Starfish Embrace

A slow pace, collective efforts, and firm local ties facilitate LIAF 2019’s successful integration with its setting.

Damla Kilickiran, Psychografies, 2018. Photo: LIAF.

On this Friday morning in Svolvær, the streets are largely empty. But in a small square down by the harbour, the place where North Norwegian Art Centre (NNKS) and the Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) are due to open in a few hours, some ten or twelve children and young people sit in front of a large banner with the inscription “Vote for a renewable future.” The slogans on their homemade signs are identical to the many others currently held aloft around the globe, “We are the ones who will inherit the earth,” “Leave the oil in the ground,” “Act now! Your mistakes should not be our future,” with the addition of variants in the local dialect, which in translation mean “The future is ours” and “I don’t want the Earth to be hotter than me.” One of the protesters carries a megaphone, occasionally chanting out across the square. But apart from a few passers-by and a group of adult sympathisers from the three parties who have supported the climate protesters’ demands in parliament, not many are around to hear them. Still, it speaks volumes about the power of the global climate strike movement to see it find its way to a small harbour with just 4,500 inhabitants or so.

The climate crisis and the responses prompted in the form of generational rebellion have also reached the art presented in this year’s edition of LIAF, most explicitly in Trygve Luktvasslimo’s film Shallow Water Blackout (2019). One of several new productions shown at the festival, the film was shot at Valberg in Lofoten, and features mostly local, non-professional actors. Running to forty minutes, the film is a pointed, stylised allegory of our time, centred on a conversation between passengers on the luxury residential ship The World. Their numbers include the two children Amelia (Zoe Winther-Hansen) and Steven (Runar Arn James Paulsen), who largely cite and paraphrase speeches given by Swedish torchbearer of the climate strike movement, Greta Thunberg. While the blue-haired Steven appears every bit as calm and in control as the real-life Greta, Amelia, whose hair is plaited, is more unpredictably furious, at times expressing herself through growls and barks. The two teenagers insist that green growth is impossible, a position contrasted by Amelia’s mother’s cynical, neo-liberal stance: “For every problem, there is a product.” The film does not leave much hope for the adults, even though certain characters, some of them played by Luktvasslimo himself, to some extent support the children’s message. “You are already dead,” says Amelia. Suddenly, they all sit around the table, motionless and mouths agape, clad in orange survival suits of the kind that in 2016 garnered Norway’s then-minister of justice and immigration Sylvi Listhaug international attention when she wanted to feel what it is like to be rescued from the waves. Luktvasslimo might be criticised for taking the climate strikers’ strictly non-violent message to a violent conclusion, but given the film’s slightly absurd and humorous style, it does not insist on an overly literal reading.

The festival emblem chosen by the curators is the starfish, an animal that not only lives along the shorelines of Lofoten, but also makes an appearance in several of the works featured in the exhibition, including Luktvasslimo’s film and Anne Duk Hee Jordan’s video installation Ziggy and the Starfish (2018). With its soundtrack combining elevator music with sensual breathing and groaning, Jordan’s gaze on marine life is almost sexually objectifying; to watch the movie, you have to lie down on a cold waterbed of shimmering green and surrender to the brightly coloured sea porn displayed on the ceiling. In contrast to this inter-species focus on pleasure, a separate 2016 documentary sees Jordan exploring gender and sexuality in starfish and other sea creatures in conversations with a number of scientists. Her documentary offers interesting perspectives on the state of the sea in the Anthropocene, but it would have been interesting to know if these scientists are even more concerned today, three years later. One of them claims the fear of mass extinction is exaggerated.

Echoing the five arms of a starfish, the festival has five main geographical locations and a five-part event programme. But LIAF 2019 evinces little curatorial governance beyond the idea of local involvement, an interest in the tides lapping around the Lofoten archipelago, and a vision of facilitating multiple voices – a sense of community and immersion over time. In terms of form, the works presented range from performance art, large-scale installations, brief video works, sound art, drawings, photography, text, and social projects, to works by local artists from previous generations and unattributed objects found on the shores. In their opening speech, the curatorial team – consisting of Hilde Methi, Neal Cahoon, Karolin Tampere, and Torill Østby Haaland – emphasised how the festival is the result of collective efforts. Even if the totality can seem somewhat various, the festival has succeeded in anchoring itself in its specific sites. This is particularly evident in the specially commissioned contributions that spring from artist residencies set in various places in Lofoten; these works have a distinctive gravitas and demonstrate genuine interaction with their surroundings.

Futurefarmers, Wind Theater, 2018 – 2019. Photo: Dan Mariner.

Among those who have engaged with the local community in earnest are Amy Franceschini and Lode Vranken of the international collective Futurefarmers, which has run the long-standing Flatbread Society project in urban development areas around Bjørvika in Oslo. Last autumn, they spent time in the village of Digermulen, originally because they were interested in the wind conditions at the site. Their Wind Theater (2018–19) comprises elements such as the construction of a wind-powered printing press, a major installation in the building that formerly housed the Lofotposten newspaper building, as well as a small-scale wind turbine sculpture at the NNKS. But just as much as the project tells the story of a small society struggling for survival, it is also a portrait of Gunnar Aarstein, local enthusiast and principal at the Digermulen school. The exhibition is accompanied by a booklet featuring texts and illustrations – that Futurefarmers, inspired by the theorist Vladimir Propp, describe as “wonder tales” about the wind – created in collaboration with Aarstein and his students.

For their part, the artist-duo João Pedro Vale and Nuno Alexandre Ferreira spent three months on the island of Skrova, a community of two-hundred inhabitants whose main source of income is salmon farming. As the title suggests, Vale and Ferreira’s Semiotica do Bacalhau / Semiotics of the Cod (2019) focuses not on salmon, but on cod, specifically on the connection between Norwegian cured fish and the Portuguese bacalhau. The installation has a hybrid appearance: part exhibition and part canteen, featuring two parallel long tables and a kitchen area. During the opening weekend, Vale and Ferreira staged performances inspired by cooking shows on television. With the help of audiences, they prepared and served a tasty meal, Bacalhau à Braz, for fifty people, all while lecturing on the importance of the cod and showing film clips ranging from Portuguese food programmes and historical black-and-white films to excerpts from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982). The fish they used was brought back to Norway from Portugal, and considerations on this migration and notions about the nationality of fish were central to the lecture. Furthermore, the duo presented a critical outline of various aspects of Portuguese national identity, focusing particularly on repressive gender roles, with historical references to the colonial era – a time when the term ‘bacalhau’ also denoted a type of whip used by the Portuguese against slaves in Brazil – and the post-war fascist rule, when fishermen and women were used as propaganda figures. In view of the absurdity of assigning any nationality to fish, the work reaches beyond purely Portuguese issues to critique essentialist ideas of identity in general.

João Pedro Vale and Nuno Alexandre Ferreira, Semiotica do Bacalhau / Semiotics of the Cod, 2019. Photo: LIAF.

Signe Lidén’s monumental The Tidal Sense (2019), a twenty-eight-metre installation and sound work which consists of a vast hemp canvas that extends along an entire wall of the Lofotposten building, is the result of a residency in Ramberg earlier this year. Now functioning as a speaker membrane, the canvas is the same that Lidén used to record the sounds of the shore. At its wider end, the canvas is stretched out to form a roof over visitors. As it tapers towards its narrow end, the canvas finally reaches the point where you have to bend down and ultimately crawl on your belly to pass under it. If you press your head against the canvas, you can feel the sound of the sea reverberating against your skull. The work includes a small series of photographs from Ramberg, a short video on language ​​and the tide, and a podcast featuring philosophical conversations between Lidén and literary scholar Grace Dillon, biologist and media theory scholar Arjen Mulder, neurologist and musician Geir Olve Skeie, and children from the local school. The conversations revolve around issues of time, rhythm, language, thinking, and community, and help to enhance the experience of Lidén’s installation as a place for unification and reflection.

Currently in a state of decay and disrepair as it awaits refurbishment and conversion into flats, the four-storey former Lofotposten building is nevertheless a fantastic showroom. However, the smaller, more delicate projects are often overwhelmed. The works created by Damla Kilickiran, one of the festival’s youngest contributors and an MFA student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Oslo, really take possession of the space, while the textile works by Gothenburg-based Paola Torres Núñez del Prado, The Lost Code (2017–19), presented on the same floor, are rather more unassuming. Kilickiran shows Entries in Space (2015), a total of seventy-eight drawings featuring variations on five different geometric shapes – so-called Platonic solids – presented together on a large, slanting, grey wooden sculpture, as well as Psychographies (2018), four silent animations of abstract figures featuring constantly changing colours and patterns, projected directly onto the walls inside the partially darkened room. In a small display case, Núñez del Prado shows three unkuña rugs from the Andes. Disrupting the traditional patterns, she has woven in irregular patterns and elements that reference sound-visualisations, incorporating ragged and loose threads that she refers to as “disappearing voices.” The juxtaposition of Kilickiran and Núñez del Prado makes sense, as both artists seem to share an interest in abstract visuality as an expression of forms of consciousness that cannot be easily captured: meditative states, spirits, and lost souls.

Signe Lidén, The Tidal Sense, 2019. Photo: LIAF.

At the NNKS, all other works are overshadowed by an overwhelming installation by Canadian artist Tricia Middelton. Filled from floor to ceiling with vast amounts of found objects mixed in with her own works, the entire room becomes a three-dimensional collage. Layer upon layer of sheer textiles and ribbons in various colours hang from the ceiling. The floor is teeming with bric-a-brac: awkwardly executed pottery, kitschy porcelain figurines, shells and stones, a broom, a portrait painting, a dried rose, old paperbacks. At one end of the room, a broken light-green rowboat is surrounded by nautical objects the artist stumbled upon in an old shed in Lofoten. The installation is also embellished by the fragrance of scented candles and recordings of everyday sounds. During the opening weekend, Middelton conducted a reading set inside the exhibition, describing the act of reaching beyond her own capacity and being “sensitive to the feelings of all things.” Taking in all the details of this installation is virtually impossible, and that seems to be the point. Part monument to human hoarding, part challenge to established hierarchies of artistic quality, this is a space in which to lose oneself.

Such efforts to break down hierarchies and facilitate immersive experiences seem to infuse the festival’s entire political ethos. This is not the kind of biennial that might have been staged anywhere in the world. LIAF 2019 is led by a team that knows the region of northern Norway well, and in general the artists’ works are firmly rooted in the region and the geographical and social conditions of the place.

Among the projects that activate not only the locals, but also visitors to the area, we find Kateřina Šedá’s Something for something (2019). Šedá has parked a red caravan by the edge of the sea outside the Lofotposten building; here, travellers can book one night of free accommodation through Airbnb, provided that they donate a few hours of their time to the local community. Apparently, the caravan is booked for the entire exhibition period, and Šedá has already been approached by people who want to do something similar elsewhere in the world. Of course, I ought to have registered so that I could have written about the project from the inside, as it were, but my personal capacity found its limit there.

During the two intense days I spent at LIAF, I would often find myself heading for the sheltered darkened listening station on the second floor. On Saturday night, the venue presented a concert featuring Emmanuel Holterbach performing electronic compositions by Eliane Radigue, attracting a crowd, but at any other time I could always rely on finding a vacant bean bag chair or bench. The playlist includes sound art, music, and spoken word. But for my part, I only got to encounter some quite strange and atmospheric sound art that made me genuinely uncertain whether the tinnitus was inside my own head or out in the room. Anyway, having such a space for calm retreat and meditation in the heart of the exhibition was a stroke of genius. The world needs more regenerative spaces like that.

Tricia Middelton, – – – – – – – – – –, 2019. Photo: LIAF.

Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF), Nordnorsk kunstnersenter, Lofoten
João Pedro Vale & Nuno Alexandre Ferreira, Andrrey, Cecilia Åsberg, Sarah Blissett, Anna Boberg, Michaela Casková, Coast, Line, Diana Deutsch, Devil’s Apron (Kåre Grundvåg og Trond Ansten), Grace Dillon, Camilla Figenschou, Greg Fox, Futurefarmers (Amy Franceschini og Lode Vranken), Green Music, Biret Ristin Sara og Ravna Anti Guttorm, PLO Man & Hashman Deejay, Emmanuel Holterbach, Pauline Oliveros & Ione, Toril Johannessen, Signe Johannessen, Anne Duk Hee Jordan, Jackie Karuti, Kelp Curing, Kelp Diagram Collective, Damla Kilickiran, Polina Medvedeva & Andreas Kühne, Signe Lidén, Julia Lohmann, Trygve Luktvasslimo, Tricia Middleton, Kajsa Møllersen, Arjen Mulder, Astrida Neimanis, Elatu Nessa, Sabine Popp, Éliane Radigue, Marietta Radomska, Tomoko Sauvage, Kateřina Šedá, Soundcamp, Laurie Spiegel, Bob L Sturm, David Grubbs & Susan Howe, Talluz (Viktor Pedersen), Martha Todd, Morten Torgersrud, Paola Torres Núñez del Prado, Vagant, Heike Vester, Cecilia Vicuña
Curators: Hilde Methi, Neal Cahoon, Karolin Tampere og Torill Østby Haaland