Ocula Conversation

A conversation with Tanja Sæter

Artist and founder of Coast Contemporary, Norway
Cathryn Drake Norwegian coast 10 November 2017

Tanja Sæter. Courtesy Coast Contemporary.

This past autumn, Norwegian artist Tanja Sæter organised the first annual Coast Contemporary (21–24 September 2017). Curated by Sæter and Helga-Marie Nordby, the programme of discussions, film screenings, exhibitions, and performances was intended to showcase the Norwegian art scene and cultivate collaboration among an international group of 100 participating artists, curators, critics, and dealers, including Garage curator Snejana Krasteva and Johan Gustavsson, director of the Hague project space 1646. Events took place aboard the ship MS Trollfjord, which skirted the western coast of Norway from Lofoten to Bergen, among dramatic formations of islands and fjords.

Boarding the Hurtigruten's MS Trollfjord Ship for Coast Contemporary (21–24 September 2017). Photo: Cathryn Drake.

With an artistic practice that is focused on improving the opportunities made available for other artists, Sæter recently served on the board of the Norwegian Visual Artists Association, establishing a programme offering affordable insurance to members of artist organisations. Until 2015, she was director of the artist initiative Oslo Open, which organises yearly visits to about 400 artist studios for international art professionals. Sæter conceived of the floating Coast forum—staged in a concentrated capsule for a captive audience—as an antidote to the frenetic flyby meetings of art biennials and fairs.

The night before the voyage kicked off, we visited the North Norwegian Art Centre in Svolvær, capital of the Lofoten archipelago, to view artist Tor Esaissen's revelatory retrospective exhibition, Paradise and Barbed Wire (26 August–22 October 2017). The next evening—after visits to Dan Graham's spectacular Artscape Nordland installation (Untitled, 1996) in Lyngvær, artist A. K. Dolven's waterfront studio in Kvalnes, and the Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) in Henningsvær—we boarded the ship, owned by Hurtigruten Cruises. The Hurtigruten voyages are a popular pastime for Norwegians, and the wildly successful real-time TV programme Hurtigruten: Minute by Minute (2011−12) followed the cruise passing by the coastline as locals waved from the docks. Travelling a regular route between Kirkenes and Bergen since 1893, the company's fleet has long provided the principal link between the remote communities of the vast, sparsely populated country.

Dan Graham, Untitled (1996). Installation view: Artscape Nordland, Lyngvær. Photo: Cathryn Drake.

So what happens when a motley crew of art professionals is set adrift aboard a cruise liner among hundreds of other unsuspecting passengers? The packed programme began in the vessel's dimly lit Valhalla auditorium, with presentations by leaders of Norwegian cultural institutions including artist Ina Otzko, chairwoman of the Association of North Norwegian Artists; Natalie O'Donnel, curator of Munchmuseet on the Move; Lise Dahl, curator of Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum; and Haakon Thuestad, director of Bergen Assembly, to name a few. There were also two panel discussions: 'When the Underground Becomes Establishment' and 'Challenging the Borders of Biennials'—the latter hijacked by Paul B. Preciado's impassioned defence of the documenta 14 team in the face of the budget-overrun scandal. Glimpses of the surreal landscape gliding by outside the windows—a mesmerising sequence of craggy islands and mountains broken by shimmering blues, which recalled an anamorphic frieze—induced a state of meditative disorientation on the verge of nausea.

The ship's conditions promoted expeditious if claustrophobic intimacy among the shipmates. The daily scuttlebutt—both social and intellectual—circulated among dining tables in Saga Hall, along with copious offerings of caviar and fillet of Finnmark reindeer. Occasions between official events engendered the most contagious conversations: private cabin parties fuelled by whiskey bottles smuggled onboard, collective Jacuzzi soaks at sunset, and raucous midnight karaoke sessions in the panorama bar. Passengers were commanded frequently to disinfect their hands with foam proffered from a pump—the caveat being that germs are easily spread in a closed environment—and were equally alerted by signs throughout the vessel.

During breakfast on the first morning, somewhere between Bodø and Rørvik, the ship passed the monument signalling the southern border of the Arctic Circle, a sculptural steel globe atop a plinth on the tiny Vikingen Island. Ports of call along the way, like Brønnøysund and Molde, went largely unheeded by the art cruisers, aside from an early morning landfall in Trondheim to visit the Kunsthall and the striking portside art space RAKE showroom, built entirely of windows salvaged from demolished buildings. Yet all (clean) hands were on deck every night after dark, three sheets to the wind and looking out for fleeting appearances of the aurora borealis.

Visit to RAKE showroom in Trondheim as part of Coast Contemporary (21–24 September 2017). Courtesy Coast Contemporary. Photo: Laimonas Puisys.

The ship's purification protocol was breached provocatively in the Cabin Series, for which art spaces were invited to mount daylong exhibitions and performances. Trondheim's RAKE presented artist Hanna Fauske's meat-obsessed, cross-dressing alter ego Erik Elk, whose suitcases full of fragrant pork chops accompanied a musical cooking video in cabin 640. Nancy Lupo's interactive performance and toast sculpture, Hold the Phone, organised in cabin 434 by Oslo's artist-run space 1857, transmitted a spoken-word text via the eponymous bacteria-challenged device. The next day, Bergen-based gallery Entrée transmitted Danilo Correale's hypnotherapy session, In Reverie: On the Liberation from Work, via vinyl on a record player in the same cabin. Next door, Oslo gallery Schloss displayed Gerasimos Floratos's sketchbook and sculptures.

Hanna Fauske, Erik Elk (2017). Installation view: MS Trollfjord, Coast Contemporary (21–24 September 2017). Photo: Cathryn Drake.

Highlights included Metro Pictures director Alexander Ferrando's talk about the inexorable trajectory of 83 Pitt Street, his New York project space, from experimental lab to a veritable gallery; a discussion between artist Mattias Härenstam and Nottingham Contemporary director Sam Thorne; and a tear-jerking evening performance by Nils Bech of his song Waiting, against the shadowy backdrop of mountains gliding slowly by outside the window.

Just about the time we salty art dogs had learned the ropes and rules, we were bid adieu in a serenade by the crew and the ship anchored in Bergen. The final terrestrial events included an afternoon performance of Eroticalitilities at Knipsu, where the Avalanche Boys enacted the masturbatory antics of a sweaty teenage boy's room, and were topped off by a rowdy dance party at the Bergen Kunsthall's Landmark bar. For days afterward, the sea legs made terra firma feel wobbly, and the memory of the brief voyage was reminiscent of an LSD trip.

In the wake of the Coast Contemporary cruise (financed in part by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Norwegian Arts Council), the Norwegian government has proposed a state budget that would cut the cultural funding of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by nearly 40 percent as well as revoke the right for artists to appoint members to grant-awarding committees, threatening the country's privileged cultural sphere. Norway's contemporary art scene is remarkable for its influential non-profit and artist-run institutions, such as the Office for Contemporary Art and the UKS (Young Artists' Society), many of them directed by women. The last four years have already seen a structural shift in cultural policy, leading to shrinking benefits and a 56 percent reduction in funding for artists. On 26 October, artist and cultural organisations mounted a massive demonstration against the proposition, which will be voted on as soon as the Conservative Party of Norway forms its new post-election coalition with the right-wing Fremskrittspartiet ('Progress Party'). In this conversation, Sæter comments on these issues after discussing her reasons for founding Coast Contemporary, and reflecting on the first edition.

Scenery from aboard the MS Trollfjord during Coast Contemporary (21–24 September 2017). Photo: Cathryn Drake.

What inspired you to assemble an art voyage on a cruise ship?

Hurtigruten has had a remarkable history since it started connecting the communities of northern Norway to the south, and the ships have meant a lot to the artists based along the coast since they have been kind enough to transport art back and forth for exhibitions. Before the route was established, it took three weeks to send a letter from Trondheim to Hammerfest in the summer, and up to five months in the winter. Hurtigruten took only seven days to make the trip, a development forging much stronger ties between north and south. Since launching in 1893, Hurtigruten has become one of the most important identity markers for coastal Norway. The boat passes Kurt Schwitters' cabin on the island of Hjertøya near Molde, where he worked while in exile in the 1930s. Simone de Beauvoir used to sail with Jean-Paul Sartre on the Hurtigruten, and she recovered her ability to walk again on board the ship after his death.

A few years ago I initiated an international visitors programme for an art festival with open studios and it's working very well, with about 30 curators visiting studios in Oslo every year, but the results weren't quite what I expected. Most of the people that started to work together later were the international visitors, andnot necessarily the artists whose work they had seen. I realised that the curators and writers had been in the same hotel, eating meals together, driving in the same car, and sharing this whole experience—and the artists hadn't really been a part of it because meeting for an hour in a studio is not enough time to make a real connection.

Veronica Bruce, Steffen Håndlykken and Kenneth Varpe on the deck of MS Trollfjord during Coast Contemporary (21–24 September 2017). Photo: Cathryn Drake.

So I wanted to find a place where time was expansive, where people would have time to get to know one another. I love Twin Peaks, and the ship setting was a bit surreal in that way, so it was like a dream to see it come alive. The ship was the perfect location: a strange—hopefully fun—space for art, talks, film, food, and some relaxation.

What were your principal goals for the seafaring art forum?

I have worked with so many great artists, so it was important for me to show a piece of the Norwegian art scene, and I wanted to give full artistic freedom to the art spaces when it came to curating the Cabin Series. We wanted to highlight artists through talks and artist-run spaces, and through the programmes of museums and institutions. I have participated in many biennial openings, and I love seeing the art and meeting people. However, it is difficult to get to know someone in this sort of milieu, and we all know it's the conversations that take place when the shows are over that often lead to new collaborations or insights.

I want to work with a very slow social practice and to improve the places I live and work in, most of all the art community. I believe in the power of an assembly and allowing yourself to take your time to actually stay together, because the world today is so busy and stressful. The participating artists are a mix of the most established, such as A. K. Dolven and Ida Ekblad, and younger ones like Hanna Fauske, who is an amazing experimenter. It has been great to see the artists be there for each other, even when they don't need the attention, out of mutual respect.

View of A.K. Dolven's studio in Kvalnes during a studio visit for Coast Contemporary (21–24 September 2017). Photo: Cathryn Drake.

I think there is a need for this sort of platform, not just nationally but also internationally. I really believe in creating a forum for meetings where people allow themselves to stay longer. It is important to invite people early because everyone is so busy, like half a year in advance, and maybe they'll say yes because they don't yet have their schedules full.

How does the Coast Contemporary programme fit into your artist advocacy work?

I founded Coast Contemporary because I believe the Norwegian Art scene is strong, interesting, and not getting enough international attention as it is. I wanted to create more opportunities for my artist colleagues by introducing them to new institutions and galleries as well as to generate any kind of collaboration—institutional, curatorial, or artistic—that could come out of this. I also think that different municipalities can learn from each other, and that we all benefit from sharing mistakes and successes, passing on contacts, and telling others about the interesting projects out there.

The art scene in Norway is quite political, and almost all professional artists are members of local artists' organisations, such as UKS and the North Norwegian Artist Association. You don't necessarily see the political in the artists' art, but they work with politicians at all levels to defend their rights. There are artists in the boardrooms, and it is quite normal to work for a few years on the board of a professional organisation to ensure economic and artistic rights. In fact, many of the most established art institutions in Norway have been founded and run by artists.

Discussion between artists Jan Freuchen and Toril Johannessen with writer Orit Gat for Coast Contemporary (20–24 September 2017). Courtesy Coast Contemporary. Photo: Laimonas Puisys.

Is there anything you would change in future editions of Coast Contemporary?

I have had some interesting suggestions already for next year's edition. I would like to work with new curators and invite more people. We have had people signing up already, which is incredibly cool. The concept of bringing all sectors of the art industry together to meet and exchange ideas, discover artists, and generate future collaborations is important, and that will remain the basis of the model.

This first edition was produced on a low budget, so I hope to have funding for more art projects next time and a bigger focus on workshops and talks that go deeper into certain topics. We will do year-round artist representation and introduce new artists worth looking at from time to time. We are also launching a programme for women who have had children to get them back to the studio after childbirth. It is upsetting to see all the art dropouts after the age of 35!

I hope Coast Contemporary can become a large network at some point, not just in Norway but internationally. I believe we need to be global in the art community. Writers, artists, museums, and municipalities all affect each other, and we need to understand that by cooperating and staying in touch we make everyone stronger and our professional lives easier.

How do you think the current political situation is going to affect the art scene in Norway?

The art scene is always threatened by budget cuts because many people do not understand the need for art in the world. It amazes me that it is even necessary since artists already have the lowest income in Norway. One of the most important and unique arrangements we have in Norway is the Relief Fund for Visual Artists (BKH): five percent of all art sold in the country is returned back to the artists in the form of grants. It is a great model, and it could easily be adopted around the world to ensure that artists are not entirely dependent on private funding or donations, which leads to a very commercial scene. Art that is sold generates more art.

Gerasimos Floratos, Minion Bridge (2017). Clay, metal and acrylic paint. 22 x 20 x 14 cm. Installation view: MS Trollfjord, Coast Contemporary (21–24 September 2017). Courtesy the artist, Coast Contemporary and Schloss, Oslo. Photo: Laimonas Puisys.

However, removing the right of artists to elect the members of their own stipend committees is just the first step toward dismantling the Norwegian art scene as we know it. It might seem like a small change, but it weakens the very core that the artist organisations are built on. It reminds me of Margaret Thatcher's union busting in the 1980s, and it scares me.

Look at Edvard Munch, who needed a work stipend to get established, and the value of his artistic legacy to Norwegian culture. If Norway can produce two Munchs every hundred years, it is worth far more than the monetary value of the grants paid to artists: Munch's paintings, the museum buildings, the construction of the new museum, his 'brand' used for merchandise of all kinds, and the attention his work brings to Norway—I could go on and on. The proposed cuts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will also affect the export of Norwegian literature, music, and dance.

Future funding will continue to come from the state, but there is an increasing expectation that artists should find private funding. As there is hardly any tradition for corporate funding in this country, unlike in the United Kingdom and the States, it is very difficult for even museums to get private funding. And there is always a certain sense of ownership that comes with sponsors. The great changes experienced in the Netherlands and in the UK, where funding for arts has been heavily cut, is something that needs to be stopped in this country. We just have to avoid hitting the iceberg. –[O]

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