Scenes from reality

 

“You are getting closer to reality when you say that it presents itself; that means it is not there, existing as an object. The world, the real, is not an object. It is a process.”
Cage and Charles 1981: 180

In the early 20th century, the art situation changed. Art began to intervene in the public space by means of processes and fleeting experiences. Artists began to act in and direct situations and events that were collectively referred to as performance art. During the past decade, performance art has acquired new relevance, and presentations such as the performances by Goksøyr & Martens are in tune with this trend.

On a bitterly cold November evening in 1998, Goksøyr & Martens gave their performance of Hva må gjøres? (What is to be done?). The two artists behind the project, Camilla Martens and Toril Goksøyr were dressed in gleaming white quilted jackets, and posed as energetic journalists in the process of presenting a “live” newscast about political asylum seekers in Norway. Lights, TV cameras and several fir trees had been set up on Christiania Torg in front of UKS in Oslo. A clapped-out, antiquated bus drove onto the square and 30 refugees from Kosovo were helped to disembark. While the refugees settled themselves among the fir trees, the “journalists” began to report on the situation of refugees around the world. Through loudspeakers we were given information about the 13 million people currently displaced as a result of war and persecution. In the past decade alone, one million have fled from Kosovo. The “journalists” informed us that

“The number of people who have been killed or who have disappeared is not so high as in Bosnia, but the destruction has been far greater. Houses have been demolished. The refugees are still living out in the woods, without any help. They have nothing to return to.”

As a viewer one immediately felt uncomfortable in this face to face confrontation with refugees. It was one thing to see them on TV, quite another to see them here. One’s mind was full of TV pictures from Kosovo: exhausted men, women with crying children seeking protection from cold and attack in improvised camps, set up in remote patches of woodland. Kosovo’s tragedy had been lifted onto Christiana Torg as a kind of hyper-media, staged reality.

With their performance Hva må gjøres? Goksøyr & Martens come to grips with a topical theme that is still of real political and demographic concern in Europe. For a long time prior to this performance, Goksøyr & Martens had been working with the idea of addressing the problems relating to asylum seekers in Norway. They sought out asylum seekers who had taken refuge in churches and visited refugee reception centres in order to come in contact with people who had fled from Kosovo-Albania. Without this preparatory work, it would have been difficult to give the performance the desired documentary form. The refugees represented a pressing political reality, and played themselves rather than prepared theatrical roles. Goksøyr & Martens interviewed them, distributed woolen blankets and served food. By staging a newscast, they implied a certain criticism of the media, a criticism that latched onto both the superficiality of the mass media and the misuse of people for self-serving, shortsighted goals. At the same time Goksøyr & Martens raised a question about how contemporary artists can avoid criticism for being speculative when they themselves show political engagement.

As I perceive it, Goksøyr & Martens’s Hva må gjøres? tackles a field of problems relating to the political potential of art. The title Hva må gjøres? is taken from a pamphlet that Lenin wrote in 1902, in which he justified the need for revolution in Russia. Less well-known is that Lenin borrowed the title from the Russian ideologist and art theorist Nikolai Chernyshevsky. In 1862 Chernyshevsky published a book entitled Chto dielat? (What is to be done?), a work that became highly influential among radical artists and intellectuals in the years before the Russian revolution of 1917. Chernyshevsky’s main concern was the artist’s moral and social responsibilities, a theme he also addressed in a later work The Aesthetic Relationship between Art and Reality (1865). The principal idea of the latter was that art should serve life and humanity. Seen from this perspective, Goksøyr & Martens use of the title Hva må gjøres? makes a statement about the possibilities of repoliticising art today, and it questions the methods and means available to modern artists who seek to engage in critical thought.
Accordingly, in their performance Will you be there?, Goksøyr & Martens picked up on a theme of contemporary social relevance: the murder of the 15-year-old Benjamin Hermansen at Holmlia in Oslo. The three youths accused of this murder moved in neo-Nazi circles, and the killing unleashed a storm of reaction that once again brought racism in Norway into the political limelight. Goksøyr & Martens performance was given in December 2001, while that trial was still in progress. More than 50 young people from Holmlia leisure centre and similar organisations collaborated with Goksøyr & Martens on the production at Kunstnernes Hus. Deep inside the “intermedia room”, a stage was set up on which the youngsters stood making hand signs at the audience. A line of desks was arranged along one wall, where a teacher struggled to engage the interest of school-jaundiced students. On the opposite side of the room stood a temporary radio studio. The room’s scenographic elements brought the performers and the viewers into close proximity, so that the latter became involved as participants in a studio production with dance, music and interviews.

The elements in Will You Be There? carried references to a multi-cultural and global youth culture. Michael Jackson, who dedicated his latest CD to Benjamin, played an important role in this respect. On stage, a Michael Jackson lookalike danced to several of the master’s hits, and a breakdancer also did his bit to wild applause from both the performers and the viewers. After the show, several of the youngsters were interviewed by the radio journalist Christer Gilje, a well-known figure from the news programme Dagsnytt 18, and their conversation was amplified around the venue. Many of those present had been friends of Benjamin Hermansen. They commented on the ongoing court case, on xenophobia and racism.

In Hva må gjøres?, Goksøyr & Martens turned their attentions to the situation of refugees. In Will You Be There? the theme was racism in Norway. Both performances reflected and commented on scenes from reality that had become focusses of media interest. In both projects, Goksøyr & Martens’ mixing of different genres created an exciting experience of being present at real media events. An experience that also gave associations to the happenings of the 1970s and to political action art.

“The above-mentioned Russian theorist Chernyshevsky wrote that the most important objective of art was to reflect the world truthfully and realistically. In his day art stood at the threshold of realism and modernism. Now, some 150 years later, art is creating alternative spaces for interpretation and for experiences of a reality that is no longer unambiguous in its expression. According to Baudrillard, the information explosion characteristic of post-industrial society has anaesthetised our sense of reality. As an art form, the performance has one great advantage, in that it can bring together a variety of scenic media, including documentary conversation, scenography, design, sound, music and dance. In different ways, Goksøyr & Martens create portraits of, and comment upon, a reality that is both complex, media-oriented, and political.

Karl J. Brandtzæg