Where Do We Go From Here?

‘I am concerned with the complexities of human existence and with breaking down polarised opposition’, says this year’s Festival Exhibitor at Bergen Kunsthall, Joar Nango.

Joar Nango. Photo: Pernille Sandberg.

The TV miniseries Post-Capitalist Architecture-TV follows Joar Nango’s preparations for the Festival Exhibition at Bergen Kunsthall. Panning shots of snow-capped mountains are intercut with video interviews featuring artists, scientists, and historians projected onto a screen made out of roughly sewn-up halibut stomachs inside a red Mercedes Sprinter decked out for the occasion like a TV studio, complete with lights, reindeer throws, and a small crackling wood stove.

According to jurist and musician Ánde Somby, who appears in the second episode, this ingenuity is typical of Sámi culture. He calls it “the joik way of thinking,” a philosophy that foregrounds the ability to improvise in the face of unforeseen events. Filmed and produced over the course of two weeks by Ken Are Bongo, the miniseries is Nango’s response to the situation created by the coronavirus pandemic which caused his Festival Exhibition at Bergen Kunsthall, originally due to open in May, to be postponed until September.

In this production, as in Nango’s art in general, Sámi architecture is a recurring theme. Nango is a trained architect and since 2010 has collaborated with Håvard Arnhoff and Eystein Talleraas in the activist architectural office Fellesskapsprosjektet å Fortette Byen (The Collective Project for a Denser Concentration of the City). Known as FFB for short, the group has created initiatives such as The Norwegian Roma Embassy (2012), a temporary community centre in Oslo that calls attention to the Roma people’s lack of spaces for public assembly in Norway.

Nango mobilises communities and addresses problems of marginalisation and exclusion, often conveying these issues with humour and generosity. Along with writer Sigbjørn Skåden and artist Tanya Busse, Nango created a Sámi casino in a disused chapel in Nordkjosbotn, Norway in 2015. At Golden Ája Lapland Casino & Motel, visitors could gamble and drink birch-juice cocktails while reflecting on the rights of Indigenous Peoples to land and water.

Fellesskapsprosjektet å Fortette Byen, The Norwegian Roma Embassy, 2012. Photo: Joar Nango.

Prior to Documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel in 2017, Nango drove his Sprinter the 5,000-plus kilometres from Tromsø in northern Norway down through Eastern Europe to Athens. The drive took three weeks, and along the way he gathered materials and used the car as a studio before setting up camp in a scrapyard in Athens. “I tried to map out Europe as something beyond the picture puzzle of nation states and the EU’s economic and political entities,” explained Nango in a radio interview.

His installation European Everything in the atrium at the Athens Conservatoire consisted of ratchet straps, tents, and reindeer hides suspended between the trees. Purple neon lights and a soundtrack by Anders Rimpi featuring dripping water, electric noises, and mournful wind instruments imbued the scene with an atmosphere of Sámi cyberpunk. Throughout the exhibition, Nango arranged performances, joik (a type of traditional Sámi song), cooking sessions, and workshops

European Everything brought together objects, traditions, and voices from the peripheries of Europe and Western art history. “From this upside-down position, the history of the Scandinavian countries can be told from a Sámi perspective,” wrote Frans Josef Petersson in Kunstkritikk, defending Documenta 14’s thesis that the decolonisation of art begins with unlearning “what we already know.”

Nango is still driving the same car as he completes this summer’s Festival Exhibition at Bergen Kunsthall. He is also working on a piece for the opening of the National Museum in Oslo next year. Kunstkritikk met Nango in the new main library on Oslo’s waterfront.

I wanted to bring you here because you have worked a great deal with creating places for thinking about and discussing architecture. In 2007–09 you created the fanzine Sámi huksendáidda (The Sámi Art of Building) about Sámi architecture, and at the Arctic Arts Festival in 2018 you presented Girjegumpi (Sámi Architecture Library), a mobile library on architecture. Is the TV production for the Festival Exhibition at Bergen Kunsthall and the Bergen International Festival an extension of these projects?

I am both embarrassed and proud to say that I am still working on the same issues I did as a student almost fifteen years ago. My work has always had a core of something educational and instructive, but I have come far since then, especially in the way I work with spatial issues.

Joar Nango, Girjegumpi, 2018. Photo: Joar Nango.

Post-Capitalist Architecture-TV ended up being very me. I like to make room for language, thoughts ,and a sense of inquisitive wonder, all wrapped up in a package that is direct and spontaneous. The format was quickly created, it was done on a shoestring, just two weeks of filming and editing. I try to create an existential space for issues that aren’t accommodated within architecture. It’s about nomadism and construction, and about architecture that has been very much defined by the northern landscape, human needs, and ingenuity.

To my mind, nomadism is the most site-specific thing there is. It’s about moving within a given landscape in a cycle that is virtually identical from one year to the next. From old, we have seen the emergence of a Sámi culture that views its surroundings in a very pragmatic way. In our present day, we see the same phenomenon, only expressed very differently; it is a lifestyle centred around cars and motor vehicles, often less romantic and sustainable, but in extreme proximity to nature and the landscape.

Decolonisation is a recurring term in your conversations in PCATV. Do you feel at home in that discourse?

No. I have deliberately avoided using the term because I feel that this is a kind of language that continues to polarise an already polarised debate, on the terms set by colonialism. Still, the concept of decolonisation is used so widely that it would be naïve for me to pretend it doesn’t exist. In the last episode, I speak to Liisa-Rávná Finbog, a Sami museologist, who uses the term “indigenise.” This is a more active concept which tries to talk about the same things, but from an autonomous Indigenous perspective. It is more about traditional knowledge, crafts, and ways of relating to land resources and self-determination.

The Indigenous perspective involves a critique of the Western art canon, and I see the spaces you create as a kind of institutional critique. Now you are working on the Festival Exhibition at Bergen Kunsthall and a piece for the opening of the new National Museum in Oslo. What is it like to work with these big institutions?

There have been no problems at all in Bergen: the institution is relatively small, and on top of this the coronavirus has forced us into a negotiating situation. It is reassuring to see that the people at the Kunsthall take part in defining, stretching, and pushing the roles of the institution. The situation at the National Museum is quite the opposite: it closes itself up, perhaps because the institution is so large and no-one knows how the new building works yet.

Joar Nango & Ken Are Bongo, Post-Capitalist Architecture-TV, 2020, still from video. Photo: Ken Are Bongo.

Last year, I exhibited at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. They have an Indigenous department with their own curators who had my project’s back right from an early stage. I wanted to work with leather tanning, with an open fire on the museum stairs. They thought this was a good idea and helped me throughout the negotiation processes with the authorities. It’s really about trusting each other.

Should Norwegian museums have their own curators for Indigenous Peoples?

Our Norwegian institutions must incorporate and facilitate other, more culturally specific ways of working. It is very important that the institutions are willing to get involved in the early stages of production and to accommodate something they do not necessarily know what it is, and which they might not know the value of, either.

Being a ‘minority artist’, do you ever feel pushed into stereotypes?

Yes. But while I avoid defining myself solely through political aspects, I also try to include a lot of different aspects of myself in my work. A lot of things can slip away and disappear if you work with artistic issues in a very activist, politically correct way. I can very easily zone out and just go silly. I have a lot of different feelings and moods, and I get depressed if I have to just sit still and argue about politics. At the same time, I am interested in investigating whether art can assert itself and be political, but also playful and perhaps sensitive, too.

But are you afraid of being used by the institutions as a kind of ‘token Sámi’?

Well, one of the projects I’m working on is Romfolk-ekspertene (The Roma Experts). Having met a lot of experts on the Roma people, I realised that several of them had personal ambitions invested in their own expertise. When we met the actual Roma people themselves, so many things fell into place, so from that point on we stopped paying attention to the experts. Sometimes, I see the same thing in the Sámi art scene; that curators come from the outside and look for something that reflects their own political outlook on the world.

I feel that my work European Everything at Documenta was tinted by that kind of curatorial-political ambition. The work was presented and contextualised up against the broader Sámi participation in the exhibition, while in fact the project had a different and much less defined cultural perspective.

Joar Nango, European Everything, 2017. Installation view, Documenta 14, Athens, 2017. Photo: Mathias Völzke.

At the same time, the Sámi participation was much more important than ensuring that my personal work of art was allowed to exist as freely and autonomously as I had planned. I have no problems with things turning out as they did, but these are interesting discussions nevertheless. Kristin Tårnesvik, Geir Tore Holm, and that entire generation of Sámi artists have worked a lot with this, raising the problems inherent in how they are always referred to as Sámi artists even though they are so much more. They have taken up that discussion to such an extent that they have almost made themselves un-exotic. At the same time, I observe that many curators who come from outside really want the exotic aspects, because the exotic is a means for foregrounding some of the key discussions of our time.

I am quite keen that the Sámi cultural space should be flexible enough to accommodate contrasting political views. One of my cousins ​​from Kautokeino [Norway] made his living from the mining operations at Biddjovággi in the 1980s. I know few who have more Sámi cultural ballast than him.

Speaking of alibis: In 2010, the FFB invited everyone to the opening of the Norwegian Roma Embassy. One problem that quickly emerges in these types of relational works is the issue of the potential instrumentalisation of the people who use the work, or for whom the situation was created. How did you address that issue?

We were asked some critical questions, but actually only from artists. This was probably a blend of us being naïve and inexperienced, but also free-spirited, because we worked completely outside the scope of the institutions and because we had zero money. This meant that we built up trust and confidence without any great expectations involved. An important part of the answer is about the difference between architecture and art. The relational aspects are a fundamental and pragmatic foundation for all architecture. At the Roma embassy, we built this entirely pragmatic thing, a “disagreement room”; we deliberately avoided tables and chairs, verbal language, and all talk about roles and representation. Maybe we came across as absolute jerks, but ultimately the fact that we didn’t talk much worked in our favour. We preferred to be respectfully present, juggling our collaboration with a lot of different Roma organisations, who did not always see eye to eye.

You alternate between defining yourself as an artist and as an architect. Is that a way to dodge such problems?

There is certainly a danger of appearing somewhat evasive. But for me, that flexibility gives me an important and creative haven. I am concerned with the complexities of human existence and with breaking down polarised opposition. So I relate to a flow between architecture and art. I also think the differences between Sámi and Norwegian culture are often polarised; that’s a static way of understanding culture.

Joar Nango & Ken Are Bongo, Post-Capitalist Architecture-TV, 2020, still from video. Photo: Ken Are Bongo.

The TV episodes are gentle, tentative, and inviting, and the pace is slow, whereas the projects you’ve created with FFB are infused with a more ‘bro-ey’ atmosphere. Do you see contradictions between the two?

We’ve created many concepts in FFB: “the disagreement room”; “resistance marsh”; “partycipation”; and “dudeism.” The dude factor is disgracefully high, and it has become more difficult to relate to lately. It’s very banal and primitive, but it’s all about playing well together. By defining our own dude-ism, we have become better at deconstructing the dude factor. But it is difficult, since it has been part of our working method, too. At the same time, it’s also been one of the reasons FFB has been less active lately, which is sad. Yet there are so many other important developments in society that I want to accommodate in my work; perhaps our time is up?

What will you be showing at the Festival Exhibition in Bergen?

We are creating a parallel FFB exhibition as a kind of conclusion to the last ten years, including an FFB record on vinyl. Then there’s my solo show in the other four rooms. I continue to work on a number of different collective projects, all of which are about studies of historical and Sami architecture. We’ll feature PCATV with Ken-Are, and in the Nomadic Library project, Tanya Busse and I will work with the poet Marry Somby on reissuing some wonderful productions she’s had lying around for a long time. There’s also Girjegumpi; inside the small library on architecture, Anders Sunna will continue working on his ceiling fresco, a dreamscape of Sami architecture. Then I’ll work on some tent sculptures in collaboration with the duojár [traditional Sámi craftsperson] Katarina Spiik Skum. We will also be using the Festplassen [a public square in central Bergen] and stage some situations around our Sprinter with Lajos Gabor, a Roma coppersmith I have worked with. Plus, I will smoke some paper sculptures.

You’ve talked about not planning things. Are you afraid that the exhibition might collapse before it opens?

No, I’m more afraid that it will be too well planned! I always try to hold back and to nurture the energy that arises in the installation before opening, the intensity and impulsiveness. Some people panic, but I like to involve more creatives in order to create something that more people have ownership of.

Is that the “joik way of thinking”?

Yes, it is about creating a sense of community around decision-making. In architecture, it’s a method of letting go, of incorporating nature and the unforeseen, and that is, to me, the essence of Sámi culture: being present in the landscape, never finishing anything, and always dealing with an eternal flow.

Joar Nango & Ken Are Bongo, Post-Capitalist Architecture-TV, 2020, still from video. Photo: Ken Are Bongo.