Art

Tensions Over Untapped Oil Run Just Beneath the Surface at a Norwegian Art Festival

The Lofoten International Art Festival is in the only part of Norway where drilling for oil is not currently permitted, but that could change.

A view of Lofoten, Norway, the site of the Lofoten International Art Festival (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOFOTEN, Norway — I took three flights to reach the Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) in the small fishing village of Henningsvær, high above the Arctic Circle in Norway’s Lofoten archipelago. Each leg of the journey — first to Oslo, then to Bodø, and finally to Svolvær — got progressively shorter and necessitated traveling on smaller and smaller planes until, looking down at jagged peaks poking through clouds and red wooden houses slung along the banks of a fjord, it felt like arriving at the very edge of the world.

Lofoten is the only part of Norway where drilling for oil is not currently permitted. But beneath its spectacular landscape, there are thought to be around $60 billions’ worth of untapped oil reserves. The debate around whether or not to open up the archipelago for exploration is a long-running one. In Lofoten, tensions about climate change and the economy — and between the area’s traditional cod fishing industry, the booming tourist industry, and uncertainty about whether oil rigs should move into the picturesque waters — all converge. LIAF’s three main venues are disused fish processing factories — the abandonment of these buildings signaling local, small industries having been overwhelmed by big corporations.

One of the Lofoten International Art Festival buildings

Given the high stakes in the Lofoten archipelago, the LIAF’s choice to focus on our anxieties about the future is perhaps an obvious one. This year, festival curators Heidi Ballet and Milena Høgsberg tasked the artists with imagining life 150 years from now. But the resulting exhibition, titled I Taste the Future, sets out, they write in the catalogue, to “reengage the idea of the ‘future’ without succumbing to apocalyptic thinking.”

While the artists do veer away from apocalyptic themes — and none take the 150-year prompt quite literally — pessimistic thinking arises in works where histories of conquest, exploitation (of humans and nature), and racism persist throughout the ages. Sondra Perry’s three-channel video “Ecologue For No Horizon” (2017) explores the concept of terraforming, making another planet habitable for humans to live. The work begins by exploring the history of Seneca Village, a community of free black people founded before the abolition of slavery, which was destroyed to make way for the development of Central Park under the pretense of eminent domain. By altering a planet to make it more habitable for human needs, Perry asks, what would happen to those beings already there?

Sondra Perry, “Ecologue For No Horizon” (2017), installation view

This theme of plundering continues in Lisa Rave’s “Europium” (2014). The film considers colonialism and resource extraction, beginning with Tabu, a traditional shell money used in Papa New Guinea that European colonizers tried to forge, and connecting it to contemporary excavations of the rare earth minerals used in Euro banknotes and LCD screens. These minerals are taken from the seabed and so allow for the bartering of mining rights in supposedly international waters, effectively colonizing mare liberum right under our noses.

Siri Hermansen’s video “Sorry” (2014) draws upon King Harald’s official apology to the Sami people at the opening of the Sami Parliament in 1997. Apologizing for wrongs inflicted by Norwegianization — a policy of forced assimilation that prohibited Sami languages and persisted through most of the 20th century — he explained that the Norwegian state is built on the territory of two national groups. Yet conflict persists between the indigenous peoples’ right to land and the interests of mining companies who pollute Sami land and waters — Norway is one of only four countries that allows the dumping of mining waste at sea.

Siri Hermansen, “Sorry” (2014), installation view

Many of the artists here seem to draw on the writings of Donna Haraway, perhaps best known for A Cyborg Manifesto (1984), an essay that proved influential on postgender theory by proposing an obliteration, through cybernetics, of socially constructed binaries. Centrally located on the second floor of LIAF’s main venue, Trevarefabrikken, is a 90-minute film about Harraway by Fabrizio Terranova. Story Telling for Earthly Survival (2016) films Haraway in her home, where she talks about the need to subvert received narratives by telling new stories. “We need other kinds of stories,” she says. “We must change the deadly story.”

The artist and choreographer Adam Linder heeds this call in the exhibition’s standout work. His performance piece “To Gear a Joan” (2017) brings Norwegian vocalist Stine Janvin Motland into Trevarefabrikken and out onto the streets of Henningsvær. Dressed in a suit of armor, a “wearable libretto” inscribed with lyrics, which she gradually peels off while she walks and sings, Motland appeals to an army of Joan of Arc-type figures to rally together against western philosophy’s (masculine) culture of reason that has permitted the plundering of natural resources. “Joans: Get out here with your skills up,” she demands. “Joans are going in. Joans have grown thicker skin.”

Adam Linder, “To Gear a Joan” (2017)

Following Joan through the streets of Henningsvær, it’s difficult not to think of the village’s industries and tensions. Tourist-baiting souvenir shops and former factories dot the sublime landscape while, steps away from the festival venues, the street artist Pøbel has painted (in 2014) the image of a fisherman on an oil container in a quite literal nod to the conflict between the traditional fishing industry and proposed oil exploration.

Pøbel street art “Fiskeren”

During the second week of LIAF, the Conservative Party won a narrow majority in the Norwegian parliamentary election. Opening up the Arctic to oil exploration remains on the table. Norway has done very well out of oil — in mid-September the market value of its oil fund topped $1 trillion for the first time — but perhaps Norwegians are starting to tell a different story to the “deadly” one (to use Haraway’s word) of four decades of oil economics. A survey last month showed that, for the first time, more favored leaving some oil in the ground than were in favor of bringing it up.

Graffiti in Lofoten spelling out “Fuck Oil”

The Lofoten International Art Festival’s I Taste the Future continues in Henningsvær, Lofoten through October 1. 

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