Diversity at Play
A talk with Ina Blom
Ina Blom: In my experience there is a corporate state attitude towards the arts in Norway- not like an old-fashioned socialist state attitude, but a kind of intense worry about the proper distribution of art at all levels - a governmental worry about what new art is and what it should do. Over the last ten years, the culture department and the cultural council have been both very interested in and very concerned about the new hybrid forms of art which they interpret, rightly or wrongly, as the sign of a new type of diversity in the arts. What is clear is that this notion of diversity is the source of great ambivalence.. It seems to generate lot of worry, as well as a great deal of political benevolence, on a very general level.
To take one example: I was invited
to speak at a conference organised by the cultural council (their yearly
conference on the state of the arts), where this question of the new diversity
was the big topic. Yet it was immediately apparent from their phrasing
of the question that they did not have a very precise idea about what
exactly they meant by diversity. Their questioning went along the following
lines: "This new diversity, which is obviously a good thing, isn't
it also a the sign of a problematical situation which just leads to new
hegemonies being installed?" Diversity is of course a highly overdetermined
term, in the sense that even in this specific context it had many meanings
at once. With a view to traditional modernist aesthetics, the new diversity
could be seen as problematical because it disrupts the notion of a common
ground for evaluating art based on an understanding of the conventions
of genre. At the same time, it was claimed, diversity must be a "good
thing", and even here the reasons were plural. Firstly, because it
somehow links up with a type of thinking where artistic expressions are
associated with anti-authoritarian tendencies, and where art is imagined
as a room for "other voices". And secondly, because a democratic
society should seek to support a diversity of artistic practices and expressions,
different kinds of art should coexist without being constrained by old
hierarchies of taste, and so on.
Josephine Pryde: The fact that you might also have had some sort of criticism of the 'goodness' of diversity - could that register in any way as some kind of a counter force?
IB: Judging from my writings
they could read my stance to be pro-diversity in some way or other. So
I was, not inappropriately, asked to speak on behalf of the "new
diversity", in other words on behalf of the supposed new hegemony.
Yet the concept of hegemony was approached in an extremely simplistic
and negative way here, as somebody taking on power, cancelling out everything
else. The point I tried to make, in response to their question was that
hegemony can not simply be likened to unification or totalisation. Hegemonic
processes can, on the contrary, be linked to democratic processes, situations
where diversity is both possible and operative. Hegemonic processes are
articulations in situations where there are open conflicts of interests,
and where such articulations are possible precisely because the social
system is not experienced as closed or defined once and for all, but as
open to negotiation.
SD: I could imagine that they were worried what diversity could mean when it is promoted as the latest trend. But then they discuss this problem in a way of creating a consensus about it. And that is a Catch 22-situation, with consensus, you have created hegemony.
IB: Well my point is still that hegemonic processes are in themselves signs of the actual existence of diversity at play, a conflictual diversity.... Their problem was essentially one of trying to get a grip on the cultural totality, to get a grip on diversity "from above" so to speak, so as to be able to imagine diversity as harmonious coexistence. Yet, the very notion of cultural or social totality is of course a dangerous type of construct. In this case it seems to a typically state corporate way of thinking about culture, being primarily concerned with who is going to govern and control an ideal diversity. I'm afraid this is ultimately an effect of the widespread tendency to divorce art from the social and political, to imbue it with a certain innocence (often against better knowledge). But this is not the important issue regarding art and diversity. The challenge is to appreciate the different and eventually conflictual positions as something that can not simply be resolved or kept in check within a system whose model seems to approach that of a closely surveyed field. It is a fact that I may be deeply involved with specific artistic milieus or topics that might be of little immediate relevance or interest to other groups of people, groups who might be in their full right to contest my bid for legitimacy and power, who might dislike my particular application of the concept of "diversity" .... but for whom and on what level should this be a problem?
JP: How much do you think that Norway's comparatively small commercial art system affects the interest of the state ? The private gallery system is not so highly developed here, is it?
IB: No, it's not very highly developed. It possibly puts more pressure on the state to provide for art (but I'm not sure that it actually works that way). But I also think that this system of stipends or other support-systems for artists is specifically made to works towards some ideal of diversity. It's been locally distributed and basically not all that hard to get.
Gardar Eide Einarsson: I haven't been able to get them, so fuck them anyway. But I think it's true that they establish a certain kind of diversity, but it's strange how this seems to be a very homogenising form of diversity - a concept I think is particularly well understood in the Scandinavian countries/cultures - a kind of mock diversity intended to give an impression of diversity while at the same time preventing real diversity. The idea of education is underlined - this idea that they expect you to make your projects available to everyone.
IB: It's very much part of that. You speak to people in the cultural sector, very idealistic people, who say that we've got to make all those art centres around the country understand what conceptual art is or what performance is all about. But that's so besides the point. The basic idea here is of course an ideal of equal distribution of information which matters a lot in some places. But the other side of the coin is an homogenising operation and a terrible fear of dissent. They can't bear the idea that groups of artists or audiences should stand in opposition to each other - or that they could experience each other as not having the same interests or priorities or experiences. This is because Norwegian politics since the second world war has definitely tended towards homogeneity and harmonising.
JP: This sounds like a society in perfect shape to handle the discovery of a huge oil reserve .
SD: Yes but what is the
role of a critic and intellectual in such a choric and rich society?
IB: Certainly. I think it's so terrible that we are bound to think about (visual) art as fundamentally one thing, one institution, one big project. And somehow, whatever you do, you will be seen to add something to that or to subtract something from it, or to change it a little bit. I think it's so stifling! For almost ten years I was a music critic (rock/electronic) and my experience in that field was quite different. Nobody hold me accountable for my personal preferences with a view to the totality of the field, nobody cared if I completely ignored a host of important expressions with big audiences, such as heavy metal or country music. Whereas once I entered the field of visual art, I was immediately held accountable for not taking an interest in this or that artistic phenomenon. Suddenly, as a critic, I was made responsible for "all art". I find this strange and artificial, and would be very happy if I could be able to work against those constraints. Primarily by continuing to ignore what does not interest me.
GEE: It seems that the scene in Norway has only few key-people, especially critics and curators. Do you see that as a part of the problem?
IB: There are not that many music critics, either. There are only a few publications that write seriously about music. Whereas art criticism has expanded, music criticism has decreased: with all the new dance music, many felt they couldn't write anymore perhaps because there were fewer big personalities and less emphasis on lyrics.
SD: But how does this
particularity relate to a concept of international art, a very particular
one as well, which has been created over the last ten years? I am talking
here about a certain flock of artists, circulated through all the institutions
and biennials which supposedly represents diversity on an international
IB: But what would be the alternative?
SD: Well, I have some suggestions which I'll put in the footnotes , but I am just wondering how you would apply your idea of particularity under these circumstances
IB: Certainly not in terms of my supposed cultural context, because I do not know how to define such a thing. I'm saying this because this biennial thing is obviously very easy to criticise. The worst thing about this internationalism is that what you're supposed to bring to this scene is, paradoxically, often a type of cultural particularity, which is predefined by some biennial-committee. So when I am asked to represent something in this context I am invariably asked to pick some Norwegian artists, write about some Norwegian topic and so forth, and all this just feels completely artificial to me. As an academic, as a critic, this is not what I write about. I do not represent Norway, as such. It particularly annoys me because this is something that happens to you if you happen to be from a country which is imagined to have been just recently 'recruited' to an international context. But of course the focus on "the Norwegian" is produced from within as well. I reckon Norway has become much more provincial during the last 20 or 30 years. To someone like my grandparents this division between Norway and the rest of Europe didn't exist in that way. This is a very recent construct and you can see it in almost all academic departments: the tendency to write about anything Norwegian has increased - to define the Norwegian this and the Norwegian that, as if the Norwegian was, in itself, an obvious, self-explanatory context. So that is why I am not willing to discuss the international as something that would be in opposition to my own critical arena or particularity.
GEE: I think this is an interesting point in relation to the question of a corporate public, because it implies that the corporation wants to invest in shaping a public in its own image. When you talk about the 'corporate national' situation in Norway - the national corporation: it is about shaping the audience to believe in this sort of Norwegian or Nordic scene.
SD: Corporate strategies
and Norwegian state politics fall pretty much together. Whereas in Central
Europe it seems a cultural competition is going on between regions in
order to offer themselves as attractive sites for investment.
GEE: ..which of course mimics the logic of corporations now partitioning up their structure into smaller, more cell-like (in the terrorist organisation kind of way) units, enabling the corporation to hold several positions in one market as well as making the structure more opaque and less vulnerable.
SD: In this case you could speak of a revival of the nation state through the region. For Norway it is probably more the nation state than the region.
IB: simply because we are only 4 million, it is hard to imagine regions on the scale you may see in the rest of Europe
SD: most of the corporations are partly owned by the state, anyway, Telenor, Norsk Hydro, Statoil
JP: I remember reading that the Norwegian government has an oil fund, which they invest as a pension fund for the whole country. I also saw the job advertisement for someone to run the fund a while back. Has the state invested the oil fund mainly in Norwegian business? How might the fund be affected if the state's stakes decrease?
IB: I think most of it is invested abroad, sadly also in corporations which do not comply with the ethical standards we enforce in our own country. At the moment the oil fund is really at the core of Norwegian politics. We all know that it [the oil] won't last forever and that Norway is still like an underdeveloped country that only exports raw materials. Unless they develop some tremendously interesting high-tech industry, which they have only done in the field of oil-technology so far, there are going to be problems. That's why the oil fund is going to be a continual hot topic - this will show at the next elections in September .
SD: If we come back from the election as the tool of democratic self-administration of a common, national agenda and we return to the question of the particularity of one's interest and life-context: how would you define your addressee? Who are your communication partners and to what end?
IB: I'm really inspired by Ray Johnson. He is generally hailed as the "father" of mail art, although he rejected mail art as a system and an art-ideology, when this developed. He just worked with the postal system and with the idea of letters - sent, returned, dislocated, mislaid, misread, re-distributed - a whole system of very complicated but also very concrete displacements of the whole notion of "communication." For me, these kinds of questions - like this question of who is my addressee or my communication partner - are the questions I try not to answer in advance. Of course, I want to talk to and to learn from certain people and I have a strong sense of being part of a group of people with certain particular interests and tastes, which is very important to me on a daily basis. But on the other hand I wouldn't want to know exactly in advance what the effect of my writing will be or who it should reach, who exactly should read it and understand it what I'm saying instead is that I am protecting my right to not make sure that everybody understands me.
SD: However, art institutions and mainstream media want to include everything and it should be understood by everyone. The question could be how much we define ourselves through differentiation and the particularity of our fields and to what extent do we feel the necessity for de-differentiation. I think we have to work on both these ends in order to avoid to preach to the converted.
IB: A symptom of this problem is the big emphasis in Norway (and perhaps also elsewhere) on what we call kunstformidling which is the field of mediation of the arts. Yesterday I was part of a small audience who took part in a discussion about sociologist Dag Solhjell's recent book about kunstformidling. The main point of the book - the idea that artworks depend on presentational contexts and that there are a number of rhetorical strategies surrounding the artwork - is not exactly new. But Solhjell was using this kind of insight to create a new methodology for art criticism, a proper analytical apparatus which allows you to finally "get at" all this mystical and hard-to grasp art by defining its paratexts down to the minutest details (Solhjell is using Gerard Genette's terminology here). I found the whole thing slightly claustrophobic - particularly since the book does not get into the both problematic and productive differentiation that is produced in the dialectic between art and its frames, but stays with a rigid category of "work" which in its turn depends on a context that determines its meaning (at least for the analytical purposes of art criticism), while remaining firmly exterior to it. In short, a series of terms that has been used for years in order to question the very object of art criticism, ends up as tools used to circumscribe this object in a closer and apparently more precise or transparent manner. It seemed to me somehow symptomatic of the ideals of the discipline of kunstformidling: "Art may seem difficult, but we have the methodological key that will unlock its secrets for you. We know how its secrets are produced".
SD: As far as I understand it, you are saying here also that Solhjell provides a method to confirm the context as what it appears to be. That has a stabilising effect which is at the core quite conservative. I would prefer to see art as an agent to within a specific context in order to question and to change it. But anyway, art will turn away if formidling becomes too dominant.
IB: To return to the question of art and corporations, I would like to mention 'Momentum' the Nordic biennial in the city of Moss, (which I curated in 2000, along with Jonas Ekeberg, Paula Toppila and Jacob Fabricius). This was supposed to be the big art event where local and national corporations would support contemporary art on a big scale. All I can say is that this did not happen. Norwegian corporations prefer to be identified with ski jumpers, violinists, symphony orchestras and theatres anything but contemporary art, it seems. We ended up in a situation where corporations paid ridiculously small sums to be named "main sponsors". Maybe the people behind 'Momentum' were inept in generating this desire for identification .but even so, that experience made it apparent that Norwegian corporations are generally not geared towards contemporary art.
GEE: This fusion between art and corporations in Norway appears still quite clumsy and un-advanced, making it quite transparent. That makes Norway look like a proto-version of what's happening in other countries, and in my mind makes it a good case study for how this fusion is forged and developed into more advanced form.
IB: But if this discourse of creativity, which is the preferred discourse when art and corporations merge, was done in a more sophisticated manner, do you think that it would lead to an artistically or critically better situation?
GEE: Of course not. To the contrary, if we return to the idea of hegemony it is much easier to establish/maintain a functional opposition to hegemonic practices if one can understand their mechanics, and in the case of the fusion business=culture in Norway right now I think it is possible to identify some of these mechanics.
IB: Recently I read a classical statement by Philip Morris. When they sponsored the now famous exhibition "When Attitudes Become Form" they were using the discourse of creativity - even this latest discourse of 'conceptual creativity' - as a reason for their natural connection to the conceptual art-movement. Consequently, "creativity" - this most flattering and general of all art concepts - should fill us with scepticism ....
JP: and even if there is refusal, then that's also part of the give and take
IB: Exactly. This doesn't
address the particularities of specific cultural communities or aesthetic
interests, and the implications of these. It's a question of accessing
creativity as the most valid metaphor for business acumen. To return to
Momentum: while on the one hand there was almost no corporate interest,
the interests of the local politicians was also problematic. They were
attuned to the idea that cities can be invigorated by means by means of
the contemporary practice of site-specific art, which keep audiences walking
about the city looking for the "sites". Not only on a commercial
level (selling food and drink to all these people), but also on a symbolical
level, in the sense that all the little places and monuments of the city
would be reworked critically or sentimentally by artists .... this would
somehow elevate the city and give it a new reflection of itself, it's
image enhanced by art. So the local politicians wanted us to have a certain
number of artists doing site specific work in the streets of Moss. As
curators we objected to this - the participants should be free to present
what was relevant in terms of their own production.
IB: As I recall it, the most important sponsors were local. It is too early to say how the biennial works for the city's infrastructure - it's only been organised twice.
SD: So most of the money came from the city in the end ?
IB: And from the government
JP: Did you feel that the corporations and the politicians were already talking to each other, anyway? Or were you the bridge between those two in terms of the exhibition?
IB: Well, there wasn't really a bridge because the corporate interests failed I guess you must know a lot about Telenor's artistic engaged a group of international high-profile artists to create pieces for their new headquarter at the old airport of Fornebu, works that will in some way profile their role as a big communications corporation.
JP: This is what Peter Lund means by integrated art, then - he said it was art, which would be part of the building, integrated into the walls etc
GEE: It seems to represent two different corporate strategies: one is that corporations give a small amount of money and expect the presence of their logo, the other one is more the idea that the corporation controls the creative process
SD: Still, this could lead to an interesting output, but I'm not so convinced with the idea of decorating castles or educating employees. I find it more interesting to see how the public sphere becomes shaped through the corporate takeover of functions of the state and, at the same time we see corporate and cultural infiltration into all aspects of daily life. Identity politics, the notions difference, subcultures, multi-culture, counter-culture, you name it every particular sector is welcome to be targeted as a market. And then identity is either defined through consumption or through (the corporate support of) cultural activities. There is hardly any sector in our society anymore which is not culturalised in the sense that it is corporatised. And that is the only glue that holds the fragmented public together and gives us the impression that we can still talk about one civic public. The nation state lost its sovereignty to a global economy which replaced the phenomenon formerly known as the public sphere with a multiplicity of factions. It is still the fantasy of the nation that covers up the loss of a homogeneity of life-context and it is the reality of the ubiquity of the market that indeed holds it together.
IB: There is no doubt that the general aesthetisisation of culture is in great part a result of the corporate dynamics you describe here. Yet I am perhaps a bit sceptical to your theory as an analytical tool, simply because of its generality. If everything everywhere is the result of the same process, how can we describe differences? And is a "market" always the same thing? What I do know, and what interests me at the moment, is the fact that many artists and critics are working with the very terms of this aesthetisised reality, trying (more or less explicitly) to explore the kind of challenges it poses to traditional concepts like "work", "style", "audiences", "reception" and so on.
SD: Since it is talked about globalisation so much, I thought that this was about the effects of neo-liberal capitalism spreading all over the world. If this is true we would have a general backdrop, in front of which we could see a multitude of highly differentiated (cultural) identities being targeted as markets and being constituted through markets. And exactly this is, I agree, the battleground for art, but not so much in order to participate in the game as it is - culturalisation - but against it, if possible.
IB: I agree on this, and
see the new focus on style as part of such a critical exploration of what
we're up against. Yet the fact that all kinds of things are potentially
targeted as markets, does not mean that these strategies are always successful
or even feasible. This is one of the things I mean by difference here.