Manuscript for my paper presentation at a research seminar in the National Research Project -Drama, Theatre and Democracy ( http://prosjekt.hib.no/drama/ ). The presentation was followed by a session supervisied by Prof. Em. Baz Kershaw. Trondheim 15.10.15.
How to transform your own story into an art form?This is a question many artists, researchers or students ask them selves. I also did, 6 years ago. I was ready to challenge myself. I wanted to explore the artistic process, like I challenged my students. I wanted to do artistic research in big scale. I wanted to work interdisciplinary together with talented colleagues. And I wanted to search for an art form for my own experiences: The journey I started at, at the age of 16.
As chronically ill and a believer in God, I often felt that my story was not worth listening to. Both things – chronically ill and a believer in God – were stereotyped in media. Chronical ill – you are a victim of the health system. A believer in God – you are naive and little bit stupid or just out for judging others. As chronically ill, I did not see myself as a victim , but as a vulnerable and strong person, managing to find my path though life the last 16 years. As a believer in God, I often felt my spiritual experiences were irrelevant in the public sphere. This was in contrast to the importance I experienced the faith contributed to through my dark times, and how a relation to God enlightened my inner life – and made me get to know myself better.
These three approaches – challenging myself artistically, the experience as being chronically ill and a believer in God, made me want to step into the arena, into the public sphere. I did not want to hide anymore. I was shaky, but ready to lift my voice and start exploring, through art. The result became the music and video installation I himmelsynet ( In Sight of Heaven). In my Norwegian dialect ”himmelsyn” refers to the most distant mountains, the boundary between heaven and earth. The project explored the suffering human’s relation to itself, to God and the challenges of being chronically ill.
Jürgen Habermas held a speech called ”Religion in the public sphere”, given in 2005 when he was awarded with the Holberg Prize in Bergen. There he challenge the society to open up for more knowlegde-sharing about religion in the public sphere. Habermas’s concept of the public sphere “is a realm within social life in which public opinion can be formed and which is accessible to all” . Habermas claims that public sphere is a product of democracy.
I wanted to share nuances about experiences of illness and faith, and take part in the formation of the public opinion. But if the public sphere is accessible for all, why did I feel it was not room for my practice-based experience? The focus in Habermas’ speech, together with the content of Human Rights §18, which claims a persons freedom of ”in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief”, fueled my vision.
So how did I want to share my experiences in the public sphere? In the beginning more as a clear argument in artistic form, being almost like a preacher. But gradually, during the first year of the project, my supervisor gave some inputs, and I realized that dialogue opens up for nuances, that monologues and debates seldom gives. My interest became to explore how to make an art installation presenting both illness and faith, at the same time as it opened up for the audiences experiences and beliefs.
The key question became: How to create a visual, dramatic and audiotive language presenting experiences of faith and illness, that also opens up for the audiences participation? In the exhibition catalogue I describe it as this: ”We hope the arts installation will be a catalyst to sincere conversations about our path through life. For in sincere conversations with others – and with ourselves – there is meeting and sharing, rather than argument.”
The four year long process ended in an arts exhibition at the Bergen City Museum – the Leprosy museum, during summer season 2013. As I mentioned, this was an interdisciplinary process. Torkell Bernsen, from The School of Art and Design in Bergen, did the motion graphics and the video production, Odd Torleiv Furnes, NLA University College, did the composing and production of surround music and Sverre Stokke, NLA University College, contributed as a metal worker and esthetic consultant. I couldn’t do it without them!
A web-page was set up, promoting the exhibition and documenting the events. I edited the exhibition catalogue, which you can take a look at. The editing idea was to make it more like a theatre program, offering reflective texts in addition to reflecting the visual design of the installation. I invited three writers to attend, in addition to myself, and Sigurd Sandmo, the head curator at Bergen City Museum wrote the following:
“We listened carefully when the Artistic Coordinator behind In Sight of Heaven contacted the Leprosy Museum. We immediately recognised that this project, in words and images, moved through a landscape strangely familiar and meaningful to the museum staff. At the outset, we underscored that the Leprosy Museum has a policy of religious neutrality, and of refraining from participation in proselytising or preaching – but we also know that the museum’s social role is complex. We do far more than provide visitors access to Norway’s fascinating history of leprosy treatment; we also aim to give opportunity for reflection to the visitors of this unique hospital. There are many nuances in the historical universe of diseases. In Sight of Heaven touches on the experiences of people suffering from disease, of which history is so full, experiences that in our age are met with doubt and uncertainty. While the project may not give us new knowledge about disease, In Sight of Heaven invites us to see our human experience in a greater context.”
(Presentation of pictures and video from the installation)
This year we started the systematic work of analyzing the artistic process, with the aim of publishing a peer review multimodal text. Already in 2010, we discussed the form of our documentations and decided not to write a reflective journal alongside the artistic process, since we wanted to escape from academic restrictions and rather search for the hands-on artistic flow, suggest in the Norwegian book Kunstfaglig og pedagogisk FoU : Nærhet, distanse, dokumentasjon by Else Marie Halvorsen (2007).
There are several approaches to the analyzing process, and I am just in the beginning of that process. I want to briefly present two interesting aspects:
(1) Framing As a drama practitioner, I am used to be present when doing a performance or arts lecture. As part of challenging my artistic skills, I wanted to test how I could create an arts installation without any humans present, and still use drama theory about framing, transformation and interaction.
When entering video galleries, I often felt the lack of awareness for the space needed to create a connection between the screen and the audience. My body seldom got involved. I wanted to see if the theory of embodied experience in drama could strengthen a video installation. We created the cube, invited the audiences to take of their shoes and enter the white room. We wanted to make a space for associations. We set up a physical frame work and placed the arts installation in a hospital museum, helping the audience to engage. Some questions arise:
• What set of dramatic, visual and audiotive tools did we use to create the connection between the physical space and the screen?
• Do a multimodal poem, like the arts installation, opens up for the audience’s interpretations?If so, in which way?
• In witch way do the physical context affect the audiences experiences and interpretations?
We collected some feedback from the audience during the National Research Days in 2013, addressing these questions.
• How can an artist transform his/her story beyond a sentimental and private sphere?
• Which theatrical/arts techniques might be used to speed up this process?
• Did any transformation happen, for the artists and/or the audiences?
I am just getting into the field of transformative theory and I have not read much about it yet, but it seems like the categories of quantitative, qualitative and structural transformations , cover parts of my experiences during the artistic process. The quantitative refers to transformed knowledge about theme and form, qualitative to the transformed understanding of a phenomena, and structural to the fundamental change in the way a person understand herself, others, the environment, society etc.
A last comment
I have used years and hundreds of hours of my research and development time in creating this piece of art. But how is this work accredited in academia? – Not at all. The National system does not include Artistic Research in the incentive for academic publications, if you are a researcher at a university or university college with both art programs and more traditional academic programs. Only the arts schools get his. Several institutions, both nationally and locally, have investigated how to include artistic research in the accrediting system. Few of them are getting any closer to a solution. At NLA University College we have negotiated and we do actually get internal incentives for a peer review artistic production. Not getting incentives for our artistic production, is a way of systematically not accepting the way the arts produce knowledge. That is a democratic problem in higher education in Norway.