Make Bergen Great Again

Bergen’s plans for becoming an international cultural city overlooks the fact that the city already is.

Kobie Nel, installation view from Apple Puma, 2018.

When, as a native English-speaker, I moved to Norway in 2014, the first phrase I learned was an idiom: to “step in the salad.” It means to make a faux pas of a particularly awkward and visible nature, something a newly minted Scandinavian-speaker does with frequency. The second phrase I learned describes how one avoids stepping in the salad: “walking around the porridge.” To walk around the porridge is to not get to the point – somewhere between what in English we call “waffling” and ignoring “an elephant in the room.”

Two recent political documents published by Bergen Municipality – the Cultural Strategy for the City of Bergen Kommune for 2015-2025 (hereafter “Cultural Strategy”), and the Plan for the Professional Arts Field, 2018-2027 (hereafter “Art Plan”) – demonstrate an excessively long walk around the porridge, with a few helpings of salad encountered on the footpath, all over the issue of internationalism in the arts sector. Together, these documents outline a ten-year vision for the city’s cultural sector. The masterplan for Bergen is quite simply to be “at the forefront internationally.” The slogan is printed right on the cover of the booklet version of the Cultural Strategy, which is bound in Bergen rain-cloud grey and published in both Norwegian and English. On the inside, one finds the word “international” used 25 times, while “local” clocks in at seven. I’ll get back to the relevance of this.

Between funded residency programs in the city (for foreign artists) and abroad (for Bergen-based artists), established institutions that often show more foreign artists than Norwegian ones, and Bergen Assembly – which the municipality, in both documents, identifies as its flagship international project – Bergen could pass for a veritable salad bar of international opportunities. It is hardly provincial. And yet, on the subject of internationalism, the discourse is fraught and anxious, as if the city and its artists were on the brink of being forgotten by the rest of the world.

Kobie Nel, installation view from Apple Puma, 2018.

This comes across rhetorically, particularly in the Cultural Strategy, through pronouncements that Bergen “shall” be an international cultural city, that it “shall” have “world-class” institutions that produce “high quality artistic programmes.” However, in other paperwork the language is more cautious and belies a desire to avoid presenting a definitive position on how and by whom internationalism should be accomplished. In a public evaluation of the second edition of the triennial Bergen Assembly in 2016 – the minutes of which are publicly available on Bergen Municipality’s website – the City Council abstrusely praised the triennial as the project that is most likely to (“sannsynlig”) profile Bergen internationally in the highest degree (“i størst grad”). This tentative language may be a symptom of the sensitive relationship between Bergen Assembly and the local art scene, which periodically voices feeling underfunded and overlooked by comparison to the triennale.

Bergen Assemblys årlige budsjett er rundt 3,4 millioner kroner, og neste utgave vil koste rundt 15 millioner å gjennomføre.

That feeling is not unfounded. Bergen Assembly’s annual operating budget is in the region of NOK 3,4 million, and the next edition (in 2019) will cost around NOK 15 million to realize. Meanwhile, according to the municipality’s summary of the 2007-2016 Art Plan, the funding allocated to artistic projects involving international exchange increased by only forty-three percent over the same ten year period, from NOK 1,800,000 to NOK 2,559,400. This does not even cover general inflation. By contrast, the number of applications received in this grant category increased by 537%.

Kobie Nel, installation view from Apple Puma, 2018.

Bergen Municipality’s defense for the priority given to its own institutional project over that of artists’ projects is that the money for the triennial comes from a separate “pot,” and does not affect the distribution of funds within the general grant categories. According to the new Art Plan, the municipality intends to increase funding, both to Bergen Assembly and international project support. Perhaps, in the interest of the 537%, some criteria ought to be given as to what constitutes an increase?

As new ideas go, the Art Plan proposes organising a triennial international conference in collaboration with Bergen’s most prominent instiutions and festivals (sounds a lot like Bergen Assembly), and creating a support category for international arts professionals coming to Bergen through under-funded residency programs. The latter, if it can be realised, will be a tangible improvement in the city’s approach to international exchange, making a visit to Bergen feasible for foreign arts professionals for whom it would otherwise have been financially prohibitive.

What the Art Plan lacks, however, is a level of specificity that would actually bind the municipality to making impactful changes. Absent are broad timelines, projections of rising costs over the coming decade, plans for sustainably increasing funding, and considerations of how to nurture the networks that are created. Moreover, at a more foundational level, neither the Art Plan nor the Cultural Strategy clearly define their concept of “the international,” or discuss how it relates to the development of local infrastructure and collective identity. Without a more rigorous level of reflection, all the Art Plan offers is conjecture, untestable claims about the importance of doing more in general – and with more money.

Kobie Nel, installation view from Apple Puma, 2018.

The implication behind all this vaguenes is that Bergen’s art scene is not international enough in its current state, although at no point are we told what a sufficiently international art scene might look like. This is because it is slightly beside the point. As far as the Cultural Strategy is concerned, international recognition is proof of artistic quality. Invoking the international is a euphemistic way of talking about being the best, the sophisticate’s version of “making Bergen great again.” The term the Cultural Strategy uses is “world-class.”

Unfortunately, “world-class” is a misnomer: the majority of cities in the world do not boast well-funded institutions or resources for high-end artistic production. What is actually invoked by this term is high class, a level of production value, comfort and accessibility that far surpasses the global norm. A “world-class” cultural city means a city equipped with conditions that would be acceptible to the cultural elite, no matter where in the world they happen to come from, or where in the world they are going. The version of internationalism in which the benchmark is “class” merely expresses appreciation for these conventions.

Bureaucrats and politicians are soft targets, but it bears mentioning that Bergen’s current cultural policy is not a reflection of the municpality’s views alone. Released in its final form in September 2018, the Art Plan was drafted following an intensive series of hearings and workshops with local arts professionals, as well as a period of public commentary and revision. It is fair to say that it in some degree represents the interests of the professional arts community. This might explain the sense given by both the Cultural Strategy and the Art Plan that there is consensus within the arts community about the nature of internationalism. Maybe, after all, there is.

Kobie Nel, installation view from Apple Puma, 2018.

Another possibility exists. Namely, that as a community we share the same blind spots. Bergen’s general population is composed of a large number of foreign residents who include, among others, skilled workers, students, waitrons, asylum-seekers, and arts professionals. Culturally and intellectually speaking, the city is already substantially international, and yet this is invisible in both the Cultural Strategy and the Art Plan.

A cultural policy that sets out to build Bergen’s local identity on the back of cultural internationalism should not only acknowledge this, but leverage it. Multilingual mediation programs, building cultural networks where national communities are already established, incentivizing more local foreign youth to apply to Bergen’s art academy: these are the sorts of initiatives that are easily within Bergen’s reach, and that one would expect to feature in a well-researched, practical plan for creating an “international culture city.”

Bergen Municipality’s preocccupation with “world-class” standards in the Culture Strategy and Art Plan is effectively a deflection from the greater challenge of relating meaningfully to difference and integration in the city. It is not necessarily art’s job to engage with social complexities, but it is the job of people who value the idea of international exchange to notice that, without going anywhere, they are already deeply embedded in one.

Kobie Nel, installation view from Apple Puma, 2018.