'Sauna Reading Group', 2016 onwards

-Discussion series.

Above: Sauna Reading Group #1, clockwise from top left: Simon Willems, Elina Suoyrjö, Hans Rosenström.

All photos unless stated by Barry Sykes

As an extension of my research into Hermits, retreating and interaction I am hosting a series of invite-only discussions based in the tiny basement sauna at the Finnish Church in Rotherhithe, London.


The Sauna Reading Group is a deliberately awkward, absurd proposition:

- Forcing one traditional format (reading group) into another (sauna ritual)

- Asking participants to think and talk whilst sweating it out in 85+°C humidity

- Considering isolation at a communal event

- Breaking conversation every few minutes to cool off in the shower, then resting before returning to the heat.

- Laminating all printed material in advance

- Taking notes on a whiteboard propped inside the sauna cabin.


However, my thinking is that these paradoxes, however counter-intuitive, might generate some productive thought and experience.


My interest is in also in embodying some of my hermit-related inquiries in the very experience of a Sauna Reading Group: The sauna cabin as a kind of hermitage; this outpost of Finnish culture in London as a form of retreat; The bench seating built into the sauna walls as ideal layout for discussion; the sweating in gloomy close proximity whilst wearing very little as either a demanding social interaction or welcome contemplative indulgence; the high temperature creating an unavoidable awareness of body and mind functioning together.


The Finnish Church in Rotherhithe is also an appropriate setting as it was originally Christian monks of the 2nd and 3rd centuries who identified themselves as the first Hermits, enforcing self-denial, solitude and asceticism to gain greater awareness and focus.




Guidelines for participants:


- Each meeting of the Sauna Reading Group will be with a different group of invited participants, selected for their interests tangentally related to these themes.


- Each event is based around a selected reading that broadens out to wider related issues. I'm interested to hear your experiences of detachment, isolation, etc in your own work and research, or your take on mine.


- Drinking water will be provided but feel free to bring your own. it is important to stay hydrated.


- Bring a towel, and cloth to sit on.


- As this is an adaptation of a Finnish custom, but with guests from a variety of cultures, swimwear (as opposed to traditional nudity) is our default dresscode, though the group is invited to decide what is most appropriate or comfortable amongst themselves.


- Rest assured, there will be no photographic documentation of participants whilst in the sauna. But it will be useful to get sine pictures of anonymous details, notes, feet etc.


- This is a discussion but feel free to stay silent if the sauna leaves you too relaxed/overheated/untalkative.


- After the sauna we will move to a nearby pub for a discussion or debrief about the preceding discussion.


- First drink on me.


- Each of these guidelines is up for negotiation, depending on the dynamics of each group.



Sauna Reading Group is part of a wider research project I sometimes refer to as 'The International Hermit Conference', which looks at instances of detachment and escape, interaction and immersion, solitude and retreats into architecture, using a purposely instinctive and subjective process that has so far included residencies, events, performances, sculpture, film, found objects and feedback forms.

Sauna Reading Group #1.

Friday 4th March 2016, 7-8.30 pm / Finnish Church in London

Discussing 'The Strange Case of the North Pond Hermit', by Michael Finkel, GQ magazine, 2014.

Attending: Simon Willems (UK), Hans Rosenström (FI), Elina Suoyrjö (FI)


Discussion began with clarifications of the frankly astounding story of a man who hid in the woods for 27 years only saying one word out loud until his discovery. Then introducing examples of other notable hermits. Followed by a conversation about cultural differences in attitudes to nature the bidy and conversation between Brits and Finns, owing to the demographic split of the group..



(UPDATE:Due to the closure of the Finnish Church in Rotherhithe Sauna due to serious flooding the SRG went on hold for some time. It has now been revived with the first new session to be held in Mari Keski-Korsu's whisky barrel sauna at Scottish Sculpture Workshop, Lumsden, Scotland.)



Sauna Reading Group #2.

Saturday 27th January 2018 / Scottish Sculpture Workshop, Lumsden, Scotland

Discussing an extract from Dr Anthony Storr's 'Solitude', 1988. Selected from the SSW Edge Effects Library. and 'The Stranger in the Woods', Michael Finkel, 2017

Attending: Current SSW International Artists in Residence, SSW staff.

Hosted in the workshop library with follow up session in the sauna. The internationl group of residency artists had already beeen living together in this remote location for over a month. Cooking, eating and socialising together, making work around each other. Robert Storr's book presented a romantic, almost mysanthropic description of the lone artist, which we read out loud together. The session concluded with myself reading out an extract from 'Stranger in The Woods', 2017, the book developed from the original Michael Finkel article discussed in the first Sauna Reading Group. The session in the library was a busy conversation of opinions and references, the sauna session afterwards markedly quieter, as if we were all talked out.



Sauna Reading Group #3.

Friday 2nd March 2018 3-5pm / The Finnish Church in London,

Discussing Marlene Haring's 'Report to an Academy' 2015.

Attending: Vesta Kroese (NL), Marlene Haring (AUT)

Returning to the Finnish Church sauna for the first time since it was refurbished, coincidentally during a rare week of late winter snow. Artist Marlene Haring read from herpublication of anecdotes from her performance practice and we discussed intimacy, personal space, social awkwardness, comfort zones and self-care.


As a deep snow covering was still present we could cool off by climbing out of tyhe basement, through the cafe, chapel and onto terrace for traditional Finnish collapsing in the snow, notably energised the skin and brain.




Sauna Reading Group #4

Friday 28th September 2018 7-9pm / BioArts, Helsinki,

Reading 'Auto-Immunity: A Self-Destructive Service' by Emma Balkind, 2018..

Attending: Mari Keski-Korsu (FI), Yvonne Billimore (UK)


I was kindly invited to host this Sauna Reading Group in the basement sauna of BioArts' new premises in Helsinki.


To develope the project I am now asking on of the guests to select the reading, something that relates to the SRG themes of introspection, retreat, small architecture and awkward interaction. Yvonne chose this text she had been reading by Emma Balkind that discussed the subjective perception of pain, community health and managing your body. This lead us to think about empathy, dignity, adaptation and safe spaces.



Sauna Reading Group #5

Friday 16th November, 2018, 2-4pm. The Finnish Church, Rotherhithe, London

Reading Carolee Schneeman's 'Parts of a Body House', 1957-67.

Attending: Karen Di Franco (UK), Irene Revell (UK), Mohammad Namazi (IRN)

As is now the format, the text is selected by one of my invited guests, based on discussions around the general themes of the SRG, namely retreat, awkwardness, the body, ritual and inhabiting small architecture. Karen Di Franco chose Carolee Schneemann's 'Parts of a Body House' and introduced the session explaining her ongoing research into the text, including it's origins, adaptations, and interpretations.


We went on to discuss the text in relation to Schneemann's more famous performance work, and its visceral language, sensous descriptions, intangible imaginary spaces and ultimatley sinister consequences. Conversation ebbed and flowed as the heat took over, people moving in and out to cool off, almost as if this was another chapter in the text.



SRG#6 Coming early 2019, provisionally looking at life in deep space...

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