A field report from the Norwegian artscape

(article published bu Mare Articum 2000)

The term "media art" rarely surfaces in the Norwegian art discourse, it is still largely occupied with the field of objects that constitutes real, institutional art. The striking lack of a general public debate regarding new media and culture in Norwegian society, might also influence on what is considered interesting in the art world. (For a really angry elaboration on this theme, try: http://www.kunstinnsikt.no/html/anders.html , written by Anders Eiebakke as a curators’ statement for the Norwegian participation in the Melbourne Biennial in 1999)
A majority of the four million Norwegians has access to a PC and an Internet connection. The distance between the capital Oslo in the south and the northern cities, equals the distance from Oslo to southern Italy. A varied topography and harsh climate makes the distances even more difficult and expensive to overcome physically. Even so, the Internet and the new possibilities of exchange with simple, quick and affordable means, have not yet meant very much to the Norwegian art and culture. A growing suspicion is that the sense of isolation could be a deeply rooted condition for the existence of Norwegian culture at all.
This isolation has to do with geography, topography and climate as well as a certain nationalism. After four hundred years of Danish rule, the Norwegian constitution was written in 1814, and a union with Sweden lasted until Norwegian independence was attained without war or bloodshed in 1905. Art and culture were tools of building a nation, instrumental since the middle of the nineteenth century in reconstructing and confirming a Norwegian identity. Modern social democratic cultural policy has kept and cultivated a certain instrumental view of cultural expression and tends to see art as a tool and incentive to reach domestic political or social goals. The low priority given to cultural and artistic exchange outside of the Nordic countries is just one example of how the nationalist attitudes to culture are still prominent.
The 1980s
Historically there are few examples of experimental film, sound work or other mediarelated experimental work in the visual arts in Norway. Norwegian and international video art was shown occasionally both in the Henie-Onstad Art center and Gallery F-15 in Moss during the 1980s. The videos were usually screened without much consideration for content or other differences or qualities in the works. There was a tendency to define the work solely by technique. It was at the time a marginal artistic activity with a few pioneers, Marianne Heske is maybe the best known. She and other artists who had part of their education from Central Europe or the US, brought media-art practices home with them. Heske’s work includes a number of videoinstallations and installations using elements of digitally generated images as well as big digitally generated landscapeprints. Another angle at using media as art practice was represented by Kjartan Slettemark, who made extensive use of the videocamera as part of his performances. At the same time, a few art students experimented with video, sound and computers in splendid isolation with no guidance or tutoring whatsoever.
The 1990s-"The new scene"
At the beginning of the 1990s, young artists and art students started reacting to the conservative climate by creating their own art scene individually and in small informal groups. This was not an organized or consistent phenomenon, but a result of new interests and art-practices that were not recognized by the established art institutions. Conceptual methods, idea-based and hybrid practices were made visible, often in contrast to the still dominant technique-based and modernist definitions of artistic work. The increasing identification and contact with a young Nordic and international art-scene was also crucial to the success of the activities. The ability to stage shows and events of a time-based nature and the use of popular culture, mass media and other references new to the established artscene, were other characteristics of these alternative spaces and practices. Small galleries, site specific and time-based projects and events were the results of artists’ initiatives in the main cities. Also the UKS, (The Young Artists´Association) http://www.uks.no became part in what was going on and revitalized its work both in artistic and political fields. (http://www.uks.no/html/forening/rapporter/artattack.html)
Some of this activity was summed up in an exhibition "Fellessentralen" –Norwegian art production in the 90s. (See catalogue essay http://www.kunstnerneshus.no/khus/essays/felles_essay.html )
During the 1990s also the established art-scene expanded and changed considerably, especially important is the number of newly established institutions and the introduction of international networks through new generations of art historians and curators. The National Museum of Contemporary Art (Museet for samtidskunst) http://www.museumsnett.no/mfs/ was opened in an old bank building in 1990. Other important new museums include The Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo http://www.af-moma.no/index_e.html, Haugar Art Museum in Tønsberg http://www.haugar.com/, Lillehammer Art Museum in Lillehammer http://www.lillehammerartmuseum.com/e-index.htm and Rogaland Art Museum in Stavanger. As an attempt to improve the presentation of Norwegain contemporary art abroad,a steering group for some reason given the unfortunate acronym "No art" http://www.museumsnett.no/mfs/1_1_8.html , was set up by the Ministry of Culture to handle Norwegian participation in the biennials of Venice and Sao Paulo and other major international visual art events. Also Riksutstillinger, The National Touring Exhibitions http://www.riksutstillinger.no/ was reorganized as a separate institution in 1996.
Education, artists’ initiatives and important institutions
Art education has not given the field of media –art much consideration until the last few years. British artist Jeremy Welsh http://www.kit.ntnu.no/JW3/texindex.html developed the intermedia department at KIT –the art academy in Trondheim http://www.kit.ntnu.no/ during the 90s. This has been an important arena for students, but has also had a wider impact on the art-scene by Welsh’s organization of exhibitions and conferences. The most important event was "SCREENS" in 1997, an international exhibition and conference.(See http://www.kit.ntnu.no/kit/Hege/screens.html for an article in Norwegain) At the Statens Kunstakademi (Oslo Academy of Fine Arts) http://www.statkunst.no/ the Media Department did not start developing until 1997. At the Art academy in Bergen http://www.khib.no/avdelinger/akademi/akademi1nf.htm it is still not quite clear what the strategy concerning new media and media art will be. In 1994 the artist-run foundation Atelier Nord http://anart.no started its development from being a printmaking workshop to becoming a media-lab for artists. The main activities have been producing digital video and material for the Internet, initiating different art-projects, as well as extensive educational and advisory functions. In 2000 two new production facilities open to artists has been established, BEK http://www.bek.no in Bergen specializing in sound and live performance, and Top Floor http://www.anart.no/~lkv in Trondheim focusing on video and experimental film. There are plans to develop a cooperation network between these artists’ initiatives. They all intend to function as educational and social meeting points for artists in the media-art field as well. Kulturnett (Culture Net) <http://www.kulturnett.no> was established as an official portal to cultural activities on the net in 1998. As one of four subnets, Kunstnett (Artnet) http://www.kunst.no was established in 1999. Kunstnett besides being an information portal, also promotes net.art by supporting projects and giving the field special attention in their features.
The new scene and new media
In the early 90s the interest in media were evident among artists connected to the so-called "new scene". Much of what we could label media-art in Norway has somehow been produced and shown in this context originally, or has this work as part of its references. The main body of work is videos, primarily single screen productions. The artists do not necessarily see themselves as video artists, but as contemporary artists who use different media to suit different projects. Many will use performance, photography, text and installations as well as video and sound.
One example of both new tendencies in art education and a new art scene was a group of KIT-students, "Sunny Heart Video", who produced a series of inventive, humorous and rough videos -acting, filming and directing themselves. Of the participants, Swedish Per Teljer has refined the staging of conflicts, often between young men, using a seemingly documentary style. At it’s best, his work reveals psychological mechanisms as well as shedding light on power structures and prejudice. An interesting example is "Deaf Throes" where two young men having all the outward signs of being skinheads communicate in sign language as a conflict concerning racial prejudice builds up between them. Jannicke Låker uses a similar method to investigate what might be seen as human cruelty ad power-play. In "No 13" a young American tourist is picked up on the street, teased and flirted with, pressed to humiliate himself and then thrown out of the flat he was invited into earlier. The artist is usually acting herself, in the role of "the bitch". Even if the situations are staged, her method involves a "live" element, getting spontaneous responses from the other actors as they are not aware of exactly what is going to happen. The strong influence of performance can also be seen in work by Elisabeth Mathisen . Her focus is often on telling a story of a very personal nature, while utilizing the effects of an almost blunt use of camera, voiceover or microphone. One example is "A letter", where the artist is seen sitting sideways leaned against a tree-trunk in a wood of tall fir trees with a big and clumsy microphone. She tells a shattering story of her relationship to her drug-addict sister in the least ingratiating way possible. The bleak, unsentimental context gives the story both associations and a strong feeling of helplessness. Lotte Konow Lund often has a more humorous or ironic attitude in her work. In "Babyface assassin" she delivers an intense monologue, filled with pathos and feelings. The story evolves around a little bit of green plastic that she used to carry in her pocket for luck. It is now lost, and through a the use of a series of "what if...?"-logic a well-known football player becomes the main character of the story. As well as being a theatrical performance, the appealing, straight in the camera style, reminds me of a certain kind of trash TV: Personal tragedy served unfiltered, in this case the tragedy being very minor. The celebrity aspect that is absurdly introduced, makes another connection to mass media.
Åslaug Krokann Berg, Sofie Persvik and Anne Lise Stenseth have all produced interesting work where members of their own family play the lead.
The interest in the personal, intimate and trivial everyday is evident in this kind of single screen videowork. Critical and political aspects can often be traced in a certain irony, without being main characteristics of the works. The esthetic references are more likely to be television, amateur holiday shoots or surveillance camera, than more complicated artistic esthetics. These methods have strong relations to experimental work from the 1960s and 70s as well as contemporary Nordic and international parallels, reflecting the increasing international contact throughout the 1990s.
Distribution and screening
"Young & Restless", a program of performance-based works by women artists curated by Stephen Vitiello for the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1997, was shown both in Oslo and Trondheim in 1997 and 1998. Numerous new Nordic productions were screened during events like "Art Attack" and "Oslo One Night Stand" or shown in "Zoo Lounge", a bar and café that features contemporary artprojects as an integrated part of its concept. Inspired by "Young & Restless" I curated a program of Nordic video for SCREENS in 1997 called "Lovetech", later modified to "Lovetech light" which only features Norwegian work. Another program, "Video videre" (Video Further On), I curated for the exhibition about Norwegian art-production in the 90s -"Fellessentralen" in 1998, and finally the program "Tales of the expected" for a tour in Northern Norway organized by Alta Kunstforening. So where can Norwegian videowork be viewed today? Even if video is now accepted as part of mainstream contemporary art, the distribution potential in media art has so far been overlooked: there is no distribution system for this kind of material in Norway yet. Ironically, it sometimes makes art produced in media that is easy to distribute physically more difficult to handle in terms of copyright, artists’ fees etc than traditional art where the material constitutes the artwork in a way that is more self-evident. KIK (The Norwegian Art Information Center) http://www.kik.no/ has just started archiving video art this year. This is a natural development of an extensive archive documenting Norwegian contemporary art in slides and in a database available on CD-ROM. The media lab mentioned above, Atelier Nord, has a production archive, but no distribution rights or resources. However, there seem to be a growing interest and awareness of the value of finding a solution to the distribution of media art, maybe through network collaborations on a Nordic or even Nordic/Baltic level.
It is not always clear what the distinction is between a videoinstallation and a
single screen video shown as a projection. I have tried to look at the work from a point of view of what can be perceived as the artist’s main idea and intention. If the spatial context is important to the idea of the work, and the presentation could not have been done in a screening program without the work loosing content, I think it is natural to think of it as installation work. The distinction is not always accurate, but as it has consequences for how one can present or distribute videoart, I still find a useful one. Video installations have the potential of being site-specific, or to comply with conditions in galleries or museums in a more flexible way, but will lack the potential of distribution that is inherent in a videotape, a DVD or a CD-ROM.
One artist working with video in a more formal context than the artists mentioned earlier, is Kjell Bjørgeengen. He is a professor at Statens Kunstakademi (the Oslo Academy of Fine Art) and head of the Media Department. His work is based on the processing of the video-signal itself, primarily with sound as the forming element and with the aid of equipment especially developed for artistic use. The presentation of the work is usually in the form of installations, for instance "True Blanking" in Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo 1998. (For a cataloguetext in English, see: http://www.kunstnerneshus.no/khus/signs/sign_kb.html ) Knut Åsdam lives mainly in the US, but is active in exhibitions in Norway. His work is often installations, but his attitude is explicitly not media-specific. He utilizes contemporary cultural and social occurrences from a point of view that he describes as a zone of crises and divergence rather than opposition. See http://www.gallerif15.no/jwiitmtisdsa/ for a new webproject with soundwork by Åsdam. Connections to painting are evident in the work of Anne Katrine Dolven. Originally a painter, she has developed a style of videoprojections where the course of action is limited, but intense in a low-key fashion. One example is the projection "Saturday Night". A party in progress is seen from outside through a window with the curtains drawn during a light summer night in Northern Norway. Sol Sneltvedt similarly plays on slight changes made by light, shadow and natural variations in her work. http://interlude.sidestream.org/ is a webproject by Sneltvedt, based on a videoinstallation. The piece consists of two video loops showing edited recordings from a fixed point on the Norwegian coast under various weather conditions. The sound is made from weather forecasts for The Barents Sea, The Norwegian Sea, and the North Sea from Norway, Iceland, England and Denmark. I also find it relevant to mention my own attempts at interactive videoinstallations, since working with the space as an interface has not been done very often in a Norwegian context. The interest in this perception of space and interactivity is now rising in the experimental theatre. My work "Interior" was realized as a simple interior with still-images projected back on the surfaces they were filmed from: a pillow, a chair, a table cloth. When activated by the public coming close enough, actions of a seemingly trivial, but absurd nature, were triggered, performed by life-size hands, bodies or heads.
The artwork I have so far commented on, is now definitely integrated in the normal contemporary gallery circuits. The artists are mostly established and frequent exhibitors. This development has been very fast, five years ago both the technical and artistic competence was on a much lower level both on the artists’ side and in the art institutions.
Beyond the gallery space, the public art of Swedish Anna Karin Rynander is quite exceptional. In cooperation with the engineer Per-Olof Sandberg, Rynander was commissioned to place 'Interactive Sound Refreshment Stations' -a kind of public "sound showers" all around the terminal building at Oslo’s new airport Gardermoen. The work combines the typical airport esthetics for public services, sleek and efficient, marked with its own signboards, with the unexpected supply of sounds from trickling water or laughing babies. Rynander was educated at KIT in Trondheim, but now lives in Sweden. It is interesting to note in this connection, that one of Norways largest road construction projects, the road south from Oslo through Østfold to the Swedish border at Svinesund, will integrate art and media-art. The idea is to utilize road-signs, information screens and even Internet services. The artist Sven Påhlsson http://www.svenpahlsson.com will be the artistic consultant of this project. Påhlsson is a pioneer in the use of electronics and computer generated material in Norway. He has developed his experiments since the 1980s into impressive 3D-animations that play with concepts of reality as well as investigating cultural phenomena. His work "Antebellum America"(see catalogue text at http://www.kunstnerneshus.no/khus/signs/sign_pp.html ) contrasts the mansions of the pre-civil war American South with the swamp areas close by. "Antebellum America" was shown at the Venice Biennial in 1997 as well as in Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo and at the Tate Gallery of Modern Art in 1998.
Leaving the institutions and rebuilding a structure
Atelier Nord had the first Norwegian art netsite ready in 1994, and started producing net specific art-projects. Atelier Nord also initiated the first artists CD-ROM "01-Norsk Kunstrom" http://anart.no/atel/01 with 21 artprojects by 24 artists made for this production, that was produced by Kenneth Korstad Langås and myself in 1997. The first projects made for the Internet by artists in Norway was probably the experiment s made at Atelier Nord during the middle of the 1990s. Some of these attempts can still be found archived at http://anart.no/atel/proj,while some are lost. Artists working at Atelier Nord have kept an interest in the netspecific and there is a continuous production. See for example http://anart.no/~vli , by the group "Vincent Lunges Institutt",an extensive project involving multicultural strategies combined with travel and investigations into financing, money and other amenities. My own http://anart.no/nytverden is a training program developed as an extension for home use of the chair "NyTVerden"(Enjoy the World). This work aims at achieving a relaxed attitude towards new technology for the user. The chair was exhibited at "Detox", mentioned below. Also http://www.kunst.no features new web projects in a project room every month, besides giving recommendations of what to watch both for information and for art. Atle Barcley who graduated this year from KIT, has built Kunstnetts expertise on net.art and has interesting work available at http://biomatic.org/ . Jeremy Welsh, professor at KIT, created an e-mail network on the basis of old postcards from a no longer existing United States. The project is still open to participation at http://www.kit.ntnu.no/resite/Sitesuch/sitesuch.htm
Combining net activity with live performance has been important to the collaborative group "Motherboard" http://www.notam.uio.no/motherboard / Since 1995, the main organizers Amanda Stegell and Per Platou, have worked with choreography, performances, installations and workshops both live and in combination with different features of the Internet, utilizing conferencing systems and IRC as well as streaming. Platou is also writing about digital culture on a regular basis for Kunstnett. "The Undercover Girl" run by Ingwill Gjelsvik at http://www.powertech.no/tug/tzone.htm , started by complementing the website with a glossy TUG magazine. TUG also has a magazine style to it’s content, investigating phenomena available in the digital culture. A new net magazine opened this summer, "Localmotives"< http://www.localmotives.com/>, based in Stavanger in the southwestern part of Norway and run by artists and writers. The material is in Norwegian so far, interviews, debates and projects and is a welcome addition from a part of the country that has not been very visible in other media, even if the exhibition activity has been high for some years.
For sound-art http://www.ballongmagasinet.com/ is interesting, originally a radio-program, it is now an ongoing sound-performance open to contributions. There are few political activists on the art scene in Norway, but some can be found: http://www.anart.no/~wann (Women Artists’ Norwegian Network) who do surprise actions on a large scale. 70 women invaded the first students’ information meeting in the year 2000 asking why there are so few women employed by the Art Academy
Technological discourse
To have a closer look at art that implements more complicated technological strategies, or where technology is an integrated part of the content, it can be useful to look at two exhibitions produced and shown in Norway during the last couple of years. There have also been other, earlier attempts at showing "electronic art" or "technological art", but these recent examples are sufficient illustration to what is going on in Norway now.
The first example is an exhibition showing the three winners of the Norwegian Council of Cultural Affairs’ competition "Virtual Reality and traditional art forms", shown at Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo in 1999. The 3d prize was won by Kristin Bjørseth, still a student at KIT at the time. Her project – "why/how art" consisted of interviews with a number of artists, experts and writers on the relationship between art, creative processes and time. The interviews were then edited and organized as a system of random statements that answered and commented each other. The result could be experienced by the public from inside a circle of monitors. Visually very simple, the installation communicated a meta perspective on art and working with art without any ingratiating, seductive technological elements.
The project Megalomania http://www.megalo-mania.com by Per Jonas Lindström and Kenneth Korstad Langås was awarded the 2nd prize. Urban structures and the potential of change were their main themes. Big information boards were erected in different locations in Central Oslo, giving "information" about building projects the artists proposed for the area. The professionally designed boards, easily confused with "real" information on construction sites, were documented on their sites by sound and video and then shown in a gigantic Styrofoam labyrinth-like installation in the gallery. In the installation were also architectural models and a computer-game on the theme of space and virtuality. As a whole the project conceptualized the term "virtual reality " by its strong connection to the "real world"-the city and by giving the notion of virtuality an added value –the possibility of change or a discussion of change.
The winner of the competition was the project "Spranget"("The Leap") by a project group involving the artist Ståle Stenslie, musician/programmer Asbjørn Flø and programmer/system engineer Karl Anders Øygård and others. The artists’ detailed description and documentation of the installation is available at http://sirene.nta.no/stahl/spranget/
The interactive multimedia installation is based on a story from the play "Peer Gynt" by Henrik Ibsen. Peer is a liar, boasting and fantasizing as a survival technique. In the installation the "user" takes Peer´s place, riding a simulated "reindeer" and navigating through a virtual reality simulation of the mountain area where the buck-riding allegedly took place. Digital adaptations of Grieg’s national –romantic music originally composed for the play, and a large projection of the text were part of the installation. "The Leap" as an artwork is a very romantic work, seeking to influence the public with strong emotions derived from sensory experiences.
The differences in attitude between "why/how art", "Megalomania" and "The Leap" illustrates clearly that the use of technology in art does not mean the content conveyed or even the methods the artists employ necessarily have anything in common. This was also evident in "Detox" (The catalogue is available at http://www.riksutstillinger.no/detox ) a major exhibition organized by "Riksutstillinger "(The National Touring Exhibitions) in 1999, still on tour in 2000. "Detox", curated by the above mentioned artist Ståle Stenslie, proclaimed a new digital society in the curator’s statement:" Transformed by the new media, our new digital life is only more and better. In addition, it creates room for subjective - i.e. personal -needs and experiences. High, sacred and unassailable art - art as we knew it - no longer satisfies our new eye. Art has become a quaint curiosity, valued more or less as a craft. Not only the artist,but also the entire branch of the art world that is involved in the dissemination of art, including curators, critics, galleries and museums, is stuck in the rut of pre-digital focus on objects. The new digital language provides us with new ways of experiencing the world." Despite the excited and optimistic tone, "Detox" also claimed a critical view at the new media. This was evident in some of the works shown, but was less prominent in the presentation of the exhibition where the press focused mainly on a discussion of "a new kind of art". Many of the works have connections to popular culture and to other art forms and fields of experience rather than visual art, but this occurs in contemporary art at large. Another feature of "Detox" is the occurrence of artists’ groups: Of ten projects, four were presented by groups of artists. The exhibitors included architects, designers, writers, actors, musicians, performance artists and a diversity of technically skilled participants. As a whole, interacting with a public that is neither the art community nor the technologists, but young people still at school, students and a generally interested public willing to be entertained, seem to be the effect of "Detox" on tour.
The potential and meaning of employing new media techniques in art is seldom discussed. It is typical of the situation that when two of the main Norwegian art institutions, "The Council of Cultural Affairs" and "The National Touring Exhibition" decide to enter the field of art and technology, they choose the exhibition as the arena for media art activities. In itself this is not a problem, but the need for resources for a better infrastructure for distribution and production, educational projects and a lively exchange activity is obvious and pressing and would perhaps give more interesting results in the long run. It is relatively easy to finance the production of works of art suitable for exhibitions through project money in Norway, far more difficult to keep running activities that furthers discussion and reflection and contact with artists in other countries.
As a conclusion, I hope the artscene in Norway will develop a notion of media art that enables us to work more closely with international networks, distribute work more freely and keep a lively activity involving both debate, educational activities and exchange programs as well as exhibitions.