BREATHING FUMES with performance artist TEO ALA-RUONA
Words by Nimco Kulmiye Hussein


In a world ever more estranged from the tactile realities of flesh and blood, Teo Ala-Ruona’s performances boldly thrust us into the corporeal realm. Within this arena, the Helsinki-based performance artist confronts the undercurrents of dissent, drawing our gaze toward the truths our fleshy bodies embody.

At the heart of Ala-Ruona’s artistic discourse lies a fervent exploration of our planet’s escalating environmental predicaments. His practice, a powerful fusion of speculative fiction, psychoanalytic inquiry and performance, dismantles the heteronormative biases that permeate our understanding of ecology and sexuality with unyielding force. Instead, Ala-Ruona forges new propositions, pushing the boundaries of artistic expression in an era characterised by what Timothy Morton terms “ecological panic.”

Theory is central to Ala-Ruona, through which he navigates the labyrinthine complexities of the body, the transgender experience and the rise of technology. Ala-Ruona holds a Master’s degree from Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture in 2016. Ala-Ruona continued to graduate with another Master’s in Ecology and Contemporary Performance from Helsinki Theatre Academy in 2018. 

His probing essay, ‘Car and I,’ (2023) written in collaboration with Remi Vesala, delves into the intricacies of masculinity and the ominous shadow of disease. He contests the natural as an essential truth, addressing how the use of natural purity discourses have been utilised in the legimitisation of harmful ideologies, and asks in the essay: ‘Why are the potentially queer effects of environmental toxins seen as more horrifying than their lethal effects? Why do ideals of a “pure” and technologically untouched body still dominate the discourse on ecology?’

With poignant reflection, Ala-Ruona contemplates through queer ecologies and thinkers such as Giovanna DeChiro, Malin Ah-King, and Eva Simone Hayward among others, the relationship between transmasculinity and technology while sharing that his father’s life, punctuated by the ceaseless hum of engines, and the toxic brew of diesel oil, asbestos, construction dust, and cigarette smoke, ultimately claimed him in the form of lung cancer.

In Enter Exude (2023) we see the embodiment of a Chevrolet Camaro, an emblem of both toxic allure and masculine prowess. Cars, with their intoxicating blend of luxury and power, serve as vessels of desire and status. In Ala-Ruona’s hands, these gleaming machines transcend their mechanistic confines, weaving themselves into the very fabric of human existence. Through corporeal exploration, Ala-Ruona and his collaborators Raoni Muzho Saleh and Charlie Laban Trier, challenge our perception of car ownership as a natural modernity, thrusting us into the sensory experience of toxic fumes, meticulous polishing, and penetrating crevices.

‘The car is desired. The car is desired as an extension of the body’s technology. The car transforms bodies. The car pollutes. The pollutants end up in human bodies. Bodies want technology that assists in living with pollutants. Pollutants transform bodies. Technology transforms bodies into more livable ones. Bodies want more livable bodies. The cycle gradually repeats itself, changing.’ (Car and I, 2023)

In the haunting tapestry of Lacuna, the abject manifests as body horror. For Ala-Ruona, the term “Lacuna” carries a dual resonance, a profound paradox of existence. It embodies the essence of both a specter—an echoing remnant of his pre-transition self—and a sanctuary, a serene void unburdened by the scars of trauma. On the stage, he conjures ethereal specters from the past through movement, words, and vocalisations. Within this autofictional story, the artist embarks on a harrowing journey of verbal, linguistic, and corporeal exploration, seeking to unravel the enigma of self. 

Yet, the source of this disquiet remains elusive, neither internal nor external but as a ghostly void lurking within. Ala-Ruona’s probing questions pierce the heart of hetero-patriarchal constructs, dissecting the exclusive binaries woven by the science-gender systems. This threshold into the inner recesses of his corporeal realm emerges as a transcendent portal, a liminal space where the boundaries of self and other blur, leaving us suspended in a mesmerising limbo of experiential revelation.

In our apocalyptic contemporary landscape, Ala-Ruona’s work, at first glance, invokes intimidation. He plunges us headlong into “the abject,” an unsettling terrain of human existence that society deems repulsive or taboo. Yet, it is precisely within this queered space that Ala-Ruona wields his artistic tool, provoking contemplation on the interconnectedness of nature and the human experience. In the limelight of his performances, Ala-Ruona lays bare the body, subjecting it to a relentless examination of its boundaries. 

Simultaneously, at the core of Ala-Ruona’s artistic musings lies an interrogation of the man-made. He delves unflinchingly into the uncharted territories of science-gender systems, whose repercussions reverberate through the planet’s fragile ecosystems and the lives deemed unnatural by societal standards. Trans-corporeality emerges as a potent instrument for disruption, a means to infiltrate the discourse that often unconsciously perpetuates cis- and heteronormative biases. In his world-building and exploration, Ala-Ruona offers a lifeline to alternative futures, where speculation is the genesis of transformation.

In an age where our connection to the physical world often seems adrift, Ala-Ruona’s performances serve as a visceral anchor. It’s a journey deeply interwoven with the threads drawn from a diverse constellation of trans artists, thinkers that came before, each leaving an indelible mark on his way of seeing. Ala-Ruona’s ceaseless commitment to challenging societal constructs and shining a searing light on ecological issues resonates deeply, igniting transformative dialogues. His art becomes an agent of change, a testament to the enduring power of artistic expression in navigating the turbulent waters of our times.