Interview with Goll & Nielsen, Fuse Magazine 2004

Fuse: Goll & Nielsen skirts the borders of a number of practices. Could you tell us how you characterize your work and collaboration?

Tone: Goll & Nielsen consists of two people: Morten Goll who is a visual artist and myself Tone O. Nielsen, an independent curator. We started collaborating as Goll & Nielsen parallel to our individual practices in 1998. Goll & Nielsen runs parallel to our individual work and allows us both to step into different roles and hybridize the conventional roles of the artist and the curator. We are also interested in negotiating or bridging the conventional gap between aesthetics and activism and the gallery space and public space. You could say that all our projects are based on efforts to create alternative community structures or informational structures that will eventually lead to the disturbance of stereotypical notions of identity.

Morten: Something that runs through all the Goll & Nielsen projects is that we produce platforms to facilitate meetings and exchanges – not just for the meeting or the exchange itself, but in order to create a development or process of change of some kind. There is a notion of pragmatism in all of Goll & Nielsen’s projects, meaning we don’t start out with an utopian idea about what we would like to create. Instead we look at the site and start with its reality.

Fuse: How do you position yourself in relation to the sites with which you work?

Tone: Usually we work with sites that are familiar to us. In the case of our Vandervoort Place Project in Brooklyn, we lived in the neighborhood for one year. For us “site-specific” means that we bring voices of a particular site, often very conflicting voices, to the forefront and create a platform where these voices can be heard and exchanged. There is always a great degree of self-reflexivity in our projects; we are always very aware of our own identities in relation to the site and of biased viewpoints. Our project for Mercer Union in Toronto in December this year will actually be the first time that we have been commissioned to do a project at a site that we are not familiar with.

Fuse: Do you want to say what you intend to do in Toronto?

Tone: We are producing a project entitled Niagara Falls Artist Host Program. In light of the challenges posed by migration in the era of capitalist globalization and the ways Western countries have responded to these by a continuous tightening of their immigration, integration, and asylum policies, we propose to create an artist host program. The program will set up its office in the gallery spaces of Mercer Union and work to establish lasting professional friendships between artists with a refugee/immigrant background and well-connected Canadian artists. For the duration of the show, the program will recruit volunteer hosts and guests, organize talks on the topic of Canadian Immigration and Asylum Law, and mount exhibitions/events by the various guests and hosts.

Morten: For us, site-specificity requires not only an analysis of geography or topography but also what is socially specific to a site.

Fuse: Can you talk about this model of site-specificity in relation to one of your projects?

Morten: In The Evening School, we really wanted to talk about all the different ethnicities that presently populate the Oresound Region (northern part of Denmark and southern part of Sweden) but which are not all included in or do not all fit with the notions of “Danishness” or the “Swedishness.” The Oresound Region was established when the Danish and Swedish governments decided to build a bridge between the two countries in 2000 and there was all of this political rhetoric promoting a new type of identity – the so-called “Sound-Regioner.” For us, this was an excuse to start a conversation about the construction of national identities, inclusion, and exclusion. The citizens in the region were being told that they were no longer Swedes or Danes, but “Sound-Regioners.” Goll & Nielsen took this situation as its starting point for a new project. For three weeks, we established an evening school in the gallery spaces of Gallery Signal in Malmoe, Sweden, during which the public was invited to attend fifteen different courses dealing with various aspects of Danish and Swedish culture and national identity. The courses were conceptualized and held by various artists, historians, activists, architects, anthropologists, etc. invited by us and neither of the course instructors fit the category of “Dane” or “Swede”. With The Evening School, we wanted to provide a constructive platform for alternative identity building and considered the bridge a somewhat euphoric moment to be grasped for the deconstruction of national identity.

Fuse: Was there a cultural program that was attached to that political rhetoric around the promotion of this new Swedish-Danish culture?

Tone: There was a huge official program called “Culture Bridge”. It was supported by 50 million Danish and Swedish tax crowns. But it didn’t support bi-national collaborations, only projects being done on either side of the bridge designed to attract the other to the other side.

Morten: It was more about bringing the Danish Opera to Sweden so that the Swedes could hear them and continue to build on this magnificent stereotypical notion of what Danish culture is and vice versa. It was the stereotype notion of culture, which once again was being abused to re-enforce national identity.

Fuse: What were the economic motivations for the bridge and the cultural alliance?

Tone: The two nations had been wanting to build a bridge between Denmark and Sweden for hundreds of years, but couldn’t agree.

Morten: By the 1990s, some really large industrial corporations in Sweden were lobbying for a freeway system called “Scanlink”. Scanlink’s purpose was to connect Sweden and Germany. Before the bridge was constructed one had to use ferries to transport goods from Sweden to central Europe. But they could not have that bridge without the Danish and Swedish governments paying for it through tax crowns. In order for that to happen, they couldn’t just come out and say that actually Volvo needed a bridge to go to Germany. As it happened, the bridge leads the Scanlink freeway through Denmark and both the Danish and the Swedish tax payers payed for it.

Tone: The Sound Region was also an attempt to create a new investment sector for EU capital and foreign investors. Compared to California, where Morten and I lived for five years and had the opportunity to see how border issues are analyzed and worked through artistically and theoretically in a very sophisticated manner, we were astonished by the way Danish and Swedish media, politicians, and cultural producers simplified or ridiculed the issue of the bridge by producing simplified “hybrid” projects that completely failed to engage issues of globalization and post-colonialism. One of these projects involved artists planting trees that were then forced to grow together to form this perfect union, symbolizing the coming together of Swedes and Danes.

Morten: We also wanted to work with the rhetoric surrounding the bridge. To us, there was a discrepancy between how the bridge was talked about as a cultural meeting point by politicians and corporations and their actual intentions with the bridge. They promoted the bridge as this coming together of two nations, but they never made any effort to adjust Danish and Swedish legislation to one another in order to allow the two populations to integrate in terms of work and taxes. In other words, the two governments were never really interested in fogging-up the national borders or national identities. So that was the point where Goll & Nielsen decided to insert ourselves. We took them on their word and pushed it. The idea of The Evening School was to invite all who felt excluded from the official national identities of the two countries to get together and start a process of redefining and developing more inclusive identity models. Naturally, this led us to address not only the ethnic Danes and Swedes who deviate from these national identity models, but all the immigrant and refugee communities of the region who are not included in them at all. In a way, the project proposed a model of integration, but a model in which the host country identity model is up for change, as much as the newcomer cultures. The vision of The Evening School was that all the different citizens of The Sound Region should be invited to meet one another, enjoy the different courses, and create an inclusive Sound-Regioner identity model based on the new gained knowledge, partly from the courses, partly from meeting other Sound-Regioners of different cultural backgrounds.

Tone: The logo we chose to use for The Evening School was a photo taken of the Crown Prince of Denmark kissing the Crown Princess of Sweden on the cheek in the middle of the bridge on the day of its inauguration, the kiss symbolizing the meeting between the two countries. The photo is strangely awkward and if you look closely it is because the Crown Prince is stepping on the toes of the Crown Princess. The photo thus captures the moment of alienation present in any meeting and this was exactly what The Evening School was all about. You cannot just join two peoples, it takes a negotiation of some kind.

Fuse: Can you highlight courses at The Evening School? Did people talk about the program of the two governments and their reinforcement of the ideology of the nation-state?

Tone: A very inspiring anthropologist, Kathrine Winther Adelsparre, did a really great workshop where she was brainstorming with the participants about what the real economical-political motivations of the bridge were and then looked historically at the different attempts to draw Swedes and Danes together. She had done a tremendous amount of research on how people felt about the bridge and also looked at how various businessmen and corporations and politicians felt. So it was a very adequate and precise analysis of the situation.

Morten: Most of the courses dealt with breaking down stereotypical notions of the other or of oneself for that matter. Some courses functioned as quite constructive vehicles for the construction of alternative models. The Swedish artist, Petri Rappana, engaged a professional tango instructor to do a course called “Tango Course for Men.” During this course, sixteen men (both straight and gay) were able to, in a very practical way, renegotiate the masculine identity. During the class, the instructor made the men alternate between being the leader or the follower in the dance. Also, the two artists Karin I.M. Johansson and Annika Lundgren did a course called “Living It Up in the Sound Region.” The course was an attempt to critique the stereotype notions flourishing on both sides of the Sound about the drinking habits of the other. The course was in two parts: a theoretical lecture and then field trips to Danish and Swedish bars. It was crucial for the course that both Swedes and Danes participated.

Tone: One thing that was interesting about The Evening School was that it got a tremendous amount of press. We made it a priority to spend a very large part of the budget for communication and public relations. We thus produced 5,000 free evening school programs, 5,000 flyers, and 1,000
posters and made a lot of effort to distribute these beyond our usual art mailing list. The programs were distributed to cultural organizations, youth programs, and ethnic minority programs. We had them on the ferries, on the trains that go over the bridge, and in every café we could think of in Copenhagen and Malmoe. And we contacted high schools and universities in both cities and real evening schools and also tried to sell particular courses to school classes and so forth. We also sent out weekly announcements stating what courses were going to take place that week through email to a huge mailing list. But still, the first week, we didn’t have that many participants. Some courses had five participants and some had ten, but then slowly the number of course participants grew and by the third week, we had as many as 35 to 50 participants per course.

Fuse: And they were people from and beyond the art community?

Tone: Yes, but I think in terms of the Danish and Swedish art audiences and audiences in
general, there is always this suspicion. People are always a little reluctant in the beginning – can this be for real? We figured that if the evening school had continued for maybe two to three months, it would have worked better and more people would have come on a more permanent basis. But still, one problem with The Evening School, which we are trying to solve with the Mercer Union project, is that we were trying to address too many audience groups, too many communities, and too many neighborhoods at once.

Morten: The format of The Evening School itself is a very Scandinavian thing. It ties into the labor union history and the social democratic state’s interest in life long education programs for its citizens. However, some of the ethnic minority groups we tried to reach probably just didn’t get the tounge-in-cheek humor that was a part of the project, i.e. the employment of the state’s tool of identity building for a new purpose. In other words, the project claimed to be all-inclusive, but when it came to the strategic language and format of the project it did not address that many minority groups. I actually don’t think it is possible to engage radically different cultures with the same communicational strategy. It’s the same with the art world: we tend to think that our brochures and flyers are open to anyone, that we are potentially all-inclusive. But the design, language, and distribution methods show that most of these brochures really address a very privileged minority, namely the 2% of middleclass kids who constitute the art scene. So, if one wants to engage in a site-specific art practice which includes the social aspect of “the site,” one has to be very specific in terms of the language and format that best serves the purpose. The purpose being to open up a communication platform for a specific audience at a time.

Fuse: How do you help negotiate and construct that?

Tone: Every meeting has real social consequence and that’s why a number of people have
characterized our projects as anthropological. We are trying to analyze different identities and behaviors and attempting to bring them together in a certain way. But we never attempt to explicate the other. Goll & Nielsen’s projects are more a testimony to our inability to and the danger of trying to explicate the other. The Vandervoort Place project, for instance, might look anthropological on the surface: we deliberately played the role of the anthropologist in the low-income neighborhood we were living in in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but we refused to do the field work. In other words, we refused to explain or try to analyze the meaning of the graffiti on our cars. The project was about gentrification and our contribution to it as newcoming artists to the neighborhood, not the hidden message of the graffiti writers on our cars.

Morten: This way we try not to meet our audiences as teachers, but rather as students. The entry point of all our projects is our lack of understanding.

Tone: And our limitations. It is an intentional withdrawal from that privileged position of being able to explain to people how things are. That has always been the fundamental problem of a certain form of community-based art for me – a privileged artist, educationally speaking, class speaking, moving into less-privileged neighborhoods and helping them sort out their social problems, that’s one thing that we’re aware of and trying to play off against.

Fuse: Sounds like you are talking about feeling wary of parachuting into a community and
setting your project up. People like Miwon Kwon have critiqued this parachuting-in approach extensively and this issue was struggled with recently in Ultra-red’s response to Tone’s Democracy When? curatorial project. Do you feel there is a significance to committing to a place and a duration of time within a community context and really interrogating that as artists? Is there an importance to shorter-term durations in your work? Does this relate to your desire not to be seen to fix things?

Tone: I totally agree with Ultra-red that a lot of community-based projects are problematic in that they are often commissioned – since the early 1990s, curators have picked up on it and have commissioned projects from artists, flying them in to play around a specific neighborhood for a period of time and then flying them out again. It’s highly problematic. On the other hand, I think that not all communications are long-term – I mean any relationship will end at a certain point – so you have to be able to within the project itself build a structure for its duration. In Vandervoort Place, we had an ongoing relationship with the graffiti artists who tagged our cars on a daily basis for a year. Their real identities remained unknown to us as we only communicated through the cars. After a year, we decided to move back to LA and felt obliged to close the communication in a decent way. It would have been a disaster to just take off one day with the cars for good without a word. So we left them a message on the cars saying that in a few days we and the cars would be gone. The message explained why and invited them to leave a message on the cars for us to pass on to the West Coast.

Morten: It’s not like a social relationship of limited duration can’t have a lasting impact. The term community does not necessarily imply an everlasting or at least a long-term commitment, not all communities exist for long periods of time. How could a community exist forever in time?

Tone: Ultra-red makes a very important distinction between what they call activist organizing and community organizing. Community organizing being culture-based, working for social change within a specific social fabric on a long-term basis, and activist organizing always reacting to a political or social urgency on a short-term basis. I think Goll & Nielsen shifts between the two. Vandervoort Place was a long-term communication, a dialogue happening at a very specific time between a specific group of people and us for a year. The Evening School was a short-term project about working with people within the specific context of the Sound Region as a case study of economic and political forces in general. OIENL (The Organization for Information on the Effects of neo-Liberalism), our most recent project, is an ongoing project that addresses a variety of different communities in the project’s ongoing analysis of neo-liberalism. The Niagara Falls Artist Host Program we are doing for Mercer Union is to be regarded as a pilot project, initiated by us but envisioned to be carried on without us once we leave Toronto and duplicated elsewhere. Not only can that program continue beyond the termination of the Mercer show, it will also have created meetings and a ready-made model that other artists can take up anywhere where similar conditions exist. We might have facilitated and initiated the project, but it is not dependent upon us – and this is something new for Goll & Nielsen’s practice.

Fuse: The idea of a replicable model seems, from what you said about site-specificity, to really be the other side of the spectrum.

Morten: The part of the program which is replicable is not the aesthetic format or the exterior structure. It is a structure that enables an identity model based on fluidity.

Tone: I think it would be really nice if some of the work we did, if some of the meetings we initiated on a local site could be taken up in other contexts as well, by other people. Now I don’t see that as a contradiction of working site-specifically, I see that as a kind of model that is able to be reproduced and picked up by others. And in that sense, it counters the notion of temporality because the dialogue will extend beyond us.

Fuse: There are people in Toronto and elsewhere who frame work around social activation or the creation of social contexts or social processes in relation to Bourriaud’s analysis of relational aesthetics. Is this something that is useful to you?

Tone: Relational aesthetics has played a huge role in Scandinavian contemporary art since at least the early-1990s. Artist-run spaces were shooting up everywhere featuring shows and artworks that orchestrated meetings of various kinds: audiences were invited to hold hands, cook in the gallery space, play a game, dance or whatever. By the mid-1990s, it had become the trademark of Scandinavia and all art students seemed to be doing it this kind of work. The sad thing is that once it became a trend, it turned into a formalism and lost its potency and social consequence. There is a danger inherent in relational aesthetics when you keep repeating the act. You end up with an act that doesn’t mean anything anymore.

Morten: It is just a formal interest in breaking boundaries of art, paired with a limited social engagement.

Tone: I mean, if all you facilitate is a meeting between people you already know, then it has no real social consequence. In my point of view, this is what was happening in the second generation of relational aesthetics in Denmark. The projects weren’t able to attract audiences outside of the art world and it just became a social situation for your friends.

Morten: Speaking to your own congregation.

Tone: Goll & Nielsen is informed by the legacy of relational aesthetics in the sense that we are interested in facilitating meetings. But they are not pleasant ones or easy ones.

Fuse: There’s an understanding in contemporary philosophy on hospitality that’s about
understanding how one is actually unwelcoming at the very on-set of making a welcoming
gesture. You seem very aware of this.

Morten: It’s a basic concept of communication that we are trying to get a grip on. What does it mean to honestly enter a discussion or enter a dialogue with someone else? An aspect of this dialogue, which is really important is that to know yourself you have to be known by the other. And for the other to know herself, she has to be known by you. So there is a moment where identity is created and it’s the moment of communication. And that’s the fluid identity model I was talking about before. I think the “un-welcoming attitude” you mention has to do with the fact that such a fluid identity is hard to manage. Every meeting has its impact. Fear of the other this way can be seen as fear of who am I to become? But there is no other way than to communicate, for in isolation your stable identity has no meaning nor purpose. It is death.

Fuse: The concept of knowledge and knowing are fundamental to some kind of ethical social relationship, but there are other models of ethical and just social relations that have to do with meeting people that you can never fully understand. So that concept of knowledge could also be seen as a reduction and a thematizing of somebody else on the basis of your own experience. How do you leave room for the specific experiences of those you encounter? Is there an acknowledgement that you can never really fully know?

Tone: I think that’s what the meetings Goll & Nielsen try to construct are all about. The potential of not being able to fully know. It’s a constant trying to put myself in your shoes and knowing that I will never be able to do so, but that I will continue and continue in respect, not tolerance. A complete acknowledgement that you are utterly unknowable to me, but that I care enough to try to find out.

Download pdf file: fuse_feature_04