JOANS, GET OUT HERE with your skills . . . UP!
The call-to-arms at the core of Adam Linder’s To Gear a Joan came from a pert, partially armored performer following a slow parade around the attic space of the Trevarefabrikken, an old cod-liver oil factory lately serving as a “social shelter.” Conceived as a “wearable libretto,” “activated” by the Stavanger-born vocalist Stine Janvin Motland, Linder’s performance will recur throughout the September run of this year’s Lofoten International Arts Festival, which kicked off the Friday before last in Henningsvær, a comely little fishing village roughly one hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Motland was perfect for the part, with the delicate, darting features of a sparrow offset by an austere slate of close-cropped bangs. Her breastplate’s near-symbiotic fit and the sea-stone smoothness of its carbon-fiber finish made the performer look simultaneously futuristic and ancient. In her rich, Regina Spektor–like chirp, Motland warned her unseen foes: “Joans have grown thicker skin.”
But what use a Joan of Arctic? “This history of conquest, expansion, and extraction, this mining of resources and overcoming of nature—it all has such a masculine energy to it,” Linder explained during a publicly broadcast Skype call from Switzerland, where he was prepping his solo show at Kunsthalle Basel. “I started thinking about feminism—not as an essentialized representation of women, but rather as the philosophical principles that might come from the feminine.” He saw his Joan as equal parts ecofeminism and feminist pessimism, both troubled by the proximity to the sea and the ocean’s complicity with capitalism, “what it has carried and what it has buried.”
“It’s amazing how much of the artists’ thinking mirrored our own,” LIAF curators Heidi Ballet and Milena Høgsberg marveled after Linder’s talk. “I Taste the Future,” their theme for this year’s edition, challenged participants to imagine life 150 years from now. “It’s difficult to talk about the future in such a loaded moment,” Ballet confessed. “We wanted to move past apocalyptic scenarios and get into a more playful way of thinking.”
“None of the artists took the 150-year prompt that literally,” Høgsberg added. “But this was the premise for a conversation about what a shared future might look like.” The emphasis on “taste” was key, as it lifted the discussion out of the usual theoretical maelstroms. “I guess we could have just as soon called it ‘I Smell the Future,’” Høgsberg admitted.
The curators drew from two archives, which are on view within the exhibition. The first culls science-fiction titles such as J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, and Arthur C. Clarke’s The Deep Range—fantasies of utopian/dystopian futures, almost all connected to the ocean. The second archive traces the intertwining of national branding and resource extraction, a critical conversation when the consequences of one society’s consumption can be conveniently shouldered off onto peoples on the other side of the globe. Undercurrents of nation-state mythologies and their attendant racial inequalities churned through the works of Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Sondra Perry, Youmna Chlala, and Ho Tzu Nyen, each of whom proposed a novel measure (from gilded mouth grills to the color blue) for charting the bathtub rings of receding colonialist regimes and the oncoming tides of capitalism.
It was no surprise that the festival found its anthem in Donna Haraway’s 1984 “Cyborg Manifesto.” The renowned theorist makes a cameo appearance via Fabrizio Terranova’s Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival, a ninety-minute film that needlessly seeks to upstage its magnetic protagonist with green-screen high jinks, including the arrival of sofa-size jellyfish, serenely streaming behind her desk chair. Haraway’s message—as endearing as it is exacting—does not need special effects to resonate.
Still, jellyfish made a ready mascot for the festival’s theme, given their association with adaptability and the implicit conviction that the politics of the sea will soon supplant those of land. As Lisa Rave’s 2014 film Europium reminds us, the very compounds that make our iPhones and LCD displays possible—the so-called “rare-earth minerals”—are, true to their name, not exactly in abundance. The ocean floor remains one of their last potential lodes, spurring recent attempts to legally peel the seabed from the waters above, allowing for mining rights to be bought or bartered, despite the supposedly international waters: in effect, privatizing the ocean.
Rare earth is not the only resource the sea offers, as Belgian artist Filip Van Dingenen reminded audience members during his Seaweed Cutting, Collecting and Conservation Project workshops, conducted throughout LIAF’s opening weekend. Participants learned about the myriad applications of the sea plants (“Weeds is really a misnomer”) while using a press to create impressions of harvested species. I pointed out that Van Dingenen’s signature logo—“CCCP”—could be read in Russian as “USSR.” “Printmaking has always been connected with revolutions,” he reasoned.
Henningsvær feels ripe for a revolution, albeit maybe on a more modest scale than the one posited by the festival. Poised between its history as one of the capitals of the fishing industry and its looming potential as a site for the extraction of the ocean’s still largely untapped mineral resources, the town of 450-ish has temporarily settled into the uneasy lull of Airbnb tourism. For its first edition based in this village (previous outings have centered on the “big cities” of Svolvær and Kabelvåg), LIAF headquartered in Trevarefabrikken, though the exhibition overflowed to two other former fish factories at opposite ends of the walkable enclave. Elin Már Øyen Vister’s ebullient contribution, Dear Henningsvær and the Ocean that Embraces You!, made the most of the compact terrain with an “outdoor sensory walk” cobbled together from oral histories of the village, punctuated by Sea Sámi mermaid yoiks at the water’s edge.
Another crowd-pleasing coastal commission was Daisuke Kosugi’s Good Name (Bad Phrase)—a title nicked from Gayatri Spivak—which occupied the Henningsvær Stadion, a blank slate of eerily clean artificial turf hanging over the picturesque tip of the island. Viewers listened through headphones to four different audio tracks, each mingling storytelling with a set of instructions. As an intermission, listeners were treated to “I’m My Own Grandpa,” quite possibly the world’s most upbeat ode to incest.
Eglė Budvytytė’s Liquid Power Has No Shame also took to the (few) streets, sending three gender-fluid performers on a steady, sultry progression from Trevarefabrikken to the rocks lining the shore. Their placidly lurid gyrations were explicitly directed toward nature rather than the human audience; this omnivorous, interspecies eroticism manifested in their glossy hoodies, embroidered with oblong octopi. “A boy on a tricycle just asked me where the people in gold are,” Budvytytė beamed. “The kids in the village have been watching us practice, so they now know all the moves.”
A prized component of LIAF’s programming is its outreach to school kids. (The mayor of the Vågan Municipality, Eivind Holst, pledged that all one thousand of the district’s pupils would tour the exhibition.) Students—albeit of the slightly older, aimlessly “arty” variety—already made up the majority of revelers at Friday’s official launch. I noticed artist Markus Degerman herding a busload from the Trømso Art Academy, while curator Joanna Warsza sailed in with ten participants from her CuratorLab at Stockholm’s Konstfack. While the room was clearly gearing up for dancing (“Club Night,” I kept hearing), I eyed the above-the-Arctic pricing for alcohol and winced. “How do students afford to drink here?” I asked Degerman. “On the drive here we pulled over at a discount supermarket,” he shrugged.
I ducked back to the Henningsvær Bryggehotell for a fireside glass of wine with curator Jarrett Gregory, in town on a research trip for her new post at the Hirshhorn Museum. At breakfast the next morning, we asked art historian Hanne Hammer Stien if we had missed anything. “The Northern Lights?” I had forgotten that above the Arctic Circle, the stakes for early bedtimes were higher than just missing a few choice party fouls.
The true social centerpieces of the opening weekend were the communal lunches, prepared by People’s Kitchen Henningsvær, an offshoot of the eponymous Tromsø initiative. The meals were prepared exclusively with surplus or expired foodstuffs from the grocery stores in neighboring Kabelvåg. I had first encountered dumpster-diving a decade ago while studying in the Bay Area, and, I admit, the concept still left me queasy. At the time, the practice was something of a shibboleth for a certain set of co-op kids, mostly East Coast scions for whom the reclaimed cheese plate offered entre to a world of communal showers, conspicuously dirty sweaters, and polyamorous entanglements with lavender-dreaded white girls.
The People’s Kitchen Tromsø founder, Liv Bangsund, quickly dispensed with this stereotype. Warm and slightly maternal, she has a way of speaking that makes you feel like she’s about to give you a cookie. The idea had originally rooted as part of her MA in art and sustainability, but Bangsund wanted to push it further, outside the art world and into partnerships with local environmentalists. For People’s Kitchen Henningsvær, this meant reaching out to groups such as the Lofoten wing of Framtiden i våre hender (The Future in Our Hands), an Oslo-based environmental advocacy group. “Lofoten is full of people who come to surf, to climb, to be with nature,” Bangsund told me. “These are people who tend to be interested in climate change, who reject capitalism and collect surplus food.” She paused, then added: “But really I got the idea from South Hackney.”
The People’s Kitchen Henningsvær set up shop in the town’s Festiviteten, inviting all who were interested to pitch in with cooking and cleaning. The extravagant Saturday lunch was met in kind by a swell of underfed art students and curious onlookers. By the time Warsza, Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, and I had made it through the line, little was left but cauliflower soup and potato chips. Across the table, Van Dingenen caught my eye: “We should have brought some seaweed.”
Sunday afternoon, I tried my luck once more at the communal table, comforted with the breakfast-buffet nectarine tucked into my tote bag. The art students had all left that morning, filing out of town in a backpacked progression along the main road. (“It’s like watching the last day of Glastonbury,” writer Harry Thorne remarked.) An eye-popping spread greeted me at Festiviteten, with full platters of colorful salads, meatballs, fried fishcakes, apple crumble, and crepes, with two kinds of sauces: chocolate and “other.” It was an embarrassment of riches. Debating the ethics of going back for seconds, I recalled a line from Linder’s libretto: “And you ask why the future cannot be tasted? Cause to blink in the present has left more wasted.”