The last oil-workers to leave norwegian rigs after the great “scrubbing”. Photo: Tomoya Flesvig, from Snipp Snapp Snute exhibition at Norwegian Cultural History Museum (2067).
An unresolved nostalgia haunts new exhibition remembering the end of oil and gas-excavation in Norway.
“We wanted to mark that an era in Norwegian history is over. There has been so much focus on the future that we have forgotten to look back and say, well, that was that,”(Dagbladet, 03. august, 2067). This is what the creators themselves say about the new exhibition “Snipp Snapp snute“, an exhibition that has brought debate-forums in most of this country’s newspapers to boiling-point.
The task of holding “repast for the oil age” has at least been taken seriously by the creators. In the well-filled rooms of the new “flourbag”-building NOCH (Norwegian Cultural History Museum, drawn by architectural firm Bernhard the dealerAS) you are sucked into nostalgia. But it is a nostalgia that lacks warmth, a troubled nostalgia. It’s like stepping into the shelf above the fireplace for a few hours, but also remembering a grandfather you had a difficult relationship with.
Photographer Tomoya Flesvig is responsible for most of the content, together with celebrity-anthropologist Siri Hylland Spjeldnæs Herbjørnsrud. The photography is in black and white and sepia colors, timeless markers for “olden days”. Some show offshore activity, but most are from recent times around the winding up of oil activity on Norwegian oil-fields. The place of honor has been given to a photograph that has become iconic (which has also been printed in Morgenbladet). It shows a group of Norwegian oil-workers with their backs to the camera (as well as the back of the former Minister of Petroleum and Energy if you look closely). They are waving at a helicopter that has just taken off. From the helicopter, a fat man in mink fur with dark brown hair and Rayban glasses waves back. This is Eric Barnard, CEO of Neptune Energy. As is well known, he was the last representative of a multinational oil-giant to leave Norway, in a symbolic ceremony after the great so-called “scrubbing” of the Norwegian Sea.
Snipp, Snapp, Snute succeeds where many a historical exhibition fails; it avoids being dull, even for its youngest patrons. This is partly thanks to the different types of objects on display. Tomoya Flesvig has obtained an old “Equinor” sign, and the artwork of Henrik Olai Kaarstein “Gas-infused rag in dripping pot of oil on stove” has been loaned to the exhibition from Gether Contemporary in Copenhagen.
The most striking thing about the exhibition, however, is the voice-recordings, which can be heard through real plastic headphones. These are part of Siri H.S. Herbjørnsrud’s doctoral project. Some of the selected sound clips are heartbreaking, there was not a dry eye at the front door of NOCH, at least among us who remembered the intensity of the time of the great scrubbing. “Families were divided,” says former Offshore engineer Karl Heggerud through the earphones; “The worst thing was probably that my children were so livid at me. You shit on the future, they said. And then I got angry too, I’m still not talking to one of my sons. All the work on the rig, the learning, the technology development… it was all in order to to secure Norwegian futures. It was for kids. It was for them, all for them!”.
Approximately 200,000 Norwegians were employed, directly or indirectly in the petroleum industry in 2019. It took only ten short years from Norway stopping to search for oil in 2031, to the great scrubbing of the Norwegian Sea. Meanwhile, we witnessed the total reorganization of former Equinor to what we today know as Grønn Kraft, as well as explosive growth of the offshore wind-industry. My granddaughter can not even imagine painting a sea landscape without the mills. When she was very little she thought they were part of the sea, I remember. Now she is with me at this exhibition and I try to tell that when I was young, the oil-industry was the most important in Norway, that it was completely normal to work in that industry. That there were no mills. She responds with the word young people say about everything and nothing nowadays: “Grandma, Rakasha!”. She simply does not believe me.
Former offshore safety inspector Eva-ann Knutsen: “Everyone put on their “climate glasses”, and then we became the bad guys. It hit me hard, even though I was offered a new job. I considered signing up for NV [Guardians of the Nation]. Fortunately, I did not, but the bitterness lasted a long time,”.
Focusing on the social and psychological consequences of the end of the Norwegian “oil-fairytale” is what sets this exhibition apart from the rest. Few have dared to broach the topic. “We have moved on, and there is no point in dwelling on the past,”. These are the words of Minister for Development Sol Hulda Fredheim: “The consequences of dwelling on the past have been shown by the inhuman actions of the organization that calls itself Guardians of the Nation. The green shift had to take place. It was necessary to get it done quickly, most upright people understand that now,”.
Had there been a parliamentary election tomorrow, the red-greens would not have won the majority, the latest super-poll has shown. This is due to a sharp decline in the popularity of Fredheim’s party, GFN (Green Future for Norway, formerly Extinction Rebellion Norway). This exhibition is a timely reminder that the rapid green transition is yet to be processed and reconciled in society at large. “It took me a long time to grasp it, and I’m not alone in that,” Eva-ann Knutsen continues through real plastic headphones: “I have been hiking a lot, around the Bleikvassli mine, it is right next to where we live. I walk and think. I especially think about coalworkers and the miners of olden day, the people who worked in places like that. We kind of have something in common now. But I have moved on. There is something about understanding that what was good for the future in the past, may not be good for the future in the present,”.
Snipp, Snapp, Snute will remain in NOCH for a year, until September 13, 2068.
*First published in Klassekampen saturday 18th september 2021, all rights reserved.
Image: Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen. 1975. MoMA, New York.
In the documentary Hypernormalisation (2016), Adam Curtis raises the issue of art’s depoliticization in the late 1970s. He aregues that artists, or at least the radical ones Curtis was interested in, mostly from the Anglosphere, turned away from collective forms of action and tried to change society from within using their art. It was all related to exhaustion after the hyperpolitical 1960s and early 1970s and the momentous transformations they allowed, including the Civil Rights movement and the Event of 1968. Despite that, the artists felt their efforts were going nowhere. As artists retreated into themselves, Curtis argues, neoliberalism took hold of the political economy and the overall culture created fantasies to be able to deal with an increasingly complex world. Putting it simply: the culture moved faster than the artists.
The result for art was an overall sense of self-satisfaction, as if the act itself was enough, and the old wounds were left to fester. The purulence of the Reagan/Thatcher/Washington consensus years went on and gave birth to a new kind of surveillance capitalism we are now enjoying. Contradictions upon contradictions became too heavy to bear, however. Never something to be relied on, neoliberalism’s moral authority all but collapsed in the space between 2008 and 2020 (global financial crisis, destructive financial austerity, and finally, the rise of neo-fascism in the Western world). But something else seems to have become reinvigorated in the Western world, and it’s politicized art with a temporal and utopian inspiration. It stands in opposition to the notion that the death of utopia had canceled any other future beyond capitalism, as many commercialized apocalyptic and dystopian visions since the 1980s have show, exuding a sense of hopelessness that emerges from neoliberalism. Socially conscious futurisms offer the inverse.
As these notes will show later on, politically-charged artistic practice continued expanding in the margins of the world where the dark utopia of neoliberalism only represented a continuation of everyday dystopia in places long afflicted by the ravages of colonialism and Western imperialism. The current moment in the West, which had been fermenting for some time, at least since 1999’s protests against the WTO meeting, gained momentum following the 2008 financial crisis (Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring), has put politics again at the center of social speculation. In this sense, the disillusionment in the West offers hope for change.
HBO recently broadcast to acclaim the six-part series White Lotus, about a week of vacation in Hawaii in the lives of White wealthy Americans. In the manner of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s criticism from within (The Great Gatsby), the series shows how privilege can be self-reinforcing and destructive to those around it and how money engenders mechanics of class and hierarchy. It stands as one example of mainstreaming of radical ideas. Redemption lies in radical action (criminal expropriation) and abandoning technology toward a new sociability and nature contemplation (a teenaged son of a wealthy family embraces the traditional ways of Hawaiian natives and discovers the beauty of nature after his electronics are washed out to sea and amid his alienation due to sibling rivalry).
Another example of the the transition from radical art to radical action stands at hear of Mijke de Jong’s Stop Acting Now (2016). A collaboration with Dutch-Flemish artist collective Wunderbaum, the mockumentary depicts the group’s actors finishing their latest politically-charged project with attempts to change the world on a personal level. The actors turn to local efforts, innovative companies and community organizing, all with a strong sense of anticipation for a better future. The devil is in the details, however, and the vicissitudes of human interactions (anger, greed, competition) get in the way of utopian action and show the wide difference between well-intentioned idealism and actualization.
Theatre provides important ways of thinking about politics and aesthetics, as understood from the theorizations of Bertolt Brecht and his v-effekt. Brecht believed that inducing alienation in audiences by repeatedly breaking the illusion of mimesis would help them see the intersections of complex socio-historic trends and personal action. Both v-effekt and the “estrangement” posited by Darko Suvin in his influential explanation of science fictionality derive from Viktor Shklovsky’s theory of ostranenie (“making it strange,” or defamiliarization). Estrangement is both the deferred meaning crucial to creation nudging the audience to see the world in new ways. In the 1960s and 1970s, Augusto Boal in Brazil took the Brechtian proposition one step further with the Theatre of the Oppressed, directly engaging art practice in emancipatory action to turn spectators into “spect-actors.” He sought to raise awareness of the political by making audiences “know the body” — both the individual and collective one; making the body expressive and, crucially for contemporary futurism movements, using the theatre as both language and discourse.
Considering how art can create positive feedback loops with cultural movements, the role of science fiction in this emergent culture (in the manner identified by Raymond Williams when differentiating structures of feeling) is one of “fictioning” as a speculative blank space while the communities of readers and writers, the mass cultural genre side of science fiction, becomes a social technology when repurposed for activist ends. Undoubtedly, social activists had long been developing networked forms of intelligence while working toward emancipation goals. These networks seem to be blending into the science-fictional ones, albeit not without significant collective effort, as the travails of puppygate show.
How can we reverse engineer these processes to better understand them? Breaking down the linearity between Futurism in the early 20th century and today’s Accelerationist movement is one way. Futurism called for the glorification of technology and velocity before the First World War and had a considerable impact worldwide. Futurism became eponymous with a sense of modernity and novelty, as well as the instrumentalization of technology in culture and politics. Russian artists embraced it during the Soviet Revolution until political realities deemed them too disturbing to the rising new order. In Latin America, José Carlos Mariátegui (Peru, 1894-1930) was heavily influenced by Italian Futurism and Antonio Gramsci when he sought to apply Indigenous communities to a new form of progress. In Brazil and Argentina, it inspired nationalistic artistic movements that problematized Latin America’s search for differentiation from Europe and for forging a native culture from transculturality. Italian Futurism later devolved into an ancillary arm of fascism, losing its impulse amid the more negative aspects of its genesis, mainly the cult of violence and a deeply misogynistic nature.
Accelerationism, for its part, emerged from the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) that formed at the University of Warwick in the 1990s. Soaked in the triumphant moment of Western capitalism following the Soviet Union’s collapse, it also glorified technology and modernity, seeking to embrace it in combination with an infections jouissance that was equal parts satire of academic self-importance and serious innovative theorization. Among its concepts was hyperstition, or the notion of ideas that impose themselves into the culture and shape it, operating within a scrambled temporality in which imaginations of the future influence the present. Akin to the idea of meme coined by Richard Dawkins (not unlike today’s memes of internet culture but grounded on evolutionary theory), hyperstition is best exemplified by art practices that use techniques of speculative fiction. Fictioning of myth-science, as Goldsmiths College’s Simon O’Sullivan puts it, seems to be in full swing these days with the global spread of Afrofuturism and the growing clout of Indigenous Futurism in visual arts, literature, and fashion.
Like Italian Futurism before it, these movements emerge through manifestoes and acts of self-assertion. Thus, for example, one might announce the creation of a particular type of Futurism or seek to identify them. Of course, all of this is valid in the game, and these intervention techniques are akin to those employed by SF to define its boundaries. But if futurist actions are boundary objects of their existence, then what makes such fictioning practices real? I therefore argue that a critical mass of participants and cultural importance is what makes these futurisms real. As much as one would like to intervene in culture, and they are certainly free to do so, a simple action can be a part but not the endgame of any futurism. If there are not many people adopting the hyperstitional notion posited by a futurism, it only retains a spectral existence. Still, if adopted by a sufficiently large number of people, it enacts fiction into reality through collaborative practice.
Also like its Italian ancestor before it, Accelerationism embodies the old idea of technology as pharmakon. Technology can liberate or oppress; humankind’s relationship with technics is both creative and destructive; moreover, members of the same fertile movement that emerged from the CCRU lately turned to reactionary right-wing politics, all in the desire to enact enough of an acceleration that would destroy capitalism. Conversely, Brazilian Afrofuturists and Canadian Indigenous futurists have reached enough critical mass that their effect on the cultural imagination to enact a kind of change that defies co-optation and represents more than just destruction or surrender to technology. For the first time, neoliberalism may have found an opponent that does not let itself be assimilated but instead assimilates and changes the very essence of that which wants to domesticate its power, in the same way that it turns Western science and technology on itself.
Yuk Hui’s proposal of technodiversity might offer a way out of this duality, but its density and broad arch require a deeper discussion. In essence, Hui’s project is to transcend the dominant cosmotechnic of capitalism and Western technology. Through the emergence of non-Eurocentric forms of doing things, to put it simply, we may escape the cancelation of the future. By forcefully occupying spaces previously denied, the actual futurisms described above represent one step forward.