Documentary Strategies: New, Norwegian Film- and Video Art

Marte Aas, Jumana Manna, Kjetil Skøien, Inger Lise Hansen, Siri Hermansen, Nina Toft and Hilde Honerud. Production year 2012. duration 1t 10m. Curated by Susanne Sæther.

For the third year running , Atelier Nord presents Norwegian film and video art at the Norwegian Short Film Festival in Grimstad. This year’s program focuses on documentary strategies. All of the participating artists are already established nationally and internationally, and have studied at art academies in Norway or abroad. While some work across both the film and art scene, for most the gallery space is a more natural exhibition arena than the cinema. Within the institutions of visual art, film and video are frequently part of extensive installations including sculptural elements and also often several image channels, the spatial presentation of which is fundamental. And yet an increasing number of film and video artists desire optimal screening conditions, with full control of light and sound. The gallery’s traditional design as a neutral, white space or a “white cube” therefore increasingly resembles the “black box” of the movie theatre. It might seem, therefore, that the institutionally imposed division between film and art is, in some areas, beginning to break down. Atelier Nord wishes to contribute to explore and challenge this division. The program at The Norwegian Short Film Festival in Grimstad is part of this ambition.

The program presents film and video works by artists working with documentary strategies. It includes, among other subjects, a poetic treatment of the phenomenon of crop circles in English cornfields, the intervention of a woman artist in a criminal culture of cars and bodybuilding in East Jerusalem, and a compilation of amateur recordings of natural catastrophes from news broadcasts. All the works in the program have a double ambition: On the one hand they convey a sincere wish to communicate an experienced reality, and on the other they contain an implicit critique or expansion of traditional documentary forms, in which notions of an indisputable objectivity is held in high esteem. These works aim both to produce information in the form of critical exploration of a given issue or to give it a subjective, poetic reworking and simultaneously to make the information producing process visible in itself as an arena for inquiry and critique.

In this way the six works included in the program inscribe themselves within an international tendency in the field of art, where documentary practices for the last twenty years or so has comprised one of the most significant directions. This tendency stated at the eleventh edition of the art festival Documenta (2002) in Kassel, Germany. With its many film and video based installations that touched upon a broad spectrum of social and political subjects, this festival has been conceived as an emblem for art’s renewed orientation towards reality. Indeed, the relationship between art and reality has a long and complex historical trajectory, with the declared aim to touch or capture reality recurring with renewed power and form at regular intervals. Some of the major causes for the ongoing documentary manifestation of this desire are to be found in our present media situation.

One significant cause is that documentary images are increasingly becoming more influential and omnipresent globally, often with far-reaching political, judicial and social consequences. Much of our knowledge of the world is mediated by visual documentary material. Paradoxically, at the same time we have decreasingly less confidence in documentary representations. Digitization has contributed to a “crisis of representation;” we are fully aware of the numerous possibilities for manipulation. Documentary material has also become part our most intimate spheres. Through mobile phones, YouTube and other easily available interfaces amateurs enter the role of producers. The complexity of this situation invites artistic treatment, and raises fundamental questions of the power, form and function of documentary images. Another important reason for the current documentary tendency in art is that privatization and homogenization of the media field along with cuts in public founding internationally pushes experimental documentary production over to the art field. Thus the art arena emerges as a platform for exploration of subjects and concerns that are otherwise excluded in the media field.

Traditional documentary photography and film has, through this relocation, been reinvigorated by the combination of traditions like video art, performance and conceptual art. Recent documentary art displays a high degree of reflexivity and complexity in its treatment of fundamental questions of authenticity, truth, objectivity and fidelity to reality. Such an expansion of the documentary repertoire has also been evident in the Norwegian art field, including the films in this program.

The works concentrate on two main subjects that have long traditions within documentarism also outside of the art field: representations of sensational and/or sublime natural phenomena and social issues – as well as the relationship between the two. Nature has been a dominating motif and subject in Nordic art history generally, for instance through the central role played by the genre of landscape painting in the nineteenth century. In Nordic contemporary art however, the exploration of different conceptions of nature has yielded to a marked interest in “environment,” understood both as ecology and as the relation between the individual and natural or urban space. This turn towards environment is evident in documentary form in one and all of the works in the program.

In the works by Inger Lise Hansen, Toft/Honerud and Marte Aas, recordings of vast, man-made spaces and natural phenomena are subjected to formal reworking by the inherent means of film and video. Through animated camera movements and inverted perspective, Hansen in Travelling Fields scans desolate industrial landscapes in the Kola Peninsula. The ground seems fluid and impermanent, and inverted architectural shapes appear as fragile frames around the social topography of the area. Toft/Honerud have in I Love You, edited together amateur recordings of natural disasters, all of which have been shown in news broadcasts. The amount and montage of footage reflects television’s perpetual hunger for catastrophe, as well as the tendency in today’s news formats to prioritize the experience of “being there” rather than pictorial information value. And implicitly, also the reciprocal relationship between catastrophe and modern technology is commented upon: On one hand catastrophe signals technology’s failure to conquer nature, on the other our conception of natural disaster is completely technologically mediated. The reciprocal relationship between media technologies and nature is also explored in Marte Aas’ super-8 film Crop Circles, where the film-camera’s grainy and atmospheric representation of crop formations in the area of Wiltshire in England reminds us of late 19th century impressionist painting. Seen from aerial perspective however, the abstract and geometric patterns of the circles appear as intricate formal compositions. Image schemes from different art historical periods are here combined in an exploration of the border between cultural and natural landscape, and of the human desire to attribute symbolical value to physical places.

In the three other works, the artists’ main documentary strategy is that of participatory observation of social and/or physical milieus. The artists’ marked subjective presence occasionally casts doubts on their reliability as narrators and simultaneously supplements the representation with an extra sheen of authenticity. In Chernobyl mon amour Siri Hermansen follows two state employed guides into the forbidden radioactive ”zone” in Chernobyl. Through conversations with the guides about their experience of the place and the camera’s hesitating registering of the traces of an abandoned society (complete with massive residential complexes, amusement park and class rooms), the work reflects on the ability of human and nature to adapt to a radioactive environment. Nature is toxic and strikingly peaceful at the same time; seemingly the ideal place for human repose, as the guides claim. With the shaky camera and her exchange with the guides, the artist is noticeably present as an explorer in an unknown and hazardous environment. Similarly, with candid questions and her mere presence Jumana Manna becomes an active agent in the all-male milieu she documents in Blessed Blessed Oblivion. Alternating between interviews with a misogynist, faceless, male protagonist involved in illicit activities and highly aestheticized imagery of the building and grooming of cars and bodies backed by local hits, Manna portrays a macho culture in the Palestinian, eastern part of Jerusalem. Kjetil Skøien in his video A Place for Living with the Other also appears as a participatory observer of a men’s prison in Vilnius. Slowly panning and zooming, the camera captures the claustrophobic density of the over-populated room and the inmates’ need to demarcate their own space within it, thus reflecting on the place of the individual in physical and social confinement. While we hear a muffled off-camera dialogue, it is not its translation, but the artist’s own free interpretation, we read in the subtext. Thereby the seemingly neutral registering of the camera is pitted against the fictious dialogue, rubbing objectivity and subjectivity against each other to cause friction. Whether through medium-specific formal explorations of the representational process or direct participation in the documented situations, the works in this program all point us towards real social or physical issues or concerns as well as the formats of their representations.

Atelier Nord is a project base for media art and unstable art forms, whose aim is to create better conditions for these art forms, while also maintaining a critical reflection in relation to them. Atelier Nord’s work consists of supporting and promoting projects that support these goals. Atelier Nord has initiated a pilot project in connection with the development of a new infrastructure for digital cinema in Norway, which aims to establish a more permanent, decentralised way of screening film and video art, as well as communicating these art forms to a broader national audience. The program at the Norwegian Short Film Festival in Grimstad is part of this project. The project is supported by Arts Council Norway and the Norwegian Film Institute.

Introduction by Susanne Ø. Sæther, programme curator, and Ivar Smedstad, Artistic director at Atelier Nord.

Lorella Scacco, Northwave. A Survey of Video Art in the Nordic Countries (Cinisello Balsamo: Silvana, 2009).

Catalogue pdf.