Preface (some kind of introduction)
Moving up north was for me a journey back in time and a return to my roots. Northern Norway is a familiar place in many ways. I’ve been going there regularly since I was a child, my mother grew up in Lofoten and my grandmother in Lyngen, visiting my family almost every summer, Easter and Christmas holiday, yet it’s also a foreign, mysterious, and desolate place full of extremes. This complexity makes the North an outstanding and special place where I long to return (and feel that I belong to) over and over again.
After my studies at the Art Academy in Trondheim (1996 – 2000) I moved back to Oslo where I was born and raised. I like Oslo, it’s a green city, but I miss the opportunity to embrace ‘wild’ nature, the ocean and the silence. Nordmarka, the forest surrounding Oslo is lovely, but I increasingly felt a deep longing to spend more time in the north, closer to the mountains and the sea. Still, I am an urban city-boy longing for new things like authentic tacos and hazy New England IPA’s. This duality creates a conflicting negotiation in me that I find interesting, fruitful and a bit tiresome. Luckily Tromsø can offer both.
Before the snow comes in November (in 2018 it came early, in October) it’s pretty dark. This really affected my mood, energy and workflow, I was so tired and lost the extra energy and flow, but I kept working, just at a slower pace than before.
So why am I writing this, aren’t we all affected by weather, everyday life, stress and general concerns (now also Covid-19)? Yes, we are, but for me moving up to Tromsø meant cutting my ties with a city I know very well, moving away from my family and friends, finding a new flat, establishing new daily routines, relocating and rebuilding my operative studio, learning to get to know a new city, meeting new students, acquiring new colleagues and being part of a new scene. It may sound pretty simple, but it was overwhelming, a big change for me. On top of that, you start a new ambitious research project without a clear framework or a defined ending, puh.
Staying up north means meeting a cooler climate and desolate landscape that affects you no matter what. It also gives a lot of strength, freedom and knowledge, creating new energy and magic. You really get to know your physiological and psychological limitations. The everyday contact with nature, the fresh air, the clear, cold winter sky, flickering northern lights (if you’re lucky) and the sound of dry crispy snow crackling beneath your shoes on your way home from work. The full bright summer nights, a random invitation to a nachspiel and the rising of the midnight sun that keeps you awake and makes you never want to go to sleep. The sound of nesting seagulls and black-legged kittiwakes on various office buildings all over Tromsø city centre.
Another thing that strikes me, I’m a bit surprised how the people from the north of Sweden, Finland, Russia and Sápmi within the cultural field interact and engage across the borders and regions. When Festspillene (The Arctic Arts Festival) is in Harstad, people come from far and wide to participate. They go to each other’s events and festivals and create networks and collaborations across the borders and areas, even though the distances are sometimes enormous. It is not like in Oslo, where people almost find it a bit out of their way to go to F15 in Moss, Nitja, Art Centre in Lillestrøm or Trafo Kunsthall in Asker, some kilometres away. Who goes to a concert in Gothenburg? For most people it’s too far. Maybe you travel to the Gibca Triennale (Gothenburg International Biennial for Contemporary Art), if you have a friend that is exhibiting.
Since I moved up to Tromsø I’ve visited several festivals in the region, like Barents Spektakel in Kirkenes, Liaf in Lofoten, Riddu Riddu in Kåfjord, Inversia in Murmansk and Festspillene in Harstad. I wanted to experience the festivals myself and to interact with the local art scenes and communities. I have also travelled around in Nordland, Troms and Finnmark to explore, work and learn to know that part of the country. In my artistic practice I constantly try to challenge my way of thinking and working, about being an artist, about the artist’s role in society, about the world we live in, about the climate and how we relate to each other and how we relate to other living beings. How about being a privileged western boy, situated in Norway, one of the richest and safest parts of the world? Staying relevant and not becoming boring, predictable or set.
Being a sound artist today doesn’t mean you are not allowed to draw, photograph or paint. You’re the director of the play and can define all the rules. Still, historical hierarchies and capitalistic structures dominate the global art world (and academia). As an artist, you should be consistent and stay true to your concept and expression. Too much experimenting (playfulness) and critical reflection about the system and scene you’re a part of will most likely damage your professional persona and career.
So, who’s your audience? The art world? The curators? Academia? Your peers? Or the general public? Maybe all of them, maybe none, maybe a mix? Working within a public space or developing site-specific artworks allows you to reach out to a broader audience and allows your work to be read outside an art context. Maybe it’s experienced as art, maybe not. I’m interested in these transitions in between what’s experienced as art and ‘things’ or ‘events’ that just exist around us. Sounds that blend into the architecture, a deep bass frequency vibration you can only feel when leaning against the wall. An unintended installation at a construction site with artefacts and material that performs its own logic.
I find working with sound and field recording so rich and endless, it’s always inspiring and challenging to dive into the ocean of sound, to listen, to record and to create. It contains everything: movement, speed, frequencies, scale, space, melodies, texture, timbre, temperature, colour, stories, history, physics, mathematics, philosophy etc. Being a research fellow allows me to move in depth and spend a lot of time investigating different sites and locations. This sharpens my focus, area of interest, content and working methods.
So what does a normal day in my life look like? Everyday routines, bad air-conditioning, bitter coffee, flickering neon lights. The man with the mechanised washing machine (Big Joe, the cleaner at school), often disturbs me when I’m just about to listen to some of my recorded material, he’s just doing his job, but he’s also representing the sound of our time (without knowing it). My grandmother used to clean the primary school in Svolvær. I can see her, bending over, rotating her sweeping broom in figures of eight, cleaning the showers of the swimming baths with strong solvents. This creates rhythmical patterns, distinct and soft at the same time. Wonder what she was thinking about then? Being a cleaner today means extended use of technology, tools that make more or at least different sounds than before, like all manual jobs I suppose, but some more than others.
These transitions in nature and society happen so gradually that it is hard to notice. This term is called “shifting baseline”. The concept arose in landscape architect Ian McHarg's manifesto Design with Nature, from 1969. A loss of perception of change and the failure to notice change that occurs when each generation redefines what is ‘natural’. Shifting baselines are the chronic, slow and hard-to-notice changes in things and landscapes, from the disappearance of animal species to the increasing costs of building material.
I find the sound of tools, technology, industry, infrastructure, energy production, etc., and how this transforms the landscape and our society, infinite interesting, frightening and inspiring at the same time. This is and has been a repeating focus throughout my project and my time as a research fellow. So, how do I select my sites and areas of interest? I guess it is a mix of carefully selected places that either have a problematic or specific meaning in society (like a bitcoin mining farm or a wind-turbine park), places that have an interesting historical background (like Ä´vv Skolt Sámi museum in Neiden), abandoned spaces (the swimming baths in Digermulen), to give the silence and emptiness a voice and sites where interesting acoustic phenomenon appears, like when I was recording at the square in Kabelvåg, some surprising electromagnetic interference came from beneath the ground.
Checking and answering email endlessly (need to focus on my work)!!!. Gives you a kick and creates waves of stress at the same time. Setting up appointments in your iCal. Keeping track of your Instagram feed. Positioning yourself. Your profession and personality blend together into a vague lifestyle smoothie. Your artwork is the way you look. Your life has become a SoMe stream.
Full control of your accounting. Don’t forget to send that invoice. Fuck, need to resend that attachment (it was too big, 2 MB limitation). Maybe I can send a Dropbox link instead? The messy artist is passé, or?! Fragmented mind vs. Yoga mind. Need to go out for a walk, to clear my head. Visiting all the second-hand stores in Tromsø (there aren’t that many). A coffee and a financier at Kaffebønna Café. It’s my way of smoking. A natural break. Watching all the Asian tourists passing by in their colourful winter jackets and cameras with monstrous lenses. Catching some natural fast-moving green light multi-media show over the mountains. Tromsø has become a living arctic museum (a travel agent’s wet dream, until Covid-19).
Staying up late, dancing at bars (not really), being cool, waking up early, feeling bad, feeling fresh, ready for a new field trip, ready for a possible meeting, damn I forgot that interesting seminar. Want to read all the relevant books in the world. Read all the classics. Go to all the exhibitions and all the events. Being present and going into depth. Relaxing. Showing a happy face and never complaining.
Or, maybe you just want to stay home talking to your plants, healing yourself with Soothing Sounds for Babies (Raymond Scott, 1962), drinking premium Darjeeling tea and reading an article about an Eco-Feminist Sami-Art-collective. Feeding the birds, or cycling to the other side of the island to Plantasjen, Tromsø’s garden centre. It’s often empty there, I like that ‘emptiness’. It allows me to spend some quality time with the plants. Going for a swim at Alfheim, Tromsø’s ‘funkisperle’ (pearl of functional architecture), as long as it’s open. Taking a ride around Prestvannet Lake, watching all the birds: hooded gulls, grey heron, mallards, red-throated divers, common terns etc. You can also see Tromsdalstind / Sálašoaivi (Northern Sami) or «Tinden» as the locals call it, the holy mountain, from here, I often return, again and again, to catch my breath and to ‘arrive’.
Listening to the world nonstop. I can’t close my ears or turn off my profession. I open the window and listen to the subtle sound of the wind blowing and the birds singing outside, so crisp, so full of life. Inside it is quiet, too quiet, the sound of my tinnitus becomes prominent. I can hear a constant high pitch that splits into several tones and overtones modulating slowly in and out of each phase, like a never-ending feedback loop, or a minimalistic sound installation by Finnish sound artist Mika Vainio.
Mika Vainio (1963-2017) was a prominent member of the minimalistic electronic music duo Pan Sonic (Panasonic in 1993 before the Japanese electronics manufacturer threatened legal action), together with Ilpo Väisänen. British musician and author David Toop wrote in his book ‘Haunted Weather’, that the band’s physical sonics were “a manifesto for the poetry of electricity”. Vainio’s sounds call images of deconstructed techno, electro acoustic and harsh industrial music. His sounds are physical, almost unpleasant, like the piercing sounds of an electric plant, yet the structure is often rhythmic and suggestive. I was lucky to catch Pan Sonic live performance once at Maria Am Ostbahnhof in Berlin in 2009. It was a total embodied experience in synchronized sound and (a black and white) image. Minimalistic, monumental and confronting. It’s impossible to ignore its physical presence. Vainio' work has always been on the edge, between experimental music and contemporary art, taking form as live performances or sound installations, sharing concepts of physical and minimalistic sound with multimedia artists such as Ryoji Ikeda, Carsten Nicholai and Byetone to name few.
When I was an art student in Trondheim I remember that Pan Sonic put out an ad in the music magazine The Wire, that they would come and play for free, if you booked them and covered travel, food and accommodation. I was really tempted to book them in the old Rosendal cinema, but at the time I wasn’t ready to organize a concert on that scale. Later I became a festival director of the Random System Festival, an experimental music festival that took place at Blå, Parkteateret, Notam and Black Box Theatre in Oslo 2004-2006. The festival was initiated by me and Andreas Meland, and our aim was to merge alternative pop music, video art, experimental and contemporary music and their audience. Now I have stopped booking concerts, to be able to focus on my own work.