Norwegian Terrorism

The cultural sector's opposition to right-wing populism and fascism has been strong but implicit. Perhaps in the time to come that opposition will require more direct expression.

The government center in Oslo, August 2011. Photo: Jonas Ekeberg.

There are many differences, but also some similarities, between the attacks on New York’s «Twin Towers» September 11th, 2001, and on the government center in Oslo July 22nd, 2011, ten years later. The similarities lie partly in that the attacks were directed against buildings which symbolically and in practice represented vital social institutions. And both attacks were followed by coordinated assaults elsewhere. In the USA the later attack was directed in part toward the Pentagon, the headquarters of the Department of Defense, in Norway against social democracy’s figurehead location, Utøya.

The differences are also obvious; it will suffice to name two. First: The attacks in the USA ten years ago came from «outside» and were perpetrated by a network of jihadists. The attacks in Norway came from inside the country and were committed by a single anti-jihadist. Second: The response in the USA was a «war on terror». In Norway the reaction was to «fill the streets with love».

This distorted blend of symmetry and asymmetry makes it impossible not to compare these two sets of events. Norwegians believe perhaps that their response to the acts of terrorism distinguishes itself radically from that of the Americans, but here too there is a kind of alarming parallel. Americans, convinced that an external enemy had attacked them, answered with a declaration of war. In Norway we know it was one of our own who attacked, and we answer with «love». Both reactions can be interpreted as nationalistic, as attempts to defend one’s own values.

Hannah Ryggen, Vi lever på en stjerne (We Live on a Star), 1958. Textile, 400 x 300cm. Decoration in the government center, Oslo. The tapestry received moderate damage during the July 22nd terror attack and has now been sent for restoration to Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum (National Museum of Decorative Arts in Trondheim, Norway).

In the days following July 22nd many believed that the terror attack would bring a new climate to the debate over immigration and integration. Many assumed that at the very least the Right’s populist-shaded portrayal of Muslims as terrorists now had to lose force. Here no one could deny that the greatest terrorist of all was of Norwegian ethnicity. In addition he was previously a spokesman in the Fremskrittparti (Progress Party, currently the second largest in the Norwegian Parliament).

This possibly naive belief was shown to be unfounded in Aftenposten on August 14 when the Progress Party’s candidate for mayor in Oslo, Carl I. Hagen, renewed his claim that «most terrorists are Muslims». With this statement he demonstrates not only his ignorance—terroristic attacks in Norway have exclusively been committed by Norwegian satanists and fascists—but he also provides the key to a frightening but regrettably accurate historical insight: there is a carefully elaborated connection between right-wing populism (democratized hatred of the foreign), right-wing fascism (still merely ideological hatred), and right-wing terrorism (the practice of violence).

Therefore right-wing populism and its fascistic shadow must be met with consistently logical criticism and solid opposition here in Norway and the rest of the Nordic countries in the months and years to come. This also involves the realm of art, where opposition to these political powers has surely been strong.  But perhaps a little too often it has been implicit. In the time to come it should perhaps be more clearly voiced.

0f course this will be like waving a red flag in front of the right-wing populists in the Progress Party. It will also strengthen the party as it seeks to reduce support for the arts. Nevertheless that’s a chance we must take.

After the terrorist attacks in the USA in 2001 many tried to interpret the events and predict the consequences for cultural life. One of the most famous declarations was composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s assertion that the terror attack was «das größte Kunstwerk, was es je gegeben hat [the biggest work of art of all time]». Less apocalyptic interpretations took particular hold of the notion that this would mark the end of an epoch. It was said, for example, that the attacks indicated the end of cynicism and irony, the beginning of an era characterized by «new honesty». This proved to be a prediction without much substance. After 2001 the arena of commercial art—to take the nearest example—has, on the contrary, entered into a nearly permanent symbiosis with a spectacular culture of media and consumerism.

Wolfgang Staehle, Untitled, 2001. The attacks against the World Trade Center in 2001 were reflected in an absurd way in several contemporary works of art. On September 8 the German video artist Wolfgang Staehle had opened an exhibition at Postmasters Gallery in Chelsea in New York which among other things included a live feed of a video image of Manhattan seen from Williamsburg in Brooklyn. The picture was updated every four seconds, and Staehle’s intention was to create an experience of time, to show the timeless with the help of an electronic image. So, in the course of some minutes, Manhattan’s profile and Staehle’s work were radically altered. Two of the buildings that had stood there were leveled to the ground in less than an hour. The work had originally been titled To the People of New York, but Staehle changed it to Untitled after the terrorist attack.

What has established itself on a second front as an important characteristic of contemporary post-9/11 art is the conception that terror and the war against it are two elements of the same thing. In Hal Foster’s December 2009 Artforum summation of the 00-decade, he sees 9/11, the war against terror, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay as part of the same complex of actions. In addition, the critique of the psychological and materialistic imperialism that follows global capitalism has had increasing force in the past ten years. That has led curatorially driven and academic fields of contemporary art to a veritable political turn, and a renewed interest in Marxism.

Can the terror attacks in Norway have a similar effect? Probably not. First and foremost, there is a difference in scale between the attacks in Norway and those in the USA, just as there is a difference in scale between the affected nations and, not least, between cultural circumstances in those nations. Furthermore in Norway we have already lived through the 00-decade and experienced the same movement that has characterized international contemporary art across the past ten years.

The attacks in Oslo and on Utøya will nonetheless follow every political person in Norway for many years. Nothing we say or do can be seen separately from the ideology expressed July 22nd. Right-wing populism and fascism have simply become more insistent and obtrusive, just as in the rest of Europe in recent years. Thus we can say that the terrorist attacks of July 22nd established decisively that Norway is a part of Europe. Even though we may continue to be protected from the economic cutting that enables attacks on cultural life from right-wing populism in many European countries, we share the same political and ideological reality and the same conflicts.

We also share the European certainty that fascism is nothing foreign, but is an integral part of our society and our history, a part of our identity. It is therefore a phenomenon with which we must continually come to terms. If we do not, we risk becoming silent witnesses to the continuing growth of right-wing populism and fascism in Europe.

Translation from the Norwegian by Richard Simpson.