Participation Now

Complaints Choir: what is it?

"This project stays dynamic when people take the Complaints Choir as a tool and make use of it in their own context and modify it. That’s the spirit of open source." Hilde C. Stephansen interviews the founders of the choir for Participation Now.

Hilde C. Stephansen Tellervo Kalleinen Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen
1 April 2014

Hilde C. Stephansen: What is Complaints Choir?

Tellervo Kalleinen: It’s a project we started in 2005, in Birmingham, when we invited people to send us in their complaints and to join workshop meetings.  With the help of a local musician we turned these complaints into a song for the choir and then we performed this song in public. 

We realised that potentially this could be done anywhere. It had a universal application, but it just so happened that it was in Birmingham that we first got a chance to do this.  After successfully completing the project in Birmingham, the idea somehow spread through YouTube – which was very young at that time – and this made it easier for the idea to get visibility. 

We then got many more invitations to do this.  Right now we are doing the twelfth Complaints Choir here in Georgia. It’s now also got really big through YouTube and we’ve put up a website where we give advice on how people can make their own complaints choirs too. So now it’s kind of become open source.

Hilde: So what’s the project you’re currently working on in Georgia?

Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen: For this project in Georgia we were approached by an NGO who have a mission to send artists into conflict zones to mediate. The idea is to use art as one of the foundations for peace processes or processes of change. 

They invited us here to do a pilot where we’ll work in two internally displaced people (IDP) camps. In the Georgia conflict, people have had to move out of South Ossetia, and they are now in these camps experiencing very difficult living conditions. They are mostly farmers and have very little and are now all stuck in this waiting situation. The foundation invited us to make a complaints choir project here so we have brought together people from two villages.

It’s a new context for us and it’s quite difficult, so we agreed to do it because this is a new challenge. This project stays dynamic when people take the Complaints choir as a tool and make use of it in their own context and modify it. That’s the spirit of open source – doing this is very hard in the art world, but this project is as close as you can come to this.

Hilde: I’m interested in this idea of open source and participatory art.  It’s rather different to how art traditionally operates isn’t it?

Oliver: There have been instructional and conceptual art pieces, where the artwork is an instruction and anybody can use this in the context of where the art was happening. So there are precedents. But still, our approach is not typical.

Complaints Choir

A screenshot from provides steps for organising a complaints choir

Hilde: What would you say the aims of Complaints Choirs are?

Tellervo: Well, we see this kind of art as a free zone in society where you are liberated from clear goals, such as those associated with activism or the straightforward economic goals that often drive society. 

We see our roles as being active citizens, being an active part of society but trying to keep ourselves free from very straightforward goals.  One of our, let’s say, measures, is simply whether people join in, as all projects are open invitations for anybody to take part.  So if people take part it indicates there is a need. We are developing projects and concepts from this very free and artistic point of view which means that we are not bound to the pre-existing goals of institutions, at least not in any straightforward way.

We start from feeling quite a need at the social ecological level where we initiate the event and then we see if it works or not.  For Complaints Choir, the aim is to invite people to look more closely at the phenomenon of people who spend time complaining. Complaining is a huge source of energy but the question then arises of what do you do with all this energy? If a change happens it will usually start with the activity of complaining about a situation.

So we start by raising general awareness of our tendency to complain and then move on to explore how you can do something with these complaints, even if it’s just the experience of making a choir song. We take this energy of complaining and then work to do something uplifting and energising with it, rather than simply dwell on the melancholy and depressing aspects of this. 

There can be a big power when people get together if you can play with individual complaints in this way. So basically what we do is about providing this experience. We offer this experience at an individual level but it also works quite well when people perform or experience the songs in public too, whether an audience see the songs in an exhibition, or via a video, or experiences a live performance.

You don’t necessarily even need to be part of the choir to get this experience of being energised and uplifted and to start thinking about your own complaints.

Oliver: So one part of the idea is simply that people have a chance to share their complaints. The other part of the idea is then to bring these complaints together and make the whole choir the owner of the song they make together, so that we generate a collective experience. 

It’s a nice procedure; you start with individual complaints and with everybody putting their complaints on the table; people then discuss them, choose between them and edit the text. They then practice the song and learn it and become a choir. They start to come together as a group and then they perform to an audience.  This transformation is quite a powerful experience.

Hilde: So it’s a method that involves making private troubles public. Are you helping to represent people?

Tellervo: Yes, but we don’t want to label people as representative of some groups. This is something we are very careful not to talk about, as everybody is individual rather than simply a representative of a group.

We try to take a lot of care that the invitation to participate doesn’t just get distributed in certain circles, so we try to get fliers everywhere and get all kinds of media interested so that people hear very randomly about the project across different neighbourhoods.

The people that join are then those with whom the project resonates and they are usually a very mixed group of individuals.  We never ask, “Who are you?  What do you represent?” or try to box people in during rehearsals.  This is our attitude to representation. 

But then having now made this eleven times all around a city, we also start to see some tendencies regarding what type of people take part. For example, we have observed that it’s the more educated people that take part more than others.

Oliver: And more women than men. Women between 40 and 60 who are interested in culture are the most common participants. They seem to be most attracted to this, that’s my estimation.

Tellervo: But we try to have all kinds of people there and also different age groups involved.  One big problem in society I’m concerned about is that different age groups stay in their own bubbles – at least in Finland I see this very strongly. I think it’s very important for humanity that we have interaction between all ages.

So it’s a success for us when people come out of their own bubble and their own comfort zones, as without doing this we can’t create openness between people who otherwise would never meet. This is definitely something that’s sometimes happens within complaints choirs, it can mix very different age groups and so on.

Hilde: It’s interesting to hear that you explicitly don’t want to think about complaints choirs as being representative or the people you involve as being ‘representatives of groups’. Can you say a bit more about why this is?

Tellervo: Well, I believe that to think we are representatives of something is some kind of an illusion.

So I guess we try to create this zone that resonates at some very human level and works to move beyond these kinds of labels as labels can stop interaction and stop us understanding the other.  This is something very elementary about our work.  If we stop having this view then our art also radically changes.  We try to be true to the idea of, “as long as I don’t really know somebody I don’t know this person”, do you know what I mean?  We try to be free from prejudice, as labels always come together with prejudices.  You cannot separate them.

Oliver: Yeah. Labels in this context just create barriers. So it’s nice that in this workshop people are not coming from a particular class or whatever social group, because this isn’t always important and is often a barrier to communication. When we talk with people we are often surprised about why they take part, so if you started with the labels maybe they wouldn’t have got involved. So we try to keep the workshops as free of that as possible.

Hilde: So would you say that complaints choir are informed by or based on any particular ideals or political or ethical value?

Tellervo: I don’t know if it’s a value, but not being judgemental is very important. This may be the one core value for us which we believe can help start a dialogue; you come with your complaint and we take every complaint seriously.

Oliver: This is maybe how complaints choirs are different from activist approaches, which often need to proceed from very strong judgements: “This is the enemy and we are the other side and we have to work together to fight this”.  This is not how we feel.

Tellervo:  Activists have their role and we are certainly not against activists, but we have decided to take another approach. Empathy is a big value for us, as is trying to create an understanding and the kind of solidarity that is needed for social change.

In complaints choir you are singing each other’s complaints, so even if you don’t agree with all of them you get the experience of other people singing about your complaint… whatever it is – your broken underpants – even if they couldn’t care less, this creates a strong effect.

One reason why complaints choir is popular is that it’s a very human project as it doesn’t judge that “Okay, this complaint about tea being too hot” or something like that is invalid. The process doesn’t say, “This is a stupid complaint and look, people in Africa are starving”. Instead, it shows, with a warm irony and sense of humour towards each other, that there are different layers to human life. It demonstrates that all of us have these different layers that we have to deal with. That it is possible to be very worried about big global issues or big global injustices, such as the gaps between the classes; and, at the same time, have your private life where you are with your food and drinks and friends and love and all that.

Our point is that it’s not superficial to have those different processes going on at the same time. This is how we are.

The more the media is bringing us into an information society and raising awareness of the many problems there are all around the world, the more it’s becoming a challenge to negotiate who we are within it. I believe giving focus to the things nearby is a very important part of our identity and it is okay to be irritated by so-called small things. 

This is what complaints choirs do: they put things in perspective. When you think of daily life and bigger complaints together, it can take the pressure out of the so-called small complaints.  So we play with perspective as part of the process.

This comes back to the value of being non-judgemental and why I think complaint choirs can hit a nerve: this free space of art can make it possible to help understand life from different points of view; to get some space to change your perspective; or actively think about things differently. It’s about heightening self and collective understanding, but also about developing empathy with others. It’s an experience that can sometimes lead people to think “Okay, what do I want to do and what do I want to focus on?”  Do you know what I mean?

Hilde: Yes, that makes sense.

Oliver: Singing each other’s complaints is also an act of solidarity. I don’t know if solidarity is a value but it’s a strong part of this. You don’t have to agree, it’s not about forging a consensus, as disagreement can actually make a song more interesting. You can see it as, “Okay, this person complains about this; I totally disagree but then my complaint is also part of the song”. One woman we worked with was in a situation where she was angry that she had lost her job (but her boss had kept his job). She felt really powerful when 60 people were singing this complaint together and came out of the rehearsal full of energy – this act of solidarity really worked.

Hilde: Could you say more about the sorts of effects or outcomes complaints choirs have had?

Tellervo: Again, this is a difficult question for artists, as we don’t usually evaluate the process in this way.  We know there are choirs that have kept going after we left and who have kept updating and changing their songs.  In Hong Kong, for example, one of the sets of choirs even had the habit of devising a song related to whatever demonstration was going on, so they could go there and sing at these demonstrations.

In Vienna there is a choir that kept going for a few years and maybe it’s still going on. But it’s hard for us to say whether some of the topics that have been complained about have resonated with decision makers or whether they have led to some change processes. I really don’t know. 

I could imagine some changes happening as a result of complaints choirs as they are all about channelling energy and providing a different way to make your complaints public - these processes almost always get a lot of media attention too. The media loves this project. 

But we haven’t followed those processes in this way and we haven’t felt that this is our role. It would be nice to be able to answer your question better, but I cannot.

Oliver:  For the people involved I see that complaints choirs are often a strong experience.  Beginning with an individual complaint that nobody has listened to before, there is suddenly a group and you can air it.  It’s already a positive experience.

And then of course you can take part without having had singing experience. For some this is also a very powerful experience… just thinking you can’t sing but then you’re suddenly in a choir and you can actually create nice sounds together. 

A choir is a good metaphor for working together because it’s not about being a superstar. People just need to try to listen to each other and work together and if they do this they can create something quite powerful.  For some people, this is the part of the experience that's most valuable. 

But sometimes people just want to do something that’s a bit strange or different with their partner, so this is what they are looking for from this project. Then in Singapore we had a group of young gay people who used a complaints choir as a vehicle to express their frustration. In Cairo, in contrast, the complaints choir was associated with the Arab Spring Tahir Square movement; they started their complaints choir during this uprising. After Tahir Square they continued by making a ‘utopia choir’, where they changed the idea around, and this is still active. Viewed in this way, there are so many different outcomes to complaints choirs, either on the individual level or on a wider level.

This connects once more to this open source idea where we don’t dictate the outcome. We like the way people use complaint choirs as a tool and modify them to their needs and develop them in the way they find appropriate.  For me, this is the most important thing, that this isn’t a project that’s entirely dependent on us always directing it.

Hilde: Can you say something about how you see complaints choirs working in relation to more mainstream forms of politics or established public institutions? 

Tellervo: People who take part in a complaints choir usually bring complaints about daily life, rather than overtly political complaints.  Our realisation was how much people complain, even in situations where things are generally okay.  So we are very clear about our role, which is to provide some kind of free space in society. Our role isn’t to offer an institutional or explicitly political space.  We feel quite free from those kinds of politics and see this as a very different way of addressing issues.

Oliver: We did come into contact with more mainstream politics in Singapore, this was where the strongest clash has been. Singapore was in transformation and there were a group of hardliners who said, “No, this is not allowed, foreigners or non-citizens of Singapore should not be complaining about matters that don’t concern them, we cannot allow this”. Our performance was prohibited.

But some time later this was discussed in the Singaporean parliament where there was a debate about why Complaints Choir wasn’t allowed. So we created quite an important debate in the end. This was the strongest clash, but usually there isn’t a problem and the project hasn’t yet been appropriated by a state organisation, at least not in any direct way. But if you follow the open source philosophy, then we are not in charge of controlling how this process is used. If some state organisation wants to use it in a particular way, then they are free to do so.

We nevertheless try to keep the space for participants quite free and open. We say any complaint is allowed and we’d be against a version of the process where you know the outcome in advance or where people in the choir are instrumentalised. Complaints choir could be used in more directly political way, but it’s not in our control to define how or whether that happens.

Hilde: What are the main challenges you face? 

Tellervo: There are organisational challenges. For example, if you really follow the guidelines we have put on our website, we have said things like there should be food served at every rehearsal. We have suggested there should be food because there is always only a very limited amount of time to create a community. 

This means eating together can become a very important part of the overall experience. So if you don’t have this meal together, the experience will change.

But organisers often think that they can skip the food, so we often find ourselves defending and explaining why this part of the experience is important. But because food costs money, this is why other organisers often want to skip it. 

But there’s a lot of work involved in making and learning a choir song, it’s not just having fun and singing something; it’s a lot of work to do in a short time. That’s why we think food is important to the process. People think, “Okay at least you get the meal” or something like that.  But this is a relatively minor challenge.

Hilde: Finally, can you say something about how you would like to see complaints choirs develop in the future?

Oliver: I guess it would be good to develop our website into more of a platform that people can use to showcase their video material on, that’s something I’d like to work on in the future. Otherwise we are OK with the current set up.  To begin, we thought, this is a one-time thing and after six months it’ll be finished and we’ll be on to the next thing. But surprisingly, it started in 2005 and it continues to be used in different contexts now. 

So our role is now increasingly to encourage people to use the project in the way they feel it will fulfil their needs. We try to help them, but we now also try to take a step back, so we’re not always needed and we can sometimes play the role of observers.

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