Hybrid Happenings in the Russian Borderlands

The invasion of Ukraine began during this year’s Barents Spektakel. In one fell swoop, much of the festival’s programme took on a very different significance than planned.

Tine Surel Lange and Pavlo Grazhdanskij, Two sides of the river, 2022. Performance. Photo: Torben Jüle. 

During the pandemic, many border crossings around the world were closed. Lockdown provisions have had a major impact on many places, including areas in Finnmark, where Norwegians, Sámi, Finns, and Russians otherwise peaceably go about their everyday lives. This year’s edition of the festival Barents Spektakel focused on this lockdown situation, our longing for and ideas about all the people ‘over there’, on the other side of the border. Those who had the opportunity to visit Svanvik for the final events on Sunday gained poignant, first-hand insight into such dynamics in a place where the border between Norway and Russia runs right down the middle of the frozen Pasvik River. The impending Russian invasion of Ukraine erupted into active hostilities on the festival’s second day, and in one fell swoop several parts of the programme were instantly rendered obsolete, or took on a completely different meaning than originally envisioned.

For someone who has never been to Finnmark, it was a powerful experience to march against Putin’s war in an area so clearly marked by the proximity between the two nations. Norwegian artist Tine Surel Lange and Russian artist Pavlo Grazhdanskij’s performance Two Sides of the River (2022), in which loud noises were to be emitted across the border and form a kind of “music,” was carried out in a somewhat truncated format as Grazhdanskij had to cancel his attendance due to a blizzard. The message was received with sceptical laughter by the torch-carrying procession. We were immediately transported back to a Cold War mindset where we sensed that the Russian authorities were oppressing their people. But, in fact, the weather forecast suggested that the reason given for the cancellation might have been legitimate.

Lange stood alone in the snow by her speakers. To establish contact, she first produced sounds reminiscent of Morse code, followed by a composition created on the basis of local recordings of fog horns guiding sailors safely through the waters. On the other side of the border, Grazhdansky was supposed to have responded with a composition based on sounds from obsolete warning sirens. The situation evoked memories of the explosive conversation of sound and light between scientists and aliens in the American film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), but sadly no excitement ever arose here. Instead, the session was a melancholy and cold affair where we listened for answers we knew would never come. 

Natalia Egorova, Through Plants, 2022. Photo: Astrid Fadnes.

Back in Kirkenes, the festival successfully created two intense zones imbued with a rich variety of activities: one was the pedestrian area outside the exhibition space Terminal B, while the other was a former hotel (called “The Tourist Hotel”) which was reopened for this occasion and turned into a warm and inclusive home away from home. It was quite easy to go by foot through the small town centre, from Amund Sjølie Sveen’s mildly provocative billboard Make the North Great Again (2022) past Mother Question Mark (2022) – a large question mark made out of broken mirrors (part of the programme aimed at children) – to the Finnish artist Rikka Keränen’s sculptural family From and Towards Basic Elements (2022), a series of small improvised clay kilns in undulating shapes that belched forth smoke and fire, slowly melting their own foundations of snow and ice. Keränen was present to tend the fire and answer questions from passers-by. In this way, the pedestrian street became a successful epicentre of questions.

The exhibition The Best Country in the World at Terminal B came across as somewhat vague and unresolved. Four Norwegian and four Russian artists had created works based on the underlying concept of creating a travel guide. All eight artists were supposed to visit Kirkenes for a residency which, due to the Covid lockdown, became a zoom-based workshop instead. Hardly an ideal starting point for a successful group exhibition. The art travel handbook – i.e.  the exhibition – was to present and evoke distinctive features (“sights”) of the country that could not be visited in person. For her work Through Plants, Natalia Egorova immersed herself in Norway’s plant life and presented her contribution using old-fashioned overhead projectors (pretty much as Cold War as it gets!) to create a slightly static wall projection of drawings depicting plant species. She also contributed a vivid “book” of fragile plant drawings whose pages pointed outward in all directions from the spine, turning the book itself into a plant-like growth. This work came across as the mainstay of the exhibition.

Janna Thöle-Juul and Malin Lin Nordström, Waters of Mars, 2022, detail. Photo: Astrid Fadnes.

The tourist theme was also prominently featured in Janna Thöle-Juul and Malin Lin Nordström’s Waters of Mars, on view at The Tourist Hotel; a rack filled with postcards advertising the work was all that was left inside Terminal B’s premises. The two artists had drawn inspiration from a mysterious old spa across the border in Russia. Named after the original spa, the installation was a somewhat scary experience. But in service of art criticism and with maximum openness to the experience ahead, I let myself be engulfed by the darkened space. A strong odour emanated from a bog-like area which we traversed on narrow planks, as in the mountains. A humming black-metal-like soundtrack and the creeping sensation of some hallucinatory influence exercised by the strong smells soon made me disoriented and unable to tell whether the plank beneath me was in fact moving or not. The guard outside confirmed my suspicions that it was. Other more down-to-earth observations were discussed while the most sensitive among us had to take a few minutes to recover. Crackling branches in red light, a flickering video, and some strange white cocoons on the floor were all part of an evocative installation. If this is a spa, get me outta here fast!

Another installation also got its very own venue: Espen Sommer Eide’s video work Arkadia 02-22 (2022). To view it, I first had to make my way through snowdrifts as I headed for the border museum. Eide has worked with artificial intelligence to create a piece that emphasises chance and repetition. A machine eye has selected elements from an archive of footage that Eide shot in the region over the course of several years. What does it find worthy of notice and preservation? Animals and humans often slip past this gatekeeper, but their exact boundaries remain subject to fluctuation: is this leg on a dog really that important? The machine eye answers no-yes-no-yes. A man rowing is important, but the oars flicker, apparently of lesser importance. Like a fluttering, failing memory, the black and white footage evoked a nostalgic sense of stasis, which was underpinned by the sound and image of a gramophone record spinning around on its inner groove – an endless loop. Several sequences featuring other moods and approaches followed, but none of them ever had quite the same allure.

The symposium The Sweetness of Living addressed global warming using Donna Haraway-inspired approaches in which cattle, reindeer, and codfish became important partners. Performance lectures by Italian artist Tea Andreoletti and a collaboration between British anthropologist Tim Ingold and Sámi artist Matti Aikio worked well, each in their own way. Barents Spektakel has a tradition of presenting socially committed performance art which intervenes in the showbiz generally known as politics. Andreoletti and Sveen work within the same kind of Situationist tradition as Morten Traavik, a frequent festival participant. The latter gave a lecture in anticipation of an emotionally affecting and quite crazy event the following night, where residents of Kirkenes and Nikel spoke to each other via a live television broadcast. A particular highlight was the Sámi Guns N’ Roses-inspired band Not My Time To Die, which subsequently went on to bring the place down. Show, spectacle, politics, and rock? It can’t get more Cold War than that.

From the band Not My Time to Die’s performance during the Barents Spektakel festival 2022. Photo: Gunnar Monsen.

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