Plein écran

Border-Crossing Exercises in the United States of Barents Under the Command of Pikene på Broen and Barents Liberation Army

Border-Crossing Exercises in the United States of Barents Under the Command of Pikene på Broen and Barents Liberation Army

Plein écran

Border-Crossing Exercises1 in the United States of Barents2 Under the Command of Pikene på Broen3 and Barents Liberation Army4

Ticking Barents was the slogan for the previous festival Barents Spektakel 2013 in Kirkenes. The border regime between Norway and Russia on land is being simplified gradually. The newly signed maritime border agreement opens up for bigger industrial activities in the previously inaccessible area. Oil and gas exploration in the Barents Sea is on the top-agenda, and an international hunting after raw resources is being intensified. The Northeast Passage and new transport routes in the Arctic are being tested. Fishery and seafood industry is growing. “The Race for the Arctic has Begun”, read international newspaper headings. Climate researchers warn about reaching the point of no return. These slow, but steady changes both at the local or regional level and in big politics, affect the whole Arctic coast, spreading consequences along the meridians globally.

The artist Olga Kisseleva (St Petersburg – Paris) mapped the Arctic in her work Arctic Conquistadors that premiered at the festival Barents Spektakel 2011. The logos of the traditional stakeholders and newcomers, be it private or state-owned corporations, governmental or nongovernmental bodies, are invading the Arctic map in a rapidly growing tempo. The digital animation refers to the “global conquests” and comments on the overlapping interests of geopolitical and corporate powers. What used to be a vast eternal icy Arctic has nowadays become a battlefield with a growing international tension with regards to who owns and controls the Arctic oceanbed.

To build Arctic Conquistadors Kisseleva worked with the Departments of Economics and Political Sciences of Sorbonne, in cooperation with the Business and Industry Advisory Committee of the OECD, the Norwegian Barents Secretariat, the International Barents Secretariat and Platform (London). One of the companies represented with its logo bought the artwork, and it seems to have no problems with that fact it is called a conquistador; maybe they even liked it?

[Figure 1]

Pikene på Broen produced a music show that symbolized the Arctic as a battlefield – Barents Score, where the Norwegian, Russian, Finnish, Swedish and Sami music met traditional sports on the wrestling mat. The last version of the show was opening the Barents Summit in June 2013 in Kirkenes, while the Prime Ministers met to discuss the future of the Barents Region and to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Barents Cooperation.

The master of balalaika, Alexey Arkhipovsky from Moscow, performed together with Russian fist fighters from Apatity. The cello-virtuoso, Svante Henryson from Stockholm played Norwegian, Swedish and Sami tunes, accompanied by the competing halling-dancers from Northern Norway and a Sami lasso thrower. One of the world’s most experimental accordion players, Kimmo Pohjonen from Helsinki, was “judging” the match between the Finnish, Russian and Norwegian wrestlers (Historically, wrestling has been the most popular border-crossing sport that has contributed to collaboration across the borders between Norway, Russia and Finland since the Soviet times).

Do we fight to win or do we seek rules that benefit us all? That was maybe not the most common opening show for a top political summit. Many commented after the show with a sparkle in the eye “that it was a lot of testosterone” on the stage, which in fact reflected well the current take on the Arctic; luckily it was we, Pikene på Broen (Girls on the Bridge) who stood behind, so that was a good alibi for our commissioners.

Kirkenes as a gateway to Russia, the Barents Region with its global challenges, Norway-Russia relations with regards to the rest of the Arctic space; having all this as a backdrop for the projects it is natural for us to involve partners from all possible fields early in the artistic process. When we initiate projects or invite artists to collaborative projects, first of all we bring them to our borderland to meet people with relevant experiences and competence, to get insight into realities and current issues. Under our residency program we provide for artistic research and production. And that happens anywhere the project needs to be: in the Pasvik Valley along the border river, at Storskog at the border check-point, at the Border Commissariat, by the river Grense Jakobselv by the Barents Sea, in the mines of Bjørnevatn, in the tundra between Karasjok and Porsanger under reindeer migration, at the king crab factory in Bugøynes, at the local cheese-maker Øverli in Pasvik, on foot along the coast the Kola Peninsula, in the streets of Nikel and garage-quaters of Murmansk, in the village of Shoyna which is about to be buried under the sand, and so on and so forth. All this is possible thanks to the local people who open their homes and offices, minds and hearts, and share their experiences, thoughts, perspectives, and time with the artists. And thus, everything becomes possible!

During the residency, at a lunch meeting with Border Commissioner Ivar Sakserud, a Norwegian artist Morten Traavik was inspired to “move” the Norwegian-Russian border. It was exactly the time when both the Norwegian and Russian border authorities decided to shift the old wooden border posts and upgrade with the new fiberglass ones. Pikene på Broen had already been in a dialogue with the Border Commissioner regarding potential artistic use of the decommissioned border posts. Initially positive to the idea, Ivar Sakserud gave an immediate “blessing” while talking to Morten Traavik. Colonel Sakserud (an experienced officer who had served in war and peace around the world) later mentioned that the meeting with Traavik totally changed his opinion about artists and contemporary art.

[Figure 2]

“Borderlines” was made by Morten Traavik as a mobile border installation, a dynamic border zone. It was in a way natural, taking into account that the Russian-Norwegian border runs in the border rivers and is flexible by definition, because the deepest line changes throughout the time. During the festival period at Barents Spektakel 2011 (February 2011) Borderlines cut through the Kirkenes center, and in parallel – through the Oslo center, from Stortinget to the Royal Park. In Kirkenes it was opened by Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre, with H.M. Queen Sonja present at the opening. The day after Jonas Gahr Støre arrived in Oslo and started his speech in the Parliament with: “I think it is by accident, but a very eloquent accident, that exactly these days we have got an exhibition in the Oslo centre entitled Borderlines, that consists of the old border posts from the Norwegian-Russian state border in the north (…)”.

Borderlines was both for the artist, and us as producers, an exercise in negotiating with the all kinds authorities and getting a “good will” from the Kirkenes municipality, Oslo municipality, the Royal Castle, public road authorities, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (regarding the use of the state coat of arms) and of course, the Norwegian Border Commissariat who provided the artist with the authentic border posts. Well, we managed to get the Norwegian border authorities on our side, but not the Russians. This resulted in getting twice as many Norwegian border posts and repainting them in Russian colours.

The artist commented, “The work is inspired by border zones between (among others): States and nationalities, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, East and West Berlin, economic zones in the Barents Sea, North and South Korea, Israel and the West Bank, Shia and Sunni, Mars and Venus, business and economy class, centre and periphery, sense and sensibility, too much and not enough, genius and madness, us and them, order and chaos, majority and minority, hip and unhip, Left and Right, art and politics, homo and hetero, grown-up and underage, Apollo and Dionysus, Heaven and Hell, Laurel and Hardy, past and future, to be and not to be.”

Then it was a new round of acquiring permissions, and the Borderlines went across the Russian border (April 2011) and the artist could invite people of Murmansk to cross the border in the city center without any visa. Last summer 2014 The Borderlines was on its summer residence in the center of Bergen.

Already for Barents Spektakel 2011 Traavik brought with him two bureaucrats from the DPRK’s Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries from Pyongyang. That was the start of our collaboration with North Korea together with Morten Traavik, which resulted in maybe the first real cultural exchange between North Korea and Europe (or at least the European North). For us it was important not to do a showcase of Korean artists in Kirkenes, but to engage them in an artistic project directed by Morten Traavik.

The project got an overall title The Promised Land and became the highlight of the festival Barents Spektakel 2012. Among the artists invited by Traavik was a quintet of young accordion-players Gold Stars, from the Kum Song Middle School in Pyongyang, who with their North Korean version of A-ha’s Take on Me became a youtube-hit with over a million clicks during the first few days. Under the festival the group played at different arenas around Kirkenes: at schools, in a shipyard, border station, at the reception for numerous ambassadors, as well as they accompanied an outdoors mass performance Me/We:

Together with Morten Traavik we wanted to test the Norwegian collective spirit (as the basis of the social democracy) by inviting the local community to act as one, to become human pixels in Norway’s first attempt to create a backdrop picture series under the instruction of two Arirang leaders from Pyongyang. Although the local community was extremely enthusiastic about the project, when it came time to sign up for outdoor rehearsals in minus 25 degree weather we got only 60 civilian volunteers. “Have no fear – the army is here!” Due to our working relationship with the Border Commissariat and the local Border Garrison we were able to make the numbers 256 using young army recruits.

[Figure 3]

Responses from the mass media and the public covered the whole range in between the opposites. Dagbladet called Traavik’s projects “The Norwegian Kim-Show”, 06/01/12, a regional newspaper Finnmarken focused on “The soldiers saved the record”, 13/02/12, while The Huffington Post wrote: “Barents Spektakel Festival In Norway Offers Different Look Of North Korean Culture”, 11/02/12. The storm started when Aftenposten baptized it as “See how the Norwegian NATO-soldiers take orders from Nord Korean instructors”, 16/02/12. The event then became the subject of hearings in the Norwegian Parliament. Minister of Defence Espen Barth Eide had to respond to a representative of the right-wing Fremskritspartiet “whether it was reasonable to allow uniformed soldiers from the Sør-Varanger Garrison to take part in the art project that represents North Korean propaganda”. The storm of criticism was swirling around the fact that Traavik was using public funds for carrying out his projects with this controversial country, and the DPRK’s authorities may use them for their mass propaganda. The Norwegian liberal think tank Civita took a severe criticizing position towards Traavik’s projects from early 2012 declaring that no cultural exchange or dialogue with the world’s worst totalitarian regime could make sense. Well, I remember that even within Pikene på Broen we had internal discussions about how our support of Traavik’s projects could possibly affect our relations with our public funders – Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Culture.

What did we do right, or wrong, to enable a dialogue and cultural exchange with North Korea, the most enclosed country in the world? Why has Traavik received high praise from some experts studying the Korean Peninsula, but negative responses and condemnation from other politicians and historians? Why has this artistic attempt to narrow a cultural divide created such mixed responses? Was it wrong to cooperate with the notorious authorities to achieve a cultural exchange? Or was it right to engage culturally when political and economic isolation policies have so far brought no results? By the way, the local border community of Kirkenes who has experienced both “warm” and “cold” periods earlier with the Soviet Union, immediately appreciated collaboration with the North Korean artists. Well, sure the Border Garrison had to write an explanation note to their ministerial bosses and the chief of the garrison was close to losing his position, but still – all were glad for this event to have happened, and one can deal with some criticism. One cannot avoid traps when doing such a cultural diplomacy on the virgin soil, as Traavik is doing with his North Korean projects. Especially when these traps challenge mental borders of all (voluntarily and involuntarily) involved in his projects.

As you see, being based close to the border between Norway and Russia (read: NATO and non-NATO, Schengen and non-Schengen, thus in the militarised Arctic borderland) we have come to practice art and culture as soft security. Being locally rooted, we have global references as a framework for the project. The slogans for our annual festival Barents Spektakel reflects what is hot on the political, social and cultural agenda in the Arctic. For example:

2007 – Hot Arctic Kirkenes

2008 – Border-Crossing Exercises

2009 – Borders: Control or Rock-n-Roll?

2010 – Arctic Calling

2011 – Mind the Map

2012 – Dare to Share

2013 – Ticking Barents

It is a privilege to be able to scrutinize ourselves, our community and the borderland we live in – through contemporary art. Under Barents Spektakel 2013 we had a film premiere “A Border Musical”, directed by the artists’ collective Chto Delat from St Petersburg. It was our first experience as film-producers.

[Figure 4]

Ola from Finnmark meets Tanja from Kola and they fall in love. Tanja abandons her Russian past and moves with her son to her new Norwegian husband. Through joys and challenges of their marriage we get a glimpse into today’s Russia-Norwegian borderland across the cultural and social norms and values. The Norwegian state and Ola’s best friend help the couple to build up a family based on “the sound Norwegian values”. How is our behaviour and worldview influenced by culturally laden relations between individual, family and society? To what degree are we responsible for our actions and to what degree do we leave it to the state? Who defines areas of responsibility? The work challenges the much discussed Russian-Norwegian border, highlighting that social and cultural borders still matter while the state borders are easy to cross. It is a critical glance at the encounter of two cultures: the Norwegian social democracy and post-socialist Russia, and their implied traps. Based on a 2-year on-site research on both sides of the border, the film touches upon issues of migration and integration, individualism and collectivism, marriage market in a borderland, traps of the social care system… All this is masterfully packed in a musical proving that this democratic genre can handle a multi-layered story and complex social and political issues, while engaging spectators.

The 48 minute long film, with the narrative balancing between reality and absurdity, was shown to the public in an outdoors snow-cinema in minus 25° during the festival week, with reindeer skins and coffee served during the screening hours. The reactions were various: some laughed, others recognized themselves, some were confused, many sang in tact with the refrain: “Join our family of immaculate citizens…” with ironic enthusiasm; people kept discussing the film afterwards, child care workers borrowed the film to study it closer, art critics and sociologists wrote in-depth film reviews, and the film keeps wandering from exhibitions to fairs and galleries. It was interesting that some of the Norwegian spectators meant that the Russian side is depicted very much true to life, while the Norwegian reality is misinterpreted. And vice versa, some of the Russian public claimed that the Norwegian narrative is true to life, while the Russian miners are caricatured.

The North has traditionally been dominated by the masculine values and attitudes, in terms of both industry and community development. Is it time to redefine the Arctic? What and who makes the High North attractive to live in? How do the traditional and contemporary Arctic nomads co-exist side by side: reindeer herders and seamen, mining and oil workers, military guards and tourists, researchers and doctors, refugees and commuters… Masculine versus feminine, centre versus periphery, commuting versus settling down. Ane Lan (artistic pseudonym for Eivind Reierstad) explored the changing identities of the Arctic in his photo project Arctic Nomads (2010). The artist dressed as Ane Lan appeared in the photos together with female workers at different workplaces in and around Kirkenes – the mines, hospital, border garrison, king crab factory, reindeer husbandry and a coastal steamer.

[Figure 5]

Into the project Cutting-Edge Arctic (2010) we brought together unique singing traditions of the Arctic nomads: Sami joikers from Norway and Sweden, singers from Yakutia and Nenets, throat singers from Chukotka, Alaska, Greenland and Canada. Singing and chanting otherwise means letting voices be heard. We did not try to create a unison or choir, – the project was sending a message to all who have economic, political or other interests in the area: ARCTIC CALLING!

North Route (2010) was an ambisonic narrative that was part folktale, part sonic documentary, part sound montage and part music performance. It was based on the poem No. 272 from the book The Sun, My Father by the renowned Saami poet, painter and musician Nils Aslak Valkeapää. The poem is about a reindeer herd on the move, and North Route focused around the annual reindeer migration of the Saami herders of Northern Norway. Sound recordings were done by artist and BBC-recorder Ross Adams who embarked on the migration with a reindeer herding family of Klemet Amund Eira from Karasjok to their summer grazing pastures in the Porsanger fjord and captured the age old event using location surround sound recording techniques. The collected sounds were then constructed into a sonic narrative by Ross Adams, and augmented by the electronic synthesis of the legendary electronica duo Plaid (London). The Saami poet Synnøve Persen participated with her poetic interpretation of the narrative. Who else but Synnøve could render Valkeapää´s message – in the 1970s they were called the Saami King and Queen!? The live outdoor 3D sonic performance North Route by Plaid, Ross Adams and Synnøve Persen was an evocation of the reindeer migration. Imagine an enormous labyrinth made of snow and surrounded by many load speakers with the stage in the centre. The performance starts and you begin to wander the paths of the labyrinth (made by Eric Mutel): get immersed in a psycho-acoustic phenomenon and follow the reindeer migration. The sounds surround you 360 degrees, so close that you almost can feel the reindeer skin, the sharp ice breaking…

[Figure 6]

Another physical experience of the Arctic one could get at Barents Spektakel 2013 – the French duo, Magali Daniaux & Cédric Pigot (Paris), developed the scent of the Arctic. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault financed by the agribusiness giants that preserves a double of all the seed for food from all around the world in an underground cavern hidden in the permafrost fascinated them. However, they never entered the vault, and started to think of this place as a giant back up of the human kind that might keep more than seeds. Afterwards Magali & Cédric worked associatively with a professional nose from the German fragrance house, Drom. The frangrance Seed is a “cocktail of aldehydes which bring strong ionized notes, menthol for freezy notes and norlimbanol to give to the smell a technologic aspect”. Seed was diffused by micronebulization by a little machine inside an empty white neon-lit cargo container in the town square during the festival. The artists have also done a tremendous job of creating an ongoing platform of Arctic voices from all possible fields and research venues. They started with a radio documentary “Arctic Tactic” (a sonic immersion into political, economic, geostrategic and urban issues of the contemporary Arctic, as a result of their work under Barents Spektakel 2011) and they continue here:

Berlin-based artist duo SpringerParker made several artistic explorations around Finnmark, the northernmost county of Norway, in winter seasons in their camping car. They collected images, sounds and stories for their archives – memories that were then transformed into a contemporary dance opera There Are Places In Our Heads One Can Travel To (2011). “The longer we travelled in Finnmark and got to know the people, the more this northern part of Norway appeared to us like an island with its own rules and principles… This music is meant as a symphony to Finnmark, dedicated to the people with the will to stand their ground and face the future in the region of vast social, climatic and industrial changes and developments.” Springer Parker returned for Barents Spektakel 2013 with a new production The Finnmark Diaries. The outdoors show featured a set of brand new compositions bearing names of the places (Nordkinn, Stabbursdalen, Trollholmsund, Karasjok, Kjøllefjord, Vardø, Kirkenes), accompanied by light and video projections and dance. “Our explorations brought us to remote locations and lead us deeper and deeper into a world of its own. Our stories are told by the windy mountains, colourful skies and snow-swept roads.”

[Figure 7]

An Italian artist Stefano Cagol was exploring The End of the Border (2013) with 15 km light beams cutting through the darkness of the Polar night in the Arctic towns and landscapes.

Sergey Shutov (Moscow) proposed to use the achievements of space industry and to exploit the solar sails located on the Earth´s orbit in order to prolong the duration of daylight in the Northern towns. “We do not suggest hunting the reindeer with a laser from the orbit. We offer help to hunters, fishermen, farmers and mine-workers in preserving their occupations under the light of solar sails, said the artist and invited to enjoy the exposed picture of the global change-to-come in his video installation” (Cosmic Light 2010).

This is a selection of the projects that we had an honour of contributing to and developing together with the artists who dedicated so much of their time and insight into the Arctic. It has been a challenging journey – challenging in terms of reflecting where the Arctic is heading for and how it is affecting the Arctic communities, as well as physically challenging for us as producers. Will we be able to build The Fountain of Youth with a Norwegian artist Amund Sjølie Sveen – a fountain ejaculating oil from the top of the world, from the North Pole point, letting it run down the earth, to celebrate a strong political focus on the Arctic and the many decades of the Norwegian oil adventure? We had to “freeze” this project for a while. Will we be able to build a public sauna in the harbour of Kirkenes with an architect Sami Rintala – it has been in the planning process since 2004. Will we be able one day to realize an ambitious project Space Calendar by an architect Jan Gunnar Skjeldsøy – a house by the sea visualizing the tidal rhythms of the Arctic, breathing according to the high and low tide dynamics, opening up and closing down its volumes allowing for as much light inside as the moon will? Or will this project retreat into the realm of paper architecture?

Under Barents Spektakel 2013, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the festival, we launched the Barents Liberation Army (BLA), a brand that was developed by the writer Morten Strøksnes and artist Amund S. Sveen. BLA is a kind of an anti-colonial movement that questions the market-oriented dominance and raw resource scenarios up here in the north, in a half-metaphoric and half-serious way. It legitimizes the will, passion and competence of the local people who are settled in the north and have their life interests up here. BLA may also be interpreted as a metaphor for new thinking as a basis for the future of the Barents Region. Membership in the Barents Liberation Army is open for cool, curious and self-reflective people. Up to now many artists, politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen have found their way into BLA. Prepare to join!

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Luba Kuzovnikova, « Border-Crossing Exercises in the United States of Barents Under the Command of Pikene på Broen and Barents Liberation Army », [Plastik] : Arctique #05 [en ligne], mis en ligne le 19 juin 2014, consulté le 12 juin 2024. URL :

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