Turku, Finland – The tugboat Autere cruised down the Aura River through Turku, Finland’s oldest city and first capital, headed to nearby Ruissalo Island. For “Capsula: Curated Expedition to the Baltic Sea,” our group of two dozen mostly artists and teachers made several stops along the way to see and hear marine-related installations. Here was a catamaran built from waste materials, there an audio piece that allowed you to listen to underwater sounds. On beautiful Ruissalo we disembarked and crowded into Green Matters, a greenhouse-lab that artist Mia Mäkelä built to demonstrate various uses for foraged, Baltic-choking green algae—including drinks.

Organizer Ulla Taipale, who’d organized similar expeditions in Hungary and Spain, told me later, “I would like the expeditions to contribute to the recognition of small and big miracles of nature and consciousness about its extraordinariness—and vulnerability.”

“Capsula” was one of the many protean forms of public art that could be experienced at Turku 2011, the yearlong European Capital of Culture festival, which featured 160 artist-curated programs, some 5,000 individual events, and 15,000 artists from Finland and abroad. The European Union selects at least one city a year to strut its stuff in a bid to spark regeneration and raise its profile (Tallinn, Estonia, was the other 2011 culture capital). Turku 2011—a mix of activism and adventure, science and poetry, and ecological concern and fun surprise—was infused with the Finnish penchant for projects that explore the culture of nature. Whether cinema or circuses, reconstructed folk operas or Baltic-ringing bonfires, everything was art and nearly everything was public and free. Multimedia spectacle was balanced with works that grew organically out of a distinct sense of place—both in the city and around it.

“Contemporary Art Archipelago” was another event that involved a water journey. It featured 20 site-specific works by Finnish and international artists flung out across the Turku Archipelago, a region of 20,000 islands, the biggest connected by bridges and ferries. The event included pieces by Alfredo Jaar—perhaps the festival’s most familiar art name—and Tea Mäkipää, one of Finland’s prominent artists; her Northbound was a Noah’s Ark–like “animal rescue boat” that sailed from harbor to harbor with displays on species decline.

While I didn’t see this show, I did talk with Renja Leino, one of the archipelago’s best-known artists, whose installations and videos on the impact of climate change could be found at many Turku 2011 sites, including “Contemporary Art Archipelago.” She recalls swimming in “crystal clear water” when she was younger. But now, she laments, “I can’t give my children the same island feeling I have had. I’m very sad and frustrated and angry about how this all has happened.”

In contrast, “Flux Aura 2011” was close by and neighborly. The environmental-art exhibition of sculptures, performances, and installations took place on or along the river, and was produced by the Turku Artists’ Association. (Environmental art is the catchall term for Finland’s urban or nature-based site-sensitive art; the work is not necessarily ecological.) It included Balancing, by Reima Nurmikko and Satu Tuittila, a flock of giant fabricated river-floating eiders, upon which there were dance performances. Replete with outsized flowers, mirror-covered boulders, and butterfly feeders and gardens, “Flux Aura” often lent a fairy-tale feel to the medieval-era seaport, whose cathedral and castle—one of a few in Finland—both date to the thirteenth century.