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by Nora Sternfeld

Museum of Burning Questions: Negotiating with Reality at the 2016 Bergen Assembly

Are exhibition contexts places of refuge for critical teaching and learning, precursors to the total economization of those activities – or both? And what does that mean for a critical praxis of art education?[i] In a neoliberal world and an age of increasing fascistization, there are doubtless no clear answers to these questions. That is because, on the one hand, critical art spaces are used to promote other capitalizations – for example when the establishment of new institutions contributes to the upvaluation of certain urban districts, leading in turn to rising real estate prices, or when critical discourse draws more paying students to universities that are themselves operating increasingly as private enterprises. On the other hand, it is precisely the critical art institutions that are presently being recast, starved out, disbanded and shut down. Over the past years, I have tried to confront these contradictions in theory and praxis, naturally without coming to any conclusive solution. In the following I would like to introduce the activities and approaches of a project I would describe as “negotiating with reality”.

As a member of the freethought collective (Stefano Harney, Adrian Heathfield, Massimiliano Mollona, Louis Moreno, Irit Rogoff, Nora Sternfeld), I was one of the artistic directors of the 2016 Bergen Assembly, a triennial in Norway that, since 2013, has sought to occupy an explicitly alternative position to a process of biennialization dominated increasingly by market logics. The research and exhibition project infrastructure formed the framework for a curatorial praxis residing between public education, collaborative knowledge production and the presentation of our research in an exhibition. Over a period of two years, in a public seminar taking place in Bergen, we discussed and tried to understand the subject of infrastructure. The concern was with collective investigations and debates inquiring into the ways and means, desires and emotions with which we are governed and organized to an increasing degree by logistics, algorithms and management structures.

For example, we presented a multidimensional project which insisted on the possibility of assembly, joint study and debate. Here we undertook a critical assessment of “infrastructures” as techniques and conditions that exercise ever more control over us. At the same time, we worked on shifting “infrastructure” as a concept, in a sense prying it away from the technocrats and planners and recasting it in a new and different way. Our aim was to promote emotional, solidary, ephemeral and para-institutional praxes in the midst of the prevailing circumstances. In the freethought project, we accordingly posed questions such as: What comes after oil? How should a history of shipping be linked with a history of the shipped? How do infrastructural apparatuses work? What emotions create infrastructures and resistances? How can we act together, learn together?

Yet above and beyond this investigation into infrastructures of the present, a further concern of the project at the Bergen Assembly was a collective engagement with the theme. Within the framework of a City Seminar, we discussed these questions and inquiries with a growing number of participants over a two-year period. At an Infrastructure Summit taking place at the opening of the Bergen Assembly, we raised the questions anew with international thinkers, researchers, activists, artists and performers. The many joint discussions and readings as well as a collaborative research endeavour resulted in five sections of an exhibition and two performative platforms which we presented in Bergen in September 2016.

Along with the artists Phil Collins and Anne Marthe Divy, for example, my colleague the anthropologist Mao Mollona devoted himself to the matter of the possible consequences that can arise from ever stronger competition in the oil industry and bring significant changes for the Norwegian economy and society in their wake. Stefano Harney worked with the artists and theorists Ranjit Kandalgaonkar, Arjuna Neuman and Wu Tsang on the relationship between shipping and the shipped. The performance theorist Adrian Heathfield joined with the artist Hugo Glendinning to take a look at life in its affectability, with its memories and relationships, but also with its transience as infrastructure. Irit Rogoff carried out a project on the possibilities of a “substance infrastructure” of assembly – that is, on the elements of “content, desire, aspiration and shared hopes” that do not readily lend themselves to being appropriated and depleted by economization. Finally, the urbanist Louis Moreno and Paul Purgas devoted themselves to the interrelationships between feelings, infrastructures and apparatuses. What all these projects had in common was the effort to confront the workings of a world of infrastructures from within that world and – in the process of learning to comprehend it, not from the perspective of a synoptic view but rather in intense proximity to it and at the same time under its radar – to take possession of it.

What does this all mean in a large-scale exhibition that calls itself an Assembly – a term originating primarily in the vocabulary of new social movements, where it refers to general, open gatherings? In my contribution to the collective process, I envisaged addressing myself to the conditions of current post-representative exhibition and art education themselves. And I wanted to do this not only in theory, but also in curatorial-art-educational practice. Rather than an art-educational space or an exhibition, I dreamed of a coffee house that would double as a public space, assembly venue and place of education. Naturally, I would not neglect the fact that coffee houses are among the fundamental infrastructures that work in favour of gentrification processes in the cities of this world.

Bergen’s historic fire station, Photograph by: freethought      

My aim was thus to discuss the conditions of exhibition praxis from within the midst of these conditions, to publicly “negotiate with reality”. The question that served as my starting point was, accordingly: how can we assemble in a world that increasingly isolates us? Here I would be taking orientation from the issues Judith Butler raises in her most recent book, which is concerned with performativity and the importance of assemblies where social attachments, common goods and matters of survival are all being increasingly capitalized.[ii] My questions were, on the one hand, general: How are we being pitted against each other? And how can we conceive of solidarities and alliances? On the other hand, they were also quite specific: What does it mean for a term such as “assembly”, with roots in the vocabulary of social movements, to be applied to the context of a large-scale exhibition? Is the latter a cultural infrastructure serving the purpose of distinction, or a basis for new publics and solidarities? Or both at the same time? And how can these questions be posed in a biennial?

Apart from the formulation of theoretical deliberations, my concern was thus also to create specific – if inevitably temporary – infrastructures for a praxis of art education. To this end, I worked with a team of six art educators, performers and café staff: Jenny Moore, Tora Endestad Bjørkheim, Freja Bäckman, Kabir Carter, Johnny Herbert and Arne Skaug Olsen. In an intensive process, we together developed the working conditions we thought desirable for such a project. We talked about our roles from the artistic, activist, feminist and art-educational perspectives, jointly defined the requirements of the space and the contracts, and wrote a (post-)manifesto as a concept for the Partisan Café. Throughout the preparatory phase, the process was situated in the constant intersection of art education issues, artistic conception, labour conflict and theoretical (self-) reflection. We used the concept as much to negotiate the contracts of the art educators as to imagine ourselves in the future of a different possible world with different possible organization forms. We reflected on forms of hospitality, the necessity of feminist spaces, and a form of politicization that restores heterogeneity and the convergence of struggles to the realm of the conceivable. This we called a “partisan atmosphere” that was to breathe something of a different possible future.

left : Ariel Schlesinger, Fires need audiences (tote bag), 2015. Photograph by Sarah Peguine, © Ariel Schlesinger. right: Nora Sternfeld, Isa Rosenberger and the Retired Firemen of Bergen, The Museum of Burning Questions (at Bergen’s historic fire station), Photograph by: Isa Rosenberger

Charismatic Megafauna concert at the Partisan cafe, Sept 2016. Photograph by: freethought

We also set out in search of a space in the city of Bergen where we could talk about precisely these matters in public, with many other people, and thus transcend the boundaries of the admittedly very small art context. The former fire station was suggested to us as a possible venue. Our first encounter with this building took place after we had discussed the role of culture for neoliberal urban development processes with Louis Moreno in our City Seminar. The former fire station is in the city centre and, in view of its two large garages and beautiful interior courtyard, immediately seemed to us to be quite a suitable venue for a café. The municipal authorities and the persons in charge of the Bergen Assembly, however, informed us that it might not be easy to get the space. When we asked what the difficulty was, we learned that the station was occupied; the squatters were retired firemen. On the day the fire station had moved out, they had moved into the old facility with large historical fire trucks and other impressive objects and machines to prevent the city from abandoning the undoubtedly attractive property in the city centre to commercial use. They also had a demand: they wanted a fire brigade museum to be realized in the historical fire station. This demand was justified by the quite spectacular collection of historical artefacts on the history of firefighting in Norway, Scandinavia and internationally, but also by the fact that the city’s history has been shaped to a decisive degree by fires. We faced a dilemma. Should we forget about the space or go along with the suggestion – and endanger the building’s occupation by the retired firemen? After all, once the massive equipment and fire trucks had been moved out of the space, who would guarantee that the occupation could be maintained? Were we to be exploited for certain interests?

I found myself in the middle of a local conflict that bore very real significance for all my questions about the pitting of social players one against the other. How might unexpected alliances emerge from this specific situation of occupiers threatened with being forced out of the space they were demanding from the authorities? In other words, how could we assemble when we were being increasingly isolated from and pitted against one another? I was able to gain the support of the artist Isa Rosenberger in taking on this challenge. We decided to make the conflict itself our point of departure and proposed a joint project to the firefighters: The Museum of Burning Questions. They thought about our proposal and ultimately agreed to it. Isa Rosenberger made a video entitled Brandstasjon which, based on interviews and photos of the objects in the collection, documented the struggle over the former fire station. She showed it during the Assembly and placed it at the firemen’s disposal for their future museum. What is more, the establishment of a coffee house in the fire station garage involved certain infrastructural improvements to the building that would be of service to a future museum. Within the framework of the Museum of Burning Questions, the firemen gave guided tours of their future museum twice a week. They offered insights into the history of fire and the fire brigade’s rescue operations in Bergen, presented the important and relevant collection, and told the story of the occupation. And in fact they were already able to announce the future museum entirely officially because, a month before the opening of the Bergen Assembly, they had received municipal approval for their museum plans.

top: The Partisan Café Team: Jenny Moore, Freja Bäckman, Kabir Carter, Tora Endestad Bjørkheim, Johnny Herbert, Arne Skaug Olsen, Nora Sternfeld, Bergen Assembly 2016. centre: Mike Berlin, Roger Mayne archive, Research Architects, The Partisan Coffeehouse Installation, freethought Infrastructure Project, Bergen Assembly 2016. bottom: The Partisan Café with Jenny Moore, Freja Bäckman, Kabir Carter, Tora Endestad Bjørkheim, Johnny Herbert, Arne Skaug Olsen, Nora Sternfeld, Bergen Assembly 2016. Photographs by: Thor Brødreskif

We were sharing an occupied space at a time of a major stage victory. And a lot happened in the fire station garage, where we spent many an hour over the course of the month of the Assembly – a lot that kept our questions suspenseful and contradictory. In addition to concerts, discussions, daily conversations and guided tours with very different people, we were in a process of constant negotiation with the Bergen Assembly over conditions and work processes. Sometimes we touched the essentials, and sometimes the essentials got lost in the scuffle of everyday life at the fire station. Many of the conversations we had were about an everyday life that, for many of us, means to subsist (before and after the month in Bergen) in precarious working conditions characterized by pressure and uncertainty. We founded feminist reading groups, danced whole nights through at queer concerts and parties, met with firemen from all over Scandinavia and served them beer. We discussed contradictions with local players, explained why we were showing solidarity to a group of white men – although it actually seemed obvious to us that solidarity is not something you can “curate”, and that the question of what alliances are necessary at a given political moment is not one that can be answered at the drafting table, as it were. Sometimes we were simply exhausted to the core from our workdays full of demands and ambitions. Over the course of six weeks, during the Bergen Assembly, the Partisan Café really did become a place of assembly in which very many questions were posed, connections experienced and conflicts discussed, and where unexpected encounters took place. As a curatorial and art-educational project situated between presence and representation, I see it as an interstice that cannot provide a conclusive answer to the question asked at the start – of the economization of everything that is important to us – in large-scale exhibitions, but rather offers an example of ongoing praxis.

Nora Sternfeld is an art educator and curator. Since January 2018 she is documenta professor at the Kunsthochschule Kassel (School of Art and Design Kassel). From 2012 to 2018 she was professor for Curating and Mediating Art at the Aalto University in Helsinki. Furthermore she is co-director of the /ecm – Master Program in Exhibition Theory and Practice at the University of Applied Arts Vienna; part of the core team of schnittpunkt. ausstellungstheorie & praxis; a co-founder and part of trafo.K, Office for Art, Education and Critical Knowledge Production (Vienna); and since 2011, a member of freethought, a platform for research, education, and production (London). In this capacity she was also one of the artistic directors of the Bergen Assembly 2016. She publishes texts on contemporary art, exhibitions, politics of history, educational theory, and anti-racism.



[i] The term “Kunstvermittlung” came into use in German in the 1990s to describe a critical form of art education. The term “art education” is not a precise equivalent, as it lacks the element of questioning and criticism conveyed by the German prefix "Ver-" in “Vermittlung”, comparable, for example, to the “un” in “unlearning”.

[ii] See Butler 2016.

Butler, Judith (2016): Anmerkungen zu einer performativen Theorie der Versammlung, Berlin, Suhrkamp

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