Laura Hirvi is a German-Finnish cultural anthropologist living and working in Berlin. She is Managing Director of Virtual Reality Berlin-Brandenburg (VRBB), a post she has occupied since August 2021. Earlier this summer, Laura joined the MMIAM International Advisory Committee. She and Brittany Johnson recently spoke, via Zoom, about her career.
In this article, Laura discusses eXtended reality (XR), virtual reality (VR), and other technologies. Use this primer before diving in!
Hi Laura, let’s start at the beginning, how did you first become interested in the arts?
I have always been interested in visual arts; it was one of my areas of study in school. Eventually, I applied to study cultural anthropology in Berlin. During my studies, I also spent some time in India. After about 10 months of studying, working, and traveling in India, I began an exchange program in Finland, continuing my studies there. I ended up staying there, completing my Master of Arts at the University of Jyväskylä, where I also started my Ph.D. During that time, I was also a Fulbright Scholar at the University of California, Santa Barbara and I was all set to focus on becoming a researcher—continuing to work within a university—but my heart and my interests were always also in the arts and culture.
I began a post-doc project studying contemporary Finnish artists living in Berlin. I wanted to find out why Finnish artists would choose to come to Berlin, what their experiences were, what impact their art had on the city, and what, from the connections they made in Berlin, they might bring back to Finland. In the middle of the project, a position opened up—Director of the Finnish Institute here in Berlin—it felt like a position I had to apply to. They were looking for someone familiar with both Finnish and German culture, which was a perfect fit because of my roots. I grew up outside of Germany in a Finnish-German family. They also wanted someone familiar with the field of culture, the Berlin art scene, and with science. I got the position and worked there for six years. When we worked with artists, we worked on projects that brought together the Finnish and German art worlds.
Is there a large population of Finnish people living in Germany? Why are there so many Finnish artists in Berlin?
Berlin has always been a city where culture happened, especially underground culture. It has always been a city that was exciting to come to explore and test out new ideas. Finns have a couple of big cities—the biggest being the capital, Helsinki—but these cities are very expensive and there are a lot of rules. When it comes to Berlin there was always this openness. This sort of thing is very intriguing to artists from Northern Europe. When I was doing my research, the low cost of living was also a factor. It’s changing rapidly, but we still don’t talk about Berlin being anywhere near the costs you might have in other big, cool, creative cities like London or New York City. It’s still much cheaper in regards to the cost of living, studio rentals, and so on. I published my research and am happy to make that available to readers. [Editors note: Laura’s article is available for free at this link.]
So, can you tell me about your role at the VRBB?
I was invited to apply for a role at Virtual Reality Berlin Brandenburg, or VRBB as we call it. I’m the Managing Director, my role is to bring together people and companies doing something with augmented reality or virtual reality, or XR in general. Many of our members are also active in the field of culture.
For example, we have companies focused on helping cultural institutions produce virtual reality (VR) experiences. I think it’s exciting. Just recently, we worked with the Feuerle Collection—one of the most exciting places in Berlin—a private collector bought a bunker and is exhibiting Asian art there. Most of the works are ancient but the exhibition also features contemporary art. They created a VR experience based on their exhibition so that if people can’t travel to Berlin or can’t visit the collection they can at least get close to that experience by putting on the VR glasses.
VR still feels a bit like it’s on the brink of its big break. Do you find this to be true?
I agree. Generally, talking about VR, AR, and XR, there is a whole world of new technologies! They’re still niche, but, at least in Germany, the pandemic triggered a strong interest in and understanding of all things digital. There is a lot of potential, but also a lot of testing, learning, and dialogue between arts managers about why they should apply these technologies in their organizations and what it might mean, budget-wise or in terms of reaching an audience, for example. It’s not enough to put a QR code in a museum, you need someone to explain what to do with it.
So do you find yourself doing a lot of advocacy work, then?
Yes. I’ve been getting invited to speak on behalf of VRBB; and often I am asked to explain what AR is, what XR is, etc. There is a lot of need to clear up the differences between the terms. The great thing is, especially with the announcement of Meta and the Metaverse last fall, there is a growing awareness that this is not a small thing that happens in a corner. It’s something that might become mainstream. And that’s what I’m speaking up for. What I’m noticing is that even across industries the lack of understanding is similar. It’s not just the art world that has been slow to adopt these technologies, many industries aren’t exactly there yet.
How did you end up in this position? What path did you take?
So, I studied cultural anthropology and I can’t tell you how many people asked me to clarify what I was studying and what I would do with this degree. I realized pretty early that if you go down this road, if you study something that you’re very passionate about, then you have to go all in. Sometimes, I’ll say to friends who are, let’s say HR specialists, that all they have to do is go to LinkedIn and search “HR specialist,” and hundreds of jobs will appear. In my case, my CV and my skill set are very diverse. I have to be open to finding the “perfect match,” and thinking about how I can adapt all of these experiences.
Would you still consider yourself a cultural anthropologist?
Yes, at the core. What I learned as a cultural anthropologist is what makes me the worker I am now. I’m very analytical and very reflective. As a cultural anthropologist, you also have to do fieldwork. We throw ourselves into new situations! This is a wonderful thing. If you look at my CV, I’m always throwing myself into something where I can take and apply what I’ve learned in the past. But I’m also “studying,” a new community, so to speak, and learning how this community works. In my current role, the community in question is the XR community. I find it very intriguing to see how many different worlds are out there.
Could you share one thing you’re looking forward to within the next year?
VRBB is planning to present awards for special achievements made in XR and culture. The awards will be given sometime in the first half of 2023. This is a great moment to acknowledge the work that has been done by individuals working in the XR community and also to continue working to put these technologies on the map.
When you think about the next generation of arts managers, what do you think they need to know or prioritize? What should they be doing now to get ahead in their careers?
One of the things I really like about the MMIAM program is that it’s international; you’re looking outside of your bubble. You learn that there are different ways of doing the same thing. I’m always saying that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, you can find good examples of how another institution did something. We as arts managers also need to demand that we continue learning. As you rise in your career, there will be new skills that you need to acquire.
When I began to think about what I wanted to study, I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to do something that deals with money and the moment I started to conduct research all I did was apply for money and then at the Finnish Institute, it was all about the budget, about fundraising, about how to get more money.
Finally, one of the topics I love to talk with people about is the importance of networking. When you want to make a career in this field and you’re going to visit cool places, sometimes you’ll have unique moments, in those moments, always make sure to get the business card of whoever you met and link with that person. Some people might be in positions to help you later on. My network is one that I’ve built with my heart. They’re people that I like and that I like to work with.
Last question: since the program doesn’t officially visit Germany, what would you recommend if any students wanted to travel there on their own?
The Feuerle Collection is a very special place and it’s not so well known yet. There is another bunker, the Boros Collection, which shows contemporary art and is also super cool. Then you have Gallery Weekend Berlin on the first weekend of May, this is a very special Berlin thing. It’s a big happening, all the galleries open their doors and people just stroll the streets. There are always really cool exhibitions at this time. However, I think it depends on what people are interested in, there is quite a bit outside of visual culture. Tickets are always sold out at the Schaubüne. However, if you can get hold of a ticket, you should visit. Even if you don’t understand German, it’s worth watching the performance. There are many great institutions in Berlin, but even more exciting is the grassroots-level culture happening here.