzburg music festival, modern art museum in Paris, at Roskilde rosk festival; all around Europe, Russia, New York, Japan; super markets, railway stations, building sites, on the ice on sea... Nowadays, the choir and its performances are branded with the label of conceptual art.

Ivan the Terrible, known for his extreme use of power, once taught Russians to smile. As he drove around in his wagon, he intented to cut the head off anyone who came across and falied to please him. Regardless, he had his court jester who was supposed to not only entertain but also give advice. The jesters got to tell the truth freely, because their position wasn't dangerous.

Petri Sirviö exercises power. He uses it in the choir and the society. In addition to writing columns to the newspaper Kaleva, he is often asked to speak in all kinds of occasions. Often the organisers want him to bring up in his speech topics they don't want to or are scared of talking about. As the director of The Screaming Men, people, including Sirviö himself, see him being to some extent outside the official system, in the position of a jester. Sirviö has a bigger than usual freedom, a downright responsibility, to criticise power.

But what happened that November night? Why did the male choir The Screaming Men scream at their first church performance in the cathedral of Oulu Paul's text about love?

Power, its exercise, and in particular discipline have been the theme of the choir's whole existence and performances. The Screaming Men are a disciplined group of men who in their songs show such sentiment which Sirviö has pondered and constructed in private. The contrast comes from the collective suddenly seizing of the thoughts and feelings of an individual, Petri Sirviö.

Sirviö is constantly interested in how people turn into disciplined creatures, and where the borderline for this change lies.
- In certain situations, everyone has an on/off switch. By pushing that switch, you can make them disciplined, into someone who uses group power. Performance must trigger the on- switch so that the singer acts with discipline, is a fanatic scream machine.

In real life, people yield to collective senselessness much more unassumingly and banally. 
  The logic of more communal and less individual power is connected with The Screaming Men's performances: the choir snaches Sirviö's thoughts and feelings. The same logic works in all authoritarian systems and phenomena.

The Screaming Men have studied authoritarianism, for example interpreted the essence of nationalism, by performing different countries' national anthems along the years. They caused a small scandal in the museum of modern art in Paris, where the museum administration attempted to stop their performance of the Marseillaise.

Religious communities are especially interesting in the sense of power being used in the most central questions of human existence. People's utmost values are personal, everyone is alone in front of the furthest questions - where I come from, why do I exist, where am I going. On the other hand, a human, an I, only exists in relationship to its environment, to other people and communities.
- Religions have a strong social structure: there are always rules and exericise of power, authorities and guidance. The individual thinks at the edge of infinity and emptiness that central questions have a formal connection: religion. Questions of truth and justice, of infinity and limits, are questions of an individual who has a social nature. Questions of faith belong to the individual. It takes a lot of structures and power, rough power, to form a religious community. The connection between these two phenomena is mystical, Sirviö ponders.

Now we get to the core of the question, the meaning of The Screaming Men's performance at the cathedral of Oulu - which, like the choir, symbolises masculinity and masculine use of power. The Screaming Men's performance at a church, but also the choir as an institution of conceptual art, is a critical comparison to religious communities that use power.

Accoring to Sirviö, the text of Paul's First Epistle to Corinthians which The Screaming Men screamed tells about love between a man and a woman. The choir used group power in their church performance, screamed as a group about this very personal emotion and extremely private thing: love. The whole group as one, they set forth a demand of love, the same way religious communities set forth a demand for conditions of righteous faith.

Sirviö says people should find the answers of central questions themselves. Communality and the need to be socially connected belong to other areas of life, not religion.
-When we talk of the church, do we talk of humans as creatures seeking the truth or middle aged men seeking power? I do think it's better if people decide about questions of eternity themselves in silence. Social questions belong elsewhere. If humans must face God, it's better that there are no bishops in the middle. The church exercises earthly power. The ways the church communicates the truth to those who don't think for themselves are appalling.

Yes. We started our discussion a while ago from the built-in selfishness of the Western culture, great thoughts, as we sat down in the booth at Emigrant bar.

I want to continue this thought. White, Western, Christian men who look like The Screaming Men and are the same age have throughout history considered that what is good for them is good for the whole world: North America, South America, Africa, Australia, Asia, Antarctica... In the spirit of western democracy and the commandment to spread the word, and for "the free world".

The key message in The Screaming Men's performance is the understanding of otherness, or rather a beginning of understanding otherness. Petri Sirviö and The Screaming Men performed the work about the beginning of understanding otherness in Oulu cathedral 12th of November, 2002, at 7 p.m.

I'm left to wonder where an extreme understanding of otherness would lead. In only one world religion? Or would it be the end of all religions, political parties, and nationalism? But - to follow Laestadius - on this wormy world, the heart of which is teeming with snake embryos, it is likely to be impossible.



The Scream in Art

Screaming is not merely a northern phenomenon, even though many male artists from northern  Finland have discussed screaming in their works. A year ago, Kristian Smeds directed a play in Kajaani city theatre about northern religiousness, communism, and backwoods philosophy, called Huutavan ääni korvessa (Sound of a Screamer in the Wilderness). Sculptor Tapio Junno, born in Piippola, has a statue called Huuto ("Scream", 1978), artist Paavo Tolonen from Pudasjärvi has a painting by the same name (1991) and Reino Rinne from Kuusamo has a poem called Huuto (1968). Furthermore, author Jorma Etto from Rovaniemi descibes a screaming Finn in his poem Suomalainen ('Finnish' / 'A Finn', 1964).

One of the most famous poems from the 20th century is American-Jewish Allen Ginsberg's Howl, which tells about loss. Norwegian artist Edvard Munch's mute scream portrays existential horror.

Jussi Vilkuna