Judith Dybendal

Twelve Days in June – On Imagining Commons

The text was commisioned for and published in The Imaginary Reader Volt 2016 ISBN 978-82-303-2814-9 The book is funded by Arts Council Norway, City of Bergen, Fritt ord Foundation and Public Art Norway (URO).

Artistic production is about creating places for seeing and for exploring alternative ways of seeing. An artwork can be seen as an initiation of another world.

The main arena for Imagining Commons was various outdoor and public spaces in Bergen. In a variety of ways the artworks explored the encounters that take place when the works are placed in different urban spaces and places.

In the course of the twelve days Imagining Commons lasted, the extensive pro­gramme consisted of temporary and site-specific art projects that took the form of performances, sculptural interven­tions and audio projects, as well as a 24-hour camp, lectures, communal meals and conversations. Choreographers, dancers, theorists, audio artists, visual artists and the public met in various arenas where they could share experiences and exchange ideas and knowledge.

The thematic framework for the programme was linked to Hannah Arendt’s theories of production, work and action from the book The Human Condition. Work ran as a common strand through many of the projects. How can we under­stand work and the work of the artist today?

24 hours in a factory

First out was the camp Institutions need to be constructed, which lasted 24 hours, in the premises of the closed-down factory Arna Industrihus in Ytre Arna outside Bergen. Arna Industrihus once housed one of Norway’s largest textile factories, Arne Fabrikker. The factory had over a thousand employees and in the course of the nineteenth century a whole small society grew up around the industry in Ytre Arna. When the competition from abroad became too fierce in the 1970s and 1980s, the phasing-out and cutting-back of the factory began.

The Croatian theatre collective BADco., which was responsible for the concept of the camp, is interested in and critical of the way closed-down factories are being taken over for art and cultural purposes. The camp took a closer look at the relationship between production, work, observation and rest. In addition to the members of BADco., the choreographer Ingri Fiksdal, the newspaper Grafter’s Quarterly, and the artists Espen Sommer Eide and Signe Lidén were invited to the camp.

During the time at the camp a sense of community grew up between these artists and those of us who formed the audience. The 24 hours in the factory were divided into three units, and together we were able to experience eight hours of setting-up and talks, eight hours of artistic work and performances, and finally eight hours of rest as we unpacked mattresses and sleeping bags and spent a night in the factory. The locality slowly changed and the large factory hall became a temporary place to stay. We set things up, ate, cleared up, talked and slept without begin disturbed by the world outside, Sharing the ritual everyday activities made us more aware of what was happening from moment to moment, in the surroundings and in one another.

Some of the locality was turned into a kitchen and dining room, in another place rows of seats and a screen were set up, and in a third place several tables. Wires and cables were laid out, connected and taped down, spotlights were mounted. The artists worked in different parts of the space. Once we had finished we gathered in a ring in the middle of the space. BADco. talked about their artistic work over the past few years. The talk revolved around the conditions for art in Croatia and Norway, and how the political and economic framework affects the implementa­tion and understanding of one’s own practice. After this Ingri Fiksdal talked about her grant project at the National Academy of the Arts in Oslo, about perception and affect, and her work with the composition of movements.

When the evening came, Arna Industrihus was open to everyone with a series of showings and presentations divided into sessions. The artists Signe Lidén and Espen Sommer Eide began by talking about the ideas behind the project Nikel Sound History Club, in which they have researched the connections between sound and memory in the residents of the small town of Nikel in Russia. With a starting point in the townspeople’s stories Lidén and Sommer Eide built instru­ments inspired by them, recorded sounds from selected areas in Nikel and worked on this sound material. The two artists presented fragments of stories through different soundscapes and evoked the mutable character of memory.

Memories move between the comprehensible and the enigmatic, between the clear and the obscure. Sounds can evoke the experience of a place, or the experience of being in several places at the same time. By forming and transforming audio material, one can capture the essence of a place or a time in brief glimpses. In Sommer Eide’s and Lidén’s subsequent performance they explored something similar in the resonance between space and sound: they moved around in the industrial premises and played on thin, elongated tubes. The artists were wearing thin gloves and the sound arose when they ran their hands along the tubes. They produced faint, thin sounds that merged into fuller, dark sounds. Lidén and Sommer Eide invited us to wonder about what we are surrounded by, to listen to what exists somewhere between noise and music.

Machining work

BADco. showed the very first film ever made with moving images, Louis Lumière’s Workers leaving Lumière’s factory in Lyon (1895). With this as a point of departure they moved into an exploration of the relationships between human beings, work and production in a capitalist world. In a location at the top of the building we met the actors in BADco. dressed in dark blue, denim-like working clothes as they moved through a gate that represented the gate in Lumière’s film, which was projected behind them.

In the next part of BADco.’s performance the public was invited to participate: anyone who wanted could get up at any time from his or her chair, sit on the wooden benches alongside the actors, and carry out the same movements. The principle in the hour or so that the next part lasted was simple enough: hands as machines. The hands beat, turned, stamped and cut their way forward in a quick, suggestive rhythm. The movements were calculated and accurate, and recalled the fine-tuned instruments in the factory machines. Muscles tensed and became visible under the stark spotlights. At other times the rhythm of the bodies and hands was slower and heavier. At some moments it seems almost as though the bodies were abandoned to something other than themselves, as if they made up a larger com­mon machinery when we looked at them. As if something invisible outside them kept them in motion and made them continue.

In the performance that followed Tora Endestad Bjørkheim and Johnny Herbert from Grafter’s Quarterly invited us into an elongated, labyrinthine, anonymous, almost wasteland-like office landscape. We lay down on mattresses on the floor. It had grown dark outside and tiredness was permeating or bodies. We closed our eyes and Herbert read out a text about daily life in an office, accompanied by ringing telephones, fingers tapping on keyboards and an endless buzz of voices. We dozed in and out of sleep and waking a few times, but the situation was just as monotonous in the everyday life of the worker when we woke up. The office land­scape the worker was in was at once mysterious and familiar, but it never became clear to us exactly what he was working with, except that it looked like some kind of artistic activity. The worker’s wish for independence was undermined by the employer’s constantly changing, adaptable, chameleon-like language, which deve­loped into ever new forms. Each time the worker changed strategy to maintain his integrity, the logic of the system forestalled him, as if a set of invisible monitors had penetrated the innermost layers of consciousness and constantly anticipated his next move. The performance evoked a feeling of being imprisoned in a growing, all-encompassing regime where the boundaries between private life and work were fluid and slowly disappeared, and where control imperceptibly took over.

Neoliberalism and precarious existences

Imagining Commons continued a few days later at the Bergen Public Library with a talk between Isabell Lorey and Stefano Harney about precarity, social insecurity and neoliberalism. Lorey’s contribution, which had the title Precarization in neoliberalism and the logisticality of the undercommons, initiated the dialogue.Lorey and Harney discussed how we can understand the changes in the interaction of work, society and individual in neoliberalist regimes. What happens when social relations are defined by the language of economics and economic concepts envelop ever-larger parts of our lives?

In the book State of Insecurity (2015) Lorey writes that precarization is not a passing or episodic condition, but a new kind of regulation that typifies the historic period in which we live. Lorey takes her point of departure in Foucault’s theories of power and biopolitics and investigates the mechanisms that prevail in neoliberal societies where precarity is more and more becoming the norm. The more the individual regulates herself or himself, the better the regulation mechanisms of the state and the economy work. The creeping isolation we experience as individuals has both social and political implications, and serves the purposes of those who want to accumulate capital and increase social control.

Lorey’s principal message in the talk was that the logic that reigns in present-day neoliberalist regimes means that the conditions for a precarious existence are spreading. The globalization of the labour market has consequences for the organization of human life, which means that more and more people are forced into a precarious existence where the conditions of life for the individual are sub­jected to the logic of neoliberalism.

Because the morality of neoliberal regimes tells us that each person is responsible for himself or herself, poverty and marginalized positions are dismissed as self-inflicted situations. Thus inequality and class differences are also perpetuated. Fear and conformism increase as welfare and social rights are restricted, and in the worst case this may entail that totalitarian regimes can more easily take root.

According to Harney, much of this development can be traced back to the principle that a commercial enterprise must continually improve its products and services – so-called Total Quality Management. Many of the conflicts we are seeing now have arisen as a result of the organization of the neoliberal society, Harney thought. He emphasized that various types of resistance and reactions arise as an extension of the hegemony of logistics. Lorey also agreed with this: new kinds of resistance will be formed.

Harney and Lorey both conceive of resistance as a social activity, not as individual action. Resistance will arise from the society we live in, but the form it will take is impossible to predict. "We would need to invent new forms, new necessities of security and new forms of living together. We have to rethink and rebuild the ways and forms of the demo­cracies we are living in. Is there another way of freedom?” Lorey concludes.

The archives of the artists

A week later another talk was given, Archive Grafts, by the performance theorist and curator Adrian Heathfield and the dance artist Wendy Houstoun at the Victo­ria Café and Pub. Archive Grafts is about creating dialogues where two people retrieve digital files from their personal work archives. Heathfield and Houstoun showed fragments of images, video, sound and text in an improvised swapping game. A particular dynamic arises in front of the audience when the samples from the various archives are woven together. The archived memories range from single YouTube clips to music and motion.

The high point came when Houstoun danced on the floor in front of us. Her move­ments were inspired by her life and her dancing career. She danced her way through a succession of years selected by the audience. We laughed as she danced in and out of various states she had been in, watching her life as she had lived it form itself into different modes of physical expression, observing the changes in dynamics, empathy and control. Traces of life exist as physical memories in the body.

Archive Grafts made us think about how our lives are full of the objects and memories we collect, and which may seem meaningless to others, but which, when we tell the story of why we chose them, can also become meaningful in unknowing eyes. By having something physically available we can maintain contact with the past. When we make use of our senses, an emotion we have had in the past can be revived and reinforced. Our personal archives are inextricably bound up with our identity, with a story that lives within us, but for which we perhaps have no words. The physical representation that the archive is organizes reality around us and permits us to order, rank and cultivate material that generates memories and associations.

The samples from Houstoun’s and Heathfield’s archives gave us unique insight into their work processes, a kind of space of memory to which we do not usually have access as viewers. And thus we were also given new contexts in which to understand their work that brought us closer to their artistic practice.

Art projects in urban spaces

On the Sunday when Mette Edvardsen showed her new performance work I can’t quite place it, it would not stop raining, and the streets were almost empty of people. In an attempt to seek shelter from the rain, Edvardsen placed a table and two chairs under a tall tree right in front of Korskirken, one of the city’s oldest churches. Passers-by could at any time sit down at the table with Edvardsen.

In I can’t quite place it the table was a meeting place where you could talk, look, work or listen. Edvardsen drew on sheets of paper soaked through with water, and connections thus grew up between the real urban space and the imaginary urban space. We could look at ourselves from above and from the outside when we re-appeared in the space of the sheet of paper; we could see ourselves as small dots, almost transparent pencil silhouettes that the rain flowed through. Edvardsen wrote several words, questions and fragments of sentences. The words were repeated and thus formed a distinctive dramaturgy on the sheet and in reality. The situation changed from moment to moment; each encounter was different, and each took a different direction when the public met Edvardsen.

Just as Edvardsen’s work let us rediscover the city space in Bergen, several of the works in Imagining Commons opened up the same possibility when we moved from place til place. The different kinds of project made us aware of the existing histories of the individual places at the same time as they initiated new stories.

Signe Lidén’s work Skala was situated on the path between the palms in the Plant House in Muséhagen on the hill Nygårdshøyden. The work was inspired by Kristian Birkeland’s miniature earth and the model he built in 1903 to investigate how the Northern Lights arise. In Skala Lidén had wound copper wire around an iron meteorite from the crater Piquem Nonralta in Argentina to get it to function as a loudspeaker. In order to hear the sound signals that were transmitted into the copper wires and the vibrations they created, you had to position yourself right above the stone and lay your ear against it. The meteorite played low sounds in the space in different nuances of sound, and at the same time it was a sculptural object.

Several of the art projects took the form of interventions in the cityscape. The artist duo aiPotu’s installation Demonstration Island / Paint it Black (Save Engebø­fjellet!) on the lake Lille Lungegårdsvann consisted of a raft with a large grey dustbin with tall, attached posters sticking out. They looked like the posters that are used in demonstrations, except that in aiPotu’s work there was no writing on them: they were painted completely black. The work could be read as a contribu­tion to the debate on the planned mining project at Engebøfjellet in the Naustdal municipality, but at the same time it opened up a number of other associations because it looked like an island and was inaccessible to us on the shore.

The city in a network of movements

Mai Hofstad Gunnes’ work Father is a two-channel video installation recorded at Nygårdsparken in Bergen with the dancers Sigrid Hirsch Kopperdal and Lena Meland. Father was sited in the pedestrian tunnel on Danmarksplass, a square in the Årstad neighbourhood, due south of Bergen city centre. Above this passage you find Bergen’s biggest traffic intersection, which connects several very busy roads. On the small screens you could see the two dancers moving in different directions around a circular area in the park while filming each other with a camera.

The gazes represented two different consciousnesses trying to approach each other. Since Father was recorded in Nygårdsparken, a fascinating synchronicity also arose: the fragments of a real place were put into a new context and the distance between reality and fiction was reduced.

There are a number of resemblances between Father and the three new works Jon Benjamin Tallerås had created for the square outside the City Hall in Bergen. In particular, the video work The Seeming Disorder, which was shown as a back-projection on one of the windows of the City Hall, conveys a feeling of contem­poraneity like the one evoked by Father. In The Seeming Disorder we see people moving through city streets. The mutability of the crowd of people in the film is repeated by the movements in the public space around the City Hall. The sound­track of the film, consisting of all the sounds that grow out of a city, merge together with the sounds of Bergen.

The artist Magnhild Øen Nordahl’s Vika Sjóvar explores and Old Norse unit of distance, a ‘change of rowers’, which is determined by the interval between each pause for rest in the course of a rowed distance. The project involved inviting the public to try this out by rowing in a small wooden boat in Puddefjorden. We rowed over to the opposite shore, to some buildings we had never seen before: hidden areas of the city loomed ahead. We felt the passage of time and each moment while we were alone in the boat in the fjord and tested the changes of rowers that were our own. Unlike the more abstract, modern ways of measuring distances, the change of rowers feels tangible and practical, closer to the specific experience you have of distances when you sit in a small wooden boat in Puddefjorden.

Øystein Aasan’s Coil is in the display windows of the Museum of Physics, right beside a traffic artery where people cycle past to and from work. Usually these display windows contain a cabinet of curiosities where old technical instruments from the Department of Physics and Technology at the University of Bergen are exhibited in glass cases. In Coil Aasan had kept a few of these technical instruments, manipulated them and organized them in a particular way in an architectural study. In addition he had displayed variations on red-coloured metal strips that were wound in circles in the glass windows. Coil is conceived as a duplication or an overlapping of two types of space: an actual constructed space and the imaginary space that it becomes through manipulation of sound. The organization and manipulation of something that already exists means that the geometric forms are reflected in one another in varied ways every time you study the work.

The journey between bus terminals

One of the last art projects that took place during Imagining Commons was I am just waiting (elasticity of time),where the public was invited to ride in a bus with the artist duo TASC, Ablett & Brafield. The artists and the chefs Amber Ablett and Stacy Brafield often make use of food when they explore social practices and collectivity.

In I am just waiting (elasticity of time) we rode on bus no. 5 from Festplassen in the centre to the Åsane Terminal. We waited there before taking a bus on to the Loddefjord Terminal, where we stayed for a while before getting on a last bus that drove back to the centre. Besides the framework set up by the journey, we ate several meals together on the way. The public was divided in two: we who were there to see the performance, and the unprepared passengers who had no idea that anything was to happen. During the stretch to the Åsane Terminal Brafield and Ablett handed out drinking glasses and poured out juice for those who said yes. Some laughed shyly before hesitantly accepting the glasses. The unexpected­ness of TASC’s performance made people uncertain and surprised, but at the same time a temporary collectivity arose since people became aware of the presence of others. It was interesting to observe these brief encounters in a public space. Finally, while we waited at the Loddefjord Terminal, several of us had begun to talk to one another. On the way into the city we were given chocolate. We had moved into a rhythm of waiting and the boundaries between the bus stretches had been erased.

Impulses to action

The thematic framework for Imagining Commons was related to the ideas of the political thinker and philosopher Hannah Arendt and her work The Human Condition (1958), about the active life and her reflections on the public sphere, work, production and action. One guiding thought from Arendt is that we are tied together and separated at the same time: human existence takes place in a world we share, but each human being also sees the world from his or her own unique perspective. Speech and action take place in this space between people. Our imagination enables us to experiment with alternatives to what already exists, and especially through the processes and the potential of artistic production we can approach the imaginary as expression. Conceiving of the imaginary as expression means among other things that art offers us other conceptual worlds and places to see, from which we can act and set something new in motion. It also means that we are part of a reality where action forms part of an already complex network of relations for which we have no general overview.

As an extension of this thematic framework the philosopher Ingerid S. Straume gave a lecture on whether the thinking of the Greeks can be an inspiration for us today, especially as it relates to political action as conceived by Hannah Arendt and the Greek-French philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis. For Castoriadis society is imaginary, and all societies are created on the basis of the human ability to imagine and create something. Straume spoke of how Greek democracy func­tioned, and how the Greek city-states were innovative in areas such as adminis­tration, philosophy, art and war. Straume attempted to show how Castoriadis’ thoughts on the relationship between autonomy and democracy can help us to open up democracy as a concept and to see that there are constantly unresolvable tensions in the relationship between autonomy and democracy.

The curator and writer Simon Sheikh insists that art is constantly extending beyond itself and is preoccupied with the world. In the text “Public Spheres and The Functions of Progressive Art Institutions” Sheikh writes that art and politics are constantly crossing paths and moving over into each other’s field and that a substantial part of the potential of art is to be found at these intersection points.

Modern art institutions are places where art production meets the public and becomes part of a public sphere. The sphere of art is not unitary; it bears within itself a number of oppositions of both economic and political character where diffe­rent ideological positions struggle for power and mastery. Through contemp­orary art practices we see how this is the case when art intervenes and mediates between different public spheres that extend beyond the field of art into econo­mics, politics, sociology, philosophy and the natural sciences. The art field has become a place for thinking, writes Sheikh, and can therefore mediate almost imperceptibly different fields, positions and subjectivities. As a result of this, art is subjected to strong pressure from both within and without; but it is by virtue of this ability to mediate links and oppositions between different fields and spheres that art has a crucial potential in modern society.

How then is art to counter the pressure from different sides? By insisting on the democratic potential that is to be found in art and in the space of art, says Sheikh. By insisting that art and progressive art institutions are places where democracy is found, one can in turn insist on art as a public sphere where we are permitted to think of the concept of democracy in alternative ways, thinks Sheikh, and refers to the political theorist Chantal Mouffe. We must acknowledge that it is crucial that we let contradictions come to expression if a society is to be called democratic. In the spheres of art, in its democratic potential, a network of connections thus opens up which can give us new insights about art and the world, social action and politics.

When art moves out of traditional arenas such as galleries and museums, from institutional frameworks to unexpected places and spaces, it can make greater openness possible in our approach to the works. Perhaps a more direct connection is arising between art, ourselves and the world? When the artworks in Imagining Commons are places in public spaces in Bergen, they are given the opportunity to meet us where we are, at that moment. When we enter the mental spaces of the artists and the universes of the works, a resonance arises within us and in our own mental spaces – a quiet resonance: all that exists can always be something else. It is constantly being transformed in this opening within the range of the field of vision.

Judith Dybendal

Judith Dybendal is a writer based in Bergen. She graduated from the creative writing school Skrivekunstakademiet in Hordaland in 2012. She writes theatre reviews for the web maga­zines Scenekunst.no and Periskop.no and is currently doing a master’s degree in Literature at the University of Bergen, where she is writing her master’s thesis on Virginia Woolf’s novel Between the Acts.

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