WITH JOHN PETER NILSSON
N.P.: The imperialism of Western European and American art world
seems to have been functioning successfully at inventing new
trends and momentary tastes of the art audience and market.
As interests today move from centre to margins, topographically
as sociologically, could we say that present state is just one
of trends or does it contain conditions to be prolonged into
something much more fateful?
J-P.N.: The subject today has to map itself. We have to learn to understand that we always are global - somewhere. The geography is broken and we have to start to navigate from our own experiences. The vehicle for such journey is not "Who I am", but rather - "When am I?" In a global world it's needed to navigate with a global language, otherwise we get lost. But our experiences are not only global, it is as much my private experiences, rooted in my own private context, as it is collective experiences from a world that many of us share and live in together. Therefore we have to rethink what an experience can be in relation to language, especially to the fact that language is not divided from neither our body nor the place in which we act. Language is in constant flux and interacts with every context and situation we enter.
This ongoing friction between experience and language creates untranslatable distances. And since the Self only can have a partial understanding of itself, and need the Other to fill in the gaps, a dialogue between experience and language can never happen only by understanding each other. If I want to map myself, if I want to position myself in the broken geography, I have to tell a story - my story. What is new today is to fight for a space in the world to tell this story. It's not cyberspace. And it's not ethnospace. It is a mental space, within myself, within my fellow being.
N.P.: Analogy between Orwell's Big Brother and processes of global economy or subliminal mechanism of internet seems to be fitting well: it is about the control on one hand and losing of identity on the other. Which strategies to fight this do you sense in art in general and in Nordic art in particular?
J-P.N.: It has been said that there is a bright future for art and cultural production in general. That is, the novelty effects of, for example, television and the Internet will sooner or later fade away. Some claims that it will happen pretty soon, and that there will come a new audience, hungry for art, wishing to experience art in "real life". The museums and the public art galleries have to start to be prepared.
On the other hand, in our global village today the difference between center and periphery has very much imploded. Through technology many of us are part of an international society where old national frontiers don´t seem to exist. Information and entertainment, commodities and ideologies, are picked up all over the world independent of national or cultural heritage. Today it´s the access to technology (and information) that is the dividing-line between those who are part of the new society and those who are not.
The Nordic countries have the highest densities of mobile phones in the world. The explanations for this trend are more than just economic. It has occasionally been claimed that the key factor is a combination of the local geography and the number of inhabitants. Communities are situated far apart, which in turn creates distances between individuals. People make contact by phone or e-mail just as frequently as they actually meet in cafés or in their own homes.
The spread of communication technology has drastically altered the way we view the world (and ourselves). This applies to the Nordic countries as much as it does to the rest of the world (at least the rich part of it). We live in a global village, in which the world has paradoxically both shrunk and expanded! This has given rise to a new kind of closeness to and curiosity about formerly remote regions and marginalised cultures, for instance, the Nordic zone.
So, the question has no simple answer. On the one hand today's media technology has changed the world to the better, we are coming "closer" to each other, coming "closer" to political events and are much more aware about democratic injustices and environmental issues. But this "super-enligphpent" has also created somehow tragic effects for our society which seems to be a passive one and in pursuit of emptiness.
N.P.: What are the advantages and disadvantages of presenting the Nordic countries, a liberal multicultural organism, as a whole unity?
J-P.N.: In the catalogue to the exhibition "Sleeping Beauty - Art Now, Scandinavia Today" at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, 1982, Pontus Hultén writes: "With some effort, one can, however, establish a list of common elements and factors in their respective cultures today, most of them related to the light, the climate, in some cases a common ethninc origin and older cultural links, going more or less far back into history. On the other hand, although Danes and Swedes have not been separated into two distinct countries for more than about thousand years, and Swedes and Norwegians less than one hundred years, there is in many cases no difficulty in distinguishing a dane, an Icelander, a Norwegian and a swede by facial expressions, movement patterns, and their general behavior before thet have opened their mouths. The Finns often look very different from, for example, the Swedes, although they can be as blonde, even blonder than the Scandinavians of northern European, germanic, Indo-European origin."
I don't know if Mr. Hultén was ironic or not writing the above. Okay, it is almost twenty years ago it was written, and the world has changed since then. But the quote represents nevertheless a cliché about the Nordic countries, similar to another "myth" about the North: In 1649, during the reign of Christina, the French philosopher René Descartes was invited to Sweden to teach the Queen about Catholicism. Within two years, he had died of pneumonia. According to legend, he caught it because of the cold weather and the lack of cultural stimulation!
Since the 1980s there has been lots of changes in the relations inbetween the Nordic countries. But I agree with Mr. Hultén, one can't say that the Nordic region is a homogenous zone. Talking about nationalism, and also regionalism, for that matter, seems often end up with conservatism and nostalgia for the past. For example the Nordic identity has its roots in German romanticism when Germany as a nation was constructed in the 19th century. Germany needed a "lost paradise" to build its new identity from, and this "paradise" was found by Goethe in Thule, a place somewhere in the very North of Europe. So, the Nordic identity was a construction from the beginning.
But there are nevertheless also advantages seeing the Nordic countries as a region. Over the last years, especially in the cultural field, there are lots of cooperations and sharing of costs etc for different projects, both in the region itself and internationally. The question is still, though, are these projects selling a special identity. If you should ask the artists, writers, directors etc, I am sure the majority would say - no. And I think they are right. Living in Stockholm, and also editing an art magazine that deals mostly about Nordic artists, I can't say that I am selling an identity or a special style or vision. But nevertheless, I am sure that people outside the region see it differently. It's a double situation, a "doubleness" I think we are all part of in different regions all over the world - a "doubleness" we have to learn to live with.
N.P.: Slovene theorist and artist Marina Grzinic developed theory about two ideological matrixes when discussing about relations between Western and Eastern Europe: the first corresponds to "monster matrix" and the latter to "scum of society matrix". Grzinic also believes that globalisation process would only consolidate them. How do you, from Scandinavian point of view, perceive this division between West and East of Europe?
J-P.N.: When "After the Wall" opened at Moderna Museet in Stockholm (October 1999), a two-day seminar opened the exhibition. Several intellectuals were invited to discuss the situation in the post-Communist countries. And there was something here that made me see the "East". Under Communist rule, those in the various Communist countries knew as little about one another as we in the West knew about them. They were united, nonetheless, by the fact that they lived under totalitarian domination!? When I looked at the exhibition, I wondered whether it showed, whether there was something that united so-called post-Communist art? Has that art as new-found freedom, for example, carried with it a sort of sagging self-confidence, that is, a need to imitate art from the West? Or, conversely, had Eastern European art become entrenched in its past?
Well, seeing "After the Wall", and have been travelling in and working with "East" for a long time, I dare to say that there are differences between West and East of Europe. One is in the style of writing. Often, an "Eastern" writer keep intricate levels in his or her texts by adding meaning after meaning. A "Western" writer subtracts meaning... Okay, it's a little ironic remark, but the major difference between West and East of Europe is that the West often seems very spoiled and blasé, seeking after meaning without really finding out what they are looking for. In the East there is at least a determination to find something, and to be proud of it, to fight for it. Sometimes to the point of cynisism.
N.P.: Could we say that stereotypes we once loathed are now becoming welcome as they stand for local realities, which could be transformed into what the term "glocality" suggests?
J-P.N.: The levelling of national differences has led to some kind of a blasé and almost cynical attitude towards contemporary culture. Because it´s not only a levelling of national differences but also a levelling of values and meanings. We´ve seen different reactions to this development, everything from the rise of many neo-nationalistic movements, to a new interest in nihilistic philosophy. But we´ve also seen a new interest to manifestate national cultures, especially the visual art. Beside the many biennales, triennales, documentas, that for a relatively long time has been the olympic games for the art world, the museum-boom in the West, has led to many national exhibitions celebrating art from Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain, United States, Japan etc. This trend has been heavily supported by the various goverments, often in connection with multi-national companies, based in the different countries, trying to expand their market with some glamour from the art.
This is a strange paradox where on one hand we´re living in a global village in which the old national borders don´t seem to exist as they once did. But on the other hand, national culture is manifestated as never before. And as with the commodities of the multi-national companies, the artists influences, and output, are very much international orientated. Well, in some cases the so called national artists dosen´t even live in the nation they´re representing!? And in other cases they might only been living there for a short while!?
Today, the whole issue of national and international culture is very confusing. And I´m not sure it´s only nostalgia for things past, or a lost world order, that is the driving-force behind different national manifestations. It´s also a question about identity. About creating an identity. A new identity.
N.P.: Art has been representing an open and free-of-aura space since beginning of previous century. Does it still, in a threatening situation like the one we are talking about, has a power to transform lives (or opinions) or does this experience happen only on individual and very subjective level, if it happens at all?
J-P.N.: General visionary understanding of today's global village and indirectly of art in it can be interpreted as a vision to embrace the Other without any prejudices nor pre-assumptions in a more psychological way, in a relational way. To embrace the naivete within oneself.
Breton's interpretation of humour as being "for liberating and elevating ourselves" was an important component in Surrealism's view of art's utopian potential for creating a better, more beautiful world. What happens if we change the word humour with love? Can love be used as a way to leberate and elevate ourselves? Of course, all you need is love... Since Romanticism this is the answer to all kind of problems. Especially in popular culture love has been (mis)used. These days you can't only say "I love you", you have to say "I love you as Ingrid Bergman loved Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca" etc, to paraphrase Umberto Eco's famous remark on the crisis of representation in society. perceived as contradictory. Now it is vain to search for any other motive in surrealist activity than the hope of discovering that point." Isn't love the point in experience at which opposites are united? Not least the opposition between fear and desire, for example.
It is very important to being able to coordinate with various forces that are out of our own personal control. To being attentive to the Other, and to daring to go along with it by governing the movements of your own body - on the Other's terms and vice versa.
We can walk into a room, a situation, that defines our own presence. A space that changes depending on how we move about. A situation that is simply going on, that just is.
-John Peter Nilsson
Questions: Nataa Petrein