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Landscape from Lofoten. Photo: Kjell Ove Storvik

An Art Festival in Norway, Beyond the Arctic Circle 0

Q&A with Svein Pedersen, the director of the Northern Norwegian Art Centre and one of LIAFs leading partners, and Matt Packer, one of the two curators of the 2015 edition of LIAF, “Disappearing Acts”

- Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) 2015 - 
“Disappearing Acts”
August 28 – September 27, 2015

The Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) is a festival for contemporary art that takes place every two years in Lofoten, a cluster of islands located on the northwest coast of Norway, just above the Arctic Circle. 

This year’ LIAF presents “Disappearing Acts”, a large-scale group exhibition that features a diverse selection of international contemporary artists, with many works commissioned especially for this unique, biennial festival. Each artist’s work will respond to the 2015 title, “Disappearing Acts”, ranging from documentary film, video and sound installations, to sculpture, text, performance, textiles and photography.

“Disappearing Acts” is themed around the idea of human agency disappearing through the processes of history, ecology, and technology. This approach is informed by the context of the unique festival location of Norway’s Lofoten Islands within the Arctic Circle, with its precarious economic-environmental dependency, its highly marketable “screensaver” scenery, and its cultural legacy of self-sufficiency and retreat from the antagonism of the urbanised world. 

The “Jern & Bygg” premises in the island town of Svolvær serves as the main venue for LIAF 2015 and will act as a site-specific hub. Jern & Bygg was a family-owned hardware store and furniture outlet that operated continuously from 1948 to 2010. The history of the premises runs parallel to the post-war history of Norway and Lofoten, from the expansive rebuilding after WWII, the rise of Social Democracy, the re-creation of Norway as a petrostate in the ’70s, the discontinuation of industrial production, monopolization of the fishing industry, and subsequently, the gentrification and touristification of the new millennium. The building is now the last example of pragmatic waterfront architecture in Svolvær. After LIAF 2015, the building will be demolished. 

The festival was first initiated in 1991. What has been the most important event or turning point in the history of this festival?

Svein Pedersen: It is hard to single out one most important event after nearly 25 years and 14 festivals. It was, of course, crucial that at the beginning of the 1990's, the small municipality of Vågan in the Lofoten Islands decided to establish a recurring festival for visual arts. 

If one festival should be singled out as marking a turning point, it is the one that was held in 1999. Up until then, the festival had a mostly regional and national profile, but now the festival had taken on the form of a large umbrella, with many differing exhibitions taking place under its banner. In 1999 several well known and established international artist were included in the programme, among them Olafur Eliasson (IS), Spencer Tunick (US), Gillian Wearing (GB), Ugo Rondinone (CH), Lawrence Weiner (US) and A K Dolven.

From then on the festival acquired more of an international biennale format, with more defined curatorial concepts and projects shaping each festival, and most often including several new commissions from participating artists. Engaging new curators for each festival, working either singly or two to three in a team, became the working model that has been kept until today.

In 2004 the festival began receiving annual funding from the Norwegian federal budget via the Ministry of Culture. This was an important factor for establishing the festival nationally and internationally.

In 2009 the festival merged with the North Norwegian Art Center, a regional art centre working with contemporary art not only in Lofoten, but in the whole region of Northern Norway.

The festival takes place in Norway’s extraordinary and remote Lofoten Islands. What is the role of the environment in the overall atmosphere of the festival, and does it affect the way in which the festival is organised?

Svein Pedersen: Creating an art festival in a remote, and many would say spectacular, place like Lofoten is both a challenge and an opportunity.
The natural environment is very present; it dominates the surroundings and is hard, almost impossible, to neglect. This does not necessarily mean that the curatorial concepts and the artworks always speak about Lofoten's nature and history, etc., but - generally speaking - it can be said to create a setting in which the artists and curators have to acknowledge it, and therefore, have to think about what they are making and doing in a somewhat different way than they usually do.
More on the practical side is the fact that when artists come here, because of the remoteness, they spend quite a lot of time here, maybe longer than they would for a festival or exhibition elsewhere. This often creates a very stimulating and good working environment, one in which many of the artist, curators and organisers spend a lot of time together.

The works that can be seen in this year’s festival range from documentary film, video and sound installations, to sculpture, text, performance, textiles and photography. Which are the mediums most represented in the festival's exhibition? Do you seen any tendencies towards a certain vision with which the artists have looked at this years’ topic, “Disappearing Acts”?

Matt Packer: There isn’t a dominant medium as such. Most of the artists in “Disappearing Acts” don’t identify their work through one medium; they often work across various mediums, such as sculpture, video, performance and other forms of practice. It was also important for us, as curators, to create different forms of encountering, so our priorities were in trying to create a diversity of positions rather than a unifying one. The thematic approach to “Disappearing Acts” was designed to bridge issues relevant to contemporary artistic practice with issues that are embedded within broader societal and political concerns: in particular, the way the human body is being re-conceptualised by technological and ecological changes. 

Organised as a large-scale group exhibition, “Disappearing Acts” features a diverse selection of international contemporary artists, with many works commissioned especially for LIAF 2015. Does LIAF serve as a platform for new discoveries in the art world? Are there any currently well-known artists who were discovered at LIAF?

Matt Packer: This is not really a direct priority for us, but it’s true that part of the objective of a large-scale exhibition platform like LIAF is to create new opportunities for emerging artists. In its history, LIAF has presented works by artists such as Gillian Wearing, Lawrence Weiner, AK Dolven, Ken Lum, Olafur Eliasson, Mari Slaattelid, Elmgren & Dragset, Gardar Eide Einarsson, Pipilotti Rist, Geir Tore Holm, Eija Liisa Athila, Jesper Just, Amar Kanwar, Tori Wrånes, Michel Auder, Kjersti Andvig, John Giorno, Lene Berg, Lindsay Seers, David Horvitz, Mahmoud Khaled, HC Gilje, Karl Larsson, Shilpa Gupta, István Csácány, Lisa Tan, and many more. It’s a long list of well-known and lesser-known artists. Some of them have, of course, established a profile within their own national context, but for whatever reason, it hasn't extended internationally for everyone. Often this has little to do with the quality of the artwork or the commitment to their practice. 

Does the festival mainly focus on Nordic artists? How much we can see from domestic, i.e., Norwegian, artists?

Matt Packer: LIAF does not have a mandate to present Nordic artists, but as curators, we wanted to create an exhibition that would be resonant within the particular context of the Lofoten Islands and Northern Norway, which, in some proportion, meant working with artists that were familiar with this context. Of the Norwegian artists presenting in “Disappearing Acts”, we have artists of different generations and profiles: Sissel Blystad, Jon Benjamin Talleras, Mercedes Mulheisen, Steinar Haga Kristensen, and Roderick Hietbrink (originally from the Netherlands, but now living in Oslo), with many of these artists producing new work.