The question is…which craft?
This last of a series of three interviews with Namita Wiggers is a conversation about her recent Oslo residency with Norwegian Crafts and the "European tour" it spawned: between September and November 2017, surfing on several overlapping commitments, Wiggers stayed in Oslo twice, visited Tromsø, moderated a seminar in Trondheim, spoke at another in Paris, and visited Gothenburg to serve on a PhD Committee and deliver a lecture. Whilst our conversation is informed by her encounters in those different cities with artists, curators and museum directors, we found ourselves focusing on the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum's remarkable Sámi Dáiddamusea- project, which opens questions of access and representations for Norway-based Sámi artists as well as other artists living and working in Norway. Looking at this project, and the subsequent I Craft, I Travel Light, Wiggers discusses the agility of smaller institutions, the need to "reconstruct from within", and the role of Norwegian Crafts.
Benjamin Lignel: You've been traveling for about two months in two sessions of three weeks, hopscotching from Paris, to Oslo, Tromsø, back to Portland then Paris, back to Oslo, Trondheim and then Gothenburg. You met a number of people, saw a number of exhibitions. What were your expectations about this trip to Oslo and this residency?
Namita Wiggers: This is the first residency of this kind organized by Norwegian Crafts. This new funding program from the Arts Council offered them the chance to invite somebody to come from outside of Norway but from within the field of contemporary craft. We developed a curatorial residency that engaged questions about audience and critical theory through meetings and studio visits in multiple cities. The residency concluded with the annual symposium, which I moderated and collaborated on with Norwegian Crafts.
The planning took nearly a year and a half, with discussions catalyzed by the most publicly and internationally accessible part of Norwegian Crafts's work: online publications. From my end, I wanted to understand how the organization sits in the arts ecology of Norway. This led to trips to Tromsø to consider how Norwegian Crafts connects the North and South, and how Sámi communities are included in Norwegian Crafts. I saw my position as that of an informed visitor, and as such felt it best for Norwegian Crafts to shape most of the content of the visit.
«I want to understand questions of representation in global and local ways»Namita Gupta Wiggers
"Arts Ecology" encompasses the way institutions, associations and programs support and represent creative practices, how they get funding and what sort of mandates they give themselves. This is the ecosystem that craft practitioners inhabit. Is that correct?
Namita Wiggers: Yes. This framework considers both the institutions and how those institutions serve their communities. I have a clearer sense now of why critical writing is crucial to Norwegian Crafts's goals. Part of their mission is to connect Norwegian artists and craftspeople to international contexts - and they do it well through writing as well as various art fairs and symposia. I noticed a growth in writing online and in publications from Norwegian Crafts over the past few years. It is what enticed me to participate in the residency. Using critical writing to carry craft into an international community is vital to develop a field, and Norwegian Crafts offers a strong model for using the internet, print, and programming to do this.
What you and I discussed most in connection to your trip was indigenous craft practices. It sounded as if you were going in to discuss how Norwegian Crafts attends to and serves specific communities rather than its global agenda.
Namita Wiggers: Norwegian Crafts has a particular interest in addressing Norway as a whole, which includes indigenous communities but also other communities as well. For example, Joakim Borda-Pedreira, then acting director at Galleri Format Oslo, organized a roundtable discussion at the gallery while I was there on the topic of diversity and representation, which included both of us with artists Ahmed Umar and Lissette Escobar. The most recent Documenta pointed attention to indigenous cultures and community, which included a selection of Sámi artists (Joar Nango, Britta Marakatt-Labba, Máret Ánne Sara, Synnøve Persen, Iver Jåks and Keviselie/Hans Ragnar Mathisen) at the same time as much public debate in the US around the Walker Art Center and the artist Jimmie Durham. I want to understand questions of representation in global and local ways. A "sámi paragraph" was added to the Norwegian constitution in 1988. It stipulated that the Sámi communities have the right to their own parliament (which first sat in 1989), to their own way of life. While the Norwegian Constitution seems to have been modified to preserve the Sámi culture, promises made to create a museum dedicated to Sámi art were never fulfilled. (see note 1)
This year marks a historical moment. A century after the first Sámi assembly in 1917, the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum partnered with the RiddoDuottarMuseat to create Sámi Dáiddamusea, an iterative and nomadic project intended to address the lack of a Sámi art museum (see note 2). Here's how the initial collaboration worked: the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum has exhibition space while the RiddoDuottarMuseat in Karasjok has an extensive collection and little to no exhibition space (see note 3). Within just a few months, the staff of both organizations developed a project including a white cube-style exhibition called There is No, and temporary re-branding of the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum's website, banners, signatures. They turned over their entire museum to this project during the duration of the museum performance, and announced the opening of a Sámi Dáiddamusea with no advance press release as typically happens with museum exhibitions. (A press release was sent out directly from the fictive Sámi Dáiddamusea). They hired Marita Isobel Solberg, a performance artist to act as the fictional director of this temporary institution. The website for the Nordnorsk Kuntsmuseum went away. In other words, for a period of time, a government-funded museum collaborated with another museum and turned itself over to a temporary project and institutional identity to address a lack within the local and national cultural landscape. I cannot imagine a museum in U.S. doing this.
«For a period of time, a government-funded museum collaborated with another museum and turned itself over to a temporary project and institutional identity to address a lack within the local and national cultural landscape. I cannot imagine a museum in US doing this»Namita Gupta Wiggers
The main exhibition called There Is No, closed in September, just before our visit to Tromsø. The museum had gone back to being the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum. André Gali, Lars Sture and I visited Tromsø in part to attend an event honoring Sámi textile artist Britta Marakatt-Labba, recipient of the 2017 John Savio award, and also to see I Craft, I Travel Light, a traveling exhibition linked both to previous projects by the Museum and to its most recent; the exhibition felt as though it might have come from the Sámi Dáiddamusea (see note 4). I Craft, I Travel Light included work ranging from what other museums might classify as traditional crafts to conceptual art from across Sámi communities from Norway, Sweden, Russia, etc. This exhibition focused on the idea of craft as something that's portable and movable, nomadic much like reindeer herders in Sámi communities and the Sámi Dáiddamusea itself. It pushes the edges of what and how a museum considers Sámi art but also Norwegian art more broadly and in a number of ways.
I was really interested in how your own interest in inclusivity connected to the concerns of Norwegian Crafts. What differences have you seen between their way of dealing with the representation of indigenous craft practices and what you are used to in the U.S.?
Namita Wiggers: It's very different. The U.S. is huge, and there are more places where artists and people from a range of backgrounds are visible. There are multiple indigenous communities and, in more recent history, multiple immigrant communities. That is not to say that there is equity, but numbers and some staff diversity at various institutional levels help bring issues into view in the U.S.. Multiplicity is more evident in the U.S., and to me, the country feels less homogenous than Oslo and Trondheim.
As an organization, Norwegian Crafts has connected with Sámi communities but perhaps has not been as publicly vocal about its engagement as OCA (Office of Contemporary Art Norway), for example, has done with a focus on textiles in recent years and Sámi artists right now. There may be ways in which Norwegian Crafts can re-frame what they are, have been, and will do with Sámi and other less visible communities in ways that are less about "discovery" and more about seamless representation of craft as long, durational, material, and cultural.
«There may be ways in which Norwegian Crafts can re-frame what they are, have been, and will do with Sámi and other less visible communities in ways that are less about "discovery" and more about seamless representation of craft as long, durational, material, and cultural»Namita Gupta Wiggers
Would you say that craft has a longer history than art of acknowledging that it has a natural affinity with indigenous craft practices? And is it a good idea to anchor new projects on this affinity?
Namita Wiggers: Well, the question is, which craft? There are cultural differences in terms of how craft is defined in different places. In Norway, you've got art, you've got Kunsthåndverk, and yet another organization that focuses on folk and artisanal craft, and Norwegian Crafts. It's not all under the same umbrella of craft.
What's radical about what the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum in Tromsø is doing is that they are actually not dividing and categorizing work as traditional artisanal, folk, hand work, arts and crafts, contemporary craft, and art. It's all part of cultural production, if you will. And that's what's really, really different and frankly more reflective of how artists move in the world. Britta Marakatt-Labba, Joar Nango and Aslaug Magdalena Juliussen, for example, are recognized and acclaimed in multiple circles. They all happen to also be Sámi and can self-identify in other nationalistic terms, too.
The kind of work that Norwegian Crafts focuses on is not specifically indigenous crafts or folk craft. It's modern craft in post-Bauhaus and contemporary artification of craft through academic programs framework with a bit of Arts & Crafts mixed in - which is not unlike contemporary craft in the US, too. Sámi artists challenge these categories - a work can be one and both at the same time.
«The question is, which craft? There are cultural differences in terms of how craft is defined in different places»Namita Gupta Wiggers
Is there not a risk that in a museum like the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum, the specificity, if there is such a thing, of each of these practices will be subsumed to some kind of an anthropological description of makings?
Namita Wiggers: That is a risk. The director who initiated this project, Jérémie McGowan, was on paternity leave when we visited the museum. We had a great conversation with the acting director Bodil Kjelstrup and Charis Gullickson, curator at the museum. In speaking with them, it's fairly clear that they are working within an art context and consciously using tropes and scenographic techniques that you and I associate with contemporary art. I didn't see There Is No so I can't say how they deal with this when they have a larger exhibition of the collection on view. But in I Craft, I Travel Light, there was variety of presentation furniture - minimal white tables, round plinths - under bright, clean, white lighting, and mostly white walls. But in that white cube environment, they co-located objects that would not necessarily be exhibited side-by-side in more traditional museum environments. It did collapse certain things, but it simultaneously disrupted the idea of what constitutes art and an art exhibition, too.
«What's radical about what the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum in Tromsø is doing is that they are actually not dividing and categorizing work as traditional artisanal, folk, hand work, arts and crafts, contemporary craft, and art»Namita Gupta Wiggers
It sounds as if they were channeling the distinctions between the white cube versus the domestic…in order to blur the divide that exist between author crafts and customary craft. Isn't that a bit counter-intuitive?
Namita Wiggers: Perhaps, but it's also a way of disrupting this notion of what modernity has come to represent: something that is about moving forward, moving away from the past, moving away from tradition to something new. What they're doing is disrupting a misconception, I believe, about modernity itself, that somehow modernity leaves things behind. And I think that we all know that nothing gets truly left behind, it gets pulled forward at different paces and tempos, but it's still present in different ways.
You mentioned earlier the idea that objects can have different relationships to "the new", to time and to modernity. For instance, in "There is no", there might have been pieces that were clearly the product of contemporary practice, whereas others may have been more traditional, customary objects. I imagine that the co-location of different "species" of objects in the same space requires quite a lot of contextualisation?
Namita Wiggers: Your question implies that tradition is static and fixed, which I think can be said for the idea of tradition, but not the reality of tradition as action. Here's the thing. Every piece that was in the I Craft-exhibition is by a person who is living right now. There is a set of boots and a coat, for example, by Fedosya Semenovna Kauts, Viktoriya Vilka and Anastasia Aritstarhovna Pomyleva that are made in a Nenets style. What they're doing may not be legible to you and to me but to someone familiar with Sámi cultures, and craft from the Nenets community, the mix of past and present is evident. This means that the work is not necessarily made for our gaze, and I find that need to do more work to understand it very exciting.
I found myself more easily able to immediately engage Multiple Stiches - Sight in Absence III by Aslaug Juliussen because it can be framed via questions stemming from training in contemporary art and theory. Co-located near the work by the Kauts, Vilka and Pomyleva, both sets of objects pulled on past and contemporary traditions and ways of living and working and brought aspects of all into view.
I am catching myself, as I ask these questions, trying to make sure that the specificity of some practices are acknowledged and you're describing something which is different. How do you feel about the boundaries that we, as curators, put between types of practices or objects? Do you find them useful at all?
Namita Wiggers: Well, can I answer that with a different question back to you?
Namita Wiggers: So, when I teach my students who are making objects, at some point I say to them, "This is an object that goes out into the world and you have to let that object to go and take on its own new meanings, be interpreted in different ways, to leave it open for different groups in a society to respond and react and interpret and understand it". You have to be able to let it go. No artist can control every aspect of how that object is interpreted and understood because you just can't.
So, why do we allow that with artists, but not with museums? Where is a space to experiment with the models and content produced by museums in the same way?
In the seminar that happened in Trondheim, Crafting Utopia and Dystopia: Future of Crafts in Museums, Petter Snare, the new museum director of KODE art museum said, "Craft needs to be specific and be addressed specifically. It can't be just subsumed into a broader conversation." Meanwhile Åshild Adsen, the director of the Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum discussed the possibility in Trondheim of combining the kunsthåndverk museum with the art museum and bringing it all together.
Meanwhile in Tromsø, it wasn't about whether it's art, craft or design and can differently address the social machinations that seek to determine what is culturally relevant and what are the markers of culture. Because the cultural markers are mixed in Tromsø. It's a combination of Sámi and non-Sámi communities that are engaged.
Are you not making assumptions about the way that the Sámi people or the people of Tromsø, "way up north", are looking at craft practice, art practices, contemporary art and seeing them as maybe more of a continuum? What are you inferring that from?
Namita Wiggers: We (André, Lars and I) shared research and resources in advance, as well as links to the work of a number of museums in Norway. We were able to spend time learning about Sámi art with Svein Aamold at the University of Tromsø, The Arctic University of Norway. Professor Aamold - who sits on the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum's board - teaches art history and theory, and has recently published Sámi Art and Aesthetics: Contemporary Perspectives, which he explained to be the first theoretical examination of Sámi art (see note 5). So, we entered our conversations with some questions and preliminary research in mind. I learned a term which I'm still learning more about: I just know the term and a brief description of what it means from an artist named Joar Nango. He exhibited in Documenta, and is trained as an architect. He's one of a handful of Sámi architects in the whole country, I think he said. He works through a social engagement sort of model. We talked about duodji, a Sámi concept that encompasses craft and art and making and creating differently from what you and I have been taught through European-based art history.
So, I'm going into this partly to challenge how capital "M" museums - some of which were represented at the conference - take an object from one place and they put it very carefully into a very specific kind of presentational format within this box we understand to be "The Museum". Joar Nango and other contemporary artists are pushing back against the Museum way of presenting the world that reveals strong affiliation to cabinets of curiosity.
The Sámi Dáiddamusea project was radical. It blew my mind the way that Fred Wilson's Mining the Museum did when I first learned about it. And I think that if there's something to be said for this happening in a smaller regional museum in a remote location. They have the fluidity and flexibility to move in this way.
Namita Wiggers: You're laughing, I can see you, you get this moment where your eyes come into this and then I can tell you're like, "Oh, I don't know if I agree with you Namita."
Well: the inclusion of these objects in those capital-M museums is certainly fueled by an intention to give them the recognition museums feel they deserve. And so those museums are intent on accruing cultural value for these objects. At the same time, by doing that, they using a museological language which is at odds with the intentions and practices of the people who produce them, with the way that they look at objects, which in actual fact may disregard certain distinctions that those capital-end museums are making. This form of well-intended distortion, with its conflicted dynamic of enable/disable, is the sort of thing that we love to look at because it does not find an easy solution.
But let's switch back for a moment to the question of size: the examples you refer to in this interview and our first one suggest that institutions that have a staff of between 20 and 12, or 9…
Namita: Or two (see note 6).
…are able to program quickly, can change their minds and are not beholden to the same sort of national or international pressures as large institutions. They are the ones moving forward and trying to describe the more complex relationship that different practices can have to life and to one another and serve different communities. Which begs the question, what in your eye would be the use of bigger museums?
Namita: The bigger museums become the places where things are preserved in perpetuity. They're still the treasure houses of examples of cultural work, of artistic practices and production. Of course, they can present temporary exhibitions or re-install their collection (see note 7) in a way that presents objects in connections that people have never seen before, but it's not every day that a museum of that size gets to rebuild and redo a new space. You're not going see something like the Sámi Dáiddamusea at the Met or Philadelphia Museum of Art or Museum of Fine Arts, Boston because those collections and spaces are so entrenched at this point. The Louvre is not going to say, "Okay, we're going to redo everything and rearrange." I mean…I rely on that Gericault painting being exactly where it has been at least since 1990 when I first saw it. And I know it was sitting in that room with the red paint long before that and probably will continue to be there. Newer, smaller museums are the ones, in my mind, seeking out creative ways of presenting work.
What sort of different sort of mediation would open up the reading of objects in a way that you're not seeing now?
Namita Wiggers: I'm completely intrigued about this idea of reconstructing from within, as "There Is No" has done. I think Medusa at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris did a good job of mixing things up. But that's a temporary exhibition. That's where the strength is and where the opportunity is. The problem is that those temporary exhibitions are temporary. They come and they go, right? My question is: how does a project like Medusa reconfigure historical moments and categorical ways of presenting work? When is that going to affect the re-installation of collections themselves? That's what I'd like to understand and I don't know where I'm seeing that happen in larger museums. Does that make sense?
It completely makes sense. It brings to my mind the "flickering nature of an object", as discussed by Marianne Zamecznik in the essay she wrote for Norwegian Crafts' Crafting Exhibitions. Quoting from Brain Castriota, she talks about embracing the unstability of objects' meaning. Could mediation be attentive to that uncertainty? How could museums, whether big or small, work on their language to open up these conversations in a different way than they are now?
Namita Wiggers: There's something really interesting going on right now where many museums across the globe are looking at museum histories in different ways, right? I'm thinking about this exhibition I saw in Amsterdam in 2014, How far how near - the world in the Stedelijk.
They used the archive of the institution to show the problems of the primitivism that happened in the past in the presentation of African Art. The curators used the cases to push back and say, "We don't think about this work this way anymore." And the text and the labels were very, very carefully, thoughtfully prepared to say, "This is the history of the institution. This is what we've done before. These are the things we're now pushing back on and asking about differently today. And now, here is work that's contemporary to give you a sense of what's happening right now."
That is very, very close to what Claire Bishop was describing in Radical Museology where she's taking the Van Abbe museum in Holland which re-staged the opening exhibition of its successive directors, making the visitors very aware of the different styles in museology and museographical intent.
Namita Wiggers: Sure. You and I often talk about self-reflexivity in the context of contemporary jewelry, but it's going on with museum too. The thing that's interesting, though, is that project in Tromsø is not changing what the museum's role or connection is or how they do things in the community. It's making the museum world look at its own practices in a different way.
I did a project almost 10 years ago, at Museum of Contemporary Craft ......God, I can't believe it was 10 years ago. I curated an exhibition called, The Living Room, at the where I re-installed the same checklist of objects three times, each with a different configuration and thematic/conceptual framework. What I was trying to get people to think about was where these objects live in the museum and where they live in a home situation and to consider how, when craft went from being about domestically-scaled objects to being about Arts.
The exhibition was on view for a period of six months: each iteration for two months. It highlighted a generational difference between artists who in the late '60s through '90s, really, really, really wanted their work to be on a pedestal and how those working through craft had different criteria for value in 2007; it was a position they considered made the work important. An identification with plinth as the sign of having, "Made it to Art." They did not like seeing these works in the domestic setting because they felt that it denigrated them.
What you are describing are means for cultural institution to contest their own knowledge. One text we looked at to prepare for this interview is Decolonizing Methodologies where the author Linda Tuhiwai Smith discusses this notion of "contested histories" (see note 8). All the examples that have come up in this interview have been about addressing these assumptions and making sure that the box or the white cube keeps moving or reshaping.
Namita Wiggers: Yes. And this is a place for Norwegian Crafts to work because they are connected to these kinds of projects; they're a very flexible organization because they're not specifically rooted to a specific museum or gallery. The way in which Norwegian Crafts has been addressing critical discourse and writing about craft and pushing these questions has been really productive. And frankly, I think it's a model - it's useful in and outside of Norway. They're using things in print as much as they're using the internet. And they're using their resources to support projects and opportunities that could push this conversation even more into new directions. It's exciting to see a craft organization push this way while also respecting and understanding the importance of not forgetting where craft comes from and is right now.
A bit of backstory to contextualize the artists included in Documenta:
“Sameparagrafen – the Sámi paragraph – was included in the Norwegian Constitution in April 21, 1988. It was not there from the start (1814), but came in after the Sámi people had been struggling since the 1970s for recognition of the right to have land. This is especially connected to the reindeer herding Sámi communities who are nomadic and who are affected if the government, for instance builds high voltage power lines through an area where the reindeer normally passes because the reindeer won´t pass under power lines, forcing the whole herd to walk around the power line structures. The question of Sámi rights broke through into broader Norwegian consciousness in a bigger way with the Alta Dam Controversy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alta_controversy. The Sámi parliament in Norway was established in 1989.The small town of Maze was also where artists got together, Britta Marakatt-Labba, Synnøve Persen, and more, to form the Sámi Artist Group in 1978.” Correspondence with André Gali, January 19, 2018.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sami_assembly_of_1917. Retrieved January 18, 2018
“The RiddoDuottarMuseat opened in 1972 as the first Sámi museum in Norway and at some point, they started working to establish a Sámi National Museum (which still has not come into existence). The RDM started seriously collecting art works in 1979, and have done so since, still without a museum dedicated to art. Today, the RDM museum consists of four museums and an art collection situated in different towns in Western Finnmark.” Correspondence with André Gali, January 19, 2018.
For more information, see http://icraftitravellight.com/. Retrieved January 20, 2018.
The exhibition I Craft, I Travel Light, a collaborative project between the Norwegian Association for Art and Crafts and Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum is organized by Curator Charis Gullickson and Project Manager Sigrid Høyforsslett Bjørbæk, and travelled to museums in Arkhangelsk, Murmansk, Tromsø and Karasjok.
The exhibition There Is No, the core of the fictitious Sámi art museum was presented as a touring exhibition at Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum as part of the fiction, as an exhibition on loan from the Sámi Dáiddamuse. See https://www.nnkm.no/en/news/s%C3%A1mi-d%C3%A1iddamusea-dead-long-live-s%C3%A1mi-d%C3%A1iddamusea, Retrieved January 23, 2018
To learn more about public art on the campus of the University of Tromsø, see https://publicartnorway.org/tromsoguide/. Retrieved January 23, 2018. Professor Aamold gave us a tour of the Sámi art collection on the University campus, which includes works by Iver Jåks, John Savio, and a copy of Britta Marakatt-Labba’s History (the original was on loan to Documenta). To learn more about Professor Aamold’s research, visit, https://uit.no/prosjekter/prosjekt?p_document_id=300799
The Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum has a staff of 10.
Incidentally, the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum’s collection, which had been in storage during Sámi Dáiddamusea, reopened on 22 October 2017 in a new form. It is now presented thematically (divided into People, Places and Stories) and not chronologically. Kjetil Rydland, the museum’s communication consultant, in email to Benjamin Lignel, January 2018
"Indigenous attempts to reclaim land language, knowledge and sovereignty have usually involved contested accounts of the past by colonizers and colonized.These have occurred in the courts, before various commissions, tribunals and official enquiries , in the media, in Parliament, in bars and on talkback radio. In these situations contested histories do not exist in the same cultural framework as they do when tribal or clan histories, for example, are being debated within the indigenous community itself. They are not simply struggles over 'facts' and 'truth'; the rules by which these struggles take place are never clear (other than that w e as the indigenous community know they are going to be stacked against us) ; and we are not the final arbiters of what really counts as the truth." Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies, Research and Indigenous-peoples (Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1999) 33-34