From a successful showcase to a prospering circus festival – An interview with Subtopia’s Kiki Muukkonen

  • Kiki Muukkonen
  • Subcase 2016 (Image: Einar Kling Odencrants)
  • Subcase 2022 (Image: Rebecka Svenberg)
  • Samovar Circles 2022 (Image: Kiki Muukkonen)

Located in Stockholm county, Sweden, Subtopia is a centre for art, culture, and social engagement. Subtopia’s main focus is on contemporary circus production, urban art, as well as film and media production, but they also work in a variety of art forms such as music, dance, theatre, design, and more. As a production studio, Subtopia runs support functions for artists, a cultural incubator, a circus residency, artistic youth activities, and two open art walls for artists. In terms of circus, Subtopia hosts a large number of troupes and performers, international networks, and other key players in the circus industry. 

Subtopia’s focus is on developing infrastructure, supporting the creative and production processes, and working for both local and visiting circus performers, and they do so through residency programs, workshops, giving production advice, and participating in European development programs. The first Swedish venue dedicated to presenting both Swedish and international contemporary circus, Hangaren, was opened in 2010.

Subtopia has supported circus artists and the development of contemporary circus in Sweden for over 15 years, and you’ve been involved in that since the beginning. Why did Subtopia choose circus as one of its focuses in the first place? What have been some central undertakings through which Subtopia has supported the circus field throughout the years?

Since the beginning of and even before Subtopia, in the late 90’s, Cirkus Cirkör has been one of the main tenants here. Their presence and work has of course influenced the place a lot and attracted the circus community. So, it was natural that Subtopia should have a circus focus. We chose to mainly support the independent scene in order to facilitate a development of diversity, in many senses of the word. 

A main undertaking has definitely been Subcase, a Nordic showcase and meeting place that we organised for twelve years. It offered a window to the world for the local companies as well as the Nordic scene, and has been a very appreciated event. Now the task is carried on by Riksteatern and Manegen in the new event CirkusExpo, which will take place during CirkusMania in February 2023. 

In ten years, Subcase grew to be the most significant circus showcase in northern Europe. Due to the pandemic, Subcase has also been an online event. Could you tell us about your journey with Subcase? What kind of future does it have?

Subcase started from the expressed need and wish from local artists. Quickly it grew into a Nordic-Baltic event, carried out together with artists and colleagues from those countries. Along the years we focused more and more on questions around the relations between artists and presenters.

The CirkusMania festival grew out of Subcase, and today the festival is our main development focus, while CirkusExpo will take over the role of a showcasing and meeting place. But we do collaborate closely with them and are super pleased that CirkusExpo takes place during the festival.

CirkusMania was introduced by Subtopia in 2019, and now it presents several circus performances on several stages in the Stockholm region. How has the festival been able to evolve into such a large-scale event so quickly?

Last year it was 28 different performances in 30 venues – in the next edition it will be 36 performances in 32 venues in 13 municipalities around the region.

One main reason for the fast growth is our collaborations with Region Stockholm, who supports presenters that participate with programs in the festival, and Dansistan/Cirkusistan, which programs a big number of performances for schools within CirkusMania. Another reason is probably that the Stockholm scene, both the venues and the artistic companies, were ready for it. So many different parts of the Swedish circus infrastructure have rocketed in the last five years. So we had good timing in developing the festival – but on the other hand, since we have been part of the development, we could feel when the time was right, and put hard work into it happening.

Contemporary circus has evolved and grown in Sweden these past years. How has this affected Subtopia and its operations?

We do our best to keep up with the development and try to figure out in what ways we can best support the growth of art forms. In the last few years it has made sense to organise a festival, both for a bigger public knowledge of the art form, and for local presenters and local artists to strengthen their relations. This we do now with CirkusMania, which will have its fourth edition in February. During the pandemic, we initiated a Nordic Baltic think-tank for artists and presenters to tackle current challenges together – and that is Samovar Circles. 

Samovar Circles is a network that connects circus artists and presenters in the Nordics and the Baltics. What, to you, is the most important thing about it? What kind of future does the network have?

We hope that it will be an important think-tank for the sector, generating ideas, models and methods. It is still a young network, and exactly where it will go still remains to be seen. But all members are very keen and engaged in the present and future of both circus and performing arts, focusing on questions of diversity, and – again – the relations between artists and presenters. 

Subtopia works with a variety of art forms and activities. How big is your circus department? For example, what kind of personnel and other resources do you have, and how many rehearsal spaces do you have available? 

The department itself is only two people, myself and producer Helena Halling. However, we collaborate with the rest of our staff and departments. For the festival we employ two more people full time, and we work with a PR agency for the marketing.

There is one main space we offer for residencies, but sometimes also 2–3 others can be offered. What’s possible depends on a variety of things. We normally can’t offer residencies with any funding to artists, since we have no funding for that ourselves.

What is the most rewarding thing for you in furthering circus art and supporting circus artists?

The feeling of being part of a movement, which involves audiences and people in experiencing something generous, inspiring and mind-blowing.

Kiki Muukkonen is the Artistic Director of Subtopia’s circus department, where she manages its national and international programming, residencies, artistic development projects, seminars, and international relations, and offers advice to artists on their projects. In 2009–2022, Kiki produced the annual Subcase event. Today she is the festival director of CirkusMania and curates the circus program in Hangaren Subtopia.

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Interview conducted by Essi Brunberg / Pragma Helsinki.