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by Anja Wernicke

“How Do We Listen?” Interview with Elina Waage Mikalsen

Anja Wernicke: Elina, as part of your two-year residency at the Borealis festival, you curated several projects for the newest edition in March 2023. One of them was a talk show collage about Sámi experimental music, Sámi sonic practices, and listening from a Sámi perspective. Why did you decide to do this project, and how did you approach it?

Elina Waage Mikalsen: This year's festival marked the halfway point of my residency, and so I didn't really want to just play as a musician myself. I rather wanted to lay out the different influences, thoughts, and research that accumulated during the year. Peter Meanwell [the artistic director of the Borealis festival] asked if I wanted to have a talk or do a concert. But earlier in my art projects, I liked to create more complex situations for my artworks. These situations often include food and different modes, like a performative part followed by a more relaxed part where you can talk about what happened and eat together, experiencing the tastes and smells. And so, I wanted to break up this talk situation, and I came up with this talk show collage concept, for lack of a better word. And it is both: it has the form of a talk show, but it is also a collage of collected knowledge and ways of experiencing and thinking. So that's how it came together.

AW: I really liked this interactivity with the various guests and different voices.

EWM: Yeah, when I got this residency, I wanted to make a space that is not only for me but enabling the creation of a platform for other Sámi artists within the same niche as me—to kind of get in the front door and then open the back door for more people.

AW: Ah, that's a nice metaphor.

EWM: Yeah, I got it from Adam Khalil, one of the artists behind New Red Order, an indigenous film art collective. They had this big exhibition at the Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen, where I did a performance together with other Sámi artists. Adam said that it was their task as a collective when they got this opportunity for a big exhibition within a white institution to not just walk in the front door, but also to open up the back door for other people.

AW: That’s really nice. Coming back to your talk show format, it was your idea to speak about experimentalism in Sámi music culture, right? Could you explain a bit what this means?

EWM: It was not only about experimentalism from a Sámi perspective, but also to open a conversation about listening, about the production of sound. And it was about how to experiment from a Sámi perspective, from a culture that is protectionist in a way and wants to keep its traditions because it has been threatened in many areas. It is also very important to keep the knowledge about the traditional way of Yoiking. So, there are two thoughts in mind at the same time: how to preserve and how to push forward. Sámi culture is alive and developing and has always brought in new techniques and knowledge. My entry point is about asking the questions, not necessarily having the answers, but to just start these conversations. How do we relate to field recordings, to listening to the land, to experimenting in ways that feel ethically right and non-exploitive?

AW: I remember this question of asking for permission to listen to nature. Is this very present in Sámi culture?

EWM: Yes, this way of relating to your surroundings and asking for permission is a huge part of Sámi culture. It is also about being thankful for what you take, to view it as an equal exchange. And you need to be a listening being to hear those answers. Kite (Dr. Suzanne Kite) has done a lot of research into these topics and put it into her issue of the New Wave magazine. She has conducted amazing interviews with lots of thinkers and artists with indigenous backgrounds on this topic, which is really inspiring.

fig. 1 Elina Waage Mikalsen, Elina Waage Mikalsen: The sounds from in between – a talk show collage, 2023. Photograph by Johanne Karlsrud.

fig. 2 Suzanne Kite, Elina Waage Mikalsen: The sounds from in between – a talk show collage, 2023. Photograph by Johanne Karlsrud.

AW: In the discourse around curating classical and contemporary music, much has been said about the stiff, sitting concert format and the isolated listening situation. Do you see any interesting mix of the classical concert format and the Sámi way of listening? What would be your ideal listening space?

EWM: I guess, to create ways for the audience to somehow engage with what they hear. To make the situation of listening comfortable. Listening together is very much a collective experience. But I wonder if we take for granted hiding the source of the sound by closing your eyes, making it dark, hiding the orchestra in the pit, etc. It’s done to create more images and to make it a more sacred experience, I guess. There is some quality to that, but I wonder about finding ways of listening that are more engaging from a Sámi perspective. For example, to join in with the Yoik is normal, if you know the Yoik or if you have heard it for a few rounds.

AW: Joining in would be the traditional way of attending music in Sámi culture?

EWM: Traditionally, yes. But today, of course, the Sámi music scene is also hugely influenced by the Western global society that we live in. A lot of the Sámi music scene has adopted the same structures without really having those conversations about how we create spaces for experiencing sound.

AW: Speaking about the situation that you created for the listener in your project, were you entirely happy with it or would you change something next time?

EWM: I was really happy with it all. Also, with the resources and possibilities that we had. The whole festival team was extremely supportive. I'm not used to having a huge festival behind me or having my back. I’m used to doing things myself and on a very small budget. And this time, we actually had the opportunity to invite people, and I didn't have to cook the food myself. They really had my back, and we could think about the content. Part of the residency is also about working with the people in the organization around the topic of creating knowledge about working with indigenous artists, so that it can stay within the organization also after this project is over. We had several reading sessions and were talking about this boundary of not knowing about Sámi culture. That is where I always must start because the knowledge about Sámi culture is so low. It’s about informing people that they can do their own homework. All the knowledge you need to know of the basics of Sámi culture is there on the Internet. I offer myself as a person. I know that my role will partly be to educate. But I’m interested in how to create a role that I can do it for as short as possible and be as much as possible an artist working with the festival and with people that have gotten knowledge. We also made a reading list for the audience on the basics, because I really wanted this talk show collage to be a space where we Sámis, me and the others that I had invited, could talk on our terms and have conversations that are actually interesting to us without always starting from the bottom. So, I'm not sure if the audience did read this, but it was there at least. And I also felt that we were able to take the conversation further.

AW: After this experience, are you motivated to do more of this kind of curatorial work? Or are you happy to get back to the artistic work?

EWM: Both. I think I really like to be a facilitator. It's about creating a space for more people than just me and to bring along all those Sámi artists working in between. And then I’m also really looking forward to doing the artistic work, which is closest to my heart.

fig. 3 Katarina Barruk, Viktor Bomstad, Elina Waage Mikalsen, Elina Waage Mikalsen: The sounds from in between – a talk show collage, 2023. Photograph by Johanne Karlsrud.

fig. 4 Elina Waage Mikalsen: The sounds from in between – a talk show collage, 2023. Photograph by Johanne Karlsrud.

AW: In an interview with the SHAPE platform some years ago, you were speaking about breaking up the hierarchy of sounds. I liked this idea. Do you have any thoughts on how we could address this issue in general, also from a curatorial point of view? Because especially in classical and contemporary music, there is still so much hierarchy and judgment.

EWM: Well, I feel experimental music—or more generally also experimental arts—in its core is about breaking down hierarchies. It's about challenging the established. Maybe we have several different entry points into meeting in a festival such as Borealis or other kinds of contemporary music or experimental music festivals. Some will come from the more classical background, but I think I come from the more do-it-yourself background. And from that perspective, I think there is a lot of care and love and openness for different ways of being together and creating spaces that are good to be in.

AW: But there is still a lot of harsh judgment in the contemporary music scene and oftentimes this toxic competitiveness, especially between the professionals themselves who start complaining immediately after the concert is over.

EWM: I guess it’s important for people to understand they might not hold all the tools to understand what they are actually listening to. It’s about recognizing your own background with your certain privileges and that you might not carry the necessary tools to read, understand, and take in what you are listening to even though you think so. Maybe it fits to bring in the book by Dylan Robinson here, Hungry Listening. It talks about many aspects of listening and positionality, and he has formed this concept, or term, hungry listening, that describes a mode that is a certain way of being and also a certain way of listening. This hungry listening is supposed to give you something, for example, a booking for your next festival. It’s about a certain entry point, that is, a hungry way of listening and not a way of listening that opens you up for what you hear.

AW: Yeah, it’s almost a competitive way of listening, as it would be important to find out who is the better listener.

EWM: Whereas talking about this mode of listening means understanding your position and what different sounds might mean to different people based on who they are. A police siren will sound differently to different people, for example. Listening to Sámi music is also about understanding it as a very embodied way of practice that is highly connected to our homelands, to our history. The Yoik specifically: there is knowledge within the sound. And some of it might be accessible to a Western audience, but for some of it, you might necessarily not have the tools to understand what or how or why this is part. And maybe not everything is supposed to be accessible to everyone to keep some things sacred and secret. Maybe not all the sounds are also supposed to be for everyone.

AW: So, this would—ironically speaking—mean that you first have to pass a test?

EWM: In a way… But no. It is about being humble, to be listening, to be a listening being in the meeting with the people or culture or a sound tradition that you might not understand or know that much about. But then also I'm thinking—not only from the Western perspective, but from my own perspective, too—what does experimenting mean from a Sámi perspective? For example, will I hear it when a Sámi is experimenting? But you wouldn't. Because I have the tools to understand that this is groundbreaking, that this is really stretching it. And how can we do that? There is a lot of Western music with the Yoik on top. That has been done a lot with all kinds of indigenous or so-called “exotic” music, “world music,” of course. But we have to dig deeper, get deeper into the philosophies, the ways of thinking, the ways of seeing the world from within, how you structure the music, how you structure the whole listening situation.

AW: How can curators then frame these kinds of events in a way that is accessible for the audience even though it’s more effort than just listening to what is familiar?

EWM: For example, at the Borealis festival before the Gamelan concert, they were handing out a piece of paper for each audience member with an interview with the composer. People who are not extremely into Gamelan music wouldn't necessarily hear that this is really different Gamelan music. When it comes to my own project, I hope that by calling it a collage was also a way for the audience to understand that there will be elements that you will have to put together yourself to create a meaning out of it.

AW: And what also made it accessible was this welcoming, soft atmosphere so that people could feel at ease and feel good.

EWM: I think care and generosity are important to invite people in. Though it should not be about luring them. But maybe it's easier to talk about stuff that most people don’t understand or don’t have the knowledge to understand if you create a generous atmosphere.

AW: Thank you very much for your time and sharing all these interesting thoughts.

Elina Waage Mikalsen is an interdisciplinary artist from Romssa/Tromsø, Sápmi, who works with sound, text, textile, performance, and installation. In her sound practice, she often mixes field recordings, her voice, electronics, and home-built instruments to create sonic spaces that exist somewhere between reality and fantasy. Her background is both Sámi and Norwegian, which is a recurring theme in her artistic practice. The holes that the Norwegian assimilation process has created in her own family history have become a starting point for fantasizing about and discussing what these holes represent, what matter they constitute, and how they affect us today. As an artist, she is concerned with making visible and including the interweaving of people from whom she originates, and often includes family and friends in her works.

Anja Wernicke completed master's degrees in cultural studies with a focus on music in Hildesheim and cultural mediation in Marseille. An internship at the Gare du Nord brought her to Basel, where she has been involved in various projects and organizations, including the festival ZeitRäume Basel – a Biennial for Contemporary Music and Architecture (2014-2021) – and the research department of the Hochschule für Musik FHNW (2016-2021). She teaches courses on music curation and published the book "Musik machen" in 2023 (Vexer Verlag). Since 2022, she has been working in the music department of the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia.


A reading list with basics on Sámi culture, established during the residency at Borealis festival, can be found here.

Additional books on Sámi culture:

Outi Pieski and Eeva-Kristiina Harlin, The Ládjogahpir: The Foremothers' Hat of Pride (Karasjok: Davvi Girji , 2020)

Elin Anna Labba, Herrene sendte oss hit: Om tvangsflytting en av samene (Oslo: Pax Forlag, 2021)

Harald Gaski and Gunvor Guttorm, eds., Duodji Reader: Twelve Essays on Duodji by Sámi Writers (Karasjok: Davvi Girji, 2022)

Gerd Mikalsen, Farsmålet (Tromsø: Gollegiella, 2017)

Patricia Fjellgren and Malin Nord, eds., Inifrån Sápmi: Vittnesmål från stulet land (Stockholm: Verbal Förlag, 2021)

Mary Ailonieida Sombán Mari, Beaivváš Mánát / Leve blant reptiler (Tromsø: Mondo Books, 2020), a PDF version of the book can be found at https://koro.no/kunstverk/beaivvas-manat-leve-blant-reptiler/.


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