From Grønland to Khartoum: Natalie Hope O'Donnell and Ben Lignel chat on the move
28 May 2018, towards the end of the day, at the point where the Aker River bends towards Oslo’s Grønland district, Munchmuseet on the Move curator Natalie Hope O’Donnell is meeting Benjamin Lignel, lead resident of ‘Gender and Adornment: Engaging Conversation’; a residency organised by PRAKSIS in collaboration with Norwegian Crafts. Natalie, a former PRAKSIS collaborator through the Norwegian Association of Curators, has visited the residency on three occasions before this discussion: a presentation of her curatorial work; a talk given by Ben about the research on adornment and gender he conducted with Namita Wiggers; and a symposium organised just a few days prior on the ethics of conversation making. The choice of a walk along the river may have to do with a desire to emulate the ambulatory format of Natalie’s programming, or Ben’s assumptions about Norwegians’ love of nature, or simply a desire to be looking together in the same direction. As it turns out, the two quickly park their bodies under a large tree, to protect themselves from heavy rain. Meanwhile, their words meander through three subjects that brought them together: Natalie’s curatorial work, Ben’s research on adornment and gender, and the very question of making conversation.
1. Munchmuseet on the Move and spatiality
Natalie: The reason why I wanted to meet here is because the Aker River separates the west side of Oslo and the east side, and also acts as a perimeter for the location of the project that I curate for the Munch Museum: Munchmuseet on the Move – Contemporary Art. This four-year project consists a series of commissions by largely younger artists in different temporary spaces, indoors and outdoors, in the Munch Museum’s neighbourhood. The art projects are anchored in the local context and characterised by dialogue with different institutions and people living and working in the area. Since 2016, we have commissioned 12 projects from artists in and around the neighbourhood you see here.
Ben: Wow. So, what's the motivation behind the decision to relocate the museum to “Fjord City”, the shorefront part of Oslo which already has the Opera, and will soon have a number of major cultural institutions?
Natalie: Well, the Munch Museum at Tøyen opened in 1963, and there is a need for more space to show the collection of Edvard Munch, and to carry on the work of the Stenersen Museum, which became part of the Munch Museum when it closed in 2015, and had a legacy of showing contemporary art since it opened in 1994. As for location, a new borough has emerged on the waterfront of Oslo in Bjørvika. This area has a number of architect-drawn new buildings, known as the Barcode, housing mainly “acronym” businesses associated with intangible wealth creation: DNB, PWC, KLP. The Barcode runs parallel to the waterfront, and blocked visual access to the fjord for a number of inhabitants who lived further inland: in Grønland, where we are now, Tøyen or the borough of Old Oslo (Gamlebyen). However, a new “cultural layer” is beginning to take shape between the Barcode and the fjord, starting from the Opera House, which has been there for a decade. It includes the new Deichmanske Library and the new Munch Museum, which actually opens up physical access to the waterfront for the people of Oslo (previously, the area was an industrial harbour). One of the things Munchmuseet on the Move tries to do to establish relationships with the neighbourhoods the Munch Museum will be moving through on its one-mile journey down to the waterfront – from Tøyen to Bjørvika. And to continue the conversation after the museum has arrived at its new location.
Ben: I'm super interested in your thinking about spatiality, movement, and identities. I am linking these notions together on the strength of my limited knowledge of your PhD – Space as curatorial practice: the exhibition as a spatial construct – which looked back at three exhibitions that took place in the early seventies at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter. I wonder whether there is a link between the arguments you developed in your thesis and the way that you've embedded the Munchmuseet on the Move program within the city fabric.
Natalie: The idea of the thesis was that an exhibition, a curated exhibition, is basically the unfolding of an argument in space. I came up with a set of five terms for how we might capture these spatial aspects of an exhibition: from the placement of the objects in sequences, the interval between them and the interval that it encouraged between the work and the viewer, and how you, as a viewer, were basically guided around the space in the form of a walk-through, via the architectural programme of the space. I used this model to analyse three exhibitions that the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter put on in the early 1970s. In many ways, Munchmuseet on the Move adopts that kind of approach on a much larger scale, in the public space of the city.
«I'm a big fan of “temporary monuments”, if you like. I think most public art has a “use-by date” on it»Natalie Hope O´Donnell
The area I define for the project is a triangle whose three points consist of the current museum at Tøyen, the new museum being built at Bjørvika, and the alleged site of Munch’s famous painting The Scream. I see this triangle as a kind of outdoor gallery space. So, the argument unfolds in this area. Of course, it's different realizing a commissioned art project in a public space from putting on an exhibition in the safe, controllable environment of the art gallery. But in terms of programming, there are similarities. It means that we look to activate different aspects of the area over a four-year period.
[It starts raining]
Natalie: Within this “Munch Triangle” artists were asked to highlight aspects of the neighbourhood that they were interested in, which had previously been marginalized, overlooked or ignored, this is what I mean by a “queer curatorial approach”. Sam Hultin’s project I’m Every Lesbian – Oslo in 2016, which highlighted the queer history embedded in places, buildings and people across the cityscape, is perhaps the clearest example of this, but also the ultrasound communication that goes on between animals and the built environment’s impact other species that humans in Jana Winderen’s project Rats – Secret Soundscapes of the City in 2017.
Ben: Giving some ephemeral tangibility to past events and places - as Hultin does in their project – is really something I connect with strongly…maybe because Namita and I wonder which shape to give the dissemination of our research… There's something super fragile in the encounters your stage. They are very short meetings, lasting for a few hours, with a spectatorship of a few hundred people, depending on the event. You're asking the people to carry the memory of the event. What other trace, or “legacy”, in art-speak, do you expect this program to leave behind?
Natalie: Apart from the publications, of which there's one for each project, there is video and photographic a documentation available online. And then there is word of mouth. So yes, there is a risk that in 10 years' time, this programme will only exist in people's memories, as was the case with Prosjekt i Gamlebyen (PiG) from 1994, which took place at a time which preceded the ubiquity of images on the Internet. When I first started researching this 10-day “festival” of contemporary art online, there was no information about it – it was only mentioned in a number of PDFs of artists’ CVs, but there was no photographic documentation available. So, nobody in my generation had any idea that the project existed, despite it being super interesting and an important part of recent Norwegian art history. Our first project in Munchmuseet on the Move was, therefore, to restore this project in the “mind’s eye” of an entire generation by making documentary images available, bringing the original organisers together and using it as a point of departure to see how the city of Oslo – and the space for art within it – had changed since 1994. This was done in collaboration with Kunsthall Oslo.
Ben: Could it be that you have a particular fondness for the ephemeral? Something about the fragility of these projects which is part of the way that you want to activate the city?
Natalie: I'm a big fan of “temporary monuments”, if you like. I think most public art has a “use-by date” on it.Maybe we could have drawn some of the projects in Munchmuseet on the Move out a bit longer in time. But I think that these points of activation, and particularly if they're reinforced by some kind of more permanent, portable monument in terms of the publications, are great. It's certainly preferable to some bronze statue staying around for over a hundred years.
Ben: I was wondering: the mobility within that triangular part of the city – the fact that each project takes places in a different area…are you positing this as a form of resistance of some kind?
Natalie: Possibly. I love this idea of an established institution going “off-site”. Particularly when a museum is cast – in the Norwegian institutional landscape – as something quite traditional where conventional forms of mediation take place, and the visitor must “come to us”. I think once you take it off-site and out of this kind of context, you can have a different kind of conversation with people. You may well end up having the conversation with fewer people, but that dialogue may also end up being much more important, since you’re having it on semi-equal platform. In this way, you reach people that you'd never reach otherwise, which I found especially true in the most recent project with TROLLKREM IMPORT, which is this “performance tour” of the Grønland area. When you have an art project in a shopping centre like Grønland Basar, you end up suddenly interacting with a random public, and a lot of people actually turned up for the evening show, having come across us setting up earlier in the day.
[Rain becomes torrential]
Oh, should we seek refuge under that tree?
[As we both sit down and lean back on a large tree trunk, Natalie produces a couple of small fabric and velvet pouches]
«I am, as I jokingly like to say, a militant lesbian, so I struggle sometimes with what jewellery signifies, with the gendered or heteronormative connotations that jewellery has»Natalie Hope O´Donnell
2. Jewellery, identity and the coding of sexual preference
Ben: So, you're gonna show me some jewellery?
Natalie: Ah, yes, my conversational props. I wanted to bring some things that might fit in with the residency theme of gender and adornment. I am, as I jokingly like to say, a militant lesbian, so I struggle sometimes with what jewellery signifies, with the gendered or heteronormative connotations that jewellery has. These are by a gay Swedish jewellery designer named Efva Attling, and her items have basically become markers of lesbian identity, at least in a Scandinavian context. Such as this ring, or necklaces, many of which bear an inscription, which I must admit I’m not a huge fan of.
Ben: So, what do you resent about it?
Natalie: it's mainly to do with the cheesiness of the inscriptions. This pendant, for example, says "Love will conquer all" – in Latin! But in terms of the aesthetics of it, I quite like the plain, chunky jewellery that she makes. Also, I guess I want to support the “sisterhood”, so I buy it regardless of my slight resentment. Not all her pieces are like that, for instance, I got my partner some earrings, little Xs, which I think are supposed to convey a kiss, like the sign-off, but look like an abstraction of a person going “yay” with their arms in the air.
Ben: Yes…it's also very minimal and elegant. If there is any sort of quaintness, it would be purely in the language of it.
Natalie: Yeah. Other than that, I think perhaps it caters to a slightly more to a butch market or borderline femme market.
Ben: Some lesbians we have interviewed tend to avoid certain pieces of jewellery – rings, in particular – which as you just suggested tend to be inextricably associated with heteronormative lifestyles. And so, there's a push-back. I recently met a researcher at French National Institute for Television Archives (INA), Catherine Gonnard, who has been sieving through French broadcasting archives for signs of complicity between lesbians making appearance on the TV set of the 50s. She would be looking for unspoken signs of recognition between “copines”: a nod, a smile, or a sustained, reciprocal gaze between two people who recognized on one another certain markers: a signet ring worn on the pinkie, an ultra-thin ankle bracelet, a turned-up shirt collar. During these early days of television, people weren't really clued in onto the fact that the camera was filming them at all times. And so these women – artists, singers, writers – would recognize one another and do a little sign to say "I know you." Her research is interesting because it speaks to the changing technological environment in which signs of recognition are deployed. It also provides our own research with early example of targeted, refutable disclosure, i.e. the use of sartorial or ornamental codes that are illegible outside a given community. Back to your two examples. I mean, I guess none of these two earrings are doing nearly as much work as the double-axe pendant that you are wearing…
Natalie: Grandma's gold labrys. Well, that has so much emotional significance since she died quite a few years ago, and then mum had it, then she died, and now I have it. So, it feels as if it's almost magical, you know? Imbued with all this female power handed down through three generations.
Ben: Do you sometimes navigate certain spaces where you will need to remove certain signs of your community, or sexual preferences, or whatever? You're wearing very little that would...apart from, maybe, the pendant, that is readable.
Natalie: Perhaps not, but I've also got an undercut, which is readable sign to many. I have a good friend in London who goes to barbershops and gets a proper fade. I think we both enjoy the idea of hair as a very obvious marker. She's working in the Middle East now, so she has to grow out her hair to a more conventional style. Whereas I rarely feel like I need to pass as straight. But you think this [the labrys] is the only thing that indicates that I'm gay?
Ben: Well, that's the only thing that, for me, is a non-refutable sign, if such a thing exists.
Natalie: Right, but I think very few people get it. I think it's more like the pinkie ring you were discussing earlier – it’s hardly like a rainbow flag. I don't think that many people can read it – certainly not here.
Ben: Really? Tell me about the Vigeland ring.
Natalie: The Tone Vigeland ring was given to my mum when she worked at Buskerud Kunstnersenter in the early 1990s. I think that was a gift to her from them when she left. She used to call it “the knuckleduster”.
Ben: Oh, your mother had to fight?
Natalie: Well, not literally, but metaphorically. So, after I inherited it, I don't wear it very often. I reserve that for the kind of occasions where I need to be in battle mode.
These cufflinks were given to me by my supervisor for my Ph.D. Mark Cousins, at the Architectural Association. He would not give me very much feedback at all, but occasionally he would have really pointed things to say. These cufflinks were his; he found them and home, and he said, "I think you should have them. I've noticed your shirts." It’s only in the last few years I've started wearing shirts that require cufflinks, and this felt like a cementation of my style, a form of “passing” almost.
Ben: So, how do these cufflinks fit in your look?
Natalie: Men's tailoring for women has become fashionable relatively recently, at least for me. I know that butch lesbians of times past would have certain places where they would have tailor-made suits and the like, but that seemed a bit too much like “dressing up” or drag for me. So, I was really happy when a certain sort of gender neutral look, based on “gentlemen’s fashion” became more common, such as brogues for women. I’ve got a pair from Paul Smith, actually, which is a man's shoe made for women. It became easier to access for those of us who were the wrong shape – too small – for men’s clothes. There's a really good blog from a gay woman based in New York, called "A Dapper Chick", which shows an array of possibility if you like to play with these sartorial forms.
Ben: Yeah, I wanna stay a bit with this notion of female masculinity...I am thinking about a book by Jack Halberstam and Del Lagrace Volcano, “The Drag King Book”, which was released in 1999, I think. It looks at the drag king scenes in San Francisco, in New York and in London, which both authors describe as very different. Their texts and photographs document various forms of drag, paying particular attention to the models of masculinities that are being channelled by woman-identified people, on stage and off-stage. The book advocates for separating “masculinity” from being “bio-male” and “femininity” from being “bio-female”. One of the idea the book defends is that butch lesbians are not dressing up “like men”, they're expressing a female masculinity. Does that distinction operate for you?
Natalie: No, not for me. I think so-called female drag and male drag are not that different. I've always seen it as a caricature of the traits of the stereotypes via exaggerated impersonation it. However, drag queen shows in general seem more celebratory to me than male drag. The drag king tends to be based on the sleazy guy, and flirts more with negative stereotypes, often in an ironic way. Within that, there is play with a certain desirability, which comes from a knowing distance from the impersonated subject: you might have some of the trappings of the sleazy cowboy, but there is also something really hot in that you are obviously not that, but savvy enough to recognize the its characteristics. That’s certainly how the drag king aesthetic works for me.
Ben: Do you think there's a masculinity that is separate from men?
Natalie: We probably will think something different associated with the terms "masculine" and "feminine," but these are established concepts to some degree that enable conversation, right? Or else we're just talking at cross-purposes. But they are insufficient at times, this is why I quite like subdivisions of established terms, such as “stone butch”, “soft butch”, “regular butch”, or the “bossy bottom”. All these kinds of terms which allow one to refer to – or see oneself – across a spectrum of different performances of gender or sexual identity.
I remember going to L.A. in 2015 to finish up my Ph.D. at the Getty, and I was complaining to some lesbian friends that I had a little problem with the word "dyke". I was all for reclaiming this derogatory term, but I had a problem with referring to myself as "dyke." I had a studio with Catherine Opie, and I was whinging to her about this, when she went off and returned from her loft with a baseball cap from her exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The cap says "dyke" in these really ornate, old-fashioned letters, like it refers to a heavy metal band, and she gave it to me. And so now, every Oslo Pride, I put it on, take a picture, and send it to Cathy. I wear it with pride at Pride, as it were, although that’s only an annual event, so I guess it’s work in progress. I think this indicates the way people struggle with language and to find terms that they are comfortable with, which I gather was an issue during the residency that you and PRAKSIS put together?
«Some of the issues that have been brought up are what steps need to be taken towards creating a respectful, inclusive, trusting environment; whether conversation are good tools for learning; who does the knowledge produced during the residency belong to.»Ben Lignel
3. The residency, and the challenge of making conversation
Ben: So, the residency was split in two sessions. The first session was devoted to sharing individual research on the gender work of adornment, using readings, screenings, discussions. The second session, meanwhile, is focusing on the ethics of collecting, processing and publishing personal life accounts. That plan was partly derailed by an ongoing discussion about how we set up conversations, and what we hope to achieve through them. And so in retrospect, we spent little time looking at Butler or Halberstam and a lot of time thinking about what it means to talk about something when people from such diverse cultural backgrounds. It’s been hard, and exciting at the same time.
Natalie: So, what's been hard about it?
Ben: The treacle feeling of not being able or willing to settle on a common desire, something that would be a positive "Let's do this!" Because we get hampered and, sort of, you know, trip one another up, in getting to that place of wanting to produce knowledge together. Some of the issues that have been brought up are what steps need to be taken towards creating a respectful, inclusive, trusting environment; whether conversations are good tools for learning; who does the knowledge produced during the residency belong to. I think these conversations have been an eye-opener for a number of the residents. There was a sharp imbalance in awareness, for example, about non-binary identities and the appropriate language to describe them. Unlearning certain habits was difficult but profoundly useful. Meanwhile, we received loads from people such as you, people who came to visit us at PRAKSIS and were thoroughly generous about their knowledge: "Okay, this is what I do, and this is how I do it. And this is, I'm thinking, maybe interesting to what you're doing." These encounters have been amazing.
«the group of residents has been going back and forth between two incompatible models. First, that of the critique: an art class model, you could say. And second, the language of care, which seeks to establish trust and connection between human beings»Ben Lignel
Natalie: You had a diverse group of people in your residency, including quite an age range, was an inter-generational conversation difficult to have at all?
Ben: I think you are right – and there were probably a few other factors at play. I believe that the group of residents has been going back and forth between two incompatible models. First, that of the critique, premised on putting ideas (or artworks) up for public scrutiny and discussion: an art class model, you could say. And second, the language of care, which seeks to establish trust and connection between human beings, and is maybe less concerned with conversational outcomes. These can’t exist if criticism, or judgment, or lack of respect, or any form of linguistic violence is happening. I think these two models – both of which we were interested in – have kept hitting one another. And we've tried to get beyond that, but it hasn't been very successful.
Natalie: No, I guess it's difficult. Also, the idea of creating a safe space takes a really long time, and time's not on your side with a one-month-long residency. Maybe you are invariably going to be left at the point where all you can do is to raise certain issues, but not work through them fully. And I think you have, as a group, raised some important reflections, even just this idea of having to check what pronouns people prefer early on in the residency. I don't think that's happened before and I wouldn't underestimate how important, for this local context, some of the conversations that you've been having will prove to be. For example, pointing out how much space the cis-gendered, white male, takes up in most circumstances, that's been super important to flag. It certainly came out of the panel discussion we had on Friday. There aren't really that many places in this local context where you can have those kinds of conversations. They happen in places like Queer World, where Lara Okafor is involved, but it takes a long time to build up.
Ben: You’re right about timing. It's so short that you're having to think about what you're gonna do, then do it, then reflect on it…within the whole of four weeks!.
Natalie: Yes, and I think part of the point of these residencies are confined to this cut-off period, which culminates in something tangible after a month. It's the potential for a conversation where you may never see the end result, as such, or maybe in a year's time or five years' time. In that way, it’s not dissimilar to the thinking around Munchmuseet on the Move – where my colleague in Mediation and I try to lower the expectations of a tangible or measurable outcome, which is really difficult to do in an institutional setting. This ties into what you were saying earlier about a form of temporariness, or the slight imprint, that something leaves. My belief is that even a slight imprint might be really profound. So, I think you may be giving yourself a little bit of a hard time. With this residency, you may have changed number of different people's approaches to gender identity, not least the existence of fluid gender identities, which is invaluable, wouldn’t you say?
Ben: Yeah. [Pause]
«My belief is that even a slight imprint might be really profound.»Natalie Hope O´Donnell
«It's through these meetings, it's through these relationships between people which might materialize into something specific that the “value” of an encounter resides. And you have to risk nothing happening in order to create the potential for something»Natalie Hope O´Donnell
Natalie: What were you hoping for? What were you thinking would be the ideal residency?
Ben: I don't know. I think I was being super naïve. I was thinking that we would sort of pile knowledge – and I'm starting to use the word “knowledge” in a way that is problematic – we would start to pile knowledge onto the table, and then look at it, and play with it, and then do stuff with it, literally. Yes, that would have been one way to describe it. Nicholas Jones, PRAKSIS’ director, Lars Sture from Norwegian Crafts, and I picked a decidedly diverse group of people: Shweta Sharma, a fashion stylist from India, Aleyda Rocha, a data ethnographer from Mexico, Mallika Roy, an educator from the Bay area, Ahmed Umar, and artist of Sudanese origin based in Oslo, Tone Bjerkaas, a unisex fashion designer with a strong investment in sustainability, and finally jewellers from Estonia, Sweden, Norway, and the US with a wide range of practices. We wanted their skill sets, their cultural backgrounds and expectations to collide. We assumed that a certain amount of cultural friction would be productive.
We knew that this residency was not premised on producing a tangible outcome. And I love the idea of a “light footprint” that you were just describing: something happened…If you weren't there, you didn't see it, and that's fine.
Natalie: Or, if you were there and you didn't really think it had a massive impact on you, and then it turns out that it did. I’m often reminded of the thinking of Rachel Anderson, who used to work for Artangel in London and is on the reference group to Munchmuseet on the Move. She was whom I was referring to on Friday when I talked about Fadlabi’s performance at Blå in October 2016. She insisted on the value that resided in the relationship between the people on stage, everything that happened before the actual performance, the importance of bringing people together. The public performance was in many ways secondary to that.
Natalie: So, with regards to your residents, the relationship that they have now, and hopefully will continue to develop, is hugely valuable. That's one of the benefits of bringing all these people together in time and space. It happens to be Oslo – and I know that your contribution to the Oslo scene has been important – and I think the "knowledge production" happens from hereon. It's through these meetings, it's through these relationships between people which might materialize into something specific that the “value” of an encounter resides. And you have to risk nothing happening in order to create the potential for something. I mean, you and I would never have met if it hadn't been for this residency.
Natalie: And that is a beautiful thing.
Natalie: Let’s go to Khartoum and see Ahmed’s exhibition.
This interview happened as part of PRAKSIS's ninth residency, Adornment and Gender: Engaging Conversation. The residency was developed in collaboration with Benjamin Lignel and Norwegian Crafts.