What Comes Between
Localism and Globalisation?
Jonas Ekeberg initiated the recently opened Oslo Kunsthall. He was founding editor of Hyperfoto, collaborator on a TV program on Urbanism, and the editor of Billedkunst.
Stephan Dillemuth: After your education as an artist you published a photo-magazine called
Jonas Ekeberg: "Hyperfoto" - from 94-97. From the start it was set out to only have 12 issues. After that we closed it down.
SD: Why did you publish a photo-magazine in the first place?
JE: It was the result of the discussions within the field of photography in the late 80's/early 90's. We tried to incorporate different aspects of theory into the magazine, both image-theory and theory from other fields like literature and sociology. We also considered, of course, the IT- revolution and with it the coming of the digital image. For all these reasons we called it "Hyperfoto".
SD: Was it orientated towards other photo-magazines like "Camera Austria" and "Ohio"?
JE: I think "Ohio"
has a lot to do with Hans Peter Feldman's own practice of re-circulating
and re-editing images. Camera Austria, to my mind, was a result of the
fight for photography's place within the field of artistic production.
Since this seemed to be a given to us, Hyperfoto was not particularly
interested in art, but in photography.
SD: Nevertheless, you introduced these themes into the art context. I guess your readers had a fine art background.
JE: We were approaching media people as well - people who work with images; image editors, people in TV, the daily news, people who needed some kind of critical awareness in the field of the image. We attempted to produce content orientated towards these people and we tried to get ads from fields like the computer industry or the fashion industry. But during the 3 years of the magazine we increasingly came to accept the limits of the art scene. Not because we were not interested in visual culture anymore, but simply because we grew older and less romantic about the possibility of approaching and challenging these powerful structures of the image-making world.
SD: What was the magazine's relation to the 80's? Was it an extension of its imagery or would you rather locate it in the context of the anti-image politics of conceptual art that were pre-eminent in the early 90's?
JE: Until then, the Norwegian photographic community had been negotiating the relationship between subject matter on the one side and the aesthetics of photography on the other. The image in itself was always the goal. There was very little concern for the context or the institution - there was very little critical awareness in that sense.
Therefore we tried to import the critique of 'straight' photography into the Norwegian photographic scene. We were hoping to broaden the general view on these issues - firstly, by going back to people like John Baldessari or Feldmann, because their work had grown out of the 60's and could be identified with a critical practice. Secondly, by introducing theories of authorship, authenticity and related post-modern thought into Norway's visual culture; to expand them there and see if our interpretation could be of interest in a Nordic context and maybe even on an international platform.
SD: Did this have an impact on the photographic scene?
JE: Definitely. Most of the people that comprised the editorial board of Hyperfoto are now quite powerful in the Norwegian art world - I think we were a 'real player' on the Norwegian art scene.
SD: Could the magazine be understood as a kind of self-help-project? Was it launched as a platform for photographers to promote themselves and their debate?
JE: I never saw Hyperfoto like that, but others did: to them it was like a Trojan horse that smuggled photographers into the art scene
SD: ...for a limited time. Why only 12 issues?
JE: Internationally speaking, the discourse we were aiming at was already worn out when we started out. It began with Susan Sontag in the sixties - male power structures within photography, and so forth, and it had been going for 20 years In 1994 we were able to introduce this discourse into Norway's scene, and test it on its contemporary photographic practise. The magazine was strategically conceptualised around such questions and its function within the scene was very specific. It was not broad enough to outlive that specific time and place.
SD: What happened to this debate and the people involved? Does the scene not still need to be connected through a magazine or another medium?
SD: Would you say that Hyperfoto was a successful vehicle for conquering a public discourse?
JE: Definitely. Different kinds of public discourses evolved and we actively tried to connect three or four different subcultures. The magazine was a very powerful vehicle to do so. We also wanted to introduce visual culture into critical culture at large. So that people working in the fields of critical theory, literature, journalism, architecture etc. would become more aware of photography's impact on our daily lives. We had 800 subscribers throughout the 3 years. They included professors of philosophy, people working in public TV etc
SD: Did these people actively subscribe or did you treat those issues as promotional material?
JE: We curated some of the list, there were about 200 free subscriptions. And no one rejected that.
SD: How did you finance the magazine?
JE: It was supported by the Cultural Council. The yearly budget was half a million Norwegian Kroner. The income was about 1/3 sales, 1/3 advertising and 1/3 public support. I do not know how we managed - 400 000 went to printing costs, 100 000 Kroner for telephone, rent, office. It was always a tight budget, but we never got any fees.
SD: Later on you became the editor of Billedkunst...
JE: First, I finished my MA in photography in Gotenburg, then I worked for half a year on a TV program on urbanism, visual culture and the digital future. It was broadcast on national TV, it had a radical format, and it was a failure
SD: Why did it fail?
JE: Well, we did not
know anything about institutions and how they work. Making a magazine,
after the desktop revolution, is easy in comparison: you are in control
of everything from beginning to end.
SD: TV promises more access to more people than a magazine (even though this is changing now with all the multiplicity of channels). What did you expect from this program? What did you want to distribute?
JE: Once again, it was
very strategic. The political intention of the program was to introduce
critical questions into the post-Olympic discussion in Norway ('94). This
was the peak of Norwegian intellectual and public nationalism - the 'good-hearted'
Norwegian nationalism: being a nationalist was totally accepted in Norwegian
intellectual circles until '94.
SD: How was the program made: was it made up of discussions, documentary footage?
JE: It was a collage
- each program discussed a topic like: 'The Future of the City', 'The
Digital Nomad', 'I Shop, Therefore I Am' - and so on. It was actually
SD: This TV project lasted for half a year and then you started working for "Billedkunst", the art-magazine of the artists' union "Norske Billedkunstnere".
JE: Yes. It used to be the union journal and I was approached to change the concept. I stated that I would treat it as an art magazine; I wanted to start a larger discussion, for the magazine to serve as a platform to make art politics more important. We changed the name from 'Billedkunstneren' ('the artist') to 'Billedkunst' ('the arts').
SD: You still kept it as an organ of the union, though?
JE: It was still published by the union, but it was supposed to serve a different function. It was a totally new concept.
SD.: UKS, the young artists society, started to free themselves from the unions' power, at the same time, didn't they?
JE: The UKS is part of the union, but it is also free standing. The UKS is in a very ambivalent position. In the Norwegian art world, the union is the most powerful player, much more important than the private foundations, the national government or any other institution.
SD: Is this so because they distribute the state-money?
JE: Yes, and it is a lot of money. It has always been the consensus in Norway that tax money coming from the arts should go back to the artists - not to the galleries, the infrastructure or whatever...
SD: Do you think this is a good concept?
JE: No some of this money should be channelled back to the artists directly but some of it should also go towards infrastructure: institutions, galleries, curators and writers. In Norway the artists are in the majority and oversupported especially when compared to the small group of critics and curators.
SD: But would that not give even more power to the curators and critics?
JE: They do not have any power in Norway. It is a very different situation from a lot of other places - Sweden, Germany. There, of course, academics, curators, and critics have enormous power. In Norway they have no power at all. There are about 3 or 4 seriously working gallerists in the country.
SD: There is no market for the arts, anyway.
JE: There is a small but growing market for contemporary art. But the market for contemporary artists is much bigger. This is the market of stipends, scholarships and public installations, and it is controlled by the artists' union. It is totally supported by the government and run by the artists themselves through the local union.
SD: But did artists not always fight for that?
JE: Only the unsuccessful ones- they fought through the union. The more successful and maybe also more interesting artists did not want to have anything to do with this kind of politics. The same applies if you look at the 90's - all the interesting artists' initiatives have arisen from outside the unions. Maybe in the 70's these unions were progressive, but now they are conservative. They do not channel interesting ideas; they channel their conformist, very nationalistic ideas.
SD: How were you going to change that with 'Billedkunst'?
JE: First of all it was interesting to work from within the power system. The idea was to use the format of an American-type professional journal. For the magazine to show a system of economics, distribution and power, rather than a 'holy' sphere of interesting art. I wanted to publish news and criticism; the news was to be concerned with the connection between different fields and professionals in the arts. It seemed important to spread knowledge and contribute to the professionalisation of the Norwegian art world.
SD: But does that trigger a debate? Should there not be conflicts and fights over certain ideas?
JE: The positions are very soft and static at the same time. People do not take their agendas to the limit, into the public domain. It is all too personalised. Artists are not looking strategically at how money and power are distributed, at how meaning is produced in the arts. Institutions have a language of their own. There are curators whose personal, political and social tastes you will never know, because they do not have a profile. Their role as curators is defined by diversity, not the interesting, progressive kind, but the boring, safe kind.
SD: Yes, I guess one has to stand for something.
JE: I think there is not enough sharpness. But compare Norway with Sweden: in the Swedish art institution there is a very servile art community - a belief in authoritative figures and in the late post-modern, that is, no longer late modern discourse. They believe in that and create their shows within these paradigms. In Norway no one believes in that. But there are also no significant shows in Norway. Their Norwegians' opposition to these paradigms is based on an outdated, conservative socialism, which is passive and paralysing. It might also be based on pure Norwegian aggression or the very strong Norwegian idea of self-sufficiency, which advocates the independence of authoritative figures. (This also means we are never going to be part of the European Union) all this is part of every artist's daily life
SD: I talked to Eiebakke about the article he wrote for the Melbourne Biennale: I thought it was quite courageous of him to dare to 'shit in the nest' - and I thought he would be kicked out of it. But he told me that nothing happened, at all. Why is that so?
JE: I think Eiebakke manages to portray this aggression, the opposition and individuality of the Norwegian artist in a very interesting way. But none of these powers of opposition, aggression, and individualism really trigger debate, do they? Two aggressive people do not really communicate, they just push their own views to the front - this is what happens all the time in Norway...
You can get feedback on a personalised discourse. But this feedback will not be on an intellectual level, nor on a strategic one - say from the government or anyone else.
SD: Did you manage to change anything with Billedkunst?
JE: The look of the magazine changed, the content changed, the news-coverage broadened, we introduced 5-10 new critics and I think we heightened the quantity, if not the quality of the criticism
SD: Did you start the Kunsthall project during this time, as well?
JE: The Kunsthall was
in the making before I got to Billedkunst. At that time I became the main
curator for Momentum as well, and suddenly we started getting some money
for the Kunsthall. The Norwegian art world is very small; it is possible
to have a lot of power-positions at the same time.
SD: But whatever tool you use... how do you work on creating a public?
JE: Norway provides an open situation - it is actually virgin ground. Money is distributed through public channels and there are a lot of possibilities for artists. The path from an idea, through its realisation and to its impact is very short.
SD: Why, then, is the Norwegian art scene not the best art scene in the world?
JE: Maybe it is. Maybe through your perspective it is getting more interesting, I do not know.
SD: Maybe it becomes the best through your Kunsthall. What was the idea behind it?
JE: Firstly, it is not "my" Kunsthall, there are several people working on this project, although I have been here since the beginning. During the first season, for instance, the artists Gardar Eide Einarsson and Matias Faldbakken made significant contributions to the project. We wanted to create an institution based on contemporary ideas. The City of Oslo runs 3 museums: the Munch Museum, the Stenersen Museum and the Vigeland Museum. All these are named after famous male artists and collectors. They are all dead, and these institutions commemorate their ideas and their art. I thought it would be interesting to propose to the city an institution which works in closer relation to other fields active in Oslo: science, libraries, sports, social welfare, infrastructure. To me the Kunsthall is a research-laboratory, a place that explores what a Kunsthall could mean in Oslo at this time, in order to create an audience for art. By calling it Kunsthall I am subscribing to this notion of a public relation to the arts. You could say that I really believe in the potential of art as a way of researching models of real life.
SD: What is your concept for the Kunsthall - what do you want to introduce?
JE: We want to use the
Kunsthall as an active participant in an international contemporary discourse.
The contemporary art scene in Oslo is not participating in global discussions
in an interesting way - at least not actively enough. The whole scene
of 90's Oslo was lacking international participation.
SD: Has Oslo Kunsthall been inspired by other models you encountered on your travels to Berlin and New York?
JE: One role model - in terms of making it from zero to international acclaim - is the 'Kunstwerke' in Berlin. Another one would be the 'Büro Friedrich' in Berlin, which has kept its lo-fi, alternative 'szene' approach. In terms of artistic practice it was especially galleries like NEU, Schipper und Krome, and maybe also Neugerriemschneider in Berlin; in terms of printed matter and publications places like Barbara Wiens bookstore. In NY Apex Art Curatorial Project and institutions like Exit Art, the Artist's space or White Columns have a very interesting program. In Scotland the Modern Institute, in Copenhagen Recent Works, which also has a video-space called Videodrome. Other institutions in Scandinavia like Muu in Helsinki or Ynglingagatan in Stockholm have had less impact because they are based on the same collectivist spirit that was prevalent in Norway in the 90's, whereas the Oslo Kunsthall is about putting creative and inventive people into powerful positions to let them do their work - in an individual curatorial economy.
SD: Are you going to establish a network with the places you mentioned?
JE: We are planning a conference to bring some colleagues to Oslo, but we have not approached them yet, because we are still working on the infrastructure. We have only been open for three months.
SD: Your funding right now is only for 6 months, right? Who is currently funding you? The state or the union?
JE: We get nothing from the union. Funding comes partly from the arts council, which is the government institution that takes care of new ideas. There is also support from the city of Oslo, the foreign ministry and a couple of private sponsors. In Norway, public support for places like Oslo Kunsthall is based on a 1:3 rates rule. This means you have to promise to host three shows in one term and you will get money for one of them. Alternatively, you get money to make a show, but no money to pay rent and wages and phone bills.
SD: I have always been under the impression that Norwegians swim in state money when it comes to these kinds of ideas
JE: Not true! We have
a poor public sphere and a very rich private sphere in Norway. Or, rather,
a rich state, poor cities, poor counties and a rich private sector. The
rich state does not spend any money on culture.
SD: Statoil, Telenor or Norsk Hydro have big corporate collections. Do they support the Oslo Kunsthall?
JE: No, at least not yet. I spoke to someone at Telenor but she was more interested in activities for the employees. At the moment they see profit in investing in top-valuable Norwegian and international artworks, but they do not see the value of supporting art institutions or production on a more practical level. I would not mind having a big private sponsor and putting their name next to the Kunsthall logo.
SD: Statoil is owned by the state, right? So the biggest source of national income is a company that acts as a global player with all the rules of competition ... In a way then the state becomes a corporation or the corporation becomes a state
JE: In Norway we are
so proud of how much money we spend on supporting underdeveloped countries
- I think it is about 10 billion. This is of course very strategically
placed money. Then we have the 'oil fund', which is run by the national
bank on capitalist premises: they invest more than 200 billion. This money
is invested in places where a lot of money can be generated: mostly in
Europe, the U.S. and the tiger economies of Asia.
SD: How does this influence the arts or the public sphere?
JE: Answer one: it is just out there. Answer two: it is becoming part of the Norwegian discourse. I attended a seminar 1 1/2 years ago in Lofoten on globalism. It started out on Saturday morning with the idea that globalism and local issues were interconnected. And it ended up on Sunday afternoon with people coming out, saying, "globalism kills".
SD: Is that why you still believe in international relationships? Is this what you want to achieve with the Kunsthall?
JE: I think that between localism and globalism there is urbanism. This is very important to remember: the idea of the city is an interesting way to negotiate this discourse. The city is a place where international, global capitalism has to meet local discourse, where it could be possible to interact and to face real issues.
SD: Now the cities compete globally to attract investment by hosting biennials and other cultural festivals. Culture is a major factor for the marketing of cities. You want to connect Oslo Kunsthall to similar places internationally, to Berlin, NY, London - what about cities in so called third world countries?
JE: I do not deny my interest in Western European and American intellectual exchange, but of course this sphere is widening. I am aware of the problem: We are struggling to adapt to an international situation, whilst some of the most interesting people in, say, New York and Kassel are striving to incorporate third world countries into their discourse. We could risk repeating European and American mistakes. I guess I am trying to develop an awareness of this but at the moment I am more interested in connecting to the mainstream, rather than rejecting it. This is what it feels like in the periphery.
SD: One could say that Pakistan is already a part of Oslo. Eiebakke reckons that the art-world has to take responsibility.
JE: He is more of an activist than I am. His stand is very political, based on his socialist agenda, and I respect him for that and I am interested in this kind of discussion. Though I think the topics are related, I am trying to look at other kinds of political phenomena. To me, institutional critique is more interesting than opening a gallery for graffiti kids from working class Oslo. I guess Oslo Kunsthall would be more interested in showing a conceptual representation of Eiebakke's gallery than in working directly with local kids. Both these levels are important, though
SD: In how far does the national involvement in a global economy change the public debate?
JE: Again, we have to look at this discourse about peripherism vs. urbanism. I think that the two city-centres of Norway, namely Bergen and Oslo, relate to the peripheries of Norway in a very tense and interesting way, which has not yet been strategically, politically, and artistically explored and formulated. This tension is an interesting area of research (though Oslo Kunsthall is not involved in that) and it is not really influenced by the national state as international capitalist player, but rather by the nation state as distributor of money within a national agenda. There is still a possibility to discuss this.
SD: Of course, but as soon as the oil money runs out there will be other problems
JE: Yes, I understand that you want to place us in the same global realities as the rest of the world. And, yes, I think this is connected: our global dependency to come will change the public debate. But I find it hard to discuss this on any other level than a very concrete one. I want to leave the specific discussion on globalism and its relation to the public sphere to people who have an agenda within this field. But I will definitely listen to what they have to say.