– Different times demand different drugs

In anticipation of the Nordic biennial Momentum 8 in June, the four curators speak of cultural politics, generational dialogue and the idea of compressing consciousness.

Sissel Tolaas, Molecule MOVX_015, scent for Momentum 8. Photo: Jonatan Habib Engqvist.
Sissel Tolaas, Molecule MOVX_015, scent for Momentum 8. Photo: Jonatan Habib Engqvist.

Last week, the curatorial statement as well as the list of artists for Momentum 8 were released at a press conference in Berlin. The four curators – Jonatan Habib Engqvist, Birta Gudjonsdottir, Stefanie Hessler and Toke Lykkeberg – presented the exhibition as an event exploring “tunnel vision as a cultural and artistic condition”.

– Today’s networked culture not only generates hyper-connectivity, but it also produces a range of disconnects that allow people and communities to thrive in their own bubbles. Momentum 8 focuses on artists and cultural producers who inhabit worlds of their own logic and take their ideas to the ultimate consequence, said the curators.

At the same time they uncapped a ‘tunnel scent’ made specially for the exhibition by the Berlin-based artist Sissel Tolaas. Tolaas will join 23 Nordic and international artists and artist groups for the exhibition, which opens in Moss, Norway on June 13th.

Kunstkritikk: Your title Tunnel Vision refers to a limitation of view in the limitless age of the Internet. This concept easily describes some of the works of artists like Ferdinand Ahm Krag, Christine Ödlund and Ryan Trecartin. But several of the artists that you present, such as Steingrimur Eyfjord, Minna L. Henriksson, and Ola Pehrson, are also politically engaged in a more traditional sense. Yet others, such as Agnieszka Kurant and Joanna Lombard, could be said to occupy a middle field between these opposites. How is the duality between the subjective and the political handled within Tunnel Vision? Is it a rejection of the political or is it an attempt at establishing a new kind of politics?

Jonatan Habib Engqvist. Foto: Nina Broberg.
Jonatan Habib Engqvist. Photo: Nina Broberg.

Jonatan Habib Engqvist: I guess that if society as a whole is characterised by or inclined towards tunnel vision, this has immense political implications! You might say that the politics of tunnel vision is pure subjectivity and that the exhibition deals with various sensibilities pertaining to this bias. So it is not about a fascination with the age of the Internet per se. Emphasis is placed on how on- and offline life intertwine with each other and determine our worldview (how we understand both subjectivity and the political). Joanna Lombard’s work partly deals with paradoxes of belonging and rejection; providing a diagnosis of how a time, or certain ideas, shape a generation. This could also be said about Ryan Trecartin. Ola Pehrson and Agnieszka Kurant combine the political and subjective, myth and phantoms with global finance. So do Steingrimur Eyfjörd, Minna Henriksson, Ed Schenk and Brad Troemel. Brody Condon perhaps deals with politics of subjectivity itself through LARP (Live Action Role Play), as do Daniel Steegmann Mangrané and Christine Ödlund when they investigate the perception of plants… Most importantly, all the artists in this show are conceptually driven and express themselves with precise sensibility (smell, humidity, touch, sound). It is through the physicality of these works that tunnel life is materialised.

Toke Lykkeberg: Yes, I personally hope the time has finally come when art no longer has to justify its existence solely with reference to well-known political agendas. And yes, Ferdinand, Christine and Ryan do not explicitly politicise their work. Their work is rich and digs deeper.

Stefanie Hessler: Momentum 8 acknowledges that there are no strict antinomies any longer between private and public, or between subjective and political. This view in itself has political dimensions, since the development concerns all of us. The artists in the exhibition and their works recognise that old binaries no longer apply in a time in which designations like offline and online as opposites also become unstable. For instance, Daniel Steegmann Mangrané’s work immerses one viewer at a time in a hyper-real Oculus Rift environment, and could be interpreted as subjective and individual. However, if we are all constantly looking at a personal screen, yet interacting with others while our own worldview is perpetually reaffirmed through cookies that define our search queries, this is a strange new conglomerate that asks for novel understandings of concepts like the political.

Kunstkritikk: Does your idea of a ‘tunnel vision’ also extend to the audience? In what ways will the exhibition as a site be constructed in order to explore your concept?

Stefanie Hessler.
Stefanie Hessler.

Stefanie: During the conversations between the curatorial team, the word multisensorial kept coming up. Last week I smelled Sissel Tolaas’ scent, her contribution to Momentum 8, for the first time and felt like I was being catapulted into a different state of mind. Valia Fetisov is creating an app that will allow the audience to literally be included in tunnel vision, and Zhala’s soundscape will follow visitors throughout the exhibition. The works in the show are not necessarily contained, but spread and perhaps even adhere to the audience. Yet, while Momentum 8 acknowledges superpositions and hyperconnectivity, it also points to disconnects and sensory perceptions that lend themselves less well to being shared.

Jonatan: Yes. Zhala is making a soundtrack, and also site-specific installations. The choreography of the exhibition is specific to the theme. Momentum 8 is a multisensory experience, and not only in Moss. For instance, the reader we are launching in Venice consists of texts and a commissioned scent. In terms of the tunnel vision of the physical site, we can perhaps speak of the show as a synesthetic experiment. Touch, sound and scent have pre-cognitive and highly individual features that are accentuated here. It was stimulating to test this idea with a first sample tunnel-scent commissioned from Sissel Tolaas at the press conference. Every person who was there gave a different account of what they experienced!

Kunstkritikk: You include some established artists in the exhibition, notably Fujiko Nakaya from Japan, Eva Löfdahl from Sweden, Sissel Tolaas from Norway and Steingrimur Eyfjörd from Iceland. They are very different, and you seem to see connections between artists that are not affected by the established art historical narratives. Can you say something about the similarities and differences across the generations represented in this exhibition?

Jonatan: A biennial should question art historical canon. This particular exhibition does so with idea-based works expressed through material that is highly tangible and fleeting at the same time. If we look at Fujiko Nakaya’s fog chamber, Joanna Lombard´s sound work or Valia Fetisov’s app, this should be pretty obvious. Likewise it is present in for instance Steingrimur Eyfjörd’s and Eva Löfdahl’s choices of materials which always stand in direct relationship to a specific environment and its social, physical and psychological conditions.

Birta Gudjonsdottír.
Birta Gudjonsdottír.

Birta Gudjonsdottír: The artists of Momentum 8 are at different points in their career, though there are relatively few of the youngest generation. I´m interested in what a dialogue between different generations of artists can trigger, and to me generations in the arts often melt together into a hub of sharing. Artists who maintain a practice for long and engage in a dialogue with the world around them accumulate knowledge through time, above and beyond current affairs, and their art finds relevance with regular intervals in their career. Our theme, tunnel vision, surpasses generations since we explore conditions that people continue to be challenged by throughout history. To explore the spectrum of tunnel vision with artists of similar interests would indeed result in tunnel vision.

Kunstkritikk: Tolaas is the only Norwegian artist in the exhibition, and she is based in Berlin. In most biennials, the idea of national representation has been replaced with the idea of local involvement. With your choice of artists, you reject both. What is the reason for this? Is it solely a matter of artistic relevance, or could this also be read as a rejection of the biennale as a tool of cultural politics?

Jonatan: National representation has nothing to do with site-specificity. Even if the exhibition and its theme is particular to Norway, and to Moss, this does not necessarily entail that the most appropriate artists have Norwegian passports. Our job is not to focus on cultural politics.

Toke Lykkeberg.
Toke Lykkeberg.

Toke: For sure, nationality was just one criterion among many others. But a question has popped up in our conversations: How do you make the mathematics of representation when it comes to gender, nationality etc? Do you look at the number of artists included or the number of artists invited? Do you look at the amount of money allotted to producing their works or the square meters their works occupy? That said, we’ve talked about and we’ve talked with many great Norwegian artists, dead and alive, and though I must say that the dialogue with the former was somewhat one-way, it’s been very exciting. But our main ambition has been to make a biennial with a real theme, a new theme, which Norwegians and people in the region should be able to relate to. Exposing what’s already exposed in Norway would also have done the trick, but it would’ve been less interesting for everybody.

Birta: For Momentum 8 we bring ideas and processes to Moss, which relate to realities in Norway as much as internationally. As curators living in the Nordic region, our thoughts, experiences and perspectives are only partially formed by the socio-political environment in the region. We find relevance in tunnel vision as a viewpoint significant of our times, and within its various manifestations we recognise our own realities. There´s a difference between a site-specific project and local involvement. Momentum – just like other biennials worldwide – is locally involved since it invites people to have an experience in the city. It does, however, not only invite inhabitants of Moss or Norway to visit, but people from further away as well. The number of artists from the different Nordic countries at Momentum 8 shouldn´t be considered as our statement on Nordic art. It is not Momentum 8´s aim to provide a ‘Best of’ of Nordic art, but to offer an inspiring art experience in the region.

Kunstkritikk: In your curatorial statement you liken contemporary art with esoteric activities as well as ‘psychotropic substances’. You also point to art historical precedents for these ideas. What did you learn about ‘the liberated mind’ from engaging with this art of the ‘post-internet’ age?

Jonatan: It seems that both multitasking and directed concentration are in demand at the same time. A consequence of this is that we´re dealing with a different kind of drug use than earlier. Instead of the expanded consciousness of the ‘60s and ‘70s, aimed at spacing out or opening up our minds – we have seen an increase in both legal and illegal substances and techniques that create focus by compressing consciousness. There are many drugs that have been developed as a means to end (military technology, etc.) but today drugs might have moved from escape to adaption. Instead of taking drugs to get away from the demands of society, people seem to be taking them to keep up.

Stefanie: There are different ways of entering a state of tunnel vision, drugs are one of them. Perhaps we are in an everyday state of tunnel vision when blocking out the fact that we are not as rational and controlled as we like to believe we are. I think it is worthwhile considering different logics and states of being. Today, drugs are not sub- or counterculture any longer, but widely spread technologies of the self. While the psychedelic movement of last century was after mind expansion, we are now looking for narrowed-down, focussed consciousness. Different times demand different drugs. Amid the distractions of the Internet, Adderall and neuroenhancers are used to create a synthetic concentrated state of mind. They are the pharmaceutical equivalent of cookies and algorithms of the Net.

Birta: Esotericism concerns that which is concealed and hidden. As such, clear parallels can be drawn to the realms of contemporary art since it operates as a field for research on things in-between, in the gaps, often bringing obscure territories into the light. One of these territories, explored in Momentum 8, is synaesthesia, which involves a superposition of one set of sensory information onto another. In this regard, much art is synesthetic, causing slippages between the senses.