For once, an introduction may be necessary when it comes to the artist representing Norway in the 56th Venice Biennale. Choices of earlier candidates might not have been obvious, but they were perhaps, for want of a better word… expected. Camille Norment was an unexpected choice, but when I got the news, it felt like an oasis of opportunity in a desert of wasted ones. My relief was not founded in her temporal and sonic approach to art, although music is one of the few things I appreciate without insight, and gives me almost holy connotations. I’m relieved because even though she is currently based in Oslo, she is not Norwegian, and not even from our continent. I’m so glad that this gap has finally been bridged even in art, because in practice, if not in theory, the art world is quite conservative. But with the recent series of exhibitions at Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA) the new leadership has proven they have a bit more ambition than networking internally inside the power structures of the art world. Maybe, finally, an institution in Oslo will be able to generate something that can awaken a politically sleeping creative nation where putting an object in a room is the main objective, and often the only goal. Camille Norment’s ambition doesn’t limit itself to that, or even to the art world necessarily. As I went to her studio just before she left for Venice, I’d heard some rumors stating that she’s going to alter the status of the modernist temple of Scandinavian architecture. I’ve always had a thing for crushed glass, but the last four years the connotations to more or less crushed buildings have turned quite problematic. Anyway, what you can’t converse you can’t heal.
You’re doing a deconstruction of the Nordic Pavilion in Venice.
In a way, yes, though that was not my first motivation, but it’s certainly one possible reading of what’s actualized in this work. By default this piece was very much coming out of the relationship between the music, the sound and the body, thinking of the human body and how that functions in relation to pleasurable experiences and censored experience throughout history and today. When I came to the pavilion, I wanted to be in it when it was empty, so after my first visit in September when the architectural exhibition was still on, I decided to go back in December, when there was nothing there. Then I realized what a fantastic structure it is, a structure that has been very fetishized because of its beautiful body. So I extended this idea, looking at the relationship between music and the human body, and started thinking about the architectural body.
A lot of my research came out of the notion of hysteria, looking particularly at the hysteria of the late 1700s in relationship to music, because at that time they had a model of the human nervous system modeled after string instruments, especially the Aeolian harp. The Aeolian harp was just a box with strings on it. You put it in an open window, the wind comes through it, it plays the strings. This creates this ambient music. It’s a very old instrument, but it had a resurgence in the late 1700s.
So you let the wind play it.
Yeah, the wind plays it. That is the whole beauty of it. Through the strings, they understood sympathetic resonance. One string would vibrate, and then the next string would vibrate, a bit like the Hardanger fiddle: You have the strings on top, and you excite those strings, the rest of the strings will start to move, and create overtones. Sympathetic resonance was a focal point in how they attempted to understand how the nervous system works, at that time. What was interesting is that they thought that the mind of poets should function this way, and be so sensitive to the environment that the passing wind of information came through them.
They would become a medium.
Yes, exactly. But then the tide turned, and certainly they thought: who wants to be this passive object waiting to be stimulated by something external? They instead turned to the thought that the poet should be the force of the wind and move things. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote two poems on the Aeolian harp.
Related to hysteria, this was also a period where science was trying to understand what happened in the mind, and what caused behavior they thought was outside the social norm. They recognized certain ‘tendencies’, especially in women, but were blinded to possible environmental causes. Because of their beliefs about the nervous system in relationship to music and sympathetic resonance, they thought it was a good idea to treat people by putting them into closed environments. In environments where they would get no stimulus, they were supposed to get better. That was the idea of the time. Though they soon believed the opposite to be true – excess stimulus was the cure.
Well, the notion of protection from stimulus as a cure hasn’t totally disappeared.
I know. The irony of that is that in many of these cases, quite a few of these women were disturbed because they were already kept away from stimulus, put on pedestals and not allowed to actually live as bodies. Then they thought; excess stimulation is the cure, and this is where the vibrator came into existence. At that time, the vibrator was not assumed to have any sexual function whatsoever. It’s hard to even accept that, but if you read documents from the Victorian Era, you find that doctors were talking about cramps in their hands trying to stimulate women. They were trying to create these forceful convulsions that were not supposed to be sexual, but a cure for under-stimulated bodies. This is interesting in relation the understanding of the pheno body and music, and the strong censorship that has been created around music. Even the Hardanger fiddle was banned because it was thought to be the devil’s instrument, but why? Because it was stimulating and eerie. It gave you goosebumps. A skilled fiddler could put you in a trance, and it was labeled especially dangerous for young women because of the sex factor. They were afraid that these young women would be seduced by the music.
They misunderstood the absorption as sexuality?
Music is highly sexual as an experience. We know that. It’s kind of obvious. Today it’s even proven in neuroscience, so a lot of this fear was caused by what people actually felt in the body. They felt this kind of stimulation from music they didn’t understand, and people who wanted to keep certain boundaries within society put a label on it, saying that it was not good – to get rid of it. The glass harmonica was something similar, because it was used to cure women. It later came to be feared because of its link with sexuality, but also because of its power. They thought that if this thing had the power to cure you, maybe it could make you sick, and even kill you.
A bit like the fears we have about video games now.
That is a bit different, even though there can be a sexual stimulation through aggression, but it’s a different attraction in sense of seduction. Certainly, the production of adrenaline is a link. I think it’s something to monitor, because people can get very plugged into it, and it can make you lose your associative abilities when you’re not plugged in.
It absorbs your whole sense of reality, while music underlines your presence in life.
Music stimulates the body and the mind, and that combination was seen as transgressive. Let’s look at the case of the electric guitar, with these hordes of teenagers going to rock concerts and screaming. They were really losing themselves. For the conservative generation before them it was easy to think that these people were being brainwashed and losing their mind, which didn’t seem a good thing to them.
Well, a lot of these teenagers react like charismatic Christians in these cases.
This kind of charisma doesn’t belong to religion, but it was easily made use of by religion. It wasn’t always the church that imposed limits on this kind of behavior, but very often normal neighborhoods that just wanted nice kids. The relationship between the physical stimulus and the message, especially the message of rebellion mixed with music, makes this phenomenon so potent. I was looking at a lot of these fears, and they were rooted in hysteria, specifically, as a point of departure. This lead me to thinking about excitement in general, this moment when something is shaken. It can be shaken as orgasmic, ecstatic or as a force of destruction. It’s not definite yet, it’s just this moment of excitation that hasn’t settled into a conclusion; a suspension. I was dealing with that in relationship with the windows. I looked at the glass as a membrane for the pavilion, as a skin in a way. Glass functions as a border. It seems like it’s not there, but still it’s a blockage, where these ideas of the invisible layers that prevent people from being socially or economically mobile or equal are allowed to grow. The etymology for the word window is actually Old Norse: “vindauge.” And if you say it you can almost hear the change of the word over time, and how it has passed from dialect to dialect, and then crosses the sea. Words are the fascinating historians in this sense. “Vindauge” gradually becomes “window.” But it comes from “vindauge”, which means; “eye of the wind.” Before glass became commonly used, people just had a hole in the wall where the wind could come through. That was the eye of the wind, because it allowed wind to come into the house. Then it got blocked by a piece of glass, but the name remained. In many old houses there’s still a vent that goes straight outside and helps circulation. Another metaphor of the wind is the idea of looking at the wind, or reading the wind, to understand what’s happening in the environment. There are many metaphors about how the wind carries states of change.
Okwui Enwezor had made an early statement about the Biennale where he referred to a Paul Klee painting in which the angel of history is getting suspended in this intense moment of being blown into the future by the winds of history. So I thought that’s another connection made, looking at these windows as a membrane, because then it’s not only about the physically present pavilion, but also about the changes of history – the status of excitement. We’re constantly in this flux of change that requires a reading. We need to pause and read the wind.
Especially right now, when it seems like the whole world is imploding.
I started with a very specific and microscopic element of hysteria, music and vibration. It brought me to this very zeitgeist-oriented looking glass into the future. When I speak of this I don’t want to speak of it with too much intention. Even though I’ve got a lot to say about my inspiration, I don’t want to create a manual for what this piece is about. There are many different readings; a historical reading, a reading concerning music and technology, even a feminist reading is valid. There are many positions that I hope somebody at some point will labor upon.
But you also want the installation to function as simply an experience, right?
Where shape and form, in this very disorganized and organized installation, interacts with music.
Even today with music and the body, thinking about music as a tool, we become so adept at manipulating it. We can very easily bring somebody to tears. The military right now is using music to literary break people down.
As torture? How do they do that?
For example, at Guantanamo Bay, they used the theme song from Sesame Street, which was a very constructive program oriented towards teaching. They played this children song as loudly as they could possibly do without creating permanent ear damage, for 72 hours. Over and over and over again.
That sounds like horror.
Yeah. Can you imagine?
No. Something positive inverted into something horrific. It’s heartbreaking.
This is the state of the times. Sonically it’s very important that I create this space where sound is allowed to hover, in this space of excitement that it hasn’t yet settled into; something that is destructive or off-putting, and it’s not excessively beautiful, so that you don’t think it’s just an ambient soundscape. I have a chorus of many female voices who are singing two notes of the tritone. A tritone is a coupling of two notes that has six semitones apart. That was also banned, in medieval times, partially because they found it unsettled. It didn’t have an end to it. It seemed to go on and on.
Sounds like heaven to me.
It was seen as disturbing. It also had six intervals apart, and six was the devil’s number. It had to be bad. But by the sum of all these voices it becomes something incredibly beautiful, powerful and emotional. I think it’s a nice complement and contrast to what is happening to the windows. Their voices are coming from microphones, which creates an irony, because the vessels that we are used to see recording voices are now giving it to you. It blows through you and through the glass.
Does the wind play a key role in the sound piece?
In the composition, but it has to be customized in the pavilion, locally. The reaction between the voices, the windows and the glass harmonica is a key. Glass on glass. You hear the breath of each voice, and when I recorded these voices I never asked for a pretty note. I wanted to hear the air coming into the body, filling the lungs, and then released through this note. Even hearing the breath throughout the space, the breath as the wind is a fundamental part of the piece.
What’s the name of the piece?
Rapture. I always labor over titles, because I have a very semiotic way of thinking.
I sometimes spend more time on my titles than the work itself.
“Rapture” refers to the state of excitement where you lose yourself.
Another form of ecstasy.
That moment you have a loss of yourself, a complete excitement. And that’s also related to the windows. Visually, as you approach the pavilion from a distance, the idea of destruction may be an initial reaction, but the installation’s pulled in another direction, and suspended in the moment when something is shaken and shivering. That reaction in the body very often comes as a surprise, and many will feel uncomfortable facing their own reaction to musical experiences.
I read a line from the Japanese writer Masato Kato the other day; “Those who know the torment and joy of creation also know the pleasure and pain of destruction.” The destruction in your installation is very balanced.
Rapture is not about destruction and I don’t want it to be stuck in an idea of destruction. That is vital. It’s one of the biggest challenges with the work, because we’re living in a space where we read things visually. It dominates our other perceptions. When people see broken glass and windows, they face a scene of destruction, and something bad must have happened. We always talk about wanting to break these barriers, so that is also embedded in it. You can see this potential of change, this disruption, as an opportunity to shape something new. To say: OK, things are shaking, what do we do? We need to make a choice, make a decision, and not just roll around and see where we end up. In a broad zeitgeist reading it’s describing the state of becoming. The poem by Karin Boye, “Ja visst gör det ont” about puberty, describes the pain experienced when the bud bursts. When something opens itself up to the world. While maturation is expected and can bring forth wisdom, something is also lost there; this complete protection. That’s a state of becoming.
I think she’s talking about a flower, and that must be a trauma to that flower, to suddenly tremble, and feel vulnerable to the world. And that trembling is a form of excitation, a moment which occupies a full range of sensation from the delicacy of an opening bud to a destructive sonic force.
Speaking of sonic forces, I was here on the 22nd of July 2011, when the bomb went off just down the street from my studio. I could feel that shockwave in my body. I will always wear that experience in relation to the horror of what happened that day.
I had to move away from the country for two years after that. I was supposed to be in that street at that exact time. Sliding doors. This affects us still, though it might be hard to admit for some reason.
It’s very good that you say that, because when I was starting this piece, thinking about vibration and the shockwave of the sound, I kept coming back to this. But I said no. I kept pushing it away. I didn’t want to give it any attention, more than has been taken. But it wouldn’t let me go. I haven’t been talking about it, only recently, because I feel I have to acknowledge that this event is also a factor in this work. It’s a tremendous change we experienced. One feels that one can’t use the word ‘excitement’ in that moment, because we mostly think of excitement as something joyful and great. But when I say excitement, I really underline that moment of being shaken, as in the horror of the 22nd of July, or the flower bud opening up to the world, or an orgasm. Because again, I don’t want to close it down to one reading. All of these things are present, and this state of becoming, a potentiality and opportunity to determine how it’s resolved. People are talking about how Norway has lost its innocence, but I find even that problematic.
Like it was ever there.
That is not talked about. It’s starting, but all of this is part of the state of the times, looking around us and dealing with what’s going on. This incident was one of many around the world.
It’s starting to become something to expect. A week without a tremendous tragedy somewhere surprises us more than the tragedy itself.
One expects that something bigger is about to happen. We talk about it almost casually. Now it’s expected. It’s part of the way we live. That is a change. Reading the eye of the wind, reading these signs, maybe we should have read them years ago. Was it possible for us to understand at the time, or did it take these horrible events to just burst through and shake us, to make us able to deal with it? What can we do now? Do we just talk about it and accept it, or is it something that we can do that will cause a real effect?
Do you feel that Norwegian artists have confronted this incident in a proper manner, or any manner at all?
I like the artwork with the frozen glass stand with the newspaper from that day, frozen and suspended in time. We are still living in this frozen time, and still in shock from it because moving on within the growing complexity of our social environment hasn’t been resolved.
I can’t identify with the murderer at all, but I can identify with him in the notion that I almost feel as I knew him, because I’ve met so many people like him in this country. With the same limited racism and isolated world view. In a way I was waiting for an incident like this to hit Norway.
This is important to say, because I never heard this before, not really. What I heard before this event was this certainty that this could never happen here. These things weren’t really spoken. I never heard anyone mention how they felt as outsiders in this society, but it was clear that the immigration was growing very quickly, and it didn’t seem like there was any valid plan to deal with it. The patterns of how people fell into the system were just obvious. A whole segment of the Norwegian society just felt like they were outside. The system itself wasn’t able to smooth over the process. I never really felt like an ‘outsider’, but I was very much aware of my relationship to that as a categorization. Occasionally, when someone noticed me in a shop, for example, I’d receive a moment of hesitation when recognized as someone clearly not ethnically Norwegian – until I spoke English with a slightly disguised American accent. Then it was suddenly OK, me not being ethnically Norwegian, and potentially ‘cool’. That was a source of frustration. I’ve been living my life in this situation traveling around the world, and I’m not a victim of excessive racism, but here you’d typically find this initial kind of assessment. This was never cool, but it never became graphically problematic. It never disappeared from my mind, especially being in an interracial marriage, but the problem is even more present in the United States. People still take note of that in the States, especially in the South. My parents were civil rights workers, so it’s a consciousness that I grew up with; I grew up with a language around that kind of experience, but I’ve found that in practice, it’s an experience that only morphs somewhat in form across the world.
I want to address the element of science fiction in your work. Ten years ago new media was the coolest thing, but somehow in the last years it feels as if we’ve taken a step back, and there’s almost a taboo around working with new media.
I experienced science fiction as the latest fad in the art world during the period you’re referring to. There were a lot of science fiction exhibitions popping up here and there, and it was a new frontier in relationship to art. Science fiction as a term, when it was created, had the purpose to instill wonder in young people to go into science. It wanted us to think about the future, the unknown and this assumed distance between the way we live and what could possibly be. Now, especially with new media and artificial intelligence, it has become so much a part of our daily lives. The border between the everyday and the unknown has sort of collapsed. There’s not much we can’t imagine anymore. It becomes a part of our reality, so you might call science fiction just another melodrama. Because of its relationship to the historical precedence, the singular scientific element that makes the story particularly important, they’re not only dwelling on science, but are revealing our lives, how we think and what we create. If it’s not already among us, it’s only two weeks away. Taboo or not, it’s already there, and if people don’t understand, it’s because they’ve fallen back on this terms-evolving science fiction which is very surface-oriented, like Star Trek and Star Wars.
It’s like discussing abstract expressionism referring only to Pollock, de Kooning and Newman.
Right. It can be taboo for some, but only for the people that cannot get beyond the idea of what science fiction is. One of my favorite films of all time is Blade Runner, and it’s getting more and more relevant every day. The androids in that movie could have been from another planet or another country, but it’s the same story.
The good science fiction movies today are dealing with that.
You can follow an idea all the way through. It creates a box to think in. It’s outside our reality but still likely to become a part of our reality.
It’s a perfect strategy. It’s a way to confront the uncanny, to show you the same things you witness every day and create something estranged. You package it with aliens or androids, but you’re talking through a metaphor about immigration or any other issues we have to deal with in our daily life. A book like Vurt, from the nineties, in which animals bred for food rapidly grow back their limbs or organs after having them removed. It’s a horrific idea, but they’re trying to achieve that at this moment in time with animals. The irony is that the same technology is being developed to save the lives of cancer victims.
What role does science fiction play in your work, or the notion of a future?
I think that’s two different things. One thing that was assumed in science fiction was this notion about a future. For me what’s interesting about that is not the future, but what it reveals about the present. A lot of these things are repetitive and parallel, but in different forms.
The border between knowing and not knowing, as Deleuze is talking about.
Yes, but also in creating and shaping and making decisions. Why is it so easy for us to watch a science fiction movie and say; “Oh, of course we shouldn’t do that.” Why should we create something that is more intelligent and stronger than we are? But we’re doing it anyway.
Because we can.
Because we can. What does that say about us, as human beings? It’s not necessarily a negative thing, but it speaks for a certain kind of shortsightedness that is the same kind of shortsightedness that allows global warming to happen. Like Stephen Hawking said about aliens; “Don’t let them know we’re here.” Why should we assume they would shake our hands and be friends? Is that how human beings have walked into any kind of new territory? Ever? No. We still don’t seem to get that. We’re still so curious, it might be a case of curiosity killing the cat. I think we should be curious, but is it possible to balance that out? So if we manage to make the android stronger and more intelligent than us, do we stop before we do that? Or we do it anyway, because of the principle of not censoring our capabilities?
Duchamp said science is the art of tomorrow.
In a way it is. With the introduction of any new tool there’s always a phase of pure experimentation, and a lot of the work is based just on that tool, and the form that the tool can create or manipulate. I refer to sound art in the very same way. In the last two decades the majority of sound art has been preoccupied with almost a scientific notion of sound: What is sound? How does it sound under water? The sound of an empty room, very formal. It’s a very modernist approach, but it’s also a phase that we had to go through, understanding this form better, with better tools. I think the downside of it was, for a period, that many works where music was involved became a taboo. You couldn’t work with the tune, because it compromised the purity of the sound. It’s like the purity of the monochrome on a canvas, and purity of the sound was very much fetishized.
Art was kind of a distilling process.
So a lot of works that tried to achieve a relationship between sound and society or culture were neglected. The preoccupation with the sine wave, the pure digital tone with no overtones, was neglecting the vessel where music came from, like the piano or Hardanger fiddle. You can’t remove sound from culture, because the moment you hear it, no matter how clean it is, it is part of culture. You can’t talk about a pure tone without taking into consideration why that should be appreciated or interesting at all. That is culture, that is what the form is embedded in, and the space that is interesting to me.
Even though you are using windows as an object, and sound could be perceived as an object, the installation, without being minimalistic, is kind of anti-materialistic. When the show is over, it’s gone. Forever.
It’s a minimalistic installation, but it’s also an intervention. I can’t pack up the pavilion and sell it to a museum with my work. That was a purposeful decision to make. I think it works with the idea of suspension. It’s a piece that belongs to this particular site, and if it was moved to somewhere else, some of the essential readings and influences that went into this piece would belong to a history – a passing – or become associated with another context. It’s not meant to be conclusive, but rather a state of things being excited and shaken up; an unfinished moment including the context of 22 July.
Altering the status just a tint.
The discussion has dwindled a bit. We’re still not quite settled on what this incident meant, and how we should relate it to other global events. So I think it’s important that it belong to this space.
And when it’s gone it’s gone.
It’s gone. But the tones are still unresolved.