For many, many years, the Borealis festival for experimental music has collaborated with Bergen Kunsthall on exhibitions where visual art meets music, and curator at Bergen Kunsthall Steinar Sekkingstad has long shown great interest in experimental aural modes of expression. Even so, the exhibition File Under Freedom, which showcases improvisational music accompanied by visuals, must be the largest and most thorough presentation of music and visual art ever staged at the kunsthalle.
Extending to every gallery at the venue, File Under Freedom takes the kind of comprehensive display of various historical materials associated with an archive exhibition – mainly printed matter, sound and film recordings, but also decor – and combines it with a wide range of interesting paintings, sculptures, installations and documentaries. As such, it is an excellent example of just how rich an exhibition can be while still presenting a reasonably comprehensible narrative. It also demonstrates how important art institutions can be in terms of presenting and disseminating our shared history and cultural heritage when other and better-funded cultural institutions fail (for example, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, NRK ). Having said that, the exhibition also lays tracks for some possible trains of thought that I would have liked to see unpacked to an even greater degree.
The galleries are to a great extent arranged as encounters between different art forms, styles, and periods. While the approach is not radically new – Henie Onstad must surely be the foremost exponent of such exhibitions in Norway – it is very well done, creating a sense of visual consistency and coherence throughout the exhibition. At the same time, certain areas have a more clear-cut historical focus, exploring important scenes and periods in the development of free-improvisation music during the 1960s and 1970s. The exhibition takes these as its point of departure. The largest gallery has been divided into two for the occasion, its musical aspects centred on the practices of trumpeter Don Cherry and percussionist Milford Graves, respectively. The section revolving around Cherry forms a particularly inviting space where different types of material are nicely balanced up against each other, and old NRK footage makes me dream that another public sphere is possible. The gallery is also dedicated to the very different oeuvres of Sidsel Paaske and Moki Cherry (Don Cherry’s wife) and the roles they played on this creative scene. A clear emphasis on these artists’ central function partly counteracts the somewhat tenacious tendency towards masculine heroisation that often infuses conversations about avant-garde traditions. At the same time, it is hard to shake the feeling that the musical element is the primary thing here
The tendency towards hero worship meets with less resistance in the section devoted to Graves. Graves is a fascinating person: a technically gifted and aesthetically visionary musician, he radically expanded the scope of the drummer’s art and showed no restraint in terms of where he let his interests take him; he even invented his own ‘African’ martial art! While the martial arts are mostly of passing interest here, they serve to illustrate how Graves surfed the tides of fashion. And when a contact sheet with pictures of Graves’s demonstrations of punches and kicks is displayed next to photographs from an acupuncture session where he appears in the role of guru, I feel my inner rationalist protesting. When I then move on and re-read Graves’s appeal – or perhaps we ought to call them instructions – to the audience about how it is necessary to forget Western musical traditions to appreciate his art, this deeply individualistic and freedom-seeking project takes on a tenor verging on the authoritarian. Whose freedom are we talking about, and on what terms can it arise? I will not make a big point of the fact that A Philosophy of Freedom (2014) by Lars Fr. H. Svendsen is included in the exhibited stack of books, but it might say something about this exhibition’s concept of freedom. As is well known, Svendsen, a professor of philosophy at the University of Bergen, also holds a part-time position at the right-wing think tank Civita.
In other words, I would have liked to have seen a slightly less reverent, slightly more critical approach to these artistic traditions. The double link between improvisation and the individual subconscious on the one hand, and the universal human capacity for creation on the other emerges in a number of different forms: from Marshall Trammell’s improvisation practice based on visual scores, by way of Zak Prekop’s explorations of the relationship between composition and improvisation in painting, to Emilija Škarnulytė’s beautiful documentary installation, Abshalom the Prophet (2022), dedicated to the saxophonist Abshalom Ben Shlomo (born Virgil Pumphrey). The aesthetics and manifestations of improvisation and its dual connection to the individual and the universal is treated first and foremost as a kind of aesthetic truth, not as a convention that helps establish a set of rules for the creation of art. File Under Freedom fully demonstrates how this convention offers great opportunities for artist and audience alike, but it is less concerned with its limitations. Of course, it is possible that such aspects will be addressed in the extensive discursive programme that will accompany the exhibition.
That said, certain tendencies toward distance and reflection rather than immersion and fascination do exist. Matana Roberts’s “panoramic soundquilting” technique still creates interesting perspectives on the material she uses, where individual oeuvres and collective traditions meet and shed light on each other. And in the part of the exhibition dedicated to the composer and improviser Alvin Curran, who is more closely associated with contemporary classical music than jazz, we find the filmmaker Eric Baudelaire’s exploration of the political and musical avant-garde in Rome in the 1960s and 1970s. The three-part film When There Is No More Music to Write, and Other Roman Stories (2022) juxtaposes rather traditional linguistic representations of historical events with Curran’s music and Baudelaire’s montages of original and appropriated footage, the imagery alternately anchoring and displacing the thematic content.
The first of the three films deals with the kidnapping and murder of the Italian politician Aldo Moro in 1978, carried out by the revolutionary and violent group The Red Brigades. Here we find important intimations of a critique of the avant-garde, which is after all a military term. At the same time, the perspective is entirely specific: the film zooms in on the experience of a florist who had the wheels of his car slashed by the brigade, meaning that he was prevented from getting to work and thus could not get caught up in the line of fire during the kidnapping. This little story is – for me at least – far more interesting than Curran’s own slightly self-glorifying explanations of how there was no music left to write after World War II, and that they wanted to set the audience free. I understand the interest in liberation that permeates this exhibition, but by now a sufficiently long time has passed to enable our interest in the avant-gardes of the 1960s and 1970s to also take into account their actual history of influence, not just their ambitions.
Steinar Sekkingstad will leave Bergen Kunsthall in April after almost thirteen years of service, tempting us to interpret the exhibition as his grand farewell – a con amore project realised somewhat on the side of the kunsthalle’s ‘actual’ programme. However, leaping to such a conclusion would be wrong given that Landmark, the combined café and nightclub at Bergen Kunsthall, has for years functioned as the city’s most important concert venue for experimental music. File Under Freedom makes it clear that these different parts of Bergen Kunsthall’s programme do not belong to different worlds at all.