Melbourne and Beyond

Anders Eiebakke is an artist, he operates a gallery and is the leader of the Young Artists Society (UKS) in Norway. In occasion of Norways participation in the Biennial in Melbourne he has published a flaring article castigating Norwegian cultural politics. [Click here]



Stephan Dillemuth: For what reason did you write this article in Melbourne?

Anders Eiebakke: I wanted to make some statements about Norway - it is important to actually state, isolate and generalise the things that have happened in Norway over the last 20 years.

SD: Why do you feel responsible for that?

AE: I am not a moral, left wing watchdog, but it is important for me as a politically thinking, creative individual to state my opinion. The most important political cases are hardly ever debated in Norway. That's what I wanted to take up - to see if it was possible to discuss these things.

SD: These issues on Norwegian politics were not inserted in Norway. You have presented them in Australia, into the foreign context, into an art-context.

AE: Yes, this text was published in a catalogue, which came out on the other side of the world. But it was paid by the Norwegian foreign ministry and I wanted to test the structures of the Norwegian art-, culture- and politics-production. Ideally, the Norwegian public would have been my main audience for this text. I thought this text would be publicly debated. That this was not the case came as a surprise to me, since similar projects before had been taken up by the Norwegian tabloids.

SD: So it has not been discussed at all?

AE: Not really. People from the art world were not sure if it was an ironic, conceptual or neo-avantgarde text. I did not send it around to journalists, either. But actually I`ve got pretty much response from abroad, people greeting and publishers like you who wants to re-publish it.
The text was written shortly after the right-wing and extremist 'Progress Party' stated that they had a zero tolerance policy towards people that called their party publicly 'racist'. I did that in my text, but they did not sue me, which was a disappointment because I was hoping to open up a debate on some of my remarks. The 'Progress Party' is indeed a racist party that`s threatening the democracy in Norway.

SD: I thought that a lot of conservative politicians and also the older artists' union guys would hate you for what you said about them. But I also thought that the younger generation of artists might not be very pleased, either, since you are proclaiming yourself as their spokesman.

AE: I was elected as a spokesman, actually. But that is not the issue - I am a spokesman for myself. I had some sour reactions from artists that had built up international careers. Some people felt that I was disregarding other artists, by not including them. Of course, some people in the academy, especially in Oslo, reacted harshly, too.

Gardar Eide Einarsson: But they did not respond publicly?

AE: No. That just does not happen in Norway. People are easily angered but they respond rather to tabloid issues. Texts are not being debated in Norway.

GEE: Why do you think that is?

AE: In the 1930's there was a cultural radical movement, a living public debate - esp. among the writers and publishers. It still exists to some extent, mainly within and about literature, but there does not seem to be a critical tradition within the Arts in Norway. I think this is a consequence of nationalism, which has been so destructive for the Norwegian visual arts, but also the fact that there were probably only 20 artists in post-60's that were of any larger importance for Norway. And in the 60's only one gallerist ruled the commercial art scene Haaken - he imported French abstraction into the Norwegian art world and commercialised it - it became the new art form for the Norwegian bourgeoisie.

SD: Did this 'painting a'la mode' replace Norwegian political art?

AE: No, because the strong tradition of political art was never commercialised. But there was a problematic break in the early 60's when the 'new' Abstractionists took over from the 'old guard' of figurative, socially orientated artists. The battle ended in favour of the Abstractionists - this movement then dominated the art world in Norway for a long time.

SD: A lot of countries which were isolated during WWII had the possibiliy to import the those artistic movements from America or France in the 50s and 60s. Generally speaking, 'cultural import' might be the reason for a rather uncritical attitude and the lack of a public debate.

AE: I share your view on the consequence of cultural import. But Norway was under Nazi rule for only 5 years, whereas Germany was under Nazi rule for over 10 years and most of the intelligentsia in Germany was either driven out of the country or killed. But the Nazis could not so easily destroy the Norwegian art scene, because Norway did not become a National Socialist society.

SD: Hm.

AE: Yes. In Norway the smart artists went into the anti-fascist movement or escaped to Sweden. But modern art was not against orders in Norway. The situation in Oslo in the 30's was more like the situation in American art in the 30's. Visually, they are very similar but the Norwegian art-scene was really isolated before WW II already.

SD: How come the public debate in Norway died down?

AE: I think that in the visual arts it never had a high level, anyway. There never was a discourse in Norway like there was in the US or in Europe in the 40's/50's and 60's. One of the main reasons must be the concentration of power - there are some very strong commercial agents - and the fact that the Norwegian art scene did not have a long history. Norway is a young nation, there was no art academy in Norway before 1909.

SD: What are the consequences for today?

AE: One of the consequences might be this import-situation. There is an educational shift at the art academies from an isolated, national situation to a situation where younger artists don't know very much about Norwegian art history but they are very well informed about the international scene through magazines, books, guest teachers, etc..etc.. International art is then imported into Norway under this international banner.

GEE: Is this the case with the other participants in the art scene? The theorists, curators, etc…

AE: Norway has never had professional curators!

GEE: People who have been working in this area - do you think the same logic was effective for all of them?

AE: Absolutely. But... who are these Norwegian art historians or curators or critics? many are out there?
There might be only one or two advanced and complex theorists and thinkers on an 'international standard' and they are not very active in building up the Norwegian art scene, they are active on an international level.
There was no organic evolution of Norwegian contemporary art. This might be due to a lack of historical knowledge, both on international contemporary art and also, quite scarily, on the last ten years of contemporary art in this city...

GEE: Do you think this is changing now or is it repeating itself?

AE: I think that a lot of the things that we have seen over the last years have been about repetition…

SD: Nevertheless, you seem to find something positive in this situation right now.

AE: Yes, absolutely. There are some structural advantages because of the particularity of Norwegian society and public. Under the current globalisation of economy and the mainstreaming of culture in general and the visual arts in particular, it is possible to uphold some artistic strategies in Norway that would be more or less unthinkable in other places. In Norway you can exist as an artist in a marginal position, but you might still receive public or state support. There is no strong commercial market for contemporary art here, that has positive and negative effects… In Norway you lack the cynicism that is part of the mainstream of contemporary art. You won't find many people strategically building up their name.

GEE: What do you think is the reason for that?

E. Even though we have class divisions in the Norwegian society, there is this egalitarian tradition which makes it hard to import hierarchical structures, like you have them in the NY art scene. But on the other hand no expert discussion is met with fierce opposition.

GEE: Do you think this is going to change now - since we have more and more artists with semi-successful international careers?

AE: There is a backlash…

GEE: We have had this egalitarian dream in Norway for a while now - a weird local version of the American dream, where you do not have the option to become someone really great, but you have the option to become equal, alongside with everyone else. It seems as if this ideal is changing now and we are buying more into an American version of this dream. This might also affect the particular situation we are discussing here.

AE: Just let me compare Norway and Sweden. When I went to Stockholm for the first time the HipHop scene and other subcultures were smooth and functional compared to Oslo. Whereas you could find 25 graffiti-artists in Oslo you could find 2000 in Stockholm. But whilst HipHop graffiti in Stockholm nearly vanished by now it continued in Oslo and developed more and more. Today Oslo's graffiti scene dominates the northern countries.
The continuity of painting never ceased to exist in Norwegian contemporary art even though it has had some troubles. Unlike the development in other cities in Europe and America artists here have been painting all the time and nowadays some of the most interesting painters are Norwegian… Or, we have a movement like the Black Metal in Norway. I find it problematic, but it does have some radicality and cultural extensions to it, which I find interesting, it can emerge as a complex cultural formation… What I mean is that the oddity of Norwegian culture has some qualities that just are`nt that obvious at first glance.

SD: So there are all these residues of former influences - we still have HipHop, painting, Death Metal - all these former waves of import are still present… This might be seen as quality, but what is its worth in terms of a public debate? If everyone is comfortable within his or her youth culture, adopting it at a certain age and holding it up until they die, and if everyone respects each other in terms of equality, I do not see any need for a public discussion. There is no goal, no competition, no economic competition. Just a colourful spectrum of residues, state-subsidised and self-content…

AE: I see some qualities in that diversity. The problem, as you say, is that this subcultural diversity does not necessarily lead to a public debate or an evolution of art/cultural theory. But there are some dialectical mechanisms here: in Sweden you have a much stronger public debate on art than in Norway. Trends are becoming more dominant and brutal. This lack of public debate on Norwegian art might have some positive consequences. But the politics of state-subsidies prevalent in Norway are extremely problematic, it keeps not only subcultures alive, but also stabilises and reproduces highly conservative positions in pretty conservative institutions. State-subsidy is merely out of contact with the social circumstances.

SD: Isn't it the artists' union that distributes the state money?

AE: The artists' union as we have it today in Norway is the successor of different organisations that went into a struggle in the 70's, demanding support from the state, due to the lack of commercial markets. 'If the state wants a Norwegian art scene', they said, 'it has to pay for it, since it cannot exist on its own'. Today's artists' union has not problematised its economic foundation at all. This so-called union represents the interests of one generation of Norwegian artists and it has since then put more effort into conserving the old structures than debating art or their own role in Norwegian society. It is more or less an organisation similar to a farmer's association or something like that. The funny thing is that the farmer`s organisations have an impact on the state that give them subsidies for growing crops both on unsuitable territories, whilst artists doesn`t seem to have much impact at all.

SD: What is the UKS' (young artists society) role today, in this relationship to this NBK? Is it not purely a shift in generation?

AE: I do not think that's the case for the time being, but it could become the case at anytime. There is a disagreement within the UKS - there are some people I regard as progressive, open minded and dynamic, but there is also a strong fraction of people who are branding themselves as the new generation but have more in common with the Norwegian art tradition.

SD: What would be the agenda if the UKS were not to fall into the same trap as the former generation?

AE: I always disagreed with the attempt to make a union for artists. Artists do not have collective interests, say, like industrial workers or generally the working class, they are not in the same position since they are petty bourgeois people. Artists have completely different class backgrounds and work with different strategies.
Nevertheless it seems to be necessary in this Norwegian scenario to have a political organisation, with agreed-upon topics. Over the last years the UKS has taken the development of political strategy seriously. We are not a union anymore, we are a political organisation dealing with politics on art, the distribution of art.
One of our strategies should be to get the NBK out of business….

SD: The NBK is your biggest enemy?

AE.: Their politics are certainly the biggest enemy… we have now an opportunity to ram that policy and to take out some of the most reactionary elements - for example the idea of supporting artists because they are artists, rather than focusing on the art production.

GEE: What would be the arena for such a clash? The general absence of public debate which we also discussed in relation to your article makes all these issues a bit weird. It is weird that you would have to approach journalists to write about these things…

AE.: You could also hold something against it. My gallery for example tries to connect, in its shows, different circuits, audiences. It is very much dealing with the local communities around that gallery. I think that it is possible to communicate with the art scene on such a platform. That strategy might be seen as "Ersatz" for a broad or complex public debate. Coming friday UKS is doing a show with Anti-fascist Action. We will be projecting a video onto the building of the progress party at nighttime. That is an attempt to create new social links. To create a common platform between people. We have a lot of new contacts outside the artworld which might eventually be more valuable to us than the traditional links to critics and journalists.

SD: So you take up different roles in that art scene. You are an artist, you run a gallery, you write and you are the president of UKS...?

E.: Yes, and I consider myself an activist…

SD: Well, I have different functions or identities as well. But I have to ask if it is really necessary for artists to go all the way from the production of an idea to its distribution, yes, and finally to its institutionalisation? Is this all-in-one function not reducing the necessities for debate, for communication and for collaboration with others…

AE.: It is actually possible for me to make a decent living from my activities in the arts. This is possible through the weak public situation. Since the Norwegian art world is far away from being professional it is necessary for artists to take up several roles and adapt different strategies and positions. This necessity of creating a context for your own production or activism stands in a dialectical relationship to the actual structural possibilities. It is possible to be understood and also, to create your own context.

SD: You said last time that it was easy for a Norwegian to participate. Participate in what? In a public debate? You are the one that always states that there is none.

AE.: But at the same time it is possible to make your remarks public...

SD: ...and no one listens to it…

E.: Yes, but still: There are actually people who are interested in what I am doing, but they are not generally participants in the Norwegian art world…

SD: we are back again at the patchwork of minorities. Gardar, don't you want to say something on this all-in-one-role of the artist?

GEE: I think this idea of doing different things does not exclude the idea of a community - it just means that you will take on different parts in this community at different times and that you do not have to look for someone that can make things happen for you - you can just make them yourself. I think this makes for more dynamic communities and more well functioning groups.

AE. I can also see a shift …we are living in a very tiny language community where 100 interested artists is a good number. Relatively speaking, there are very many artists in Norway…

SD: How do corporate structures and corporate money influence this small organism that we have discussed so far? Do you think there is any impact and where does it crystallise?

AE.: I am not sure if I understand your question.

S.D. I am interested in how far the hegemony of a global economy creates a corporate culture and in how far this goes hand in hand with changes in the idea of a public sphere. A sphere which used to be defined through debates and dissent about the democratic organisation of a nation, state and culture. Privatisation means in that context that that more and more aspects of the public life are under the influence of corporate interests. I was wondering how you feel about this in Norway…

E.: Norwegian economy is dominated by state corporations - so in a way the market economy in Norway is a state-capitalist economy.

SD: Like in the countries formerly called communist?

E.: I cannot see anything communistic in state control over the means of production…I do not consider Stalin's Soviet Union as a communist state, either…but I see your point, anyway.
What is odd about Norwegian culture is that there is no direct fraud or direct bribes. Instead you have a culture of comradry and nepotism. The functioneers in the national corporations are more or less the same people that are part of the state government. They are changing roles all the time. The people in the social democratic party first get into a position as minister of oil or whatever and two years later they become the director of a large national oil corporation and then their best friends happen to be their legals etcetc… that is a situation, like in the 'communist' states in Eastern Europe. But the political situation in Norway is the same as in Western Europe. The politicians didn't put any effort into controlling the globalisation of the economy in the 90's. They used their stockmarket indexes and interest rates as a God's given parameter of their political dispositions, which of course is met with a lot of criticism today. I think we are on the brink of a new radical political movement, also in Norway. The Attac Group, which was formed in Sweden, is coming to Norway. Yes, this is a sign of the times, but as far as I'm concerned it is just the beginning. Since the fall of the wall the bankruptcy of the traditional left was so obvious - they had been distancing themselves from all the dictatorships in the former east for decades- but at the same time they had to change their politics.

SD: How do you see that?

AE: They depended as much as e.g. the Stalinists on the idea of 'the state' as a fixed, objective, given that can be used as a tool for a social change. This instrumental approach to the state, the law and different non-organic dispositions vanished during the 90's. But the result was that the social democrats, for example, mutated from being instrumental in the face of capitalism, that is, from trying to form a socially faced capitalism to adapting a totally liberal pro-market attitude. At the same time, they instrumentalised their politics on culture. The social democrats acted upon art education in the 90's, constructing new classes in figurative painting and sculpture - something that would have been unthinkable in Sweden or other Western countries.
Globalisation of the economy is perceived as a wrong track for a new generation of people. For the first time in many years you have concerned and devoted young people with an interest in politics. This represents a break with the ironic, post-modern generation. There is a willingness to do something based on the belief that it is possible to change the world - which is a naïve, but very positive change of mind. I am very happy about this and about the political discussions and protests that are taking place in Europe for the time being.