Elemental Ice

Nordic Cool 2013 as a Crucible for U.S. Arts and Culture

 

Kennedy Center Northern Lights

I had come in from a spectacular and definitely “northern” blast of wind across the roof terrace of the John F. Kennedy Memorial Center for the Performing Arts, and I was thinking that the Center had done a nice job in arranging the weather to accompany the “Northern Lights” display on its façade it commissioned from Denmark’s Jesper Kongshaug. The weather, like the lights, seemed fitting for the presentation of Nordic Cool 2013 – a festival that represented the “synergy,” as Iceland’s Minister of Culture Katrín Jakobsdóttir put it, of the northern European countries.

Then I entered their Nordic Boutique, and I wondered whether either the hosting venue or the festival organizers weren’t taking the Scandinavian experience a little far.

Studio Granda Icelandic Pavilion

Iceland’s contribution to “Five Nordic Houses/Pavilions,” by Studio Granda, combines corrugated metal with lava rock, bringing the sound and challenge of the environment into the experience of the building.

A 150-gram (5-ounce) bag of Norwegian Laban Seigmenn (gummi candies in the shape of little men) was priced at an Oslo-style US $7. A jar of herring sat self-consciously amid jewelry and sculpture items. The German-pressed CDs by “Nordic artists” (identifiable by æ, ø, ð, ä, ö, and å in the performers’ names, while album titles such as Crime Scene and Vespers gave nothing away) conspicuously lacked explanation of the genre or nationality of the music hiding behind the shrink-wrap packaging, and the shop offered no audio facility for potential customers to find out.

“US” AND “THEM”: U.S. ARTS & CULTURE

This side visit at Nordic Cool 2013 suggests some of the cultural issues for both the Nordic cultures and the United States that the festival itself highlighted. These more prosperous, more cohesive nations, whose national governments generously support artists, were invited by the Kennedy Center to showcase a wide range of creations in the prestige venue of the U.S. capital – where unemployment stood at 8.4% as of December 2012, and where funding of arts and humanities projects undergoes near-constant political assault.

As the event closed yesterday, it should leave all participants harboring useful questions – particularly helpful to U.S. artists, arts administrators, and audiences, if they will pursue them. From my brief visit, it wasn’t clear that we yet know how to do so. But we can try.

Wooden oil rig toy

Norway’s Permafrost designers explain that in the post-manufacturing age, toys should reflect economic and social reality.

In part, the difficulty in discerning what we should be asking reflects the cultural tension in the United States regarding arts and culture – an area that has, wittingly or otherwise, become politicized as a budget item, moving away from examining “the thing itself” into assumptions about who audiences (consumers of creativity) are, and who they “should” be, and into classifications for creativity by that which “earns money” and that which doesn’t. In an economy screaming for “innovation” and development, government frequently brackets creative practice as unrelated to, and less important than, scientific and financial pursuits.

The U.S. national conversation also tends to treat cultural and artistic activities as “frivolous” (to quote a conservative acquaintance, peculiarly also a sports fan) or as mere self-expression; differentiates between “art” and “commodities” such as movies, genre fiction, and computer games; and encourages separations – not least through funding – by interest group, economic status, and “class,” as well as an essentializing “purity” of art over against technology.

At best, an artist may use technology. The artist should not understand it. That is for scientists (who are allowed to understand, even to create, “art”).

Swedish horse lamp by Moooi

Swedish furniture and accessory designer Moooi’s horse lamp raises eyebrows between two Faroe Islands’ dress creations.

THE NORDIC APPROACH

A UNIQUE EQUALITY

To penetrate the words describing the Nordic countries represented at Nordic Cool 2013 was to glimpse a different vision. Prominent among these words is “equality,” emphasized especially in reference to gender. An interesting revelation of how “Nordic” marketers see their culture vis-à-vis ours is the frequency of their mention of this characteristic, as seen particularly in the backing Nordic Council of Ministers’ own interviews with the culture ministers from Norway, Iceland, and Denmark.

Many in the United States will agree. But for traditionalists at least, the implication that U.S. culture lacks certain equality characteristics – that equality makes these countries different from us – will be an uncomfortable, challenging concept.

So, too, will be the integration with “the arts” of science discussions, computer game development, environmental concerns, toys reflecting industry changes, crime fiction, and haute cuisine. A happily categorizing nation, even larger numbers of us than balk at the idea that we are not truly equal nation will shy from considering that this wider range can be considered “artistic.”

After all, artists are not expected to make money.

Icelandic waterfall exhibit

Icelandic artist Rúrí’s “Archive-Endangered Waters” not only documents the sounds and images of the environment but reflects the vanishing nature of her own archive.

Nordic Cool has challenged the understanding that artistic design, economic development, and scientific progress exist in separate, incompatible realms – or, for that matter, that dance, music, “visual arts” (painting, sculpture, textiles, etc.), literature, and architecture cannot coexist. But it also extends equality to audiences – something the U.S. arts and culture establishment struggles with actively.

INTERACTIVITY & ACCESS

Over a month before visiting to Nordic Cool, I paid a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Dancing around the Bride exhibition, which invited into the the hallowed space of visual arts the music of John Cage and the movement of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company to probe their interactions and intersections with Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. An intriguing concept, the presentation still struggled with the separation of arts viewer/audience member from the art itself – ironically, as these artists rebuked the “preciousness” of art in their explorations, along with ideas of essentialism and representation.

In the economy of “don’t touch the multimillion-dollar artwork,” audiences are often destined to remain passive spectators, engaged only by nonparticipatory means such as printed matter and audio tours. The archival risk is real; but the engagement of the audience in an essentially interactive world is likewise risked by privileging the material over the experience.

Arne & Carlos knitting

Norwegian designers Arne & Carlos knit everything from clothing to Christmas ornaments to dolls, and their celebration of “koselighet,” coziness, enjoys wide popularity.

In contrast, a considerable portion of Nordic Cool 2013 was intentionally interactive: five Nordic architectural structures to explore; Icelander Rúrí’s photographic plates of waterfalls to pull out, view, and listen to (as the action triggered recordings of the waters); Norwegian A. K. Dolven’s “speaker’s corner,” a Crybaby guitar pedal requiring pressure to hear seven young voices singing, in Norwegian, the socialist anthem Internationale (sung, among other places, at the Labor Party gatherings on Utøya); and the considered events of mobile game play on iPads, knitting, and (for children) Lego® construction.

These examples from the Nordic culture realm reflect the belief, articulated by Norway’s Minister for Culture Hadia Tajik, that “access to art and culture is important for quality of life – and the will, ability, and possibility to participate in community.” Denmark’s Minister for Culture Marianne Jelved similarly sees culture as “the growth layer” for society – a sentiment echoed by Finland’s Minister for Culture and Sports Paavo Arhinmäki, who notes that “in purely economic terms, the creative industries are among the fastest growing. When the production of material goods becomes limited, growth is sought in creative, immaterial industries.”

FASS manual display

Through the popularity of FASS, the Swedish national formulary of prescription medications, writer Staffan Bengtsson explores the fascination with side effects and reflects on how even consumer design is fraught with “risk” today.

CHILDREN & EDUCATION

Besides the Nordic cultures’ belief that arts access extends to all groups – not merely an “elite” (the notion was a pleasant “intrusion” in the appearance-conscious Kennedy Center) – the interactivity of many exhibits reflects their strong emphasis on family; the central role of children’s well-being, education, and development; and the communal strength of their national and regional cultures. From the Danish theater productions of Hans Christian, You Must Be an Angel and A Sonatina to Iceland’s animated Legends of Valhalla-Thor, the exhibition happily assumed that young people should be included in artistic endeavors, as these are critical to the wider culture’s development.

You could safely bring your youngster to Nordic Cool, though the activity range might be slim. At Dancing around the Bride, the security guards would have had conniptions.

Boat of Shirts

In “Are We Still Afloat?” Finland’s Kaarina Kaikkonen gathered donated shirts from D.C.-area people to create a boat broken in two pieces, with the connection tenuously holding on the surface while absent below.

Iceland’s optimistic Jakobsdóttir hoped that U.S. schools would teach something about Nordic culture, in conjunction with or inspired by the festival, and would thus inspire new generations of students to come to the Nordic countries. Sweden’s Minister for Culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, perhaps more sensitized to the U.S. educational system and social challenge, more modestly hoped for simple “curiosity to learn more – an eye-opener”: “The best would be if more Americans come to visit the Nordic countries. Or perhaps just go to the library to borrow a Swedish book, or download a Swedish film.”

ROOM FOR GUIDANCE

The Kennedy Center made a bold choice in inviting Nordic culture to its premises, which generally center on the performing arts alone. Without being overtly political, it staged a festival that raised keen questions about U.S. assumptions in the arts.

How clearly that message came across, however, is a question. Our culture prides itself on its communication abilities, yet that aspect was weakest during Nordic Cool 2013. Americans, it seems, require a lot of information to process material thoughtfully. And in a severe caveat for U.S. arts organizations, information technology constitutes a dead zone in much of the arts and culture arena.

Snøhetta Sup-plywood

Norwegian architects Snøhetta, designers of the Oslo Opera House, created for the festival a sculptural fall of plywood – one of the oldest mass-produced products, representative of social democracy in its availability.

An example is the Kennedy Center’s Web site. Unable to handle the demand for tickets for the upcoming musical The Book of Mormon, it crashed twice during Nordic Cool, frustrating audiences for all its events.

When functioning, however, the rudimentarily designed site failed to post video clips or even many photos of its festival, relegating that function to Facebook – where the festival could be found on the Center’s page but not on a page to itself. The PDF download of the festival brochure constituted a mess of duplicates, while the rest of the site (which, for its virtual online tours, relies on insecure and unreliable Java applets – ironically, warned against by certain Nordic governments) failed to reserve areas for interviews, articles, or external links to constitute supportive material.

Recent audience engagement work has identified key stages in the process of developing and keeping arts and culture audiences. Three critical steps are (1) preparing audiences for their experience with adequate information (mostly practical but also basically informative), (2) encouraging audience discussion and/or interaction on site, and (3) providing material to assist with “meaning making” afterward. “The buzz” sought by all arts performances relies on audience’s reaction and sustained interaction, in memory, with the material.

On certain practicalities (stage 1), the Kennedy Center stumbled – mostly, it seems, through assumptions about its audience’s familiarity with it, and its familiarity with its audience. One area concerned dining at the Center: they did not indicate their café’s hours in the festival guide or post them visibly on site, relying on visitors’ access to – or remembrance of – the Web. Hence, after a 6:30 pm literature forum concluded, several of us found ourselves without a place to eat. (We got to know each other quite well as we prowled the Center wondering where to conjure up a meal on a Sunday night in the District.)

Coffee filter bags

Danish Greenlander Pia Arke’s “Soil for Scoresbyund” united memory, the search for identity, and an environmental component in its collection of coffee filter bags recalling the Greenlandic tradition of “kaffemik,” the coffee meeting at the heart of all celebrations.

The Center provided opportunities for engagement at performances (stage 2). At stage 3, it suffered from lack of further information, as well as lack of room for discussion and feedback. While the Center received enviable press coverage of certain performances, questions and comments were limited to the visitor’s experience. I saw no audience surveys or other, formal means of identifying visitors, monitoring flow, or conducting self-assessment.

These are areas that arts and culture, especially in the United States (where geographical and cultural education about other nations, as well as in the arts, is weak), cannot afford to neglect. The technology exists to promote dialogue and generate enthusiasm about events in this arena, as well as to learn about audiences and identify areas of improvement. The barrier seems one of administrative mind-set: an assumption that the arts are “unique,” with little or no use for the tools of marketing agencies and scientific study.

Thus, Nordic Cool became the site of peculiar irony – its message of equality seeming to fall on deaf ears among the very people presenting it.

POINTS OF DISCUSSION

The other side of the equation, of course, is the U.S. public: our willingness to approach art, to ask questions about what we see and hear and experience, and to separate ourselves from it in order to receive it.

Erland Loe - Snuff on the Ceiling

Norwegian author Erland Loe’s diorama evoked his schooldays in Trondheim, where the eclectic design of the ceiling emerged from student deposits of “snus,” or snuff, and the role the substance plays in his memory and experience.

Being in D.C. for only one evening, the one festival “event” I attended was the panel on Prize-Winning Literature. Neither of the winners of the prestigious Nordic Council of Literature prize present – Norway’s Merethe Lindstrøm, for her novel Days in the History of Silence, and Denmark’s Naja Marie Aidt, for her collection of short stories Bavian (Baboon) – has yet been published in English, though Lindstrøm’s book is in process. Given the unfamiliarity of the prize to Americans (it is awarded  for a work of literature in the language of one of the Nordic countries, by a committee that reviews nominations by each member state) and the inaccessibility of the texts to English speakers, we needed some information.

We got some – of the wrong kind. The moderator, happily oblivious to audience in her new-found stardom, refused to frame questions, repeated the panelists’ descriptions of the work as her own, and – the ultimate crime – gave away significant plot secrets and developments. I winced in sympathetic agony with Lindstrøm as one of her characters underwent the exposure of a crucial secret with a casual “And of course, it turns out that … ” Family, social equality, history, memory – all these significant elements of the festival would have constituted points on which to hinge the “discussion” but went unexplored.

Possibly in the absence of any guidance, when questions began to come from the floor, people wanted to know what books the writers had read and liked, often prefacing such ventures with “I liked Stieg Larsson so much.” One bold participant dared to venture away from Larsson and ask, “Why do you think Americans find Nordic culture so interesting?” – certainly a good question for Americans, but of dubious value when posed to the openly bewildered writers. (For that matter, Finnish minister Ahrenmäki professed that he wished he knew, when confronted with the same issue.)

Elk Towers outside Kennedy Center

The Elk Towers outside the Kennedy Center, wooden sculptures by Åland Islands artist Juha Pykäläinen, represent the 30+ such sculptures on the Islands that can be used as hunting towers or as “environmental art,” highlighting the Nordic cultures’ connection to their landscapes.

To be successful, art must engage the public on some personal level, whether reverberating with their experience, touching their emotions, or tickling their intellect. Still, in a discussion that exposed all but the copyright notices in these works, amid a vast cultural demonstration raising all sorts of issues, why could no one relate any of what they had seen “outside” to this evening panel?

Perhaps it was simply culture shock. One hopes so – that the eye-opening revelation that Nordic regions are, as Norwegian minister Tajik put it, “more than IKEA, meatballs, or flatbread” silenced the audience in possibly its first exposure to something genuinely new, leaving it groping only for points of connection.

On the other hand – if arts administrators and personnel won’t assist audiences in processing the experience, who will?

From Nordic Cool, artists and administrators can gain clues on how to assist people in approaching the materials before them. It is essentially an educational task, though not limited to the classroom – just as learning doesn’t stop with a high school diploma or college degree. To thrive, U.S. arts and culture professionals should be prepared to engage this wider view of their role.

And why not? After all – we’re supposed to be the creative ones.

The following are videos of Norwegian contemporary dance company Carte Blanche‘s Corps de Walk and Norwegian Terje Isungset‘s Icemusic – selections from among many significant performers at Nordic Cool 2013.