The exhibition Ghost in the Machine does not indulge in unnecessary excesses. Ane Hjort Guttu’s new film Manifesto (2020) is projected onto Sveinung R. Unneland’s Kitchen Sculpture (2020), which only reveals its functionality if you move around it. What looks like a perfectly standard projection wall in a gallery when viewed from the front, turns out – on closer inspection – to be a kitchen in disguise. Hjort Guttu and Unneland have both had long careers as teachers at the art academies in Norway, and the exhibition at Hordaland Kunstsenter arose out of a meeting between the two in connection with Unneland’s PhD at the Faculty of Fine Art, Music, and Design (KMD) at the University of Bergen. So when the exhibition delves into the conditions faced by art academies today, we are being treated to an insider perspective.
For those of us who have followed fine art education for the last twenty-five to thirty years, this is familiar material: the assimilation of smaller autonomous institutions to form larger interdisciplinary conglomerates; increasingly goal-oriented management; academicisation and professionalisation. In other words, the transformation of the art academies has been a process of structural normalisation that runs parallel to the developments in (Norwegian) society in general. The four institutions of higher fine-art education in Norway (Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim, and Tromsø) have different organisational set-ups, cultures, and histories. When I use the term “art academy” in what follows, I do so for the sake of simplicity and with deliberate inaccuracy, all while recognising what they have in common.
There can be no doubt that the Norwegian art academies have changed since the mid-1990s. Hjort Guttu’s essay ‘The End of Art Education as We Know It’, a piece partly inspired by a workshop at the KMD conducted by Unneland with Hjort Guttu as co-supervisor, may constitute the most important reflection on these changes to date. Despite the changes, it has always been recognised as one of the foundational approaches within the field of fine art that what is being created at the art academies is transient and in-progress, and, insofar as one can even claim to have criteria for assessing what is created, that these too are transient, subjective, and constantly changing. The art academy is an arena that enables a socialisation of practices and actions which are fundamentally unruly. To believe that the present-day art academy is a neutral and flexible structure that allows scope for this is also to believe that regulated (i.e. limited) access, study plans, digital learning tools, curricula, and so on are necessary and adequate frameworks for these processes and practices. Of course they are not, and the exhibition Ghost in the Machine points out this issue and seeks to show a possible way out.
Unneland’s installation functions partly as a piece of exhibition architecture and a projection surface, but it also plays a central role in Guttu’s film. Comprising a mobile kitchen disguised as a gallery wall, it was created in collaboration with boat builder and artist Maik Riebort, and students, during the aforementioned workshop at KMD. Interestingly, we find the same balance of power in both collaborations: the teacher and the student. This familiar hierarchy is challenged in the exhibition, because here the students and teachers are conspirators, partners in crime united by a common foe: New Public Management and its everyday avatars.
Unneland and Hjort Guttu employ various strategies to manifest resistance. Unneland’s project uses relational strategies where the goal is to create micro-communities where the exchange of ideas and experiences are equated with the physical manifestation of those ideas. The kitchen sculpture is also Unneland’s third architectural intervention at KMD as part of his PhD project, a critical strategy to expand the scope for social interaction and the production and display of art within the school. While Unneland’s interventions are specific responses to the institution’s architecture and organisation, Hjort Guttu’s work allows for a speculative political backlash. Her 27-minute film Manifesto has, as the title suggests, a more overt ideological premise. The film is a fictional documentary set in a fictional art academy that, even though it was filmed at KMD in Bergen, appears to be a synthesis of the Norwegian art academies. At this art academy, students and staff have set up a fake management, created for appearances only, whose main task is to prepare fictitious study plans, reports, and evaluations that are sent further up in the system. The purpose is to cover up the actual artistic activity and teaching undertaken, which is jointly planned and organised by students and staff according to decisions made at general assemblies.
While this organisational model seems to borrow inspiration from a not-too-distant period of political radicalism in Norway, it is underpinned by a pragmatic principle. When asked why they don’t simply set up their own art academy outside the system, the faux rector, who is also a cleaner, states that there is no “outside” in higher education and that the only authentic relationship one can have with academia today is “a criminal relationship.” With this, Hjort Guttu paraphrases Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, whose 2004 essay ‘The University and the Undercommons’ describes the university as a reactionary and oppressive structure which nevertheless provides shelter for intellectual refugees who need the university, but refuse to reproduce its historical, colonial, and patriarchal legacy. The art academies have long accepted and embraced the role of such undercommons, as sanctuaries where new ways of doing, thinking, and organising have been able to emerge in opposition to established political and cultural hegemonies.
Whether this self-understanding is rooted in reality is debatable; the issue of whether it is possible to maintain over time certainly is. The story of the West Norway Academy of Art, or VKA, may serve as an illustrative example. Originally launched in 1973 as a counterpart to the conservative Norwegian National Academy of Arts in Oslo, it was self-organised and artist-run right up until 1981 when it came under the authority of the Norwegian ministry of education and research. In 1996, the VKA merged with the National College of Art and Design to form the Bergen National Academy of the Arts, and in 2017 this in turn became part of the University of Bergen as a fine art faculty, KMD. This perfectly reflects the change that Norwegian society underwent in the same period: from poor and politically radical to neoliberal and reformed, all kinks freshly ironed out.
KMD’s new Snøhetta-designed flagship building is an impregnable architectural manifestation of this process, and provides the setting for Manifesto’s – rather heroising, if truth be told – perspective on this institutional history. But, like Moten and Harney’s undercommons, Hjort Guttu’s academy has no desire to either reform the institution or return to a historical model burdened with patriarchal and colonialist baggage. Rather, the academy is a parallel institution that uses the parent institution’s management tools as camouflage to hide an autonomous para-academy. Still, the important question is not whether the fictitious para-academy can be a model for an undercommons, a sanctuary for art education in academia, but whether it is an omen of darker things to come.
Manifesto is an incisive, accurate, and quite sober snapshot of life in the institution as it is experienced by the residents of art academies today. The time of the great reforms is coming to an end. The governing principles of neoliberal ideology and New Public Management have been implemented, and within the new state apparatus (within which the art academies are something of an appendix) the possibility of monitoring and control is almost total. Rational and well-founded, the control mechanisms are many: ventilation systems that switch off after office hours (when the grown-ups have left); windows that cannot be opened; digital locking systems that record all movements; Health & Safety instructions that prohibit cooking and regulate working hours; and so on and so forth. On the surface, this is all very safe, efficient, and streamlined. But it is destabilising and alienating for the people who are teaching, working, and studying. In the reformed institution, the space and scope for living and acting according to other imperatives than the measurable and goal-oriented become smaller every day, chipped away with each new micro-directive. An Apollonian superstructure supplants an unruly Dionysian community.
So what is at stake in Hjort Guttu’s Manifesto, other than what Václav Havel, writing in the manifesto Power of the Powerless (1978), describes as “living within the truth” in a post-totalitarian regime? Havel coins the phrase ‘post-totalitarian’ to describe a regime whose control and surveillance mechanisms are so total that they no longer depend on an authority, only a narrative – a tautological self-reinforcing narrative that frees the individual from any other responsibility than to confirm this narrative. For Havel, the post-totalitarian regime is a phenomenological framework that establishes the terms and conditions for any and all experiences of life in the regime, and “living within the truth” is a process in which the individual takes responsibility for uncovering the regime’s hollow nature. Seen in such a light, Manifesto is a disturbing indication of a possible future. The para-academy has gone underground, embedding itself within the post-reformation parent institution whose narrative it reflects, all without holding itself or the parent institution accountable. Manifesto does not describe a utopia, but a state of giving up, one where the post-reformation process has reached its acme – a new horizon beyond which the world as we knew it is irreversibly out of reach, and the future stretches out before us as an infinite repetition of the present.
Such a fatalistic reading may be too stark. But for viewers with first-hand insider experience of art academies today, the film is acerbically accurate to the point where it becomes uncomfortable, triggering something that may be either a newfound fighting spirit or apathy. In his book Infinitely Demanding (2007), Simon Critchley states that the Western liberal democracies suffer from a motivational deficit largely due to a vague feeling that there is no (political) way out of the mire in which the world finds itself. To Critchley’s mind, the symptoms of this are two types of nihilism: one passive, the other active. His solution is to bring about a radical ethical accountability of the individual and the community. For what it’s worth, and looking at the big picture, this is the kind of ethical accountability that Ghost in the Machine advocates by setting the utopian-dystopian para-academy up against the actual acceptance and assignation of accountability that happens every day when teachers like Unneland, Hjort Guttu, and many others struggle to uphold the art academy as a necessary phenomenological framework – often despite the institutions in which they are embedded.