This review of the Lofoten International Art Festival (LiAF) appeared online in the Norwegian art magazine KUNSTforum:
Seen from the top of a mountain overlooking the fishing village, Henningsvær resembles an archipelago of islands loosely strung together, not unlike Lofoten as a whole. Bathed by the sea, some of the oldest volcanic rock formations on the Lofoten peninsula can be found on the edges of the settlement, right behind the sports arena known as Henningsvær Stadion – one of the locations of this edition of LiAF, in fact. For the first time since its inception in 1991, the biennial, which in the past has mainly been held in the larger, neighbouring towns of Solvær and Kabelvåg, took place within the confines of Henningsvær. Due to the decline of the fishing industry to which it owes its wealth and the ongoing threat of oil rigging, the town faces an uncertain future, thus lending itself beautifully to the theme chosen by curators Heidi Ballet and Milena Høgsberg for this edition of LiAF, titled I Taste the Future.
As it happens, the works by some twenty artists and artist collectives featured in this year’s LiAF – a good mix of international, Norwegian and locally-based artists with a connection to the place – are spread across three atmospheric, dilapidated venues that were former sites of fish production, before closing down in the 1980s and 90s. Is this the taste of things to come? I was left wondering. The largest of the three, Trevarefabrikken, an old cod liver oil factory turned into a cultural centre boasting a bar and a cafe, was the designated festival hub. Youmna Chlala’s blue neon installation, one of (all too) few site-specific artworks to be located outdoors, deftly availed itself of the skeletal wooden racks visible all around the village that are still used to hang cod out to dry. Part of a larger text-based work spanning the three venues – How Many Tongues Does It Take to Make a Color? (2017) – the sign read “Here We Cut Tongues”, in keeping with Chlala’s poetic claim that “In the future we will weave, cut and preserve tongues in the hopes of preserving languages. If blue is the horizon of colors will it appear infinitely?”
Written out in cobalt blue letters, the latter was inscribed on the wall in a room of Trevarefabrikken with sweeping views of the sea and the jagged mountains beyond it. In the same room, packed with people at the opening, I witnessed the start of Adam Linder’s roaming performance To Gear a Joan (2017) enacted by Stine Janvin Motland. Sporting parts of an armour fashioned out of carbon fibre over a plain grey outfit, the pale Norwegian vocalist looked the part of Joan of Arc or else a “future Eve” as she moved around slowly, in a controlled manner, and repeated Linder’s lyrics in an eerily high-pitched tone, over and over, like some incantation. As she stood by the vast square window dominating the room, Motland appeared to vie for our attention with the breathtaking scenery. “We’re not in competition but in conversation with the landscape,” Chlala would tell me later.
Not all the artists saw things this way, though. Eglė Budvytytė’s Liquid Power Has No Shame (2017), another choreographic performance that spilled out of Trevarefabrikken onto the streets of Henningsvær, saw the three Brussels-based performers pitted against the landscape, “refusing to surrender to [its] romantic pull”, to quote the festival booklet. Clad in gold hooded jackets bearing fanciful octopi motifs, the dancers moved languidly down a wide street, followed by their audience and the amused gazes of local youths, until they reached a rocky promontory overlooking the sea, where they carried out peculiar, mildly erotic rituals. These involved round colourful urchin shells from which the dancers poured out water into each others’ navels, drank it and then spat it out into a shallow pool of water nestled in the rocks.
Imagine a future with no humans
The festival’s very title suggests a way of apprehending the future through the senses. The sense of taste itself was represented by Liv Bangsund’s People’s Kitchen project, which during the opening weekend served up delicious free lunches cooked with food past its sell-by date in a bid to raise awareness of food waste in Norway and beyond. But the titular “taste” stood for an all-round sensory experience. “We could have called it I Smell the Future,” Høgsberg explained at a press briefing on the day of the opening. Or indeed I Hear the Future, given the prominence of audio works showcased in the festival. Daisuke Kosugi’s audio guide, for one, invited participants to follow specific instructions, directing them to specific places located in and around Henningsvær Stadion’s football field. This resulted in a silent choreography as visitors – each in his or her own world yet dimly aware of other people’s movements – listened to two different versions of the audio with four discrete tracks on it, ranging from the upbeat 1947 song “I’m My Own Grandpa” to what the artist referred to as “hell tourism” stories (apparently a popular genre in Japan), inspired by a folk tale about a monk who travelled to hell and back. These briefly captured my interest but soon I found myself drifting away from the football field to inspect the curious gneiss formations thought to be some 25-million-years old; the work could hardly compete with the scenery in this instance.
Kosugi’s recordings challenge us to imagine a future with no humans in it. At the outset of her own “outdoor sensory tour”, which was among the opening weekend’s highlights, Elin Már Øyen Vister also reminded those who went on it that cod fish were coming to those shores long before humans ever did. Her contribution to LiAF, Dear Henningsvær and the Ocean that Embraces You! (2017) – a title that reads like a love letter – engaged with the village and its setting to a greater degree than any of the other exhibiting artists. Már Øyen Vister, who lives in Lofoten, is well aware that it takes a long time, sometimes years, to make a site-specific work worthy of the name; she admits that on this occasion she only spent two months at Henningsvær in the run up to LiAF, getting to know the place according to her usual practice: first by walking around and meeting the landscape, sounding it out, deep-listening to it, and then by getting to know its people and their stories.
Unlike Már Øyen Vister’s audio walk that visitors could go on by themselves, and which engaged with various actors (both human and non-human) and aspects of life in the fishing village, the tour at the opening weekend focused more firmly on the Sea Sámi people and their culture. By living in the area, the artist became aware of Norway’s colonial history and present as regards the Sea Sámi, which she was not taught at school. Her work in the context of LiAF attempts to address this but it does so in a way that I found somewhat troubling. On the tour that I attended, we were led towards two women sporting traditional Sámi costumes presented against a stunning natural backdrop of sea and land that was, at least implicitly, presented as rightfully their own. This despite the fact that, as far as I could ascertain, neither one of them – singer Elisabeth Misvær and translator Heidi Birgitta Andersen respectively – actually comes from Lofoten. Given the regional disparities between the Sea Sámi people, reflected by the very different costumes the two women wore, Már Øyen Vister may have cast her net a little too wide, particularly if her aim was to convey to us the fruit of her research into local lore and oral histories.
Már Øyen Vister was not the only LiAF artist whose work touched on the fraught Sámi question. Besides Sorry (2014), Siri Hermansen’s informative documentary built around film footage from King Harald’s official apology (“for wrongs inflicted on the Sámi people by the Norwegian State through policies of hard Norwegianization”) made at the opening of the Sámi Parliament in 1997, the second floor of the Nordbrygga venue housed sundry drawings by Danish archaeologist Povl Simonsen, whose pioneering field studies in the 1950s showed that the Sámi people were the first inhabitants of some parts of Northern Norway. These were selected by Silje Figenschou Thoresen, an artist of Sámi origin, and presented alongside found objects and sculptures of her own. When I asked her how Simonsen’s drawings related to the biennial theme, the artist’s response was that the work “talks about the past, and we will always do that in the future”.
This was certainly true of Marysia Lewandowska and Neil Cummings’ video Museum Futures: Distributed (2008) that one could view in a black room right next to Hermansen’s installation. Commissioned by Moderna Museet to mark its fiftieth anniversary in 2008, the work imagines a live virtual interview between Moderna Museet’s executive director Ayan Lindquist and a Chinese archivist, Ms Chan. Set in 2058, fifty years from now (at the time of its conception), the dialogue flits back and forth in time, spanning a century of the museum’s history – roughly half of which is speculative. The fictive scenario at the heart of Museum Futures: Distributed mirrors the curatorial premise behind this edition of LiAF: Ballet and Høgsberg had asked artists to project themselves 150 years into the future. None of the participants took this literally, as Høgsberg admitted on the day of the opening, explaining that this brief was intended “to move past apocalyptic scenarios and get into a more playful way of thinking”.
A Cyborg Manifesto
Unsurprisingly, given the approach encouraged by the curators, several works on view nodded to Donna Haraway’s 1984 A Cyborg Manifesto. The feminist theorist and her convention-defying life style are sympathetically portrayed in Fabrizio Terranova’s feature-length documentary film Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival (2016), screened in a dedicated projection room. The Cyborg Manifesto informs Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s video TEETH, GUMS, FUTURE, SOCIETY (TGMFS) (2016), which turns an adornment associated with hip-hop culture – the gilded “grill” worn over teeth – into a futuristic prop that a group of four Memphis-based actors dons as they read out from and discuss the Cyborg Manifesto on a makeshift stage inside a suitably modernist-looking building.
Haraway’s influence and her brand of feminist science fiction make themselves felt in the cyborg-like, female or androgynous, creatures who are a ghostly presence in the works of Adam Linder, Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Marysia Lewandowska and Neil Cummings, and above all Ann Lislegaard. “Billy”, the cyborg whose effigy looms large in Maelstrømmen (2017) – Lislegaard’s 3D animation for two screens set amid industrial machinery at the Trevarefabrikken – is made in the artist’s own image, albeit with shaved hair that significantly alters her appearance. In conversation with Milena Høgsberg at the opening weekend, Lislegaard said that one of the reasons why she has long been interested in science fiction as a genre is precisely that it explores gender issues and sexuality in interesting ways.
But Haraway’s ideas were also invoked by artists whose work gestures towards alternative forms of communication, not only between humans but also, intriguingly, between different species. Lislegaard’s cyborg Billy appears to be hearing the voices of other beings, which he attempts to capture by holding up his hand to his ear. Occasional glitches in the transmission that keep the viewer engaged, as far as the artist is concerned, recall the odd slip in the otherwise implausibly articulate debate that Cummings and Lewandowska’s two female protagonists engage in. Ms Chan and Ayan Lindquist seem to be browsing materials lodged in their heads even as they converse; the future technology that enables this is taken for granted (it comes with its own vocabulary) and never spelled out.
A similar haziness surrounds Filip Van Dingenen’s concept of “interspecies diplomacy”, illustrated by the case of seaweed. Van Dingenen, who spent time learning about traditional seaweed cutting and farming in Ireland, has since joined the ranks of worldwide activists fending for the legal rights of seaweeds, faced with the reality of mass harvesting. The artist sees seaweeds as sentient beings endowed with spiritual qualities. At the opening weekend, we had the chance to get more closely acquainted with a variety of locally-sourced specimens that Van Dingenen collected especially for his Seaweed Cutting, Collecting and Conservation Project (CCCP) workshop. This was to be sure a pleasurable activity that appealed to more than one sense, yet I came away feeling none the wiser as to how this particular instance of interspecies communication was to work, nor what the artist meant by “new forms of diplomacy” in our dealings with seaweeds, other perhaps than his insistence on addressing them as “sea plants” – a more politically-correct term, grant it.
The artworks that made the deepest impression on me at this year’s performance- and video-heavy LiAF were undoubtedly the ones that acknowledged the surrounding scenery and worked with it, not in defiance of it. On the whole the curators struck the right balance between different media; and yet, despite Lofoten’s famously unpredictable weather, a case could be made for having more outdoor installation pieces and fewer video works whose projection requirements kept visitors cooped up inside the main festival venues.