by Vanessa Albury
Amidst 4-hours of visible sunlight and sub-zero temperatures, 10,000 people descend on Kirkenes, Norway, more than doubling the town’s population, to celebrate Barents Spektakel, a cross-cultural arts festival organized by Pikene på Broen, Norwegian for “Girls on the Bridge.” Kirkenes is located just 15-minutes from the Russian border in the Arctic Circle and sees 24 hours of night and day on the solstices. The town transforms abandoned buildings, outdoor sites and local pubs to host this art, culture, and politics festival. Luba Kuzovnikova, Art Director of Pikene på Broen, notes that the locals were at first hesitant to warm to the Pikene’s agenda which introduces contemporary art to a remote community with strong traditional crafts. But, the Pikene have proven that commitment to community, dialog and stimulating public art brings the people to the work. The festival, including the artist residencies focused on community engagement prior to it, is now excitedly anticipated every year. Kuzovnikova and the Pikene ensured 2012’s theme, “Dare to Share,” infiltrated every event of the festival: from the Indigenous Peoples’ Congress, to Russian and Norwegian rock bands double-billings, to Transborder Café’s forum on Russia between Elections, to Morten Traavik’s international and sensational collaboration with North Korean piano accordion players covering Norwegian band A-Ha’s Take on Me. They also burned down the world’s smallest hotel by architect Sami Rintala with dramatic sparks flying into the icy fjord, but I found some of the festival's quieter moments to be the most impressive.
Eva Bakkeslett’s The Magic Tablecloth opens with quiet, short clips of a constant wind blowing throughout Nikel, Russia. Bakkeslett gazed upon Nikel from her childhood home in Norway, imaging magical castles and fairy dust in the chimneys of the forbidden land. The reality in Nikel is full of metal-melting pollutants and residual poor health conditions, engulfed in a harsh, polar climate. Well, that’s one of the realities. The remaining 38 minutes follow Nelly Makeeva baking perogies with her grandson. The time flies. Bakkeslett renders tender, complex moments fluidly and effortlessly. She acknowledges that it is easy to get swept away by the allure of Russia’s aesthetic beauty and unique culture, though doing so would result in a lampooned and romanticized view of the place. Her approach is the antithesis of a cliché tourist. Bakkeslett draws a parallel to her method of filmmaking in a life-lesson she learned from the Sami chanting tradition called Joik. She says, “The Joik is not about the subject, it is the subject. When you joik you are joiking the tree, the bear or the reindeer. It is a mutual relationship. It is the melting point between the observer and the observed. I get shivers down my back when I think of it because it has taught me so much. Just the concept of that, because to me, I had to arrive at that, I couldn’t think my way through it... When the observer and the observed becomes one, that is when the magic happens. I think it is just so beautiful… It is like the other paradigm. We’ve been in this rationalistic and mechanistic paradigm, where it is really about you and the object. There’s distance there between you and nature, between you and everything around you. Once you start eradicating that distance, then you realize that you are an intrinsic part of nature. Then you start seeing things around you from a totally different perspective.”
Bakkeslett has the gift of storytelling in filmmaking and in person. In our conversation, she articulates thoughts concerning an artistic practice with exceptional, matter-of-fact eloquence and poignant allegories. Baking has become a lens with which Bakkeslett presents the world. The most valuable knowledge comes from experience, but you have to be open to it. She explains that food as a medium or a process is “where knowledge hasn’t been arrived at through intellectual pursuits, but through experience. And you can trace that experience in the movements through several generations back.” Bakkeslett renders filmic works in the same manner, setting herself apart from other film-based artists; Story is revealed through the subtle, simple actions, not words or grand gestures. Feeling, mood or whatever you want to call the most basic communication, is tangibly and directly transmitted. The Magic Tablecloth is not a story of how to bake perogies, but through that action the story is gingerly revealed. It is the story of a hard life in the polluted and isolated tundra that is full of warmth and a joy for the unique way of life that is there and the value of a community. Magic is in the everyday, from the cool touch of the sugar that sits in a drafty cupboard to the tender guidance Nelly provides to her grandson as he feels his way through his first baking experience. Bakkeslett observes that “we have lost a bit of that connection and it is important to point it out, reveal it… Opening the senses up to allow the experience of the other in without prejudice or preconceived notion of what you will meet.”
Tammo Rist and Steffen Krüger present Metabolism, a series of cargo truck scans acquired from Norwegian-Swedish border control at Svinesund, along side their dual-screen video projection, Opening/Closing filmed at Storskog-Boris Gleb, Norway’s Russian border. Standing on the edge of the arctic North Sea, a literal edge of life and death, for a body can only survive two-minutes in those waters, we discuss the borders of nations. From this perspective, national boundaries become an intellectual fascination, something with which to play. In November 2011, Rist and Krüger combed through scans from the border control’s archive that began in 2009. Some 7000 images had been acquired when the duo made their selection for Metabolism. Each scan alone takes over an hour to produce. While discussing the scans within the installation of over 100 images, we muse that the contents both look like the product transported and don’t. I note a starkness or “striped-down analytic aggression” that Krüger coins, next to something more personal to an individual experience that is transmitting as each scan is taken in by the observer. Rist acknowledges the influence of the Becher school of German photography in the formal and industrial documentary aspects of the work, with very little subjectivity in the actually picture, and the continual exchange of commerce in Gursky’s photographs. The strength of the work is the humor and personal touch that comes with the transport content. The images tap into a tactile knowledge, or semantic memory of common goods, which is defined by the history of a person’s experience with the specific product. If you have no tactile relationship to hay, for example, in life, perhaps you miss the heart of the piece. A visual description beyond words and skewed by one’s recollection, guides the viewer in a playful relationship to these at-first-glance stark and uniform images. Naming the product animates the scan in the mind by confronting memory and with the visual alteration of an everyday commercial item rendered in X-ray black and white, a disruption in the familiar presentation of image as a veritas window into the world. The tactile knowledge of an object grounds it in the imagination and then the image is a match/ mismatch that invites the mind to reevaluate the edges of what being something is. Krüger remarks on the parallel of this tactile naming of things to giving a person a name. The way, one’s character grows and evolves around a name. Meaning and the full association of the item follow the name. Metabolism shows power of the state but also reveals the uncanny connection of names to the named, simply and provocatively.
In both Metabolism and Opening/ Closing, the stark stands next to the personal in layers and parallels flourish. Opening/ Closing is a constructed view of the opening and closing ceremony that occurs at the border of Norway and Russia in the Arctic. There is a thin, constant and shifting border between the pieces’ two screens, recreating the border between the two nations: A thin line defined by an agreement, summed up in a handshake and rendered visually as a line defined by moving planes of image. Handwritten text relaying the time and location brings a personal touch to offset the cold, dark landscape. The crowning jewel of this video is the fact that the guards greet each other with a handshake and a salutation in the other’s language. They never speak beyond the greeting. The artists note that this process could never be automated. Doing so would meet the formality of the meeting, but not the carefully selected spirit of the event, which holds a gesture of respect and effort that endears the routine and weight of the prescribed governmental duty and the icy tundra that surrounds. The gesture is revealed to be softly endearing once unearthed from under extreme formality and routine. A more brutal view of these young men renders them as hands of the state, maintaining a balance of blood, with a whisper of a gesture in the remote, dark, icy land, summing up national relations at a border. If only one isolated person hears a whisper in the forest, does it count as being heard on an international scale? Opening/ Closing is a hushed yes.
Kultivator, an experimental arts and organic farming collective founded in 2005 by Mathieu and Malin Lindmark Vrijman on Sweden’s Öland island, presented Barents Cross-Cultural Cheese. The couple collected milk from farms in the 4 Barents Region countries, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, flavoring it with local herbs used by the region’s Sami people. The cheese is conceptually and gustatorily simple and rich, mirroring their art practice. Kultivator left the city to forge an art career into the shape of a farm, having no agriculture experience. They moved to the farm after noticing a sharp tension in the city that got in the way of real dialog. Mathieu Vrijman notes, “It felt impossible to work in the city feeling all this global political pressure.” Malin Vrijman calls it a practical move, not an escape from civilization, but coming from a longing for deeper conversations: “We were always having meetings with people but they were hectic and superficial. The situation is very distracting [in the city. … We] have the possibility to meet on a more simple level, recreating a sort of art academy situation where you could have your colleagues and friends over and you could sit for days and talk about what you’re doing, which you could not do anymore in the city. [In the city] you go to an opening and drink some wine and you talk about anything else.” They are constantly figuring how to repurpose their space for new creation. The farm is the art material. They still present their practice in galleries, but prefer to court city-folk and artists to collaborate on the land. Nothing is sacred or archived; if it is needed, it is repurposed. Mathieu Vrijman remarks, “They said in Holland, ‘Oh, Kultivator, art and agricultural machinery rust away there.’ That’s how it is. We keep it, but it is not a sculpture park. You will see remainders and scars in the landscape of different projects that happen. The cow does something with it. It is quite beautiful in that way.” They note that the rural can teach the urban a lot though it was thought to be the other way for so long. Currently, Kultivator is interested in being self-sustained, thus creating an art space, where food and energy does not depend on support. It can just be there. They do not want to depend on state or private funding, giving a new face to priceless art. Mathieu Vrijman notes that there was something in the 1970’s move to the land that was onto something, but that until recently it was all discarded as unsuccessful. The new green movement cleverly adds the Internet to the spirit of the 1970’s and that makes all the different. One can still engage with the world while removing distractions. Kultivator is also interested in generational borders, as seen in their new project the Grandmother’s University, where the skills of aging generations are passed down to younger ones. Kultivator’s answer to cynicism is getting down to what life is all about by living on the edge of sustainable life, well, as urbanites know it, one bite of fresh goat’s cheese at a time.
For five days lit by night, Pikene på Broen’s Barents Spektakel masterfully blends art with politics, current issues and culture from across the Barents Region. Visitors go from outdoor performance art installations in sub-zero temperatures to panel discussions in the local pub to concerts in mountain caverns. Everyone in the town of Kirkenes is part of the festival, creating a stimulating multi-discipline, multi-formatted, cross-cultural dialog that truly engages, though so often such lofty goals are missed. Barents Spektakel manages to present thoughtful, complex works along side practical issues of the region, plus it is simply fun. Many visitors note the multiple synergistic moments experienced throughout the festival. Barents Spektakel guests take a thoughtfully crafted gift from the Arctic as they leave for their various corners of the world: a reminder of tenfold returns when one is open to the new and giving is generous.
The Arctic is an ideal setting for an arts festival conceptually: where else but on a sustainable edge of human existence can one reinvent what it means to exist? As an American, I found the cultural climate equally impactful to the extreme environmental climate of northern Norway. The value of the arts in Norway must be noted, contrasting dramatically to the national cultural perspective on the arts stateside. Anniken Huitfeldt, Norweigan Minister of Culture told me that in the last 6 years Norway has increased its arts spending by 80%. The arts have a lot to give. It is refreshing to see that Norway has realized that fact.
With an excited twinkle in her eyes that tells me she knows she is part of a very special event, Luba Kuzovnikova tells me that the Pikene have big plans for next year’s Barents Spektakel, which is the 10th anniversary of the festival. If you can get yourself to this tiny town in the coldest, darkest season of the year, a world of magical castles and fairy dust awaits to awe you.
Vanessa Albury is a Brooklyn-based artist and curator from Nashville, TN. Recent solo exhibits include A Stilled Cascade of Image at Window Box (Oslo) curated by Thale Fastvold and In Waves at Monty/ABN (Antwerp) curated by Jan Van Woensel. Group shows include If Love Could Have Saved You, You Would Have Lived Forever at Bellwether Gallery; Into the Atomic Sunshine at Okinawa Prefectural Art Museum; and HORIZON at Bloomberg LP with Art in General. Albury founded a micro-cinema, Cinema Lucida, for avant-garde and contemporary film and video screenings and December Store of artists’ multiples with Sörine Anderson. www.vanessaalbury.comview all articles from this author