"The Fjords of Truth" – Dean Kissick on Bergen Assembly 2016
In Bergen it’s usually raining. Karl-Ove Knausgaard’s book set there, the fifth volume of My Struggle, is titled Some Rain Must Fall (2016). “All that is left of the thousands of days I spent in that small, narrow-streeted, rain-shimmering Westland town,” he writes on the first page, “is a few events and lots of sentiments. I kept a diary, which I have since burned.”
Bergen Assembly, now in its second incarnation, adopts a critical approach to the idea of the biennial-type exhibition, and does away completely with the usual format of a large, centralised group show by a superstar curator. Instead, this watery grey city of seven mountains and a city fjord, which resembles a gloomy Venice of the underworld, plays host to a variety of speculative, research-based projects that drift in and out of art. They are organised, often collaboratively, by three artistic directors: Lebanese sound artist Tarek Atoui, the academic collective freethought, and the formerly Berlin-based curatorial platform Praxes (Rhea Dall and Kristine Siegel). With Council (curators Grégory Castéra and Sandra Terdjman), Atoui organised a series of sound experiments in an old swimming pool whose huge windows overlook a large inlet and the ships in port. At a cove across town is an exhibition of films of performances by Marvin Gaye Chetwynd and the props used in them – including a massive model of a sea turtle on the floor, papier-mâché animal costumes on stands, and bright assemblages of stuck-together swimming pool inflatables. This was organised by Praxes, who are working on a yearlong programme considering, separately, the works of Lynda Benglis and Chetwynd. On another inlet still there is a fish market and the old Hanseatic town, where fishing boats sail by with seagulls following insatiably in their wake.
Bergen is one of the great Northern port cities, and several projects affiliated with freethought offer a history from below of local maritime industries and their workers, as part of the collective’s focus in Bergen on the theme of infrastructure. “Shipping And The Shipped” is curated by Stefano Harney, perhaps best known as the co-author of The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (2013) with philosopher and poet Fred Moten, who also presents a couple of films made in collaboration with artist Wu Tsang. In that book, they write of the slave trade as the founding moment of modern logistics, when the infrastructure of capitalist accumulation was put in place. Here in Bergen, Harney tells us that the Afro-Caribbean historian C. L. R. James saw the whaling ship in Moby Dick as the first American factory, the model for all that was to come. Another source of inspiration was his conversations with artist Ranjit Kandalgaonkar from Mumbai, who presents photographs of his family layered over pictures taken by his father of the merchant vessels he used to sail around the world. It is accompanied by a film of a ship running aground and a sound installation of the ship-breaking yards of Alang in Gujarat. In the twentieth century, says Kandalgaonkar, many of the intensely powerful boilers from broken ships were removed and reinstalled in luxury hotels, serviced by the same engineers; one sort of infrastructure made into another, yet always hidden from view.
But ships offer not only terror but romance, a chance of escape, a dream of a new life on the other side of the world. “‘Shipping and the Shipped’,” writes Harney, “is for all those who long to be transported and all those who have long been transported.” This sentiment brings to mind a line from Hannah Black’s review of this year’s Berlin Biennial for Artforum, following a description of Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic’s installation inside a sightseeing boat moving through the city: “the undeserved salvation of Europe and America, which its politicians are incapable of recognising, is that the desire to live keeps coming by boat, smuggled in as contraband.”
The other project that particularly resonated in the Norwegian setting was “The End of Oil” curated by freethought collaborator Massimiliano Mollona. It comprises two films, one of which, Oilers by Mollona and artist Anne Marthe Dyvi, documents the construction of the oil rig Edvard Grieg (named after the composer from Bergen) in engineering company Kvaerner’s offshore yard at Stord, a little way down the coast. There is no happy ending here: despite the efforts of the workers and their unions, the contract to build another oil rig is lost and over 2,000 workers, mostly Poles, lose their jobs. The usual narrative of the oil and gas industry as destroyer of natural worlds and cause of constant wars is turned on its side; in a sense the oil and gas industry is a destroyer of lives here as well, but only because it’s in decline and oil prices have been falling. Norway is running out of oil, and the workers are running out of hope.
The second film, screened in a local cinema and set in a somewhat dystopian future in which Bergen has banned fossil fuels, not to mention almost completely run out of them, is Phil Collins’s lush short anime Delete Beach (2016), made in conjunction with a Japanese animation studio. It tells the story of the Burners, a gang of revolutionary youths who still use plastics, paint slogans in oil on the walls of the docks (“terror is apathy” and “poetry is resistance”), and get high off oil. “Capital is an engine in the belly of a desert snake,” says the narrator.
The world runs on oil, and by becoming just as addicted to it as corporations and governments are, by smoking oil and injecting it right into their bloodstreams, the Burners hope to understand it and, eventually, become it themselves.
They tell stories of comrades turning into oil under the sea, and eventually they launch themselves mysteriously towards it. “I was ready to depart and awaken as a new element,” says the narrator, “a million years from now.” All of this suggests a kind of sacrificial cult, of youths drowning themselves in the North Sea in the hope of becoming energy, or just of escaping. It brings to mind what Moten says in one of the films with Tsang: “normative bourgeois Western subjects use up too much shit.” The world cannot support their longevity and so, he hypothesises, when they turn thirty they’ll have to die for the greater good.
Mollona also talked to novelist Tom McCarthy in an old herring factory in Bergen as part of freethought’s two-day “Infrastructure Summit”, in which McCarthy described oil as an archive, one made of dinosaurs and ancient trees and other organic matter, and an oil spill as a bursting forth of material information. Oil is full of memories of the old world before we destroyed it – with, among other things, pollution and environmental destruction from the oil and gas industry, and sank into the Anthropocene.
But if the oil doesn’t spill (or catch fire, or cause its rig to explode) the oil drillers will never see the oil they are drilling. Instead, they’ll just keep sending thousands of metres of steel piping down into the centre of the Earth, seeking it out and sucking it endlessly up. “The disconnect is absurd, or perhaps Zen,” writes Jeanne Marie Laskas in GQ, “the goal is to reach all that it is your goal to keep invisible.” Something similar could be said about infrastructure, which is omnipresent but by and large concealed. Power is hiding in plain sight. A basic premise of freethought’s work in Bergen is that infrastructure governs us more than ideology. It is, they write, “the condition of our lives – it determines spaces, disciplines bodies, allocates resources.” The task at hand is to find ways of escaping it.
Dean Kissick is a writer based in Los Angeles.