Essay by curators Matt Packer and Arne Skaug Olsen
Disappearing Acts is an exhibition of contemporary art organized in the Jern & Bygg business premises in Svolvær. The exhibition is likely to be the last complete occupation of the place before the demolition begins and plans for a high-rise residential complex get under way. With its central location and its views of the harbour and the mountains beyond, it’s easy to see the logic of its re-development. The Jern & Bygg furniture and interior décor business closed in 2010 and the building is neither beautiful nor spectacular. Pragmatism seems to have been its general design principle, and in the context of the image-aware Lofoten Islands, pragmatism has an increasingly short future. There are black and white archival photographs of the interior displays taken during its heyday in the 1960s – sofas and armchairs, carpets and curtains, door handles and small furnishings. Most of the items in these photographs are an embarrassment of styles and patterns that have surely now been reduced to dust.
The life and death of the Jern & Bygg business covers a period of seven decades. It’s a period that coincided with technological, political, economic, and cultural development that happened at a rate of change that was previously unimaginable. The 40s and 50s saw Post-WWII reconstruction and the beginning of the Cold War, but also the emergence of a globalised popular culture, which occurred in Norway alongside the advent of the social democratic model and the subsequent establishment of the modern welfare state. The 60s brought with it counter cultures, political radicalisation and growing ecological awareness. The 70s were the decade when Norway entered the league of ‘petro’ states, while concurrent radical left-wing movements rose and fell with their fervent, political and ecological utopias. The 80s were a decade of class struggle, strike and liberalisation, and economic boom. The 90s brought with it the end of the Cold War, recession and neo liberal reforms of education and government, nihilist counter culture and the burning of churches.
In the 00s Norway’s economic growth continued alongside rising oil prices, with Norway barely affected by the global recession that caused a crisis for much of the world. When the decade ends, Facebook reaches 500 million users, and Jern & Bygg closes its doors for the last time having extended its premises to over 3,000 square metres, reaching as far as the harbour like some strangely evolved creature that was making its way to water.
The Jern & Bygg premises is a significant character in Disappearing Acts. The exhibition extends across all its floors of the building, into its furthest corners, retaining some signs of former function – office doors, intercom systems, and service lifts, among other things that are still haunted by the days of active working life. Perhaps more significant than this scenography is the Frankenstenien way in which the business and premises developed at the pace of 20th century change, arriving breathless and redundant in our present moment. As the site for Disappearing Acts – an exhibition that asks the question of how contemporary conditions are ‘disappearing’ the human body and its agency – the Jern & Bygg premises appears like a mutilated corpse with its dreams and desires exasperated, just like the rest of us.
In his essay Techniques of the Body, anthropologist Marcel Mauss describes how swimming instructions had changed during his own lifetime. He writes in 1934 “… the habit of swallowing water and spitting it out again has gone. In my day, swimmers thought of themselves as a kind of steam boat.” Mauss’s observation of changing swimming techniques follows the trajectory of successive understandings of the human body in relation to the environment, and the replacement of one system of physical science with another. The observation is also significant in the way that it cites the ‘steam boat’ as a model for the performance of the body, a model that suggests the ideological prioritization of engineering over human capability in the early twentieth century. The human body (and its abilities to act upon the natural environment, in this case through swimming in water) might have always been contingent upon the histories of science, technology, and ideology, but in the 80 or so years since Mauss’s observation, the structures of effect upon the body have drawn an ever tighter circle around it. Technologies have become more assimilating. We smear the grease of our fingers all over our touch screens, while operator -less cameras scan to focus on our faces. We once learnt to swallow water like a steam boat, but now technology has ingested us and the lessons have been reversed. In that same 80 years, concepts of the natural environment have also become more confused and contaminated. Our industrial society has produced what Bruno Latour has described as ‘quasi-objects’ (the examples of asbestos, radioactivity, dioxins) that not only expose the body to the environment in new ways but that undermine the differences between humanity and nature altogether. Metaphorically speaking, we’re still flaying our arms and kicking our legs. What looks like swimming in water might in fact be drowning in our own goo.
As an exhibition, Disappearing Acts is an effort to establish a territory and to explore a landscape in relation to us humans. This is a territory and landscape that is, at the same time, far removed from the scenery outside – the mountains and the sea – but still closely connected to the idea that this place (like all places) is being changed before our eyes through processes that we, the inhabitants of places, have unleashed but lost control over. The Lofoten Islands, like all inhabited places, as well as uninhabited places, is a place where technology is literally embedded in the ground, with human settlement dating back at least 11,000 years, leaving at first only sedimentary traces – bio markers that disclose the presence of humans and livestock – but later also leaving things, objects, tools, boats, ruins, buildings, waste, garbage, trash, pollution, roads, tunnels, sewers, quarries, schools, fibre optic cables, iPhones. In this respect, The Lofoten Islands is just a fragment of a larger systematic whole, and from here it’s possible to make a modest proposal, in the form of an exhibition of contemporary art, that connects this place with others through the symptoms and effects of historical, ecological and technological change. Yet, conversely, the Lofoten Islands is a place that is not easily equivalent to other places at all. It’s a place that trades on its difference. This is the landscape of the motivational poster, the screen-saver, the pictorial fantasy of the landscape painter or commercial photographer. It is a holding ground for desires that are typically parked elsewhere: on the other side of the screen. Any image search for the Lofoten Islands will serve up a medley of idyllic snowcapped mountains, waterfalls and mossy rockeries, calm inlets with little colourful wrecked boats. Image technology and geological form seem to perform each other in a perfect post-human conspiracy, right here in the place where we stand.
Disappearing Acts is an exhibition of tentative things that takes place in an ugly building in a beautiful place. It’s an attempt at triangulating between a dream, a nightmare, and an indictment of our present moment. There are two words in the title of equal importance. An emphasis on the first word suggests a dooming predicament, an extinction of things, while an emphasis on the second suggests a performativity and perhaps even a playful façade. The exhibition includes artwork that pings between these positions, seeking a space for imagining how the aesthetics of impending change can be performed and politicised from our current standpoint.