‘Harassment of artists is a way to power’

Partner of ex-minister used all available channels to throw suspicion on the play Ways of Seeing, according to Oslo District Court. Director Pia Maria Roll is relieved over the verdict passed on Friday.

Pia Maria Roll and Sara Baban (behind) from Ways of Seeing Collective, on their way to Oslo District Court and the trial against Laila Anita Bertheussen, 14 October 2020. Photo: Terje Pedersen / NTB.

Laila Anita Bertheussen was sentenced to one year and eight moths in jail last Friday, for threats and attacks against democracy. The Oslo District Court concluded that Bertheussen herself was behind the vandalism, arson, and threats that she and her partner, then minister of justice, Tor Mikkel Wara (member of the right-wing Progress Party) were subject to after the premiere of the play Ways of Seeing, first performed in 2018 at Black Box theater in Oslo.

During the sentencing, judge Yngvild Thue ruled Bertheussen’s motive was to throw suspicions regarding the incidents on the play, and highlighted the intensity of Bertheussen’s efforts. “The court submits that Bertheussen used all available channels to draw attention to the play through posts and comments on her own and fake Facebook profiles,” Thue said. Additionally, Bertheussen has apparently undertaken extensive research concerning those involved in the theatre and contacted the theatre’s sponsors.

Ways of Seeing is created by Pia Maria Roll, Hanan Benammar, Sara Baban, and Marius von der Fehr, and the directors have described the piece as an attempt to map “the networks that are interested in making Norway into a more racist society.” On stage, photos and video recordings of the houses of a number of more or less well-known figures in Norwegian public life were shown, including the Wara family’s home.

After the premiere, Bertheussen accused the theatre of invading her private life. She later filed a complaint against the play’s directors and Anne-Cécile Sibué-Birkeland, Black Box’s head of theatre. The police took out a charge which was later withdrawn. Several ‘attacks’ on Wara and Bertheussen’s property followed. The couple’s house and car were spray-painted with accusations of racism, a trash can outside their home caught fire, and Wara received threatening letters. On 10 March, there was also an attempt to set the couple’s car on fire. During the winter of 2019, suspicions were raised in the media that Ways of Seeing had inspired the vandalism, and were echoed by Wara himself.

The police dedicated significant resources to the investigation, but were unable to find a culprit. On 12 March 2019, Roll told the newspaper VG that the incidents outside Wara’s home seemed staged to give the appearance that they were inspired by the play. At a press conference the following day, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, said in reference to Roll’s statements: “I think that those who have made the play should reflect on how they too contribute to a focus on politicians and their surroundings and people, that makes it tougher to be a politician. Then they must have the spine to confront the consequences.”

A convenient distraction

Asbjørn Grønstad, a professor of visual culture at Bergen University, is working on a book about Ways of Seeing that discusses the play’s reception and the ensuing media debate in relation to topics such as law and aesthetics, freedom of speech, and censorship and politics. “No matter how serious and spectacular Bertheussen’s actions have been, there is a broader context here; one can reasonably see the Bertheussen-case as an almost convenient distraction for some political players,” he told Kunstkritikk, adding that, in his view, attacks against Ways of Seeing from other quarters were potentially graver. “The Progress Party’s attempts to roll back financing to Black Box theater and the statements of the prime minister constituted a clear threat, just the day before Bertheussen was charged, and have been serious attacks on the play and the artists.”

Professor of visual culture at Bergen University, Asbjørn Grønstad. Foto: Zulfikar Fahmy.

Grønstad thinks the reception of the piece, with some exceptions, has been marked by shockingly poor critical journalism, particularly in the daily press. “In a sense, the artists have not only been under fire from the critics, but also from influential institutions such as the government and the media. But there has been little explicit criticism of the prime minister, and the fact that Solberg has failed to apologise is astonishing in itself.”

In the beginning of February 2019, Minister of Social Security Ingvil Smines Tybring-Gjedde and her husband, house representative Christian Tybring-Gjedde, both members of the Progress Party, also received a threatening letter containing urine. Around the same time, Smines Tybring-Gjedde participated in a chat group on Facebook where she, together with Bertheussen and Rita Karlsen, founder of the immigration-critical organisation Human Rights Service (HRS), planned a media strategy whose aim was to blame the play for the incidents.

According to the sentence, Smines Tybring Gjedde leaked pictures taken by Bertheussen of her vandalised property to the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK). In addition, she commented publicly on the connection between the theatre and the incidents, confirming them as real, and put Bertheussen in contact with Karlsen. Through the HRS blog, Karlsen published information about the incidents before they were confirmed by the police.

On 14 March 2019, Bertheussen was charged by the Norwegian Police Security Service, and as a consequence of the charges against his domestic partner, Wara resigned from his position as Minister of Justice.

Conspiracy theories, lies and harassment

Roll told Kunstkritikk that she is very relieved that the court didn’t believe the conspiracies that Bertheussen, the Progress Party, and HRS alleged, and which have been spread by sections of the Norwegian media. Roll’s outlook remains hopeful after the court’s ruling:

What I am hoping for is two things. One is that we can all become more alert to how destructive it is for democracy when you let people with power use conspiracy theories, lies, and harassment to carry through their political agendas and change the idea of society. The second is that we realise the importance of understanding how art is used. In all these societies that are now becoming more authoritarian, where right-wing extremists are gaining influence, the task at hand is to win the narrative of culture. Those who get to define the idea of art have come a long way in defining the idea of society. Harassment of artists is a way to power. A society that loses interest in and knowledge about art is far more vulnerable to authoritarian forces.

Asked about her position on Prime Minister Solberg’s statements, when she criticised Roll for speculating on the the possibility that Bertheussen herself was behind the vandalism and threats for which she has now been found guilty, Roll responded: “We don’t want apologies from Solberg. We want her resignation.”

According to Solberg’s state secretary, Rune Alstadsæter, the prime minister is not willing to apologise for her statements in 2019. “This is a case of great interest for the public, but it is not natural for the prime minister to comment on a verdict which is not yet final and enforceable,” Alstadsæter said to NRK.

Before the court adjourned on Friday, Bertheussen called the sentence shocking and appealed it on the spot.