The Biennial Questionnaire: Jonatan Habib Engqvist, Birta Gudjonsdottir, Stefanie Hessler, Toke Lykkeberg

Momentum 8, Nordic Biennial of Contemporary art, opens this weekend in Moss, Norway, under the title Tunnel Vision. Its four curators talk to ArtReview about altered states, conspiracy theories, paranoia, synaesthesia and Edvard Munch's lesser known rival, Emanuel Vigeland

By Helen Sumpter

Fujiko Nakaya, Fog Garden Murasaki, 2010. Japan Industry Pavilion, Shanghai Expo, China. Copyright: Processart Inc. Ola Pehrson, The Hunt for the Unabomber, 2005. Photo: Fredrik Sweger, 2009. Courtesy: Moderna Museet, Stockholm Lundahl & Seitl, Symphony of a Missing Room (Kunstmuseum Bern), 2014.  Photo: Loulou d'Aki. Courtesy the artists

Tunnel Vision features artists and cultural producers whose focus is particular, persistent and singular, reflecting the way in which our hyper-networked society uses filter-bubbles and you-loops to process and feed back information to us in an increasingly personalised way, as well as looking at the necessity to be focused and solitary in order to create. Its curators are Jonatan Habib Engqvist (Sweden), Birta Gudjonsdottir (Iceland), Stefanie Hessler (Germany/Sweden) and Toke Lykkeberg (Denmark).

Eccentricity, conspiracy theories, paranoia and altered states of mind are some of the themes the exhibition is looking at. Can you give us some specific examples of what to expect?

Stefanie Hessler: Every period produces its own conspiracy theories. They arise from and in turn also create paranoia. Today, the ecological disaster, extreme political views and data storing scandals are just some of the phenomena causing anxiety. Conspiracy theories ‘reveal’ connections to power, but they can also be humorous speculation. The commissioned trailers by Edward Shenk revolve around new and old conspiracy theories about Momentum and Norway. In fact, judging from some initial reactions, even of other artists in the biennial, they seem to work: some people were shocked about our alleged sponsors. Conspiracy theories, just like eccentricity, create a different logic within the existing one. They distort, amplify and reverse. And, you know, in every conspiracy theory there is also a grain of truth.

Birta Gudjonsdottir: Another example could be a ‘Paranoia app’ developed for Momentum 8 by Valia Fetisov, Nicolay Spesivtsev and Dzina Zhuk. The app that people can download on their mobile phone allows them to trace and follow another visitor in real time and in turn be followed by others. Another example could be a commissioned installation by Steingrimur Eyfjörd in which he gives insight into and draw connections between various conspiracy theories via drawings, QR codes from web sources and a version of a Wilhelm Reich Orgone accumulator, designed to alter one´s personal biofield.

Jonatan Habib Engqvist: Hopefully, the biennial will not only be looking at these phenomena, but through them. At least one of our intentions is to make a show that has a sense of performativity to it, that does something rather than simply being about something. This is reflected in the kind of work that will be in the exhibition and how it is produced. You can expect an oscillation between intensity and intimacy and the peripheral darkness of tunnel life through sounds, humidity and a soft scent of paranoia that will linger in your consciousness long after you leave Moss.

There will also be a focus on multisensory experiences. How does this relate to the Tunnel Vision theme?

JHE: The narrowed-down vision of a tunnelling artist, curator or audience can often heighten the sensory field of perception within the area of focus, while also creating dissonances and echoes. Similarly, the tunnelled space of the biennial will trigger all kinds of bodily memories, states of mind and sensibilities on the part of visitors. Perhaps we could speak of the show as a synaesthetic experiment. Tactility, sound and scent have pre-cognitive and highly restricted individual features that are accentuated here.

TL: Yes, one kind of multisensory experience is synaesthesia and apparently widespread among artists. When Edvard Munch tells the story of how he suddenly ‘sensed a big endless scream’, he also recounts how he was left behind on the bridge while his friends just kept walking. Another synaesthete, Vladimir Nabokov, has explained how his synaesthetic experience of the world tended to be at odds with that of others, even other synaesthetes. So synaesthesia exemplifies how multisensory experiences connect us to the world and disconnect us from the world of others.

One of our intentions is to make a show that has a sense of performativity to it, that does something rather than simply being about something

SH: Fujiko Nakaya’s fog chamber is the first work visitors will meet. You have to make your way through the mist, deprived of your usual sense of vision. But perhaps this will augment other senses. Sissel Tolaas’s smell will haunt you throughout the biennial and even afterwards, as a small bottle with the scent is distributed in the spine of the first catalogue, the Reader. Brody Condon’s live action role play, a performance involving eight players and laser acupuncture, will speak to yet a whole other set of senses. Each artist digs into their own specialised tunnel. It can be cognitive or experiential, or both.

Edvard Munch spent several years in Moss. How has this been reflected in the Biennial?

JHE: He lived in a large house in Moss where he spent almost four years, taking the same route between the studio and the post office on his daily walk to pick up the mail. But in a certain sense he was an island himself, and there are a number of artworks in this exhibition that could be said to deal with this notion, remaining in the magnificent world inside our heads. One might stress that this self-chosen seclusion, which still seems to be prevalent in the Nordic region is a double bind. And it is currently in evolution. In parallel to the dismantling of the welfare state in recent years, Scandinavia has adapted rapidly to a more digitized and individualised infrastructure. So some issues being raised through Momentum 8 concerning cultural and ideological separatism due to things like the self-referential loops of digital culture, might be ubiquitous… Instead of inviting Munch we invited his rival, Emanuel Vigeland, to the show. Maybe Toke wants to say something about this?

TL: Yes, Emanuel Vigeland is less known than Munch, but just as important to us. Whereas Munch was secluded but well-connected, Vigeland left the art world altogether. After having competed for and lost a public commission to Munch in the 1910s after a lot of back and forth, he found consolation as an old-school church artist. Then, in 1926, he built himself a church-like museum and studio on his own estate in Oslo. Later on, it turned out to be his very own, dimly lit mausoleum. Vigeland not only got what Virginia Wolf called ‘a room of one's own’, he also left his masterpiece, an astonishing 800 square metre fresco, inside it, so we've chosen to simply put that on the Momentum map.

How did you approach the curation of this exhibition, particularly in view of the fact that there are four of you?

JHE: This has been a rewarding experience. On a good day, it´s as if there´s a fifth, composite curator who is making the show. I would say that the process has been organic and that the concept was born out of a discussion about the artist and the context that we are working in. Even though we have different points of departure, I think there is a common attitude with regard to what we want the show to do and how we are collaborating with the artists.

SH: Rather than creating one tunnel, we have created four. Or perhaps 25, the number of artists in this focused biennial. I think each of us has entered passages we wouldn’t have taken otherwise, but we’re glad we did.

How are you addressing the different audiences who will come to Moss – international artists, gallerists, curators and critics concentrated around the opening weekend and the local, national and international public who come through over the following months?

TL: I think the artworks communicate at many levels at once. I hope many people will appreciate the art the same way most people appreciate Alfred Hitchcock.

BG: Though a part of the biennial will be experienced in real time only in the beginning of the exhibition period, we are working with the idea of real time on several levels. During several weekends of the exhibition period, artist duo Lundahl & Seitl will take guests on a journey. Their work in the biennial is as well part of the educational program of Momentum 8 and gives a chance to experience the exhibition with a polarised bodily focus.

JHE: I´m not sure that I subscribe to the assumption that art is produced to communicate, and especially that it communicates differently to laymen or to professionals. I would prefer to think of those who are invested and those who are not. The unique thing about art is that the audience cannot be understood as either professional or non-professional, but as attentive and concerned or not. Generally, I hear more open-minded and sensitive readings of artworks from children than museum directors. In this regard, I would add that the idea of an ‘education program’ is somewhat taken to task here. It can for instance simply make sense to include a certain age group and allow them deeper access to a particular work. This is why Lundahl & Seitl´s Symphony will be most intense in September when the schools start, and why a workshop will be organised together with the artists and a number of teenagers. There are also several works in the show that develop over the course of the exhibition. For instance Brody Condon´s LARP will be easier to overview after the first week, and we don´t know yet if there will be larva, cocoons or butterflies in Christine Ödlund´s stinging nettles.

What does it mean to curate a Biennial that represents a region. Is it an honour or problematic?

JHE: I think both. Our biennial is a chapter in the history of Momentum and as such a reflection on how the idea of the Nordic is constantly in transition and under negotiation.

SH: The idea of a region, a more or less hermetic system, is troubled and therefore interesting. In physics, a system cannot change if it is closed. Its energy remains the same. In society and art, a closed system may similarly be self-referential and narrow-minded. The theme tunnel vision reflects what we call Nordic seclusion, a feeling of isolation pertinent to the region. It is present in the plays of Henrik Ibsen, taking place inside private homes, and in the writing of Halldór Laxness, reflecting upon inner spiritual experiences. The region is shaped by darkness and solitude, but it also knows the other extreme, with its bright and social summers. With the theme Tunnel Vision we adopt a constrained attitude and, at the same time, open it up. Momentum 8 focuses and multitasks simultaneously. It oscillates like an ayahuasca trip.

BG: At this point in Momentum´s history, it has developed from being a platform for art from the Nordic region into instigating international collaborations that take place in the Nordic region and contribute to the discussion of the role of the biennial and art´s agency. It´s an honour to be entrusted with this task and granted carte blanche to act.

How does having a biennial in a city like Moss affect the art scene in both Norway and the wider Nordic region?

TL: To me, the blooming Norwegian art scene has been the most exciting thing in Scandinavia throughout the 2010s. Before then, Momentum was almost the only thing in Norway a Dane such as I was aware of. Now there are many biennials in the Nordic region, so many that this format might end up consolidating what contemporary art is rather than following where it's going. But Momentum was the first Nordic biennial, so it bears witness to the way in which contemporary art has developed in this part of the world since 1998. In Denmark, we don't have a single institution that has been able to display the same kind of continuity as Momentum, though our art scene has been 'happening' for longer than the Norwegian.

BG: Indeed, Momentum remains one of the stronger platforms for contemporary art in the Nordic region and the interplay between the region and Momentum is likely to continue. Momentum serves as a meeting place for the region´s art scene, disregarding the number of Nordic participants in each edition. It receives large numbers of guests and much media coverage. As such, it exposes the art world at large to artists and curators that are doing super-interesting and relevant things in the region. 

For more on Tunnel Vision see here

Online exclusive published 1 June 2015