The Biennial Questionnaire: Matt Packer and Arne Skaug Olsen

Curators of the Lofoten International Art Festival, 28 August – 27 September 2015

The island of Lille Molla, Norway, which will feature  in Juha Matias Pekka Laakkonen's work. Courtesy LIAF

The 2015 edition of the Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF), the biennial art exhibition which takes place in Lofoten, a Norwegian archipelago lying within the Arctic Circle, is being held under the title Disappearing Acts. ArtReview caught up with its curators, Matt Packer, director of Centre for Contemporary Art Derry-Londonderry, and Arne Skaug Olsen, a curator, art critic and writer based in Bergen, to discuss armageddon, the beauty of nature and the forthcoming show.

ArtReview: How will the geographic context effect the art being shown in LIAF?

Remoteness in the Lofoten context does not equal backwardness

Arne Skaug Olsen: LIAF is closely connected to the geographical context – both literally in terms of geology and natural environment, but also culturally in the way that LIAF always merges with the weave of the place, using existing venues, from abandoned fisheries, to the pubic library or even people’s private homes. The sea and the fisheries have been everything up here for more than a thousand years. Contrary to what one might expect, remoteness in the Lofoten context does not equal backwardness. The communities here are outward looking and entrepreneurial. The Lofoten Islands also has a history of being a place for art, where artists settle and become part of the community. There is even a film and art school here, in the village of Kabelvåg.

Most of the artists who will be producing new work for LIAF that responds to the history of representation of the Lofoten islands, but also artworks that re-negotiate common conceptions of the place and offer new interpretations. In other words, the geographic context of Lofoten affects the art like any other place would.

Matt Packer: Many of the new commissioned works address the geography beyond the exhibition space – Roderick Hietbrink’s sculptural works have been submerged in the ocean for the past three months; Juha Pekka Matias Laakkonen will produce his work through the process of living on the uninhabited island of Lille Molla (near Svolvær) for the immediate weeks prior to the exhibition; Katja Novitskova’s work addresses the discovery and exploits of hydrothermal vents in the Arctic Ocean. These examples, like other works in the exhibition, are not limited to the horizons of this geography; they extend beyond it and use this place as symptomatic and diagnostic of conditions that are also occurring elsewhere.

AR: How will the art compete with the scenery?

ASO: Although the scenery of the Lofoten Islands is commonly thought of in terms of ragged mountains, the architecture plays an important part in how the place presents itself to a visitor. Much of the architecture of present Lofoten still originates from the reconstruction after World War II, a period of rapid and extensive socio-political changes in Norway. The venue of LIAF 2015, locally called Jern & Bygg, is a hardware and furniture store that operated from 1947 to 2010. Its architecture is very much an example of a typical North Norwegian pragmatism.

Once established, it grew over a period of seven decades from a modest-sized shop to a conglomerate of new buildings, mergers with other buildings and added floors. As it stands today, it is a map of the aesthetics of Norway’s sociopolitical development. It is also one of the last examples of this particular brand of pragmatism, an architectural mode that is currently phased out in favour of generic corporate, tourist friendly architecture that reflects the level of wealth and entitlement of contemporary Norway. Disappearing Acts tries to work with the architectural specificity of the Jern & Bygg venue, and in this sense the art does not compete with the scenery at all; it merges and plays with it.

The scenery can be disabling – it’s too massive and encompassing to address

MP: The scenery can be quite disabling. It’s too massive and encompassing to address. If you search the Lofoten Islands on the Internet you’ll be served up with endless pictures of snow-capped mountains, dramatically situated villages, and the Northern Lights. When I arrived in Lofoten for the first time, I was faced with a kind of authenticity problem because it seemed impossible to actualise a relationship with the scenery any more than it’s possible on screen. Several of the works in Disappearing Acts similarly address the perceptual dynamics of technology and environment.

AR: There's some big themes quoted – human agency, ecology, technology – what will LIAF add to the conversation, and what answers will it provide?

MP: Yes, these are big words that have been echoing around these past few hundred years or more. For our purposes, they operate more as trajectories than thematic ‘territories’, with each trajectory, a way of organising and prioritising relationships between things. There has been a great groundshift in the status of human agency in the past 10 years, with ecological- and object-led philosophies undermining a lot of the supposition of human privileges. It’s ecological-economical precarity, it’s exposure to climate change, it’s ‘identity’ of remoteness and idealisations of self-sufficiency. The context of the Lofoten Islands is a very activating one in thinking through the changing status of relationship between the human and the processes of ecology, technology, and history.

In another sense, we have tried to produce an exhibition that is not captured by a single discourse (eg ‘post humanism’). There are practices represented in Disappearing Acts that have very different routes of enquiry.

ASO: With the title Disappearing Acts, we try to emphasise that there is a performative aspect to all human endeavour. In the ways we interact with technology, how we swim, how we perform aesthetic, political or ecologically motivated actions, like elections or terrorism. We are trying to see the ultimate disappearance, the apocalypse, as something that is currently playing itself out as a rehearsal. We are rehearsing the apocalypse, and at some point it will be a show where we have the lead role. When that time comes, we should be prepared.

We try to emphasise that there is a performative aspect to all human endeavour

Disappearing Acts is not thematic, but rather an exhibition that is attempting to locate a contemporary moment where technology, ecology and history are coordinates, and we’re interested to see what the landscape triangulated by these coordinates might look like when it is channeled through aesthetic practices. For instance, Juha Matias Pekka Laakkonen will be commuting by kayak to the uninhabited Island of Lille Molla, visible from his space in the exhibition venue. While on the island, he’ll be collecting materials – both in a material and spiritual sense – that will be used to craft objects. Every time he traverses the waters in his kayak, he’s rehearsing a disappearing into nature – and failing, over and over when he returns to the city. Intrinsically, we have a very limited spiritual access to nature because of our physical fragility.

Disappearing Arts, the 2015 edition of the Lofoten International Art Festival takes place 28 August through 27 September 2015 at Jern & Bygg, Lofoten archipelago, Norway

15 August 2015