Thank you for your willingness to talk to me about Det gode liv // ‘The Sweetness of Living’ – an artistic research project that addresses the question of what constitutes a good life.
Between 2020 and 2023 you worked as curatorial leader for Pikene på Broen, a collective of curators and producers based in the north-east Norwegian town of Kirkenes, where you played a key role in initiating and implementing this project.
According to the website, the project was inspired by “Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life”, a book by Canadian authors Matt Hern and Am Johal, who question the way our current way of life is built on domination. They call for a new ecology, a different politics and a whole new way of being in the world as a necessary condition for a good life. Can you say something about why you found this book so inspiring as a starting point for artistic research? When I first encountered Matt Hern and Am Johal’s publication, made in collaboration with Joe Sacco, what I found interesting was the authors’ attempt to think in new ways about the current ecological and environmental crises – to imagine new definitions of ecology, a renovated politics of land, and an environmentalism that was not based on shame, discipline, or some echo of authoritarianism.
Authoritarianism within environmental movements and within environmental policies is an issue that is perhaps not discussed enough whenever solutions to global warming are presented, and I think the conversation still needs to be opened further. So I admired first of all the courage to tackle these issues in the context they were writing within, and to try to find some new approaches. They argued that even if somehow global warming was no longer an issue, that it could be hypothetically “solved”, based either within the current global petroculture, or through ecomodernist visions, inequality and the misuse of power through the domination of others will continue to manifest itself, both within and across human societies, and in relation to human and more than human community relationships.
The sweetness of life in unexpected places
Their reading of Giorgio Agamben’s invocation of Alexandre Kojève’s phrase – la dolce vita or douceur de vivre – led them to follow the idea of “the sweetness of life” and to try to find evidence of it existing in some unexpected places. Their goal was to reveal some of the moments where joy and contentment exist outside of work and productivity, and to place emphasis on these encounters somehow, to imagine how they could represent a different way of being in the world. The sweetness of life was not described as something self-indulgent, or a goal for individuals to seek out, but more in relation to questions of community, of how to be together.
They also had a very proximate approach, visiting the sites of extraction in northern Alberta, talking and listening with the people who moved to the tar sands to earn a living – often having struggled financially elsewhere, and maybe having little choice in “supporting” the oil industry – as well as with members of indigenous communities whose land had been stolen for the extraction of oil, or had been badly affected by the construction of pipelines. So they got to encounter several issues directly, which were maybe not so present when looking at these problems from the city of Vancouver.
I think, overall, what the book was pointing towards was how an understanding of the sweetness of life could inform a new kind of politics and show a new set of priorities. To think of a significant, and more meaningful way of living that was not necessarily nostalgic or primitivist, but one which certainly could support values that exist outside the current late-capitalist system – to show that other forms of “wealth” exist, and that an investment in communities and in friendships with the land, rather than in capital, can perhaps form a quiet resistance to the habits of overconsumption and hyper-productivity.
I was curious how “la dolce vita” was described as a southern european mentality, but I had, in my experiences working in both the Kainuu region in Finland through the Mustarinda Association, and in northern Norway, experienced and encountered some cultural mannerisms and habits that resonated quite strongly with what was described in Hern and Johal´s book, but with maybe a kind of northern European slant. Maybe it is something to do with the more pronounced shifting of the seasons in the north, and especially the cycles of light as they change throughout the year, that one must respond more carefully towards one’s surroundings. So when I moved to Kirkenes and started working at Pikene på Broen, it seemed like the perfect setting to explore these conversations a bit more closely, and see what artistic responses could emerge.
Can you say a little more about what you mean by authoritarianism within environmental movements and policies?
What was at the core of Matt and Am´s articulation was that there is a tendency for any “crisis” to give permission to erode, or to remove democracy and democratic processes, either intentionally or otherwise. Their point was that some sections of environmental movements struggle precisely with class-based and decolonial analysis in this way – that yes, there is a climate crisis to solve and change is needed, but often the way to solve it advocates authoritarian ideas of “strong leadership” with strict management directives which encourage a kind of reductivism that can preserve unfair and unequal power structures. Under such directives, what works as a sacrifice for one community may not be realistic or possible for another, and the burdens that are to be carried are often distributed unequally. We saw a lot of this play out under the pandemic actually, and it was interesting to observe the various media commentaries on how different nation states handled that particular crisis, and how there were so many contradictions in what was praised or criticised around the world.
This opposition to some sections of the environmental movement is not a denial of the crisis, but is more focused on the language and mechanisms of “crisis” itself, which need a more thorough critique, even if we agree there is a crisis to live through.
There is no easy solution to all this, and let´s also be clear that the idea of endless growth of our economies through the extraction of “resources”, through physical or emotional human labour or digital information, through extraction of living ecosystems and earth minerals for profit, urgently needs to be rethought and the course changed for the sake of the planet. But, the questions of what sort of societies or communities we want to live within while we solve this crisis, and the type of societies or communities we want to live within afterwards, are important ones.
A democratic approach for all species
Many of these issues already fall under the idea of a “just transition” away from fossil fuels, but these conversations are in constant negotiation, and we are all the time in the midst of change. Biodiversity loss, to me, is perhaps the most serious of these consequences currently – we need a just transition that has a democratic approach for many species and earth minerals, and not only confine ourselves to our human perspectives. That´s why the argument for finding more meaningful ways of living is so compelling, and there is a need to try to create cultural change that can slow down consumptive practices in ways that do not feel so rule-based.
Uværskompetanse – “storm-response-ability”
What is needed is a kind of slow urgency, I feel, and also an ability to live with the weather, to accept that some things are also beyond human control no matter what. I think one of my favourite Norwegian words I´ve learned recently has been “uværskompetanse”, which Laura Johanne Olsen talked about during a seminar on tacit knowledge organised by the Maaretta Jaukkuri Foundation as part of LIAF 2022. It is a nautical term from Vesterålen, that means a kind of “storm-response-ability” or being “qualified to deal with storms” – the ability to navigate in troubled waters based on local knowledge and experience, and to make adaptive decisions. One cannot control the storm – which is a lesson that human-kind resists at almost every turn – but living with the storm is certainly possible.
Pikene på Broen address social and global issues in their work. The question of the good life has practical relevance; it is about tangible realities of life. What contribution can art offer here?
Bolyst and Blilyst – desire to live, desire to stay
Since it was established in the 1990s, Pikene på Broen has had a long history of opening globally important issues through art and culture, and for championing the importance of art in the setting of Kirkenes, and the north more generally. The focus has been on dialogue across borders and ways to create “bolyst” (a desire to live) and “blilyst” (a desire to stay) in the region. Creating activities and platforms for interesting things to happen is a very tangible and concrete thing, so the contributions have often formed around ideas of “meeting places”.
Using Pikene’s Barents Spektakel festival as an example – which hosted many of the artistic commissions from Det gode liv // The Sweetness of Living, as well as two symposiums – there has always been a lot of engagement from local people, from an international volunteer community, from artists, from different audiences, school groups etc. – experiences are there to be shared. The festival happens in the transition from winter to spring-winter, so a lot of people appreciate this kind of cultural activity after the polar night comes to an end too. In that sense it acts out a kind of community-building ritual and performance each year.
During my time at Pikene på Broen, it was clear very early on how many people in the local community mark the festival in their calendar and look forward to it each year. The contemporary art community also takes notice, but the local engagement I would say is quite a central feature. Art, and maybe especially the more “spectacular” events, have been a way to open important conversations. These contributions can’t be underestimated in a place where at certain times in history, all that was seen to be important were the masculine, economic, or extractivist values connected to the mining industry.
Art and cultural events have created more spaces for reflection, whether that is connected to the second world war history, the Norwegian/Russian border relations, the recent refugee crises, the sámi history of the land (Kirkenes resides on the Paaččjokk siida, the rightful territory of the Skolt Sámi community), or other contemporary issues such as centralisation of services, the declining and ageing population in the town, and the increasing military presence in the north. The question of the good life is relevant to all of these things, so I would say art contributes a lot, and is often quite essential for living well.
Should art serve a purpose?
I think I have become wary of questions or statements with the word “should” in them! But I agree that art can, and sometimes needs, to be purposeful – in the sense that it can bring forward issues or create awareness on topics for communities who may otherwise not be so exposed to them. Its purpose can have social goals or political goals in terms of changing perspectives, locally or globally, for the common good.
Contemporary art can certainly ask important questions. It can disrupt or challenge certain thinking and so forth, and it can also engage communities in ways that other forms of dialogue or social engagement cannot. In that sense the purpose is often clear – to encourage discussion, debate, awareness, critical thought, wonder, reflection, and to give voice to issues in the margins etc.
But “purpose” also suggests a kind of utility, plan, or a goal-oriented approach, which I am maybe not so fond of. However, what happens through art’s performance, presence, or presentation can’t be so easily planned, so any purpose is always a bit at the mercy of the reaction of the audience, and to the world around us, which is always changing. For me the most moving experiences through art come from the unexpected and unplanned encounters that cause a genuine shift in perception somehow, and some of these do not occur through any planned purpose. I’ll refer to John Cage’s idea of a “purposeful purposeless” as the view I most subscribe to, for art to create an opportunity for us to respond or be moved in ways we don’t quite expect.
In your opinion: What is the meaning of art?
I think the meaning of art as such can’t really be separated from life itself, and I don’t believe it is exclusive as a human practice either. It is of course difficult to define, and exists with countless pluralities and definitions, but I am sure it is an ongoing process whatever its meaning is defined as, and it will always find a way to exist somehow, and will grow from unexpected places.
The meaning of mushrooms
Anna Tsing’s thinking is helpful here – maybe the meaning of art resembles most closely our fungi neighbours, woven into the fabric of life, popping up here and there. So, for me, this question is a little bit like asking “what is the meaning of a mushroom?” It is quite difficult to answer that. Mushrooms don’t really need a meaning, but they certainly create a lot of meaning through their appearance and presence.
Can you reflect on a possible difference between the meaning of art and meaning in art?
I recently attended the Critical Arctic Studies Symposium organised by the University of Lapland and there was a discussion about prepositions in the English language and how much they matter in our research, and how they have also been responsible for shaping some of the dominant worldviews. Research on/about/with the subjects of our research – these are important distinctions. So the same could be said of art.
Maybe, if, as I have just mentioned, the meaning of art is so closely entwined with life itself, meaning in art could be more described as the resonance it produces for those who encounter it in that moment. Someone might find a meaning in an artwork which is personal to them, but can easily escape the attention of others, and so that particular meaning exists as a response and reflection. Now that I compare these two prepositions side by side, I think I prefer meaning “in” art, since “of” implies a kind of consensus and perhaps a finality, which probably cannot be reached. “In” could read more like being in an atmosphere, where multiple meanings exist, and art is assumed to exist as part of life itself.
Many different people have been given a voice in your research project: Artists, workers, residents, politicians, scientists. I myself had the honour of taking part in the Barents Spektakel and a Testlab research week. I found the different perspectives on life in the North very inspiring. For me, it broadened my perspective and my understanding of the complexity of the different perspectives involved. Can you say something about how other participants perceived the encounters?
Since we have just talked about “purpose”, one thing that was planned for the project was to involve many different perspectives. There is something special about bringing interesting and interested people together and seeing what emerges or happens. When I was working as part of the curatorial team for the Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) in 2019, together with Hilde Methi, Karolin Tampere, and Toril Østby Haaland, we had used this same test-lab format when we created “The Kelp Congress” artistic research event, which was produced by Annette Wolfsberger and involved local seaweed farmers, businesses, local storytellers, researchers, and artists from a range of disciplines, all interested in exploring the material ecology of kelp, and really celebrating the cultural contributions these algae neighbours have been making over a long period of time in different contexts. So I had hoped the same format could work here, but with maybe something a little less tangible – an idea rather than a piece of kelp in the hand.
I think the local knowledge holders we invited in Kirkenes, Pasvik, and Bugøynes enjoyed discussing the things that mattered to them in their lives, the artists found it inspiring to think together and reflect on a lot of issues, and then researchers like yourself, Tatjana, could also come in and bring even more insights within the group. This is all feedback we received directly, but I think it is also evident in the artworks that were produced as direct commissions through the project – works by Kvae og Bark, Matti Aikio, Espen Sommer Eide, Riikka Keränen, and the Puolanka Pessimism Association – and through the discussions we had through the symposiums.
(c) Oleg Khadartsev(c) Andrea Astrup(c) Michael Miller
When you look back on the process so far, what have you learnt? What were your expectations, and have they been met?
The process has been quite varied and quite enmeshed with all the other activities happening at Pikene på Broen. Although we have explored other themes and questions in the past few years as well, The Sweetness of Living has been quite a salient line of enquiry across many of Pikene’s activities. I guess expectations started with being eager to hear how people would respond to the ideas, especially during the pandemic when some interesting questions around “work” and “life” were very present – Who can work from home, and who must continue to work despite the health risks? Who has no option but to work? And what is left in life if certain restrictions are put in place?
The sweetness of cloudberry picking
At the start, we were simply asking the question, “what does the sweetness of life represent for you?”, and many people had different interpretations. Some described family, pets, place, traditions, hobbies, the crafts and artistic work that brings them joy, while others gave more simplistic answers like “nightclubs”. The Norwegian “det gode liv” is probably much closer to “the good life” in English, which suggests more of a humility, and maybe a nostalgia too. I quite prefer the present continuous verb of “living”, and even if “sweetness” may also refer to some superficial values, or be misconstrued as such, I find that sweetness implies a sense of cherishing or savouring which is useful to help think about priorities. Berrypicking, and the practice of cloudberry picking in particular, had a strong presence in many of the conversations when we were talking with members of the community here, so that´s why the “sweetness” seemed like it had a place.
Birgejumpi – enough for a good life
I’ve also recently come across the sámi term of Birgejumpi through the writings of Hanna Guttorm, which she describes as being roughly translatable as “enough for a good life” in the sense that one has a feeling that life can continue into the next year, season and beyond, together with the surroundings. Then my colleague at the University of Lapland, Emily Höckert, has also been exploring some ideas of good living (vivir bien) in the Global South, which are also resonating strongly. So, I think I’ve been most impressed by the fact that this topic still seems to appear again and again, and it seems important to follow somehow, even in the context of the many terrible and tragic events happening in the world at the moment.
We also had, I suppose a kind of conclusion to this chapter of the project with the recent art exhibition at the Festspillene i Nord-Norge – northern Norway’s oldest performing arts festival – in Harstad in June 2023, which was quite a significant platform for the project and a way to make some of the thinking visible that had been perhaps a little bit hidden because of the pandemic circumstances. We received a lot of good feedback from journalists and the general public there. People were responding to the ideas and were asking a lot of questions.
Overall, I think expectations for the project were exceeded in many ways, and I think we were able to create a kind of community around the topic, which was rewarding. My current research is now looking at multispecies relations through listening and walking practices, so in a way I am still following some of these ideas in some new contexts. Maybe the full extent of following this idea is not yet finished. Maybe it will never be finished, which would be wonderful.
Is it possible to translate the project’s experiences and insights into action?
Slow down, reflect, live reciprocal relations and take leisure seriously
One of the messages of the project concerns slowing down, reflecting more deeply, thinking about reciprocity and the relations we have with others, and taking leisure seriously. It is a struggle to apply this “slowness” both privately and professionally, especially if one has a lifestyle that is in any way precarious. But it is important to try, and to encourage others to begin to think differently too.
Policy is where a lot of these ideas matter most though, and I do believe that art events have the power to make real change and affect policy, though it also requires persistence and good timing. So any focus on these kinds of ideas, through events or artworks in a gallery space or elsewhere, is a political action too, even if the “political” part may not be seen so overtly sometimes.
Finally, on a more general point, what is your understanding or vision of the connection between art and science? How can we learn from each other?
In a lot of my experiences, there is often an eagerness for those with scientific backgrounds to work with artists and vice versa, and that can only be a positive thing. Introducing these practitioners to each other is maybe the most difficult part, and of course ensuring that the collaboration happens on equal terms – that art is not simply illustrating scientific research, or that scientific research is not superficially supporting the practice of the artist. The connection has to be meaningful and requires an openness on both sides.
I think artists often admire the fine detail work of scientists, and the commitment to knowledge that they have, which often fires the artists’ imagination and creativity further. It can help artists embed their creativity in the fabric of what we think of as the known or understandable world through this kind of dialogue.
Scientists, I think, also enjoy the challenge of working with artists because it can sometimes get them out of their conventional thinking by challenging their notions of an objective reality. They can respond to the curiosity of the artist, and perceive the art as something that extends their interest in ways they could probably not normally conceive.
I think both approaches benefit from a softer and more processual thinking, and this is perhaps encouraged exactly through these collaborations, since by definition they involve the need to accommodate a different perspective and approach so closely.
Neal Cahoon is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Lapland (firstname.lastname@example.org). More information on Pikene på Broen can be found at www.pikene.no