I guess we shouldn't have; but we did anyways — and I'm glad we did. The transgression? Hacking our way into an installation 'after hours'. As you see, the curators for the 2013 iteration of the Lofoten International Arts Festival (LIAF) — Anne Szefer Karlsen, Bassam El Baroni, and Eva Gonzalez-Sancho — themed the program around the question: 'Just what is it that makes today so familiar, so uneasy?'1 And to truly get to the sense of the uncanny implied above, we'd have to first visit Richard Hamilton's famous collage 'Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?' — Pop Art's 1956 poster child. Why? Because the curators intentionally lifted said title to set up a haunted referentiality2 — but we'll get to that later. Back to our little break in …
Lisa Tan, Sunsets (2012) Thon Hotel Lofoten, Svolvær, LIAF 2013. Photo: Kjell Ove Storvik.
The piece in question, Lisa Tan's Sunsets (2012), a video work featuring recent footage shot during the midnight sun and during the polar night intercut with a post-dubbed translation of a 1977 interview with Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. As you could imagine, the mash-up was disjoined and hard to follow, which the flattering theorist could chalk-up to being akin to the feeling of uneasiness some feel during the aforementioned solar phenomena — particularly tourists. Advancing such a reading, the work was installed in one of the Thon Hotel's — a strange, and ungainly glass and steal corporate tower that sticks out like a sore thumb in the quaint town of Svolvaer (pop. 4,185) — rooms. Befittingly, a visitor could try out the room, spy the surrounding landscape through the window with a pair of binoculars (included), and so on, while trying not to muff the room-cum-installation too much — as per the rules of museum etiquette. Now, the conflict found when an artist claims that an existing and in use environment is actually part of their work, as a readymade or what have you, was something a group of fellow journalists — and myself of course — wished to investigate. To this end, we went up to the room late at night, but it was locked. Unfazed, we continued to the concierge, gave our credentials and asked for the key. At first the reception didn't want to hand it over, but did so later after much hesitation — it would take a bit for us to find out why.
We entered around midnight. Most of our party had not yet seen the installation, but I had done so earlier in the day. Thing is, upon entry, everything looked different. First off, there was a kind of charged ghost-like presence not to be found during the day — heightened by the fact that a suspicious uniform now hung in room, and the video was off. We settled in by figuring out how to play the film on the room's flat screen TV ourselves, but the feeling that someone else was just there still irked us. Whispers abounded, and all I could add was that the suit was new. Others not satisfied with not knowing what was up—we are journalists after all — went into the bathroom and found a shaving kit, and some other suspicious additions. Could these actually be subtle interventions to truly deepen the ambiance, or was something up? Confused, we hunted for clues and found the kicker…the shower was still wet, and there were even a few hairs in the drain! Therefore, our ghost left too recently to be part of the show or be one of its viewers — he would have had to have entered and left no earlier than around 11pm, long after exhibition hours. But who was he?
The smoking gun was to be found with his jacket. No, not in the pocket, but on the lapel; it was the pin worn by the hotel staff. The deduction was now rather elementary: our interloper was obviously a hotel employee who used the room to get ready for a night of fun—and to return to the room there after. Realizing we squatted not only a show, but a worker's release, we quietly left the room and returned the key — obviously in on it, the concierge's previous hesitation gave way to a mood of cool acceptance.
Each of us didn't think much about the event until we told the artist and one of the curators the next day. It was just in passing, kind of a funny story, but their reactions where telling; both were upset, while visibly trying to hold in their emotions. I'm sure a few apologies were handed out, and I'm sure a few heads might have rolled, but such a situation begs a few more questions.
The first is probably the most pressing question: who was using the room anyways?
On the primary level, we can assume that our visitor was disinterested in the work, or at least, had another motive for being there. As such, contemporary art's self-contained discourse on use, value, and so on is a bit alien here. To this end, let's question what does an exhibition actually do in the real world, whom does it serve?
In the negative, our intruder is a freeloader, and an embezzler; he's using his job's resources for personal benefit. Sadly, conservatives, especially in today's world of 'austerity', say the same of artists working with public funds — making this language more problematic, one of the LIAF curators told me an interesting story just before the start of the show.
Nana Oforiatta Ayim, Jubilee, LIAF 2013. Foto: Kjell Ove Storvik.
Since I had worked on a large-scale recurring exhibition as well — dOCUMENTA (13) — I asked this curator about budget expenditure in relation to venue rental. I was told that almost every local landlord raised rents disproportionately so as to cash in on the festival; however, many second-guessed this standpoint when they were told that it was their own tax money they were dipping into. How this ultimately played out is hard to say; however, the added administrative cost leveraged into an artwork's production in such contexts adds yet another dimension to questions just who benefits when it comes to big exhibitions. These kinds of critiques — those focused on financial worth and the civic toll of recurring exhibitions in public spaces — fold out from here generally leading to a kind of dammed if you do, dammed if you don't trade off between the potentials of arts displays and their inherent complicity with the lowbrow world of entertainment tourism and its use to increase market attraction and rents reciprocally. Such of course was the focus of the Bergen Biennial Conference (2009), which resulted not only in a book, but a Triennial, which opened in Bergen, the Assembly, just days before LIAF — and is covered in these pages.
There, at the just commenced Triennial in Bergen, the curators chose to queer these ideas by presenting a deadpan satire on the whole affair by featuring things such as a promotion both for a fake Chinese NGO who allegedly financed the show. And, as I was visiting that exhibition there, I read LIAF's mission statement in preparation for my trip north. Instead of finding such parody I read those lines: 'Just what is it that makes today so familiar, so uneasy?'3
Nana Oforiatta Ayim, Jubilee, LIAF 2013. Foto: Kjell Ove Storvik.
Both this uneasiness, and familiarity, struck me as being analogous to 'the new normal' paradigm, a business cliché which has gained widespread use since the start of the financial crisis (2007–). Under such terms, a practice that was previously thought of as strange, if not overbearing, is called upon as a provisional fix; however, these initial solutions themselves grow problematic as they extend into commonplace practice. In the world of professionalized art production and its display in museums and galleries, the contradictions between the mounting creep of administrative responsibility — from curators, funding bodies, and institutions alike — against ideals such as artistic freedom, risk, failure, and social critique are getting harder to square as the former begin to curtail the latter in the name of safe and successful management — or even self-aggrandizement. In the hands of the Bergen team, this itself might have been mocked with some kind of jingoistic 'big exhibitions are the problem, not the solution' banners. In LIAF, however, the curators acknowledge these pressures outright, and even point to them as creating a kind of stagnancy, one that requires constant antagonism to combat. Their goal, to see if: [...] art can position itself as a profession and as a vocabulary within societies in which the protocol of contemporary institutional art practice is built on the idea of instigating, designing, or manufacturing some form of antagonism through its programming.4
What we used to call debate, basically. And, as far as debate goes, the classic format of sides could be found by comparing two different film works that were both special LIAF commissions; the first Oliver Ressler's Leave It In the Ground (2013), and the second, Nana Oforiatta-Ayim's work-in-process Jubilee.
The Ressler piece is basically a polemical diatribe, which berates the audience with predictions of the horrors that global warming will soon reap. To add moral heft, the work speculates that the global south will ironically endure much of these yet to come disasters—in the form of floods, hurricanes, and resultant famine, and possible wars as a consequence of the scarcity such destruction brings — while the global north, who have gotten rich from industrial exploitation of natural resources, are not only responsible for this chaos, but also have the means to protect themselves against such near apocalypses, while the south does not. It's easy to see the antagonism and dissemination here, particularly if you consider the context of Norway, one of the global north's, if not the world's, biggest oil extractors — an implication brought home by the obvious commanding title, and several shots in the film around Norwegian waters.
David Horvitz, Stone Soup, Kabelvåg, LIAF 2013. Foto: Kjell Ove Storvik.
On the counter side is Oforiatta-Ayim's film, which—only a short section of the still in progress film was shown — documents how the people of Ghana have recently struck oil, 3 billion barrels worth.5 Ghana doesn't hold the capacity to drill it out of the ground, so its citizens have called upon the Norwegians for help. Why Norway, and not say the USA or Russia? The rationale delineated in the film is that unlike other oil rich countries, Norway has shared the wealth created from its wells so as to transform the country's own infrastructure, and to increase the general well-being of its people. This socialist agenda is invoked as a model that the global south could borrow and learn from the global north. In any case though, both nations will probably end up causing future devastation if more isn't done to fight climate change. Yet, unlike Ressler's antagonism — both in tone and as anti-state / anti-nationalistic rhetoric — Oforiatta-Ayim's work is not only communal, it's focused on the ideas of what we call social entrepreneurism. Could this be why the curators slipped that word 'profession' into their statement when it wasn't really needed? Of course we all have to survive, but maybe something else is lurking inside the heart of this strange intruder. First though, let's digress and try to find the context we're sneaking into.
First off, the word 'antagonism' is a glaring clue. It's the catch phrase that the art historian Claire Bishop — borrowing ideas from the political theorist Chantal Mouffe & the novelist Elias Canetti — levied in her on-going critique of the relational aesthetics trend, a sort of late 90s–00s quasi-art movement which eschewed traditional objects — i.e., painting, sculpture — in favor of instigating social gatherings and other live events. For Bishop and others, the rub was that while these situations appeared to be cordial, they nonetheless maintained the implicit power relations of artist/spectator as the former made the latter instrumental in the production of his/her authorial product—amongst other things. As an alternative to false consensus building, an idea was floated that artists and audiences should antagonize one another instead so as to stoke a more democratic dialog—which by extension would foster a larger civic engagement. For the sake of argument, let's sum up these two positions as the age-old dialectic between the populist (the relational works) and the Gadfly (the antagonists). Great, we've found familiarity again in this almost decades old give and take, but what about some more uneasiness?
KSimply put, these poles are merging now, as alternative causes, such as ecology, have become not only mainstream, but also 'green' businesses in some cases. Instead of the radical, the collaborator now seems to carry the day.
Tacking an ambiguous course through such a terrain, the artist David Horvitz ambivalently juggled ideas of complicity through his excellent performance sourced off the old stone soup folktale. In the story, two hungry men come to a town under the spell of scarcity. They ask for food, but none offer, therefore, they start making a soup with just water and a stone. Curious onlookers come, gawk, and ask what they are doing. As the tale continues, the men get the onlookers to taste the soup, but request that others add a little salt, a few potatoes, and so on to help the soup develop. In the end, they ostensibly make a real soup, and partake in it. Horvitz literally enacted the tale by getting Lofoten residents, and invited artist to do the same; they cooked a soup with items brought by each independently.
In the guidebook the curators call this the grand symbol of the show by stating that the soup 'becomes a metaphor for the exhibition itself — independent entities, coming from different locations, to arrive in one single location forming a temporary totality.'(6) This utopic political image was once called the 'melting pot'; herein each immigrant to an existing community would both add their own little ethnic flavor to the mix while assimilating to the dominant culture at the same time. The idea of dissolving into a mass didn't suit everyone, and as such, new commentators changed the image to a 'salad bowl'; instead of assimilating, each new member to a society here retains their own sense of identity as a balance to other identities in suit. And yet, there is another reading of the stone soup story: that the two men are actually con artists cheating the stingy locals.
In the realm of street basketball there is another rule though, the rule of 'no blood, no foul'. Put more simply, if there isn't a real injury, why stop playing? To this end I wonder: was the hotel room we peeped into really any different the next morning after our uninvited guest spent the night — I should have checked. And if not, why shouldn't one benefit, even if the other doesn't gain, but isn't harmed. Such a position in biology is called commensalism; which interestingly is Latin for being a dinner guest. I'm not sure such would provide a synthesis to break the inside/outside debate set up by the two poles of Ressler's and Oforiatta-Ayim's works — my grand allegory for the actual stakes of LIAF, not the curator's soup — and yet, it might be an interesting prospect to entertain: what if the next large exhibition simply didn't feel the need to justify its position, and freed the artwork from problem solving. Like our spectral hotel guest, it might be time to just hit the bed so as to dream up new possibilities while the others aren't looking.
1,2,3,4 «Curatorial Statement». http://liaf2013.no/en/
5 Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-11996983
6 «Curatorial Statement».
Kunstjournalen B-post #1_13: Assembly, Momentum, LIAF