'Sauna Reading Group'

Discussion series. 2016 onwards

The Sauna Reading Group is a reading group that meets in a sauna. Studying texts that tangentially relate to the sauna ritual as a form of action research, slowly discussing whilst sweating it out. Previous sessions have looked at solitude, out of body experience, chronic illness and architecture. 

I've done nine so far, in various saunas. Read the Sauna Reading Group Handbook HERE.

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

All photos unless stated by Barry Sykes

The Sauna Reading Group started as a deliberately 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 communal rest as an productive activity.

- Breaking conversation every few minutes to cool off outside, before returning to the heat.

- Taking notes on sweat-drenched paper.

However, it has turned out to be surprisingly condusive to discussion, contemplation, focus and conviviality. My interest was always in using it as a location for a kind of action research, to consider broader, tangential issues relating to sauna culture, like the body, interaction, cultural difference, embodied knowledge, or ergonomic architecture, 

The sauna cabin becomes a kind of social hermitage; this outpost of Finnish culture in London as a form of community 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 a provocative social interaction and a welcome contemplative indulgence / The intense temperature creating an unavoidable awareness of body and mind functioning together.


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 various SRG issues.

- Each event is based around a selected reading that broadens out to wider related issues, initally chosen by me but since SRG#4 I have delegated the selction to a co-host to broaden our references.

- Drinking water will be provided. 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, the group can decide together wether to adopt the scandivian uniform of just a towel or more modest swimwear.

- Likewise, photography is usually sensitively limited to anonymous details like feet, hands and anotations, but can be renegotiated each time depending on the group's wishes. 

- This is a discussion but please feel free to stay silent until ready to speak, or not at all if it leaves you untalkative. Listen to your body.

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

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


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 Finnish/British cultural differences in attitudes to nature, the body, and conversation, 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. Co-host 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.


Sauna Reading Group #6

Friday 23rd August, 2019, 2-4pm. The Finnish Church, Rotherhithe, London

Reading an extract of Michael Lambek's 'How to Make Up One's Mind: Reason, Passion & Ethics in Spirit Possession'

Attending: Anja Borowicz (POL/UK), Col Self (UK), Harold Offeh (UK)

Above: Cooling down between sauna sessions, the conversation shifting outside onto the terrace. Also note that SRG participants now wear our hand-embroidered traditional sauna hats. Used to prolong tolerance of the sauna and maintina a functional head temperature. Photo courtesy, Salla Korteniemi / The Finnish Church.

Co-host for this edition was artist Anja Borowicz, who selected a text by anthropologist Mchael Lambek that used his observations of spirit posession to examine irrationality, emotion and subjectivity. Anja and Col's mutual interest in sound design and perception fed into Harold's thoughts on resistance and identity. Also the Individuality, collectivity and building your own self - or 'autopoiesis'. Lambek also sites a useful term, 'patiency' - as opposed to 'agency' - which has much relevance to the doing/not doing nature of the sauna.

Below: The usual post-discussion discussion at the nearby Mayflower pub in Rotherhithe, on the outside deck where the river Thames laps under your feet.


Sauna Reading Group #7

Friday 24th January 2020, 2-4pm. The Finnish Church, Rotherhithe, London

Reading the essay 'Bodies in Heat' by John Christ, from a paper by Pia Lindman about her project 'Hybrid Sauna' that placed a functioning two-person confessional-style sauna in the courtyard of PS1, New York

Attending: Mine Erişir, Olivia Glasser, Wendy Liu, Mika Meskinen, Kimmo Raitio, Bethany Wells.

This edition of the Sauna Reading Group was a link up with the British Sauna Society, wth an international range of guests from the group, including Kimmo Raitio over from Finland especially. We reflected on the way Lindman's sauna was such a provocation to those unfamilar with the ritual. Christ's text is an honest account of his use of the sauna so we spoke a lot about physical awkwardness. Also how in such simple structure is so quikcly immersive and self-policing. And how the essay briefly draws a comparison between a sauna cabin and minimalist sculpture in their elemental theatricality. 


Sauna Reading Group #8

Friday 21st February 2020, 12-2pm. The Finnish Church, Rotherhithe, London

Reading the essay 'The Word Made Fresh: Mystical Encounter and the New Weird Divine' by Elvia Wilk , published in e-flux journal #92.

Attending: Sarah Browne, Lucy Sames. Natalie Boobis

Elvia Wilk's text looks at the recurrence of wounds and orrifices in spiritual writing of the middle ages, drawing parrallels with the contemporary work of Jeff VanderMeer and his Southern Reach trilogy of novels. We went on to discuss ruptures in mind and body; Live Action Role Play; Non-quantified running; the subjectivity of the Medieval Scribe; and finished with an exercise I call 'What Ails Thee?' where we each discuss ailments we live with and manage day to day.

Above: The latest Sauna Reading Group Hat, featuring hand sewn felt pockets for pencil and notepaper. Woolen or felt sauna hats are traditionally used to regulate head temperature in and out of the heat.
Below: The new Sauna Reading Group emboidered patch.


Currently planning SRG #9, #10 & #11 for the Finnish Church sauna and elsewhere, as soon as Covid-19 allows. 

Contact me if you would be interested in attending.