‘Art is by nature a subversive activity’

The artists behind the much-debated play Ways of Seeing cover the trial against Laila Bertheussen with self-produced online television.

Hanan Benammar, Sara Baban, and Pia Maria Roll. Photo: Kristian Skylstad.

The much-debated play Ways of Seeing premiered at the Black Box theatre in Oslo in November 2018. The production included film footage showing the houses of a number of prominent public figures in Norway; figures whom the people behind the play – Pia Maria Roll, Marius von der Fehr, Sara Baban, and Hanan Benammar – claimed are contributing to the growth of the extreme right wing in Norway. Among them is former Minister of Justice, Public Security and Immigration, Tor Mikkel Wara (The Progress Party).

In an article in the newspaper VG, Wara’s live-in partner, Laila Bertheussen, accused the play’s director, Roll, of gross violations of privacy and reported her to the police. The confrontation was followed by a series of attacks on Wara and Bertheussen’s property. Their house was tagged, the couple received threatening letters, and an attempt was made to set their car on fire. Roll, Benammar, and Baban were never investigated for the incidents, and on 14 March 2019 the police issued charges against Bertheussen, who was suspected of having orchestrated the events herself.

When Roll, Baban, and Benammar discovered that the trial against Bertheussen was to start in September this year, they felt a need to take back control of a narrative they believe has been constructed by Bertheussen and the media. By developing two new platforms, Ways of Seeing-TV (WOS-TV) and the project Observation Room, they feel better equipped for whatever lies ahead. “For us, it is about trying to find and create our own platforms, based on our own terms, to tell the stories the way we want them to be told,” Benammar explained.

Ways of Seeing Collective, Ways of Seeing TV, 2020. Still from video.

The trial is now in its fourth week. As a witness in the case, Roll is not allowed to observe in court, but Baban and Benammar are both there every day. Baban describes it as exhausting and tiring, but hastens to add that she has not been bored for a moment. “I did not realise that there would so much in-depth information about me and Hanan. It has been shocking to hear about the inhuman things Bertheussen and the network around her have done to make us look bad,” she said.

Contingency art

Broadcast on Youtube, WOS-TV was developed in collaboration with visual artist Birgitte Sigmundstad. The artists wanted to create a format that offered scope for adapting the content along the way. Over the course of ten episodes, they will present reports from the trial and discuss art based on a playful, humorous, and informal approach. “It’s all very anti-spectacular compared to the trial, which has been made sensational,” said Benammar.

Roll claims that part of the motivation behind the project is being prepared for any new attacks about to come their way, such as new linguistic constructions and the construction of another fictional reality. She describes the project WOS-TV as “contingency art,” an artistic approach that involves being ready for whatever is going to happen. “We do not trust the media, and we needed to facilitate ways for more voices – our voices and our people – to enter the picture, comment, and do stuff. We wanted to create new ways of seeing things, artistically, analytically, and politically.”

WOS-TV is supported by the Fritt Ord Foundation, but only has a small budget and limited access to production facilities. Roll describes it as preparing for a future where we have to examine the paradox that, on the one hand, we want more money for art and culture, and on the other, we see that such funding can create a sense of restriction and lack of freedom.

“Going forward, we may have to develop a rather more ‘muddied’ practice in terms of production runs. Operating large and small productions concurrently, based on different sources of funding also helps us experiment with the regulation of quality and legitimacy that is part of the package when projects are curated or financed by certain institutions,” said Roll.

Ways of Seeing Collective, Ways of Seeing TV, 2020. Still from video.

A superficial discussion

Baban, Benammar, and Roll have just finished Observation Room, created in collaboration with the Ultima festival. The project involved eight hour-long open recording sessions performed over the course of two evenings at Blitzhuset, an autonomous house in Oslo. Sound recordings were made, and an album will be launched in the autumn of 2021.

The first recording session, Reports From the Trial, opened with a conversation between Baban, Benammar, and former Supreme Court judge Ketil Lund (who also took part in Ways of Seeing) about what had happened in court and how they perceived it. When Lund left the stage, Baban and Benammar performed ‘Songs from Rojava’. “With Observation Room, we want to direct attention back to the premise of the original play, which was about telling stories and about music. For example, almost no-one has talked about the story from Rojava, even though almost half of the play is based on that story,” said Benammar.

In ‘Songs of Rojava’, Baban speaks about her journey to Rojava, the Kurdish-dominated areas in Syria which in 2013 declared themselves autonomous. Rojava is presented here as a secular polity based on ecology, women’s liberation, and grassroots democracy. This story is the reason why the artists filmed the exterior of Norway’s former Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s home: in his capacity as Secretary General of NATO, he publicly condoned Turkey’s bombing of the area.

“The play has many layers and stories, but even so the media has discussed Ways of Seeing in a very superficial way. That’s why it’s important for us to highlight more of the stories told there, not letting the narrative created by Bertheussen, the far right, and the media dominate,” said Benammar.

Benammar moved to Norway from France in 2011, just before the nationalist party Front National – now known as Rassemblement National (National Assembly) – had its best election ever. Upon arriving in Norway, she discovered that what she calls “Le Pen’s agenda,” in reference to the French party’s leader Marine Le Pen (daughter of party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen) had also taken root there. For her part, Baban arrived in Norway after fleeing Saddam Hussein’s US-backed war against the Kurds during the 1980s. “What we also show in Ways of Seeing is that our experiences are not seen as valid. The far right wants to define the experiences of others – you are not allowed to define them yourself. And the lack of recognition of one’s own experience opens the doorway for ridicule to come in,” said Baban.

Ways of Seeing Collective, Ways of Seeing TV, 2020. Still from video.

Crying on TV

Baban feels that from the outset the media has accepted as a given the narrative created by right-wing circles. She believes that the media has forgotten its responsibility in a democracy. Roll agrees and added that Norwegian journalists are afraid of confronting key figures associated with the far right:

“What we have realised in this process is that the Norwegian media, and indeed the entire Norwegian public, are paralysed by fear of the Progress Party, the various factions that surround them, and what they represent. They [the Progress Party et al.] have developed a very effective combination of aggression and victimhood, combined with an ingenious language that imposes all the traits typical of themselves – polarising, authoritarian, easily offended – upon their opponents, especially the anti-racist scene. In doing so, they have successfully shifted the entire public to the right.”

The artists have been clear that they always expected reactions to the play. “What we did with Ways of Seeing was to stage a lack of fear for them, both in the theatre and in the media. By taking a completely banal approach such as lying in people’s gardens, we knew that there would be a consistent thread of danger underpinning the drama, like an extra character in the play. That is the antagonist. Not the people sitting there, but the threat posed by those houses as a whole. Concurrently with this, we used the media attention to say what we thought was most important: they are racists, and we laugh at them,” said Roll.

According to Roll, the entire process shows that in Norway, as in several other countries in the world, there are strong right-wing authoritarian forces which want free and experimental art to be eliminated. “The Progress Party will still need official art as part of the governing state apparatus – such as standing under the golden arch at the National Theatre on 17 May, celebrating alongside the mayor as a symbol of their power, status, and close ties to the existing elites. Art has always been used for things like this. But the idea of ​​experimental art has always been perceived as threatening when society becomes more authoritarian.”

As Benammar remarked: “In the discussions surrounding Ways of Seeing, there has been this pervasive idea that what happened is our fault because we provoked them. This issue is about understanding what art is. Art is by nature a subversive activity. Art has never been for decoration purposes, that’s something else.”

Ways of Seeing Collective, Observation Room, 2020. With Siri Austeen (depicted), Sara Baban, Hanan Benammar, Ali Djabarry, Espen Sommer Eide, Håvve Fjell, Camara Lundestad Joof, Elina Waage Mikalsen, Ketil Lund, Pia Maria Roll, SKÆVV (Harald Fetveit & Thomas Oxem), Farhad Kalantary, Therese-Angelle Khachik, and others. Photo: Ultimafestivalen 2020 / Signe Fuglesteg Luksengard.