Weekend Warriors

Kate Sutton at the First Bergen Assembly

Left: Curators Kaspar König and Katya Degot. Right: Artist Pellin Tam with advisory board member Ute Meta Bauer and curator David Riff at Bergen Kunsthall. (All photos: Kate Sutton)

“TO BIENNIAL, OR NOT TO BIENNIAL?” That was the question back at the 2009 Bergen Assembly Conference. That gathering had been convened as a think tank for a city angling to become, as more than one public official assured me, the “most open, daring, creative, and innovative within the Nordic countries by the year 2017.” But as plans came together for a Bergen biennial, doubts starting to rise as to whether a grand-scale exhibition was really the kind of “open, daring, creative and innovative” maneuver the city needed. After all, three decades into a so-called biennial explosion, the term itself has become less a forum for new ideas and more a jet-set shuffle of what curator Inti Guerrero calls “NATO art.” (“You know, actors talking about war.”)

Rather than wade too deeply into critiques of wasted opportunities, the 2009 conference concentrated on what benefits the biennial format still can bring. The resulting Bergen Assembly—“An Initiative for Art and Research,” which debuted the week before last in venues across the city—is a curatorial coup, a triennial that allows ample time for research, writing, and the production of new commissions.

For the Assembly’s inaugural edition, invited curators (they prefer the term “conveners”) Katya Degot and David Riff created “a novel about a novel, written in space.” “Monday Begins on Saturday” is an ode to artistic research that borrows its title and structure from a slim satire written by the Strugatsky Brothers, the Soviet sci-fi masters who also penned Roadside Picnic, the inspiration for Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker. Published in 1964, at the height of the Cold War–fueled science boom, the tale follows its wayward protagonist through the cabalistic National Institute for the Technology of Witchcraft and Thaumaturgy (NITWITT). The institute’s researchers—physicists and lyricists alike—are united in the otherwise isolating pursuit of intellectual passions. They are so completely immersed in their quest for knowledge that they willingly forgo their weekends to get in precious additional hours at their desks.

Left: Curator Inti Guerrero. Right: Artist Stephan Dillemuth and Witte de With director Defne Ayas.

It was easy to extend this metaphor to the airport-weary art-worlders pouring into the Assembly press conference on the last Thursday of August. Assorted board members Marieke van Hal, Ute Meta Bauer, Ina Blom, and Ingar Dragset sipped apple juice from champagne flutes amid the crowd of participating artists—“researchers,” here—and curators Joseph Backstein, Anne Szefer Karlsen, and Kaspar König, who was accompanied by Manifesta director Hedwig Fijen. Conversations drifted in and out of Norwegian, Swedish, and German, but the native tongue of the triennial was English with a Russian accent. The Slav-heavy roster—from Aleksandr Rodchenko to Dimitri Venkov, a young filmmaker who took home last year’s Kandinsky Prize—didn’t seem to bother the local audience, who greeted the new festival with an enthusiasm reinforced by the unseasonably sunny weather. “I woke up with goosebumps,” bubbled Trude Devland, Bergen’s vivacious mayor, minutes before delivering her welcome speech. The excitement did not wane, even with the arrival of the rain, and a hearty crowd could be found storming the stage at the opening party, where Russian rock icon Psoy Korolenko put on a lively show with the Israeli klezmer band Oy Division. Dmitry Gutov grabbed Degot and spun her into the crowd, while the band pulled Chto Delat?’s Dmitry Vilensky onstage to sing along. It was a Russian invasion, at its very best.

As for other invasions, “Monday Begins on Saturday” mobilized several of the city’s existing art venues (including a number of the KODE museum buildings and gallery spaces like Rom8, Entrée and ∅stre) into a loose network of whimsically named Institutes dedicated to topics like “Political Hallucinations,” “Tropical Fascism,” “Defensive Magic,” and the lyrical “Pines and Prison Bread.” In the same spirit, the “research” conducted within the projects need not be utilitarian, nor, for that matter, factual. Venkov’s film Like the Sun finds the secret ingredient to perfect human existence in a magical yogurt starter, while Kiluanji Kia Henda’s photo series Icarus 13–Journey to the Sun spins the fictional tale of the Angola Space program, and Clemens von Wedemeyer’s Against Death (2009) explores an instance of accidental immortality. In other places, fact starts to resemble fiction, as in Jan Peter Hammer’s potent Tilikum, 2013, a feature-length film that begins with a 2010 incident at Sea World when a trainer was drowned and dismembered by a killer whale (“The whale that…they’re not supposed to be in the water with,” as one employee hestitantly describes it to the 911 dispatch.) From there, Hammer moves on through experiments in behavioral science, sensory deprivation, LSD usage, attempts at interspecies communication, and scientifically sanctioned hand jobs for dolphins. “We do not have to respect his privacy, but we cannot help but respect his happiness!”

Left: Artist Anton Vidokle and writer Adam Kleinman. Right: Manifesta director Hedwig Fijen.

Thursday featured a full tour of the institutes, followed by a welcoming dinner at the historic Legens Hus. Over herb-buttered bread and mushroom risotto, two Oslo-based artists, Lars Cuzner and Fadlabi, were discussing the conundrum of putting research on display in an age when laptops are increasingly replacing laboratories. “We kept calling around to secure certain types of equipment, and the suppliers would tell us, ‘You know, it’s much easier to do all this on your computer,’ ” Cuzner grinned. We paused to consider what this kind of exhibition might look like in the future. “Just a room full of laptops,” Blom glumly concluded.

Is the future so grim? In its origins, the Bergen Assembly was specifically assigned to address “The Future,” but this could only be glimpsed here and there, in cynical catalogue contributions from Pavel Pepperstein and Ben Seymour, or the staged interviews of Anton Vidokle and Pelin Tam’s 2084. This left a disproportionate amount of the research oriented toward the recent past. If the Strugatskys had penned their novel during the Soviet science boom, then Degot and Riff are writing theirs in a time when the endless accumulation of knowledge has led us to, as Renata Salecl would claim, “a passion for ignorance.” She illustrated this by recalling an episode of The Simpsons where little Lisa, staggered by the impending doom of climate change, is remedially doped up on a drug called Ignorital.

Salecl gave one of the three keynote addresses in the Bergen Assembly’s accompanying symposium, which was held deep within the hull of the old United Sardine Factory. (“You should have seen them before they unionized,” writer Adam Kleinman joked. “Such crowded conditions.”) In keeping with the title, the symposium kicked off Saturday morning, bringing with it all the ups and downs expected when making one’s intellectual passions public (“But this is all irrelevant, abstract noodling!” a frustrated artist erupted after a panel called “Dialectical Materialism Today?” Riff shrugged in reply: “It’s philosophy.”) The discussion on gentrification got tripped up in its terminology (“You wouldn’t very well say the Wild West was gentrified, would you?” Seymour quipped.) Chto Delat contributer Oxana Timofeeva warned the crowd to drop any Orwellian visions about her talk, “Communism with a Non-human Face.” “I know you are prepared to laugh, but I would ask you to take this quite seriously,” she said, before launching into Hegel’s aversion to amphibians as creatures who do not respect the boundaries of his air/land/sea classification system. “What about rats?” A woman in the front row asked. Momentarily taken aback, Timofeeva asked her to elaborate: “What do you think about rats?” “Oh, I hate rats! I think they’re gross.”

Left: Artist Imogen Stidworthy with Bergen Assembly advisory board member Ina Blom. Right: Artists Dmitry Gutov and Alex Buldakov.

There was a poignant moment in the panel “How Much Socialism?” when Oslo-based artist Ane Hjort Gettu was handed the mike: “Speaking as someone subsidized from cradle to the grave”—“at least I hope,” she added with a smile—“perhaps it is no longer the time to attack the welfare state, but rather the time to mourn its passing.” Where else, after all, could these kind of magical institutes come to exist but in a country that prized the pursuit of knowledge enough to fund even its most eccentric expressions?

Each evening, there was always one last bit of magic to be found at the Bergen Kunsthall’s Landmark, a casual bar where the drink tickets—inexplicably labeled “BONG”—were Strugatsky’s unspendable coin made real: No matter how many whiskeys you ordered, somehow a coupon found its way back into your pocket. As the drinks poured forth, so too did the conversations, most of which continued on the threads of the day’s discussions. I couldn’t help but think of the scene in the novel where the workers refuse to go home on New Year’s Eve: “These people had come here because they preferred being together to being apart and because they couldn’t stand Sundays of any sort because on Sunday they felt bored. These were Magicians, People with a capital ‘P,’ and their motto was ‘Monday Begins on Saturday.’ ”

Left: Bergen Assembly director Evelyn Holm and Mayor Trude Devland. Right: Artist Ane Hjort Guttu and Bergen Academy of Art and Design's Cecilia Gelin.

Left: Artist Fadlabi. Right: Filmmaker Jan Peter Hammer.

Left: Artists Oxana Timofeeva (Chto Delat?), Diana Machulina, Antonia Baever, and Dimitri Venkov. Right: Psoy Korolenko and Oy Division.

Left: Artist Pedro Gomez-Egana. Right: Bergen Assembly's Mayra Henríquez and Celine Amundsen at Legenes Hus.

Left: Tromso Art Academy dean Markus Degerman with curator Anne Szefer Karlsen. Right: Artist Marius Tarkawian.

Left: Artist Dora Garcia. Right: Ingar Dragset (right).

Left: Artist Kiluanji Kia Henda. Right: Artists Andrey Silvestrov and Yuri Leiderman.