Bergen: Holding in the Gaps

EVA ROWSON (Bergen, Norway) is Curator of Landmark, Bergen Kunsthall – the live programme of music, clubnights, performance and more at Bergen’s largest gallery for contemporary art. Her work as an artist, producer and curator is organised around questions of how we host, work together, build organisations — and the labour and structures that support this. This research is at the core of long-term collaborative projects including the living room project space 38b, co-run with Luke Drozd; Wish You’d Been Here, with Andrea Francke examining practices of organising and hosting that enable ’things to happen’ and maintain institutions; and ‘Como imaginar una musea?’, an evolving Catalan-Spanish-English project to reimagine the museum through a feminist apparatus. She was an associate artist on the pilot year of Open School East (London), Curator in residence with BAR project (Barcelona, 2017), and a worker in organisations including The Showroom, TATE, Matt’s Gallery (London) and 2016 Bergen Assembly (Norway).

I first came to Bergen, on Norway’s west coast, at the end of 2014 to work for academic collective freethought [1], one of three Artistic Directors for the 2016 Bergen Assembly, Norway’s international art triennial. Bergen is the second largest city in Norway after Oslo. But still, surrounded by seven mountains, its total population is only c. 280,000, with the larger metro area population of c. 420,000. It is also the rainiest city in Europe – you can see it on the UK weather map. Almost level with the northern edges of Scotland, it gets hit across the North Sea with whatever weather doesn’t settle there. On average 270 days of rain a year. [2]

Image credit: TRAMAR club night: Konsept [X] x Resis’dance, Landmark, Bergen Kunsthall, 2018. Photo: Eva Rowson

For two years (2014-16) – back and forth between Bergen and London – as freethought’s Project Coordinator, I got to know this tiny city through our public programme of seminars, exhibitions and events as well as quite a lot of work, mistakes and figuring out how things work. The hard work, mistakes and figuring out part introduced me to a lot of people working here, as artists, curators, festival directors, producers, musicians, gallery workers … and immediately I found a strong collaborative network which supports the immense amount of activity happening for a relatively small place. The arts funding in Norway is not on tap, but it is much more available than the UK. With less boxes to tick to prove its worthiness and support provided in the form of multiple-year stipends and regular project grants, public funding enables artists to take risks in their work, involve (and pay) other artists and contributors, and realise long-term projects.

The collaborative energy in the city tempted me back in January this year, in a one-year role as Curator of Landmark, at Bergen Kunsthall – as maternity cover for excellent person and Curator Maria Rusinovskaya. Landmark is the Kunsthall’s public programme of talks, film, performance, concerts and club nights. Alongside our own programmed events, we host 3-4 events a week with the city’s club-night and concerts promoters, artists, students and musicians.  My own curatorial work is grounded in my practice as an artist who organises things – stemming from a creative approach to testing new ideas and ways of working. My programme at Bergen Kunsthall has formed around a particular research question ‘Who’s doing the washing up?’.[3] The question stems from my interests in hospitality, collaboration and how organisations work and an increasing tiredness of panel discussions on ‘radical hospitality’ and ‘radical organisational practices’ in which we all feel good about discussing inclusivity and welcome-ness, but still the most important structural questions go unasked: What types of work are valued in these practices, what are the power relations at play, whose voices are present – and how can our approach to organising change if we start with these questions? [4]

Image credit: TRAMAR discussion on safer space policy : Konsept [X] x Resis’dance, Landmark, Bergen Kunsthall, 2018. Photo: Eva Rowson

Norway is considered to be one of the most gender equal countries in the world. But the official Norwegian strategy to achieve equality has been gender-specific and quota-based, and laws requiring 40 percent of board members of public companies to be women and campaigns for 50-50 balanced music line ups, remain unfulfilled…unsurprisingly. In my time here, I’ve met (male) music promoters who tell me it is ‘hard work to find women who are available to play’. Conferences I’ve attended are still leaving women out of historical presentations, and when I question this the (male) historians tell me it’s ‘hard for us to present a different history as the history books we’re reading from only seem to include men’. [5]  The discussions around equality are focused on male vs. female while gender-neutral toilets and accessible entrances even into public buildings remain awkward to find for those who need them – and invisible for those who don’t.

BUT – in these gaps, between the assumptions of equal-ness, the binaries of equality, and continued male dominance on stage, in history, in workplaces, collective work is at the root of many of the shifts towards qualitative, structural challenges. Collaborations between artists, musicians, organisations in Bergen and across Norway have formed out of needing to ask more directly how organisations are organised, education is educated and history is historicised.

Between an abundance of festivals, project spaces, collective studios, the different fields of music – art – theatre – dance – cross over and support each other with access to space, expertise, equipment as well as sharing ideas, funding opportunities, networks – and plotting together to raise standards for working practices and lobby for state support and policy change. For example, Bergen Kunsthall recently joined with Borealis – a festival for experimental music, and DJ collective Konsept [X] to call on Bergen Kommune to support safer space workshops and training for all music venues in the city.

Image credit: Konsept [X], 2018.

In Oslo, I met artists Liv Bugge and Sille Storihle who started FRANK in 2012, to nurture discourse around gender and sexuality and address hegemonic structures in society – not just driven by a lack of feminist and queer perspectives in the cultural field, but as an outspoken resistance rooted in the Norwegian equality thinking grounded in ‘sameness’ where difference and the idea of ‘queer’ causes problems. At the same time, Norway’s first Queer Archive – Skeivt arkiv – was founded at Bergen University with a mission to collect, document and communicate examples of activist movements and collectives which have challenged societal norms and mainstream expectations. For Liv and Sille, their shared and collective resistance started in their homes and studios, gradually moving into institutions. Through reading groups, film programmes, residencies and publications FRANK has provided space for discussion and strategising amongst an intersectional community of artists around the contradictions, and blindspots, in Norway’s dominant rhetoric of sameness in education, funding, authorship, income, access, mobility…

Image credit: Unge Kunstkjennere with Jordi Ferreiro, Takeover: Inventing Structures, Bergen Kunsthall, 2018. Photo: Eva Rowson

Back in Bergen, I’ve been lucky to meet kind and skilled artist, musician and DJ Jiska Huizing who co-started Club JIJU with Julie Silset to better their DJ skills and make a clubnight which wouldn’t be dominated by the same people always behind the decks. Jiska and Julie also recently co-founded record label Ideophone Records together with Rudi Valdersnes. An important commitment in its formation was to start with a collectively-agreed business outline to think at every stage about who is making the record – from the remix to the mastering to the pressing – to try to create opportunities and working partnerships with female and non-male identifying producers, mixers, engineers. Caring and strong-minded DJ collective Konsept [X] formed in 2017 to advocate for more women on club line-ups and collectively support each other in building skills in DJing, music promotion and creating safer spaces. We’ve been working together this year through the Landmark programme to use my budget to invite other collectives (including Décalé, Jessica Sligter’s Nuts and Bolts, Resis’dance, Synaptic Island) to Bergen not just to DJ together but to also make time to talk about experiences, fears and strategies in carving out space for in a scene where we don’t always feel comfortable, accepted or excellent.

These are just a few examples, amongst many. Borealis – a festival for experimental music, as an institution continually and openly try to address how their organisational model reflects in their programming; feminist magazine Fett organises to create a published space in contrast to ‘the usual stereotypical notions of gender and sexuality in the press’; D.O.T. invites different perspectives on the techno scene through their Bergen Techno Fanzine. Bergen’s collectives collectivise – they work together. This collective work in Bergen and Norway is keeping these questions around access, equity, resistance to accepting ‘that’s just how it is’ going and moving – as well as each other. Revolution is an everyday maintenance. Which can’t be solved by patting ourselves on the back with a 50/50 line-up. But through supporting each other to be better, asking more questions and holding each other accountable, we move forward.

Image credit: Konsept [X], POEKHALI!, Landmark, Bergen Kunsthall, 2018. Photo: Xin Li

With thanks to: Liv Bugge (FRANK), Jiska Huizing, Peter Meanwell (Borealis – a festival for experimental music), Maria Rusinovskaya, Sofia Marie Hamnes, Asbjørg Breines and Ingrid Vindsnes Indreeide and the Konsept [X] crew for their time and thoughts for this article.

And to all my many collaborators and conspirators in Bergen who keep asking, and and holding each other up, in the gaps.

[1] Freethought – one of the 3 Artistic Directors for 2016 Bergen Assembly – was founded by Irit Rogoff, Nora Sternfeld, Stefano Harney, Adrian Heathfield, Louis Moreno and Mao Mollona in 2013 as a platform for research, pedagogy, and production.

[2]  There is a saying here ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing’. So get on with it.

[3] The programme has invited artists, researchers, and archivists – Freja Backman, Jordi Ferreiro, Aliyah Hussain, Anna Bunting-Branch, Maia Urstad, Anton Kats, Andrea Francke, Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, Hannah Gillow-Kloster (Skeivt Arkiv / Norway’s national queer archive), and our youth group Unge Kunstkjennere – to think with us on possible organisational models and methods of communication.

[4] With thanks to Andrea Francke for her help in formulating these questions and focus.

[5]  These are all verbatim answers I’ve received in the past six months.


Featured project

Peer Mentoring (Nottingham Session) at BackLit

Exchange Salon

The Exchange Salon is a new online artists development programme by Artquest. It bridges the peer support provision from one-off Z-Crits and the independently-run Peer Forum project. Sessions combine… Continue Reading Exchange Salon

Read more