A Few Thoughts about the Workshop Presentation in Norway
This is a summary of the presentation that ended the Norwegian phase of the PICTURE Budapest – Østfold project, and not a review or some other kind of evaluation. It can be neither of these, because the aim of this program was not to create completed artworks, but to create unusual artistic and social contexts. I present the following text as a collection of subjective and/or analytic observations, and not as a review, because what I saw in Moss requires special skill sets critics do not usually have at their disposal. I believe visitors/participants interested in sociology, theology, psychology, urbanism, industrial and/or social history, or the arts, including the performing arts, will all be adequately equipped to understand these various artistic interventions.
Let’s begin with the acronym in the title: PICTURE, or rather Post-Industrialized Creative Transformations and Unpredictably Reciprocal Experiments. One of the most important goals – if not the most important one – of project participants was and is to view post-industrial spaces forgotten and/or condemned to destruction by local communities. They had to facilitate dialogues between these unique venues and those living nearby, or to put it in less “activistic” terms: to patiently listen to, then convey to the outside world all the stories these spaces have to tell.
Thanks to the complex theoretical background they received beforehand and the practical experience they gained during their work, the artists now had the opportunity to create artistic interventions that were short-ranged in terms of both space and time. “Length” is not a unit of measurement in art: the various projects we are talking about all need to be reflected upon, stirring the imaginations of visitors/participants. It is difficult to find common traits in the presented artworks beyond this, because among them, one can find presentations of promising theoretical ideas, pilot projects that invite visitors to participate, and installations fusing various different artistic fields as well.
We have the curators and artists taking part in the project to thank for the presentation’s marked diversity in aesthetics and thought, which also makes clear how limitless the topic of art in public space really is: that there are infinite possibilities inherent in it for citizens, artists and policy-makers alike.
This is why I was not surprised when the presentation in Moss had so many different projects to offer: a playground planned for children and a sacral-contemplative ritual, collective dream interpretation and a research-based search for identity, a sound installation atop a factory hall and an event about transforming urban planning into an experience of the body, a building’s history translated into dance and an interactive soundwalk in imagined and real spaces.
At this point, I will briefly describe what I experienced in Moss, taking the inner dramaturgy of the entire event into account, starting from within and working my way outwards.
Edit Vizer’s thought-provoking presentation dealt with a question that is of the utmost importance when talking about urban spaces that have gone through a change in the way they are used. The artist concentrated on the question of identity, touching upon a person’s past, their memories, desires and fears, and aiming to create a special “database” of personal stories of participating local residents. Her work was inspired by the city of Moss, which will go through significant changes due to a large-scale infrastructural project. It had Vizer thinking about how she could involve local residents in such a project, one that will have a large impact on their everyday lives. She conducted interviews with local residents, but instead of brainstorming, she chose to bodystorm (a concept borrowed from the world of design), transforming the collected knowledge of Moss’s (lost) identity into spiritual and physical experience. A number of keywords describe how those living here relate to Moss’s past, with the most prominent one being “nostalgia”, but as it turns out, residents are also interested in the problems of belonging to a community and longing for one, the concept of private and public property, and the question of what will happen to them in the next ten years. We stand halfway between the certain, glorious past and the uncertain, ambiguous future – but how does the “present” fit into all of this? Our present and theirs?
Liv Kristin Holmberg and Camilla Wexels Risers, a pair of artists, worked together within a much more general framework, one in a sense more difficult to define. They concentrated on the sacral elements that surface in post-industrial spaces, admittedly and consciously not delving deep into the topic, but instead simply implementing the first phase of a long-term project. There are always elements of a sacred nature to be found in such empty, slowly decaying, and uninhabited spaces – one can immediately find these elements upon entering such places. The enormous proportions, the dark corners, the light shining through broken window panes, the corridors that echo and the mysterious objects no longer in use: together these give the overall impression of sunken cathedrals. The industrial vaults of the second half of the 20th century have been left behind by their “god” – man himself. The one-time Peterson paper factory in Moss inspired many of the artists participating in PICTURE – most of its machines are now missing, spirited away to various distant countries, leaving behind strange outgrowths and truncated machine parts. The artists chose an underground space lit by the filtered light from above, with monstrous slabs of concrete standing erect like ancient menhirs, making us feel like we were standing in a temple’s inner sanctum. They also did some work in the semi-operational shipyard in Fredrikstad, where like many other artists before them they used the blue hour phenomenon, amplifying it with various artificial components, in order to create an enormous bonfire in the surreal, blue environment and invite participants to dream and meditate around their artificial campfire.
Naja Lee Jensen aims to work with dreams in a completely different way. She conducted interviews with residents in Moss, using these to plan a mental map of the city. She then spent a night in a tent in the paper factory in Fredrikstad, and then went on to conduct interviews with every artist involved in PICTURE, while sitting in a boat. These experiences together led to the idea of creating a dream factory. As per the artist’s concept, when we visit a post-industrial facility, we are actually creating a dream factory with our imagination. We see the spaces left behind by the machines, but not the machines themselves: although we imagine work processes and the people who once worked here, we do not really experience them, because that would be impossible. And however much research we do into a factory’s history, and however much understanding we develop about the people who worked in them and the products they manufactured there, this all remains nothing but a dream, because we cannot bridge the immense gap between the real factory and our imagined one. We become part of a collective (day)dream in the post-industrial, temporary period, and Lee Jensen says that the urban community discussions organized in the currently changing Moss all become a part of it. Art leaving the black box must communicate with people, and the artist must choose and make certain decisions. Following this line of thought, she arrived at the idea of projecting local residents’ desires and dreams on the front wall of the factory, taking into account the types of production still underway inside the building. Our dreams are some of our most personal and intimate spaces, but by looking within while incorporating even the slightest changes in the outer environment, such an installation may help us discover the immense power inherent in all communities made up of individuals.
With his futuristic, but movingly present-tense, experiment, Jakob Oredsson is another artist in search of the individual. He adds upon familiar viewpoints, i.e. the opinions of Moss residents, complementing them with new information about the planned construction project. He found the role of the river in splitting the city in two to be extremely important after his very first visit to Moss. His interviews with locals, his walks with a few of them on the riverbank, and his research into the river’s history and its role in local industry, as well as into local biodiversity and the complexity of its wildlife, all pointed to the vital role water plays in local processes. He says local residents are basically optimistic about their future, but still have many doubts and are uncertain about the processes affecting the river and its immediate environment. PICTURE was ideally timed in the sense that these are literally the last moments before construction is planned to begin, fundamentally changing the riverbank (to the extent that objects originally in the location chosen by the artist were removed by construction workers not long before the presentation started.) Oredsson’s project dealt with his topic from three main directions: thorough documentation of the current situation (with photo and video materials), followed by the presentation of the future plans (facilitating dialogue between the local government and residents), and finally by activating events in the riverbank area (which participants did by walking on the river promenade virtually and in reality as well). Every element of this complex project is strongly connected to the hidden potential in art in public spaces.
Jonas Bjerketvedt led us from the riverbank to the one-time paper factory’s long, empty main hall. His installation is really a single, well-chosen and effective image, which surprises its visitors. This may be the reason why the gigantic pendulum does not have as complexly layered a meaning as the other presentations which were based on detailed research and/or were more experimental in nature. The paper factory is about the size of a football field, has been emptied of everything, is rectangular in shape, and contains a (once movable) bridge stretching overhead, about halfway from both ends. To this bridge, the artist affixed a long rope which holds a high-wattage audio speaker about 1-1.5 meters above the ground. This speaker is the pendulum, which plays a recording that can be restarted with a push, the sound slowing continuously until the speaker is pushed again. Various spotlights surround this pendulum, throwing its multiple shadows on the decrepit walls. This gigantic, post-industrial bell creates the atmosphere of a church with its slow, majestic movement and its metallic sound effects, which surprise us with how high and low in pitch they can go as a result of the continuous swinging of the pendulum. These sounds surround us, giving participants a different impression depending on how far they are positioned from it, and on whether they are below ground level or, if they choose to climb one of the building’s walls or ascend to a balcony, higher up. Set up at the entrance of the hall is a microphone, into which bolder participants may say words that are important to them – the artist then loops and repeats these recordings live during the installation. Building upon these sounds and their effect upon individual participants, the artist has created a small, minimalist project based on repetition.
David Somló invited visitors on an amusing, surreal and thought-provoking soundwalk on the premises of the paper factory. At the starting point in front of the factory’s external entrance, we perceived the artist in the distance, approaching us with slow, deliberate steps, a speaker in his hand. Over the course of the next half hour, he never spoke to us directly, yet he still managed to communicate with us, giving us a lesson into how we can and should pay more attention to ourselves and each other – if we are able to. Emanating from the speaker was the pleasant voice of a middle-aged man instructing us in a witty but firm manner to obey certain rules. The most important of these was to keep quiet: something that is quite easy to write or say, but very difficult to execute in practice (and no, not everyone in our group managed it). Somló taught us a simple truth: if we keep quiet, we might notice things that we normally would not. And this is not even true quiet: during the first half of the project we walked along the outer walls of the factory, discovering various artificial and natural bays, recesses, rooms and objects both large and small with the help of Somló’s guidance. The objects differed in terms of their material, size and scale, and when the artist approached them with his speaker, the drum-like sound effect that it repeated every ten to fifteen seconds measured and made their properties audible with the precision of a medical instrument. The artist finally led us to the run-down control room above the aforementioned hall and left us alone there with the speaker – along with our thoughts, conjectures, smiles, or perhaps simply our lack of comprehension.
Ziggurat Projekt (Flóra Sarlós, Máté Czakó – dance, Kristóf Szabó – video) worked together with Jonas Bjerketvedt (sound) to create a “traditional” performance to go along with those presented by the other project participants. Sarlós and Czakó worked in a unique space within the paper factory, in a circular “metal bowl” several meters in diameter, creating a production that could only be seen as a whole by viewers standing a story above and looking down into the hollow circle. Their dance performance was only a couple of minutes in length, and was interesting in its own right, but became even more so in the context of the project itself. The artists used their limited time to do in-depth research into the paper factory and the personal and public stories of the people who once worked there. The project also included the cleansing of the circular object, making it suitable for a dance performance, which was done in “costumes”, i.e. work safety suits. This meant that what we saw were two people who looked exactly alike wearing their uniforms and slowly coming to life. This was followed by their self-awakening and their transformation into mechanical production units – a process accentuated by Szabó’s psychedelic, sometimes phalansterian, sometimes mandala-like projections from above, and Bjerketvedt’s impressive noise-based music, which he creates live during the performance. Set in the depths of a condemned building, the power of the images, movement and sound conveyed a strong, imaginative Gesamtkunstwerk of a narrative made even more powerful by the young artists’ use of artistic omission.
Dániel Makkai’s board game for children was the project that really shed light on how many possibilities are inherent in the repurposing of a former factory building through the use of the imagination. We can think about these buildings as black holes devouring money, as possible future residential areas or monuments to a glorious industrial past – but I am pretty sure few people see them as monumental playgrounds! The children (students from the local Children’s International School) were split into two groups that then had to find a route to locate each other through various tasks and challenges. Makkai has a talent for working with children, treating them as partners during the playful and clever tasks, all at different difficulty levels. The kids managed to learn and have fun at the same time, calmly navigating the empty, dark and mysterious factory spaces their parents would think too dangerous, transforming them into a kind of serious amusement park by moving around and playing in them. This project is not about didactic teaching, but strictly experience-based learning, and the game helped make the children more sensitive towards the environment, to always think with a view to the future, to behave in a civilized manner with strangers, and to believe in the strength of smaller communities. The “background plot” to the game had participants both witnessing and taking part in the adventures of aliens and city dwellers while tracing a winding path through the factory’s indoor and outdoor spaces together until they finally met the other team. After about an hour playing together, this is where we get a chance to leave a message in the space, together. For the sake of posterity – which will hopefully be interested in what we had to say.
About the presentation in Csepel, Budapest
I continue in Csepel where I left off in Norway. It is not difficult to find things in common between the work that was begun in the north and the work that continued in Budapest. New relationships were born, discoveries were made, and themes evolved, as did the tools and methods that were used to express them. The connection between the two phases is mostly organic, and not forced – there is dialogue between Moss and Csepel. If I wanted to be more precise, and this is an important distinction I have to make, I believe that this dialogue was not between the two locations themselves, but one between the artistic viewpoints regarding the two main bases of the PICTURE Budapest – Østfold project. I think the two venues might have become the real protagonists of this narrative only if the artists had been able to spend more time in both Norway and Budapest… But this report is not about the future, but rather about the past and the present.
It seems both impossible and incredibly easy to find similarities between most of the participating artists’ projects. For example, many of the works in Csepel were conspicuously contemplative/meditative in nature. The main aim of these artistic interventions was not to modify or transform their chosen spaces, nor did they go the traditional route and try to have audience members become participants by encouraging them to react to the works in a more physical manner. They opted instead to fuse these two approaches, inviting the viewers/participants to set out on a more mental, internal adventure, one of complete and total freedom – an adventure defined by the artist through certain carefully chosen rules. These projects were about the trust and sense of partnership between the artist and his audience, which is why I believe they were more effective and impressive than other more traditional pieces, which also rely on the interaction between the viewer and the artist. Many of the projects also aimed to direct us to listen to inner sounds instead of perceiving changes in the outside world – this is also what inspired the title of this summary.
The genre of Dávid Somló’s Horizon is described as a “bicycle-sound-tour”. All three elements of this peculiar definition are true, because the participants – always two at a time, along with the tour guide artist – would take a 45-minute trip via bicycle around the familiar (?) premises of Csepel Művek, relying mostly on their sense of hearing (and of course sight). Just like in Norway, Somló raised participants’ awareness of how little they actually pay attention to their surroundings. The basic goal was, again, to listen. Our time spent together got off to a strong start when we got to visit the bistro tens of meters from the main entrance of Csepel Művek. The tour began, and the artist asked his guests to sit quietly and pay attention. Once again, I was reminded that there is no greater playwright than life itself. Sitting in a world of smoke and the stench of alcohol, I could hear billiard balls knocking into each other, listen to the sounds of a match on TV, observe the tired faces of workers nearby, all while listening to a fascinating conversation between three men at the bar about a global Jewish conspiracy, about Satan being the ruler of our world, and so on. A few minutes passed, and then David guided us to a different location, but only after affixing a heavy fanny pack to our waists. It was only after walking for some minutes through the premises of the factory that I realized there was a speaker in my bag – this device discretely amplified, replayed and remixed the sounds of Csepel’s infrastructure, using soundbites Somló had selected and recorded beforehand. We made short stops at various different places with different atmospheres: in front of a former factory building that is now only represented by its ruined walls; beside the enormous and loud ventilators of a still functioning building; on the green, springtime shore of the Danube, where peace and quiet reign.
One could say that Csepel Művek is a peaceful place today, which is why Naja Lee Jensen may have felt the silence permeating it to be simply too great. The artist seemed to have found a connection between the area’s strong left-wing past and the large-scale protests against the right-wing government held at the time of the workshop in Csepel. She set her Bringing the Protest to Csepel project beneath the arcades of the main gate. The installation had a subtitle – Dream Factory #1 – and was based on a question repeated again and again through speakers, and also written in chalk on the asphalt: “What kind of Hungary do you want?” The installation counted on the participation of anyone passing by, but had to be ended much earlier than planned. The reason is both saddening and understandable, at least from a Hungarian point of view. Jensen had brought a real anti-Orbán protest to the 21st District, to the entrance of Csepel Művek, by playing various recordings she had made at one such event. The speakers blared “Victator!”, and one could hear various slogans well-known by the inner-city intelligentsia. But some regulars at the pub across the street were none too happy about this. Organizers opted to shut off the installation after just an hour for the sake of all those involved. Interestingly enough, while not one of the Hungarian artists wanted or dared to explore political themes, this artist from abroad immediately discovered and touched upon a very sensitive topic. It is safe to say that the abrupt end of this installation is also an organic part of it: a snapshot of today’s Hungary.
It was a different disease that Edit Vizer attempted to diagnose. Almost half of the projects in Csepel were set in the former hospital building. Her piece Evidence could be experienced in the rooms at the end of the long ground floor corridor. Defining its genre is impossible: an exhibition and minimalist installation which was not satisfied with the traditional role of visitors, but required fuller participation on their part. Edit Vizer posed simple questions, ones that were part of the focus of the entire project: what does Csepel symbolize, what kind of relationship do the artists have with the place, what did they experience in Csepel during the time they spent here, and how? A medical fact sheet hung on the wall – touching various points on it allowed audience members to hear the artist’s answers emanating from the speakers nearby. But what kind the questions? Participants could also answer these later on, thus essentially contributing material to Edit Vizer’s half virtual, imaginary Csepel museum. Whoever filled out the form could document their physical and psychological state, their sense of safety on a scale of minimal to maximum, and also list and summarize their defining experiences with Csepel. Spoken words may be easily forgotten, but objects remain with us: the format inspired participants to collect physical evidence from and about the island itself, and also asked about participants’ most powerful experiences there through their senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and movement, leading to an account of their sensual experiences in Csepel. Evidence is one of the projects that placed an emphasis on what participants thought: it taught us to select only those experiences that are personal and most important for us, all from the continuously swirling mass of impressions we are bombarded by daily.
Jonas Bjerketvedt’s audiovisual installation Purpose of Shaping was summarized only briefly in the program booklet with the description “Five screens become a sculpture of the passing of time”. As the protagonist for his uniquely sensitive installation, the Norwegian artist chose time – halting, starting and repeating – itself. On the first floor of the hospital building five long, translucent but not transparent white panels hung from the crumbling ceiling in the middle of an otherwise empty, rectangular, long and narrow room with tiny windows on one side. We could see a looped video clip of five young girls in traditional folk dress on each one. Besides the strong visual impression, we felt a marked acoustic one as well: you had to spend time in front of the five-channel installation to realize that each ornately dressed girl is revolving and dancing to a single continuously repeated sound. They are separate from each other, moving in and out of sync at the same time. The typically Hungarian and folk motifs seemed unusual and out of place in the bleak urban environment clearly left over from days gone by. They should not have been there, and thus blended in perfectly. One might think that the artist had used archived recordings, but no, he had gotten to know and befriended a folk dance group in Csepel during his stay in Budapest. This is where the delightful idea of juxtaposing time periods came from. Hypnotic in its simplicity, the installation was meant to be revisited after sundown: this is when the measured, precise and traditional movements of the eternally revolving girls’ silhouettes appeared faintly on the walls thanks to the tulle-like material of the panels. The genius loci thus appeared for us: Jonas Bjerketvedt literally transformed his found space into a haunted house.
The area in and around Csepel Művek does not have much green space: why would anyone expect to find parks or other urban resting areas in a (one-time) industrial area? (It would actually be interesting to know what architects thought about such “non-practical” elements in industrial spaces fifty or even twenty years ago compared to today.) Jakob Oredsson discovered a moderately overgrown area with tall grass in front of the aforementioned hospital building, and in his Potential Park (for Csepel) project started unearthing the potential unseen but inherent in such a space, one right before our eyes – in a way similar to his extremely interesting piece in Norway. He set high-powered lamps on top of tall bars around the square-shaped grassy area, which extended about ten meters on a side. The installation stimulated visitors’ thoughts and sense of touch, without the use of any words, sounds or pictures, and revealed itself completely only after dark. Within a few minutes, the light from the lamps surrounding the area strengthened and weakened to a wide degree, at times disorienting visitors’ senses with the weak light of twilight, then growing into a glare that irritated one’s corneas. Audience members walked into the green space surrounded by these lights, and could decide for themselves how much time they wanted to spend there. It felt pleasant to connect with unbridled Mother Nature in the middle of such an industrial space, to feel on your skin how an artificial sun rises, reaches its zenith, and then slowly descends again. This project also manipulated our sense of time by repeating again and again, over the course of a few minutes, something that normally takes 24 hours to complete its cycle.
Most of the projects presented in Csepel were repeated continuously in the afternoon and evening hours without pause, and anyone who came by could observe or participate in them. Camilla Wexels Riser and Liv Kristin Holmberg’s piece Blue Hour – Time’s in-between, on the other hand, had a fixed time: it started precisely at 8 PM on both days, and ended relatively quickly. It also belonged to a hard-to-define genre, and was set on the greenish brown field between two factory halls. The title mentions time as something “in between”, and the transitional nature of the chosen space was emphasized by this: the rays of the setting sun illuminated the land that once might have been used to store various construction materials. Today this space is littered with concrete blocks and piles of bricks, covered by books and notebooks from the deserted offices of a nearby factory building. The books are bound copies of Magyar Közlöny, the official printed bulletin of the Hungarian government from the ’50s and ’60s. The notebooks are filled with handwritten script, summarizing the names, times and short summaries for why people went on leave from Csepel Művek – whether those reasons involved moving away from Csepel, pregnancy, other medical reasons, or anything of the sort. These printed and handwritten materials could have been more interesting, but one could also feel that they must have found their way into the space randomly, holding no secrets or any other wonders to explore. Participants could drink something warm by the bonfire set up nearby in the field, sitting in the silence of the slowly cooling air and pondering Csepel’s history by themselves.
The Ziggurat Project’s “physical experience” titled work_in_process__ was a meditation on the relationship between man and machine, workers and their environment. The dancers (Flóra Sarlós and Máté Czakó) occupied a functioning, medium-sized hall and created short interventions there to Kristóf Szabó’s visuals and music and Jonas Bjerketvedt’s live, percussion-based music. The artists continued the research they had begun in Norway, where they tried transposing the connection between the real and the virtual, the body and the mind, into images, sounds and movements. The two dancers were dressed in workers’ outfits, and made a monotonous, but still varied, series of movements. Vibrating geometrical images, circles, triangles and quadrangles were projected between, beside, above and upon the dancers’ bodies, accompanied by mechanical sounds that evoked the invisible history of the hall itself by using Bjerketvedt’s drum kit and some of the machines left there. This duet, incorporating different types of art, did not relate a story, but succinctly evoked feelings and impressions related to and inspired by the chosen environment. Routine, monotony, repetition, a desire for freedom, for breaking out, cooperation, solitude – these are just some of the keywords associated with the piece.
Dániel Makkai and his companions transformed a small area of Csepel Művek into an enormous playground. Factory Playground was comprised of several elements and was an ambitious project: it appealed to local children and visiting adults as well, inviting them to play both outdoors and indoors, inside intimate bedrooms, and outside in enormous dark factory halls. After stepping into the hospital’s ground-floor rooms, visitors found themselves transported into separate little worlds. You could sit in a narrow, tiled room on a rickety chair and listen to a short story that matched the space in terms of its subject matter. Or you could listen to the sounds of nighttime around Csepel Művek in a dark room under a quilt. In another room you could learn about the relationship between Makkai and the children who had grown up beside the factory halls in the workers’ homes; by giving them a narrative, he inspired them to take part in the project and tell their own stories, and even to rap into video cameras and microphones. The external venues were exciting in different ways. James Moore, the Norwegian coordinator of PICTURE Budapest – Østfold, was also inspired by the atmosphere of Csepel and created a site-specific walk titled Csepeloz, contrasting the American myth of The Wizard of Oz with the reality of Csepel. Finally, Dániel Makkai awaited those who wanted to actively add something to Csepel’s acoustic map in the gigantic factory hall a couple hundred meters from the hospital: the extremely good acoustics of this space made it possible for participants to create symphonies together with various musical instruments and other objects. And thus, for a short time, the audience became a real community.