Not Knowing as a Quality
Interview with Eivind Slettemeås of Harpefoss Hotell Kunstarena
You are one of the managers of the organization called Harpefoss Hotell, based in the eastern part of Norway. Its activities are focused on eco-artistic and social projects and range from festivals, concerts and conferences, educational programs to artistic residencies and publishing. How would you describe its profile and what is unique within Norway that you do?
First of all, with the exhibition program we don’t emphasize exhibitions over, let’s say, publishing activity or seminars. They are just different parts of many. What the formats have in common is that they are process-based, and I think that’s the main thing that makes this organization a bit different from the typical framework of Norwegian art institutions. It is perhaps more comparable to a research-based project, where the physical building or institutional structure have less importance than the processes that might evolve through the work itself.
It is my impression that this way of working with art has a better capacity to raise attention towards social realities and cultural phenomena that don’t otherwise reach public coverage or enter institutional discourse. Art projects which engage with local premises emphasize the potential for mutual processes or to fill ‘reality gaps,’ less-regulated spaces where they can act as enzymes for change in the social order of politics and economy. This is not intended to sound like a poetic description of an avant-garde mentality as such, which I think is a task for artists to develop and define.
Our starting point was to host festivals and run an ordinary exhibition program, but then it increasingly became a task to assist public interventions and models of exchange between art practices. When we work with publications, the recurrent question is how to create a common ground of interpretation between, let’s say, an artist and a composer, rather than having a formal understanding of the two art forms. It’s always the people involved rather than the organizational model which defines our objectives.
You started the project with your partner and artist Anna Gudmundsdottir, you both moved to an old railway hotel in Sør-Fron 12 years ago. You have been living there, restoring the historical building. So I guess it was very much connected with your personal life, but gradually more people were attached to it. How do you work as a collective, and how has it evolved over these ten years? Did you originally have some expectations that you had to adjust gradually?
We chose not to formalize the idea of a collective entity to define the organization. What I am interested in, and have been increasingly occupied with during this period, are how platforms for collaborative work could take form, be it festivals, publications or public artworks. And it has been elementary to continue working with those people or groups of people for new collaborative projects.
Of course, the need for a formal organization is always present; we need to apply for financial support, meet criteria for external evaluation, or juridical commitments with other partners. But the advantage of not formalizing a curatorial group or a board of members, is that we can work from the core and outwards with every project, as opposed to a curatorial concept or program where the artists are supposed to answer a curator’s call. It’s always a question of creating these platforms first, evolving the work and eventually presenting some result.
I am always interested in the process from when the project starts. Somebody comes with this strong idea, and it functions like an ad hoc experimental project for some time. But when there is a long-term project going on, and I think it is difficult to keep this openness, because there is always the temptation of making it more organization-like, having more impact, involving more people, a need for some structure. Is this something that is happening also with you?
I know, sometimes people will abandon a project just to go on with other things in life. It’s perhaps a stubbornness I have acquired that can sometimes annoy others: “We stopped this two years ago, but let’s begin all over again!“ Some projects are forever, and if they are not already fixed in form, work can continue with a mixture of frustration and intuition. Some projects don’t want to be realized and they will just die, whereas others have this little spark that won’t burn out, and will continue to evolve even when seemingly inactive.
I learned something interesting about this when we moved here, during a brief engagement as constituted director for the regional art center in Lillehammer. The art center was in preparation for its 30th anniversary, and I didn’t know anything about the region. By the time we worked on it I learned to know the works of a loosely knitted network of artists who were engaged and pioneered on a series of land art projects and had a consistent ecological approach since the early 1980s. Namely, artists like Egil Martin Kurdøl and Marit Arnekleiv were early pioneers which I have had the privilege to work with myself, and curators like Per Bj. Boym and Per Erik Fonkalsrud were also very much responsible for establishing contact with Polish artists and later a broader international network. It might be out of neglect that so few knew about this history, as it was not commonly known as an integral part of Norwegian contemporary art history.
Anyway, it was inspiring to learn about the long-term efforts and commitments of these artists. Some are still very active and vibrant artists, but it was an eye-opener to realize how little archival material was accessible and how much of this had disappeared from their own view. Also, there were some hard discussions emerging out of this movement which everybody seemed to have forgotten, but the environmental criticality of these projects are surprisingly fresh and urgent. Even though the projects looked stylistically old, perhaps even naive compared to a contemporary art discourse, their invocation of an environmental consciousness was profound. It was so interesting to see how artists had been working with the region for years, and it gave insight to ways they still work with related topics. I think that convinced me that this stubbornness can actually work.
When we were discussing the Norwegian art scene and trying to compare it with the situation in the Czech Republic, you stressed the fact that mainly in Norway it is ad-hoc emerging, artist-initiated and run, site-oriented initiatives that you find the most inspiring. And that there are many organizations that emerge, work for some time and disappear. You also mentioned that there is a structure in Norway, a given number of organizations in each region, and they get subsidies for developing the regional art scene. How does the connection between the ad hoc and subsidized organizations work? If a new organization wants to become part of the system, how does this work?
First of all, because these institutions, regional art centers founded in the late 70s and early 80s, are publicly funded, they help artists to establish artist careers outside of Oslo and the main cities. You can regularly get exhibitions on a professional level in the region, and production is financially secured, even though the market is non-existent. These publicly funded institutions are often very well organized and help create professional standards for artists as well.
What interests me most however are self-organized, artist-run projects — even though they do not represent very healthy conditions for artists to work within. But I believe these projects are crucial for artists to take a substantially larger risk in their presentation of art, as opposed to the more economically regulated Norwegian art institutions. Since many Norwegian artists also receive scholarships on a year-by-year basis, the ability to work outside institutional frameworks is nurtured by a variety of platforms. Let’s say I want to collaborate with an experimental author and an artist for a new project, the freedom to push the level of experimentation are highly valued within these extra-institutional spaces. And because there is a supportive system in place to work outside the confines of the gallery, the acceptance will grow for art as an inventive approach in society and within the public. Artist-run initiatives and independent galleries and projects still have this important function as a guiding principle for the slower institutional system to improve their risk-willingness.
It seems there is quite a good system to support artists to survive. In the Czech Republic, there has been very strong discussion about precarity — many jobs in culture are project-based, people are not employed, they don’t have social and medical securities. You are the author of the book Kunst og prekaritet (Art and Precarity). Most of the jobs in culture are like this. Curators, artists and other professions in the cultural sector are the first to feel the impact of the situations like the covid pandemic, since they are not employed. It seems that in Norway it is quite different but has the last year and a half had an impact on the situation in the arts? Maybe not as big, because of these securities you have, or is it too early to feel it?
It sounds optimistic that the Norwegian government has offered large subsidies to cultural workers and commercial creative industries in Norway during the covid pandemic. But artists and cultural workers are always worse off than most professionals in society. We have this immense amount of education in our baggage, extended knowledge of practices and work experience, but still struggle with low incomes. I guess the situation won’t change much in Norway after the pandemic, but the gap between those that are well off and those who are not, is widening. This has not changed a bit in Norway, but rather worsened. Large numbers of people are still fairly well off, whereas artists of course mainly belong to those groups who now are worse off now than before.
But I think an even less optimistic situation now is housing. People of the younger generation claim, half jokingly, that a revolutionary act is the only answer left to the crisis in housing. What makes this viable is that the situation is inconsolable in all the major cities. Unless you have parents that can contribute money to you with financial speculation in housing, you get ruined in almost every way. A kind of bitterness towards mid-career artists may also surface, because we had the opportunity to create our own scene, whereas young people don’t share the same opportunities for independent living, cheap studios or to create a scene of their own.
The situation might be similar in all of Europe now.
So the prospect of coming to this old hotel in the countryside, and to do whatever you care for as an artist, might seem like a rare opportunity for some young artists. It is no longer in use as a private housing, and has become a place for both public and semi-public activities. The concept of sharing a house with fellow artists and artistic production might sound snobbish when opportunities like these are scarce, but that is not the only goal for the project. Offering a place to work as an individual or a group for three or four weeks, where nobody knows what comes out of it, is a necessity for creating spontaneous meetings, discussions and exchange. To have the opportunity to not know what happens is a quality I find quite rare, though it sounds overtly romantic. It can be a very stupid thing to promote in an interview.
Because it is promoted as self-fulfillment in a neoliberal sense everywhere. Surely every place has its set of problems and it shouldn’t be covered up as an idyllic pastoral to enter rural environments for artistic inspiration. I think loads of artists, especially young artists who will have a hard time finding decent work conditions in urban centers, might project this naïvité of rural space as a haven of peace and calm. But it can be quite a burdening experience to move your practice as an artist into a rural setting.
But is it really happening, is it seen as an option for artists to move to the countryside?
Yeah, sure. If you have an income to live on, many artists prepare to acquire this at some point in their careers, whether it’s a writers’ cabin or a studio retreat, or moving to work full time in a derelict industrial complex. Personally, my main concern about living in the countryside is how environments are increasingly under pressure everywhere. This place is just as problematic as anywhere else.
Do you have programs for artists that rent spaces outside of cities, for very low rent, for longer time periods as in some countries? Programs that would bring young people, artists to the countryside?
Maybe not that many long-term, but there are lots of places you can stay for maybe 2 months or less. There are a few places where you can also get scholarships when applying. Like I said, I do not oppose this idea that artists should have a temporary escape or the ability to fine-tune their artistic temperament within a pastoral framework. But what I find is important is that artists have a chance to meet under a variety of conditions. Many residencies might have an immediate appeal as a retreat from stressful living, where you go to be alone as much as possible. I am not against it completely of course, the idea of isolation has a beauty I quite often look for myself. But I also think that when projects like ours receive public funding, a major interest should be how new ideas or concepts emerge, and the possibility of some real local exchange within these processes.
What becomes increasingly interesting about rural art spaces is that it can also be used as a hot house for ideas that emerge through conversations or production. I find this equally necessary to social life in a city where you go to the bar, drink, laugh, joke, cry and let off your frustrations before you retreat to your own world again, which is quite relieving in a way. The same thing applies to going to places where you can enter a studio in silence and quiet surroundings. Ideally, all these conditions are an offer for more healthy living conditions in a sometimes mentally unhealthy profession.
You mentioned the project Mycelium, based in the Oppland region of Norway, the aim of which was to create a center-less organization that would map, advise, support artist-based initiatives working outide art-institutions. What is the state of the project now?
With last years’ corona situation we haven’t really got to this full time yet, but the project is in the making right now, inviting people and planning to host meetings for further process.
What’s the main idea of it? A kind of network?
Yes, in a similar vein to what I mentioned initially, we aim at creating platforms for discussion around certain topics where the curatorial-managerial role is downplayed. Like every project it starts with an empty paper, tossing around some core ideas about self-organized principles. It will hopefully take inspiration from your project the Perpedian map, which is one important source for development. From the very beginning, I have been interested in the biological concept of mycelia, the underground structure without a central structure. It is a radically different idea of how a network works, not limited to vertical growth or central command in terms of professionalism, economy or formal status. As a concept of horizontal growth, it is an ideal way of working with art in relation to local environments and social fabrics, where artists themselves may become a part of it, rather than being estranged by lack of mutual ground with political decision makers. It is also a kind of network model that increases possibilities to discover new methodologies and knowledge forms. I believe these methods, when played out in art, represent a true alternative to a system where artistic autonomy is too often measured by recognition among peers.
The interview was conducted by Lenka Dolanová.